Tag Archive | history

Sizzling Sicily part 2

We arrived in Trapani to our best stay of the whole trip. As we drove up to the Air bnb I was a bit nervous. The area of the city looked a little run down and slummy. It was about 15 minutes drive from the historic centre and did not look promising. The actual street was narrow, but I had already checked with our hostess that free street parking was available (always a big issue in Sicily). I had Whatsapped the hostess 30 minutes before arrival and she was outside waving at us and showing us where to park. What was hidden behind the modest exterior was astounding. The spacious apartment with fully equipped kitchen was quite lovely. But the glorious garden with fruit trees and tortoises roaming around was just delightful.

Teresa showed us how to use the a/c , the hot water boiler, the mosquito zapper,and directed us to the nearest minimarket, 5 minutes walk away. Everything was perfect. And all this was achieved through Google translate, she didn’t know a word of English.

After settling in and walking round to the store to get stuff for supper and breakfast we went into Trapani centre to have a mosey around. The centre was about 15 minutes from the air bnb, and there was paid parking on the main square. We found a lovely little , mostly pedestrianized old city full of lovely churches and surrounded by sea views. It was very quiet but there was a long main street with restaurants and coffee bars, and it was all much less touristy than the other cities we had visited. We enjoyed it very much.

 

The following day we drove to the interesting Salt Museum about 20 minutes drive south along the coast from Trapani. It was quite interesting, with a good English guide who described the process of anicent salt harvesting and transportation to the mill. It was staggering to think that workers had to transport the salt in baskets on their heads in sweltering heat. We could hardly stand up it was so hot!

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Salt fields

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Salt Museum

 

The next day we walked to the Funivia station (about 20 minutes away ) to take the Cable car up to visit Erice, a medieval town which is on the hill overlooking Trapani.

The views were wonderful, and despite the heat , a short walk around Erice and the gardens was quite lovely.Not surprisingly, considering the heat, the place was almost deserted. The most impressive part was the view of Trapani from the Gardens and the view of the castle, which didn’t look worth visiting inside, but the outside was great.

 

In the evening we went back to walk around Trapani again and said it farewell, as the next day we were continuing ( a little regretfully) on to Palermo.

To say that I was disappointed in Palermo would be an understatement. The capital of the island, a city full of history, and beautiful buildings, I found it to be dirty beyond belief. We had seen mounds of plastic bags full of garbage strewn all along the highways, especially in the rest areas, all around Sicily. But driving in to Palermo we felt the pollution reached a new high. After walking around the streets for one day, my sandals were covered in mud, and I really don’t know where it came from. The buildings down town were indeed beautiful, but the overall feel of the city was not overly welcoming. I don’t know why this was exactly, but it felt as we had felt in Catania but there we had not spent a lot of time. I did enjoy the area around the Cathedral, but otherwise I don’t feel that my photos really convey how I felt about the city. We took a one hour tourist train around and saw little of interest. The main pedestrian drag also was not overly fascinating, despite being packed with great architecture and tons of churches. Maybe in the winter time it has more to offer. The Norman Palace (we did not venture inside) is of course a wonderful building. The Catacombs were gruesomely fascinating. These are my main impressions of Palermo, where we spent only two nights.

After two nights in Palermo we continued on to another faboulous stay at Villa Rosa b and b in the village of Castelbuono. This place was maybe even more wonderful than Trapani. The view reminded us a lot of the Galilee or the Jerusalem hills. Lots of olive trees and vines dotted the hillsides. The house itself was divine, with a hill view and a beautiful garden where we had the most amazing breakfast of our 18 day stay. Rosanna ( who spoke French) made us home made croissants, with home made lemon and pumpkin jam, omelettes with home grown herbs and everything was just perfectly serene.

In the evening we drove into the village of Castelbuono to have a pizza. Big mistake. The thing that had worried me was finding the turning back into Villa Rosa at night. I took a screenshot, I noted it on the map etc. The thing I had not foreseen was that driving out of Castelbuono was impossible! The Google Map navigation took us around and around the village and twice took us into a no entry street. The second time a woman who was trying to drive out of the street, stopped and, despite having no English attempted to help us find the way home. She called someone on the phone who spoke English. He directed me to the highway by way of the cemetery. Apparently because of the one way system and the narrow alleyways you have to drive below the village to then drive above the village, if you see what I mean. Anyway we eventually made it back.

