Slow Travel: Siem Reap & Ubud

February 9, 2020

After reaching a significant milestone in 2019, I marked the occasion with a meaningful and mildly indulgent three-week solo vacation. Preferring slow travel, the goal was to revisit one place I’d already been – Indonesia, 25 years earlier – and a new country. I chose a temple-themed trip comprised of one week in Siem Reap, Cambodia followed by two weeks in Ubud, Bali.

Siem Reap: Temples, Tastes, and Tuk Tuks

If you want to visit Angkor Wat (built in the early 12th century) and its sister temples, plan to make Siem Reap your home base. I’m used to being a relatively independent traveler but on this trip I found I needed help with transportation and booked three different day tours. I surmised that I wouldn’t get the hang of driving like the locals within a one-week period (a theory to which I still cling), but this also left me feeling limited. Tuk tuks were my transportation highlight in Siem Reap, where I traveled to most nearby locations for $2 USD.

Angkor Wat is an immense and beautiful temple complex where you can spend hours if not days daydreaming of Hindu times past and Buddhist days present, and if you visit in the morning, you will perhaps be lucky enough to spend time with mama and baby monkeys. Angkor Wat was fantastic. What I wasn’t expecting was to be more impressed with the nearby temple complexes.

An average Angkor Wat day tour takes you to a handful of temples in the area but temper your expectations; it is impossible to visit them all unless you’re staying a few weeks or even a few months. Try to do a little research before you visit so that you can identify priorities. Besides Angkor Wat and the proximate stunning temples of Ta Prohm (late 12th/early 13th c.) and Bayon (same), there are lesser-known temples like Banteay Srei (10th c.) within a short drive.

In addition to Angkor Wat et. al., I recommend finding a day tour that whisks you a couple of hours to the north to Koh Ker (10th c.), a majestic Maya-esque pyramid, and the temple gems around it, including Beng Mealea (early 12th c.). Swarming in mosquitos, Beng Mealea is the place to go if you would like the answer to “What would a temple complex look like if the jungle swallowed it up over the last several hundred years?” The temple region in the north is applying for UNESCO status so visit now before the masses hear about it.

I found all of the temples to be a photographer’s paradise and nightmare. The views are astonishing but nothing, absolutely nothing, is squared. Walls and windows lean right or left. Doorways and even whole buildings tilt. I spent hours trying to square unsquarable photos.

In addition to temple tours, I arranged a day tour to a town on stilts, Kompong Khleang, located on Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, which dramatically shrinks and expands with the seasons. I visited during the start of the rainy season along with a lovely guide and an English tourist. On the way, we stopped at a local market and walked claustrophobic lanes between vendors selling writhing eels. Ew.

The streets of Kompong Khleang were still dry, so I had to imagine what it would be like during the height of a robust rainy season when water reaches upwards 30’ to just below first floor entrances. We lunched in one of these towering homes with a family who couldn’t have been more disinterested in us.

Part of the day’s activities was riding in an old, creaky wooden fishing boat past two floating villages – one Vietnamese, one Khmer – to the mouth of the monster Tonlé Sap, which felt like arriving at a gray, bold, vast end of the world. Imagine driving your narrow motorboat from your floating home to a floating grocery store for toilet paper and whisking back to pick up your kids from a floating school. But imagine doing it in poverty.

Cambodia is a country still reeling from the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s and it has an outrageously corrupt government and rampant poverty and hardship. In Siem Reap, and I’m sure countrywide, there are scam artists galore exploiting children for selfish adult gain.

To be a conscientious traveler in Cambodia, please keep a few non-intuitive suggestions in mind: Do not visit orphanages. Do not visit schools and buy rice at the schools. Do not buy powdered milk for women begging, holding babies. None of this makes sense when you arrive in Siem Reap – isn’t this a good-ish deed? – but there’s just too much shady nonsense to contend with. These endeavors are usually not legit and there are numerous posters hanging in restaurant bathrooms to remind you if you forget.

If you want a volunteer vacation in Cambodia or to donate monetarily, conduct careful and thorough research to ensure that your efforts and money will reach the intended recipients. I enjoyed buying crafts and spices from locals and patronizing restaurants with a social mission.

Let’s not forget to discuss the tastes of Siem Reap. The restaurants were outstanding. I didn’t have a bad or even a mediocre meal the entire week in Siem Reap, but if I had to choose a favorite I would say that my best dinner was at Spoons. Spoons is one of several restaurants providing a valuable service to the community by teaching young people new culinary and hospitality skills, giving them the possibility of escaping poverty. I chose to eat vegetarian the entire vacation and was amazed by the variety of tastes and arrangements I found at every corner. There were many vegan options. You can’t go wrong at Marum, Artillery or any of the other highly-rated restaurants in Siem Reap.

Contrary to my usual travel style, I decided to splurge on a hotel in Siem Reap. I won’t do it again. My guesthouse in Ubud was 20% of the rate I paid in Siem Reap and my experience at the guesthouse delivered an overall better experience. Lesson learned – know thyself, do your homework on your housing options, and stay true to your travel style. There are a gazillion choices. Do some research on Booking, Trip Advisor, AirBnB, or another aggregator web site.  

Lastly, note that the Cambodian riel is based on the US dollar. I never withdrew riel from an ATM; only US dollars. The locals always preferred dollars. Remember to use ATMs attached to well-known banks. This advice applies everywhere.

A week ticked by and I was ready to go. Off to Bali.

Ubud: Culture, Crowds, and Cool

Returning to Bali after a 25-year absence was a mind-bending experience. The entire southern half of the island is now crowded to varying degrees, buzzing with mopeds, bustling with tourists, and churning out pollution. I learned quickly from expats that these days the real Bali is to be found on the northern half of the island, but for this trip I remained in Ubud.

Over the last 25 years, it seems that the inland, cultural center of Bali, Ubud, has become a top destination for Americans and yoga woo woos of all stripes and that the Kuta coastal, party area is more a destination for Australians. (Australians say “Bali is the Australian Cancún.”) The book Eat, Pray, Love ramped up the Ubud new-age scene and it’s now filled with actual and faux woo up the wazoo, with Westerners on cleanses in yoga classes. Nonetheless, you can always block out what you don’t want to see, as my country’s citizenry and politics show daily, and you can carve out the vacation you want. I managed to hike on beautiful jungle trails, get jumped on by monkeys, visit ancient ritual cleansing baths with new friends, and see a traditional Balinese doctor where I had the truly astounding experience of acupuncture, massage, talk therapy, and exorcism.

It would be a shame to visit Bali and neglect to learn more about Balinese culture and religion, but I’m afraid many tourists do just that. Bali is a global treasure on par with Tibet. If you visit and have a curious mind, be sure to spend time with the locals, get to know them, ask questions, read about Balinese customs, and bask in the spirituality and art that pervades the air over this small, magnificent, still-magical island.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent a month at a homestay. The family had little interest in me personally for the first three weeks. Though I’m not sure where we stand now, back then many Balinese didn’t have a high opinion of white, Western folk. By the last week, however, the family helped me order a custom made kebaya, or lace shirt, and proudly helped me dress for a cremation ceremony. These are the experiences that make Bali unique, but I’m afraid opportunities don’t exist at the same level as before and that the ones that are on offer are likely so compromised by tourists that you may not receive an authentic Balinese experience.

There are a quintillion homestays, guesthouses, and hotels in the Ubud area. In fact, throughout my time in both Siem Reap and Ubud I felt that supply and demand were completely out of whack. There are simply too many options for everything – hotels, taxi drivers, restaurants – and many of these are struggling mightily or quickly going out of business. Nonetheless, if you conduct a little research on Booking, TripAdvisor, AirBnB, or your favorite aggregator, you can surely find an acceptable housing option in or near town. I highly recommend choosing a homestay or guesthouse so that you can partake in daily Balinese life. I recommend Nyoman Sandi Guesthouse. Wayan Gunadi and his family were the loveliest of hosts. You can find them on

There excellent restaurant and food options in Ubud and Indonesian food is delicious.

What will I do next time?

Next time I will spend more time in Indonesia, which makes my toes tingle. I love Bali but there’s so much else to explore – a return to Java, popping over to Flores, Lombok, or the hundreds of tiny islands beyond.

I’ve returned back to my New York City life and am planning trips to Curaçao, Portugal, and Morocco, but in the back of my mind, Bali beckons.

Get your little butt out there!

Interesting Conversations with Icelandic Savants: On the Road with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth

November 23, 2018

I am the only living thing in the world: all life is concentrated in my beating heart alone. – JCE, p. 171

Geological Studies in Situ

I gazed upon these wonders in silence. Words failed me to express my feelings. I felt as if I was in some distant planet – Uranus or Neptune – and in the presence of phenomena of which my terrestrial experience gave me no cognisance. For such novel sensations, new words were wanted; and my imagination failed to supply them. – JCE, p. 158

Long ago, we crawled from the sea to terra firma. You feel it in Iceland, the primal connection to and appreciation for the cold salty sea and the solid earth. Our early ground may have been metal gray, dull black, iron red, knotted, gnarled, roped, or pebbled. You see for yourself that after all this time still the ground moves and shakes and spews. It creeps and bellows. It is alive. You know for sure that we are it and it is us but it will outlast us. To be this acutely aware of Earth’s and therefore our own origin story, that is the gift of Iceland.

What then would be those convulsed regions upon which we were advancing, regions subject to the dire phenomena of eruptions, the offspring of volcanic explosions and subterranean convulsions? – JCE, p. 70

Interesting Conversations with Icelandic Savants

It’s hard to imagine that not long ago Iceland was a poor country. Many Icelanders used to lived in cramped, damp sod houses and struggled to eek out a living fishing or sheering parasite-infested sheep. Now, the Icelandic people enjoy a high standard of living and have rapidly become one of the most advanced and progressive countries in the world. This wee island of 340,000 citizens, 217,000 of whom live in the Reykjavík metro region, is food and energy independent. Let that sink in. Food and energy. Independent.

Before I went to Iceland I feared I wouldn’t be able to eat fruits and vegetables for five days, presuming incorrectly that all fresh produce would need to be imported. With Iceland’s ample geothermal and hydroelectric power greenhouses are feeding not only the Icelandic population but the throngs of tourists that over the course of a year outnumber them three to one.

Since the “bank bomb” in 2008 and ensuing inflation everything is expensive in Iceland. Lodging and meals cost a pretty penny. Like several other travelers I met, I planned two low-budget meals a day from grocery stores and one splurge meal at dinnertime. Consider this your warning regarding US$30 burger and fries. You can find joyful exceptions such as a quiche and salad entrée found for less than US$20 and Thai noodles at the fabulous Noodle Station in Reykjavík for around US$15. I felt I had won the lottery.

Be prepared to see Americans, so very many Americans, on your travels in Iceland. Who knows, you may run into a neighbor. I estimated that around 60% of the tourists I ran into were Americans. Thankfully they tended to be on the better-behaved scale of Americans, perhaps being more of a more seasoned variety. It struck me that the American who chooses to go to Iceland is the same person who vacations in Northern California. Iceland is like Sausalito, hippie-ish and eccentric but with a thicker wool sweater.

Don’t expect super friendly people in Iceland. They’re Scandinavian, it’s cold outside, and the poor folks are rained on incessantly. They can be a bit reserved. They are a matter-of-fact, hearty group, as you would have to be to live on a small volcanic island close to the Arctic Circle. Keep in mind that a ridiculous proportion of Icelanders play an instrument and publish their own books. Modern Icelanders have found a way to thrive on the lava fields.

Snæfell at Last

For six hundred years Snæfell has been dumb; but he may speak again. Now, eruptions are always preceded by certain well-known phenomena. I have therefore examined the natives, I have studied external appearances, and I can assure you, Axel, that there will be no eruption. – JCE, p. 81

If your stay in Iceland is under one week, it’s likely you are not planning to travel the circumference of the island. That being the case, you’ll need to decide where to explore besides the charming city of Reykjavík and environs. In my case, I chose to head northwest to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Bring along the book Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, or better yet buy a copy while in Iceland. Having not been a geeky lad growing up, I missed out on the joy of this Jules Verne saga. The improbable plot of the book is a descent to the center of the Earth by an unlikely trio of two Germans and their stoic Icelander guide. After solving an elaborate puzzle it was determined that the center of the Earth could be accessed through Snæfellsjökull, the looming mountain and glacier at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Drama of an unlikely nature ensues.

Driving Snæfellsnes is a dream. For three days I drove to a small scenic lookout on the north side of the Peninsula close to where routes 56 and 54 meet to view 180 degrees of pure Icelandic magic. To my left was a gray-green series of solid rock mountain, center was a winding river in front of a distant red-black volcanic cone, and to my right glowed a large cone beaming red in the sunlight.

I’m still not sure what happened to me at this one location but now, weeks after returning home, I think of it almost every day. It was my moonwalk, my step into another dimension, similar to an experience I had in Death Valley many years ago, that feeling of being big and alive and powerful and infinitesimal and small and inconsequential at the same time. It’s a spiritual awakening that seems to dawn only during a lonesome, thrilling moment in a barren landscape. It’s one of the closest feelings I’ve had to bliss.

The Wonders of Terrestrial Depths

We pushed on, impelled by our burning curiosity. What other marvels did this cavern contain? What new treasures lay here for science to unfold? I was prepared for any surprise, my imagination was ready for any astonishment however astounding. – JCE, p. 208

Wherever I go I seek caves. I’ve seen my fair share of caves but never lava tube caves so I decided to make up for lost time by visiting two such caves in western Iceland.

First I enjoyed a brief tour of the Vatnshellir cave in Snæfellsjökull National Park. It cost US$33 including helmet and flashlight. After walking down rickety wooden steps we opened a door on an enlarged tin can helpfully marked Underworld in Icelandic and descended towards the center of the Earth. Our delightful guide, Gunnar, regaled us with tales of trolls holding court in caverns and at the end of the tour switched off the lighting. He asked everyone to be absolutely still and silent. A few nervous nellies eventually settled down and we enjoyed a full minute of total blackness, unable to see our hands in front of our faces, and the only sound being the drip-drip of water falling from the cave ceiling. If we’d been there eight thousand years earlier, we’d have heard and not seen the exact same thing.

The second lava tube cave I visited was Víðgelmir, northeast of Reykjavík near the town of Húsafell. Víðgelmir is a cave system running below a massive lava field. Of course one lava tube cave is going to be similar to the next but here I was able to view ice stalagmites and cave walls that appeared to be dripping with chocolate ganache. It seems Iceland knows how to hire lovable and eccentric tour guides and again we had a lovely young fellow leading the way, including the compulsory one minute of blackout and silence at the end of the route. I felt every bit of my 3% Neanderthal heritage.

