Monday, July 17, 2017

Seeing D.C. Through a Local’s Eyes

Earlier this spring, right around the time I was grudgingly turning my apartment’s A/C back on in hot, hot Phoenix, I got to escape a busy season at work for an extended weekend in chillier Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.
Adams-Morgan
I had already visited my nation’s capital five years earlier, getting to check off the Senate galleries, the Supreme Court, all the Smithsonian museums, and a hostel-sponsored pub crawl in Georgetown. So I wasn’t necessarily returning to do touristy things. Instead, I got to reconnect with one of the best American friends I made when I lived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain—Priyanka—and I got to see this exciting city through the eyes of somebody who has made the city her home.

I fell in love with D.C. all over again over the course of this long, low-stress, no-pressure weekend. We did a lot of walking, a lot of eating, but not a lot of sightseeing per se, and I am 100% O.K. with that. Sometimes when traveling we get so swept up in checking off a list of monuments and museums that we forget to enjoy ourselves! After a weekend of hanging out in a world-class city, I returned to Phoenix feeling refreshed.

Below are the highlights of my return visit to this expensive, international, and walkable city.

Free simple pleasures

Let’s be honest: D.C. is a really expensive city to live in, so free stuff and activities are the name of the game in the nation’s capital. When rents for a room in a shared apartment start at $1,000 and go up from there…you figure out how to make a paycheck stretch pretty quickly. Fortunately, D.C. has a plethora of free things to see and do, and I’m not even touching on the Smithsonian museums! Apart from restaurant meals and metro passes, essentially everything I did on my four-day jaunt here was free.

Washington, D.C.
(Source: Ted Eytan)
My first stop was right around the corner from Union Station: the headquarters of NPR. This was something of a pilgrimage for me, as I’m currently working for the NPR member station for the Phoenix area, but I’ve also been listening to public radio for years so it was fun to see where all the magic happens. In true fanboy fashion, I wore my NPR t-shirt and freaked out when I saw All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro walking through the lobby.

Free tours are given weekdays at 11am that take you through their biggest production studios, up to the broadcast areas where major shows are produced, over the newsroom, past the Tiny Desk (of Tiny Desk Concert fame), and back down to the ground floor where the gift shop is.

Washington, D.C.
Tidal Basin
I specifically visited D.C. at the end of March because I wanted my trip to coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin southwest of the National Mall. Pictures always made springtime along the Basin look dazzling, from the obviously-gorgeous pink flowers that take over the park to national monuments perfectly framed by pastel tree boughs.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Photo Post: Going Out for Vermouth in Reus, Spain

When people come to Spain for a visit they almost always try to get a glass (or three) of sangría, but to Spaniards this comes across as bizarre, as sangría is typically only consumed at parties, big family gatherings, or Sunday cookouts. It’d be like ordering spiked fruit punch at a sit-down restaurant in the States…just weird.

Instead of sangría, to get that iced-wine fix, Spaniards often order tinto de verano, which is simply a tall glass of red wine with lemon soda, ice, and maybe an orange or lemon slice. Fast and simple, refreshing but not inebriating, it’s a great choice for those hot summer months.

Reus, Spain
Miró vermouth at the Museu del Vermut
An authentic pre-dinner option is vermouth, a beverage that has seen an explosion in popularity in just the past few years as the younger generation has rediscovered this traditional Spanish drink. But what exactly is vermouth? Simply put: fortified, aromatized wine. Vermouth makers take a neutral spirit and macerate it with selections of up to 70 different herbs, spices, and roots that lend a medicinal quality to the drink. After letting these botanicals work their magic, manufacturers add white wine (not red), caramel (for coloring), and sugar to finish the product.

Reus, Spain
Rofes vermouth + snacks
Vermouth has been around for over a hundred years in Spain, first introduced from France and Italy via the small northeastern town of Reus (pronounced “RAY-oos” [rɛws]). In that time, Spaniards—especially the Catalans—developed a fun, simple tradition around imbibing vermouth called fer el vermut.” Literally “doing vermouth,” this custom involves going out to the bar down the street from your house with friends and family to order a glass or two of vermouth before midday dinner while nibbling on salty snacks like olives, potato chips, and gourmet tinned seafood (like mussels). Once you’ve worked up an appetite with this apéritif, it’s time to go back upstairs and have dinner.

