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More sheep (and horses) than people- Amazing Planet Iceland

 

This trip was a rather unexpected one for me, especially after Krakow. My friends know I am not a big fan of the cold, and here we are doing TWO cold destinations one after the other. Anyway, the main culprit is my friend Ivette, whose blog on her trip in a campervan to Iceland set me off on this journey. What happened was that I saw Ivette’s pictures and my jaw dropped. D said “Ok let’s go” and that was it. We soon had a flight booked and I started on the itinerary and the accommodation.

I have to say that this part was way more complicated than your usual 12 day trip somewhere mainly because Iceland, a destination with only 300,000 or so people has very few towns and not many guest houses/ hotels. So you have to book at least 4 months in advance if you plan on going in the summer. We had originally planned to go in May for 12 days, but after a back injury this became end of June, by which time many of my accommodations were unavailable. In Iceland you can drive 200 km without seeing a single house, or gas station (or bathroom!) so you have to bear this in mind when planning. We booked almost exclusively guest houses or air bnbs with shared bathroom and kitchen, which was just fine. Icelanders are extremely fastidious and nearly all the places were spotlessly clean. The other consideration was that we wanted to cook for ourselves, as eating out is horrendously expensive in Iceland.

Usually when I blog a trip I outline cities and sites that we visited, but Iceland being Iceland really the main thing to do is just drive round the Route 1 ring road and just stop wherever you fancy. There are only gorgeous beautiful sites to see, mostly a result of the weird geology of the island. The entire interior is glaciers, and around the road you find a massive array of volcanic features (craters, hot springs and geysers etc) impressive waterfalls and beautiful fjords and scenery. Everywhere you stop is amazing. There are a few must- sees, such as Kerið crater, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir in Thingvellir National Park, and of course the awesome Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach. But generally what people do is just drive the ring road either clockwise or anti clockwise, and then book accommodations nearby at sensible distances so you are not constantly driving.

 

 

So instead of naming all the places on the itinerary (most of which are unpronounceable anyway) I will just outline the different areas that we saw. Actually one of the best descriptions of Iceland is my great friend Nas Daily’s one, where he says that Iceland is in fact like another planet, and that’s really accurate, and it is because of Iceland’s unique geological features. Some places look like the surface of the moon, or Mars, and sometimes you just feel inundated with waterfalls, snow capped glaciers, fields of bubbling sulphur pools, or weird lava rock formations. It’s all rather overwhelming. Iceland has more weird geological features than anywhere else on the planet. It also has an abundance of sheep, goats, ducks, sea birds, puffins, whales and cute Icelandic horses. What’s not to like? WE drove around the ring road anti clockwise and so we began with

Part 1   The South Coast

Some people go clockwise, and leave this area for the end. It is really the most touristy and “crowded” area of the country (a term which has little meaning in Iceland) . And some people come in tour groups and ONLY see this area. So you are going to see tour buses congregating along Thingvellir National park ( lakes, geysers and waterfalls), and near Seljalandsfoss, Vik and Reynisfjara Beach,  and especially around  Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. There were myriad groups of Chinese toting very fancy cameras and tripods.But even in June nothing was that crowded. People arrive at a place, stay about 30 minutes or so and move on. Kerið glacial crater is quite lovely. Reynisfjara Beach has remarkable black sand and strange rock formations. OF course if you like you can take a long hike around any of these site.

I highly recommend the boat excursion on the Glacier Lagoon because you get to see the  glaciers up close and you experience it in a different way, and even see seals sitting on the ice.

We stayed the night at Kirkjubæjarklaustur (don’t ask me to say that) in a wonderful place called NiceHostel, which had a brilliant Lamb soup with free refill, just what we needed after getting soaked with rain at Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls. After the Glacier Lagoon trip we continued on to stay at Hofn, a lovely little fishing town which would be our last stop along the South Coast.

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Chopped Liver and Klezmer- a week in freezing Krakow (or is it Cracow?)

This post comes with a consumer warning- this trip was not our usual happy jaunt to foreign climes, to savour native cultures and escape our everyday life. I thought it might be that, but once the visit to Auschwitz materialized on the itinerary, everything changed.

