Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Aragón

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to 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 spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ve probably not heard of March’s comunidad, Aragón. But I’m pretty positive you’ve heard of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, whose marriage in the mid 15th Century would ultimately lead to Spain’s Golden Age.

Name: Aragón

Population: 1.35 million

Provinces: Aragón is divided into three provinces – Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel – and really only has two large cities – Zaragoza and Huesca. The region is comprised of a number of small towns and is best-known for its role in forming modern Spain as the Kingdom of Aragón.

When: 15th of 17 regions, March 2012

About Aragón: The region is rich in the historical, architectural and natural senses. Its mudéjar buildings and plush river valleys take a lot of credit, but given how important it has been historically is worth exploring, too. Aragón became a self-proclaimed kingdom over a millennia ago, eventually claiming parts of Italy and Greece, as well as Corsica and a large part of the eastern coast of Iberia. The kingdom grew when Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabel of Castille, becoming one of the powerhouse couples of Spanish history and reconquering Spain from the Moors.

What remains is a region that seems just as seeped in lore as Andalucia, from the traditional costumes and festivals to the devotion for the local virgin, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose feast day coincides with Spain’s national festival.

Must-sees: Zaragoza has a number of sites in its old town, from the Basilicia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and it’s beautifully tiled roof to the modern Expo site across the Ebro. The region’s capital (and the fifth-largest city in Spain) is also home to the Seo church and the Moorish Palacio de Aljafería, which now houses the provincial court system. It’s a city you can experience in a day, to be honest.

 If you’re into castles, history and architecture, check out the castle of Loarre in the Huesca province, the city of Teruel (sí, existe) and the village that has been ranked as one of Spain’s most beautiful, Albecerrín. Jaca is also full of religious museums and temples.

Outdoor lovers, rejoice! Because of the low population density in the autonomía, there is plenty to explore. Huesca is one of Spain’s snowiest zones, and the Pyrenees are home to a number of ski resorts with outdoor activities of every type. Check out the Ordesa and Parque de la Piedra national parks.

My take: The Novio and I went to visit a friend of his from the Air Force Academy who flies a fighter jet at the nearby base. A ceutí by birth and an andaluz at heart, Gon did his duty to show us around Zaragoza during Holy Week. Unfortunately, crap weather and a flu bug had us all indoors, watching TV and ordering takeout for four straight days.

Gonzalo claims that the draw of the province comes from the Pyrenees mountains, the rich gastronomy and the outdoor activities. We didn’t have a car to use that weekend, meaning we were stuck in the capital (and on the couch, ugh). Thanks to its connection on the AVE, it’s a city I’d be interested in seeing again, and I’m eager to see more of the comunidad.

Each month for the next 15, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

In case you missed it, I featured Andalucía, the region I live in, in February.

What do you love (or not) about Aragón?

Spain Snapshots: A Visit to Spain’s Highest Point, el Teide

The Megane steadily climbed out of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, past La Laguna and into the plush interior of the island. The pines and windy roads took me back to Colorado, but with an occasional glimpse of Atlantic waters.

Gua guas pushed up the hill slowly, and Forrest swerved around them, comfortable as he shifted into third in our rental car and rode the mountain up. Tenerife was formed by an underground volcano 30 to 50 million years ago, and its highest point, Teide, actually gives the island its name: tene (mountain) and ife (white), joined by an /r/ during the colonial period. The entire island is formed from volcanic rock, in fact, evident from the steep ride up and down, and the white-capped mountain is visible from seemingly every rincón of the largest island in the archipelago. 

Once we reached the national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, we parked the car and took the gondola up the mountain. Most tourists don’t venture up to the top, standing nearly 3800 meters above sea level, despite Teide being one of the most visited sites in Spain. The landscape is almost barren, and the only sign off life we saw after starting our ascent were lizards.

Steep rock stairs have been carved into the rock face, but we still scrambled over boulders, stopping for vistas and water breaks every 10 steps because the air was so thin. 

The great crater caused by multiple eruptions in visible from just about everywhere on the island, but seeing it from a bird’s-eye-view was insanely cool.