Water Discovered

You will, and you should, go to the Blue Lagoon. The guidebooks probably don’t mention one of the best parts of a trip to the Blue Lagoon – driving there. The otherworldly scene of black, jumbled blocks, chunks, and irregularly-shaped hunks of lava covered with moss and draped in mist is a landscape I’d never fathomed before stumbling upon the Icelandic crime show Lava Field. Driving to the Blue Lagoon was the first thing I did after an early arrival at Reykjavík and it catapulted me into a sense of awe and mystery that didn’t leave until departing the country.

I suggest taking the earliest appointment possible at the Blue Lagoon. I arrived at 9.00 a.m. and left just before noon and was pleased to avoid the afternoon crowds. Despite Disneyfication the Blue Lagoon is still a magical place. In addition to exploring the nooks and crannies of the massive Lagoon, be sure to visit the steam cave and wet and dry saunas near the locker rooms. I bought the basic package at around US$90 that included one drink and a silica mask. Would you like the algae mask? Plan to pay extra for that or anything else you might want. Not to worry, you’ll be wearing a nifty hi-tech bracelet that allows as many visits to your locker as needed and doubles as your water-resistant credit card.

A Blue Lagoon tip, primarily for the ladies, but really for anyone with hair. Everyone is asked to bathe naked before going into the Lagoon. I can’t stress how specific the instructions are about this. It is recommended to leave an ample amount of conditioner in your hair because silica can be very hard on it, quite literally very hard. I silently judged the women who didn’t follow these instructions, with their dry hair in ponytails or wearing ridiculous shower caps, perched prissily above the water. I righteously followed instructions, in fact went back to the showers midway through to add more conditioner to my hair, but still it was a hot mess at the end of my visit and for several days afterward.  I was convinced my hair would crack off into my hands, but after a few days and a full bottle of hair conditioner, I was back to semi-normal.

Et quacumque viam dederit fortuna sequamur: Wherever fortune clears a way, Thither our ready footsteps stray

I don’t think there is any other way to see Iceland but by driving and for visitors that means renting a car. It is expensive but worth it. If you can, get a four-wheel drive. Expect to pay, at a minimum, €28 a day for the auto insurance you will need – basic, windshield, lights, and gravel protection – which says all you need to know about the unique conditions you will be driving in. I paid for an insurance package via an online service that I later regretted. Wait until you pick up the car to make your insurance selections, and suck it up by saying yes to every type of insurance that is offered.

Driving around Iceland is a magical experience. I couldn’t imagine myself as a tourist crammed into one of the buses zipping around the countryside. You will want the freedom of being able to stop wherever you’d like to take photos or veering off onto gravel roads towards beaches or hiking trails. Be sure to have a robust guidebook. On my drive from Reykjavík to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula my eyes were glued inland to the dramatic mountains and plateaus. I didn’t realize there were beautiful beaches and crazy rock formations to my left.

If you will, let me save you some trouble with Iceland’s complex gas station protocol. There are no give-you-backsies in the gas pumping world of Iceland. Don’t use your credit card at the pump. You risk losing money if you guess your tank size or currency estimate incorrectly and it’s likely you will. Instead, go into the gas station, usually an N1, and buy a prepaid petrol card. Depending on how long you will be driving in Iceland, you can buy one for 5,000 krona, roughly US$45 at time of writing, or 10,000 krona. You may need to buy a second card if you stay longer.

You quickly learn when driving in Iceland that it is impossible to stop and view every beautiful lava field, mist covered plateau, errant sheep or waterfall or you would be stopping every half-mile on a quick trip to nowhere. There are not many places to park on the side of the road to take photos and side roads are easy to whip by before you have time to brake. I often felt like I was driving through Wyoming, New Mexico, or the plains of Texas, and at times a treeless Hawai’i.

A quick note about restroom access. Pretend you are in New York City and that public restrooms are at a premium. Use every one you see at all times without hesitation. I found myself on long drives with not a single restaurant, cafe or gas station on the horizon and plenty of wide-open views for passers-by to watch me take care of business on the side of the road or in an empty sheep pasture. You must know, and this will be no surprise, that the locals hate that tourists do this. Hopefully Icelanders are actively planning ways to either provide additional facilities or limit us from coming to their country at all.

Hospitality Under the Arctic Circle

My iPhone worked 95% of the time in Iceland, with map apps working fine. I paid Verizon an extra US$10 a day for unlimited cell service. Wifi is plentiful in Iceland and I could surf the web and text from almost everywhere, but I was not able to make a phone call the whole time in Iceland, not even local calls.

Plan on using your credit card. There’s very little need for Icelandic krona and even toll booths accept cards. Be sure you have a card with no international transaction fees. When you can, shop smartly in select stores rather than small purchases in multiple shops. If you spend a minimum of around US$60 in a shop, you may be able to receive a tax refund. Plentiful signage will show you which shops offer this perk but if you don’t see signage be sure to ask. Keep the receipts and fill out the required forms. You’ll get those stamped at the Reykjavík airport on your way out and eventually see nice little credits on your credit card invoice.

Iceland! but what Next?

And yet, now that I can reflect quietly, now that my spirit has grown calm again, now that months have slipped by since this strange and supernatural meeting, what am I to think? What am I to believe? I must conclude that it was impossible that our senses had been deceived, that our eyes did not see what we supposed they saw. – JCE, p. 211

At the end of every vacation, I ask myself what I would have done differently or what I’d like to prioritize the next time I visit. On my next trip to Iceland I will plan more geothermal pool excursions. The geothermal fields and pools of Iceland are a unique experience and a daily part of the average Icelander’s life. These treasures are located in just about every town. Ask the locals or use The Google to find pools near you.

On my next trip, I will head up rather than down. To the mountains and glaciers I will go.

Most importantly, on my next visit to Iceland I will bring a sturdy old-fashioned digital camera (DSLR). As wonderful as my iPhone 8 Plus’s camera is, it couldn’t capture the Icelandic scenery to my specifications. I found myself envious of the tourists traipsing around with their elaborate equipment and tripods. Bring a hefty zoom lens.

Four full days in Iceland was enough to give me a taste of what the northwest of Iceland has to offer but there is much else to explore. A two-week vacation around the entire island would give one a robust taste and feel for the land, people, and culture of Iceland.

However, it’s fine to start small. It’s likely you’ll be back.

All’s Well that Ends Well

Get your little butt out there!

Amsterdam: Hippocampus All In

October 13, 2018


Where the kerk meets red lights

The hippocampus is a part of the limbic system. The limbic system is the area in the brain that is associated with memory, emotions, and motivation. The limbic system is located just above the brain stem and below the cortex. The hippocampus itself is highly involved with our memories. (

There are many things I still love about Amsterdam sixteen years later: crooked canal houses, riding a bicycle at night on quiet, misty cobblestone streets, and winding canals draped by boxy iron bridges. In daily life, I rarely remember the details of eighteen months in Amsterdam. Snippets return with prodding: cycling in the rain while holding an umbrella, talking on the phone and juggling groceries – being surrounded by seven-footers at a concert at the Melkweg – cruising pedestrian shopping streets after work – endless jokes about my last name.   These memories? They are few, precariously perched on the frontal lobe, content to make an occasional appearance.


Canal houses near Centraal Station

There’s no mystery as to why a recent Amsterdam trip allowed access to the depths of my hippocampus – the place where memories, pain, passion, and dreams lie. The bicycle! The trusty, ubiquitous Dutch bicycle – big, blocky, heavy, and sturdy on cobblestone streets. I made plans. This day I’ll ride to De Pijp to find my old apartment, the next I will trek to De Jaren Café, the day after I’ll head to Waterlooplein flea market. Simple plans that during execution unlocked the minutiae as well as the flavor of memory – the whoomp, there it is of memory – the feel of the curve of the road on the Spui, turning a corner on a gracht and peering into a curtain-free living room, because the Dutch have nothing to hide.


Mijn fiets

These are visceral memories that induce tears or waves of joy and sadness. Sixteen years ago! Who was I then and who am I now? My early 30s are far behind me and yet I could taste them just then, with the sadness of knowing that era is long gone (and should be) and a corresponding uncomfortable twinge of the loss of the daily wonder and awe I used to possess (which oughtn’t be).

There were times in Amsterdam when my hippocampus and I were disappointed and  lonely. Amsterdam has changed a great deal in sixteen years. The level of tourism in Amsterdam in September felt like Venice in August. The Center of the city is packed to the gills with tourists. Vendors speak English first; later, if needed, in Dutch. My old humble neighborhood, De Pijp, is unrecognizably teeming with yuppies and hip restaurants.


De Bloemenmarkt

Amsterdam doesn’t feel as gezellig as it used to – the difficult-to-describe Dutch coziness, warmth, and understated joy. Gezelligheid is the experience of quiet but supreme satisfaction that manifests thanks to meaningful companionship and a simple delight in the senses.

I used to be spoken to in Dutch and would respond with a little Dutch myself. (Once I did, a kind and perhaps impatient multilingual Dutchie would switch to English.) Sixteen years later in Amsterdam, I barely heard even the basics in Dutch: hello, goodbye, thank you, see you later, enjoy your meal.


The ubiquitous houseboat

The population of locals, immigrants, and tourists looked and the vibe felt more like New York City – electric, but transient and less connected. My Dutch friends stated that Amsterdam is an international city now, not a Dutch one. You have to leave Centrum, definitely, and perhaps Amsterdam, generally, to return to an authentic Dutch experience. (Sadly, I am hearing that the countryside is being overrun by tourists as well.)

Amsterdam still suits me, though. It always has. My American coworkers in Amsterdam used to tell me: “You are going to stay in here. Out of all of us, you belong.” When my job ended in 2002, I returned to the States with the sad realization that I may never have a Dutch-level quality of life again.


Tot ziens

The vacation is over. I’ve returned to daily life in New York City and continue to delight in my Amsterdam photos and residual hippocampal bliss, but I can feel it fading. Maybe I should continue to pursue returning to the places I once lived. On the other hand, perhaps I should focus more on new places, to me, like Iceland, where I stopped for five days en route to Amsterdam. These sights, people, culture, and languages are new to the senses and jolt a re-circuiting of neural pathways. They offer an upload of fresh content to a tired hippocampus. I’ve not had to consider these things before, but as I approach fifty years of age, do I need to revisit old loves and losses or is it time to forge straight ahead?

Get your little butt out there!



Pueblo Inglés: A Talking Vacation in Spain

October 12, 2009

Sunrise at La Alberca, in Salamanca

Sunrise at La Alberca

Lying on a Costa del Sol beach, tanning and bronzed, for a week?  Bo-ring.  Visiting the Louvre and spending money on high fashion?  Bah humbug.   Next time you – as a native English speaker – want a vacation that stretches your limits, check out what’s on offer at Pueblo Inglés, a language company based in Madrid (

Pueblo Inglés – “English Village” – is approximately twenty native-English speakers (“Anglos”) and twenty wanna-speak Englishers (“Spaniards”) thrown together into a small community where they speak, live, breathe and eat the English language for eight days; an English-immersion environment that is magically created in a small Spanish village.

At the end of the eight day program, participants can barely speak any language, as days and nights of talking, laughing, staying up late, drinking too much wine and eating too many carbs take their toll.  But how sweet excess can be.

A toast is raised in a bodega

A toast is raised in a bodega

I’m not going to spoil the fun by describing the week’s activities in detail – the program organizers love to offer participants daily “surprises” – but I am happy to pass along some heart-felt advice to Anglos considering a week of speaking English at Pueblo Inglés:

Sophisticated Spanish professionals like to learn English cuss words just as much as Spanish teenagers do. During my week in the town of La Alberca, in Salamanca, many of the Spaniards came from the medical community and included pharmacists, biologists and doctors.  You’d think that these folks would bring a more… er… serious tone to Pueblo Inglés, but no – they were a boatload of fun, sociable and interesting, always game for a good party and tall tale.  Do the Spaniards a favor and get them straight on the difference between “b-tch” and “prostitute,” a common – and comical – Spanish misunderstanding.  I made the mistake of teaching a new Spanish friend a cuss word and saying to him, “I’ll teach you this word, but you can never use it, and don’t tell anyone it came from me.”  Watch your ethics go downhill as the week progresses.

The Spanish Inquisition wuz here

The Spanish Inquisition wuz here

It’s not all about you. Yes, you know you’re interesting, but the subjects Anglos think are sure to fascinate Spaniards may not be as interesting as we hope.  Know your audience, choose subjects appropriately, and for God’s sake, let the Spaniards get a word in edgewise.  Don’t dumb down your speaking, but speak clearly, and check often to see if the Spaniard you’re speaking with is following your story, especially if you use slang expressions.  By the end of the week, I was amazed to realize how much slang I use – that all Anglos use – and how we took it for granted that the Spaniards were following us.  They’re often not; don’t be fooled by their smiles and nods.  Ask lots of questions about what you’re saying, then let them do the talking and relax with a cup of tea.

Sunrise II

Sunrise II

It’s tiring to talk all day, even in your native tongue. Seriously.  I’m not an old woman, but eight days of talking at Pueblo Inglés wiped me out.  The Spaniards hit the wall earlier in the week; as hard as it is for us, it’s much harder for them.  The Anglos tended to hit the wall on Wednesday or Thursday.  Mealtimes on these days can be quieter than usual; let it be.  During one meal, a Spaniard said to two Anglos, “Silence is good.”  We took the cue and gave the poor man a break.  For two minutes.

No, they’re not flirting with you. Spaniards are a playful, light-hearted and talkative bunch, which can sometimes come across as flirting to the Anglo making assumptions (or having wishful thinking).  They’re not flirting with you; well, unless of course they are.  I mean it’s possible, just don’t immediately come to that conclusion.  Assume you’ve just made a new Spanish friend unless it gets spelled out otherwise.  Expect cultural miscues of this and other varieties.  Keep an open mind, pay attention, and, if necessary, talk them through.

We need them. They need Anglos to learn English; we need Spaniards to open our hearts.  I’d love to be a fly on the wall (idiom!) of a Spanish home to see how their kids grow up (phrasal verb!) to be so passionate, from the heart, and present in the moment.  Spaniards have a refreshing lack of self-consciousness and a high capacity for intimacy; we need them.

La Alberca's pig statue

The La Alberca pig o’ fertility

The town of La Alberca

Be sure to visit La Alberca, the medieval village that is straight out of Shakespeare in Love.  Don’t miss the fantastic selection of high quality jewelry at Artemisa, C/ Tablao, 43 – Bajo, especially La Alberca’s unique “charros,” a silver button design that was worn on old La Albercan garments (see photo below).

For a snack at a yummy local pastry shop, stop at El Pan Sforo Horno, C/ Tablao, 19, just down the street from Artemisa.