It all started when (like many other fellow Israelis) we happened upon appealingly cheap flights to Poland. I knew nothing of Gdansk, or Poznan, but I knew that Warsaw was flattened during WWII and rebuilt, but that Krakow remained mostly intact. I like old European cities, so  chose Krakow over Warsaw- the shopping mecca of the modern Israeli. I looked up what there was to do in Krakow and basically there were three things: the Medieval Town centre, the Jewish Quarter of Kazimeirz and the Ghetto and a visit to the Salt Mines. But every tourist website I explored offered a day trip to Auschwitz Birkenau. Okay, clearly if you are going to Krakow for a week, that has to be on the itinerary. I know that most Israeli school high kids get taken there but I had never really thought about what a trip to that terrible place would mean to me as an Israeli and a Jew, and as a human being. It just didn’t seem right to be in Krakow and not make that trip. We had visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and the American war Museum in Saigon, and also the DMZ in Korea. It was time to face our own history.

Therefore, this blog will be ( as befits a week before Pessach) different from all (my) other blogs, and the content may be heavy. You have been warned.

The flight ( Ryanairm arriving  at a horrible 23.59 )was enhanced by a chat with a Polish journalist called Anton who is now my Facebook friend and will hopefully be visiting us in December. On arrival,  fortunately our Ryanair transfer guy was waiting at the airport to take us the 30 minute drive to the Jewish district of Kazimierz, where we stayed at the comfy but slightly worn Kazimierz II hotel.

The staff were still there as promised and we quickly got ensconced in our room. The next morning after a hearty complementary brekky (brazenly UNKOSHER) we set off to explore the centre of old Krakow. We tried to join a free walking tour, but that did not depart, as there were not enough people. So we made our own  way through winding cobbled streets to Wawel castle to tour by ourselves. There we chanced upon a different free walking tour company and joined the end of their tour. We didn’t actually enter the castle because the first available tour involved a 2 hour wait. In any case it didn’t look like Versailles. The free guide was good and so I noted that his company (called Walkative) had other tours including one of Jewish Krakow, and the guide said that their tours went in all weather and regardless of the number of participants. We had a lovely cappuchino and chocky cake in the old city and went home for a rest. We had dinner in the Jewish quarter near the hotel at a very excellent restaurant  Kuchina Domowa ,that was exceedingly tasty and cheap, like many restaurants in Krakow. We at first went in to the one next door, Sasiedzi, which had been recommended to us by some girls at the hotel, as appearing in the Michelin guide, and which boasted Hebrew over the doorway. But it was more expensive and fancy looking and we were very satisfied with the one we chose. In the evening we went to a meeting of Couchsurfers in a pub called The Legend, which was a bit hard to find. The event was fun and we talked to people from Italy and Spain as well as local Krakovians.

Next day we did some more exploring around the main square downtown, including the famous medieval Cloth Market, and the streets around it including St Mary’s  Basilica and the Jagiellonian University building. In the evening we went to a lovely concert of Chopin music in the Chopin Gallery.

Next day we took an organized tour to the Wieliczka Salt mines just outside Krakow. I was a bit apprehensive about this as I had heard there were 800 steps down, but in the event, despite having a problem knee that morning I managed to do it slowly and surely.

The steps were not steep, well lit and with a handrail all the way. The guided tour including bus pickup cost 120 zloti per person and an earpiece so that you could hear the guide (Konrad- “Konrad’s group please join, please follow”)  and it  was very interesting. The statues carved out of salt with the chandeliers of salt crystals were great, and the pièce de résistance, the huge chapel at the end of the tour was staggering. Apparently locals can hire it for weddings and other events. There are also a bar  and restaurant down in the mines.