From the very top, you can see Gran Canaria to the east and la Gomera to the west. We actually hiked above the cloud level that covers the occidental side of the island, watching them get burned off by the warm midday sun.

If you go: Visitors can take the gondola up the mountain at the cost of 25€. If you want to hike to the top, you’ll need to print off an access pass on the national park’s main page. It’s free, but you’ll have to bring a form of ID.

Be sure to dress in layers, as it’s cold at the top, and wear comfortable shoes. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and plenty of water, as there are no facilities after leaving the visitors center.

Have you ever visited a national park in Spain?

My rental car was graciously provided by Car Rentals UK. All opinions (as well as the memories of my stomach dropping during the hairpin turns) are my own.

Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Andalucía

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to 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 spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I often get asked what my favorite part of Spain is, and it’s really a loaded question. I’ve drunk wine in La Rioja, hiked through Asturias, considered a move to Madrid. A piece of me can be found in each part of Spain, to be honest, and there are very few places that I’m truly iffy about (I’m looking at you, Barcelona and Santander). 

Spain’s long history means it’s a country waiting to be discovered, and I’m going the break it all down for you in my new feature, Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions.

And how fitting is it to start with the one I call my hogar dulce hogar, Andalucía? And on the day that commemorates its independence (thank you, Journalism School 101, for reminding me that dates and anniversaries are great story ideas)?

Name: Andalucía, named for the Moorish Al-Andalus

Population: 8.4 million

Provinces: Eight; Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Maálaga, Sevilla.

When: 6th of 17 regions, July 2005

About Andalucía: This southernmost region (also home to the largest population) is the Spain you imagine: bullfights, tapas, sun, flamenco. I could write a love song to how much I adore this part of Spain, despite the mañana, mañana attitude, the heat and the immense size that has made it difficult for me to see everything there is to see here (though maybe that’s a good thing).

Must-sees: As this is a region I know well, heaps of places come to mind. In fact, this blog is loaded with six years of bus, train and car trips around Andalucía. From ferias to festivals to road trips to romerías, Andalucía is also known as the sailing point for the discovery of the New World, the epicenter of tapas culture and the birthplace of flamenco. A trip to Spain must include Madrid and Barcelona, but no picture of Iberia is complete without Andalusia on the list (and other areas, don’t attack me quite yet!).

For ideas, check out my Tourism category.

If you’re into the historical aspects of Andalucía, you can’t miss the Alhambra of Granada, wandering the streets of Santa Cruz and Córdoba and being witness to the Moorish influence during their seven century reign, and the Roman city of Itálica. Also of note are the small churches, other Roman relics and ruins.

For eats, you’re in luck – thanks to its varied geography, you can get everything from fresh fish to fresh game meat, olive oil to fish oil, wine to sherry. Andalusia has been known as a  traditionally rural area, and strawberries are grown in Huelva and Almería is known as Europe’s greenhouse. Fried fish and cured Iberian ham is practically a religion in my neck of the woods, and winter fruits like oranges populate the street’s of Andalucía’s great cities. 

Other great cultural sites include flamenco, the city ferias, bullfighting, Holy week, ceramics, fine arts, El Rocío…the list goes on and on (and, again, I’m biased). What seems to define Andalucía is its boisterous love for the folkloric and the traditional. 

My take: As the flamenco group Amigos de Gines sing, Andalucía es mi tierra, yo soy del sur, my personality is clearly best matched to an Andalusian. As one of the largest comunidades in Spain by land area, the region has far more to offer than I could ever write about on SandS. The regional pride and deep cultural patronomy, along with its gasronomic scene and spectacular architecture have me constantly excited to explore.

Each month for the next 16, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

What do you love (or not) about Andalucía?

Five Reasons Why Lanzarote Should Be On Your Travel Radar

The month of March for me will be centered on the Canary Islands – not only will I be visiting Tenerife for the first time, but I’ll also be heading to Trujillo to redeem a prize from a writing contest, in which I wrote about a memorable meal on Gran Canaria.

