Showing posts from 2015

The 3 World Heritage Sites of Galicia, Spain

Even if you’re not familiar with the concept of a World Heritage Site, almost all of Spain’s most impressive monuments fall into this category, from the Moorish glories of the Alhambra to Gaudí’s dizzying Sagrada Família. Established by the UN’s Unesco agency in 1972, the World Heritage program recognizes and protects places of outstanding natural or cultural significance, including world-famous places like the Grand Canyon in Arizona but also lesser-known ones like the Chaco Culture ruins in next-door New Mexico.

In fact, Spain is home to the third-largest amount of World Heritage Sites in the world, behind only Italy and China, with 44 sites on the list, and the small region of Galicia in the country’s northwest corner lays claim to three of those. Now, in my highly-biased opinion (having lived there for two years) I think there ought to be a few more Galician sites selected, from the monasteries and vineyards that perch along the Ribeira Sacra canyon to Atlantic islands like the Cí…

Reminders of Rome in Macaron-Colored Arles, France

Bundling up in boots, skinny jeans, and scarves while spending Thanksgiving with family a couple weeks ago in Indiana reminded me of the last time the weather was that cold: late February, when my friend Melissa and I traveled around southern France from our home base in Avignon. We were so fed up with the miserable cold, rainy weather in Santiago de Compostela that we decided to hop on over to France’s Mediterranean coast—where you would think things would be warm and sunny—only to be greeted with more rain and cold weather. I guess you can’t have everything.

But it’s easy to beat the winter blues when you’re in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, rain or shine. Avignon welcomed us in for four nights and turned out to be a cozy city overflowing with history. We took advantage of Avignon’s central location and good rail connections to make daytrips to various towns around Provence, once of which was the Roman city of Arles, a mere 17-minute journey on the speedy TER train.


10 Museums to See in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Santiago de Compostela isn’t exactly a city known for its museums. As it’s the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, once you’ve checked in at the cathedral, there really isn’t that much to see and do besides checking out tapas bars in the granite-paved old town, strolling through the myriad of green parks and trails nearby, and generally relaxing after walking six hours a day for a month. That saying “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” definitely applies to the Camino.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to check out in Santiago besides the purported resting place of the Apostle St. James. Although Santiago might not have museums on the grand scale of those in Lisbon, Madrid, or Barcelona, this city has several museums, exposition halls, and centers that will tell you more about the city’s past and how it influenced the Santiago we see today.

1) The cathedral museum Like any Spanish cathedral’s treasury worth its salt, you’ll find the usual suspects in the Museo…

Photo Post: Monte de Deus in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Santiago de Compostela may be the capital of Galicia and a bustling university town just shy of 100,000, but locals still often affectionately refer to it as a pueblo, a small town. And not without reason: you can walk to most any place in Santiago in around half an hour, a series of parks and greenbelts circle the old town, and despite the constant influx of tourists it’s not uncommon to run into people you know in all corners of the city.

You’re also never too far from the green Galician countryside, as you only have to walk 15 minutes from the built-up parts of town to get into rural areas where pine forests and family farms take over from apartment blocks and supermarkets. Nowhere is this more visible than from the Monte de Deus lookout point, just north of central Santiago. Called the “Mountain of God” for reasons I’m not clear on, Monte de Deus offers a unique, south-facing perspective that complements the more panoramic vistas you can get from up top Monte Pedroso and Monte do…

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon & the Simple Pleasures of Southern France

When my friend Melissa and I took a bridge across the Rhône River into Villeneuve-lès-Avignon last February, the city reminded us a lot of what in Spain they call pueblos: villages in the countryside where traditional, slower ways of life continue, where cozy family homes line the streets, and where you can say buenos días to people you pass on the sidewalk. Replacebuenos días” with “bonjour” and that’s exactly what Villenueve felt like.

We didn’t exactly go out of our way to check out this charming southern French town, as it’s simply on the other side of the Rhône from the tourist hotspot of Avignon. In French placenames, lès simply means “near,” so you might translate the name as “New Town Near Avignon.” After a jam-packed morning crawling around a gigantic papal palace and getting a French nursery rhyme stuck in our heads, we decided to cross the river into this tourist-free town to relax for a bit.