Reus, Spain
Memorabilia at the Museu del Vermut

Monday, July 3, 2017

Ribeira Sacra: The Grand Canyon of Galicia

I’ve been living in the state of Arizona for over a year now (more on that in an upcoming post), and in that time I’ve learned there’s really no topping the Grand Canyon—it’s the Grandest Canyon, in fact.

Ribeira Sacra, Spain
The Sil Canyon
That being said, before I moved to Arizona I visited what you could call the “Grand Canyon of Galicia”—a canyon carved by the Sil River as it passes through northwest Spain. But whereas Arizona’s canyon takes the cake for majestic views and hiking opportunities, the Sil River Canyon stands out because it forms the backbone of a cultural landscape called the Ribeira Sacra, the “Sacred Riverbank” of Galicia.

Why “Sacred Riverbank”?

Ribeira Sacra, Spain
Monastery rooftop by the river
This region takes its name from the plethora of monasteries that were founded here in the Dark Ages in this most isolated part of the Iberian Peninsula. The steep, rugged terrain on either side of the Sil River served as a perfect setting for hermits fleeing the chaos and pleasures of the world, although the eremetic monasteries quickly became cenobitic or community-oriented centers as the word got out. Ultimately 18 monasteries flourished here along the Sil River, leaving us with stunning examples of Romanesque architecture.

These monks also left us with another important heritage: wine. Still produced today using traditional methods—vineyards are planted on terraces along either side of the canyon—Ribeira Sacra wine is today one of Galicia’s five denominaciones de origen or protected regional varieties. Grapes commonly used include red Mencía and white Godello.

Walking off pound cake in the cloisters of the Monastery of Santo Estevo

Ribeira Sacra, Spain
A slice of bica at the Parador’s café
The most impressive monastery you can easily visit in this area also happens to be a hotel you can stay the night in. This parador or fancy state-run hotel lets you sleep in luxury and avoid 2am wake-up calls for morning prayer, but it’s also a great place to try a slice of bica, or a pound cake with a sugary crust that’s commonly made in Ourense province.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Riverside Ribadavia, Spain

Northwest Spain holds so many treasures along its winding Atlantic coast, from big cities like A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela (okay, half an hour inland) to natural wonders like the Cíes Islands and the Ézaro waterfall. These are all fine and wonderful—I didn’t live and work in this part of Spain for two years for nothing!—but the further inland you go, the more cozy and comfortable Galicia gets.

Ribadavia, Spain
An important conversation
La Galicia profunda—Deep Galicia, as locals call it—contains lush, old-growth forests and thriving vineyards, dying villages and the region’s third-largest city, oppressive summer heat and fondant layers of winter snow. It was here that hermits fled worldly pleasures for lives of isolation and prayer, yet here today that Carnival celebrations are their most colorful. Sometimes, on dark rainy evenings, you swear you caught a glimpse of the Santa Compaña, the procession of dead spirits passing through the woods.

Ribadavia is one of many villages in this part of Galicia, one that will make you feel home as soon as you hop out of the car (or the train, which stops in this tiny village!). The town will welcome you with a glass or two of Ribeiro wine, the foundation of the local economy in the Middle Ages, and it will invite you to wander through its cool, shaded streets on a hot summer day.

A ruined castle

Ribadavia, Spain
What little remains of the walls
This pueblo sits on a commanding point at the confluence of the Miño and Avia rivers, and one of these rivers forms the root of the town’s name: Riba d’Avia. For the longest time I never could parse town names in northern Spain like Ribadeo or Ribadesella, until I realized that “riba-” means “river banks” and “-de-”  means “of.” Duh. Ribadavia means “On the banks of the Avia River,” Ribadeo means “On the banks of the Eo River,” and so on.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Photo Post: Bummed Out in Besalú, Spain

Besalú, Spain
Pont de Besalú
The small Spanish village of Besalú first entered my imagination almost five years ago when a fellow language assistant went on a travel blogger retreat here and, naturally, posted glamorous photos of this charming medieval town, complete with a striking bridge and stereotypical moat!

