Sunday, December 30, 2012

A pause

Hello there! I'm just checking in from the coast of Northern Ireland to wish you and yours a Merry Something and a Happy New Year! I'm on a crazy-fun four-country tear (Spain-Portugal-Northern Ireland-Ireland) for the holidays, and will have lots of great updates for you-- from delayed thoughts on expat Thanksgiving, to an Andalucian Christmas, to the power and immediacy of Belfast's recent history--in the new year.

See you in 2013!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Palencia-Linares: A comparison

I am unabashedly a child of the internet generation, so when I was assigned to live in Linares last spring my first reaction was to do some online digging about my new Andalucia-home-to-be. First, I found the basics: the area's background as a mining center, some photos of the town hall and Paseo de Linarejos, a schedule from the World Chess Championship that is held here every year. But I also discovered some strange parallels between my new and old stomping grounds, and now that I've introduced you to both of them, I can present my findings.


Population: Between 65,000 and 75,000, depending on your data source
Closest large city: Valladolid, population 300,000
Distance to said city: 45 minutes by train or 1 hour by bus
Distance from Madrid: 3 hours by bus to the north
Distance from ocean: 2 hours by car to Santander, on the Cantabrian Sea
Thus: Effectively half way between Madrid and the north coast
Distance from famous university city: 2 hours by train to Salamanca
Tourist status: Virtually unvisited by tourists (despite a beautiful cathedral, Roman bridge, and 19th century main street); surrounded by famous Spanish destinations such as Salamanca, Leon, Burgos, and Avila.

Population: Between 60,000 and 65,000, depending on your data source
Closest large city: Jaen, population 150, 000 (okay, I admit that I thought this number was closer to Valladolid's before looking into it)
Distance to said closest city: 45 minutes by train or 1 hour by bus
Distance from Madrid: 3 hours by bus to the south
Distance from ocean: 2 hours by car to Velez-Malaga, on the Mediterranean Sea
Thus: Effectively half way between Madrid and the south coast
Distance from famous university city: 2 hours by train to Granada
Tourist status: Virtually unvisited by tourists (despite vibrant tapas and flamenco traditions and a cute downtown); surrounded by famous Spanish destinations such as Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada, and Malaga.

You tell me: coincidence, or something stranger?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A walk through Linares

For a while now, I've been promising a description of my new home, Linares, a small city of 65,000 in northern Andalucia. In fact, I've had that very sentence written in a "draft" version of this blog for a few weeks, but if I'm following the 'open and honest blogging' policy I've begun this year, I have to explain that the "coffee conundrum" from the last true update here turned into a full-blown depression. I've had a few great recent adventures which kept me mostly sane (a wonderful weekend in Sevilla; an adventure in a nearby UNESCO Renaissance town), but for about a month I was seriously considering ending my European adventure, flying home, and seeing what the universe might offer elsewhere. I've had delays in blogging before, but none came from such a dark place. I'm happy to report that I seem to be getting past it, however, and I'm feeling ready to share Linares with you.

(Unfortunately, part of that Sevilla adventure involved the loss of my beloved camera, which means that for now this will have to be a tour solely in words. Photos to follow, however. I hope.)

When I first arrived in Linares, I was disappointed, I'll admit it. In an ironic twist, I spent last year having strangers tell me that Palencia was ugly when I thought it lovely; this time, I'd had people tell me Linares was pretty, and I found it initially the kind of boxy, utilitarian eyesore that represents the Franco- and post-Franco era building booms throughout this country. I had looked forward to the tangle of streets in the downtown area that google maps showed me (I've always loved getting lost in winding alleys) but found them actually TOO confusing-- for whatever reason, it's the standard here to only mark streets at the beginning and end, meaning that even the locals don't know the name of the streets (and confused apartment hunters from foreign lands are out of luck.) At first arrival, I was told that there was little in the way of live music--a perennial favorite activity for me--and was brought several days in a row by different people to the same "only cool bar in town" (Elviris, which does have a funky charm in its cheap drinks, old-school Americana decorations, and classic rock soundtrack.) For the first several weeks, I didn't see any posters advertising events, my tried-and-true method for finding out what's going on in a small town. Things were looking decidedly dark.

My outlook started to improve with a trip to Jaen, which I wrote about in the Spain Scoop post linked here last week. The city, which is the county seat of our province, has a reputation as ugly and isolated-- however, I found it lively, agreeable, and actually quite pretty. After that trip, I began to accept the possibility that things might not be exactly what they seemed. It's been a struggle, but in the past few weeks I've climbed out of that disappointment, and this is the good in what I found:

It's true that most of Linares is not an old place-- it launched from a tiny village to a successful mining town in the 1800s (and was thus one of the richest places in southern Spain for a time.) The settlement itself dates back to Roman times, in the form of Castulo, an ancient town whose ruins lie a few kilometers outside Linares. Still, there is a small "casco antiguo" or old town--a kilometer-square patch of grey-brick roads lined with orange trees and 200-year-old houses in various degrees of romantically crumbling disrepair--which still holds onto some charm. My own apartment lies on the edge of this area, next to an empty 19th century palace. A small statue of a rooster (which gives this 'Plaza del Gallo' its name) looks out onto the larger Plaza Nueva, a raised brick triangle lined with trees and set with benches, surrounded by ornate plasterwork buildings. I pass the plaza several times a day and catch glimpses of many an older couple chatting on the benches, furious mini-soccer game studiously avoiding the statue in the center, or teenage couple looking for somewhere to canoodle in peace.