Perhaps best of all, you may be able to see the village pig roaming around the streets, or more likely, lying plopped on the ground in front of a storefront, waiting for a bite of food.

The village pig is a centuries-old custom, slightly modified for modern times.  The pig roams freely through the town, well-taken care of by the townsfolk for a year.  Each January 14, there is a lottery, and the winner gets the pig – plenty of bacon and pork chops for all.  The (usually local) winner shares the booty with their fellow townsfolk, so in essence, it’s just another Spanish excuse for a party.  As if they need any more.

Charro pendant

Charro pendant

A word on Madrid

I was standing in the plaza, at Sol, watching policemen beat back protestors – who were, ironically, protesting police brutality – when a couple of tourists approached me to ask what was going on.  They were older, from San Francisco, and had a dazed look, like they weren’t quite sure what to make of Madrid.  “Madrid isn’t easy at first,” I told them, “but it grows on you.  Be patient.”

Here’s the only advice you need to get started in Madrid:  be aware of your surroundings, and don’t get pickpocketed.  Carry only what you need at any given time – 50 euros and one credit card, for example – leave the rest in your hotel room.  But don’t let paranoia get the better of you; a great time is to be had in Madrid.  The chances of violent crime happening are minimal, but the lose-your-wallet statistic is higher.  Be smart, then go out and have fun.

Get your little butt out there!

A building from 1492

A building from 1492

Spain: Nuts and Bolts Recommendations

September 27, 2009
Here are my Nuts and Bolts Recommendations for Barcelona, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Madrid, Ronda and Sevilla.  These recommendations are by no means the last word or even each city’s top picks – but they are places, foods, sights, etc. that I personally experienced and can heartily recommend.

Random ice-cream-in-Spain suggestion:  If you have access to a freezer, load up on delicioso Magnum ice cream bars that you will find in supermarket/Chinese shop freezers throughout Spain, and indeed throughout Europe.  How Magnums are not available in the U.S., I’ve no idea.  It’s criminal. [Note in 2018: Magnum abounds in the U.S., thank you baby Jesus.]

Note on the Spanish language:  It took me awhile, but I finally figured out that Salon de Juegos was not House of Juice or Hall of Jews – it’s Hall of Games, as in video.  Just so you know.

Barcelona sidewalk tiles

Barcelona sidewalk art



Go to the beach.  It’s an easy walk from ‘downtown,’ or you can take the metro to the Barceloneta stop and walk the rest of the way.


A general note on ice cream.  There are ice cream shops everywhere in Barcelona, so don’t be afraid to be a bit picky.  Wherever you can, choose the artesanal (look out for various spellings) ice cream or gelato shops.  It is indeed a bit more expensive, but well worth the extra euro or so.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.  So worth it.

The most orgasmic gelato on the planet at Amorino Gelato e Cioccolato, Gran de Gràcia, 53 (Gràcia neighborhood).

A-freakin’-mazing Thai food at Thai Gardens, Diputación, 273 (right off the Paseo de Gràcia and not far from Plaça Catalunya).

Delicious pastries and bread at Forn Sant Jordi Flequeria, C/ Llibreteria, 8 (not far from the Catedral Barri Gòtic, just off C/ de Ferran).  Founded in 1798 and still going strong.

Bubo won the Best Chocolate Cake in the World at Lyon in 2005.  Visit two locations in Barcelona – Bruc, 150 and Caputxes, 6.  Mmmmmm.

Order iced tea to go – té frio para llevar! – at Tea Shop of East West Company, many locations in Barcelona and Madrid. (Not all shops offer iced tea to go – a shame.)

Eat the best falafel ev-ah at Maoz, two locations in Barcelona – Carrer de Ferran, 13 and La Rambla, 95.


Museu d’Història de Barcelona (Conjunt Monumental de la Plaça del Rei), Plaça del Rei, s/n. Walk over and among the ruins of the old Roman colony, Barcino.  Your imagination will be fired.  6 €.,4468,335907851_335943991_1,00.html.

Barcelona Walks by Barcelona Turisme, the Gòtic tour (walk of the Gothic barrio), 12 €.  Other routes offered.

Parc Guell tiles

Parc Guell tiles

The architectural wonders of Gaudí, in this order of impressiveness:

Sagrada Família, 11 € entrance, 2.50 € to take the lift to the top of one of the towers (pay on elevator).

Casa Batlló, 16.50 €.

Parc Güell, Free.


Wander around the Gràcia district (not the street, but the barrio).  Fabulous boutiques and restaurants, mellow atmosphere.

Revérsika, C/ Torrijos, 37, fantastic reversible clothes and bags, imported from Colombia.  (In the Gràcia barrio)

Happy Pills, C/ Argenteria, 70, fantastic kitchy gifts o’ candy pills.  They said they’ll be selling online soon.

Casa Batllo roof dragon

Casa Batllo roof dragon

Funky clothes at Desigual, C/ Bruc, 49, and other locations. There’s one shop in the U.S., in Soho in NYC.

English bookstore, Hibernian Books, Carrer de Montseny, 17 (Gràcia barrio).  Http://


Barcelona Bed & Breakfast, wonderful location and hosts. For more information,

Cadiz Roman Amphitheatre

Cadiz Roman Amphitheatre



Check out the old beach, within the old city limits, and the new beaches, just outside the city gate.  It’s all good.


Teatro Romano, C/ Campo del Sur, s/n.  The entrance to this ancient Roman theater is easy to pass by and they have wonky opening times, but it’s worth heading back until you get in.  It’s basically around the corner from the Catedral.  Wonderful ruins from 60 A.D.  Free.

Catedral de Cádiz, Plaza de la Catedral, 5 €.


Hotel Argantonio, C/ Argantonio, 3.  Charming, nice location.

Cordoba Angel

Cordoba Angel



Great tapas at affordable prices with lots of locals at Mesón de las Flores, on the corner of C/ Velázquez Bosco and Calleja de las Flores.


Mezquita, or Great Mosque, Córdoba’s main attraction.  A treasure, a joy, and a photographer’s paradise – bring your tripod.  Also, enjoy the ludicrous interpretation of history as offered in the official pamphlet called “The Cathedral, Córdoba.” 8 €.

The Castle of the Christian Monarchs, Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, the past home of King Fernando and Queen Isabel.   4 €.

Madinat Al-Zahra, Ctra. Palma del Río, Km 8.  Archaeological site of Moorish city from 940 A.D. Reserve a spot on the bus at a tourist kiosk, 6.50 € roundtrip. Madinat admission is 1.50 € for non-EU citizens.

Mezquita Christian motif atop Muslim

Mezquita Christian motif atop Muslim


Hostal Lineros 38, C/Lineros, 38.  Fantastic small hotel in a terrific location.



Nemrut Kebap, Plaza Nueva, 2 and C/Acera de Casino, 11, as well as eight locations in Madrid.  Great Turkish food.

Generalife Roses

Generalife Roses


La Alhambra, can’t miss it.  A spine-tingling experience.  Read Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” before you go, or better yet, bring it with you.  13 €.  Reserve in advance. More information on tickets at

El barrio Albaycín, the old Moorish neighborhood alongside the Alhambra. Excellent views of the Alhambra from Plaza San Nicolás.  I didn’t have any problems there, but heard again and again to be careful at night.  Leave your valuables in your hotel room, travel light.


Hostal Lima, Lauren de las Tablas, 17.  Great location, nice accommodation.


Day Trip:

To Toledo, to get lost walking the medieval streets, shopping, eating, and visiting the impressive Cathedral, Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada, C/ Cardenal Cisneros, 1. 7 €. Construction began in 1227 and finished (more or less) three hundred years later.  It’s a beautiful Gothic Cathedral, containing a mini art gallery in its Sacristy.  There you can view many dark El Gregos, a Goya, and a Caravaggio with spellbinding shadows.  Also plan on standing on the very spot that Mary Mother of God visited in 666 A.D. to thank Bishop Saint Ildephonsus for sticking up for her virginity.  Toledo is a one-half hour train ride on RENFE from Atocha Renfe Station, costing approximately 15 € round-trip.

To the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, to see the famous monastery and lovely basilica. You could easily spend a full day there.  The building tour showcases paintings, the burial vault for kings and their moms, an extended underground cemetery for other relatives, the fantastic library (spend some time with the ceiling murals), and the basilica with its stunning high chapel.  8 € for an unguided tour; 10 € guided.

Madrid swingers


Hear some fantastic music in a cabaret setting at Galileo

Visit Cock Bar, just so you can say you did.  Chueca neighborhood.  The blinds are lowered around midnight and you can’t see in.  Knock on the door and see if they’ll let you in.


Yummy tapas at La Botillería de Maxi, C/ Cava Alta, 4, La Latina.

Forego the more fast-foody Turkish kebap places in favor of somewhere that offers full platters. I can vouch for Nemrut Kebap on the corner of Gran Via and C/ de Fuencarral; there are other locations, too.  There’s usually not much seating space.

Best chocolate napolitanas ever

World’s best chocolate napolitanos

Note on Sol:

Go for a stroll from Sol and enjoy the old Spanish men in suits, carrying canes and wearing top hats.  Start out with some falafel at Maoz (C/ Mayor, 4 – another location at C/ Hortaleza, 7), grab a 1 € chocolate napolitano at La Mallorquina (Puerta del Sol, 8 y C/ Mayor, 2), shop for some funky clothes at Desigual (C/ Mayor, 11) and then enjoy the sights and smells of Mercado de San Miguel (at Plaza de San Miguel).


El Prado, the world-famous museum of paintings (and some sculpture), Paseo del Prado, s/n.  It’s immense, so plan multiple trips.  Don’t miss Velázquez, Goya, Ribera, El Greco and the beautiful absurdity of Bosch. 8€. Tip:  Purchase the set of six (small) gallery guides at the information desk near the main museum shop and cafe to get a nice understanding of many of the prized artworks at El Prado.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s (1863-1923) delicious paintings in his old home and studio, Museo Sorolla, Pso. General Martinez Campos, 37. Only 3 € entrance fee; a steal!

The turtles at Atocha Renfe, the main train station in Madrid.  Adults seem to love watching the turtles – puttering around in their pond, swimming drunkenly under the lilies, and lumbering on top of each other (smallest guy on top) – even more than the kids do.  It’s a built-in meditation station, perfect for when your train is running late.  Breathe in, breathe out, smile at the baby turtles.  Repeat.

Quintessentially Spanish fashion


Look for Desigual shops throughout Madrid (and the rest of Spain).  The clothes are expensive, but it’s hard to pass up this quintessentially Spanish shop.  You’ll see Desigual knock-offs all over Spain, but this is the original.

For funky t-shirts and jackets, stop by Blue Velvet, several locations in Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona,

The whole length of Calle de Fuencarral is a pretty great shopping street, with all of the usual suspects mixed in with funky boutiques.  It ends/starts at Gran Via/Bilbao metro stops.

The streets off Sol offer a wide variety of shopping; check out Calle de Arenal, between Sol and Opera.  There are funky boots and shoes to be bought at Vas (C/ de Arenal, 5) and at Iris (C/ de Arenal, 3). Art and El Naturalista are two unique and eye-catching Spanish brands.

Also look out for the only cheap clothes you’re bound to find in Madrid, at Lefties, (yes, the comma is included), usually found alongside a Zara store.

Ronda cliffside buildings

Ronda cliffside buildings



Enjoy coffee, tea and chocolate at Chocolat, C/ Sevilla, 16. “Un placer para los sentidos.”


Baños Arabes, C/ San Miguel, s/n, incredibly well-preserved Arab baths from the 13th – 14th centuries.  3 €.  Photographers, bring tripods.

One of the coolest churches anywhere, Colegiata Santa María la Mayor, Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, 4 €.

Plaza de Toros/Museu Taurino, C/ Virgen de la Paz, 15.  Bullring built in 1785; stand in the middle of the ring and let the sand blow in your eyes.  Nice small museums included.  6 €.


Hotel Don Miguel, Plaza de España, 4 y 5, right next to the gorgeous Puente Nuevo.

I'm your Venus

I’m your Venus


Day Trip:

Ruins of the ancient Roman colony, Itálica, birthplace of Trajan and Hadrian, is only 9 km from Sevilla, and in my opinion, a must-see.  Avda. De Extremadura, 2, Santiponce.  Founded 206 B.C. and flourished until the mid-3rd century.  Take the bus from Plaza de Armas, Bus M172, Bay 34, 1.25 € each way, pay on board, 20-25 minutes each way.  Cheap or no entrance fee depending on the mood of the guy in the kiosk.


Go to the Arab Baths at Aire de Sevilla, C/ Aire, 15.  20 € for a one and a half hour ‘appointment.’ Can request ‘extras,’ such as massage.  RSVP.


Taberna Coloniales, C/ Fernandez y Gonzalez (very close to the Cathedral).  Have the tapa or media of pechuga de pollo con salsa de almendras – chicken with almond sauce over friend potatoes.  You won’t be disappointed.

Bar Eslava, C/ Eslava, 5 (close to Alameda de Hercules), excellent tapas.

Tex Mex meets Giralda

Tex Mex meets Giralda

Restaurante San Marco, C/ Meson del Moro, 6-10 (Barrio de Santa Cruz).  Atmospheric Italian restaurant in the ruins of old Arab Baths.  Don’t pass up the tea and dessert at the end of the meal.  And look out for the Moroccan waiter who looks just as dreamy as, and could be a brother of, A-Rod.

Confiteria La Campana, C/ Sierpes 1 & 3 y Alphonso XII (at the top of one of the main shopping streets).  Buy some fantastic chocolate artesano, which can be bought regular (milk chocolate), blanco (white chocolate) or puro/negro (dark chocolate) at 30 €/kg.

Bypass Flaherty’s Pub if you want to watch sports and head further up the wee hill to Tex Mex, Calle Asunción, 67, a stone’s throw from the Catedral and Giralda.


Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria, C/ Ximenez de Enciso, 28 (Barrio de Santa Cruz),  Excellent place to see flamenco for 15 €.

Flamenco at Tablao los Gallos, C/ Plaza de Santa Cruz, 11.  30 € for two hours of flamenco dancing and music, includes one drink.  Twelve artists each show.  A bit touristy but they put on a good show.  Casa de la Memoria edges them out, in my opinion.

Sevilla Real Alcazar

Sevilla Real Alcazar

La Catedral de Sevilla and Real Alcázar, located side-by-side in the heart of Seville.  Cathedral entrance will also allow you to climb the Giralda tower, a holdover from Moorish domination.

Casa de Pilatos, Plaza de Pilatos, 1.  An old mansion in Sevilla with Roman, Mudéjar and Gothic themes.  Entrance not well marked but you’ll see people coming and going. 8 €.