My Guide to the 17 Regions of Spain

One of the most striking ideas that I came across during my college-level Hispanic Culture & Civilization course was this notion of España y las EspañasSpain and the Spains. It forced me to reconsider my preconceptions of Spain as a land of Don Quixote, paella, and sunshine and instead come face to face with the rich history and endless variety of this country that refuses to live up to its stereotypes.

During the three years I lived in Spain I was fortunate enough to visit 14 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities, or regions that the central government has granted varying degrees of home rule to. Many of these regions are considered nationalities within the larger Spanish nation-state, either because they speak a language other than Castilian Spanish or because they hold culture and history in common.

Getting beyond the standard Madrid-Barcelona-Sevilla itinerary gave me a more nuanced view of the country, told me the deeper truth of the country’s past, and (most importantl…

Santiago de Compostela’s Rocha Forte Castle Ruins

It began as a passing blur, a brief break in between thick trees and rural farms as the train headed south out of Santiago. What did I just see? I wondered. Later, I would catch passing references to the crumbling foundations of a long-forgotten fortress, hiding in plain sight just outside of town. Then I came across banners advertising what was once “the largest castle in Galicia.” In a town known for its cathedral, its granite-paved old town, and its pilgrim heritage, I was intrigued that there was something more unique to explore than yet another over-the-top Baroque monastery. Completionist that I am, I added the ruins of the Rocha Forte to my Santiago bucket list and finally went hiking into the countryside one sunny May afternoon.

Even after living in Europe for three years, this history major never lost the thrill of stumbling across a church whose doors had welcomed the faithful for a thousand years, walking over glass-covered excavations of Roman-era mosaics, or strolling pa…

Living Like Popes in Avignon, France

Y’all. I am SO behind in blog posts. I’m just now getting to travels from way back in February…so ashamed that I’ve let tumbleweeds roll all over this blog but I’m trying to get back up to speed, so stay tuned!

It was mid-February and my friend Melissa and I were not amused with how the Galician winter had been treating us. Dark skies and rainy nights kept us indoors most of the time, and because of high humidity, the cold temperatures were particularly bitter despite never dropping below freezing. Simply put, we needed to get out, and sunny southern France seemed like a great place to escape from Santiago for a long weekend.

We took a similar path that the Roman Catholic popes did in the 1300s, who were also fleeing an unsavory (political) climate. They left chaotic Rome for the security of Avignon, a major city along the Rhône River not far from the Mediterranean coast. We scored (and later endured) super-cheap Ryanair flights to Marseille’s airport and looked forward to encounterin…

Moving to Spain, 3 Years Later: My Spain-iversary

Now that I’m back home with my parents in Texas this summer, I’ve recently been leafing through all the old travel journals that I kept when I moved to Spain and traveled around Europe. They’ve put me in a real emotional mood remembering how excited I felt to be moving to a foreign country. At the same time, all my old anxieties came flooding back: what city would I live in, what apartment would I choose, how would I get to work, would I make any friends, and what the heck comes next after all of this is over.

It’s now been three years since I landed on the tarmac at the Barajas airport in Madrid, giddy and jetlagged and naïve all at once. I thought it would only be appropriate to commemorate this anniversary—or Spain-iversary, in Cat’s words—with a retrospective blog post looking back on my first day in España, the journey I’ve taken since then, and some of the lessons I’ve learned while living abroad.

I may be back in the very same place where I started over 1,000 days ago, but today…

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Bonaval Park

I know, I know, I’ve been on a big city-parks-of-Santiago kick lately on the blog. Last year I talked about the Alameda (the main public park) and Belvís (basically my backyard), and in the past few weeks I’ve highlighted the Sarela River Trail and Galeras Park. These green spaces amount to one of Santiago de Compostela’s greatest assets and give folks who live here a way to exercise, relax, and meet up with friends and family.

