Allariz {Warning: may contain pulpo}

The towns of Ourense are famous for their rich (and rather strangecarnaval traditions, so my friend Kaitlyn and I posted ourselves in the capital city to partake in nearby celebrations and to do some explorations of our own. Phase one of exploration was, at the suggestion of Kaitlyn, Allariz.

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Never heard of Allariz? That makes two of us. Allariz is a bitty town (in the neighborhood of 5,000 people) located about 15 km from the city of Ourense. Along the coast of Galicia, towns melt into one another seamlessly; in the interior, separation is more distinct.

Due to some…complications with our Couchsurfing host, we arrived in Allariz much later than initially planned. Peppered with Galicia’s typical indecisive drizzle, we stared blankly at our new surroundings and started walking.

I have long held a suspicion that my nose operates reflexively; that is, it receives sensory input and routes it directly to my legs without first passing through my brain. I don’t hate it. So where did our first directionless steps lead us? To food, of course! Before long Kaitlyn and I found ourselves wandering up a hill and into a clearing of tents filled with pulpo (octopus) and churrasco (barbecue) stands. And so we ate.

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This marked the first time I saw the entire prep process for pulpo a feira, the octopus dish Galicia is so famous for. Using long, metal rods, the cooks submerged and then removed whole octopi from large metal boilers, placing them on a wooden planks lying across the boilers.

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Then, taking scissors, they snipped the tentacles into discs and piled them on round wooden plates, sprinkling the final product with aceite de oliva (olive oil) and pimentón (paprika). You will rarely see pulpo a feira on any other kind of plate, because (1) of tradition and (2) the wood absorbs water, but not oil.

The final product:

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This random square of tents in random Allariz gave me the best octopus I had in Galicia, period. The teachers at my school often told me that the province of Ourense boasts the best pulpo, and I wholeheartedly agree. Accompanied with a crusty loaf of pan rústico and a bottle vino tinto, Kait and I felt as fluid as octopi by the time we were finished.

As the town sank into its daily siesta, we slipped down by the river for a post-feast coffee. We settled into Café Bar A Fábrica, posting ourselves by the floor-length windows so that the Río Arnoia gurgled just feet below our feet.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon walking – by the muddy banks of the river, through the cobblestone streets of the casco viejo (old zone), up a grassy knoll overlooking the town.

Puente de Vilanova

Puente de Vilanova, a Roman bridge

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Iglesia de Santiago

Iglesia de Santiago

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Beautiful towns do indeed come in small packages.

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See the Sea from the Cíes

Hopping on a boat in Vigo, Galicia will take you to one of Spain’s best-kept secrets.

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I had already decided Galicia was one of the most underrated provinces in Spain before I laid my eyes on Las Islas Cíes (the Cíes Islands).

These tropical-looking islands, with vivid, turquoise water and fine white sand, are scattered just off the coast of a mainland that treated this girl to 61 straight days of rain. Step on the island, and in one fell swoop, your eyes can take in craggy mountains, lush greenery, and pristine beaches – a landscape trifecta. Never have I seen a place that so seamlessly melts the three into one. As a matter of fact, the archipelago, made up of three individual islands, was listed as one of the “Top 10 beaches of the world” by British newspaper The Guardian.

Anyhow, the first weekend of June, several friends and I left drippy Santiago and headed to the Cíes for a final hurrah as the school year ended. After a ferry ride from the port of Vigo, we spent our daylight hours hiking to the island’s main lighthouse and lolling about on soft beaches, returning to our furnished tents only when food necessitated it. True to Galician form, the water was frigid and the night air cool.

As you can see, the Cíes were, quite easily, the best parting gift the country could have given.

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sharking

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Things to Remember:

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  • Check the weather. Obviously your trip will be better if it’s sunny, but regardless of the sun’s status, it gets cold at night. Pack accordingly.
  • Camping is an awesome way to spend your time on the island. Make sure you reserve ahead of time, though, and note that you can only camp on the island during Semana Santa (Holy Week, usually in March-April) and summer (June-September). That said, the amenities are excellent. You can decide to bring your own tent, or do what we did and rent one that contain beds with mattresses. The campsite even boasts showers, a cafe, and restaurant.
    • Prices
      • Bring your own tent: 10 euros/person
      • Rent a tent
        • Two-person tent: 39 euros low/48 euros high season
        • Four-person tent: 65 euros low/73 euros high season
  • Buy your ferry ticket ahead of time. Visitors to the island are capped at 2,200 each day. Ferries leave from Vigo and Cangas.
  • For more information, check out Vigo’s official tourism site.

