Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla y León

 Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

Finally, after six months, we’ve hit my first taste of Spain – a taste that is as tender as a suckling roast pig, as fiery as a robust glass of red wine and something that, honestly, feel like home to me.

In May 2005, I studied abroad in Valladolid, the de facto capital of Castilla y León and one-time capital of Spain. It’s where Cervantes, Columbus and Torquemada once called home. It may not have the monuments, the vibrant culture ubiquitous to Spain, the soaring skyscrapers – but that’s what I liked about it. 

Andalusia means so much to me, but it all started in Old Castille. 

 Name: Castilla y León

Population: 2.5 million

Provinces: Nine: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid, Zamora. 

When: May 2005, 1st of 17

About Castilla y León: Castilla y León is the largest of the 17 autonomous communities (close to one-fifth of its landmass!), and one of its most illustrious. It was here that marriages (and thus kingdoms) joined and saints roamed, where scholars changed the face of modern Castillian Spanish, and where cities practically shine gold.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Despite having been inhabited for a millennia, the modern-day Castille and León was born out of the marriage of two monarchs. The Leonese crown had long been stronger and held more land, though at the beginning of the second millennia, their power began to wane, losing the kingdoms of Galicia and Portugal, along with their prestige. 

In 1230, the kingdoms became one when Castillian King Ferdinand III ascended to the vacant Leonés crown. These two crowns would fight independently in the Reconquest, eventually defeating Muslim taifas, though not before the Catholic kings – among the best-known Spanish monarchs of all time – send Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Castilla has long been known for its scholarly and democratic traditions, which include being the region responsible for spreading castellano Spanish, as well as the first place where a curia, or public forum to address issue affecting the pueblo, was held.

In fact, Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years in the early 17th century.

Among illustrious castellanos are El Cid Campeador, Felipe II (my favorite Spanish king with his funny hat), Santa Teresa de Ávila, Miguel Delibes, San Juan de la Cruz, Adolfo Suárez, and even former prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Must-sees: Oh geez, where to start. I started, of course, in Valladolid, though there isn’t much to see in the capital city. There’s the national sculpture museum, a contemporary art center, a beautiful Plaza Mayor and a smattering of churches, though I spent most of my free time at the manmade beach on the Pisuerga River and at a bar called Sotobanco.

Skip Vdoid and head to the other treasures in the province, including nearby Peñafiel and its castle, which now hosts a wine museum. Castilla y León has a few protected one regions, including Ribera del Duero and Toro – two of my personal favorites.

Castilla y León has six UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other region in the world, and several are a quick day trip from Madrid: the old cities of Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia (plus its aqueduct), the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the old Roman gold mines at Las Médulas (check out Trevor’s post and pictures) and the archaeological remains of Atapuerca, near Burgos. This, plus the numerous pilgrim routes that cut through CL.

Castles are a prominent feature in Castilla y León – like in Ireland, they’re practically everywhere and there are rumored to be around 300 of them. Check out the Templar castle in Ponferrada, Segovia’s fairytale-like Alcázar and Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, which was a prominent fortress in the Battle of Castille. You’ll also only find Gaudí outside of Cataluña in León and Astorga, where a beautiful palace lies along the French Way of Saint James.

Food is also a huge reason why Castilla y León shines. Apart from wine, Castilla produces a number of specialty meats, including morcilla de arroz in Burgos and roast suckling pig, pungent cheeses and milk, and is the largest producer of grains in Iberia. Cracker giant Cuétara is based in Aguilar del Campoo (not a typo), near Galicia, and with reason – there is nothing but fields around! Be sure to check out León’s Barrio Húmedo for free tapas, as well – I once at a croquet de pizza pepperoni! You can also pick up sweets in Ávila that throwback to the town’s famous saint, Santa Teresa the Mystic.

The cities themselves are lovely, from the golden hue of Salamanca, a city famous for its university and Lazarillo de Tormes, to León’s juxtaposition of Gaudí palaces and humble stone homes. Burgos’s old town shines and Ávila’s fortified stone walls are still intact.

My take: If you’re a history or language buff, you have to get to Castilla y León sí o sí. If you love wine and meat and cheese, head out there. If you love churches, castles, rivers, limestone villages… you get it. 

