The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.


If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

Kotor Revisited, and How to Deal with a Travel Slump

Kotor was moody and fickle. Storm clouds – dark and heavy – threatened to ruin our hike, but midway up the mountain, the temperature had surged five degrees, leaving me sweaty for a picture proclaiming I’d reached my 30th country.


But, joder, she was worth the wait.

I’ve always traveled with a heightened sense of awareness – most notably, with my five senses. I can nearly savor the fried grasshoppers in Beijing or hear the call to prayer in Marrakesh (maybe those are just the annoying church bells at my local parish). In Kotor, though, I felt nearly numb to anything else but sight.

Emerald water and beet red roofs contrasted the ominous grey mountains that wrapped around the bay and the slate houses. Small boats bobbed as the waters lulled and lapped against the port. The mountains seemed hung from the sky.

picturesque Montenegro

Our road trip around Europe’s newest country had very loose rules. From our base in Herceg-Novi, we spent a few days doing our normal travel thing:  wake up, drive the car around until something pretty caught our eye, gorge on cevapi sandwiches and local beers (and the addictive JOST! snacks). 

The weather turned from bad to worse as we descended on Montenegro via Dubrovnik, including a hail storm and power outage once we reacher Herceg-Novi on empty stomachs. Each day, we’d simply drive out of town on the main road, keeping the Bay of Kotor on the right hand side of the vehicle and tick towns off the map: Perast, Tivat, Budva.

Fog over Kotor Montenegro

The undisputed jewel of the Montenegran Adriatic is Kotor. An unblemished Old Town, traces of Venetian, Ottoman and Napoleanic prowess and a varied population make it a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage city.

2013 was a red-letter one for me as a professional and as a traveler, but only now, two years after our trip, do I feel like I found Kotor to stir up some weird feelings in me.

Historic Center of Kotor

Arriving in the early morning, we were told to take the stairs out of town that led to the old fortifications and a smattering of old Via Crucis and roadside temples. The 1350 steps were steep and the humidity hung heavy over our heads. Layer by layer, I took off my scarf and blazer as we climbed closer towards the castle and the gradually lightening sky.

Always privy to climb to the highest point of any given city to see it from above, Kotor didn’t disappoint. I probably blinked a few times. Like Dubrovnik, the views were storybook, like something I’d seen on social media and had dreamed up. 

The Bay of Kotor and mountains

The rain held off enough, but the dark clouds of the morning seemed to have cleared up in the sky, but were beginning to cloud my thoughts. I took my obligatory picture at the top, under a red flag emblazoned with a black eagle. Thirty countries, jaw-dropping views…and I was rather blasé about it.

Back in town, we tucked into a cheap local beer and greasy pizza slices before wandering the small but stunning well preserved old town. I can’t recall many details from the afternoon, save the pristine city streets juxtaposed with the jagged rock face of the surrounding mountains, the cats leaping onto café chairs, the domes of the Orthodox churches. My sight prevailed, but I failed to catalogue sounds or smells or even a local taste.

Nothing exciting, nothing unordinary, nothing particularly great or not great describes my day in Kotor, and even the way I’m beginning to feel about travel.

Historic Kotor, Croatia

Kotor marked a beginning and an end, in a way. Since I was 20, I’d longed to travel to world and learn a language or two. I told myself 25 by 25 would suffice, and pulling into an abandoned bus terminal in Prague at the break of dawn before my 25th birthday meant I’d have to rethink my goal.

Afterwards came Romania, Turkey, Andorra, and Montenegro (and then Slovakia and India), and I surpassed that goal before turning 28. A beginning to more mature travel and an end to constant moving.

Boats on the Bay of Kotor

I’ll be 30 in less than two months, with a mortgage and a new husband to boot. Travel hasn’t lost its sheen completely, but my preferred web sites are decidedly devoid of budget airline sites. I still get delight out of pinning places and reading blog posts about travel gear and news apps and far-flung destinations, but I’ve strangely not had much urge to travel.

A close friend asked me recently about my upcoming travel plans and I realized I hadn’t been on a plane sine January, and that was to Barcelona. That my airline miles on AA had expired from disuse. That my rolling suitcase had collected dust. I’m not packing up my passport, but then again, I’m not 100% certain as to its whereabouts.

