Now that fall is coming to an end, I’d like to reflect on some of the highlights of the past few months. Although I have definitely had many ups and downs during my transition into life here in Ourense, I’d have to say that my overall experience has been quite positive. I’ve tried a lot of new things and learned a great deal about myself in the process. However, this fall would have been nothing without the help, support and positive energy from my friends-both new and old.
Highlight #1 Puente de Octubre (October Long Weekend)
We were very lucky in Galicia this October because we had not only one, but two long weekends! However, since it was still the beginning of my time in Ourense, I wasn’t very fond of the idea of leaving for the weekend. I wanted to stick around and get to know the city and its surroundings a bit more. I was tired from a spontaneous trip to Madrid at the beginning of October as well. So, when my friend M proposed that either I went to Madrid during the long weekend or she came up to see Ourense, I convinced her that Ourense was the better choice.
We ended up having a jam-packed weekend of fun with my new friends and no shortage of delicious food and wine. Not only did we explore Ourense’s night-life and thermal hot springs, but we also had the opportunity to spend a day in Allariz, one of Ourense’s most beautiful and famous villages.
Hightlight #2 Another Weekend in Madrid in October
An appointment in an immigration office brought me back to the capital yet again in October. Although I was still exhausted from the previous weekend with M, I decided to go for the entire weekend even though my appointment was on a Monday morning. I used the time to catch up with friends who I hadn’t seen in a while, go to some of my favorite restaurants and check out the brand new Primark that opened on Gran Vía. For those of you that don’t know, Primark is a chain department store from the U.K. with unbeatable prices. The quality of their products isn’t great and I’m not really sure how I feel about the company’s ethics and whatnot, but I buy some things there from time to time.
The new Primark on Gran Vía is the largest in all of Spain and the second largest in the world I believe. It’s a five-story building with no shortage of things to buy. My friend N and I went two weeks after it had opened and the lines to get in were still out the door. We had to grab a ticket and wait in line just to be able to look around the store. Absolute madness!
After my second weekend in Madrid in October, I swore I wouldn’t go back for a long time. The trips down and back were exhausting and I was just starting to make some friends in my new city at that point. So, I decided not to leave Galicia in November.
Highlight #3 Halloween!
Those of you who know me well know that I hate Halloween. Those of you who know me even better know that I enjoy going out on the weekends. So, when the expats and locals in Ourense group organized a Halloween party, I eventually caved in. I even put a little effort into my costume and dressed up as Madonna. It was a fun night with new friends, good food, nice drinks and even better costumes.
Highlight #4 A Spontaneous Road Trip to Las Médulas
What is better than a beautiful hike in the mountains among the fall foliage? Answer: Nothing! Read more about my trip to Las Médulas in my blog post.
Highlight #5 Fiesta del Magosto and San Martín
Ourense officially celebrates its saint, San Martín, on November 11th. However, the festivities usually start the week before and sometimes even continue into the week after. The tradition is to go to the mountains with friends and family, make a bonfire, and roast chestnuts and chorizo all the while imbibing copious amounts of wine and licor café (traditional coffee liquor drink in Ourense and throughout Galicia). This outdoor all-day affair is called, el Magosto.
This year, I was lucky enough to partake in not just one, but three magostos! The first one was with the ex-pats and locals group I meet up with for the Spanish, English and French conversation clubs. We spent an entire day at a barbecue spot in the mountains, eating, drinking and playing an awful lot of soccer. We ate lots of chestnuts and ended up using some as a substitute for ping pong balls in order to show our international friends how to play the American drinking classic known to many as “beer pong.” It was a fun day filled with many laughs and good memories.
My next magosto was on November 10th at my school. Since November 11th was a big holiday here in Ourense and we didn’t have class that day, the school decided to hold a huge magosto the day before for both students and teachers alike. Students spent the morning in classes learning all about the history of the holiday and the importance of the chestnut in ourensano culture. I learned that there are at least 30 different words in the Galician language to describe chestnuts and, later on, I helped the children extract chestnuts from their thorny chestnut pods, called “ourizos” in Galician (erizos in Spanish). At the end of the day, I smelled like a campfire and my entire face was black as a result of my second-graders pinning me down and rubbing charcoal from the bonfire all over me-yet another magosto tradition.
The night before San Martín (November 11th), many people in Ourense go out and party because no one has to go to work or school the next day. I am not one to say no to opportunities to better immerse myself in the local culture, so I met up with some friends and we went out for pintxos and drinks and, thanks to the dangerously delicious concoction known as licor café, I ended up staying out until about 7:30 AM the next day. Whoops.
The next afternoon, I decided to go with a few other friends and do yet another magosto. (Can you tell that I really enjoy bonfires and chestnuts?) There were six of us total and we stayed around our bonfire until about 8 PM. The chestnuts were terrific and the licor café was homemade. We chilled out to some fun music, played Frisbee and chased each other around with charcoal, which led to yet another day with black faces. Afterwards, we walked back to Ourense and had a beer before heading our separate ways. Overall, another successful day.