Later, the hit TV series Game of Thrones would use Besalú as a filming location for a recent season, and while I’ve never watched the show before, it felt like the world was telling me to check out this tiny town before my time in Spain was up.

Besalú, Spain
With a portcullis and everything

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Empúries: Greek & Roman Ruins on the Costa Brava

Whenever I’m on a trip that involves taking a lot of public transit, I often think about how many “layers deep” I am in connections that have brought me where I currently am. A Travel Inception, if you will.

Empúries ruins, Spain
Greek ruins + the Mediterranean
As part of my exploration of northeast Spain two years ago, I left my initial base in the Gràcia neighborhood (1) of Barcelona up to Girona (2), and from Girona I daytripped to Figueres (3), going further north from Figueres that same day to the tiny coastal resort of L’Escala (4).

I was seven layers deep, counting the shuttle to the airport in Santiago de Compostela (5), the flight from Santiago to Barcelona (6), and the commuter train ride into central Barcelona (7).

But if you also count one of the most ancient ruins in Spain as a time travel machine, it adds up to eight.

What is Empúries?

Empúries ruins, Spain
Mosaic scene in the museum
If the name Empúries reminds you of a Victorian-era emporium, you’d be right on the money, as these ruins started as a Greek trading post in the 6th century BCE. Pronounced in modern Catalan as “um-POOR-ree-us” [əmˈpu.ɾi.əs], the archaeological site consists of a lost Paleopolis (older Greek settlement), a haphazard Neapolis (newer Greek settlement), and a rectangular Roman city. Although the oldest part of Empúries is today occupied by the village of Sant Martí d’Empúries, the Greek Neapolis and the Roman town have both been excavated and are open for time travel visits.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The 10 Types of Language Assistants in Spain

From 2012 to 2015 I worked and lived in Spain as an auxiliar de conversación, or a language assistant in public school classes taught in English. I wasn’t the only American in Spain, though; over 2,000 people from the States move across the Pond every year to do the very same thing. I interacted with countless fellow auxiliares over these three years, many of whom became housemates, good friends, and travel partners.

In this post, I’ll talk about the ten general categories I think 95% of all language assistants fit into, and to show I don’t take myself too seriously, I’ll show how I think I each type applies to me (if applicable, of course).


1) The gap year

The type: This person is having some fun after college to travel, speak Spanish, and broaden their world before they return to the Real World™ and land a full-time job, get married, buy a house, and have 2.5 kids. They essentially need to get things out of their system before settling down.

Me: I always wanted to travel around Europe on a Great Tour and see all the historic cities and sights, but I knew as an adult I would never have the vacation time or funds to be flying across the Atlantic every year for only 1- or 2-week stretches at a time. Backpacking on a budget from a European home base it was!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Photo Post: Dalí & Daytrippers in Figueres, Spain

Figueres, Spain
Dalí Theater-Museum
Surrealist paintings have fascinated me ever since first being exposed to them in my 9th-grade art class, especially the works of Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. Whimsical works like The Persistence of Memory and Swans Reflecting Elephants tickled my fancy, while spiritual pieces like The Sacrament of the Last Supper and Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) inspired me with their mysticism.

Figueres, Spain
Dalí Theater-Museum
In the three years I lived and worked in Spain, I went on several pilgrimages to check out the works of some of my favorite Spanish painters, like to Toledo for El Greco and Barcelona for Joan Miró. The mid-sized town of Figueres, just south of the French border in northeast Spain, was the destination for my third painter-pilgrimage, as it was Dalí’s hometown, final resting place, and location for his personal Theater-Museum, a museum that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the frame of one of his own bizarre paintings.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Photo Post: The Riverside Market of Girona, Spain

Girona, Spain
Artichokes
When I visited the gorgeous city of Girona just north of Barcelona two Junes ago, I came into town expecting to stay just two nights before returning back to BCN and from there to Santiago. No, this isn’t one of those cliché “I just had to extend my stay!” posts—I literally thought I had only booked two nights in my hostel…but come to find out, I had actually booked (and pre-paid for) three!

