Thursday, January 8, 2015

Christmas in Copenhagen

We're back! We were gone for the better part of a month, traveling across the world to visit family for Christmas.

Christmas is by far my favorite holiday, and living far away from home and family, it can be difficult. Spaniards don't celebrate Christmas the way Americans do. There's a celebration, sure; there's lots of food (omg, SO MUCH food), there are some decorations, and some special things that only happen at that time of year. But it's not the same. There's no bite in the air, no chance of snow. There are no Christmas carols, and though Santa Claus is becoming ever more popular, he is still eclipsed by the Three Kings, who come bearing gifts by camel on the 6th of January. (As an aside, for a laugh, check out David Sedaris's hysterical take on the Dutch tradition of Santa being accompanied by six to eight black men.)

So I sometimes finding myself yearning for a traditional Christmas, with pine trees and hot cocoa with marshmallows and a smorgasbord of cookies and Bing Crosby crooning in the background.
Luckily, there are a few places in Europe that know how to do Christmas right, and Copenhagen is one of them. So when we saw the chance to combine our annual trip to the States with a five-day layover in Denmark in December, we jumped at the chance.

Copenhagen is a Christmas lover's paradise. When we arrived it was still a few weeks before Christmas, but the season was in full swing. The weather was frostier and nipped at our noses. Fresh pine garlands bedecked windows and doors; paper lanterns and candles glittered in lit windows. Christmas markets popped up in plazas, serving hot wine and hot dogs (a national obsession). We bought cozy hats and handmade Christmas ornaments. We stopped for coffee and sipped glögg outside with gloved hands. We peered into decorated storefronts - the windows of Ilums Bolighus, a design shop, were so beautiful it was like staring into a fairy tale.

We visited Tivoli Gardens, the old amusement park that is the pride and joy of the city. It was a bit like a small Six Flags without quite all of the hoopla, but the gray rainy day didn't allow for taking full advantage of its amusements. We wandered about for a bit but ended up in a coffeeshop, trying to avoid the chill and rain outside. 

Fortunately, the next few days brought better weather. In the morning we visited the Assistens Cemetery, a labyrinthian park overhung with old trees and creeping ivy vines. Though a famous cemetery where such illuminated persons as Soren Kirkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen are buried, there were many fallen, forgotten, buried tombstones, names erased by time, consumed by the garden itself. It was poetically beautiful and sad all at once.

Our wanderings brought us to Rosenborg Slot (which is so compact it seems like a mini-castle) with its beautifully manicured gardens, and then to the Round Tower in the center of town, which we climbed to the top. The view was impressive, highlighting the many old steeples and terracotta roofs, coupled with sleek new structures, glistening in the afternoon sun, and off in the distance, the bridge to Sweden.

At night we strolled around our little neighborhood of Norrebro, which reminded me immensely of Berlin - simultaneously chic and dingy, with a superiority complex masking the fact that it's simply one of the "poorer" neighborhoods (a relative term in Copenhagen, of course).

We found a tiny beer bar we'd been hearing about, Mikkeller & Friends, which touted hundreds of homemade brews and that classic Nordic minimalist style. My Christmas ale was wonderful; Isaac's dark brew was toasty and rich. But they didn't serve food (how passé), so we headed to a nearby restaurant and, though the food was great (it was almost universally good everywhere), we almost choked upon receiving the bill. Cheap, Copenhagen is not, though we found its residents to be universally friendly, helpful, and attractive. Maybe it's the money?

The next day, after stopping for fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee, we learned to use the buses to get around and made our way out to Christiania, the "free town" (read: hippie commune) within the city limits. You can read more about it here, but basically in the 1970's some people decided to stake a claim to an area of Copenhagen, which the local government actually ended up respecting, and which now exists with a mutual agreeement: Christiania takes care of its own sh*t (literally), and the local government stays out of the way.

It's an interesting concept; however, its execution is rather more...disappointing. The free people are exactly what you'd expect them to be; that is, people who freely trade and smoke marijuana (etcetera). The whole place has an air of severe decadence and everything is in need of a good scrubbing. Photographs are not allowed because the activities carried out within its walls are illegal (see above: pot etc.), and signs implore people not to run because it causes panic. Is this really the utopian society they were going for?