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St Kinga’s Chapel, Salt mine ( wikpedia Image)

 

Next day we took a free walking tour of the Jewish neighbourhood Kazimierz and its synagogues with Walkative. The tour began right by our hotel  in front of the Old Synagogue    and continued to the other places connected to the Jewish life of that neighbourhood which was completely wiped out in the Holocaust. This was where the trip started getting very weird. I continually felt that vast amounts of money are now being made on the backs of a whole community that has been totally  eradicated. Everywhere there are bars and restaurants, profiting from displaying Stars of David and Menorahs, and by selling gefilte fish and chopped liver. Everywhere you see posters for Klezmer music being played by non Jews (cultural appropriation?) The place was thronging with tourists. Poland is cheap, and the beer is plentiful. Of course this is all completely natural  but somehow it felt jarring. For example, from the free tourist map I was given:

Hevre- once a Jewish prayer house, now a hip bar, with peeling original frescos and DJ parties in the basement on weekends. “

“Sababa: this covert cocktail club offers signature drinks served by sharp-dressed barmen in a low key lounge setting with weekends DJ sets”

I don’t know – it just made my skin creep. But more of this dislocated feeling anon.

Back to the tour- we saw the beautiful Old Synagogue, now a museum, which we returned to on our last day, another Synagogue which is now a bookstore, and the Remu Synagogue and cemetery where we had to pay 10 zloti each to visit (despite the fact that there were some Hassidim from Bnei Brak praying inside, next to the jean- clad French teenage tourists). The tour then crossed over the Vistula river to the Ghetto and the horrifying Ghetto Heroes Square. (  70 empty  bronze chairs – One  chair for each 1000 people murdered)  The tour finished up outside Oscar Schindler’s Factory, where we were offered a paid tour inside what is now a museum. WE opted to queue outside for 45 minutes to visit independently. Our guide pointed out that all the commercialization of Kazimierz district began only after the movie Schindler’s List, which brought the world’s attention to Jewish Krakow. Before this time, he said, the district had become run down and the derelict houses, abandoned by their Jewish owners ,were inhabited by the poorest of Krakow’s residents. Then gradually tourists came and people saw a marketing opportunity in all things Jewish.

The Schindler Factory Museum was interesting but extremely crowded and it was hard to focus on the wealth of information on display there. We made a valiant effort before returning to the hotel to have dinner and steel ourselves for the following day- Auschwitz- Birkenau.

WE had originally planned to visit the camps independently, just taking the museum guides for the tour inside (outside guides are not allowed). However on discovering  that the next day would be -6 wind chill effect -20, we decided to forgo getting there under our own steam, and booked a tour bus that would pick us up from the hotel, and take us directly to Auschwitz I , provide a tour guide and then continue on to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It was odd as there were no other Jews/Israelis on the bus and it felt a bit bizarre. The whole day was extremely odd. I can only direct you to the wonderful article written by teacher Adam Boxer, which really puts a finger on how I felt for the rest of this trip. What Mr Boxer says is spot on. I sometimes felt that the guide was being overly defensive, for example, by pointing out that the camps were in fact built to exterminate Poles and not only Jews (true, but 90% of the victims were Jews, both Poles and from other countries).  Then she said that inmates claimed the “Jews had it easier” because they were exterminated immediately on arrival instead of being tortured by camp life. This may be true, but it’s a funny way of putting it. She also said that in comparison to Auschwitz II , Auschwitz I was like a 5 star hotel ( brick barracks, toilets, beds) Again this is effectively true but just sounds awful. In terms of content, I believe she was 100% accurate. It was really the tone that bothered me. The tour of Auschwitz was about 2 hours but felt like eternity. In our 4 layers of clothing it was impossible to fathom how anyone could have survived there wearing pyjamas and no shoes. As the guide said, you could be punished for wearing another layer underneath your prison pyjamas.

From there the drive to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was about 10 minutes. Again, Mr Boxer’s account is spot on. The camp was horrifying in its barrenness, as the Nazis destroyed most of the camp before the allied forces arrived, leaving only the crematoria. We toured the wooden huts that have been reconstructed there. Then the guide said she would continue on across the vast snow covered field to the crematoria. Those who preferred could return to the bus. D went; I caved in and returned with a few other women to sit on the bus and try to digest what we had seen.