For the future, I can’t overlook a Lanzarote Sunshine Holiday, as the easternmost island’s biodiversity, gastronomic treats and jaw-dropping beaches merit an epic road trip around the bean-shaped island.

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And it’s not all golf courses and spas on this vacation paradise – leaving the Tenerife trip planning to my local friend, I began to delve into what Lanzarote has to offer.

The Beaches and Biodiversity

Known to have been formed by underwater volcanic eruptions, Lanzarote has been crowned with a Biosphere Reserve through UNESCO for its richness of flora and fauna, as well as its unique geology. In fact, over 40% of the island has been designated as protected area, the most famous being the moon-like volcanic landscape of Timanfaya National Park.

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There’s also a number of geological sites due to multiple eruptions and underwater volcanic activity. Visit the Jameos de Agua, el Golfo volcanic lake or  the Cueva de los Verdes – they look insane!

And thanks to its miles of coastline, the beaches on Lanzarote are famous for their beauty and their wind sports. Those near Puerto del Carmen are where you’ll find a number of tourist-friendly amenities and all-inclusive resorts, but Yaiza’s white sand beaches and the lunar-like stretches near Tinajo shouldn’t be missed.

The Gastronomy

The gastronomic history of Lanzarote is astounding, rich in vegetables and fish. After tourism, agriculture is the most important industry thanks to its wine-growing regions and tough terrain. This also means that potatoes and yams are widely grown, and the most typical meat dishes are of goat and pork – a fry cry from the paella and sangria touristic ploy.

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Be sure to try a gofio, a simple, traditional gift believed to be eaten by the aboriginal people. Made of toasted grain flour, it’s typically eaten with stews or added to water to make dough. Cheese is also a big deal on the island, and several varieties are made.

The Weather

While most of North America and even Spain are caught in the worst winter weather of, um, decades, the Canaries experience an average temperature of 22° (and the average water temperature is close to 20°!) and about 12 hours of sunlight in the summer months.

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Do note that if things gets hazy, it’s because of the sand blowing off of the Sahara Desert – Lanzarote is just 125km off the African coast!

The History

Believed to be the first settled island of the archipelago, Lanzarote has long been inhabited by Phoenicians, Romans and the objective of many European conquerors. It was even believed to be Atlantis by Plato!

Teguise is the historic capital of the island and, at one time, the political center as well. The small city has seen skirmishes and pirate attacks, and is now home to the island’s best museums. There’s also a weekly flea market on Sunday, and the city fills to the brim for the event.

Though a fair amount of the Canaries’ citizens is made up of expats, Lanzarote has a smaller concentration of foreign residents. Because it’s different from mainland Spain, the island merits a visit to see its unique way of life.

Getting to and around Lanzarote

The island is served by both an international airport and ferries from nearby Gran Canaria. Once on the island, renting a car is recommended, or you can cycle, surf, hike or even hitch a ride on the guagua.

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? Any suggestions for Tenerife?

Spain Snapshots: The Carnavales de Cádiz

If andaluces are considered Spain’s most affable folk, it’s believed that the gaditanos, those from Cádiz, are blessed with the gift of wit. At no time in the year is this trait so celebrated as during the Carnavales de Cádiz.

Based (very) loosely on Venice’s extravagant Carnivale, this pre-Lenten festival is a huge tourist draw in Andalucía in which choirs, called coros, entertain city dwellers from flatbed trucks around the historic center. There’s also a song competition between chirigotas, or small, satirical musical groups who compose their own verses about whatever happens to be controversial each year.

But because it’s before Lent, why not add a pagan element to the festivities? Cádiz’s city center fills with young people who dress in costumes and carry around bottles of booze on Saturday night.

My first Carnaval experience was insane – partying with my Erasmus friends from Seville and Huelva, dressed up as an Indian with a kid’s costume I bought for 8€, endless amounts of tinto de verano and strong mixed drinks. I even ripped my shoes up on the broken glass that littered the streets.

Returning home at 6am and pulling into Plaza de Cuba just before 8, I slept the entire day, waking only for feul and a groggy Skype date with my parents.

