Friday, November 20, 2009

Galicia Excursion

Surprisingly, this week I am updating you guys about some adventures less than a week after they happened. There may be a reason for this, but more on that topic later. Last weekend I went on a trip with AEGEE to the neighboring region of Galicia, which is in the north-west corner of Spain, due north of Portugal. On the first day we visited Santiago de Compostela and on the second we went to La Coruña (or A Coruña in Gallego, which may actually be it's official name . . . Oh well, most people just call it "Coruña" anyway). Santiago de Compostela is famous for being one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Christians in the world, as it is where the remains of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) are entombed. It is the terminus of the St. James Way, a pilgrimage route that runs from France across all of Northern Spain, which I believe I have mentioned at least once already. Anyway, although Galicia is right next door to Asturias it's still a bit of a haul, so we left Oviedo at 8:30 Saturday morning and arrived in Santiago around 1 PM. We dropped our belongings off at the hostel, which was actually more of a hotel, and headed out into the city to see some sites and eat some lunch. As you can probably imagine from what I just told you about Santiago de Compostela, the main attraction is the Cathedral de Santiago, which I didn't hesitate to take TONS of pictures of. Side note - Galicia is notoriously rainy, especially in the winter, so don't expect to see any sunshine in any of the photos in this post.

First sighting of the Cathedral, although this is not the main entrance it's still very impressive.

I'm actually not sure what this building was, because all of the writing across the top was in Latin, but it's really big and it's right across the main plaza from the Cathedral.

Now this is what I came here to see! This is literally one of the most famous Cathedrals in the world, and along with the Aqueduct of Segovia that we saw a few weeks ago is one of the most popular things to put on the cover of a high school Spanish textbook. This is also the only picture with me in it from this trip, taken during one of the few moments when it wasn't raining.

Like many Cathedrals, it was hard to get the whole thing in one picture - not for lack of a huge plaza in front to back up as much as possible, but because this building is enormous.

Everyone went out to restaurants for lunch, but I had brought ham and cheese and pitas from Oviedo, so I sat on the cold stones under some colonnades and made myself a few sandwiches. It was worth it for the view.

My solitary lunch also left me enough time to explore the inside of the Cathedral on my own, as I was worried that the guided tour might not come inside. Although very pretty, I honestly was expecting a lot more magnificence given the amazing facade and the significance of this Cathedral for Christianity.

The crypt of St. James, under the altar. You can't take pictures in there, but I bought a postcard that shows the small silver sarcophagus. I'm guessing it only holds his bones, because I really doubt he was that short in real life. Also, you can kind of see a pilgrim in this picture. There are a ton of people in Santiago with huge backpacks and walking sticks with shells on them. I always felt a little sad when I would see one of them walking out of the Cathedral, because they had walked all the way from France to get here and now their trip was over. Kind of like the sad people leaving Nags Head, if Nags Head was a lot harder to get to . . .

This is the stained glass window (and cross of Asturias?) over the holy door of the Cathedral, that they only open in years when the holy day of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday. The number of pilgrims spikes in these years, and 2010 is one of them, so if you are looking to visit Santiago next year book a room well in advance.

I met back up with the group and we went on a guided walking tour of Santiago de Compostela, which was better than I had expected because it was lead by some people who were actually from the town, instead of by our own guides using materials they had printed off the internet. The old town of Santiago is very picturesque and medieval looking, and much larger than the one in Oviedo, but there are no really impressive monuments of note other than the Cathedral. Also, my umbrella broke on this tour, which would turn out to be catastrophic for me in the following 24 hours.

These statues of crosses were often places at crossroads in medieval times to offer spiritual protection to travelers. I also really liked how this one looked covered with moss and other vegetation; you can tell we're in a really wet climate just by looking at the condition of the stone.

Apparently this street is really famous in the Spanish motion picture industry, but I didn't quite catch why. It might be in the opening credits of a popular show, or perhaps they use it in a lot of movies for background shots of a typical old Spanish town? Sorry to my readers, sometimes it's hard to hear on the tours because people are always talking amongst themselves, and some guides speak Spanish more clearly than others.

Hahahaha OK story: Galicia has it's own official language, called Gallego, and it's kind of a mix between Portuguese and Spanish. One of the guides said it's like Portuguese, but written with the Spanish alphabet. Anyway, this is the sign for the "Silversmith's Square", which is in front of yet another entrance to the Cathedral and in Spanish would be "Plaza de las Platerías". As you can see, in Gallego they have substituted the "l's" for "r's", leading me to conclude that Gallego is actually just what Spanish would be if it was spoken by Chinese people.

The aforementioned "Praza" - that's actually a very narrow house in the background, only 12 feet wide at it's widest part. It was built so that the plaza would have an impressive facade on that side, instead of the sides of other buildings.