 

The next day was our last day in Krakow and it was still bitterly cold, so we just popped down to the old city to see the last of the downtown area. We happened upon the strange “Underground Museum” which features a history of Medieval Krakow underneath the main square. Then after an amazingly cheap and tasty curry at Indus, we returned to tour Kazimierz again and enter the synagogues which we had not done on the walking tour. I leave you with some photos of those. Next stop Iceland.

Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Six weeks Down Under- from Melbourne to Cairns

Things I loved about Australia:

Friendliest and most open people in the world -Amazing scenery –  Ease of getting about -Clean and convenient ( never had to wait for a bathroom!)- the noise the traffic lights make (kind of like the spaceship doors on Star Trek) Cosmopolitan – you can get lots of different kinds of food like Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian in the cities – Everything is safe- trails are clearly labelled, information is freely available, nothing is mysterious or confusing

Things I liked less:

Prices- Everything is ridiculously expensive :The package tourist trips are ridiculously priced.  ( unlike Mexico for example)  Transportation is also not cheap  You can’t eat out cheaply like in Asia    Local  is not so healthy (everything seemed to be fried/ hamburgers – we missed a good Israeli salad and fresh fruits)  There are Chinese EVERYWHERE (more than we saw in China?)    I couldn’t get Uber to work (ok,not Oz’ fault)

We have just returned from what had seemed to be the “dream trip” for many people, and in many ways it was miraculous, and marvelous. and was certainly different from many other trips we have done. For a start it took us to the furthest eastern and southern point on the globe we have ever been, and was the longest flight we have done. It took over 24 hours, with one flight from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong and the second from Hong Kong to Melbourne (with a return from Cairns through the amazing Cathay Pacific).

Having said that, I was not expecting Australia to be “exotic” or “alien” in the same way that our Asian trips have been. The culture in Australia is so familiar, that for the first few days in Melbourne it felt like England- the sky and fields of Victoria looked like England, the houses in the city looked English and the roads and signage were the same. There were pubs called “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Charles Dickens” and of course many of the citizens are of British or Irish descent. WE could read everything written and understand everything said to us. So coming to Australia was physically but not culturally far.

I will divide the blog into sections, because of course a trip of 6 weeks is going to make for a very long blog post. So first, to Melbourne.

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Part One Melbourne  and Sydney ( and a bit further north!)

WE spent 6 days in Melbourne. The first day we arrived at night and the next day we spent having brunch with family, and that was really great. They gave us a few pointers about what to see around town. So we began by walking along the Southbank (a bit like the London South Bank) cultural area and this was indeed the part of Melbourne we enjoyed the most. It has a lovely walk along the river, with cafes and restaurants, and some cool statues. I didn’t think much of Federation Square, which was not as lively as I was expecting. Neither did I find the alleyways with the graffiti in Hosier Lane that impressive- the ones in Mexico were far more colourful and artistic. We did enjoy the colonial architecture of the buildings, the Victorian shopping arcades,  the fascinating Immigration Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the Old Melbourne Gaol House  experience, during which you go  through what a prisoner in Victorian times would have felt on being admitted to the Jail – it was fantastic, and the lady sergeant who “processed” us was deliciously scary.

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Southbank sculpture

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The last leg- Mexico City, DF

After our wonderful time in Oaxaca we nevertheless had to move on, so as to be in Mexico City (referred to locally as Distrito Federal or D.F) for our flight home. We decided to spend a week seeing the capital city of Mexico ( with its mere 9 million inhabitants). I was slightly nervous about it, since many people had warned me that it’s very dangerous, lots of crime, etc. Even Mexicans said that we should not wander out at night, and that some neighbourhoods are out of bounds. Of course this is the case in many large cities in every country.

It transpired that the lovely Airbnb that we had booked was at the back of the American Embassy, the securest location in the whole city, judging by the number of armed police surrounding it. The neighbourhood, called Cuauhtémoc, is one of the most pleasant and safe in the city, and we had no problems at all walking  along the main boulevard the Paseo de la Reforma at night, eating and drinking there. It is near to the amazing Museum of Anthropology and the Chapultepec park and  had wide tree- lined boulevards and lots of lovely statues. On Sundays, the road is blocked off and filled with people on bicycles, skateboards, dogs and runners. It was a delightful place altogether, and far removed from what I had been expecting. However, we only went on the metro once, as it was incredibly crowded, and we actually saw two people fall out onto the platform once, when the doors opened. We took the bus once, which was easy, and otherwise walked everywhere. But we did not really go out at night except in our neighbourhood of Chapultepéc.