After only one night at this wonderful place we continued on to the last leg of our trip, Milazzo.

I had booked 3 nights at Milazzo because one full day was intended to be a trip to the active volcano of Stromboli, on the island nearby, which is reached by taking a full day boat trip (until at least 11pm) . I booked a place with a pool so we could also relax after the walking we had done in the heat. On the way to Milazzo we passed stunning coastal scenery, including the town of Cefalu and the amazing vistas at Castellamare Del Golfo.

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Castellamare del Golfo

In the event, we decided that 70 Euro a head for the day trip to schlepp around some other islands in 35 C to wait for Stromboli to erupt was not really what we felt like doing. Imagine my amazement when after returning home, my friend informed me that the exact day we had intended to go (there was only one possible day available) was the day of a huge eruption which killed one climber, and caused vacationers to jump into the sea to escape the steaming lava!  I am so happy that we decided to spend that day lounging by a pool (with no other guests) eating and reading. So we concluded our Sicily tour without seeing either Etna or Stromboli in all their glory, but with many fine experiences and memories. Hope you enjoyed this. Stay tuned for Japan in November!

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Sizzling Sicily Part 1

To be honest I possibly would not have booked this trip if I had realized just  how hot it was going to be. We travelled between 16 June until 4 July and most days it was over 30 and really hard to walk around. But, hey, you have a/c in your car and in your hotel so not so bad right? What we started to do was to rest between 12 and around 5pm and then go out at night, just as the locals do.

But let’s go back to the beginning. This trip only happened because D’s leg was good enough to be able to walk a bit before we left, and being unsure of how much walking he would actually be able to do, we planned it as mainly touring by car with bits of walking. In the event, by the end he was walking a good 7km a day so that was really fantastic. Had we known, we might have decided to ditch the car hire and travel by public transportation. Not sure how good it is, didn’t check it out. Car hire has its advantages of course, but also many diasadvantages. More of this later.

But having said that, it meant that he did a lot of driving (we did about 1,500 km over the 18 days) and that made it less enjoyable for him, especially because driving in Sicily is not at all straighforward. The roads are often extremely narrow, the one way system in the medieval towns is horrific, and parking is an added headache. But no matter! We did it and we enjoyed what we saw.

A circular, clockwise tour of the island, starting and finishing at Catania, gave us rather a good route, I think, with a few days at each base, (except for Ragusa) so as not to have to pack/unpack endlessly.

Route map

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Both the main cities of Palermo and Catania we found totally underwhelming. Despite having beautiful architecture, the centres felt run down and dirty and sometimes a little edgy at night. If you look at the photos it looks actually stunning, but we saw far more beautiful places- particularly Siracusa, which I think was one of my favourite places. Catania has the ancient Roman amphitheatre in its centre, but the rest of the downtown didn’t feel so inspiring. We did two day trips from Catania- one to the beautiful Taormina and its sister Giardini Naxos, and another to Etna.  Taormina, despite being something of a tourist trap, just screams to be photographed, and even the hordes of tourists cannot tarnish its beauty. Giardini Naxos at the bottom of the mountain has a gorgeous beach and harbour and is really quite a charming place.

Etna turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because although the drive up was beautiful, we didn’t go right up to the crater because it was horrendously expensive. At the bottom they said you can pay to do the final bit at the top, without adding it would cost double the price. We didn’t feel it was something we HAD to see, so we decided to forgo.

From Catania, we continued on to Siracusa, which is an absolute gem. The island of Ortigia is where most people stay, but it means not driving your car onto the island, where only residents can drive. This was in fact wonderful. We parked our car for 3 days in the Talete car park and spent three glorious days wandering around the little alleyways and courtyards and finding a wonderful sea view at every turn. The newly discovered Hebrew writing at the mikve underneath the Church of St Felipe was an added bonus. There is a great Jewish quarter with lots of wonderful stuff. Actually we saw two mikves, and the guide told us that there are probably many more that have not yet been excavated.

