Visiting Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Spain is home to a whopping 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including historical, cultural and archealogical gems, third in number of sites only to Italy and China. Without knowing it, I ended up in eight of those 44 in 2013, plus the Old Cities of Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Kotor (Montenegro), and my Christmas trip meant revisiting the Old Towns of Salzburg and Vienna and checking out Schönnbrun Palace (Austria), taking a boat trip down the Wachau Valley and visiting the Abbey of Melk (Austria), and walking around the Buda Castle area (Hungary). Of 981 around the world, it’s a very small sliver of them.

It all started with Nina, a Croatian from Split who hosted me while Couchsurfing in Zadar, Croatia, whose dream was to work for UNESCO. While I’m no Gary Arndt, who is on a mission to visit all 981 of them, I’m always delighted to discover that I’m visiting another. As a history lover interested in culture and language, I’ve tried to work the sites into my trips. Given Spain’s political and historical landscape over the last two millennia, it’s no surprise that it boasts nearly four dozen sites, with many more in contention (this also makes visiting them quite easy!):

February: Historic Center of Córdoba (1984)

If you’ve taken high school Spanish, chances are you learned early on about the horseshoe spires of the Córdoba Mosque (in my case, it was plastered on the inside cover of my Paso a Paso 1 book). As a center for learning and once the largest Moorish city in Europe, Córdoba’s former glory is evident in the collection of buildings in its historic center, along with the countless contributions to science, medicine and art that the cordobeses made under Moorish rule. The area is easily walkable.

At less than an hour by bullet train, Córdoba makes an excellent day trip from Seville, and while you’re there, be sure to try its gastronomical claim to fame, too: salmorejo and flamenquínes.

Read more: The Little Sister of Seville

April: University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Again, if you’ve taken high school Spanish, you’ll be familiar with the goofy character of Don Quijote, an aging Spanish knight who goes on a quest to defend the plains of Castilla from the bad guys (which are windmills, by the way) and win the love of the maiden Dulcinea. Written by Miguel de Cervantes over 400 years ago, this story remains one of Spain’s best-known and timeless pieces of literature.

Cervantes was born and raised in the city of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid. This city was planned as a university city by Cardenal Cisneros, who would later become infamous during the Spanish Inquisition rather than for creating a model for future universities and their town-gown relations.

My sister-in-law, Nathàlia, lived and studied in Alcalá before moving to Dublin with her husband (and the Novio’s younger brother), and she invited me out for a day. We toured Cervantes’s boyhood home, learned the history of the university through a guided tour and even got to see a dying breed in Spain: free tapas with your drink.

Read more: The Historical Sites of Alcalá de Henares

June: Doñana Park (1994)

As one of Spain’s few biological sites, Doñana National Parks is one of the largest in Europe and touted for its diversity of biotopes and animal life. Located along the banks of the Guadalquivir and extending all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s also believed to be the site of Atlantis.

Read more: A Horse Lover’s Guide to Andalucía

July: Torre de Hércules (2009), the monuments of the Kingdom of Asturias and the Camino de Santiago (1993)

The Torre de Hércules is the city symbol of La Coruña and the world’s longest functioning lighthouse. Built in the 1st century in Greco-Roman style, it’s one of Spain’s latest additions to the list. The lighthouse can be visited and climbed for 3€, though you can admire it from afar, too.

After spending the month in Coruña, Claudia hosted me in Oviedo. Back when the Moors took over all of Spain, the Virgin Mary appeared to Don Pelayo in Covadonga and ordered him to conquer Spain. He became the first king of the Reino de España in the earl 8th Century, and asturianos retain that their small patch of land, surrounded by the Picos de Europa, is the only real Spain that exists. The Pre-Romanesque churches make up part of the city’s heritage, built in the 9th century above the city. Entrance is free, but be prepared to take the bus out of town.

One of my best memories from the year was walking the Camino de Santiago with my friend Hayley. We did 14 days and 325km on the century-old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are said to rest. I had been to the city half a dozen times, but arriving on foot after so many steps made the Plaza del Obradoiro more special. I only walked 40 kilometers on the French Route, but the tentative list of World Heritage sites include the Northern and Primitive routes. 

Read more: Sunset at the Torre de Hércules, the Pre-Romanesque Churches of Oviedo or What the Camino de Santiago Taught Me

August: La Lonja de la Seda of Valencia (1996), the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela (1985)

After reaching the Plaza del Obradioro in Santiago de Compostela, Hayley and I had just one idea: celebrate with a glass of wine in the city’s famed parador. In the two days we spent in Galicia’s crown jewel, we did little else but wander through the city’s lichen-stained limestone buildings and toast to an incredible journey. Must-sees include the gargantuan cathedral and resting spot of Saint James (you can also hug him behind the altar), the square in front of its facade, the sprawling Alameda park and the numerous bars along Rúa do Vilar.