A corrida, bullfight, at La Plaza de Toros de Sevilla, if you are there during the season and if you have a strong stomach for that kind of thing.  Go to the bullring itself to buy the tickets and don’t buy from the hawkers – go to the sales agents within.  It’s ideal to get a seat in the shade; otherwise, bring a hat, sunscreen and a strong constitution.  You can also get tours of the bullring and bullfighting museum most days.


Piaf Ropa & Plata, Conde de Barajas, 8 (near the Alameda de Hercules).  Small boutique with interesting dresses and jewelry.

Las Moradas, Rodrigo Caro, 20 (near the Plaza Doña Elvira in the Santa Cruz district).  Nice shop with ceramics and jewelry.

Generally, I wasn’t thrilled by shopping in Sevilla.  The shops seemed to have the same clothes and shoes over and over.  Antonio Ortiz shoe stores seemed to have a more interesting variety – I particularly enjoyed the rather pricey Vialis brand.

Books are expensive in Spain, but if you need something to read in English, head over to Casa del Libro, which had the best variety of English books I found in the shopping district.

Get your little butt out there!

Italica, just outside Sevilla - Trajan and Hadrian walked these roads

Italica – Trajan and Hadrian walked on these stones

Spain: Tales of the Alhambra

September 6, 2009

Tales of the Alhambra

Washington Irving


La Alhambra

In the present day, when popular literature is running into the low levels of life, and luxuriating on the vices and follies of mankind; and when the universal pursuit of gain is trampling down the early growth of poetic feeling, and wearing out the verdure of the soul, I question whether it would not be of service for the reader occasionally to turn to these records of prouder times and loftier modes of thinking; and to steep himself to the very lips in old Spanish romance. -p. 314

another closeup of arabicMany are apt to picture Spain to their imaginations as a soft southern region, decked out with the luxuriant charms of voluptuous Italy.  On the contrary, though there are exceptions in some of the maritime provinces, yet, for the greater part, it is a stern, melancholy country, with rugged mountains, and long sweeping plains, destitute of trees, and indescribably silent and lonesome, partaking of the savage and solitary character of Africa. -p. 5

To the traveler imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems.  How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous, – how many songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this Oriental pile! -p. 33

Alhambra court and pool

Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls.  One is irresistibly transported in imagination to those times when Moslem Spain was a region of light amid Christian, yet benighted Europe; externally a warrior power fighting for existence; internally a realm devoted to literature, science, and the arts; where philosophy was cultivated with passion, though wrought up into subtleties and refinements; and where the luxuries of sense were transcended by those of thought and imagination. -p. 321

Such is the Alhambra; – a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away. -p. 59

two doorsA grand line of distinction existed among the Moslems of Spain, between those of Oriental origin and those from Western Africa.  Among the former the Arabs considered themselves the purest race, as being descended from the countrymen of the Prophet, who first raised the standard of Islam; among the latter, the most warlike and powerful were the Berber tribes from Mount Atlas and the deserts of Sahara, commonly known as Moors, who subdued the tribes of the sea-coast, founded the city of Morocco, and for a long time disputed with the Oriental races the control of Moslem Spain. -p. 106

The Arab invasions and conquest brought a higher civilization, and a nobler style of thinking, into Gothic Spain.  The Arabs were a quick-witted, sagacious, proud-spirited, and poetical people, and were imbued with oriental science and literature.  Wherever they established a seat of power, it became a rallying-place for the learned and ingenious; and they softened and refined the people whom they conquered. -p. 312

tilesAs conquerors, [the Moors’] heroism was only equaled by their moderation; and in both, for a time, they excelled the nations with whom they contended.  Severed from their native homes, they loved the land given them as they supposed by Allah, and strove to embellish it with everything that could administer to the happiness of man.  Laying the foundations of their power in a system of wise and equitable laws, diligently cultivating the arts and sciences, and promoting agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, they gradually formed an empire unrivalled for its prosperity by any of the empires of Christendom; and diligently drawing round them the graces and refinements which marked the Arabian empire in the East, at the time of its greatest civilization, they diffused the light of Oriental knowledge through the western regions of benighted Europe. -p. 58

[Alhamar] organized a vigilant police, and established rigid rules for the administration of justice.  The poor and the distressed always found ready admission to his presence, and he attended personally to their assistance and redress.  He erected hospitals for the blind, the aged, and the infirm, and all those incapable of labor, and visited them frequently; not on set days with pomp and form, so as to give time for everything to be put in order, and every abuse concealed, but suddenly, and unexpectedly, informing himself, by actual observation and close inquiry, of the treatment of the sick, and the conduct of those appointed to administer to their relief.  He founded schools and colleges, which he visited in the same manner, inspecting personally the instruction of the youth.  He established butcheries and public ovens, that the people might be furnished with wholesome provisions at just and regular prices.  He introduced abundant streams of water into the city, erecting baths and fountains, and constructing aqueducts and canals to irrigate and fertilize the Vega.  By these means prosperity and abundance prevailed in this beautiful city; its gates were thronged with commerce, and its warehouses filled with luxuries and merchandise of every clime and country. -pgs. 64-65

There are two classes of people to whom life seems one long holiday, – the very rich and the very poor; one, because they need do nothing; the other, because they have nothing to do; but there are none who understand the art of doing nothing and living upon nothing, better than the poor classes of Spain. -p. 53

Throughout all Spain the men, however poor, have a gentlemanlike abundance of leisure; seeming to consider it the attribute of a true cavallero never to be in a hurry; but the Andalusians are gay as well as leisurely, and have none of the squalid accompaniments of idleness. -p. 28

arabic close up on column“Enjoy the moment” is the creed of the gay and amorous Andalusian, and at no time does he practise it more zealously than on the balmy nights of summer, wooing his mistress with the dance, the loveditty, and the passionate serenade. -p. 94

…For whatever may be said of Spanish pride, it rarely chills or constrains the intercourse of social or domestic life.  Among no people are the relations between kindred more unreserved and cordial, or between superior and dependent more free from haughtiness on the one side, and obsequiousness on the other.  In these respects there still remains in Spanish life, especially in the provinces, much of the vaunted simplicity of the olden times. -p. 154

shield and arabicThis talent of singing and improvising is frequent in Spain, and is said to have been inherited from the Moors. -p. 8

Thus the country, the habits, the very looks of the people, have something of the Arabian character. -p. 6

In fact, Spain, even at the present day, is a country apart; severed in history, habits, manners, and modes of thinking, from all the rest of Europe. -p. 312

"There is no Conqueror but God"

“There is no Conqueror but God”

As [Alhamar] approached Granada on his return he beheld arches of triumph which had been erected in honor of his martial exploits.  The people thronged forth to see him with impatient joy, for his benignant rule had won all hearts.  Wherever he passed he was hailed with acclamations as “El Ghalib!” (the conqueror).  Alhamar gave a melancholy shake of the head on hearing the appellation. “Wa le ghalib ile Aláh!” (there is no conqueror but God) exclaimed he.  From that time forward this exclamation became his motto, and the motto of his descendants, and appears to this day emblazoned on his escutcheons in the halls of the Alhambra. -p. 64

The airy palace, with its tall white towers and long arcades, which breasts yon mountain, among pompous groves and hanging gardens, is the Generalife, a summer palace of the Moorish kings, to which they resorted during the sultry months to enjoy a still more breezy region than that of the Alhambra. -p. 81

vertical columnsHere the hand of time has fallen the lightest, and the traces of Moorish elegance and splendour exist in almost their original brilliancy.  Earthquakes have shaken the foundations of this pile, and rent its rudest towers; yet see ! not one of those slender columns has been displaced, not an arch of that light and fragile colonnade given way, and all the fairy fretwork of these domes, apparently as unsubstantial as the crystal fabrics of a morning’s frost, exist after the lapse of centuries, almost as fresh as if from the hand of the Moslem artist. -p. 99

With these thoughts I pursued my way among the mountains.  A little further and Granada, the Vega and the Alhambra, were shut from my view and thus ended one of the pleasantest dreams of a life which the reader perhaps may think has been but too much made up of dreams. -pgs. 344-345

Get your little butt out there!

elaborate room

Summer in Spain: Excerpts from Travel Journal

August 22, 2009

I spent the summer of 2009 in Andalucía, first as a student and then as a tourist.  Here are excerpts from weekly e-mails that I sent to friends and family tracking my progress and experiences in Spain. Articles containing recommendations on traveling in Spain will be forthcoming.

Shopping street shade

Shopping street shade

May 31, 2009

Warm greetings – no, let me say – hotter ‘n hell greetings from Sevilla, España.

Let’s start with the weather.  It’s close to 100˚ F each day and billowing shades are being set up far above the walkways on some of the cobble-stoned shopping streets in el centro.  They are white, breezy and airy and provide well-needed shade.

I have learned a nifty new Spanish phrase – perdi mi cartera – I lost my wallet.  Yes, on my first day in Sevilla.  Now, it could’ve just been me, filled with jet lag and spaciness; I could’ve easily left it somewhere and walked away.  Then again, this is Spain, and it’s full of thieves. I thank the stars for generous family and friends who gave me ‘emergency’ money as I headed out.  Muchas gracias, amigos.

A fantastic tapas bar is less than a block away from my apartment.  People are talking and drinking at outdoor tables all hours of the day and especially night.  I have never in my life seen a more social bunch of people – it tires me just watching – all that talking, laughing, singing, socializing, gossiping.

20 junio de 2009

As many of you know, I celebrated my 40th birthday on June 17. Really, this whole summer in Spain is my 40th birthday present to myself, but on the 17th, I was sung to in both English and Spanish, ate a brownie à la mode, and took myself to Aire de Sevilla, lovely Turkish baths in the heart of the Santa Cruz neighborhood.  Since my Spanish is crap, this visit was one of following around unsuspecting Spaniards as they went from bath to bath, trying to understand the layout.  Now that that’s done, I’ll be a pro the next time I go, and yes, there will be a next time.

My tutor at school had told me that this was a swingers’ hangout, but I can assure you that I was not swung upon nor did I see any untoward activities taking place.  However, I did finally discover why there were so many smiling women sitting at one end of the jacuzzi.

27 junio de 2009

Seville bullfight

Sevilla bullfight

I went to see a bullfight last Sunday night and now realize why my photos turned out so crappy.  My eyesight was horrendous and I literally couldn’t see well enough to focus my shots.  I found out today that I have conjunctivitis and got some medicine for it – a very quick, easy and ridiculously cheap experience with the Spanish medical system.

But back to the bullfight, what a performance!  It really is wonderful choreography but quickly digresses into some brutal stuff.  Those poor bulls; six of them killed, one every half hour, and quite gruesomely.  Surprisingly, I found most of it easy to stomach, and could focus on it being a cultural experience, if not time travel back to the medieval era or even Roman times.  Somehow I lucked out and got a few good shots, and presumably my photography skills will improve again since I now have antibiotic eyedrops.

Seville is indeed a smallish city and quite homogenous.  There are a smattering of (largely lame) Chinese restaurants around, but beyond that, you’re pretty much going to eat tapas tapas tapas.  Tapas just means snacks, so basically that translates into many different choices but all dishes arriving in relatively small portions, usually at decent prices.  My favorite tapas joint is called Coloniales and is near school – their chicken with almond sauce – pollo con almendras – smothering a few fried potatoes – is divine, as is the tomatos aliñado dish, a plateful of tomato slices in a vinaigrette sauce.  Mmmmmm.

A little more about Andalucía and the Sevillanos.  As far as I can tell, the southern province of Andalucía is considered the problem stepchild of Spain.  The unemployment rate here is 22% and Andalucía enjoys the reputation of being the place “where people don’t work,” even in a good economy; it has the mañana attitude often encountered in Latin American countries. One difference I see is that people here walk a little more briskly and my God in heaven do they speak fast.

3 julio de 2009

It was a grand plan on their part, I must confess.  I was sitting in Parque María Luisa; it was sunny and quiet and the birds were chirping happily.  I placed my camera and purse to my right on a slightly elevated rise and opened my book for a few pages of reading – the exquisite “Saving Fish from Drowning” by Amy Tan.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two men walking on a nearby path – nothing unusual.  Soon there was a gentleman to my far left, asking several questions in a row in Spanish about where he was in the park, holding a guidebook.  Another woman on the bench to my left answered him. I watched out of curiosity.

Something made me turn to my right (gracias, Dios!) back towards my belongings, and a young, handsome man was standing silently just inches from my face, placing his bag down next to mine.  Why was he doing that when there was so much more room nearby?  Then it dawned on me, it wasn’t his bag he was moving – it was mine.  Just as it registered he said muy guapa, placed my bag back down and quietly slid away.

It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.  It all seemed strange but innocent, yet once again I was seconds and inches from having my wallet stolen – granted, this time with less cash and no credit cards – but my purse also contained my house keys and other important items.  And my camera!  Why didn’t he just grab my (very nice) camera and run?  I suddenly felt incredibly grateful for how shallow and hormonal men can be.  Please, Madre de Dios, one missing wallet in Spain is enough for the summer.

I can just picture the wanna-be thief meeting back up with his friend and getting whupped upside the head.  What were you thinking, muy guapa, you bonehead?  Get the cash and run!  Okay, Universe… now I get it.  I need to only bring what is absolutely essential for me out of doors, and I need to keep it close by at all times – velcro’d to body parts, if possible.

Mezquita mihrab

Mezquita mihrab

12 julio de 2009

Córdoba is charming; smaller and less touristy than Seville with a strong and colorful Muslim past.  Córdoba is definitely worth a 3-day visit, if not just to see the immense Mezquita (The Great Mosque), the Alcázar de Reyes Cristianos (Fortress of the Christian Kings – Fernando and Isabel), and the impressive archaeological site of Madinat Al-Zahra, located 7 km from centro.  The Judería, the old Jewish quarter that snakes behind the Mezquita, is relatively free of tourists and still retains considerable charm.  Córdoba is home to one of only three synagogues remaining in Spain after the Jewish expulsion of 1492.

Córdoba became Moorish in 756 A.D. and remained so until the Christian re-conquest in 1236.  The Mezquita was constructed from 756-1002 A.D. and was the third most venerated mosque after those in Mecca and Jerusalem; it became a popular pilgrimage site in the 800-900’s.  By 929, Córdoba was the largest and most prosperous city in Europe, with impressive advances in scholarship, culture, and science, sophisticated irrigation and monetary systems, and ambassadors from other lands. Muslims, Jews and Christians seemed to have coexisted relatively peacefully under Muslim rule.  This changed immediately when the Christians got back into power.

Now the Mezquita is a rather dark affair, with the more modern Christian Cathedral plopped in the middle of endless Muslim columns.  I would’ve preferred to experience the Mezquita as the pilgrims did in the 900’s; with wide open doors and light streaming in, making the columns appear as trees, symmetrical extensions of the date palms from the ablutions courtyard.