Today I’d like to turn the spotlight on Bonaval Park, situated just outside the old town to the northeast. For centuries, the land here belonged to the monastic community of San Domingos de Bonaval, but in 1837 it was confiscated by the Spanish state during the anti-clerical desamortización de Mendizábal. The Baroque monastery then passed to the city government. Today, Bonaval is anchored by the Museo do Pobo Galego, which offers an ethnographic look into Galician culture and traditions. The museum’s star attraction is a bewildering spiral staircase in which t…

Trying Out Inkly, a Handwritten Postcard App

It’s never been easier to stay in touch with your friends and family back home while you’re traveling or living abroad. Instagram, Twitter, and all the rest help keep people updated on what you’re up to, while messaging apps and video chat are always there for meaningful, one-on-one conversations.

There’s honestly no way I would have survived longer than one school year in Spain so far away from home had I not had so many accessible and affordable ways to keep in close contact with my parents, the rest of my family, and my friends from college. I salute those all who have bravely gone before me with only snail mail or expensive calling cards as their sole means of communication. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here furiously updating my Instagram.

Still, there’s something about travel that brings out the old-fashioned side of me. I try to dress up for the occasion whenever I catch a flight; I prefer the romance of civilized train travel over slow, nauseating buses; and I enjoy sending handwri…

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Galeras Park

Like I said on my earlier post about the Sarela River Trail, I think Santiago de Compostela is uniquely fortunate to have its older part of town surrounded by parks and green spaces rather than by sprawl, as happened to countless other European cities in the past century. Built on a bluff between two small rivers, Santiago only became the administrative capital of Galicia in the 1980s, so much of the World Heritage-declared historic core has been protected.

With the Alameda Park to the southwest and Belvís Park running along the east, Santiago has plenty of places to go running, have a picnic, or just breathe some fresh air in. Joining these quality parks is Galeras Park, situated just to the northeast of Santiago’s old town. A tranquil meadow dotted with willows and fruit trees, Galeras straddles both banks of the Sarela River as it meanders southwards.

A Crash Course in the Galician Language

Galicia, located in Spain’s northwestern corner, ranks as one of the country’s greatest regions. When I lived there from 2013 to 2015, I couldn’t get enough of the glorious, fresh food, the green, lush countryside, and the grand, granite architecture. But I could only take canned sardines with me back home, we’ve got enough humidity here in Texas, and sadly the oldest buildings in suburban Plano date back not to the 1070s but the 1970’s.

But what has stuck with me the most has been galego, the Galician language that I quickly picked up on after being immersed in it from day one at the elementary school I worked at. Closely related to Spanish (and even closer to Portuguese), you can think of it as a de-nasalized Portuguese, pronounced like Spanish, and with an Italian intonation. Its endearing musical (some might say whiny) rhythm has infected my accent in Spanish, and I can rattle off more seafood and rain-related terms in Galician than I can in English.

So, what if you’re going to Ga…

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Sarela River Trail

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the countless parks and green spaces that surround Santiago de Compostela make the city such a great place to call home. From the Alameda, where you can see and be seen (or just go jogging), to Belvís, where you can lay out on the hillside and have a picnic, Santiago is truly blessed with pleasant public spaces where you can escape the noise and demands of the city and breathe in some fresh air.

No part of town gives you a better connection to the natural world than the footpaths that follow the course of the Sarela River. Trailblazed several years ago, the Paseo Fluvial do Río Sarela traces a tranquil creek as it trickles down the western edge of Santiago from the north to the southwest.

Where to Eat in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

This blog post has been literally years in the making. Although I’ve happily moved back home to Texas, the city of Santiago de Compostela in far northwestern Spain gave me two of the best years of my life. I spent much of that time drinking an expertly-pulled café con leche, indulging in a fresh butter croissant (or two), and going out for tapas with friends in the old town. I cooked most of my meals at my apartment, but that’s not to say I didn’t gain an intimate knowledge of the cafés, bars, and restaurants in the Galician capital.

Whether you’re a freshly-arrived pilgrim weary of the Camino, or a visitor with limited time to spare, I hope these recommendations that I’ve curated below will help you avoid the tourist traps on Rúa do Franco south of the cathedral and instead get an authentic experience in one of Spain’s most alluring cities.