After that visit, we needed to visit something more up our alley, so we walked over to Nyhavn, the very touristy but absolutely adorable waterfront neighborhood. Hawkers sold everything from sweaters to socks to hot wine as people strolled along, or sat at one of the waterfront terraces (in winter, with wool blankets) to enjoy a beer. 

We stopped for a warm coffee (and pastries, always) but then kept on our way, heading back into the center of town, towards the shopping streets, crowded plazas, and busy shops. For the rest of the trip we made good use of the Torverhallern, the central food market, which aside from selling delicious local fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and wines, also had several stands for freshly prepared foods. We visited the fishmonger's for their delicious fish and chips, which we only ended up regretting after the second visit, when we both suffered stomachaches. Then there was the time we wanted to try the famous "smorrebrod", open-faced sandwiches, but could not make ourselves understood the waitress at the restaurant, who perhaps simply enjoyed seeing embarrassed tourists desperately trying to speak Danish.

We also spent time with Checky, Lynette's sister, and her Danish husband Lars. Checky, a Filipino, has lived in Denmark for over thirty years, and as we talked about adjusting to new cultures, we found we had much in common. They regaled us with tales of Lars's many years as an engineer for Maersk and the dozens of incredible locations they were fortunate enough to sail to (as well as the time their boat almost sank!). They took us to the small village outside of the city where they live, one of the few places that still show an older, more ancient side to Denmark. The old yellow brick houses, cuddled up against each other, were built in the old Nordic style, with wooden beams and thatched roofs. Embroidered lace curtains hung in windows and simple wooden Christmas decorations adorned porches and windowsills.

Then we had to cross the ocean to spend the remainder of our vacation with family and friends on the other side of the Atlantic, and though our return flight did take us back through Copenhagen for a mere 12 hours (which encompassed New Year's Eve, thousands of fireworks, two very jetlagged travelers and a flight at 7am on New Year's Day), our visit left us wanting to see more. Our thirst for Scandinavia has yet to be quenched and we still didn't have time to visit the Viking Ship Museum, or the many other castles in the surrounding area, or to head over the bridge into neighboring Sweden. But...maybe next time in summer?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Second Scariest Hotel Ever

Last weekend we headed out to the Ribeira Sacra, to Lugo, on the banks of the Cañones do Sil. It's a great place to visit in fall, as it's one of the few places where there are leaves that change color. And we wanted to take advantage of the Outono Gastronómico, a special annual event that couples rural hotels with fall-themed dinners and is a great way to discover new places.

We had planned to stay at a Casa Grande, which is, literally, a large house. Also sometimes called a pazo, it was usually the house of the richest guy in the neighborhood, and they're not kidding when they call them Big Houses. Some of them, which used to be single family homes, have more than a dozen bedrooms. One of these houses is where we had our wedding. A lot of the ones I've visited were built between the 15th-18th centuries, and this one, the Casa Grande de Rosende, was no exception. Originally built in 1511 by a man returning from Mexico (laden with riches, no doubt), it doesn't seem to have changed much in the intervening 500 years. Not only is the property original in its details, it also is stuffed to the gills with antiques and items proper to the time period. Sometimes, visiting places like this feels like walking back in time. ...And other times, it feels like walking into a horror film. This was one of the latter... 
(I apologize in advance for the quality of the photos. I forgot my beloved Canon camera and was stuck with my supbar iPad.)

Everything that could be creepy about this house was creepy. It was huge and labyrinthian; we never quite knew which doorway or secret staircase (no, seriously) to take to get to where we wanted to go. We forgot about rooms and would come upon them unexpectedly, such as the chapel, decked out with a few too many crosses on its dingy painted walls. Some of the doors were locked, and some doors and windows were burnt black from a fire that had destroyed a lot of the building some years past. They'd saved those doors because, even though they were burnt, they were still historical, but now they looked scaly and ominous. There were antique baby carriages (shudder) and a headless mannequin wearing a black period costume, strategically placed near our room. After Isaac and I saw The Woman in Black last year at Halloween and scared ourselves silly, this mannequin was an unwelcome sight. 