To me, Castilla y León is more Spain than Andalucía. Call me crazy, but it’s the Spain I fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and the Spain that beckoned me back. Andalucía is flamboyant where Castilla is demure, yet a bit coy. And the wine… 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria

Have you been to Castilla y León? What were your impressions of it? Cue Kaley and Cassandra chiming in now...

Sleeping in Spain: A Guide to Accommodation (and 30€ Voucher Giveaway!)

If there’s one thing that’s weathering the Spanish economic downturn (no doubt tied to the weather itself), it’s the tourism industry. Accounting for nearly 11% of 2012’2 GDP, Spain constantly pushes the envelope within the tourism industry and has grown to be the second-largest in the world!

Where will you be pillow hugging tonight?

One aspect that sets Spain apart is its ample offering of accommodation and luxury brands. Iberostar, Melià and Bareclò hotels are considered some of the best brands in the world, and backpackers can find a haven nestled on cobblestone streets or just steps from a private beach. Still, in an ever-changing industry, there’s quite a bit of confusion as to each type of accommodation, and sometimes where to find it at an affordable price (don’t worry, there’s an entrance to a voucher at the end of this explanation!).

The view from the rooftop bar at Seville’s Hotel EME.

Hotels, like in any country of the world, are plentiful and of varying quality. There’s also been a recent surge of new hotels offering boutique accommodation, quirky decor and plenty of character. Spain’s tourism board has instituted a nationwide ranking, using the Q of quality and between 1 and 5 stars. Hotels are marker with a white H and the ranking below. High season is during the summer months, local festivals and Christmas time, so expected steeper prices and less availability.

The Spanish government now controls a network of historic buildings converted into luxury hotels, called paradores. From castles to convents, a night in the sumptuous lodging will typically run you more than an average hotel, but booking during the low season can ensure a one-of-a-kind experience in a historically important building.

Tiles on the outdoor terrace of the parador in Carmona, Andalusia.

Hostels and Albergues  are often considered a common type of backpacker accommodation, they are as varied as one could imagine. Typically, they can be found in city centers and offer beds in shared or private accommodation, shared bathrooms and common areas such as living rooms, rooftop terraces or kitchens. Most beds in a shared dorm are less than 20€ a night, making it an ideal place to meet other travelers through free events and walking tours.

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

Slightly nicer than hostels, pensions (pensiones) are more budget-friendly than hotels and are typically smaller, too. Most similar to boarding houses, one can expect loads of hospitality and often meals!

Thanks to Spain’s varied landscape, rural accommodations are becoming popular, particularly for families wishing to escape city life.

A bed at Almohalla 51, a luxury rural house in Archidona, Spain

Apartment Stays are also becoming a popular way to live like a local in larger cities. Available for days, weeks or months, a piso turístico will allow travelers the privacy of their own space while having access to amenities. Typical rates for a month can be between 500 – 800€, depending on the season.

Camping remains a cheap and popular option for staying in Spain, particularly on the coast. Rates are low, even during the summer season, and most offer on-site food and washing facilities.

No joke, I spent a night here in the Islas Cies.

I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in a tent on the pristine Playa de Rodas in Galicia, an ancient piso in front of the Basilica Santa María del Mar in Barcelona and a friendly pensión within earshot of the tingling churchbells of Santa María la Blanca in Seville. My head has rested in sumptuous hotels from Toledo to Valladolid, as well as old fortresses, which is why I’m excited to present you all with my newest giveaway.

I’m teaming up with Your Spain Hostel to offer a giveaway of a 30€ voucher to be used on Your Spain Hostel on any property in any city you’re interested in visiting in Spain. Simply enter by leaving your email address and telling me in the comments where you’d like to travel to in Spain should you win the voucher (extra points if you send a postcard!), or otherwise!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

From a bungalow on the beaches of Ibiza to a casa rural in Cangas de Onís, Your Spain Hostel is your one-stop destination for unique and quality accommodation around Spain. The site also provides discounts on tours, entrance to sites, food and even taxi pick-up! You can win extra entries by following both Your Spain Hostel and Sunshine and Siestas on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy travels for 2013! Where are you headed, and where do you like to rest your head at the end of a long day of tourism and tapas? Got any great recs?

 

How a misguided GPS lead us to a good find, but bad luck

“BUT I CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET OUT OF THE PARKING LOT!” I wailed, confused at how to even put the rental car into reverse.