The official Cathedral pamphlet – they call this structure the Cathedral though it seems everyone else calls it the Mezquita – is so biased towards Christian history it’s entertaining.  Basically, if the Muslims did it – it was bad and wrong, and if the Christians did it – it was right and good.  Quite a selective memory, I might add, after having seen what those pesky Catholics did to the Maya on the Yucatán Peninsula.

The buildings at the Alcázar are dreary, having been converted to Inquisition headquarters in 1492 and then a prison thereafter.  In a couple of the towers, I swear I could see and practically hear the victims of the Spanish Inquisition hanging by their wrists. The Alcázar is worth a visit for the extensive and beautiful Roman tile floors on display from the 3rd century A.D. and for its expansive gardens.  The Alcázar was also where negotiations began between Fernando, Isabel, and Christopher Columbus for his trip to America.

1492, what a year in Andalucía!   The Jews are expelled, the final Muslim stronghold of Granada is retaken by the Christians, and Chris C. sets off for America.  There’s gotta be a book written about this one year in Spanish history, jam-packed as it is with so much hope, blood, injustice, and gore.

Madinat Al-Zhara arches

Madinat Al-Zhara arches

The vast archaeological site of Madinat Al-Zhara can easily be reached by bus from Córdoba.  I was reminded of sunny, sweaty walks through Maya ruins, and interestingly, many of them were built in the 900’s, same as Al-Zhara, which was constructed in 940.  This elaborate little city partied it up for a very short time, and was ransacked by 1013.  Disappointingly, the main attraction, the salon belonging to Abd Al-Rahman III, was being restored and therefore off limits.

A couple days back in Sevilla, then it was off on the high-speed train to Madrid.  Any city that has a mini-ecosystem of turtles in their main train station gets my vote.  Madrid, which became the capital of Spain in 1561 because it’s the most centralized spot in the nation, is a delight.  It has some of the energy of New York City yet practically none of the stress, garbage, grime, and dog crap.  I stayed in what may be the equivalent of the Upper West Side of Madrid, between Salamanca and Retiro. I braved the Metro (easy, clean) and bought cheap goods at the fantabulous el Rastro.

Cadiz Roman amphitheatre

Cadiz Roman amphitheatre

July 19, 2009

I went to Cádiz for a night this week.  I actually felt chilly there, as it’s right on the Atlantic coast and windy.  It’s the first time in weeks that I’ve needed a light summer jacket.  There I got a wicked sunburn (fell asleep on the beach) and ate some nasty paella con verduras, but other than that it was a nice change of scenery.

Cádiz is a little seedy – a typical beach city with tattoos and rough edges – typically Andalucían with bustling, winding streets and alleys.  I visited an atmospheric Roman Amphitheater, an immense structure that was built from 60-70 A.D., and spent time in the city’s cathedral and crypt.

Cádiz is thought by many to be the longest inhabited city in the Southwest of Europe, having been founded by the Phoenicians around 1100 B.C.  The 18th century, however, was the real boom-time for Cádiz, thanks to trade with the Americas.  Many of the buildings are crumbling due to the sea air and, unlike pretty much every other Spanish city, the population of Cádiz continues to decline.

25 July 2009

Ah, the dramatic small city on top of cliffs – Ronda!  Despite its Bar Harbor-level of tourism, Ronda’s natural beauty is stunning.  Its history spans prehistory (cave drawings and the like), Roman Empire, Arab Middle Ages, and then Christian re-conquest.  It’s not possible to have a more fortified city than one atop cliffs.  The Christians were able to defeat the Muslims in seven days, in 1485, by cutting off their water supply.

Ronda Arab baths

Ronda Arab baths

Ronda’s Arab Baths, built in the 1200’s, are amazingly well preserved.  The hot room, closest to the furnace, was a steam room.  Next was a warm room, for socializing, sitting, lying about, getting massages.  Beyond that was the cold room, with two cold sitting pools.  There was a reception area, and of course men and women used the baths at separate times.  Stars were carved into the arched, brick ceilings in each room, allowing beams of natural light to punctuate the rooms.  A photographer’s paradise.

Ronda has three bridges spanning the cliffs, the earliest one from the Muslim days (perhaps the 12th century, though it’s been reconstructed so many times it’s basically been replaced several times over), the Old Bridge from the 16th century, and the world-famous New Bridge – Puente Nuevo – at only 200+ years of age.  This is where my camera’s polarizing filter plunged to an early death, so far down that I didn’t hear it hit bottom.

Ronda is well known for its bullring, built in 1785, and for the modern style of bullfighting that arose in the ‘Ronda school.’  I wouldn’t have guessed that blowing dust and sand in the eyes would be a hazard to a matador, but now I know otherwise.

I also chanced upon what may be one of my favorite churches of all time, La Colegiata María la Mayor, built from 1489-1704, and largely restored after being ransacked during the Civil War.  This church, which feels more like a cathedral, was made in both Gothic and Renaissance styles and still retains a small portion of an elaborate Muslim mihrab.

The church contains a statue that was so moving it made me cry. This has never happened to me before. As you may know, Spanish Catholics love their life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary and other female saints.  This statue was of a female saint, dressed in a black, velvet dress, with tight black curly hair and a silver halo.  She had chubby, gnarled fingers, and a beautiful face with a dimple on her chin.  Her eyes were cast down and brimming with glistening tears; tears marked dark paths halfway down her cheeks.  I’d never understood how people could see or imagine a statue crying until the moment I saw Her; if you kept Her gaze, it appeared that She was crying. The light can play magnificent tricks.

I also saw oversized hymn books from the 15th century, which Mom would’ve swooned over; large enough for the notes and Latin text to be read by the singers several yards away in their choir seats.

From the mystical to the sublime.  I was waiting at Ronda’s bus station for the bus to bring me back to Sevilla. A man – a handsome middle-aged fellow – asked me for the time, then sat down next to me and started a conversation.  Here’s the Spanish-to-English translation of the conversation that ensued:

Man:  Where’s your family? (A question that means more than just where do your parents live.)

Me:  New York.  (Why not?) But I’m living in Sevilla for the summer.

Man:  Ah.  With who?

Me:  A female friend. (His brow furrows.)

Man:  (Several minutes of fishing around regarding amigo vs. amiga.  Then… ) So, with love, do you like men?

Me:  (Hesitating) Er, yes.

Man:  (Something unintelligible I)

Me:  What? I don’t understand your question.

Man:  (Something unintelligible II)

Me: (Slowly catching on, but playing dumb.)  I’m sorry, I still don’t understand.  Your question for me?

Man:  Do you want to make love?

Me: (I’m sure he didn’t just say that.) What?  I don’t understand.

Man:  Do you want to make love? With me?

Me:  (Blank stare I)

Man:  (Blank stare II)

Me:  No.

Man:  Why not?

Me:  I don’t want.

Man:  Why not?

Me:  I don’t know, but I don’t want.  I have a boyfriend in Seville.  (A lie thrown in for good measure.)

Man:  Can I have a kiss anyway? (Points at his lips for clarification.)

Me:  No.

Man:  Why?

Me:  I don’t want.

Man:  (Sighs) Okay.

Me:  Your name?

Man:  Francisco.

Me:  Hello Francisco, I’m Irene.  (We shake hands.)  Goodbye, I have to go use the toilet.

Sorry, folks, but it just doesn’t get much better than that.

"There is no Conquerer but God"

“There is no Conqueror but God”

August 3, 2009

The Alhambra!  There is a saying – Si mueres sin ver la Alhambra, no has vivido –  If you die without seeing the Alhambra, you haven’t lived.  Now I understand.  The 11th century fortress, the Alcazaba, is an architectural marvel on top of a hill, well-fortified and with views of the mountains and the white city of Granada below.  Tucked next to the Alcazaba is the main attraction of the Alhambra, the Palacios Nazaríes, the royal palace of the Muslim rulers from the 14th century.

I’ve done a little reading on Moorish art and architecture and would love to do more.  The Moorish architectural focus was on representations of nature – shells, trees and the like – and symmetry, with the aim of taking visitors away from thinking and ideas and bringing them to a relaxed state of being, a calm inner rhythm, and oneness with God.  (As you may know, it is forbidden to depict human beings in Islamic art.)  The palace has the inscription Wa-la ghalita illa-Llah – There is no Conquerer but God – on practically every wall and column.  The inscriptions – the Arabic words and the depictions of nature – feel like meditations in and of themselves – repeating, repeating, repeating.

The Generalife gardens and another Muslim palace occupy a separate part of the hill and are lovely – I sat and read about the Spanish Inquisition under a canopy of grapes and vines, with a fountain gurgling behind me.  (I’ll be sad when I’m finished with this book, probably tomorrow; on the other hand, I’ve had about enough of the torment, paranoia and torture.)

Lastly, and I would indeed recommend this lastly, one can visit the odd palace of Carlos V, which was begun in 1526, soon after the Reconquista, and never quite finished.  It is an anomaly within the Alhambra, but you know how rulers love to leave their mark on things.

A trip to Granada wouldn’t be complete without a walk or two through the hills and winding alleys of the Albaycín, the old Moorish section of Granada and, from what I read, the only Moorish neighborhood in Spain not to be completely razed after the Reconquista.  If you have seen photos of the full Alhambra on its hilltop, they were probably taken from St. Nicolás Plaza in the Albaycín.

I met a wonderful man while in Granada.  Not only did I enjoy – wow!  enjoy! – one of the best kisses I’ve ever had in my life, but I also found comfort and companionship with someone who has a similar sense of humor, idea of sensuality, and set of values.  It was interesting for me to note that I felt a kinship with him, a Muslim Turk, which I don’t often feel when interacting with Spaniards.

He told me an amazing story.   A man – a stranger – approached him in Istanbul several years ago and gave him a series of prophecies – all of which have come true except the last one.  The last one was this:  That he was to go to a certain church in Granada and pray for guidance, holding a chain and a key.  This key would remove his obstacles and unlock his future.

Well, as a Muslim, even a very moderate Muslim, he’s a bit wary of praying in a Christian church, and he has asked Imams and scholars for advice on whether he should do this. (So far, the advice is no, which he thinks is ridiculous, and I agree.)  I offered to go to the church with him.  Though he considered this option, he didn’t bring it up again, so I was content to simply give him a gift of a small key, a facsimile of the key to open the Alhambra, which he can consider bringing should he go to the church on his own in the future.

After a two-hour bus ride through the Alpujarras, I landed at the beachside community of Nerja, which is basically a slice of England on the Costa del Sol.  More English gets spoken in Nerja than gets spoken in New York. I visited the pool, the crowded beach, and had my best taste of Spanish pizza in the little white hill-top town of Frigiliana, just outside Nerja.  I visited the famous Nerja Caves and enjoyed them… enough.  It’ll be hard to top my Mexico cave experiences, especially with ones that are as Disneyfied as Nerja, but I remain committed to seeing as many caves as I can, wherever I may go.

I’ve been playing tourist here in Sevilla.  I’ve gone to see the Basilica de Macarena in the Macarena district (yes, that Macarena).  She’s an attractive statue, Maria Madre de Dios, crafted in the 17th century.  She is the patron saint of Sevilla and venerated, especially during Semana Santa, Easter week.  I visited the Casa de Pilatos, a mansion from the 15th century, designed in Mudéjar, Gothic and Renaissance styles, with a strong connection to Italy and Italian art, including numerous Roman statues in the courtyards.

I may be a little late on this, but I’m not too happy with Fernando and Isabel, nor their lunatic daughter, or their useless grandson, Charles V.

August 8, 2009

Sagrada Familia view

Sagrada Familia view

The Romans called it Barcino (with a hard c) but by 878 A.D. it was known as Barcelona.  The Gothic Neighborhood, from roughly 1100-1400 A.D., and built upon the ancient Roman ruins, is smack in the middle of modern, bustling shopping streets, and is a short walk to Barcelona’s beach district, Barceloneta.  After the Gothic city walls were brought down, the city expanded up and out, and this is when the Moderniste architects – Gaudí and his contemporaries – were able to show their stuff.

The city itself is a living and breathing outdoor art museum, flowing up the Paseo de Gràcia and past Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, over to the immense La Sagrada Família which will be under construction for about twenty more years (all of these just blocks from me); flowing up to the wonderland of Parc Güell.  Just a small fraction of this wondrous city!

It’s hard to believe that Barcelona has less than two million inhabitants – the city feels huge to me, and overwhelming in the same way that a visitor feels on his or her first trip to New York City.  Where do you begin?  I guess you do what I did – just pick somewhere and walk… the Ramblas… the port… over to the beach on a sunny afternoon… find – and eat! – some of the best Thai food on the planet (two times, and counting)… find – and eat! – some of the best chocolate cake on the planet, and check out the Chocolate Museum.  This is a city of chocoholics – I fit right in.

August 14, 2009

Barcelona, You’re going to break me.  Your chocolate cakes, artisanal gelato, fashions and boutiques; your joie de vivre; my never-ending flow of cash.

One of your sons, hard-bodied and mocha-skinned, stands sunning in his underwear on a third floor terrace. I fall into the gutter.

You give me Christian art set among palms, flowers, and dragons, and unending tile mosaics.  Your attention to detail and art shines even on Your sidewalks.  You offer spires and curves, tastes of New York and Dubai. You give me a city full of people who love tea and chocolate as much as I do.  With public faucets (drinkable water!) and plentiful benches and chairs (not filled with homeless guys!), You give me places to rest.  You offer busy city streets and a sunny beach.

You leave me fat and happy, and how often do I use those two words in the same sentence?  How can it be that after a week with You, I can sit at a café with a book and feel a level of comfort and ease as if I’ve been there for five years?

I’ve been praying for guidance. Where should I live?  What should I do for work? Where do I belong?  Where’s home?  Where could home be?  I have no strong gut feeling in any direction.  I find this perplexing, as normally I go on one or two week vacations and leave with epiphanies.  So far, it’s been almost three months, and no epiphanies.

I mentioned this to an expat I met in Barcelona and he looked at me intently and said:  “I’m in the same boat right now, as are so many others I know.  My dad, who’s not into New Age thinking, e-mailed me the other day and said that Mars is close to Earth right now … the closest it’s ever been … and one of the effects is people feeling confused and uncertain.”  “When will it end?,” I asked.  He wasn’t sure, but thought it would be by the end of August.

I turn back to prayer for guidance, trust that Mars will eventually cycle through, and believe that I will know more when I know more.