This is another entrance to the Cathedral. Notice the kind of patchwork colors of the carvings; this facade was actually constructed with the remains of another facade that was falling down, so they recycled some of the parts that were still good into this one.

After we were shown around the inside of the Cathedral by our guides, we had about 4 hours to get dinner on our own and go back to the hostel to get ready to go out on the town. I elected to go to a cafe that I had read about online that is located in a former casino from the early 1900's. The cafe was very elegantly decorated but unfortunately none of my photos came out that well, however I did drink an expensive concoction of coffee, Bailey's, and cream. Then I walked around on my own for an hour or so, because I had the strong suspicion that they were going to illuminate the Cathedral at some point and I wanted to get a few pictures of that before going back to the hostel and leaving my camera in the room for the night. I had a huge dinner of veal, french fries, pasta salad, and beer, and then got the shots I wanted before heading back to watch the first half of the Spain vs. Argentina soccer game. That night the AEGEE people threw a party for us in one of the local guys' apartment complex with a ton of sangria, and it was a lot like every other apartment party I've ever been to - people got wasted and loud, and some threw up, and then we had to leave because the neighbors threatened to call the cops. I skipped the post party expedition to the bars and went back to go to bed at 1:30 because I was in a room with the two French jerks who had already promised me that they were going to wake me up when they came back from partying, so I decided to try to get some sleep before that happened (Wow, that may have been a run-on sentence, sorry). Anyway here's some pictures from my wanderings.

Specialty of the house at the Cafe Casino

"We have octopus" - Oh goody!

Octopus is a very popular regional dish in Galicia, and is served in most restaurants. It's also displayed like this in many windows, clearly because it looks so appetizing . . .

HA! I knew you guys would light that sucker up. Goodnight, Santiago de Compostela.

Well luckily for me the French dudes were very considerate when they came back to the room at 6 in the morning, so although I woke up briefly I fell right back to sleep. We had breakfast in the hostel and then got on the bus to go to Coruña, about and hour and a half away. It was a very rainy, windy day in Coruña, all the better since I had broken my umbrella the day before. It was still usable, but I had to hold it very near the top, which made my arms pretty tired after a while. Our first stop in Coruña was the Torre de Hércules, a 1,900 year old Roman lighthouse that is the oldest Roman lighthouse in the world still in use.

Maybe this is Hercules, but it doesn't really look like him to me . . .

The Torre de Hércules

The insides of ancient Roman lighthouses are much classier than their modern North Carolinian counterparts. Stone steps? And check out that banister!

The sea was very stormy that day, my friends. Also, I got rained on at the top of the lighthouse because I left my broken umbrella at the bottom. Oops.

Another view of the Galician coast, with violent waves.

Our next stop was the Aquarium Finisterrae, named after the spit of land that Coruña is on, and which I believe literally means "end of the land" in Latin. It was a pretty cool aquarium, but I got the impression that it was more for little kids and their parents than grown-ups. Maybe all aquariums are that way though, now that I think about it.

One of the big tanks, this aquarium was only a little bigger than the one on Roanoke Island

I see you, eel! Trying to hide from me . . .

Hahaha I don't know what language this is, or what that fish is called in English, but someone calls it a "Boops boops" and I think that's awesome.

Aquarium overview

Oh no look out it's A SHARK!!

Up close with those waves, pretty cool to watch if you don't mind being out in the freezing rain.

Fun fact learned in Galicia - the Spanish word for seal is "foca".

Sadly one of my batteries wasn't fully charged when I left and died shortly after arriving in Santiago, and the second one I had died right after I took a bunch of pictures of seals, so I don't have any pictures of the town of Coruña. It's not a huge loss, it wasn't a really pretty town, but there were some cool buildings with walls of glass that are kind of the symbol of the city. We left Coruña around 5 PM and we got back to Oviedo on schedule just after 10, so I was happy not to have to eat dinner at midnight again. Sorry if this entry has seemed a little rushed, I am trying to get my blog all caught up because I am about to go to Portugal in a little over an hour. Yeah, you heard me right, on Tuesday I found out that most of my classes are cancelled next week, so I am going to Portugal until the 28th and then meeting up with my already scheduled excursion in Madrid. That's what I was referring to at the beginning of this post. So hope you liked this entry, feel free to leave a comment as I enjoy reading them, although I won't see these for over a week so you have plenty of time to think of something good to say.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ávila and Segovia

The next morning we got up around 9 and got on the bus to go to Ávila, about an hour and a half from Salamanca. On this entire trip we were in southern part of Castilla and León (actually in the Castilla portion of the province) and pretty close to Madrid, or at least closer than I have previously been at this point in my travels. Ávila is known for it's perfectly preserved medieval walls, which completely encircle the old city and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is situated on a high, treeless plateau surrounded by mountains, and is actually the highest provincial capital in Spain, at 3,665 feet.