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Runners on Paseo de la Reforma on Sunday

Of course, as with any large city, the problem is deciding what to see without running around crazily and exhausting yourself. We had a few top sites we didn’t want to miss, and the first of these was the Frida Kahlo Museum. I also wanted to see some works by Frida’s husband Diego Rivera, and to see the Museum of Anthropology, which my cousin had told me was a ” not to be missed” attraction. We were also lucky enough to have some local people to meet up with, the lovely Francisco, whom we had met through Servas, when he was studying Hebrew in Israel, another couple from Servas, consisting of an Israeli called Anna and her husband and daughter), a girl called Cynthia, who is

a travel buddy from the now defunct Virtual Tourist, and a Couchsurfer called Sima, a Mexican who had lived in Israel for some years.

But we started off with a lovely day at the Chapultepec Park, a huge expanse of green in the heart of the city, which contains the Chapultepec Castle, several museums and lakes and other wonderful things. We didn’t manage to see the Castle, but we very much enjoyed walking around the lakes, and people watching in the park. You could spend days in this place as it is truly a relaxing and lovely spot. We especially enjoyed the secluded relaxation corner, which has benches for reading and  plays a different style of chillout music  for each day of the week.

The next day we ventured down to the Historic city centre where most of the big tourist sites are located. Here you can find the Zocalo, as in all the other Mexican towns we had visited, but here of course there is more of everything- more galleries, more churches, murals, theatres. We took a free walking tour with this company, which was extremely enjoyable, even if the guide did sometimes stand in a spot where we couldn’t hear her because of the traffic, it still introduced us to some sites that we decided to revisit at our leisure later on. The tour begins every day outside the Cathedral at 11am, and although it is 100% free,you are invited to give your guide a tip at the end if you are satisfied.( we were)

One of the tips that we got on the tour was where to have lunch. The restaurant on the walking street in the Sanborns department store, called Casa de los Azuelos,(House of Blue Tiles), had already been mentioned to me by Sima the Israeli- Mexican, and it looked like an amazing place to try, so we went there, and although the food was not the most amazing we had eaten in Mexico, the ambiance of the place was really something unforgettable, with a live piano and violin performance.

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Casa de los Azuelos

We went to see Frida Kahlo’s House the next day, and didn’t manage to book online for technical reasons. However, lining up outside, we were approached by an employee of the museum who asked us if we were over 60. When we admitted that we were, she queue jumped us inside, and also charged us only 50%, something which had not been clear to me from the website, so it was all good. You pay an extra (small) fee if you wish to take photos inside. The place is stunning, and well worth the wait, although many things are not labelled in English. There is a great video about Frida’s life and death (which you will probably know about if you have seen the movie) but it was still fascinating and intensely moving, especially for me the part about Trotsky, who stayed in the house while on the run, and which reminded me of the brilliant Barbara Kingsolver  book The Lacuna. The whole place was just fantastic.

After this we messaged Sima, who said that she lived nearby in Coyoacán district and would come and meet us in a restaurant. We waited for her for a long time in the restaurant, by which time we were starving, and not sure what had happened to her (traffic) so we had a soup and finally she arrived, declined to eat anything, poured out her long and involved life story to us, and took us on a walking tour of Coyoacan, which was great, especially the food market.

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Sima and D in Coyoacan market

In DF we saw murals by Diego Rivera, Frida’s husband, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (with another couchsurfer called Miguel Noguera) and also in Tlalpan, an area of the city far from the centre, which our friend Francisco took us to by car. It seems that the whole city is full of artwork. It’s quite overwhelming. But we also did some more prosaic sightseeing, or so we thought. The market of Sonora, was in fact very weird. At first it looked like any other market, but at the back there are some stalls that sell witchcraft and voodoo items, which we were not supposed to photograph, but I managed anyway (hope I am not jinxed now)

One of the highlights of Mexico City, although everything was pretty wonderful, was the aforementioned Museum of Anthropology, which was our last day in DF, and appropriately took us back to Chapultepec Park, as on Day 1. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing this place was. We spent about 5 hours there, and could have spent another 10. It is just too amazing for words.So I will just leave you with a few photos.