The main rooms were accompanied by the library, full of dusty old volumes with their covers long gone, and the suit of armor that guarded the stairway. There were also tons of gigantic mirrors, which I avoided looking into, lest I see more than one pair of eyes staring back. There was also a kitchen, with an enormous lareira, a kind of fireplace that you can actually sit inside. In olden days, it served for warmth, for cooking, for smoking chorizos and hams, and for sitting around on those long, dark winter nights as the only source of light.

Even the rooms, which were themed, had their oddities. Ours, for example, was the Virgin Mary Room (no, I'm seriously not kidding). It was, as could be expected, covered with images of the Virgin Mary. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but coupled with the creepiness of the rest of the house, gave the room a very Exorcist vibe (like, maybe she was there to protect us from something?). Outside our window, even the gutters, shaped like gargoyles, seemed foreboding.

We arrived late in the afternoon so shortly after settling in and taking a quick walk around, we headed to dinner. It wasn't the most spectacular rural dinner we've had, but the capon with chestnuts and spinach pie were warm and tasty. Coupled with the wine, and the shots of liquor that we enjoyed afterwards, we had a pretty warm and fuzzy feeling when we headed back into the old kitchen to sit by the fireplace and play a few games of dominoes, and thoughts of ghosts faded into the background. 

We both managed to sleep fairly soundly, but we woke to see the whole house and surrounding village blanketed in thick fog. It gave the house a very eerie feeling, as we could even see the white fog pouring into our room through the open window, billowing like a witch's cauldron. 

After breakfast, we decided to take a hike through the surrounding vineyards (the area is famous for its wine production). But first, we wandered through the house's large gardens. 

In the fog and morning dew, everything seemed forgotten, lost in time. The dewdrops clung to the spiderwebs, illuminating them throughout the garden. The fog cloaked everything in a grayish ghostly mist.

There was a fountain, but it didn't work and seemed covered in a green layer of algae, as if from disuse. There were grapevines, but the grapes had long since been collected, leaving the vines to die through the winter. There was an apple tree, but many of the apples had fallen to the ground and been left to rot. There was even a hedge maze, but it was strung with spiderwebs that crisscrossed the paths, as if nobody had been there for a long time.

The fog was so thick we couldn't even see the houses across the street, or the vineyards we'd walked through just the evening before. But we headed out to hike anyway, and soon the fog lifted and the sun emerged, revealing quite a different picture. It was as if, the further away we got from the old house, the better the weather seemed.

We wanded through vineyards, though the vendimia had come and gone, and the grapes were now being crushed and fermented into wine for the winter. The grape leaves were turning red and purple on their vines, left alone for the season.

From the river, it's impressive to contemplate how vines are grown on these cliffsides with extremely steep inclines and little road access; from high above it was no less impressive.

The sun shone brightly and soon we were shedding jackets and sweaters. When we reached the end of the trail (or at least, the end for us), we headed back...but not before noticing a few vultures hovering ominously above the direction of the house.

We headed on to Monforte de Lemos, where we visited its fortress, walked around and had lunch. Afterwards we headed back home to our house, where we watched some scary movies from the comfort of our not-haunted, well-lit living room couch.

I would like to clarify that our experience of this hotel was actually pleasant. Even though the place was old, I don't want this to seem like a negative review of it - it was just fun for us to stay in a place that could be haunted. The caretaker was friendly and the room was up to our standards of cleanliness and comfort (an unclean hotel bathroom? Now that's frightening). It was quiet and the breakfast was delicious, and there were several other guests staying there, so it seems like a fairly popular hotel.

....But, as I said in the title of this post, this was still only the second-scariest hotel I've ever been in. Here's the first: the Farrington Inn in Boston - an experience I will never forget.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ode to a Kitchen Window

We moved! It sounds like something we just did overnight, but really, we've been thinking about moving for a while. We loved our cozy little apartment, but it had zero storage and the fixtures were getting old. And this past winter, it was so cold and rainy that the mold on the walls grew to a worrying level, and that's something we'd have to get professionally treated. I had begun to wonder if it was contributing to my allergies and (though I cleaned it regularly) whether the level of mold was dangerously toxic.

So last year we thought about moving in summer, but the summer came and went, and what with honeymoons and scuba diving and starting a new job, it was put on the backburner for another year.