Highlight #6 La San Martiño, My First 10K!
To close the San Martín festivities, Ourense held the traditional San Martiño 10K run that circles around the entire city on the Sunday after San Martín. I had never done a 10K race before, but since I run on a normal basis and some of my friends were participating, I decided to sign up.
We met a few times to train together and usually only ran between 5-8K, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do 10K. I decided that my goal was to at least finish the race and if I had to finish walking, then so be it. However, I wanted to push myself to finish under an hour, if possible.
On race day, we were all pumped up with adrenaline and excited that the day had finally come. I met up with M and we walked over together and then met up with a few other friends. After the race started, we ended up losing each other since we all went at different paces. I was fine until about the 5th kilometer, when I started to feel a bit ill and crampy. However, I kept pushing through the cramps and they eventually went away. As I approached the finish line at 58 minutes, I went into a full sprint and finished in 59 minutes-just one minute under my goal of one hour.
Highlight #7 The Photo Marathon in Parada do Sil
After a few days stuck in bed with a sinus infection, I decided to tough it out and participate in the 1st ever photo marathon in Parada do Sil, a nearby municipality in the Ourense province. My friend, S, her cousins and I spent the day going from landmark to landmark, taking pictures of some of the top landmarks of the Ribeira Sacra region. Read more about this and see my pictures in my blog post.
Highlight #8 Ourense Thanksgiving Extravaganza
While basking in the success of our magosto celebration, D, the leader of the expat group, and I talked about the idea of having a Thanksgiving party. As one of the more active Americans in the group, I decided to take charge of one of my favorite holidays and toyed with the idea of hosting a dinner in my apartment. L, my English roommate, was okay with the idea and so we found ourselves with 27 people in our apartment on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
A, another one of the leaders from the expat group, had the brilliant idea of organizing a photo booth. While we were heating up people’s dishes, enjoying drinks and waiting for the turkey to cook, some people took advantage of the photo booth and put together wacky and cute Thanksgiving pictures.
After sampling all the dishes-turkey included-we organized our very own queimada, with help from the orensanos of course. A queimada is a drink made from Galician aguardiente, a spirit that is distilled from wine, spices, fruit and cinnamon. The drink is then set on fire and you have to read a spell for good luck while it is burning. Somehow I ended up being the one reading the spell that night-and in Galician!
Highlight #9 Being a Tourist in Ourense with the Polish Couchsurfers
The week after our Thanksgiving extravaganza, I got a few requests to stay at my place via Couchsurfing. No one had reached out to me before, so I was surprised that I had two different people contact me in the same week. I decided to let two Polish Erasmus students, who were studying in La Coruña, stay with us for the weekend. I have used Couchsurfing while travelling in the past and always wanted to return to the favor. It’s an excellent way to meet locals and get a feel for a place.
The Polish girls were on a budget, so we ended up doing a lot of free touristy things in Ourense. I finally saw our cathedral, which I learned was a model for the famous one in Santiago de Compostela. We also visited the Iglesia de Santa Eufemia, a smaller church in the center, and took a walk to the botanical gardens above the city.
The botanical gardens ended up being a huge disappointment because there was only one small exhibit on carnivorous plants. However, the views of Ourense from the top of the mountain were spectacular. We stayed there for about an hour just taking everything in.
Both nights, we ended up in the hot spring pools about a 5 KM walk outside of the city center, enjoying red and white Ourense wine. That weekend made me truly appreciate the beauty of my new city.
Highlight #10 La Carrera de Papá Noel (Santa Claus 5K Race) in Madrid
With the endorphin-highs of the San Martiño on our minds, N and I decided to register for the 5K Carrera de Papá Noel in Madrid. The race with the most Santa Clauses in the world was one I always wanted to do, but never felt like I was capable of finishing. Since I’ve been running on a more consistent basis this fall, I decided to give it a try.
A few friends from Ourense and an old friend from Madrid were doing the race, so we met up before and after the race to take pictures and support each other. As you can probably tell from my friend’s torn pants in the first picture, the costumes were not exactly of the best quality. But, it was still a lot of fun.
The race wasn’t one that many people took too seriously, so many of the participants just walked the 5 kilometers. There were adults dressed up as Santa Clauses and children dressed up as elves. Some people even brought their pets. It was a morning of laughs, exercise and good fun all to support a good cause: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation of Madrid.
We spent the rest of the weekend hanging out in Madrid with some of my friends and one of N’s friends who lives there, too. There is a lot to see and do in Madrid at Christmastime, so we were definitely not bored. The weekend was jam-packed with activities and, at the end, I was so tired that I felt like I needed another weekend to recover. I guess that’s a sign that our trip to Madrid was a success!
Unfortunately, this amazing fall is coming to an end and winter is right around the corner. However, with winter comes the holidays and a nice break from work. I’ll be spending most of the winter break in Madrid with some friends who live there and then maybe traveling a bit at the end of the break. (Maybe somewhere in Portugal?) Happy Holidays to everyone!! 🙂