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Showing posts from February, 2013

February Monthly Update: Spain, Will You Be My Valentine?

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Oh, February, the shortest month of the year. I hardly knew yeh…


Earthquakes The evening of February 5th my apartment was rattled by two back-to-back, mild but firm earthquakes. It was the first major seismic event (I, at least, had) felt since December, and made for a great small-talk topic on the way to school the next day. It doesn’t bother me since these little earthquakes haven’t caused any damage or injuries, but they do keep life interesting.

Visiting the Sierra de Segura In the middle of the month, a group of younger teachers and I took a half-day excursion after school to the mountains east of Villanueva del Arzobispo where we work. Called the Sierra de Segura, this beautiful mountain range reminded me all at once of Arizona (the red rocks), Arkansas (the pine trees), and Colorado (the valleys). We enjoyed a long, filling lunch at restaurant in the natural park before appreciating the views of a manmade lake from the village of Hornos de Segura and ascending the mountainside …

The Château of Azay-le-Rideau, France: The Floating Loire Valley Castle

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While in France’s Loire river valley in December, I visited the châteaux of Chinon and Azay-le-Rideau in the western side of the region. The fortress in Chinon really impressed me as it had some great historical connections to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a medieval ruler of southern France and a queen of England. I had intended on seeing Eleanor’s final resting place in the nearby royal abbey of Fontevraud, but I wasn’t able to visit Fontevraud because it was off-season and there weren’t any public transport connections there from Chinon. Devastated (okay, just disappointed…), I scrambled to find a replacement to fill up the day I would have spent at the abbey.

Enter Azay-le-Rideau (pronounced “ah-zeh luh ree-doe” [a.zɛ lə ʁi.do]). Rick Steves ranked it first on his list of “Châteaux West of Tours” in his France guidebook, not even mentioning Fontevraud and putting Chinon third, so I decided to trust his recommendation and take the train bus there the next morning.

Packing List for a “Puente” Weekend Trip in Spain

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If you’re working as a language assistant in Spain or simply living abroad there for a time, you’ll inevitably be treated to long weekends, or puentes as the Spaniards call them, since they are often formed by holidays that fall on a Thursday or a Tuesday that then make a “bridge” to the weekend, taking Friday or Monday along with them.

What better activity to do on these long weekends than travel around Spain? Now, it’s one thing to pack up your life for nine months into a suitcase, backpack, and messenger bag—you have a little leeway in packing extra clothes, books, and “stuff.” But on weekenders, it’s best if you only take a bag or two at most, to make walking around and keeping track of your luggage easier. This isn’t extreme minimalism by any means, but after taking four city trips and planning a fifth, I’ve figured out the essentials that can fit into a single bag.

The Château of Chinon, France: Chasing Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Old Haunts

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Let me preface this post by saying I am the biggest history nerd out here on the blogosphere, or at least the Spain expat one. So my turn south from Normandy and Brittany into France’s Loire river valley took me not to those stunning châteaux (“castles”) like Chambord or Chenonceau or but to a corner of the region that has more to do with a certain medieval king and queen of England than any Renaissance king of France.


This post’s title refers to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was duchess of that same region in southwestern France in the 11th century, and wife of King Henry II Plantagenet of England, for a time. They had eight children together, including the crusader king Richard the Lionheart and the disastrous king John of England, you know, the one who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1212. Eleanor herself was involved in her fair share of political and romantic drama and even traveled across Europe and Palestine. She even governed England and parts of France—something unheard of …

Saint-Malo, France: Brittany in a Mussel Shell

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Before I began researching what to see in France, I had never even heard of the city of Saint-Malo (pronounced “san mah-loe” [sɛ̃.ma.lo]), which sits on the northwestern corner of the country in the region called Brittany. But friends and guidebooks kept saying great things about this place so I thought it would be a natural stop along my route westward from Paris after Bayeux and Mont-Saint-Michel. Upon exploring this fortress of a city known for being a home base for pirates, I realized how right everyone who praised it really was.


Intra-Muros: the walled city Most people come to Saint-Malo for the old city which is snuggled behind its vast stone walls, the part of town called Intra-Muros (Latin for “within walls”). Apart from shopping and eating delicious food (I only partook in the latter, see the Food section below), there’s not much to do here apart from simply exploring the gray avenues and hiking across the ramparts, where you can get a better, elevated view of the city street…

6 Reasons to Have a Smartphone in Spain

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Before leaving the United States for Spain, I had only ever used a super-basic cellphone that could send and receive calls and texts and take pictures that you could transfer to your computer over Bluetooth. It was enough for my needs, and this type of phone suited me fine for six years.

