Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ferrol, Spain: The Black Sheep of Galicia

#HouseGoals
Galicia, tucked away in Spain’s northwest corner, happens to be one of the most densely-populated regions in the country. Major cultural and political centers include Vigo, A Coruña, Ourense, Lugo, Santiago de Compostela, and Pontevedra…and if we were to continue rattling off the region’s biggest cities, the coastal town of Ferrol would hold the spot for seventh-biggest, at 70,000 ferroláns.

Ferrol (pronounced “fair-ROLE” [feˈrol]) doesn’t have the best reputation among Galicians, as it’s kind of the black sheep of the region; many folks call this place “ugly” and say “it doesn’t have anything to see.” Of course, I was told the same thing about Almería on the Mediterranean coast and ended up really enjoying the city when I daytripped there three years ago.

Still, there’s a lot about Ferrol that makes it, uh, different from the rest of Galicia.

Military heritage

Military arsenal
Situated deep within one of Europe’s most strategic natural harbors, Ferrol’s economy has historically been linked to the sea—from trading and fishing to naval installations. Starting from the 1700s on, Ferrol has held some of the largest installations of the Spanish navy. A short drive from the city center is the Castillo de San Felipe, a defensive fort that, with its twin on the other side of the water, would cerrar or “lock” the narrow estuary out from enemy ships.

Dictator Francisco Franco’s birthplace

Casa Natal de Franco
I didn’t plan it this way, but in the span of a single week I managed to visit Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s final resting place (in the Valle de los Caídos mausoleum) as well as the house he was born in…right here in Ferrol. After Franco came to power in a military coup and subsequent civil war in the late 1930s, his hometown was renamed El Ferrol del Caudillo—“The Leader’s Ferrol.” Keep in mind that for fascist Spain, the term “El Caudillo” was the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s “Der Führer” or fascist Italy’s “Il Duce.”

Ironically enough, Ferrol also happens to be the birthplace of the 19th-century Spanish politician Pablo Iglesias, who belonged to the complete opposite side of the political spectrum; he founded the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party—PSOE—which endures today as the country’s major center-left party.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Photo Post: Holy Week Processions in Ferrol, Spain

When I lived in Spain and taught English, I always took full advantage of the annual Semana Santa vacation during the week leading up to Easter Sunday to go on a major international trip, since you use up half your time off just getting out of the country and flying back on weekend trips. For my first year, I rode a ferry across the Mediterranean and explored northern Morocco, while in my second school year abroad, I train-hopped from Santiago down into warm, sunny Portugal.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión de Jesús Nazareno (Cofradía de Dolores)
Although in 2015 I still planned on leaving Spain for a brief getaway to Germany, I wanted to be back in the country before Holy Week was over. After all, Spain throws one of its biggest, most unique celebrations for Semana Santa, and I would have regretted not experiencing this fascinating cultural tradition before moving back to Texas.

So I decided to check one off the ol’ bucket list and spend all of Good Friday chasing religious processions in the city of Ferrol on Galicia’s northern coast. Ferrol’s the oddball of northwest Spain for many reasons, not least of which is their enthusiasm for this holiday that seems more in line with their sober neighbors in Castilla or more exuberant compatriots in Andalucía. Galicians don’t really go over the top at all for Easter, so Ferrol is basically the only place you can see quality pasos or processions in the region.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión del Crucificado (Cofradía de la Merced)
These processions need a little explanation for foreigners. Many Spaniards—be they devout or cultural Catholics—belong to religious brotherhoods called cofradías or hermandades, some of which date back hundreds of years. Although they’re involved in other undertakings, their most visible activities are the religious processions that they put on during Holy Week every year. Members don glossy, colorful robes and transform into anonymous, pointy-hat-wearing nazarenos (“Nazarenes”) or penitentes (“penitents”) whose roles run the gamut from looking somber and carrying candles to blasting trumpets at three in the morning and carrying weighty wooden floats on their backs around town. These floats bear wooden sculptures that portray all the biblical events of Holy Week.

City streets teem with residents who show up for these processions during the eight-day period from Domingo de Ramos (“Palm Sunday”) through Viernes Santo (“Good Friday”) and onto Domingo de Pascua (“Easter Sunday”). Schools take the entire week off so it effectively functions as the Spanish spring break.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Chasing Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany

As a history major, I’m not one to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. The way I see it, inventions, movements, religions, diseases, trade, and geography play a much more crucial role in human events than mere single characters do. And besides, there have been many Great Women! Nevertheless, some people are more influential than others: think Muhammad, Christopher Columbus, or whoever invented air conditioning.

Aachen, Germany
Aachener Dom
When it comes to European history specifically, Charlemagne stands as one of the most significant actors in shaping what we know today as Europe. Following the countless barbarian invasions that had left the western Roman Empire in disarray, Charlemagne (who was himself a “barbarian” Frank) brought the West back together under a single rule, promoted learning amid the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and conquered so much land that he became the father of both France and Germany.

During my weekend jaunt to western Germany last year, I made a daytrip from my home base in Cologne out west to Aachen, once the capital of Charlemagne’s short-lived empire and the final resting place of “Charles the Great” himself. Pronounced “AH-khun” [ˈaːxən], the city has been a spa/resort town since Roman times (thanks to its hot springs) and today borders Belgium and the Netherlands.

Aachen, Germany
Detail of the tiles in the cathedral

So who was Charlemagne? (and why care about a warlord from the Dark Ages?)

(Major #NerdAlert here: If you tend to get that glazed-over look whenever you start reading about history, you can skip down to the next section to get to the good stuff about Aachen, but I’ve tried to make this bio of Charlemagne as brief and as easy-to-read as possible!)

As King of the Franks from 768 to 814 CE, Charlemagne reigned over what now makes up modern France, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, and northeastern Spain—a vast empire stitched together by endless military campaigns, forced baptisms, and blessings from the Pope. It was the first time these lands had been united politically since the Roman Empire.
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