Later that month while attending the tomato-slinging mess that is La Tomatina, Kelly and I visited the Lonja de la Seda, a tribute to Valencia’s history as a merchant port on the Mediterranean. Erected in the 15th century, the building’s great halls and chapels now provide a glimpse into the trade life through its Renaissance decoration and Gothic architecture. 

Read more: La Lonja de la Seda or the Serendipity of Traveling in Galicia

My hometown pride: the Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias of Seville (1987)

La Hispalense is not without its own UNESCO World Heritage site: thanks to Seville’s role in the discovery and exploration of the New World and its enormous Gothic cathedral, these buildings and the Alcázar gardens form the historical complex at the heart of the city (and every touristic plan). Moorish influences on the buildings are testament to the city’s long and varied history, and the buildings are all still used today: the Archivo de Indias houses important documentation pertaining to the New World discovery, the Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Seville, and the palace plays host to the Royal Family when they comes down South.

This, of course, has not been without controversy. UNESCO considered stripping the honor from Seville when the city went ahead with plans to build the Torre Pellí, which became the tallest building in the city after the Giralda owned it for a millennium.

Read more: Spain Life: Reales Alcázares

How many of Spain’s 44 sites have you visited, and which are your favorites? I’m hoping to make it to Baeza and Úbeda and Teide this year, with a repeat in Cáceres and Mérida.

Eating Coruña: The City’s Best Restaurants

Galician food makes my heart flutter – the piping hot pimientos del padrón, raxo smothered in roquefort sauce, fresh-caught shellfish displayed  in every window of every bar on every street.

There are two reasons I spend my summers in Coruña, crossing my fingers that there will be little rain: one is because it’s way cooler, and the other because the food is incredible.

Even though I spend the majority of time eating in the camp cafeteria, the other teachers and I get the chance to actually go out and get some good food in our bellies. Before I tell you where, you need a primer in typical coruñés fare:

polbo a la feira – boiled octopus served over boiled potatoes with olive oil and paprika

navajas – razor clams that are pan seared and often served with lemon

pimientos del padrón – flash-fried green peppers. As the saying goes, some are spicy, others are not

empanada gallega – a pasty, most often stuffed with tuna or ground beef with peppers and onions

percebes – goose barnacles. I didn’t like them on my first run and now love them!

raxo – marinated pork loin, typically served with potatoes

zorza – spicy ground pork, treated with paprika and marinated in other spices

queso tetilla con membrillo – creamy ‘tit cheese’ served with a quince paste for dessert.

La Bombilla

Javi picked us up from the airport high above Coruña’s city center and promised us a surprise. We elbowed our way up to the counter, toasted to new friendships and chose tapas of off the short menu – tortilla, milanesa and croquetas the size of a baseball. La Bombilla, with its turn-of-the-century-esque bar and cheap thrills (aka tapas for just a euro apiece), is a staple in Coruña and one of my favorites. Locals sidle up to the bar at seemingly all hours of the day, so be sure to arrive early for lunch or dinner, or you’ll be forced to grab a plastic plate and find a place to sit on the ground outside. Calle de la Galera, 7

update: I read the sad news that La Bomilla will be closing on December 30th. Rumor is that it will re-open, but likely without the same encanto. Really bummed I didn’t get one last giant croqueta.

O Renchucho de Mayte

Far and away my favorite in Coruña, this little corner bar is always packed for its cheap, home-cooked food and exceptional service. You can’t miss the raxo con roque or the crispy calamares, and the bar now features takeout, too. I am a sucker for their croquetas and cheese, and the tapas are generous and inexpensive. The bar is closed Sundays. Portico Andrés, s/n

The cafeteria at the Yacht Club with no name

Oftentimes, a menú del día, the Spanish equivalent of a three-course meal, is too much for me to eat. But everytime I’m in Coruña, I’ll skip breakfast in favor of the views of the port and across the bay to Santa Cristina beach from the yacht club. While the food is often billed as generic (think caldo gallego or a mixed salad for firsts), it’s served fresh and in heaping portions. What really makes the meal is the atmosphere, with the sea breeze ruffling your napkin and the sun peeking around the enormous glass building. Located in the Club Náutico on Avda. del Puerto.

Parillada Alcume

After all those rounds of pulpo and empanada, I need meat. When it comes down to it, I am a corn- and beef-fed Midwesterner, so I can’t pass up on a parrillada, or a restaurant where meats are grilled over open coals. I’d passed Alcume loads of times, as it’s just off the shopping district, but it wasn’t until a camp vegetarian suggested its mixed plate of meaty good that we decided to try it.