Girona, Spain
Fuet sausage
Another happy surprise was that my (now-longer-than-expected) time in Girona overlapped with the biweekly (twice-weekly?) open-air market, as I found out while reading the hostel’s bulletin board. What better way to spend a Tuesday than by taking in the sights and smells of the building blocks of the local cuisine? It was a literal walk in the park to get to this market as they had moved the stalls that typically line the banks of the Ter River into a sprawling wooded park for the summer.

Girona, Spain
Tomatoes

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Finding the Essence of Catalunya in Girona, Spain

The handsome city of Girona in far northeastern Spain had long been on my to-visit list, becoming irresistible after a series of sensational blog posts and Instagram photos from friends I follow came across my feed.

After all, who could resist a city that gets festooned with an avalanche of flowers every spring, that boasts a strikingly-red Eiffel Bridge, and that is home to the Best Ice Cream in the World™?

Girona, Spain
Girona, seen from the Eiffel Bridge
You might think that Girona (pronounced “zhee-ROE-nuh” [ʒiˈɾo.nə]) would be totally overshadowed by its neighbor Barcelona to the south, but sitting a 40-minute train ride away lets this provincial capital carve out its own unique character and feel. And that personality is 100% Catalan, making Girona a perfect place to experience what makes the northeastern region of Catalunya so special.

As part of my final trip around Spain before moving back home, I spent three nights in this fabulous city and got more deeply acquainted with what makes Catalan culture unique than I would have otherwise as a tourist in Barcelona.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Gràcia Neighborhood & Giving Barcelona a Second Chance

I had a couple of bad first impressions of Barcelona that almost made me want to conclude the city was one big, loud, tourist theme park.

To kick off my flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants trip around France in 2012, I took the trenhotel from southern Spain to Barcelona and spent a layover in the Catalan capital, intending to take a second night train to Paris that evening. I checked off all the main sights in the old town: the cathedral, the Boqueria market, Santa María del Mar, the historical museum, the Picasso museum, even a rediscovered synagogue. However, due to a combination of poorly-announced commuter train delays and poor planning on my part, I missed the night train to Paris by five minutes. Fortunately I was able to get a spot on the high-speed TGV leaving that morning and find a bed at a seven-euro hostel nearby…ah, the glory days.

Gràcia, Barcelona, Spain
Plaça del Sol, Gràcia
I returned to Barcelona a couple months later to attend a concert by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós on the top of Montjuïc hill. This weekend trip was all about the arts: in addition to music, I appreciated art at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the Joan Miró museum, and I also checked off all seven of Antoni Gaudí’s scintillating buildings in Barcelona. But in between rushing from one museum to another Gaudí house, something felt…lacking.

That winter I was back in Barcelona for a layover, this time on my way to Italy. But I arrived in the evening and had to get up at 4am to catch the airport bus, so my only memories of this trip involve threading a path through the disorienting hellhole that is the Sants train station and wading through all the traffic and tourists in Plaça de Catalunya.

Gràcia, Barcelona, Spain
Plaça de la Virreina, Gràcia
It wasn’t until June of 2015 that I realized Barcelona wasn’t so bad after all, but not for the reasons that most folks visit the city in droves. The neighborhood of Gràcia, far to the north of the touristy core, totally changed how I felt about Barcelona.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

6 Daytrips to Take from Madrid, Spain

The Spanish capital of Madrid has enough to keep you occupied for years: a plethora of world-class museums, thousands of restaurants that serve up tasty local grub plus every cuisine you can think of, a handful of historical monuments, a clutch of unique neighborhoods that all have something different to offer, and one of the world’s largest collections of green spaces.