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Gluten-free in Galicia

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Breakfast at Hotel Costa Vella, complete with gluten-free bread

Deciding to uproot myself and move to Spain came with its fair share of anxiety. A large part of that anxiety was due, of course, to the uncertainty of what I would be eating for the next year. And since Spain is a hefty player in the culinary world, I wanted to maximize  Surprisingly, though, being gluten-free in Spain was a breeze. Since I lived in Santiago de Compostela, this post specifically addresses going gluten-free in Galicia, though it is largely applicable to Spain as a whole.

At the supermercado

Living on a tight budget, this is where I got most of my grub. Overall, I found that Mercadona, Carrefour, and Familia had the best selection of gluten-free specialty foods – everything from magdalenas (small breakfast muffins) to pasta to cereal to flour. The frozen food section of the Carrefour in Santiago even carries gluten-free frozen empanadas and churros. When looking outside the specialty gluten-free section, scan labels for the words “sin gluten” (gluten-free). Spain does a pretty good job at labeling their products.

My most uncomfortable experience with grocery food was not actually caused by gluten. With many brands, eating a gluten-free loaf of sandwich bread (“pan de molde”) or baguette (“pan rústico”) is like eating a brick of vegetable shortening. Namely because the second ingredient is vegetable shortening. Check ingredients before you buy to avoid digestive displeasure.

Dining out

Behold, I give you the two keys to your eating success:

Soy celíaca.

No puedo comer gluten.

With these two phrases, Galicia became my oyster. The majority of restaurants understood the implications of these phrases (perhaps with some help from “no harina” – no flour). In my experience, Galician cuisine uses straightforward ingredients. What you see is, more than likely, what you get.

Galician cuisine is heavy on seafood. Seafood is often prepared simply, though there are some specialty seafood dishes that use sauces (ex. almejas a la marinera, or clams with marinera sauce) that you should avoid if you cannot ascertain the sauce ingredients. Caldo gallego, a traditional Galician soup, can also be troublesome (but worth investigating because it is scrumptious). Seafood a la plancha (grilled) or al vapor (steamed) is just as common and a safer bet. Food that is cocido has been boiled; potatoes are commonly cooked this way. Spanish tortilla, a simple, savory staple often served as a tapa, is traditionally composed of potato, oil, and egg – also a good go-to item.

The Asociación de Celíacos de Galicia has compiled a PDF of restaurants that have received training in how to safely prepare gluten-free meals for consumers. However, I never used this list even once and was easily accommodated everywhere I dined. Additionally, if you feel less than confident in your Spanish-speaking abilities, Celiac Travel offers a great free Spanish dining card.

On planes and trains

Once upon a time, on a long-haul train from Santiago de IMG_1745Compostela to Madrid, I wandered into the dining car and found that it sold gluten-free pastries. I was elated and ate my calorie bomb in blissful appreciation. In general, however, the dining car is friend to neither your wallet nor your stomach. Be prepared, be prepared. Pack nuts, fruit, and sandwiches to get you through your journey. The same goes for air travel. Once upon a time in the Málaga airport (in Andalucía, not Galicia, mind you) I found two happy oddities: a gluten-free brownie at Starbucks and a gluten-free vending machine (!). Again: exception, not the rule. Airports lean heavily on the sandwich side. Be prepared.

Hope your stomach is as happy as mine!

-MB

Málaga {time for Finnish lessons}

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I spent a lot more time in Málaga than I had initially planned, mostly because I realized on the train halfway to Cádiz that I’d left my trench coat and scarf in the hostel (next to a sign that said, in essence, “Items Left Behind Are Lost Forever”). I immediately stress-ate three plums and resolved to return.

In Málaga, I befriended a clan of Germans with a penchant for shisha; a Finn with a penchant for pre-dawn language lessons; and an American engineering student with a penchant for yoga. With them, and the aforementioned processions, I got to know Andalucía’s second biggest city.

Sights worth the seeing:

  1. Alcazaba – A gorgeous example of Moorish architecture, this fortress is located next to the Roman amphitheater, and is particularly striking near sunset.
  2. Castillo de Gibralfaro – It’s a climb, and there isn’t much left besides the ramparts, but the views of the city and port are breathtaking. 
  3. Catedral de Málaga. Cathedrals are not usually my thing, but for some reason, Málaga’s Cathedral struck me. Unlike the gray, gothic cathedrals I’ve been used to, this cathedral had color accents that set it apart: a mint-green organ with gold accents and an exterior facade with red marble, for example.
  4. Playa Malagueta. Dotted with straw umbrellas and infused with the scent of pescado frito (fried fish), Málaga’s main beach is a refreshing escape and within walking distance from city center.
  5. Pablo Picasso Museum. I’ll admit, this was not initially at the top of my list. I’m not Pablo Picasso’s biggest fan – his work is a little jarring for me. I ended up going to this museum when I realized I could get in for free with my Spanish student I.D. I’m so pleased I did. Picasso’s portfolio of work is way more extensive than I realized, stretching beyond the the cubism I knew him for. My respect for the man skyrocketed. Just as powerful as the artwork was the narration of the museum. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“A good painting – any painting! – ought to bristle with razor blades.” – André Malraux