CafésAlabama (Rúa do Hórreo, 21)
A clean, comfortable café south of Praza de Galicia with a large outside terrace for people-watching on the busy…

5 Advanced Spanish Pronunciation Tips

I’ve talked some about Spanish pronunciation on the blog before, from how to speak Spanish like a Spaniard to tips on learning how to roll your Rs; in fact, they’re two of my most popular posts! Today I’d like to share a little bit of what I learned when I took a Spanish linguistics course in college. Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure to explain everything in layman’s terms, but these subtle, rarely-discussed differences between English and Spanish were transformational in getting me to lose my American accent in Spanish and have made me sound much more native. I hope they help you as much as they helped me!

1) B, D, G are soft, not hard consonants This was one of the first things I picked up on in my linguistics class and it totally blew my mind. At the beginnings of word or phrases, the B, D, and G sounds are “full stops” or are pronounced strongly, just like they are in English: vinagre, día, and gamba begin with clean, firm Bs, Ds, and Gs.

However, whenever you see a B/D/G in be…

Where to See Roman Ruins in Spain

The land that we call Spain today belonged to the Roman Empire for nearly 600 years, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we can find countless relics dating from this time period across the country—not least the Castilian language itself, which derives from the Latin the Romans imposed on Hispania. Coming from a part of the U.S. where it’s a big deal to catch a glimpse of a truck that’s only half a century old, I naturally gravitated to places like ancient Roman ruins as I made my way from one region of Spain to another. This country has so much Roman heritage to offer—on par with Italy or France!—so read on to learn where to go in Spain for your ancient ruin fix.

1) City of Mérida Today the capital of vast, lonely Extremadura in western Spain, Mérida was founded as a settlement of emeritus (veteran) soldiers along the Guadiana River. Emerita Augusta would become the capital of Lusitania province (which included modern-day Portugal and Extremadura) and was graced with an amphithea…

The 7 Most Unusual Things I’ve Eaten in Spain

Despite what many Spaniards may tell you, the food here is not spicy at all. But that hardly means Spanish cuisine is boring! I’ve broadened my palate and tried so many new things since moving to Spain in 2012, picking up a taste for everything from sardines and anchovies to cured ham and beef. During this culinary adventure I’ve had throughout the country, though, I’ve come across several out-of-the-ordinary dishes, most of which I actually enjoy eating now! Read on to see some exciting dishes you can try in Spain.

1) Octopus No, this isn’t like those little fried calamari you get as an appetizer sometimes; pulpo á feira is adult octopus, tentacles and all, slow-boiled under tender. After the octopus is finished cooking, apron-clad women (the pulpeiras) snip the purple tentacles into little medallions with scissors, discarding the mantle or “head.” Garnished with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pimentón (smoked paprika), the white tentacle cross-sections are often served with boile…

Photo Post: The Galician Resort Town of Sanxenxo, Spain

My weekend trip down south to Vigo back in January took me to a few new places I hadn’t explored before in the area: a legit Mexican restaurant in Vigo, the monumental old town of Pontevedra, and the granite-paved fishing village of Combarro.

My last stop took me west of Combarro and Pontevedra. Hanging out on the north side of the Ría de Pontevedra estuary lies Sanxenxo, a resort town whose population (and rent) doubles in the summer as out-of-town folks flood the apartments that sprawl across the south-facing beaches.

Pronounced “sahn-SHEN-show” [sanˈʃen.ʃo] (probably the funnest Galician place-name of them all to say), this town was unfortunately rather dull in the cold of winter, despite the unusual January sunshine. The friends I daytripped out here with and I all wished we could have just laid out on the beach, but instead we buttoned up our coats and tightened our scarves when we got out of the car.

Combarro, Spain: Galicia’s Most Beautiful Village?

Early on in my first year teaching English in northwest Spain, my bilingual coordinator told me there was one place I absolutely could not miss before returning back to the States: seaside Combarro, Galicia’s most beautiful fishing village. She’s never made such a recommendation before or since, so I took her local advice to heart and daytripped out here while I was in the Pontevedra area this January.