You know it’s good when even the veggie-lover wants to go. We often have to wait to sit down, particularly at the wooden tables outside, but filling ourselves to the brim with sausages and flank steaks makes it worth it. And it’s a lot easier to identify the parts than it is in the camp cafeteria. Calle Galera, 44-46

Pan de Lino

I heard a rumor that there were bagels in Coruña. I gasped, horrified that there would be a place that sells my favorite breakfast food in a small port city before my beloved Seville.

As it turns out, this was merely a rumor (though I did have a bagel sandwich in Cafetería Vecchio, near the Casino), but Pan de Lino’s inviting bakery counter, beautifully mismatched furniture and organic menu is a nice change from the old man bars I usually frequent. The service is terrible, but as long as you’re accompanied with friends and something delicious, you can let it go. Calle Rosalia de Castro, 7

O Mesón Galego

The cream of Galicia’s crop is, without a doubt, its shellfish. As has become tradition, we take our camp cash to the nearest marisquería for a mariscada, or a seafood smorgasboard. I’m sure there are places that are much better (and thus more expensive!), but we group into three and split a 46€ heap of shellfish with a bottle of crisp albariño wine. The kitchen is open, and you can watch the robust cook hack away at crab legs like it ain’t no thang. I’ve also had their pimientos and empanada and approve. Calle de la Franja, 56.

Asiayu Japanese Restaurant

I thankfully have a few friends in Coruña who are always quick to point out new finds and tear me away from Mayte and Bombilla. When Julie and Forrest discovered an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet next to the beach, half of the teaching staff went down to pig out on something other than carbs. The dinner menuú runs 13,95 plus a drink, and you can choose two hot plates in addition to everything that comes around the belt. The sushi was hand rolled right in front of us, but I was too busy pouting about sitting at the end of the loop and not being able to grab the fried sushi or the dumplings before the greedy hands of the other Ts got them (though this did distract them from my terrible chopstick skills). Calle Buenos Aires, 7 Bajo

There are loads of other places I’ve tried – a hidden Mexican joint with great margaritas, an Indian place with an affordable menú, nondescript holes-in-the-wall whose names I’ve long forgotten. Then there are the places I’d love to try, like Spoom’s creative cuisine. But, somehow, the appeal of one euro tapas, a sushi conveyer belt and the tried and true always win out. But really, I’ll go anywhere I see an upturned octopus in the window.

Have you ever been to La Coruña and have any places to recommend? 

Seville Snapshots: The Torre de Hércules of La Coruña

From nearly everywhere along the isthmus that makes up the city of La Coruña, one can see the lone lighthouse, standing guard against a rocky shoreline. This city symbol, which even appears in the city crest atop skull and crossbones and flanked by conch shells, is the longest-operating lighthouse in the world and now ranks as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In a city with few historical sites to enjoy, the Torre is probably anyone’s first stop on a trip to Coruña, though I myself have only entered once. Climb the stairs up to the top daily from 9am in the summertime. Tickets are only 3€, and Mondays the visit is free.

Have you ever been to La Coruña? What are your favorite things to do?

Seville Snapshots: Coruña’s Blue Hour

Julie lead us out of the bar and out towards the ocean. Seeing the Riazor and Orzan beaches, which nuzzle up to the isthmus of the city of La Coruña, continually takes my breath away as I remember long days laughing in the sun, learning how to surf in the gentle waves and raucous night botellones with teachers during summers past.

The city sits on a peninsula on the northwest corner of the region in the northeast corner, meaning its days are long and bright – when it’s not raining, that is.

At nearly 11pm, there was just a thin strip of pinkish-golden light that faded into the horizon as the waves slowly lapped at the pebbly beach. “My dad calls this the hora azul,” Julie explained of her coruñés father. What a privilege to live just steps from a city beach and to be able to pop down when the weather turns nice.

We stayed for nearly ten minutes, watching the natural light dwindle as the streelights twinkled, reflecting off the bay. When the weather gets hot and sevillanos flock to their beach home, Coruña feels like my own.

Have you ever been to La Coruña? Seville has its own golden hour, when the sun sets over the Aljarafe and kisses everything with one last little effort at lighting up the city.

Seville Snapshots: Un Poquiño da Coruña

Galicia, the region resting quietly above Portugal, is one of my favorite parts of Spain. Just this week I turned in my final project for my master’s, said adiós to my mom until Christmas and flew up to La Coruña, where I’ve spent the last four summers eating octopus and drinking yummy Estrella Galicia working at a summer camp (for real, I work my culito off!).