When summer rolled around again this year, we decided we'd look for a new place. After a bit of online searching, we came across one that seemed too good to be true. More spacious, more beautiful, a HUGE kitchen, outdoor clotheslines, and barely more than we were paying for our little place. We went to look at it and it was indeed just as lovely as the pictures promised.

After a month or two of more searching and several apartment viewings that ended in us needing a bottle of wine to recover (so much ugly!), we knew that that first place was the place for us.

But it was still hard to let go of our cozy little place. The new place was much bigger, and better; we knew that. But that little apartment that Isaac had moved into as a bachelor five years ago was the place we had our first kiss. It was the place I got voilently ill while trying to impress him on one of our first dates. It was where I moved when we decided to take our relationship "to the next level" and I came back to Spain. It's where we decided to get married. It's where his family stayed on the night of our wedding. It's where we brought our little cat home from the shelter, and where she lived for the first three years of her life.

I knew I would miss it, even with its terribly uncomfortable couch and strangely-angled living room walls, its tiny old oven and the cold drafts of wind in winter. But mostly, I'd miss my kitchen window. 

It was a place to look out while I was doing dishes (and it feels like I'm always doing dishes). It's where I would stand and stare out over terracotta roofs at the big old pine trees and the little houses on the hill while I baked dozens of cakes and pies and cookies for street fairs. It's where my basil lived (and died. And lived. And died). It was my favorite view in the house. Here's to you, kitchen window, and the memories you helped create. Thanks for the breeze and the fresh air, the smell of rain and woodfire smoke and the sound of birds outside in the morning. I'll miss you, but, kitchen window or not, I know there are many memories to come.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Spring in Santiago

Spring has finally sprung! After a long and very dreary winter, it seems that spring not only sprang, but jumped all the way into summer. We've had several days of warm, sunny temperatures, and people have been soaking up the sun like there's no tomorrow (because, meteorogically speaking, in Galicia, there may not be). 

The plants, too, have been eager to enjoy the change of seasons. Out at the farm, my raspberry bushes are taking over the garden, and maybe (maybe!) I will be able to eat more than three raspberries at a time this year. The blueberry plant, too, has tons of flowers and hopefully will yield ripe blueberries before the birds get to them. We even discovered wild strawberries growing in the underbrush! True to their reputation, they were tiny and misshapen but, oh, so delicious. 

Spring is definitely my favorite vegetable season. We've had a bumper crop of spinach and have been eating it at all meals, all week. Popeye would be proud. I've also managed to find fresh radishes at the market, which is something that rarely happens. Ecologically grown, these radishes were the sweetest and spiciest I'd ever tasted. If you don't like radishes, try growing them yourself. They've got nothing to do with the tasteless blobs you get at the supermarket. The fava beans and peas are quickly ripening on their vines, and strawberry season is melting deliciously into cherry season. Oh, and don't forget the new potatoes! Tiny, delicious, with transparent skins, nothing is better than some fresh Galician pork roasted with new potatoes and garden peas. With berries for dessert!

But it's not just the plants that have been blooming. We also have some brand new baby bunnies!
In the Alameda, the roses have been blooming. And after a recent renovation of its central pond and fountain, the ducks are back.

A few years ago (ahem, during the crisis), the pond's resident ducks started mysteriously disappearing. My own unfortunate take is that they ended up on someone's dinner table. It was actually headline news in the newspaper, because nothing crazy ever really happens here. And now, a few years later, they are back. The ducks are unique, colorful, and a hoot to watch. In fact, our new hobby is taking a walk over to the pond in the late afternoon and feeding them any old bread we've got lying around (I save it now on purpose). There are two black swans, two white swans, two peacocks, and a host of other small ducks, not to mention the usual gangs of pigeons and sparrows that find sport in attacking each other for the meager crumbs we give them.

Spring also means the beginning of the festival season. Though Galicians celebrate holidays year-round, summer is really the best time to find food festivals, outdoor concerts, and fairs of all kinds. For the third year running, we participated in the Feira da Primavera in San Pedro, though it was so busy this year that I didn't manage to take any photos at all. All of our friends came by to visit and we sold out of apple pie, cheesecake, carrot cake, lemon bars, and almost everything else. You can see our bright green tent in the picture, buried in the throng of people on the street. The festival is always a lot of fun, but it's best when it's warm and sunny, and people are enjoying free outdoor concerts, cold beers, and food handmade by a variety of vendors (that's us!).