Trajan and Hadrian walked on this road

Trajan and Hadrian walked on these stones

August 19, 2009

This was my last week in Sevilla and therefore my last week on my Summer in Spain Adventure. So, what does a girl do on her last week in Andalucía?  Well, of course she gets in one last ancient Roman city.  Itálica, originally named by Hadrian as Colonia Aelia Augusta Italica (but no, not written in italics, I checked), was founded in 206 B.C. and Augustus helped move it along in its early days, around the year 0.  Trajan was born there in 53 A.D. and his son, Hadrian, in 76 A.D.

There are many elaborate floor mosaics on which to feast your eyes (how can these survive intact for two thousand years?), and the amphitheatre, built in Augustus’s time, is a joy to walk around, especially while pretending to be a gladiator (or my favorite stand-by for any situation I don’t understand, a baby dinosaur).

However, what I was most struck by was the mundane; the ordinary brickwork that has lasted two thousand years, the flat stones on the road and the curbs carefully built alongside, imagining the togas and Roman sandals that walked these streets on their way to the baths or the planetarium.  These are the creations that I knelt down and touched, keeping my hand curled and curved around a stone or rough brick, to feel a connection to this distant slice of humanity.  I wanted to tell those ancient Roman masons… ‘I’m here!  I’m here with you!  We’re all in on this together!’

I went to see flamenco again, this time at the well-known Tablao los Gallos in Sevilla, and was in for another delightful evening.  One woman in particular was outstanding; every body part was a percussion instrument.  I am dying to learn how to clap the way Gitanos clap.  This was further confirmed when I was able to watch several flamenco musicians and dancers at a cozy location outside Sevilla.  They were from Jerez and incredibly talented – the male singer was the best I’ve seen/heard to date.  When I told him I wanted to move to Barcelona, he scrunched up his nose, shook his head, and said that ‘it smells different there.’

Then there was one last hurrah at the Arab Baths, this time with a short massage included.  I sat in the tepidarium, the caldarium, the frigidarium, and the sudatorium.  I mailed boxes.  I packed.  I flew back to New York City.

What a fine idea this summer was.  I needed a change of scenery; I got it.  I wanted the sunshine, the heat, and a tan; I got them.  I wanted a few new pieces of Spanish jewelry and some new clothes; I bought them.  I wanted to kiss a couple boys; check.  I wanted to make up for years without Magnum ice cream bars; waistline checked – clearly accomplished.  (Note to self:  Start new company that imports Magnums to the U.S.)  I felt empty; I got filled up with Spanish culture, this culture and mentality of abundance.

This summer I felt magic in two Spanish cities – Granada and Barcelona – hair-stand-up, skin-tingling magic.  I learned that if I live in Spain, I’d prefer it be in Madrid or Barcelona. I learned more about the Romans, the Visigoths, the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition (“what a show!”), flamenco, bullfights, and modern architecture.  I speak … er …  slightly less awful Spanish.  I made friends that I suspect I will see again.  And Americans, listen to this – I got free healthcare, and didn’t turn into a Commie.  Oh, right, I already was a Commie – strike that.

Thank you for bearing witness to my three-month Spanish experiment.  It has been an amazing experience. You won’t be getting any more weekly updates from me, but I will let you know when articles become available on my blog.  They will contain more insights, more of the nuts and bolts of my experiences, and recommendations for anyone heading to the places I’ve been.

Until then, muchos saludos.

Get your little butt out there!

Photos: Sevilla y Córdoba, España

June 26, 2009

Southwest France: Caves and Cathars

April 17, 2009

Eglise in Saiguede

Eglise in Saiguede

One can’t get much luckier than having family in a small, French village. Saiguède, a petit village outside Toulouse in Southwest France, is a sleepy town of around 500 souls, and consists of the obligatory école (school), mairie (mayor’s office), and cenotaph (monument bearing the names of the townsfolk, both military and civilian, who perished during the World Wars). There is, of course, a roundabout in the centre ville, near the church whose Christ had recently tumbled from a wooden cross during a particularly unruly windstorm. Directly across from the church, on lovely cut grass, an eviscerated bunny carcass laid face up, limbs extended to the heavens. By the looks of the skid marks on the road, my nephews estimated it had been hurled fifty feet upon impact. This was Saiguède’s excitement for the day.

Saiguède (pronounced sah-ged) won’t appear on many maps, but the nearby town of St-Lys will. As long as you’re not afraid of a little driving, the possibilities for day trips from the St-Lys-Toulouse area are almost endless.

Pick your history

If you love history, you can plan history-themed day trips – or, I dare say, full vacations – based on a variety of historical timeframes in Southwest France; you can also  mix-and-match a mélange of all that is offered. Southwest France has been home to homo erectus, homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., cro-magnons), the Celts, Romans, and early Christians; the Franks, Vandals, Visigoths, Moors, and Vikings. She witnessed the rise of fiefdoms and bastides (fortified towns), followed by the construction of massive cathedrals and abbeys; these invited the passing of thousands of hungry and pious pilgrims during medieval times. The English brought the Hundred Years War (and lingering anti-English sentiment), and of course there was Eleanor of Aquitane, the crusades, revolts, and finally revolution.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Prehistoric cave art

About an hour and a half drive south of St-Lys, La grotte de Niaux offers views of terrific prehistoric art from around 12,000 B.C. There are many other caves to explore near Niaux in the vicinity of Tarascon-sur-Ariège – Bédeilhac, Lombrives, La Vache, Mas d’Azil – and if traveling north of Toulouse, La Bouiche.

In general, the caves open after Easter, but Niaux can be visited year-round (13.50 euros per adult). Reservations must be made well in advance of the planned visit as conservationists are serious about keeping the human footprint to a minimum. The cave is not for claustrophobes and has no artificial lighting; carry a (supplied) flashlight to avoid stepping in puddles.

The graffiti inside la Grotte de Niaux is almost as impressive as the prehistoric drawings of bison and horses themselves, with fellows from as far back as 1602 leaving their John Hancocks throughout the cave. Reservations are indispensables and can be phoned in at +33-561058837. Speak French or find someone who can.

On my list of things to do next time I visit the Southwest of France is a stop in the small town of Tautavel (near Perpignan), which lies helpfully on the drive to Spain’s Costa Brava coastline. It is here that you can view the half-million year old skull of Tautavel Man, which is on display at the village museum, and visit the cave where archaeologists excavated him.

Live like the Gallo-Romans

Seviac tiles

Seviac tiles

Romans made themselves thoroughly at home in Gaul by the 4th and 5th centuries AD, as can be viewed in exquisite detail at the ruins of Séviac; there are other Roman ruins in the area. Séviac was a grand villa in its day, containing luxurious baths and pools, some based on Oriental models;  the most impressive sites are the elaborate, well-preserved tile floors. All floors were kept warm by an underground heating system provided by fires and the warmth of stacked stones.

It might also be fun to be able to tell your friends that you visited the town of Condom. It’s only 13 km from Séviac, and only 5 km from Larresingle (mentioned below).

Following in the footsteps of the Compostela Pilgrims

Saint James the Apostle is rumored to be buried in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. In medieval times, pilgrims from Western Europe and beyond made the long, arduous trek on one of four routes leading over the Pyrénées. Each of the routes contains impressive cathedrals, bridges, and other landmarks where the pilgrims could stop, commune, eat, and pray for safe passage. Modern day pilgrims can make the same trek, in significantly more comfort.

Tracing the Decimation of the Cathars



There are many Cathar villages, cities and strongholds that can be visited, but one that shouldn’t be missed is Montségur.

The “heretical” Cathar sect grew rapidly in the 12th and 13th centuries in Southwest France as a reaction to the rich and autocratic Catholic Church. Pope Not-So-Innocent III began the Albigensian Crusade in 1208 (named as such since many of the Cathars were based in the French town of Albi), with the able assistance of the French King and his military.

In May 1243, a ten-month siege began, with the French military surrounding five hundred or so Cathars who were tucked on top of a craggy mountain, with magnificent views of the snow-capped Pyrénées. It was a brutally cold winter, and even under the best conditions it’s hard to imagine five hundred people huddled in one large stone complex at the top of a bleak but excellently fortified hill.

Eventually, the French King offered a truce, but only on the condition that the Cathars renounce their beliefs and join the Catholic fold. This they couldn’t do. On March 16, 1244, over 200 Cathars were burned at the stake at Montségur. This was a demoralizing blow to the few remaining Cathars, the last of which were extinguished by the early 1300’s.

Bastides and châteaux

Cordes-sur-Ciel blue

Cordes-sur-Ciel blue

Hilltop bastides and châteaux, many with Cathar history and connections, are numerous and many make terrific destinations from Toulouse. International tourists tend to visit the oversized (some would say Disneyfied) medieval city of Carcassonne, but the locals head to the more modest and cozy Cordes-sur-Ciel, with its cobbled streets, winding alleys, and dark chocolate crepes.

Larresingle, “the cutest little medieval village in France,” is a stone’s throw from the Roman tile wonderland at Séviac and makes for a nice stop on your way there. Larresingle was founded in the 12th century and was allied with Condom. The ancient town walls and moat are in impressive condition. An unmarked pilgrim bridge, the Pont d’Artigues, lies 1.5 km from Larresingle, and is lovely in its simplicity, with its unusual asymmetrical arches across the murky River Osse.

Hang out in the pink city



Or just stick with Toulouse for a day to take in the pink-colored Place du Capitole and its pastel-colored sister buildings on the square. Toulouse was on the southernmost Compostela pilgrimage route and the incredible St-Sernin Cathedral should be on any to-see list. Saturnin (Sernin in Occitane), Toulouse’s first bishop, was martyred in 250 AD, after being dragged through the streets by a bull.

The cathedral can be entered for free, but it is well worth the 2 euros to visit the crypts and ambulatory, where relics (body pieces of saints – a phenomenon that boggles the mind) from several apostles can be gruesomely imagined in their ornate cabinets. Most impressive is the 11th century wall carving of Christ, surrounded by apostles and angels, and containing many symbols that would be of great interest to anyone who read The Da Vinci Code or follows the enigmatic stories of the Knights Templar.

This little piggy went to market

Chocolate cochons at Samatan

Chocolate cochons at Samatan

A careful reading of a good guidebook will inform visitors about which day weekly markets occur in which lovely little towns. The largest and best-known market west of Toulouse is in Samatan, on Mondays. Samatan hosts France’s largest foie-gras market (Halle au Gras), where famous and non-famous alike stand side by side and point at and haggle over bloated duck livers. A more savory market exists outside on the produce side of things (Place des Halles), but there are also plenty of stalls for general market items like clothing, bread, cheeses, snacks, soaps, and chocolates.

A jaunt to the Costa Brava coastline

A trip to Southwest France can benefit from a jaunt into Andorra, known only for “shopping or skiing,” or to Northeast Spain – Catalonia and the Costa Brava coastline – depending on your mood and priorities.

Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar

I recommend staying away from the busier and more spring-breakish Lloret de Mar in Catalonia and sticking with the tried-and-true Tossa de Mar. Tossa is a lovely town of around 5,000 with a fantastic hilltop medieval fortified village on Mont Guardi, built during the 12th-14th centuries. Mont Guardi overlooks the sea, and visitors can still walk the Vila Vella (old town) walls and wind down into the Vila Nova (new town) with its cobblestone streets and quaint shops and restaurants.

An even more impressive hilltop fortified city lies in Girona, a short drive from Tossa on your way back to France, which could handily surpass Tossa as the place to stay if you’re willing to be sans plage. With a population of around 80,000 (it feels larger), Girona’s medieval city couldn’t possibly be more magical, with its narrow walkways, steep climbs, Jewish history (centered on Carrer de la Força), and fantastical Romanesque and Gothic buildings. Even before seeing the colorful buildings on the canal/river, Girona felt more like Italy than Spain. And there’s no need for that extra pesky plane fare.

Though I have yet to see for myself, I’ve heard nothing but raves for a village further north on the coast, Cadaquéz, and the nearby Port Lliget, where Salvador Dali enjoyed part of his colorful past.

If I knew then

Vals church entrance

Vals church entrance

Instead of opting for economical airfare in March, I would arrive after Easter, preferably in May (though September would also be nice) – a bit warmer, more places open to the public, but still without the hordes of tourists.

I would return to the tiny village of Vals, located between Pamiers and Mirepoix in the Ariège region, and bring my tripod to get better indoor photos at the subterranean church for the Compostela pilgrims that was literally built into a rocky hill. The views from the grounds are astounding; a photographer’s dream.

In general, I would prioritize more time in the Ariège region – perhaps two nights at Mirepoix and two at Tarascon-sur-Ariège. Mirepoix is a lovely medieval town and a nice springboard into sites east of Foix such as Montségur, whereas Tarascon is just minutes from a handful of caves with prehistoric cave art and fantastic formations. A nearby option that would include spa time is the town of Ax-les-Thermes, close to the Andorra border.

Get your little butt out there!

Holland: A Flag That Crossed Oceans

January 1, 2009

I drove slowly down a narrow street with typical modest Dutch houses. Juggling pieces of paper noting an address, directions, phone number, I craned my neck to better read the numbers on the houses. No, must be further. Not there. Wait! Yes, that’s the one.


My hands began to sweat. I leaned forward and placed my forehead on the steering wheel. This was no simple errand, and suddenly I doubted my credentials. I wasn’t trained to counsel grieving parents. I was no diplomat. I just happened to be a citizen of the United States who had a friend who purchased a Dutch flag in honor of the first (and at that time, only) Dutch fatality in the Iraq war. His name was Dave Steensma. Now I was delivering the tricolor flag to his parents.


My friend, Jodi, had told me about her journey to Dave’s flag. She’d been adopted and was aware of her biological Dutch heritage since early childhood. In 2002, she felt strongly that it was time to find her birth family. She purchased a Dutch flag and hung it on her office wall for inspiration to continue the quest to find her birth family. She found them nine months later. Then, in Tooele, Utah, in 2004, she came across the flag that memorialized Dave’s death; it was at a fundraiser at Soldier’s Field, in honor of those who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, to help fund a new Veteran’s Memorial.


Jodi’s curiosity grew about this man, Dave Steensma. She went online and, to her surprise, quickly located a couple of Dave’s military buddies. They put her in touch with Dave’s parents, Oeds and Margreet, who lived in that quiet little town in Friesland. Eventually the commitment grew within her to give the flag and ribbon, pressed with Dave’s name and unit, to Dave’s family – back where it belonged. For Jodi, it was a tangible way to connect with a distant homeland. She e-mailed his parents and told them about the flag and about how this young man’s life had helped her find her own roots. She told them that this one lone Dutch flag that fluttered among the many American ones touched her in a way that she couldn’t explain. She was drawn to it, had to have it, had to honor this unique life and solitary death. Oeds expressed that, yes, it would mean much for he and Margreet to have these items.