And there endeth our 6 weeks in Mexico. Please feel free to comment- I love getting blog comments! And now to plan the next trip.. destination as yet unknown.

Into Chiapas- Mexico Part 2

Having experienced the wonders of the Yucatán peninsula, we were hungry to continue our journey to another part of the country. People had told me that “Chiapas is the REAL Mexico” and that the Yucatán is very touristy and not the real thing. I am not sure what this means, and have questioned this in regard to other countries (China for example). But truth be told, the scenery in between the cities in the Yucatán was deadly boring and flat, so we were quite happy to board a bus and travel 10 hours to reach the UNESCO  world heritage site of Palenque.

The ride was comfortable, with spacious seats, air conditioning and a toilet. The screens showed movies in Spanish but with the volume turned down. The view was in fact wonderful. For the first hour or so we were riding along the coastline, so we saw the sea, fisherman, seabirds and little port towns. Then gradually we swung inland, and the scenery began to get green and hilly. The hills were dotted with farmlands, horses and cows in fields and a much richer variety of flora and fauna than we had seen in the scrubby scenery of the Yucatán. We eventually arrived in Palenque at around 5.30, in time to check into our hotel, book a tour to the famous  ruins for the next morning, and get some dinner. The street we stayed in, a neighbourhood known as “Canada” was all hotels, tour companies and restaurants.

Next morning, bright and early we were picked up by minibus to tour Palenque jungle ruins, and then a visit to Misol Ha waterfall and Agua Azul natural pools. What can I say about Palenque? I think it was really one of the highlights of the trip. There is something about jungle+ temple which = Indiana Jones. Even though you are not really being an explorer, you feel like one. We had a guide for the ruins and a separate one for the jungle, which I was glad of, because I felt like we could have easily got lost. The site is extremely impressive, especially when you learn that only 10% has been excavated, and most of the temples are still under the jungle, and likely to stay that way. When we asked why, it seems that 1. there are no funds to continue and 2. the ecologists and the archaeologists are pitted against each other. Anyway, what you see is certainly impressive, to say the least.

After the tour of the ruins, and the walk through the jungle (not easy for us, since everyone else was young and agile- but we kept up) we went back to the minibus for a quick trip to the Misol Ha waterfalls and then to lunch and a swim at Agua Azul.

This place REALLY was as great as it looks in the photo. The water was pretty cold at first but after we got in, we really enjoyed the swim and the lunch at one of the many restaurants nearby. We returned to the hotel in Palenque exhausted after a full and exciting day. There were people on our bus who opted to take a collectivo (shared minibus/taxi) directly to San Cristobal de las Casas that same evening (people that we actually ran into when we got there the next day) but we were glad that we went back to the hotel to rest, and travel on by day bus the next day. (But more of this in the next entry)

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Agua Azul

And so, next day we again boarded an ADO long haul bus to travel 7 hours to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a town we had heard very good things about. At an elevation of 2,200m this is a little town surrounded by mountains, and inhabited by a mixture of tattooed and pierced young musician types, who look like they are refugees from Woodstock, and the hard-working local people, many of whom belong to minority ethnic groups, such as the Tzotzil and Tzetzal. Their religious practices are a strange mixture of Catholic and Native Indian religions. As mentioned above, the road to San Cristobal was very long, but this turned out to be because of the route that the public bus takes. Instead of going directly to cover the 218km in 4 hours, it switched back to pass through Villahermosa and then back east again. It transpired later that the direct route was dubious- we met a Canadian couple who had hired a car and tried to drive directly to San Cristobal but had run into a roadblock which made them turn back and return (at night) – rather scary. The origin of the roadblock appears to be some kind of demonstration or “political unrest” … as I said, we were glad we had taken the public bus. The folks who went by minibus also said the road they had taken had been extremely windy and unpleasant, and some of them had felt unwell on the way up to the town.