I am all about that village life, and Combarro did not disappoint. This viliña mariñeira or “little mariner’s town” mainly draws folks to stroll down its historic, granite-paved streets that date back to the 1700s, where you can appreciate traditional Galician houses, their covered porches, wrap-around balconies, and tiny gardens and flower planters.

Combarro’s also a great place to get to know two of the most emblematic structures you’ll run into in the Galician countryside (or on the coast). No fewer than eight cruceiros or monumental granite crosses dot this tiny town, and every oth…

The 5 Cathedrals of Galicia, Spain

As a major architecture nerd, there’s nothing I love exploring while traveling so much as a sprawling castle, a light-filled church, or a stately mansion. I really enjoy getting to see in person how western architectural styles evolved over the centuries, from the most primitive of pre-Romanesque to the fascinating contemporary stuff built today. And while I may not be a Roman Catholic, I nevertheless did grow up in the church, so cathedrals hold a special place in my heart.

Over the past two years it’s been exciting to check out all five cathedrals located in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern region, from Santiago de Compostela’s monumental masterpiece to the humble mountain sanctuary of Mondoñedo. Let me share with you the interesting churches that head up the five Galician dioceses.

Lugo Like all the rest of the cathedrals in Galicia, Lugo’s is at its core a Romanesque church, characterized by thick, heavy walls and columns with narrow slits for windows and lots of sculpture. But there…

Photo Post: The Old Town of Pontevedra, Spain

Out of Galicia’s four provincial capitals (A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, and Pontevedra), Pontevedra was my last to check off the list, despite being barely an hour south of Santiago. An almost-coastal town, it straddles the Lérez River right before it empties into the Ría de Pontevedra estuary on Galicia’s western coast.

I spent the better part of a day in Pontevedra back in January when I went down south to Vigo to meet up with some friends from college who were now teaching English together there. Pontevedra surprised me: the town was one lively plaza after another where terrace cafés stretched out beneath soportales arches and children bothered pigeons with their impromptu soccer games.

The old town reminded me a lot of Santiago de Compostela, as it was also built almost entirely out of local granite stone. Huge slabs paved the roads and sidewalks, and stately mansions and humble apartments alike were constructed with this igneous rock. The Virxe Peregrina Church welcomed me into the …

Daytripping to Medieval-Walled Ávila, Spain

You need a good five to seven days to fully explore the Spanish capital of Madrid: its world-class art museums, neighborhoods, sprawling public parks, and historic bars and restaurants. But you’d arguably need another week just to check out the World Heritage Sites that circle the capital, all no more than an hourlong train ride away. Monumental cities like Segovia and Toledo guard Madrid’s northern and southern borders, while El Escorial and Alcalá de Henares attest to the region’s royal and educational heritage. West of Madrid on the other side of the Guadarrama Mountains lies a city that is still completely surrounded by its original medieval walls: Ávila.

Spain’s first Gothic cathedral When I daytripped here on my way back home from Salamanca, I was so short on time that I unfortunately wasn’t able to walk around on top of the murallas, the old city walls. I did get to check out the cathedral, however. It was a really interesting church because it’s the oldest Gothic cathedral in…

Salamanca, Spain: A Warmth in Winter

Few cities were as high on my northern Spain hitlist as Salamanca. Yes, there was León, with its wall-to-wall stained-glass cathedral and free tapas action, or Oviedo, Santiago’s cousin out east in Asturias, or even Albarracín, the most beautiful village in Spain. But Salamanca always kept tugging me down there, even after I nearly booked a marathon train journey down there from Galicia and chickened out.

The perfect opportunity to swing by this monumental university town presented itself to me this January, when I was dropping off my family at the Madrid airport after having shown them all around the capital, Segovia, and Santiago for a week. On my way back northwest to Santiago, I took advantage of being so far south to make the trek out to Salamanca before riding the trenhotel home.

A break from the Castilian cold Contrary to any stereotypes you might have about Spain, it gets cold in the winter here—really cold. It isn’t hot and sunny year-round here unless you live in the Canari…