Playa Malagueta

Playa Malagueta

Alcazaba de Málaga

Alcazaba de Málaga

Catedral de Málaga

Catedral de Málaga

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Climbing to Castillo Gibralfaro

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Plaza de Toros & Porto de Málaga

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Málaga {it’s procession time.}

How terrifying are they on a scale of one to crying

Having lived for six months in a Spain of torrential rain, I was thrilled to finally explore Andalucía, the place textbooks are made of. Andalucía became my Semana Santa destination for its sun, beaches, and the uniqueness of its Semana Santa celebrations. First stop? Málaga.

If you don’t already know, Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) is the week preceding Easter Sunday. Spain has a deep religious history, and Andalucía in particular celebrates Semana Santa with unbridled enthusiasm. Processions go on all hours of the day and night, and are composed of floats and float-bearers, marching bands, and nazarenos.

The processions were impossible miss, clogging every key street in the old town. Nazarenos, the dudes with the pointy caps, gave an eerie vibe to the proceedings. Apparently their faces are covered out of penitence (read more here), but let’s be real, they look like the KKK. That’s enough to set anyone on edge. There’s no connection between the nazerenos and the KKK, but it was disorienting to see wives and kids hugging nazerenos just as you would any other performer in a parade.

For the me, the novelty of the processions lasted all of two days. You’ve got to have a hearty tolerance of crowds and swaying to survive during Semana Santa. If you don’t, you will melt into a helpless puddle of rage. I was in good company, though. A lot of Andalucians flee their region during Semana Santa because it is such a hot mess. I was glad I went, though, because it is truly a remarkable sight.

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Bird’s-eye view of processions from my hostel (Patio 19).

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Incense.

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Different brotherhoods from the city carried intricate floats depicting scenes from Jesus’ ministry for hours on end.

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Four o’clock in the morning, from the hostel window. Four. O. Clock.



On the Run [Race Day Edition]: El Medio Maratón Gran Bahía Vig-Bay

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Porto de Panxón (Port of Panxón)

Running is one of the best ways to see a new place, if for no other reason than for the sheer amount of ground you can cover. With organized races, though, you gain a new advantage: you, the runner, rule the roads cars once did.

Last month, I did some ruling of my own in the Vig-Bay Half-Marathon. This was my fourth half-marathon overall and my second one abroad. The first one, the Royal Parks Half-Marathon in London, England, left some big shoes to fill. It looped through Hyde Park, the banks of the Thames, and Trafalgar Square, to name a few of the sights. The Vig-Bay, located in Galicia and smaller in scale, was a different animal.

The race route connected Vigo to nearby Bayona, hugging the coast and including views of the gorgeous Islas Cíes. Though the weather was a half-hearted drizzle, it’s hard to complain when you’re running right next to the ocean. I was thoroughly distracted the entire time, gaping around every bend. There was even a Celtic band, complete with bagpipes, churning out just the screeching/heart-pumping tunes you need in a half-marathon.

As I have picked up on, though, running has not really taken off among the chicas here in Spain. The proportion of girls running was drastically lower than in any other race I’ve done – roughly ten percent of all participants (!). Let’s be real, though…that just made me feel like a badass. Especially when I made my personal best time (cue fist pump).

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Noncommittally drizzly weather, true to Galician form

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Runners soothed their muscles at the beach at the finish line (Baiona/Bayona)

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Flan, the recovery food of champions (Restaurante O Peirao, Panxón)

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A post-race visit to Vigo

Lace up those sneaks, folks!
MB

In pursuit of a roost: a practical guide to finding housing in Spain

As an Auxiliar de Conversación, finding an apartment (piso) is the most panic-inducing endeavor you will take on when you move to Spain. At least it was for me. In college, I made friends with type-A people who painstakingly screened and selected our housing, while I nodded enthusiastically. So when I moved to Galicia, not only was I finding my own housing for the first time, but I was finding it in another language. Gulp. Needless to say, and I made some mistakes. Here are some keys to getting a roof over your head Continue reading