In the opposite direction, a long, narrow street lined with old-style brick houses runs along the crest of a hill. It's customary to leave entryway doors slightly ajar, and the observant visitor can occasionally catch glimpses of beautifully-kept courtyards within. After a few hundred yards, the street runs through the postage-stamp size Plaza Siete Esquinas, with its arcing brickwork and elegant wrought iron fountain. Most mornings I take a right down a small hill here, toward the elementary school where I teach.

During the day, I can sometimes here the chiming bells of Iglesia Santa Maria between lessons on telling time or the castles of the United Kingdom. The church is one of the oldest in the city, and its tall, brown, octagonal steeple hints at its history as a mosque once upon a time. I always take a moment to appreciate the church's austere beauty before stopping at the small, family-run grocery across from the school to buy fresh pears, pomegranates, and whatever butchery product the owner can up-sell to me that particular day.

Following the alley around the Iglesia Santa Maria Plaza, one finds the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (city hall) spread out down wide, sweeping stairs. To one side, that bastion of Spanish urbanity Corte Ingles (the kind of department store that no longer exists in the US) takes up almost an entire block, and past this a long boulevard pauses at a plaza with fountains and statues of miners before dissolving into industrial blocks and, later, stands of olive trees. Across the street, the old city hall, another 19th century brownstone confection under constant renovation, sits waiting to be inhabited again. And in between, the brick plaza is lined with palm trees and discreetly arcing fountains. This weekend it was the site of a craft market, where I bought multiple pairs of 2-euro earrings and a beautiful, handmade stool made out of the stump of an old olive tree. In good weather, coffee and tapas bars put out tin tables to take advantage of the sunshine.

A smaller street out of the plaza leads to the heart of town, an area called "Ocho Puertas" (eight doors) that is the only approximation of "main street" in a town with no real center. It's a bustling shopping area with Madrid-style old buildings topped with icing flourishes and lined with balconies, and people come from all over the countryside to shop here. The diversity of stores calls to mind Palencia's Calle Mayor-- tasteful  cafes, bakeries, an art supply shop, a household appliance store, the requisite Zara (an extraordinarily popular European low-cost clothing store), and a seemingly unending supply of shoe-and-boot outlets. The streets here are lined with stylish streetlights, and for good reason-- at sunset, Linarenses turn out in droves for the "paseo" I grew to know and love in Palencia. It seems that it doesn't matter where you go in Spain, the people love their nightly strolls. Here one also finds the promised tangle of streets, replete with more shoe stores, a lovely coffee shop, and a produce market.

Another popular strolling spot lies just beyond Ocho Puertas: the Paseo de Linarejos is a wide boulevard lined with intricately tiled benches and the tallest, stateliest palms in the city. It starts from the beautiful (and, depending on your perspective, sadly or happily little-used) yellow-and-white art deco bullring and finishes at a confection of a church about a mile away. The paseo is popular with dog walkers, old couples, mothers with strollers, teenage skateboarders, and the occasional wayward underage drinker. Its sides are crowded with sweet shops, bars, and an old-style churro cafe. On Tuesdays and Saturdays a gypsy market sells all manner of clothing and fresh vegetables.

As for live music-- it's harder to find than I expected, but I've been happy with what I've found. Andre Segovia, who I recently heard described as 'one of the most important artists in the history of guitar', was from Linares, and the museum devoted to his life sits on Plaza Nueva, a two minute walk from my apartment. The museum hosts piano and classical guitar concerts fairly frequently, and they are almost always free and definitely always beautiful. Linares is also home to a variety of peñas, social clubs based around a topic, from sports to bullfighting to flamenco, and the flamenco peñas periodically host small free concerts with local artists and tapas at hand. The taranta, a particularly powerful and mournful genre of flamenco, has its origins in Linares and other mining towns in Jaen and the neighboring region of Almeria, and I'm growing to appreciate the pure emotion and vocal power singers of taranta display. On the other side stylistically, I've even attend a rock show, at a great theme bar on Paseo de Linarejos (Pub Fiction, with Pulp Fiction decorations, obviously.)

Lastly, but certanly not least, the great and mighty tapa deserves more than a mere mention in a passage on flamenco. Jaen (and the region directly south, Granada) is famous as Tapa Country: not only are the tapas here often generous, but by law they must come free with every drink. (Notice I say tapas and not pintxos-- see last summer's posts on Basque Country for discussion on that subject.) A night out in Linares is not complete without a stop for tapas, which can take the form of a big plate of jamon serrano, a homemade empanada, a small portion of meatballs in savory sauce, or a half kebab. On Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights the bars overflow with Linarenses eating, drinking, and making merry until well past midnight, making slow circuits around the city to eat a bite here and a morsel there. Catholicism is one thing here, but tapas are a religion, too, and one I certainly can get behind as I settle into my new Andalucian life.