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, http://www.delmundotours.com, email reservations@delmundotours.com. 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: https://www.roamingaroundtheworld.com/best-day-trips-yucatan-merida-mexico/

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!

Advertisements

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

BARCELONA

Do:

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.

Eat:

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).  www.amorino.es.

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. www.bubo.ws.

Order iced tea to go – té frio para llevar! – at Tea Shop of East West Company, many locations in Barcelona and Madrid. www.teashop.es. (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.

See:

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 €. http://w3.bcn.es/V64/Home/V64XMLHomeLinkPl/0,4468,335907851_335943991_1,00.html.

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

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.

Shop:

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)  www.reversikaeuropa.com.

Happy Pills, C/ Argenteria, 70, fantastic kitchy gifts o’ candy pills.  www.happypills.es.  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.  www.desigual.com.

English bookstore, Hibernian Books, Carrer de Montseny, 17 (Gràcia barrio).  Http://hibernian2.cpvsolutions.com.

Stay:

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

Cadiz Roman Amphitheatre

Cadiz Roman Amphitheatre

CÁDIZ

Do:

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

See:

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 €.

Stay:

Hotel Argantonio, C/ Argantonio, 3.  Charming, nice location. www.hotelargantonio.com.

Cordoba Angel

Cordoba Angel

CÓRDOBA

Eat:

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.

See:

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.  www.junta-andalucia.es/cultura/museos/CAMA. 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

Stay:

Hostal Lineros 38, C/Lineros, 38.  Fantastic small hotel in a terrific location.  www.hostallineros38.com.

GRANADA

Eat:

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

Generalife Roses

Generalife Roses

See:

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  www.alhambradegranada.org/guias/alhambraEntradas_en.asp.

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.

Stay:

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

MADRID

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 €. www.catedralprimada.es. 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.  www.sanlorenzoturismo.org/ingles/default2.htm.  8 € for an unguided tour; 10 € guided.

Madrid swingers

Do:

Hear some fantastic music in a cabaret setting at Galileo Galeleiwww.salagalileogalilei.com.

Visit Cock Bar, just so you can say you did.  www.barcock.com.  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.

Eat:

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

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. www.nemrutkebap.com.

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).

See:

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.  www.museodelprado.es/en. 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.  www.museosorolla.mcu.es. 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

Shop:

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.  www.desigual.com.

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

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

RONDA

Eat:

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

See:

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 €.

Stay:

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

I'm your Venus

I’m your Venus

SEVILLA

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.  www.juntadeandalucia.es/cultura/italica.

Do:

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. www.airedesevilla.com.

Eat:

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.

See:

Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria, C/ Ximenez de Enciso, 28 (Barrio de Santa Cruz), www.casadelamemoria.es.  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.  www.tablaolosgallos.com.

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 €.  www.fundacionmedinaceli.org.

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.

Shop:

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.  www.casadellibro.com.

Get your little butt out there!

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

Italica – Trajan and Hadrian walked on these stones


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!


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

Montsegur

Montsegur

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

St-Sernin

St-Sernin

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: 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, http://www.casasacnicte.com), 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!