St Tryphon Cathedral Montenegro

Since money again became a concern after the house (those things cost a lot of money to maintain – who knew?), my trips have been limited to weekends and any place I can reach by car. That’s meant a bachelorette party in Málaga, a solo hike on the Caminito del Rey, scattered weekends in Madrid or San Nicolás. For someone ready to comerse el mundo, it’s a weird – albeit welcome – feeling.

Back in Kotor, we bought and wrote postcards, sipped free beers as we checked our emails and caught up on Facebook, occasionally popping into a shop or craning our necks for a photo. But, as a destination, it garnered a mere, ‘meh.’

Shutters in the center of Kotor

I didn’t have any profound or life-shattering epiphanies upon reaching my 30th country before turning 30, just as I didn’t find enlightenment in India (just a stomach virus and a love for tuk tuks) nor did I figure out the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. For the woman who vowed to never feel tied down, I found that I needed a limit, a destination that failed to wow me, a place that made me choose how to spend my money. Kotor was undeniably beautiful, but lacked spark. 

I have no big trips on the horizon, and even our post-wedding road trip to New Orleans is an afterthought for me. Walking back over the Triana bridge on a balmy late spring night, I felt tears fill my eyes as the sun was setting. The gentle buzz of traffic, the smell of churro grease, the cobblestones under my feet.

As it turns out, my senses feel most alert in the very place I live, so I think I’ll be sticking around here for a while.

Have you ever experienced a travel slump? How did you overcome it?

Ibiza’s Can’t Miss Emblematic Buildings

My only trip to the Baleares Islands has been to party mecca Ibiza, and island with seemingly more sheep than residents, more discos than churches. But there’s more to this ancient islands past the nightclubs and party offers.


One can find a lot of interesting buildings and medieval constructions to visit if a decision to take a trip to the island is made. Based mostly in monuments and emblematic constructions, Ibiza’s architecture brings us some of the most impressive buildings in Spain. In fact, the historic city is one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage City, thanks to its medieval constructions and Phoenician origins.

There’s a wealth of information about some of these buildings on Ibiza’s Official Tourism Site, and also you can check out some of their recommendations for visiting the island.

The Dalt Vila Walls

Located in the city of Ibiza to protect it from attacks in the past, these amazing walls, built in the XVI century and declared a World Heritage area by the UNESCO, is an attraction that no tourist should ever miss. The walled area, with a heptagonal form, has a defensive bastion in every one of its angles. 

The Puig de Missa

Located in the town of Santa Eularia des Riu, this church-cum-fortress of the XVI/XVII century is located in the hill nearby the town, therefore placing it in the perfect spot to prevent pirate attacks and refuge the townsfolk from their pillages, safe in the top of the hill.

Aside from the church, the town of Santa Eularia, known for its historic district formed by white houses and pleasant streets, is quaint and full of artisan shops that will prove very interesting for those who love anything medieval.

Des Savinar Tower

Located in the Hort Cove Natural Reserve, near the town of San Antonio, this impressive tower was completed in 1756. Originally intended to be an artillery tower, it never housed cannons, so it’s use was limited to a watch tower. With views of the Es Vedra and Es Vedranell rock, and a height of 200 meters above the sea level, the tower brings us a lovely vista of the sea, and sunsets deserving to be on the best postcards.

The beaches in Ibiza

Due to the large distance between the Hort Cove and the town of San Antonio, we need to rent a car in order to move around the cove and to the natural reserve. We can also make the most of our trip and enjoy the cove, where we will find a beach with thin sand and crystalline waters.

The Ibiza Cathedral

The Ibiza cathedral, built above an old arabian temple, is the shining jewel of the old town. With a beautiful Gothic style, this cathedral finished its construction in the XVIII century, and we can find important medieval art pieces in its interior, like the Saint Gregory altarpiece, or a collection of golden silver from the XIV century. Like many other churches in Ibiza, it has an special tower built as a refuge for the townsfolk from pirates. 

Aside from these magnificent constructions, in Ibiza we can find a lot of pristine beaches and fun nightlife, but for those of us who like to enjoy medieval zones and old buildings will undoubtedly enjoy something other than foam parties.

Have you ever been to Ibiza?

Other posts of interest: A Tenerife Road Trip // Spain’s Architectural Sites // Autonomous Community Spotlight: Islas Baleares

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Galicia

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.

spain collageOh goody! I get to talk about one of my favorite places in Spain this month!