Coruña is a mid-sized town on the coast, sitting on a peninsula that stretches between a cresent beach and a bustling port. It’s often called the Crystal City because of the way the sun hits the large windows and the glimmer it leaves on the cool water of the Cantabric. I love its food, its people, its singsong language, and it feels like a second home to me.

After I spend three weeks at camp as the Big Bad Boss Lady (while eating at La Bombilla, drinking crisp Albariño wine and hanging out on the pebbly Orzán beach), I’ll join my friend Hayley in Asturias and walking 200+ miles along the coast and back to Galicia on the Camino de Santiago. I’m doing it for charity, so if you’re keen, read my reasons for walking or follow along on twitter and instagram at #CaminoFTK.

Have you ever been to Galicia? Check out my related posts on Coruña if you’re interested in all things gallego, and consider visiting this little-known region.

Camping on the Islas Ciès of Galicia

Julie and I had set out from Coruña after a two-day search for a tent. I have to admit that I’m much more of a luxury Spanish villa type of girl, but the prospect of camping on what has been called the Most Beautiful Beach in the World had me willing to sleep on the hard ground in the cold on the middle of an island in the Atlantic.

Oh, I’m also a mountain girl, for the record.

When my pulpo-guzzling, beach-loving friend mentioned the Islas Ciès, a small archipelago whose only residents are seagulls, I wasn’t immediately keen. Her father’s house on the port of nearby La Coruna was as close as I needed to get to the water because I am a chicken (tuna?) when it comes to getting my hair wet and swimming in the ocean.

The following week, we were on a ferry from Vigo, Spain to Cangas across the river mouth and onto Playa de Rodas with little more than our swimsuits, a towel and some snacks.

The boat docked in front of a small bar and restaurant 40 minutes later. The archipelago is comprised of three mountainous islands, the two northernmost joined together by a sandy bar and jagged rocks. Playa de Rodas, which the Guardian UK called “The Most Beautiful Beach in the World” the year earlier, was nestled between the two, idyllic and blocked from the harsh atlantic waters on the other side of the islands.

Not three minutes after we’d waded from the boat onto dry land, we’d already stripped off all of our clothes. Out came the towels and reading material, the plastic bottles of tinto de verano and all of my qualms about having gone to the beach in the first place.

We spent the rest of the day exploring smaller, beaches tucked away in small, rocky coves and paths that lead up the crags and to clandestine lighthouses. The crescent of white sand was dotted with colorful umbrellas and beach babies, while the bay was full of small yachts bobbing gently against the tide. The squalls off the Atlantic are broken up over the craggy rocks, meaning we had a day of glittering sunshine and occasional breezes.

My phone rang. The campsite had been calling me all day, but our lack of a tent meant we were going to have to slip in after the sunset and find a bar spot of land in between the packed-in tents and call it a night. While we watched the sun sink down behind the ocean, I hatched a plan.

We walked over to the bar on the island, ordered two beers and a plate of fried squid legs and I asked to speak to the owner. I explained that we had been robbed when we fell asleep on the train, and that our tent has been stolen. He told us there were no physical structures on the island, save the bar/supermarket, the lighthouses and the park warden’s cabin. He promised to try and find a few blankets.

Julie and I huddled together for warmth, splitting the last few sips of wine as we sat on a park bench, the lights from Vigo shimmering on the water. A voice came from behind us.

“Are you the girls who had their tent stolen?”

Turns out, the owner of the bar mentioned to the owners of the camping that we were the delinquents who hadn’t checked into the camping that afternoon. They sent their son to hunt us down. I figured we’d be facing some sort of fine, but the boy whose name but not sculpted biceps has long been forgotten invited us to his tent. Sunburnt and with sore muscles, Biceps had a tent with two rooms and a queen-sized bed for the two of us.

The following morning, we woke up with Biceps, who was off to man the camping himself. We unzipped the screen, letting the light breeze in as our bare feet dangled over the end of the mattress. The rest of our day was filled with hiking, random rendezvous with other sevillanos and a shaky ride back to the mainland, leaving behind the gorgeous stretch of beach.

If you go: The Islas Cies can only be reached by boat from Vigo, Cangas or Baiona. Prices and hours will vary, so confirm online. There’s just one place to stay overnight, the Camping Islas Cies (7,90 adults, 8,50 per tent). Reservations should be made before reaching the island through telephone or the website, and the campsite is open from March 1. There are basic facilities for washing up, a small supermarket and a restaurant, but anything you take onto the island must also be carried off.

This is my entry to the March 2013 Carnival of Europe hosted by DJ Yabis of  Dream Euro Trip with the theme “Beaches.”

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