Carnaval, you kicked my culo (but I blame the cheap tinto de verano).

For the next few years, I happened to always be out-of-town for the festivities (though I did make it to Cologne for their classed-up Carnival). In 2011, I joined a few friends, this year dressed for the weather and better rested.

The serpentine streets that wrap around town hall, the port and the cathedral held even more people than I remembered, pre-crisis. Like the chirigotas, revelers dress in sarcastic guises, or something that pokes fun at politicians or current events.

In 2011, everyone was hasta el moño with the government limiting freedoms, like pirating music and driving too fast on the highway. My personal favorite? When costumes are scandalous and obnoxious. Case in point: 

Being smarter this time around, we spent the night making friends and reliving our college days. No broken glass, lost friends or cold limbs!

Interested in attending the Carnavales?

March 1st and 8th are the huge party nights in 2014. Be sure to reserve travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible, as the city of Cádiz is quite small and everything gets booked up quite quickly. It’s not advisable to go by car, as parking is limited. You could also get a ticket with a student travel company and stay up all night.

Bring enough cash, as ATMs will run out of small bills, and you’ll probably be tempted to buy something to snack on from a street vendor. Dress for the weather – the nights will get chilly along the coast.

You can also consider attending a less-chaotic carnival in other towns around Spain, like Sanlúcar de la Barrameda or Chipiona. Plus, the choirs and chirigotas are a treat, and there is plenty of ambiance during the daytime.

Love festivals? Check out my articles on other Spanish Fiestas:

Spain’s Best Parties (Part 1) // The Tomatina // The Feria de Sevilla

Spain Snapshots: My 2014 Spain Wish List

The great thing about living in Spain is that I have an entire country to explore. Although I’ve been to each of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, there are still so many more places that I’d like to visit.

2013 had me in various new places in Spain: Calpe, Avilés, rural Galicia as I walked the Camino de Santiago, and I have one trip booked for 2014 to Tenerife. There are several other places I’m hoping to visit this year:

Trujillo

Cradle of the conquerors, Trujillo is a medieval town crowned with castle ruins near Cáceres. I’ve seen it a dozen times from a car window, at the A-5 highway passes nearby, but have never been able to stop in Pizarro’s birthplace for so much as a coffee, much less a walk around. Plus, they have an entire festival to CHEESE.

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Thankfully, I’ll have the chance to see Trujillo later this year, thanks to winning a contest through Trujillo Villas for writing about my most memorable meal in Spain.

Jaén

Despite my major allergy to olive blossoms, I’ve always wanted to see Jaén and its rolling fields of olivos and enormous cathedral. In fact, it’s called the city of liquid gold, due to the immense amount of olive oil that’s produced here.

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While in Jaén, I’d also like to visit the Renaissance villages of Úbeda and Baeza, which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and perhaps visit Cazorla to hike. It’s moments like these when I’m thrilled to have a car.

Ceuta

Ceuta is an autonomous Spanish enclave in Morocco where both Spanish and Arabic are spoken. I have a few friends from Ceuta, and I’m interested in seeing how a Spanish city on the African continent lives its day-to-day life. And the food clearly interests me!

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While not in mainland Spain, Ceuta is reachable by ferry from Tarifa and Algeciras. The Novio’s friend Ana has a boyfriend living there, so we really have no excuse.

Mallorca

Laugh all you want – I have never been to Mallorca, save a few airport visits (I have, however, partied in Ibiza and lived to tell the tale…if only I could remember!). Mallorca is famous for its beaches and calas, island culture and Rada Nadal.

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I skipped my chance to go to Menorca with a friend last summer, and have regretted it ever since. Who knew water could be so blue? Air Berlin flies directly from Seville, so there are plenty of chances each week to escape.

What are the places you’d like to visit in Spain? Have you been to any of the places on my list and have places to suggest to eat and sleep?

Disclaimer: these photos are clearly not mine because I have never been to these destinations. If you are the author and would like the photo removed, please contact me directly.

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