Welcome to Ávila? Your signs say "yes" but your walls say "no" . . .

View of the surrounding landscape

The walls, there are 88 towers and 9 gateways

Ávila street, with the landscape at the end

The Cathedral of Ávila, the back of which actually forms part of the walls

You wanna get into this city, you're gonna have to go through me! Oh, and these big walls . . .

Yemas de Santa Teresa, the typical dessert of Ávila. "Yemas" means egg yolks, which is fitting because that is the main ingredient of these little custard balls, along with some milk, probably some other stuff, and a whole lot of sugar. Yeah, I tried one, but I didn't go back for seconds.

We walked around Ávila for about an hour and then set of to the east again towards Segovia. Before arriving in Segovia all I knew about it was that it had a famous Roman aqueduct that is on the cover of many high school Spanish books, and I was excited enough to see that without knowing what else we would be seeing. As you will see later, I was pleasantly surprised. But first, the aqueduct.

Looking down the hill that required the construction of this aqueduct by the Romans. Aqueducts, you see, are designed to provide water to cities by maintaining a gentle downward slope from the source to the intended destination. Once the water runs down a hill into a valley you can't get it back out unless you have a pump or something, so the aqueduct is like a bridge for the water over said valley. Sorry for talking to you all like children, but I got carried away with my explanation.

The aqueduct at it's highest point, 100.53 feet. Built around the first or second century AD, it is comprised of 20,400 granite blocks held together without any mortar or clamps, and has 166 arches and 120 pillars.

Looking back up the hill

Trying to get artsy and frame a church tower in an arch, but there were foreigners in the foreground

After checking out the aqueduct we were each given 4 euros and led to a "Rodillas" (knees), which is like a Spanish subway, but they mostly have cold sandwiches with the crust cut off. I don't know why it's called knees, but I wasn't going to complain about a partially subsidized lunch. Afterward we had some time to check out the surrounding area while waiting on the rest of the group to meet up and go to a lookout point, or so they told us.

Víctor and I being friendly while wearing opposing jester hats in a souvenir shop. (His is for Barcelona and mine is Real Madrid, which are the two most famous Spanish soccer teams and fierce rivals)

Segovia also has a cathedral, but it costs money to go inside. And we'll see more of it later

When we got to the "look out point" there were fabulous views of the countryside, which was what we in America would consider as typically Spanish, rolling brown hills. There was also something through the trees that looked pretty awesome, an Alcázar! I don't know if the guides had told us about it and I simply didn't hear/understand, or if they were trying to surprise us, but this castle (Alcázar means fortress, adapted into Spanish from Arabic) looked totally awesome and I was super excited to explore it.

Alcázar of Segovia, surrounded by cliffs at the edge of the city. It was built by the Arabs but expanded over the years by various monarchs of the Kingdom of Castilla, of whom it was a favorite royal residence. It is also the site where Fernando and Isabel, the Catholic monarchs who financed Columbus' first voyage, were married.

Front view, we were told that the castle at Disneyland Paris was partially inspired by the Alcázar, but if anything the only resemblance seems to be the pointed roofs of the smaller towers.

The main courtyard, with a fountain and a really short cannon at the back that I thought was a bell.

The Throne Room. Come on, you guys didn't have to put those ropes across the thrones, I wasn't gonna try to sit there . . .

HELP! A reanimated suit of armor knows I go around making jokes about stuff I see in Spain!

Awesome photo idea of the landscape through one of the prettier windows. People who saw me take this photo waited, then took their own. I'm just saying.

View of the town from the top of the main tower (152 really narrow steps, felt like I was in a lighthouse) with the Guadarrama Mountains shrouded in clouds in the background. That cathedral looks pretty sweet from up here.

Guadarrama Mountains again, with the surrounding landscape. The sun was starting to set and I really liked the light in these photos.

Looking back down on the rest of the Alcázar

Awesome photo, I love how the sun is shining only on the town

I took so many photos trying to get this flag waving perfectly, but this is the best I got.

We spent an hour or so exploring the Alcázar, then another half hour waiting for the same inconsiderate group of German girls who had been holding us up the whole trip to come out so we could walk back to the bus and head back to Oviedo. We were 5 hours from home, so we didn't get back to town until 11:30 Sunday night, and since the buses weren't running anymore I didn't get back to the vivienda to eat dinner until midnight. Oh well, Monday was a holiday and we didn't have class, so I slept in and then went to the circus. More on that later perhaps.