Ever since my friend literally stood over me as I looked for fares, then forced me to buy a ticket to La Coruña that I couldn’t afford, I’ve swooned over the northwesternmost province of Spain. Galicia is acutely Spanish while not being very Spanish at all, thanks to its Celtic roots. It’s a land ruled by superstition, by an aversion to long spans of rain along the coast, by plump seafood and white wine. Where stone churches and hórreos stand guard. Where language is sung, not spoken. Where rivers and mountains and forests abound. Where I’ve had one serendipitous experience after another.

camino de santiago in galicia

I’ve spent more time in Galicia than I have in the city where I studied abroad, Valladolid. Coruña is like a second home to me after five summers teaching there. 

Name: Galicia, or Galiza in local gallego

Population: 2.7 million

Galicia Collage

Provinces: Four; A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, Pontevedra

When: May 2008, 10th of 17

About Galicia: Galicia is one of those places you’d probably peg as part of Scotland because of its weather and ever-present bagpipes, and the fact that it’s rather isolated – the high-speed trains won’t reach the region until 2017 (or so hey say). I both welcome this and fear it because Galicia is so staunchly suyo, that a boom in tourism may mean losing a little bit of what makes Galicia, Galicia.

mondoñedo galicia camino de santiago

There’s a long version of the story of Galicia, but here’s the short one:

Humans first began inhabiting the northwest corner – mostly north of the Duero River – of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Paleolithic period slowly and eventually the Iron Age and Castro period. These people were of Celtic origin and called Gallaeci. Eventually becoming part of the Roman Empire and then the Visigoth, these kingdoms have left their mark on Galicia’s history and architecture before eventually falling to the Christian Empire in Northern Spain.

The Middle Ages was a time of  prosperity in Galicia, and even though the region was still under the Crown of León, inhabitants were ruled by seven kings in seven kingdoms that were able to retain their culture and language, though there were bloody conflicts between brotherhoods and kingdoms. Like today, the area was untamed and a bit unruly. Galicia was awarded autonomous status in the 16th Century with the Audencia Nacional, and nowadays, there’s a call for becoming an independent kingdom. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Must-sees: I should really start this section off with must-eats, rather than must-sees. Galicia has a wealth of regional dishes and a thriving tapas culture in its larger cities, so I’d wholeheartedly suggest fasting before heading up there. I’m serious.

typical food in galicia

Let’s start with the seafood. Galicia’s home to 1,500km of coastline, so mussels, crabs, octopus and the much-heralded percebes, or goose barnacles, are prominent on menus. Round up some friends and split a mariscada.

Then there’s the cheese. From smoky San Simón from Lugo and the boob-shaped queso de tetilla, you’re likely to skip dessert (unless you get a slice of Tarta de Santiago, an almond-based cake). Pair it with a crisp but sweet albariño wine which also matches nicely with seafood. Don’t miss Galician-raised beef, pimientos del padrón and collared greens.


The majority of the region’s big sites are clustered around the coastal areas, particularly Coruña, Vigo and ancient tourist hotspot, Santiago de Compostela. Inland, the population is more sparse, though there are highlights in natural spaces, sacred areas and larger capitals.

Starting with political capital Santiago de Compostela: the ancient stone streets and cathedral where the remains of Saint James are reputedly buried, many tourists come to Santiago for a taste of Galicia. This UNESCO World Heritage City boasts a number of sites, a train station and an international airport, in addition to being the end of the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago (though many pilgrims choose to travel to Finisterre). Read my posts about Santiago here.

A Coruña, nicknamed the Crystal City is nearby and sits on the end of a peninsula. Famous for its beaches and galerías (and, uh, the flagship Zara), it’s a bustling city that merits a day. Visit its beaches, the Torre de Hercules lighthouse and Cerro de San Cristóbal for views of the bay. Read more about Coruña here.


Vigo is another large city, situated on one of the rías, is famous for its oysters and is the gateway to the Islas Ciès and Portugal to the south. It’s nearby to the much talked about Islas Ciès and its gorgeous beaches.

Inland, Lugo boasts sweeping farmlands and humble hamlets, and the capital retains its medieval city walls, which can be visited. You can also find the Praia As Catedrais – considered one of the most beautiful in Spain – in this province, just a taxi ride away from Ribadeo. Scattered around the region are celtic ruins, great hiking trails and roadside stone churches and cruceiros. Being a near-perfect marriage of sea and land, your time in Galicia should be spent outdoors (so long as the rain holds off!).