Daytrips from Madrid, Spain
Calle Sagasta
But it’s a rarely-talked-about fact that the city of Madrid has no UNESCO World Heritage Sites to speak of, even as European counterparts like Lisbon, Paris, and Rome all boast of this designation that honors and protects landmarks of cultural or natural significance.

What the city center of Madrid lacks in stunning monuments, it makes up for with no fewer than six World Heritage Sites that surround the metropolis on all sides. Each of these cities is no more than an hour away from the capital, which means you could spend a week hopping from one stunning Spanish city to the next yet never check out of your Madrid hotel. That, to me, sounds like a great way to spend some time in the center of Spain!

1) Segovia

Daytrips from Madrid, Spain
View from the Alcázar
This provincial capital is right on the other side of the Guadarrama mountain range, but it feels a world away from the big city life of Madrid. A Roman aqueduct spans a bustling plaza, still standing without mortar after nearly 2,000 years. The country’s most recently-built Gothic cathedral crowns the city center, not too far from the alcázar or castle that was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Don’t head back to Madrid without sitting down for a feast of the city’s signature dish: cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig.

How to get there: Ride the 27-minute high-speed train from Madrid’s Chamartín train station. From the Segovia-Guiomar train station, catch bus #11 to the aqueduct.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Photo Post: Aranjuez, a Royal Escape from Madrid, Spain

Aranjuez, Spain
Royal Palace
It must be nice being a king, because you get to use the word “summer” as a verb. That’s exactly what the kings (and queens!) of Spain decided to do a few centuries ago when the intense summer heat of Madrid became too much for them. They constructed a royal retreat in Aranjuez, a small town to the south of the capital with a slightly-more-agreeable climate thanks to two rivers that run through it and a lush wooded landscape.

Aranjuez, Spain
Príncipe Garden
The main attraction in Aranjuez (pronounced “ah-rahn-KHWETH” [a.ɾaŋˈxweθ] is the Royal Palace, a kind of low-budget Versailles that’s dripping with over-the-top Rococo decorations inside—think gold leaf, porcelain wall embellishments, frescoes, tapestries, and ornate furniture. Spanish monarchs used this palace as their summer residence, but without air conditioning you can imagine the rooms would get rather stuffy, so I’m sure they spent a lot of time outdoors in the gardens next door, where there are plenty of shade trees that fight back against the oppressive summer heat.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Modernista Architecture in Barcelona NOT By Gaudí

There’s some places you visit for the food—San Sebastián in the Basque Country comes to mind, with bars that are literally overflowing with tiny bites of pintxos—and then there’s others you visit for ancient ruins—think Arles in southern France with Roman amphitheaters and sewers.

And there are other cities you spend time in for the architecture. Many of us live in a world of formulaic McMansions, soul-crushing strip malls, big box stores with 30-year shelf lives, and cold glass-and-steel office towers. We travel to cities with excellent architecture because these cities have a sense of place and because they remind us of the beauty in the world.

Modernista architecture in Barcelona, Spain
Palau de la Música Catalana
I think this is one of the big draws Barcelona has on many visitors. Yes, the cozy medieval streets in the Gothic Quarter are nice and all, but the gridded Eixample district, where the city expanded around the turn of the century, is where Barcelona really shines. Grand apartment homes were constructed by the new Catalan middle class, many of whom contracted innovative architects who were trailblazing the modernista style of architecture, a distinctly Catalan form of the prevailing Art Nouveau movement.

Antoni Gaudí is the most well-known of these architects, having designed glamorous houses like the Palau Güell or Casa Batlló and his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church. But Gaudí was far from the only architect active during this time period. In fact, there’s so many Modernista-style buildings in Barcelona that the city government has put together a Ruta del Modernisme or Art Nouveau Walking Route that will take you past hidden gems that people all too often completely overlook as they seek out Gaudí’s work (I myself am guilty of this!).

This itinerary forces you to walk down under-trafficked streets mere blocks from the tourist trail as you intentionally look for stops along the way. I spent a few hours on a refreshing Sunday morning in June doing just this and gained a deeper appreciation for the city’s architecture that goes so far beyond just Gaudí.
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