Not long after, Jodi told me this story and I said, “I’m going back to the Netherlands in a few months. Why don’t I hand-deliver it for you?” I’d planned a war tour – first, I’d attend commemorations for World War II battles in Arnhem. Then, I was to spend time in Ypres, Belgium, learning about trench warfare in World War I. Why, sure, I could swing north to Friesland first, drop off the flag and then head south to my historical destinations. “It really wouldn’t be right to mail it; I mean, anything could happen. It could get damaged, even lost. No, it should be hand-delivered – packed in luggage, brought to the door, and handed over.” I would do it.


And so I found myself driving north from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to Friesland, across the 32 km-long Afsluitdijk. Once over the dike it was only a short drive to locate the small town, Franeker, that was my destination. I lifted my head off the steering wheel and peered right, toward the Steensma’s front door. Everything was still. I took a few deep breaths, said a quick prayer, summoned my courage and knocked on the front door.


It was in that moment, those few precious seconds between rapping my knuckles on the door and it opening, that I felt panic. The reality of the loss of this human being, someone I’d never met, was palpable. I lost my breath. Every cell jumped alive and begged me to slow down, be cautious. I was on a life and death errand.  I carried the small box with tenderness. Jodi had created a nest of lovely gifts for the grieving parents. The flag and ribbon were in the box, of course, but there was more – newspaper clippings about the fundraiser where Jodi bought the flag, token gifts from Utah, lovely mementos for her faraway friends.



Oeds met me at the door. Margreet smoked by the kitchen counter and smiled weakly as I walked in. My heart sank. I had entered a grieving home and I hadn’t done my homework. I was ill prepared and at a loss for words.  Oeds and Margreet were nervous to meet me. They spoke easily of this to me later in the day once they learned they could speak easily with me. They had feared that I was there on “some kind of American right-wing political or moral mission to hail the fallen hero.” What happened, instead, was a meeting of the minds on almost all topics, with lively comparisons of Dutch and American culture, attitudes, and politics. I met Dave’s sister and his beautiful, nine year old niece. I didn’t meet his wife and two boys – it was still too recent a loss for them to bear extra attention from a foreigner with a dubious Dutch last name.


There were awkward silences at first. Oeds and Margreet apologized for their terrible English skills, which, by Dutch standards, meant that they were almost fluent; at any rate more advanced than my seventeen words of Dutch. We moved our tea party to a small, immaculate garden in the back of the house, full of life – pungent, colorful flowers gave the space the air of a Japanese tea garden. Margreet smoked and smiled, but the despair in her eyes told a story of profound and unending grief. Oeds gently tended to Margreet and maintained his own private acre of grief in his heart. Their one son, their one son, who died in a war that practically no one in the Netherlands supported. What did he die for? How can parents deal with an experience like that? How can so many American families do it, when they hear a knock on the door and open to a solemn-faced military officer?


Oeds excused himself and returned with a large photo album. “Go ahead, look at it. The Dutch army made it for us. It’s Dave’s funeral service.” Initially Dave served in the Royal Dutch Marine Corps, but his duties later took him to the 12th Infantry Battalion of the Airmobile Brigade, Regiment “van Heutsz.” The Dutch army made a photo album for a family? My brow furrowed. I don’t think American families get that – too many dead, I suppose, how would the military keep up?


I turned the pages – a large church, a military funeral, all captured by a professional photographer. The service took place with Military Honors at the Algemene Cemetery in Franeker on Saturday, May 15, 2004.  I started to turn the page and Margreet warned “The next pages are a bit difficult.”


Those two pages, that centerfold of photos. Four – or was it six – photos of Dave in an open coffin. His head was heavily bandaged and it was clear his head injury had been extensive. I stopped breathing. “Do you know that in the U.S. there is a Pentagon policy that we are not supposed to see even a closed coffin of a soldier killed in Iraq being returned to the U.S.?” “We know,” they said, “and we think it’s terrible. You should have to see the dead. That’s what the dead look like.” Margeet pointed to the photos of her son. “You have to see it. Everyone should have to see it. What a shame to not see for yourself the reality of war.”


There were lighter moments, of course, and even a few laughs. We went to a local steakhouse for dinner. The change of venue altered the tenor of our encounter. We walked a little more quickly. We grinned at one another, delighting in the strangeness – and wonderfulness – of our encounter. We enjoyed a lovely dinner, we really did – talking about my life in New York and time spent living in Amsterdam. They treated me as if I was a long-lost family friend.


I began to wonder if I hadn’t met Dave. Did we spend kindergarten through high school together, with countless times sleeping over or joining each other’s families on trips during school vacations? And, if we didn’t, why did I feel like I’d known him my whole life, that I’d sat and talked with his parents countless times before?


For Sergeant 1st Class Dave Steensma

Born November 20, 1967

Died May 10, 2004


This article was published in the May 2009 issue of American Cemetery Magazine.

Yucatán Adventure: Calcehtok Caves

December 1, 2008


You found it

There’s no question about it – Lol Tun Caves, on the Ruta Puuc,  Yucatan Peninsula, deserve a stop.  You may end up on a tour of the caves with a large group of Germans and Poles (as I did), you will be pressured incessantly to overtip your guide, but you will also see stalactites of a magnitude previously unknown – magnificent! breathtaking!

If, however, the Disney atmosphere and false lighting leaves you hungering for a more authentic cave experience, head west about an hour to Calcehtok Caves.   Calcehtok is the second largest dry Yucatecan cave system, behind Lol Tun.  Pronounced “kal-ke-tok,” it means “neck-deer-stone” in the Maya language.

I had read in a guidebook to simply show up at the modest entrance to Calcehtok, rouse a sleeping guide, and ask to be taken on a tour.  There was no welcome desk, no (mandatory) fee to pay; I simply drove to the road’s end and asked a small, lovely man – Rogelio – in very poor Spanish – if he would take me for a brief tour of the caves.  We managed to agree on a one hour tour, una hora ruta turistica, a typical route for a Western tourist.

My trusted guide, Rogelio

My trusted guide, Rogelio

Rogelio packed his rucksack with a few needed items, handed me a beat-up flashlight, and grabbed a small Coleman lantern as we walked to the edge of the limestone entrance.  The ancient Maya ruins of Uxmal and the city of Campeche appeared on the horizon.  Below was a scene from Jurassic Park, with palm trees  growing out of the underworld and reaching towards the blue, Yucatecan sky.  The ground looked fertile, the foliage lush.  The sounds and sights – and smells – of bats flying below inspired me to close my eyes and say a quick prayer.  I tried not to think of the guidebook warning I had read earlier that day about not entering the caves alone because the noxious fumes from bat guano could induce unconsciousness.  I eyed Rogelio, who was smaller than me, and tried to picture him throwing me over his shoulder and mule-packing me out of the cave.   He wouldn’t enjoy it, but he could do it, in a pinch.

ladder down

Down we go

We climbed down a small, iron ladder onto a limestone ledge, then scrambled over rocks, deep down into the Jurassic palms.  We continued beyond the lush green and further into the gray rock.  Here’s where the Maya built a wall to keep out their enemies, Rogelio explained.  Here are the metates, where the women ground corn.  Here are a couple chultunes, cisterns for holding water.  How long ago?, I asked.  Oh, these metates and chultunes are probably 500-600 years old, he said.  Lying next to one metate was a rock carved into a menacing face.  I was perplexed to be standing among items that would fare better in a museum than in plain view.  Rogelio stopped and fired up the lantern as I breathed in guano fumes and took in the last rays of natural light.

We walked from gray into black, into the first cave entrance, ducking down, watching our heads, and eventually standing in an immense, completely darkened chamber.  Cool water dripped from the rock ceiling overhead; sweat began to pour down my face, neck, chest.  The dirt under my feet turned to mud.

Maya ceramics

Maya ceramics

Many Maya have lived here over the past hundreds, thousands!, of years, Rogelio said quietly, reverently, as we walked across the chamber.  There is evidence of hundreds of Maya families living here as long as two thousand years ago. Later we would see shards of pottery and sacred phallic objects from approximately eighteen-hundred years ago, and two-thousand year old art etched and drawn on the limestone walls.

My flashlight flickered off and I cursed myself for not bringing my own large, high-powered light.  I stayed one step behind Rogelio – as if blind, arm reaching forward to touch him, his shirt, anything – as we walked into the next large cavern, and then the next, and then the next.  There, see over there?, Rogelio would ask,  sitting on his haunches, pointing into a distant corner with a flashlight.  We could go spelunking down there, with rope.  There are underground streams, so you’d have to wear wading boots.  It’s a long, skinny channel, but then you arrive in the most magnificent chamber.  I could take you on a two hour tour, or four, even eight!

Rogelio and quartz underground

Rogelio and quartz underground

We entered a cavern the size of a football field, containing a single, lonely boulder in the middle of the space.  Rogelio informed me that we were about 80m underground at that point (approximately 260 feet); we stood solemnly in front of the rock altar, and I listened to him describe how this was the spot where Maya women were sacrificed.  I was amazed by how proficient one’s Spanish could become when hundreds of feet underground, alone with a stranger, speaking of female sacrifices.  I leveled my flashlight, still flickering and dying, into Rogelio’s eyes.  Why only women?, I asked.  The men were sacrificed on the pyramids, and the women in the underworld. At this precise moment, my flashlight died.  Rogelio whacked it on the rock a few times, to no avail.  He gave me another flashlight.  I eyed him suspiciously.

We viewed a small room where the alux (“ah-loosh”) live, the tiny dwarves of Maya mythology, containing around a hundred small stalagmites that looked to be a room full of the alux themselves, in army formation.  Next was a small enclave for a kitchen, a portion of the cave with blackened walls and ceiling, metates, chultunes, and a complex map of the cave system etched onto a portion of the overhead wall.

Our trek continued; we marched through mud and over massive stalagmites resembling termite hills.  Bats continued to fly and screech overhead.  Water dripped, sweat coursed, mud suction-cupped, odors overpowered.  But something had happened – my fear of the dark, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of Rogelio, fear of bats – had all passed away, and I was one of the ancient Maya women, winding her way from kitchen to storage, rummaging for food, gossiping with friends, tending to the children.  I felt the vibrancy of the community and togetherness, the humanity and rawness of living in cramped spaces so far underground, and having to protect your home and family from dangerous foes.

entrance and trees

What lies beneath

Eventually, we ducked a final time and walked into sunlight.  It had been the longest and most glorious hour of my vacation.  I wiped brown muck off my face.  I gave Rogelio a generous tip, shook his hand, thanked him profusely, and marveled at my sudden inability to speak Spanish above ground.

Get your little butt out there!


Yucatán: Mérida and Her Destinations

November 16, 2008


Mérida, a Yucatecan city, is mesmerizing; if visiting, try to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the Plaza Principal.  There are many nice walks to be had in Mérida itself, to enjoy shopping, eating, people watching, museums.  It’s an attractive, electric, yet manageable city of one million people.  I felt extremely safe traveling there as a single woman – safer, in fact, than I feel in most parts of the U.S.  There are wonderful, free, cultural events like music and dancing at the Plaza Principal; most of the attendees will be locals.  The locals are as much fun to watch as the performers.

A Merida performance

A Merida performance

But one of the best things about Mérida is the day trips you can make from there to somewhere else.  I had a rental car, a secure spot in which to park at the hotel (the wonderful and charming Casa SacNicte Bed & Breakfast,, and enjoyed, by day, some of the best vacation adventures I’ve had anywhere.



Izamal monastery

Izamal monastery

My numero uno recommendation, by far, is to go to Izamal for a half or full day.  Izamal is located 45 minutes northwest of Mérida by car.  It’s the little yellow city that could, with buildings bathed in a uniform vibrant yellow and buzzing with energy.  The imposing Franciscan Monastery was built as a partial amends to the Maya people for Bishop Landa’s almost incomprehensible destruction of ancient Maya culture. Pope John Paul visited in the early ‘90s.  Small Maya ruins can be visited within town limits.


My second suggestion is to visit the three fantastical cenotes (swimming holes, sinkholes, caves, and caverns of all descriptions) at Cuzama.  Gentlemen will be hanging around waiting for gringo and Mexican families to choose them, their miniature horses, and their fashionably decorated buggies for a modest and well-worth-it fee of $20 U.S. to bring you deep into the woods where you will be left to visit and swim in each cenote.  I did the whole trip in a couple hours and felt rushed; it would be better as a half day excursion.  Be prepared for climbing up and down steep stairs and ladders, and bring your camera’s tripod.  If you can’t easily open your eyes underwater, bring goggles so you can see the beautiful underwater sights – bring snorkeling gear, if you have it.  The water in most cenotes is crystal clear with excellent visibility.  Expect a significant amount of physical jostling while in the buggy.  Add a visit to the nearby ruins of Mayapán to make it a full day trip.  I loved these ruins – they are compact and dramatic and you can still view color art friezes on several walls.  I recommend visiting Mayapán first thing in the morning and then the cenotes at Cuzama in the afternoon.

Cuzama cenote

Cuzama cenote


My third recommendation:  driving the Ruta Puuc (the Puuc Ruins Route) to see all the Maya ruins, especially Uxmal.  This would make for a long day, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world to just see Uxmal.  Uxmal is a wonder and deserves a full day of exploring, if not two.  As with all Maya ruins, the noteworthy suggestion is to arrive early, before the tour buses arrive.  I made it a habit to arrive at ruins by opening hour – usually 8 a.m. – and was able to enjoy quiet moments without the hordes of tourists (not to mention the hot sun).  If there’s one suggestion worth taking, this is it: ruins = arrive early.


My fourth suggestion is a shorter excursion than the others – drive north of Mérida to see the Maya ruins of Dzibilchaltún (less than a half hour away); bring your walking shoes as they’re beautifully sprawled.  Don’t forget your bathing suit and a towel so that you can enjoy a quick swim in the clear, fresh cenote with the lily pads and curious fish. Afterward, continue driving north another half hour to the little beach town of Progreso.  Progreso is worth visiting just to see what a beach town on the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula looks like – it’s a small, scrappy place, but you’ll be able to enjoy a good meal and there are decent and moderately priced Maya and Mexican goods to be purchased.  Be prepared to be harassed by vendors.


Ik'kil cenote

Ik Kil cenote

My fifth recommendation would be to drive to the well-known, jaw dropping Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, and since you’re going all that way, plan on visiting the nearby Ik Kil Cenote.  Chichén Itzá is filled with tourists and vendors by 11 a.m., so if you go, go early.  Ik Kil is also filled with tourists and you’ll have to pay more than you think you should to get in; it’s so beautiful, do it anyway.  As is the mantra, bring your bathing suit, a towel and plenty of film.  A tripod may be helpful since the cenote is deep and sufficient natural lighting is not guaranteed.