Photo courtesy of El Correo Gallego

We've got several more fairs lined up and have already been making plans for another summer of local tourism and festival-hopping on the weekends. And I've also been making big plans for the rest of the spinach, and the favas, and the peas, and the potatoes, and the lettuce, and the tomatoes...

Friday, April 18, 2014

Wild Abandon

I have always been fascinated by abandoned places. I love seeing ruins of former glory, wondering what these places looked like when in they were full of life. It's the same reason I love shipwrecks and archaeology. Luckily (or maybe not), Galicia is full of abandoned places. Some of it is the effect of the great migration from tiny aldeas to cosmopolitan cities; sometimes it's due to longstanding conflicts over inheritance. Sometimes people just plain don't have the money to fix up their old buildings (and, in a place that's been inhabited for over 2000 years, we've got plenty of old buildings). 

Either way, it's astonishing to see how quickly (and how effortlessly) nature reclaims our works. Vines snake up into roofs and break through cracks in windows. Moss clings to old stone and creates a velvety silhouette with only a trace of human intervention. Birds make nests in old rafters, and animals find shelter under old grain silos. Stones come loose and fall away. Plaster peels from walls. Wooden beams are slowly whittled away by time, rain, and brutal winds. Eventually, entire villages are enveloped back into the forest, to come back from whence they came and return to the Earth all its materials, which were only on loan to us temporarily anyway.

In the book The World Without Us, author Adam Weisman explores what would happen if humans just disappeared tomorrow, leaving everything -everything- behind. It's fascinating to take a look at what would disintegrate almost immediately (most siding used in American homes), and what would never, ever, ever disappear (all the plastic in the world). As proof, Weisman talks about various parts of the world where reclamation by nature is already taking place, such as the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, the area surrounding Chernobyl, and even parts of New York City.

Since I love seeking out and exploring abandoned buildings here in Galicia, I thought I'd put together a gallery of images. To me, these places are a poignant reminder that we're really not the ones in charge, and no matter what happens to humans in the future, nature will keep on surviving in its own way. In fact, all of the images are from places within the Santiago city limits - you don't have to go far to see nature at work, reinventing, recovering, and reclaiming Galicia as its own.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

48 Hours in London

mind the gap

Even though I've lived in nine different countries, and traveled to dozens more, I've actually never been to London. I know! That seems unbelievable, especially considering the amount of times I've had to pass through Heathrow on my way to somewhere else. But the opportunity just never came up....until now.

big ben...note the illustrious sneakers hanging from the tree
Under the guise of checking out famous London bakeries as "market research" (ha), I told Isaac we should take a long weekend. It was March, after all, and prices were low, and fortunately, London is one of the few places to which we can fly directly from Santiago. So off we went!

...and they still have telephones inside
It's always strange visiting a large, well-known city, because you always have so many expectations of how it will be. You've seen the monuments in movies, you know its street names by heart, and you love to annoy your husband by singing the litany of nursery rhymes that involve said city (I think I sang "Do you know the muffin man?" down the whole of Drury Lane). You want everything to be just as you've imagined it from pictures you've seen, and yet you hope to feel something more when you find yourself actually standing in the midst of its magnificence.

london bridge is falling down....oh nevermind, that's tower bridge anyway

The thing that surprised me most about London is how not-old it seemed. Not new, exactly, or modern, just...not old. I suppose I expected more cobblestone alleyways, or more ancient-looking pubs, or something. Though I found London fascinating, I also felt...a little disappointed, I guess, that so many parts of it didn't feel like a place that's been around for a millennium. Of course, cities are constantly reinvented, and even back in the 1600s, the oldest parts of London had probably already been torn down and built upon in the constant cycle of growth and progress.
parliament...hope guy fawkes isn't around

That said...we had a blast. We only had about 48 hours, so this time around we didn't bother with museums, galleries, or libraries. We just walked the length of the town from one end to the other, pausing to look at unique things, and stopping as often as possible for a snack or a spot of tea.