Fast forward to about five months ago and I was on a plane headed to Europe. I decided to let my parents recycle my two-year-old slider phone and cancel my cellphone number, so I was taking the plunge into the world of Spanish cellphones…which thankfully aren’t too different from American ones. I knew I wanted to get a cheap Android phone because with one, I would have access to important apps like a decent web browser and an all-knowing GPS app.

So far, my cellphone has made adjusting to life abroad much easier than it might have been without one. Here are six reasons I think you should invest in one if you’re moving abroad as well.

1) WhatsApp Most Spaniards don’t text each other, if at all, because…

Mont-Saint-Michel, France: An Island Fortress in the English Channel

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After Paris and the Bayeux Tapestry, the third thing I wanted to see while traveling in France was Mont-Saint-Michel, a towering monastery built on top of a mountainous island off the coast of Normandy. Before visiting, I really didn’t know much at all about the Mount except that it was only accessible when the tides were out…and that it looked just plain cool. During the visit, I ended up learning a bit about French history and why the Mount is such a big deal for the French people.


It was by sheer luck, though, that I was able to visit Mont-Saint-Michel at all (pronounced “mohn san mee-shehl” [mɔ̃ sɛ̃ mi.ʃɛl]). The very day I had chosen to visit Mont-Saint-Michel was the first day in weeks that the tourist bus was running between Saint-Malo (where my hostel was) and the Mount, with maybe one or two other runs more for December. I paid the exorbitant 20 € for round-trip service but didn’t complain because this really freaky coincidence made the whole visit possible. One hour later, t…

How to Apply For a Carné Joven in Spain (European Youth Card)

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After the disaster that was almost getting kicked off the train in France back in December, I resolved to get whatever carte jeune meant in English to ensure cheap European train tickets for future jaunts across the continent. I love traveling by train, but train tickets are usually much more expensive than buses (which don’t even exist in France!), so applying for a European Youth Card was high on the to-do list after I got back home from Christmas vacation travels.

I kept putting getting one off until I read Cat of Sunshine and Siesta’s blog post about “How to get a Carné Jóven Andaluz” a couple weeks ago. She made the whole process sound really simple, so one rainy Monday morning I set off to Úbeda’s local Oficina de Información Juvenil (“Youth Information Office”) and formally applied for a carné joven or “youth card.” After handing over the requisite paperwork and paying a fee at a nearby bank, I got a provisional card printed on a sheet of paper—enough to get me the discounts on…

Bayeux, France: Home to a Story-Telling Tapestry

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After spending four days in Paris over Christmas, I was ready to leave the big city and experience life in the French countryside; lots of people I talked to before leaving for Christmas vacation told me that the provinces were just as good, if not better, than Paris. While planning for the trip, I didn’t really know what exactly there was to see outside of Paris, but one thing I did know out there was the Bayeux Tapestry, viewable two hours northwest of Paris just off the coast of Normandy.

I don’t think the tapestry would ever make it into Lonely Planet’s “Top Experiences” section, but since I looove history (I majored in it in college, after all), I fully embraced my nerdiness and set off to see it.

So what is this tapestry? Well, it’s a huge, 230-foot piece of linen fabric embroidered with scenes that depict the events leading up to the time when the Normans (invaders from Scandinavia who settled in northern France—Normandy—and became French), led by Duke William, crossed the Engl…

January Monthly Update: Time Flies, I Take the Train Edition

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Okay, so January was definitely the shortest month I’ve lived through in Spain so far, despite having 31 days. I guess having the first week off for Christmas vacation and then going to Toledo near the end of the month really pushed things together. Weird.


Celebrating Epiphany On my way back home to Úbeda from traveling across France and northern Spain, I stopped off for two nights in Alcázar de San Juan, a medium-sized town in the plains of La Mancha, because the family of one of my private English class students graciously invited me to stay with them. I was so, so grateful not only that they let me stay at their house over the holidays but also that they shared with me the important Spanish holiday of Epiphany.

This festival, which commemorates the arrival of the Magi/Wise Men to Jesus shortly after his infancy, is celebrated 12 days after Christmas (i.e., January 6) and involves parades, gift-giving, and food. Every Spanish town will probably have a huge parade through its center …