All this being said, I prefer the smaller and more recently discovered Maya ruins north of Chichén Itzá called Ek’Balam.  Ek’Balam has some of the most beautiful Maya art and carvings I’ve seen; they look like they were created last year, not in 800 A.D.  If you arrive early enough, you may be the only one there to enjoy the site for the first hour.  See these ruins now before all the other tourists catch on to their wonder.


Ek'Balam bench

Ek’Balam bench

BONUS! My sixth suggestion is a bit of an “adventure” and not for the fainthearted.  Drive to the remote Maya Oxkintok ruins down a long, deserted, potholed road to enjoy these ruins (probably alone), then take a short drive to the nearby Calcehtok Caves for a private, impromptu tour of a (dry) cave system in which many ancient Maya families used to live.  There’s no lighting of any kind, there will be hundreds of bats flying overhead; the pungent (and potentially toxic) fumes from the bat guano may be more than you can stand.  It’s also one of the coolest things you can do and see in Mexico.


Get your little butt out there!

In Summary, The Amazing Yucatán Peninsula

July 13, 2019
Welcome to Holbox

After 10+ visits to the Yucatán Peninsula and much time spent in Playa del Carmen specifically, it’s time for a comprehensive overview of the region. I am not one for resorts or amusement parks, so if those are the recommendations you seek, this is not the article for you. Nor will I offer suggestions on hotels or restaurants. Y’all can surely utilize The Google.

For your island experience, go to La Isla Holbox

Where do Mexicans and expats living in Mexico go on vacation? Holbox, pronounced Hole-bosch, a slender island a stone’s throw from the northernmost, Gulf section of the Yucatán Peninsula. I refer to it as Mexican Fire Island though presumably it lacks an equivalent number of LGBT folk.

I hesitate to note this recommendation in a post as this island is bound to become increasingly overwhelmed by construction and tourists and that’s a damn shame. There are no cars on the island, except for ever-present construction vehicles. Dirt streets can turn to veritable mud pits after a heavy rain. There’s only one ATM and it’s frequently out of order. To me, these are Holbox’s charms, but it means you need to be well prepared.

The best way to get to Chiquila, where you will take a ferry to Holbox, is by bus. Buses in Mexico are comfortable, reliable and affordable. That being said, there can be hurdles. I landed at CUN in the early afternoon and discovered there were no buses leaving from the airport or Cancún city to Chiquila for the rest of the day. This necessitated a long taxi ride for about $100 USD with much hopefulness I’d arrive before the last ferry departed for Holbox. Whenever possible in Mexico buy bus tickets in advance and get an assigned seat. You don’t want to discover that all the seats are filled for the entire morning you were hoping to take the bus to Chiquila, for example, or when heading to the airport on the day you are to return home. There goes another $100.

Back to Holbox: Bring lots of pesos with you and loads of reading material. Holbox is a sleepy place. Rent a bicycle (about US$5/day) and ride daily to Punta Cocos on the western side of the island. Eat at Taco Queto every day. Holbox is a fantastic place to spend a few days. After boredom sets in, set out.

Cancún, Playa or Tulum?

Rent a bed at Tulum

If you’re not staying at a resort, you’ll likely be considering your options of staying at Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Cancún is the one with the high rise hotels and beautiful beaches on a thin strip of land off the mainland. Cancún city proper is a nearby dusty Mexican town. This may appeal to those of you who are resort types, not particularly interested in having a very Mexican experience, shall we say.

Playa is about 1 hour south of Cancún and is a completely different animal. It’s a bustling, sprawling city where no building exceeds five stories, though certainly those will be forthcoming when officials are paid enough. The tourist heart of Playa is 5th Avenue, a busy and sometimes obnoxious pedestrian walkway with endless bars, shops, restaurants, vendors and fish pedicures. You’ll walk La Quinta, surely, but there’s so much else to do in the environs that there’s no need to walk it more than you can tolerate. (Runners take advantage of the wide open walkway in the cooler early mornings.)

Do not stay in a hotel on or right off 5th Avenue. It will be noisy. Heading to 10th Avenue to upwards of, say, 35th Avenue, you will still be within a 10 minute walk to 5th Avenue and the beach. It also gets quieter the further north you go on 5th.

A note about Playa beaches: The beaches along city center suck. They are eroded and often, but not always, draped with sargassum – unending amounts of seaweed, a blight on Caribbean beaches. However, beautiful beaches can be found nearby. Head just south to Playacar or north to 88th Street and beyond for some fabulous beaches where you will also have room to breathe.

‘Tis true that Cancún and Tulum beaches are stunning. If you are only traveling for beach time, you may wish to pick these locations over Playa.

That being said, I find Playa to be the perfect location for day trips. You can venture north to Cancún, south to Tulum, and inland to Maya ruins and the amazing city of Mérida. Cozumel is a ferry ride away. Playa boasts many expats and you can find French cafes run by French expats, Italian restaurants owned by Italians, and bread shops staffed by Germans. Despite its warts, many find Playa an easy place to call home.

Tulum? If you want to feel like Gwyneth Paltrow – a high class yoga vegan hippie – then Tulum may be right for you. Bring a high tolerance for mosquitoes. I prefer day trips to enjoy the massive pristine beaches, though confess I’d like to get to know humble Tulum center better. I find the prices on tourist and craft goods more reasonable and in some cases negotiable there than in Playa.

What about the cartels and all the Americans getting kidnapped, killed and decapitated?

Hotel Colorado, Playa

Americans do not get kidnapped, killed and decapitated in Mexico. Refer to reputable news sources. Cartel violence doesn’t often occur on the Yucatán Peninsula, but sadly it is increasing. It is almost exclusively Mexicans killing Mexicans, usually in authentic Mexican, non-tourist neighborhoods and of course only select ones at that. Cartel violence is almost exclusively a Mexican tragedy, not ours, and boy, a mind-bending tragedy it is. Drug use in the US is one of the reasons why this is so, but I’ll save that rant for another day.

I’ve rented cars on the Yucatán Peninsula without problem, but you are advised to stay on major highways and not drive at night. I think that’s fair advice. Be a smart traveler. If you’re like me, you’ll find Mexicans to be perhaps the kindest, gentlest, warmest, hardest working, most family-oriented people in the world. But still, be smart, it’s better than being dumb.

Should I do a tour to see stuff?

Probably not, if you are a traveler like me. On 5th Avenue in Playa there will be limitless opportunities to sign up for cookie-cutter tours to Maya ruins or to cenotes for diving and snorkeling. I recommend seeing them on your own, arriving when the sites first open so you can enjoy a moment of solitude before the tour buses show up. Again, the best option is renting a car, but buses and the ubiquitous small shuttle vans (colectivos, super cheap) will also do the trick.

If you really want to go on a tour, at least pick a good one. Here’s one to consider, Agence Francophone Tours D’Excursions,, email If you don’t speak French, ask which tours are bilingual. This company offers experiences that you will not find at other tour companies. Having just learned of the company before leaving Mexico this year, I had no time to partake, but they are the only tour company I’ve seen during 10 trips to Playa that peaked my interest.

Why you must head inland

The mighty jaws at Ek’ Balam

So after all this nonsensical rambling, Irene, what do you suggest I do? Well, say I, plan a two-week trip to the Yucatán, flying in and out of CUN. Take a bus from the airport to Playa to your cheap, perfectly adequate hotel (I’ve never spent more than US$50/night), and enjoy some of what Playa has to offer – restaurants, shopping, beaches to the north and south, and at least one day trip to Tulum. Stay a week and then head inland.

You probably can’t experience everything on the Yucatán Peninsula you’d like to during the second week of your vacation, but you’ll make a nice dent. Stay in Valladolid and Mérida. Visit the Disneyfied but still stunning Chichén Itzá, breathtaking Ek’ Balam to the north (my fave), compact Mayapán, and the Three Cenotes (in Cuzamá – you are brought there by small horses pulling carts along mining tracks) near the yellow village of Izamal.

Mérida is a real Mexican city of one million souls that tends to draw fewer tourists. I found it to be dreamy; a breath of hot fresh Mexican air after the tourist enclaves of Riviera Maya. I drove north from Mérida to the Dzibilchaltún ruins and then on to the nothing/little fishing town of Progreso.

Cenote swim

This you should do: rent a car and drive the Ruta Puuc to experience the magnificent Maya ruins of Uxmal, Labná, Xlapak, Sayil and Kabáh. If you are drawn to caves as much as I am, you have options: trek into Oxkintok cave or las Grutas de Calcehtok. (See my separate post about Calcehtok.) More caves are to be found at Loltún. Drive to the small town of Acanceh. So many quaint towns, crumbling ruins, dramatic cenotes and guano-filled grutas, so little time.

Honestly, I could go on, but… I found this article to be quite spot on regarding suggestions so check it out:

For me, next on the Yucatán to-do list is an adventure to Campeche and environs, including the Choco-Story Museum, the Haciendas around Mérida, and Celestún Beach with its flocks of flamingos. But I suspect even this will wait because on top of my list is a long overdue visit to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. And Mexico City. Damn you, Mexico!

My tree

Indeed I am a Mexico-phile. I hear about expats and retirees flowing to Thailand and Spain and Ecuador and Panama and all I can envision is expat or retirement life in Mexico. Mexico, in my eyes, is simply magnificent. The vast blue sky and scorching sun will rearrange your cells. Like the Maya, you will soon be praying to the Sun God (Ahau Kin) and Rain God (Chaac). Mexican gentleness and kindness will fill your heart, and Yucatecan food, culture and history will shift your very soul.

Get your little butt out there!

Obituary: An Ode to Joey P. Kontje

August 17, 2013


Joey P. Kontje, circa 2011

Joey P. Kontje, born circa 1996, died on Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 5:15 p.m. in Durham, North Carolina, United States of America. She is survived by her human mom, Irene Kontje, and a host of other doting humans, Aunts and Uncles – the lot of them, long-known as the Joey Fan Club. Surviving  creature cousins in Pennsylvania include (cats) Lynx, Psycho and Ritzy; (hamsters) Bella and Kweeks II; and (fish) Fred, George, Breakfast, Dinner and Snow.

Joey was pre-deceased by (dogs) Olivia, Sergie, Blackie, Tiny and Blinker; (cats) Oliver, Buttons, Pigpen, Cottonball and Carcassonne; (squirrel) Maxwell; and the lake turtles in New Jersey that almost killed her human mom in 1974.

Joey was born in Oakland, California and adopted by her human mom at eight weeks old, with help from Aunt Janet, and brought to a tiny, slug-infested garden apartment in Piedmont, California. Soon thereafter, she was joined by an eight-week old Siamese kitty from Berkeley, California who became her little sister. They loved to wrestle and bite each others’ ears.

Joey enjoyed, in her early years, outdoor hobbies, including killing and bringing home dead birds and mice. Her mom wishes to extend heartfelt thanks to Aunts Michelle and Tami for cleaning up bird carcasses on multiple occasions. Joey enjoyed sharing space with the neighborhood ‘possums and raccoons, and climbing trees to pluck tasty baby birds from their wee little nests.

The ladies at rest

Ladies at rest

Some of Joey’s favorite memories include:

  • When that cute little black animal with the white stripe raised its tail as Joey cluelessly sat cleaning her face with her paws.
  • The day when a raccoon came into the apartment and took a nap on Joey’s favorite papasan chair.
  • Those super-cool slug slime trails on the living room floor.
  • Her sister Jasmine. No, scratch that. Not so much.
  • When Jasmine would look at human mom and meow a hello, and mom would say, “Oh, hello, Jasmine! How are you?,” and Joey would stop whatever she was doing, plop down onto the carpet, and walk over and bite Jasmine on the hind leg.
  • Unending attempts at affection from humans, including sitting on laps, noggin-to-noggin bumping, incessant rubbing against pretty much any human appendage, and sleeping on human heads whenever possible (thanks to so many of you for your body parts and kittysitting skills, e.g., Vibe, Heidi, Shari, Julie, Abbey, Lynn, etc.)
  • Those made-for-Joey ubertoys – dreadlocks! She’ll be forever grateful for the night when mom brought home a Kenyan acrobat.
  • The fact that Joey got to live in three boroughs – Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Mom hasn’t even lived in Brooklyn.
  • Full-on kitty bark-meow conversations with anyone who would talk to her.
  • Being left with awesome Joey Fan Club board members when mom was off studying in France, interning in Amsterdam, and trying to find work in Spain (thanks Uncle Eduardo and Aunts Jeanine and Bah).
  • Being erroneously called a boy her whole life.

    X-ray of mom's hair bands in Joey's tummy

    X-ray of mom’s hair bands in Joey’s tummy

  • Her homes in California, New Jersey, New York City (five different apartments!), Arizona, Amsterdam and North Carolina.
  • Freely roaming the apartment complex in Glendale, Arizona, which included getting locked in a neighbor’s closet (too much fun!) and frequent visits on her own steam to see Aunt Cindy.
  • Learning to meow in Dutch.
  • Going to the vet, which always equaled new humans to meet and love.
  • Extraordinary New York City vet John Higgins saving her life the first time (blocked bile duct).
  • Outrageously extraordinary vet John Higgins saving her life the second time after Joey swallowed ten of her mom’s black hair bands. That one entailed emergency surgery and a cone – all very exciting!
  • That time when Aunt Jeanine couldn’t sleep with Joey trying to lie on her head all night, so when Jeanine locked her out of the bedroom, Joey pooped in her purse.
  • That whole accidental pooping on Julie situation. It happens, but still – how embarrassing.
  • In addition to the pooping, countless memories of napping, eating, peeing and puking.

    Hate when that happens

    Hate when that happens

The good times were long-lived but couldn’t last forever.

Joey stopped eating and got skinny. A disconcerting lump in her stomach grew larger. She became glassy-eyed, listed when she walked, and could no longer jump up on the bed. Mom saw where this was headed and didn’t like it. Didn’t like it at all.

On the day she went to Kitty Heaven, Joey drank a little water. She wagged her tail, barked a meow, and, as always, sought affection. She took her last car ride and looked excitedly at everything around her. Joey paced the examining room at the vet’s office and methodically sniffed the corners. She looked up at counters she could no longer jump to. She met a new Aunt on this last day, Rachel, and sat next to her for a moment, saying hello. She hopped up on mom’s lap one last time and looked mom squarely in the eyes.

Shortly thereafter, with mom and a very nice lady vet, Joey fell heavy and limp. She was kissed on her striped orange head for the last time. Through tears, her mom thanked and thanked and thanked her for being such an outstanding friend and companion for seventeen adventure-filled years.

Joey wasn’t just a “cat.” She was a legend; a rock star. She was one-third puppy, one-third kitten and one-third human being. We’ll never know for sure if Joey’s human third was her mom’s brother, Wayne Joseph, reincarnated, and we don’t need to. We will live – and love – and die – with the mystery.

Rest in peace, my friend

Rest in peace, my friend