On Friday, when we arrived, we hung around Piccadilly Circus (which is not a circus, but of course who doesn't know that? *ahem*), Covent Garden and Soho, enjoying the atmosphere of quirky boutiques and classic taxis maneouvering between those iconic red double-decker buses. We saw the obligatory Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. We ate fish and chips for lunch and a really good chicken curry for dinner. (I was desperate for foods we can't get in Santiago. And two words: malt vinegar.)

cloister of westminster abbey with the afternoon sun pouring in

On Saturday, after a huge English breakfast (complete with crumpets) we headed out to Notting Hill, with its quaintly picturesque rows of colored flats and tiny shops, and wandered through the Portobello Road market.

notting hill

The market was selling everything from vintage t-shirts to silver teapots, and we wandered in and out of galleries filled to the brim with curiosities. At each stand was what seemed to be the quintessential old British gentleman: white-bearded, dressed in tweed, enjoying a cup of tea (from a porcelain teacup with saucer, of course), and chatting amiably with the other sellers about the good old days when the word "antique" really meant something. One of them had a fascinatingly peculiar selection of books:

I especially love Cosy Chair Stories and Choice British Ferns

After walking the length of Portobello Road, we headed over to Buckingham Palace, just to take a look. The changing of the guard was not happening that day, but we got a good viewing of the guards anyway.
hat's a bit big, don't you think?
We then made our way to the impressive and imposing Tower of London, which is not really a tower, by the way. Of course, I knew that. Who doesn't know the Tower of London isn't a tower? *ahem* We didn't go inside this time, but it is definitely on our list for our next visit, as it sounded pretty interesting, but foreboding as it was (and knowing the stories or prisoners held inside), looking upon the Tower from outside was enough for us.

not a tower, obvs
Then it was time for tea. One of the things I had most looked forward to was a traditional English high tea, which I haven't enjoyed since Nick and I would spend afternoons at the Peninsula in Manila downing mini eclairs and cups of Earl Grey while waiting for various ministers to show up so we could accost them for interviews. Man, those were the good old days.

cloisters of westminster abbey

We found an out of the way place in the cellar of Westminster Abbey, where the monks had stored food and supplies in the 14th century. It's been lovingly restored and was a refreshing change from the rose-wallpapered and lace-embroidered teas elsewhere. We were served traditional scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam (one of the best things on this planet. If you've never tried clotted cream, please tell me you will, as soon as you have the chance. It's like butter and cream had a delicious, rich, creamy baby made for scones and jam...yum), as well as finger sandwiches (cucumber, ham, and salmon), and an assortment of tiny pastries. We enjoyed our tea as we rested our tired feet and looked over our map, deciding afterwards to head to Camden Town and visit its famous market.

hipster alert
We'd read that Camden was an "alternative" to the Portobello Road market, and I'm not sure what either of us was expecting, but either way, as soon as we stepped off the Tube, we wandered agape at the scene. Unbridled hipsterism: vintage shops lining every street, a mass of people (all bearded and plaid-ed, of course), foods from every possible corner of the globe, and plenty of signs warning us to watch for pickpockets. The whole "town" seemed like one big flea market, selling everything from vintage furniture and records to light-up t-shirts.

We tried our best to blend in. First we'd worried we weren't dressed nice enough for tea, and now we were worried that Isaac's sideburns weren't long enough and I don't own a Ramones shirt. I'm just kidding, was a really cool and unusual area of the city, an antidote to the images of uptight white-gloved Ladies Who Lunch that people sometimes imagine Londoners to be.

eating everything from burritos to pho
When we'd exhausted ourselves with peeking into t-shirt shops and wondering what they might sell at the "Amsterdam of London" shop, we sat down to dinner at one of the places claiming to have the best burger in London (ugh, a good of things I most miss from the US). I don't know if it was the best, but it definitely satisfied my craving...for the moment. Then it was over. Our weekend went so fast. The next day we only had time for breakfast and a walk in the park before it was time to go back home. Luckily, London is only two hours away by plane. Hopefully we can make it back soon; if not for the museums, parks, monuments, and shopping, then definitely, definitely for the clotted cream.