“Dude, let’s ask PSY,” T suggested, and the site of a Gangnam-style doppleganger set me into a fit of giggles. Today was going to be a good day. After loads of back luck during 2012, I finally felt blessed, and that our trip would be  luck at the end of a bad streak.

I asked the car rental guy the easiest way to get out of Madrid, and he asked our destination.

Burgos, I said, as H responded with Logroño, our final destination.

The GPS navigated us out of Madrid and out towards Burgos. Being together outside of camp felt almost strange, but we chattered away to make the kilometres pass by as quickly as they got racked up on the dashboard.

Just past the border of Madrid and Segovia, the GPS spoke again to tell us to turn off the main road and onto a secondary highway.

“It’s probably just avoiding the toll roads or something,” H suggested when I told her that the Internet had suggested driving up past Burgos and veering off on the highway that stretches across the North, following the Ebro river that feeds the grapevines of La Rioja.

The mountain range that separates the two comunidades rolled out on the right side of the window as the vegas turned into golden-leafed forests. As we snaked into Soria – the most sparsely populated region of Spain – my eyes and brain begged for a coffee.

The GPS sounded, as if it read my brain. It directed us into a town on the banks of the Duero, San Esteban de Gormáz. I saw the town’s castle spires on our way in, and we drove as high as the rental car would take us into the town’s midget bodegas with cracked, wooden doors. The place felt a bit like Guadix with the homes carved into the walls, the creaky stairs and catwalks leading across the sides of the mountain. The ancient stones of the small town had lead the namesake to write El Cid Campeador, the famous novel of Spain’s chivalrous knights of the middle ages.

After a quick stop for coffee, we set out towards Soria, passing small towns not big enough for even a church. Coming around a bend in a small aldea, we came across a truck and a guardia civil car. The young office signaled us over to the shoulder and I gulped hard, stone silent in my fear.

Here’s the thing: I knew that the crime for driving without a license could be a 500€ fine and up to six months in prison. 

“Play STUPID!” T hissed as I rolled down the window and uttered hola with my best guiri accent. The cop asked for the car’s registration and my driver’s license. Kike had warned me something like this could happen not two days before, and to be extremely careful. I wasn’t breaking the law, but had been pulled over by a routine check on small country roads.

Using his iPhone as a translator, the cop told me I needed an international driver’s license to be able to rent a car and that we would be fined 100€ on the spot and get a “get out of jail” card until we made it to Logroño. I felt waves of nausea as I forked over two fifties and tried hard not to let onto the fact that I understood, even stifling a small shudder when his partner said, “Wasn’t it 500€ for driving without a license?”

As we drove away after a hurried buenos dias at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I felt my heart stop racing as we laughed nervously. Luckily, wine country was our destination, and it wasn’t long before I was taking the edge off with a glass of Rioja and cheap tapas. My friends were glad I was driving and that my guiri-speaking-Spanish impression was spot-on.

The rest of our weekend included me losing a cell phone, breaking a few wine glasses and having the worst wine hangovers of our lives, but there are few things I appreciate more than a good glass of tinto, my friends and new places.

Seville Snapshots: Paseo de Espolón, Burgos

 Nostalgia is a funny thing for anyone who’s resided abroad. Just one whiff of cous cous sends you back to the souks of Marrakesh, the notes of a strained tango to Buenos Aires. A crush of happy memories and the angst of longing for that moment. At the same time, thinking of your favorite place can be an end-all cure for homesickness of a place that may have just been your home for a brief wink of time.

This picture is of the Paseo de Espolón, a tree-lined path that winds along the bank of the Rio Arlanzón in Burgos, Spain.  Despite frigid winters and blistering summers, Burgaleses can be found strolling the Espolón year round.  This photo was taken in the dead of winter and, if you look closely, you can see how the knotted branches have grown together over time.  When I’m feeling homesick for Spain I just look at this picture and am taken back to a cold winter day, outside of my favorite cafe in a little town in Northern Spain.

Kayla is an avid traveler with a love for photography, adventure and all things Spanish.  She has spent time living in Spain, Costa Rica and Argentina and currently resides in Chicago, IL.  You can see more of her photos at http://kaylachristensen.weebly.com

Love taking shots? Been to Seville or Spain? I’m looking for travelers with a good eye to capture beautiful Spain and contribute to my weekly Snapshots section. Send your photos to sunshineandsiestas @ gmail.com with your name and a short description of the photo and look to be featured on Monday.