San Cristóbal is hard to describe objectively. It is, as mentioned, high up in the mountains. Every street you walk down, the mountains rise up in the distance and surround the town. The houses are colourful as in Mérida and Valladolid, but with a greater simplicity and have something endearing about them. The town has a slow pace to it. Our host, James, at The Hub hostel put it this way “Many people come for a couple of days and end up staying for 4 years. ” The main drag has tons of hip restaurants, coffee bars and shops, and leads to the main Zócalo, which in turn is surrounded by hip restaurants and coffee bars. One thing we noticed immediately is that there is live music of all kinds going on all the time. There is not a whole lot to do in San Cris except eat, drink, listen to music and people watch. But sometimes that’s all you want to do, right?

We did do two day trips from San Cristóbal. The first was to Sumidero Canyon, a deep rift where you sail down the Rio Grijalva  in a cruise boat for about 90 minutes. The guide spoke only Spanish, as we were the only foreign tourists on the boat, but really no explanation was needed, as we spotted crocodiles, seabirds of various kinds and a small grotto with a Virgin Mary in it, and some strange outcrops of rock in odd shapes. At one point the canyon walls are one kilometre high, and all in all it was a fun day out.

The second trip we made was to San Juan Chamula, a village in the mountains just outside San Cristobal, where the locals famously have a church where they practice their weird version of Catholicism mixed with local Indian belief. It’s all very secret there and you are not allowed to photograph the inside of the church. All I can say is that we saw a woman waving eggs over her head, and that the floor had some kind of palm fronds strewn over it. The statues around the church were also a bit creepy.

In any case, the whole day trip was fascinating, despite the compulsory stop in the textile shop to buy handicrafts made by the locals. Actually, this was more than a shop, as it seemed to be a house where the extended family live together, doing weaving, embroidery and cooking, which you can watch as you browse the handicrafts.

After a wonderful week of music and chilling we decided it was time to move on to our next stop, the amazing Oaxaca in a new state, Oaxaca State.. stay tuned!

Chillis, Chocolate and chapulines- latest trip.

Part 1- The Yucatan Peninsula

This blog post will be the first of several on our latest trip to Mexico. I don’t like to write really long posts, and of course a six week trip through Southern and Central Mexico warrants a bit of space. So bear with me on this. I shall try not to waffle too much.

We flew into Mexico City and immediately on to Cancun to start our Mexican Experience. And when I say “immediately” I mean after a 2 hour wait at passport control and a mad dash for the connecting flight. The passport chaps did not care who was travelling onwards and who had arrived at their destination. After arriving in Cancun we got a bus to Playa Del Carmen, our first port of call. The bus ride to Playa was smooth and comfortable- about one hour on a lovely ADO bus (more of this great company anon). Playa is a lovely seaside place teeming with tourists from all over the world. The beach is great, and lined with great cafes and restaurants. Very little of the “real Mexico” here, but a great place to start our trip. We enjoyed strolling up and down the main pedestrian drag, especially at night when it was full of live musicians- from Mariachis to Led Zeppelin covers. Sitting on the beach with a mojito and watching the sunset was a great start to the trip. And the day trip we made to Tulum was fantastic.

The colour of the Caribbean was a sight to behold. We visited many archeological sites during our Mexican trip, but the setting of the ruins at Tulum was what made it stand out in my mind.

Many people (especially young American students) come to the State of Quintana Roo, where Playa is located, and stay only in this one place, on the beach and never see any more of Mexico. This would be akin to coming to the US and seeing only the beach in Florida. We wished we had seen more of this Caribbean coastline, but wanted to do more than see the beach. So after a couple of days we boarded another ADO bus and headed for Valladolid , which was, we were assured, the REAL Mexico. ADO buses, by the way, are fantastic. They are air-conditioned, have lots of legroom, movies (in Spanish) and toilets. When you buy a ticket you get to choose your seat, and when you hand in your backpack/suitcase you get a little tag for it, like on a plane. The longer in advance you buy your ticket the better the price.