My take: My first taste of Galicia was a milanesa from fabled tapas bar La Bombilla in La Coruña.  We ordered enormous croquetas and juicy hunks of tortilla, served to us on plastic plates by seriously rotund women who had probably spent the better part of their lives in that kitchen. Everyone seemed…happy. Maybe it’s because they were eating and drinking, because I was grinning right along with them. Because, Estrella Galicia.


I actually credit Galicia with opening up my severely limited taste palate to seafood. I swallowed mussels and octopus at an alarming rate that weekend. The rain held off so we could wade into the frigid waters at the Playa del Orzán, and we sipped gigantic and cheap rum and Fantas at dimly lit alternative bars. I vowed to come back, and soon after, I swapped a teaching position in the islands to return to Galicia. It rained all summer. I loved it.

For five continuous summers I risked the rain for three or four weeks in Coruña, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite cities in Spain. So many of my most treasured Spain memories – watching Spain win the World Cup in 2010, staying out all night at the Saint James Feast in Santiago, walking the Camino – have taken place out here.

Doing the Camino de Santiago through Galicia

Seriously – my ideal Spain is a hybrid between vibrant Andalucia (and its weather) and offbeat Galicia. 

Have you ever been to Galicia? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura

Photo Post: A Visit to the Seville Cathedral Rooftop

There are some things in Seville that don’t need any further explanation – a cotton candy sunset over Triana, Plaza de España’s beautiful tile benches, the dreamy chords and staccato of a flamenco performance.

And then there’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and its stunning minaret. Visiting the rooftop has long been on my to-do list, and even with a guide recounting the history, lore and practicality of the temple, the views of La Hispalense needed no explanation.

Florentino met us at Puerta de San Miguel, adjacent to Avenida de la Constitución. It was a busy Saturday evening, and the streets were clogged with families and street performers. Once we’d stepped inside – our guide with an enormous key and soft feet – we’d get ground rules: watch your step, stay with the group, and don’t touch any wires.

The massive cathedral of Seville

We climbed a winding staircase, worn down by more than 600 years of history. Etched Stars of David, rhombuses and other figures were a testament to the 100 years it took to build the cathedral once the city was reconquered. It was dark and cramped, but we emerged just over the sacristy, affording us views of Plaza de Virgen de los Reyes below.

The Giralda

cathedral in seville

For someone who has climbed the Giralda and visited the cathedral itself two dozen times, I didn’t think the building and anchor any touristic route would hold much mystery. 

Florentino reminded us to watch our step as I nearly tripped over a stone pod on the uneven surface. These devices were used as weights for the reliquia below – statues, paintings and even old altarpieces were hoisted using this archaic system.  So, there, I learned something. He pointed out features in the building process, from the stained glass to the buttresses, navigated a labyrinth of staircases, rooms and small patios.

sunset from the seville cathedral

sunset Seville Spain

When you’ve admired the sprawling cathedral from below, it’s incredible to see the details up close. So close, in fact, that I received a shock from wires designed to keep pigeons away. Oops, broke rule three.

We climbed and climb, retracing the Latin cross as Florentino recounted the 500 chapels below our feet and lore about the construction and consecration of the cathedral. Like everyone else, I gasped when we reached the highest point of the tour.

The Giralda Tower Seville

We were just a few yards from the Giralda, and climbed up the dome of the sacristy to contemplate the tower. Along with the Patio de los Naranjos, the minaret is a trace of the mosque that stood here until the reconquest in the 12th century.

Rooftop tour of the cathedral

Entering the temple shortly after, we walked behind the organ on a small walkway that could only accommodate you if you squeezed by, careful not to trip over the wires that light the naves. I had lost Florentino’s voice by now, but that hardly mattered.

Stained glass at the Seville Cathedral

rosette window in the catedral de sevilla

Once back on the ground, I could truly appreciate the immensity of the cathedral and its importance in Seville lore and history. The church built to inspire all those who see it to think that the architects and commissioners must have been crazy. Crazy, maybe.

If you go: Conocer Sevilla runs weekly visits to the cathedral rooftop – called the Cubertizo de la Catedral. Tours are about 90 minutes, cost 12 per person and it’s recommendable to wear comfortable clothing, as surfaces are unsteady and there is a bit of climbing involved. For more information and reservations, check Conocer Sevilla’s webpage.

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I visited the cathedral as part of the Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat. For more on the project, visit their webpage or find them on twitter.

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