Return to the Homeland

Above: the Ayuntamiento of Valladolid, where I studied for five weeks in 2005
Below: My Spanish family: La abuela, Lucia, Aurora, Jose Luis, Carmen and Monica

My love affair with Spain started nearly three years ago when I studied in a town called Valladolid in the northern half of Spain. Located just two hours northwest of Madrid, this town was once the intellectual, political and de facto capital of Spain. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that Madrid (then a realllllly small village of like 5.000) became the capital. For five weeks, I studied modern Spanish lit and cultural at the Universidad de Valladolid and lived with a family in the neighborhood of Rondilla. I really had it all – the opportunity to live in Spain and speak a lot of Spanish, live like a Spaniard and meet Spaniards. Part of this was due to my luck in living with a family that took really good care of me and helped me learn a lot. Aurora and Aurora (mother and eldest daughter) and I have kept in contact over the last three years, and they invited me to visit them and stay with them in Valladolid. And after being here nearly seven months, I finally had a chance to go! Though Spain is about the size of Texas, the road system isnt as advanced, so going from south to north took about five hours, not including pit stops.

We left Sevilla, a toasty 28 grados, and drove straight north on the Ruta de la Plata. When riches from the New World came to Spain, they passed through Sevilla’s port, past Roman Mérida, Cáceres and up toward Madrid. I have wanted to see Extremadura for some time because I have a friend from Mérida, and I was in awe of how rustic it is. Cows and sheep wander in and out of ruined stone houses, towns of forty houses cluster around a central church spire, the valleys are covered in trees, green grass and yellow and purple flowers. And, once we hit Salamanca, it got flat like the Castilla-León I know. We passed all kinds of castles, and my excitement just kept growing once we got back into Vdoid.

Since I was there last, young Aurora had a baby girl, who I was really anxious to meet. Although we had problems with the directions, I remembered the city really well. When we arrived at the apartment, the abuela greeted us. She’s a little bit senile, so she thought I had traveled from the States with my American boyfriend. She was like, “He speaks Spanish really well!” And I said, “Well, he’s Spanish and has lived here for 28 years.” And then, like the good mama she was, she asked if I needed any clothes washed! Aurora arrived home with her baby Lucia, who is 20 months old. She looked like a mini Carolina with soft brown hair and big eyes and a big barriga (belly). She is one of the sweetest and smartest kids I’ve met. She and Kike immediately fell in love with each other, and it was really sweet watching him play with her and teach her things. She’s even learning English in school! Aurora the younger one has hosted a lot of students in the past few years, but I’m the only one who has made it back to Vdoid. She also said she remembered me speaking in Spanish better than anyone, but had noted an improvement. Truth be told, I was so nervous to be there, unable to speak. I have good days and bad days. Lately, they’ve been bad days. And I know plenty of Spaniards. I get nervous with my boyfriend and roommate! But anyway, we all sat around drinking wine and talking (Lucia even knows the famous, ARRIBA! ABAJO! cheer and joined us with her bottle). I showed Kike around some of the sights at night that were lit up and we went to SU for 2lit beers (for 3,00 euros) and Sotobanco for some copas. Sadly, Enrico was not there and I had to pay for my drinks. Good times.

The next morning, we took a walk around the city. Even though Kike lived in Salamanca, which is just over an hour away, he had never been in the city. We saw the Antigua, the theatres and Plaza Mayor, the cathedral, the university, etc. Really, there isn’t much to see, but it’s a gorgeous town. It’s very stately and very well-preserved. But after living in Andalucia for 7 months, I realize just how Catholic and reserved it is. People in Sevilla really do live in the streets because of the heat, and though they’re Catholic, it’s not as out in the open. There’s so much variedad in this country, and Sevilla is worlds away from Valladolid. I almost felt like I was bringing Kike home to meet my family there, and show him around my city. But we spent much more time back at Aurora’s on her terraza drinking Baileys and playing with the kids. Monica has grown into a little brat who dictates EVERYTHING, but I suppose that’s four-year olds. After spending the whole day snacking and talking and drinking, Kike and I headed out to a bunch of bars in the area.

Although the weekend was really relaxed, I was happy. Really, really happy. I’ve come a long way in the last seven months, and now I really feel comfortable here. I feel like I have every last thing I need here. And I’ve only got two months left here.

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