Valladolid  was indeed less touristy than Playa. The town has a sort of rough and ready feel to it, and although tour buses sweep in and out of the main Zocalo (town square), many tourists seem to see it as a day trip and do not stay the night.

The colourful house fronts and the busy street market are interesting, and typically Mexican, and the main Zocalo is closed off for dancing on Sundays. Other than walking around the streets or popping into the nearby cenotes, there is not an awful lot to do in Valladolid. But it does have a certain raw charm.There is, however the amazing little Chocolate Factory. (there is another one in Merida). Here you can learn about the whole process of making chocolate, taste some unusual ones such as Oregano Chocolate and Chilli Chocolate, and of course buy some to take home.

We did one day trip from Valladolid to the pyramids of Ek Balam which we enjoyed immensely.

We visited several archeological sites during this trip, and found each one amazing in its own right. I thought (as someone not very well up in ancient history) that I might get bored, but each place was different and had its own fascination.

One day we were strolling around in Valladolid when we chanced upon a large group of young people in a public square, dressed in traditional clothes, clearly preparing some kind of dance performance. We asked when there would be dancing and singing and they said to come back at 6pm. So we had a quick tea in a nearby place, to escape the rain, and fortunately on the dot of 6 the rain stopped and the chairs near the square filled up with people. We joined them and asked the lady next to us what was going on. She said it was a performance of students of education celebrating the end of the term (if I understood correctly). They performed a number of traditional dances and it was all rather charming. Later, in Merida, we saw a similar thing but it was for tourists. The Valladolid one was “the real McCoy”.

From Valladolid we took another bus, for 3 hours this time to the city of Merida, which, sad to say, was a bit of a disappointment to me.

I had read a lot about Merida, and had expected to love it dearly and wish to spend a long time there. However what conspired against us was, to my surprise, the Merida Carnaval, which took place while we were there, and was the reason that the regular events, street dancing on Sundays downtown and performances of the Mayan game of Pok a Tok ( despite the tourist office assuring us they were still happening) were all cancelled. At least twice we waited in the Zocalo to see something which never happened. Usually we found other tourists, also waiting to see something and eventually we gave up. We thought about going to the Carnaval, but our Airbnb host Maurizio, assured us it would be a bad idea. Once the Carnaval was held in the town centre, but the police could not cope with it, so it was moved to some fairground about 2 hours outside the centre of town, and reached by shuttle buses from all over. Apparently it would be crowded and full of drunks, so we decided to pass. A young couple also staying at our place did go and concurred it had not been a great idea.

We did enjoy walking around Merida’s broad avenues, especially the Paseo de Montejo, and visiting the Anthopology museum there housed in a wonderful old colonial building built in the Porfiriano period of 1909. We even took a horse drawn carriage back down to the Zocalo once, when it was too hot to walk.

Downtown there are a number of interesting buildings to see, and we took a free tour. After about 30 minutes, however, we discovered that what we had joined was not in fact the free tour, but a private tour paid for by another tourist which we had inadvertently gate crashed! A shame because the tour guide was wonderful, spoke great English, and there were only 4 other people. After discovering our mistake we rushed off to find the free tour, for which the guide was incomprehensible, and  which had about 35 other people! It did, however take us round the main sites downtown- the Palacio de Gobierno, Palacio Montejo  and the Modern Art Museum (MACAY)

The one day trip we made from Merida was to Celestun. We didn’t do it by organized tours, as we had for Ek Balam, but simply got a bus from the second class bus station and got off at the bridge before the town (as instructed by the lovely American- Mexican couple we met on the bus). From there you simply walk down to the pier and join with other tourists to share a boat tour. The tour is around 90 minutes and takes you to the place where the thousands of flamingos can be viewed, and you also see “Bird Island” with lots of other seabirds (pelicans etc), and some crocs, and a little peek at the Mangroves. It’s beautiful and serene. We shared a boat with a charming Korean and his two daughters who were taking him on a trip after he had been very ill.

Here ends part one. From Merida we leave the Yucatan so I will continue the trip in the next post.