 

Apart from the Jewish quarter, we also enjoyed the Castle, the main Piazza Duomo area, the Fontana Diana and Fontana Aretusa area. The whole island is not that big, but wandering around the maze of little streets is just a delight.

Before leaving Siracusa we checked out the Archeological park in the other part of the city (not Ortigia Island) and saw the cave known as Dionysios’ Ear, with its amazing echo. We continued on to spend one night in Ragusa, the strange city on two hills connected by a very long staircase of over 200 steps. On the way there we stopped at the amazing mosaics at the Villa Romana in the city of Piazza Armerina.

 

Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

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Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

From Ragusa we continued on to Agrigento, famous for its Valley of the Temples. First we wandered a little around the old town of Agrigento which was pretty much deserted and absolutely charming. In the evening we went to visit the archeological site of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO Heritage site and quite splendid. This was a wise move because we saw the temples in the evening when it was still hot but bearable. There is a main concourse with temples all the way along, from Temple of Juno (misnamed) at one end and Temple of Vulcan at the other end, and various others along the way. It is a very impressive place if you enjoy history.

After two splendid days in Agrigento we continued on along the south coast towards Trapani but not without stopping at a couple of points on the way. The first was the amazing view of the Turkish Steps  ( nothing to do with the Turks) . The second was the little town of Sciacca to have a sandwich and gaze at the sea. We did not descend the white cliffs at the Turkish steps to the beach, but we saw people swimming down there (a long way down!)

I will continue the journey on to Trapani in the next entry.

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.

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.

Oaxaca

The last day in San Cristóbal, after eating out at a fancy restaurant (not at a street tacos stall) I was visited by Montezuma’s Revenge. This is something that happens to every traveller who spends any time at all in Mexico,, at some point or another. It happened to me the day before we were due to take another long, 12 hour bus journey from San Cris to Oaxaca City. Fortunately for me, after a couple of pills of Immodium, I was fine, and actually the bus ride to Oaxaca was pretty enjoyable. We left San Cris at 10.30 am and arrived in Oaxaca about 22.15 to be met at the bus station by our Air Bnb hosts!

I have to say that I love this website more and more. We got to stay in cheap, self-catering places and we met charming, kind local hosts, and found it that much more pleasant than staying in impersonal hotels. So if you are not familiar, go ahead and sign up! You can use this referral to join.

Anyway so the lovely couple at our place picked us up in their car so we would not get lost late at night, and drove us to the apartment, which was small, clean and had everything we needed including a small kitchen, charming patio where we ate breakfast every day, and a parrot (in their place not ours) which continually shouted “Hola!”

Next morning we got up to explore Oaxaca, and by lunchtime we had decided that we really liked it a lot and were going to extend our stay there. We had intended to go on to Puebla after Oaxaca, on the way to Mexico City. But we decided to skip Puebla and stay in Oaxaca for another week. There seemed to be so much to see and do there, but the pace of the place made us feel like we wanted to just relax and “be” there,, not necessarily charging around from site to site. Since our friends Renee and Barry had recommended the place, we started to see the charm of it right away.

If San Cristobal had been the “musicians’ city” , Oaxaca was the artists’ city. Everywhere we saw beautiful artwork, galleries, museums, and street art. The vibe felt relaxed, despite the fact that Oaxaca was about the most political place we went in Mexico. And when I say that, I mean that there were armed police everywhere downtown, and the Zócalo had at least 3 demos or political gatherings going on at any given time. Nevertheless, the place had a distinctly artistic feel to it and we enjoyed it a lot. As to what we did there, mostly just hang out, walk around and photograph the beautiful buildings and squares and eat and drink  the delicious Mexican chocolate. We did take one tour from Oaxaca, which was to Monte Alban, the Pre- Columbian Zapotec site, which was wonderful. The tour was combined with a place where they demonstrated weaving and dying yarn with natural colours, Mitla, another important Zapotec archeological site, and with Hierve el Agua , an incredible rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. We also got to see how the local liquor, called mezcal,  is produced from the agave plant, and of course to taste several varieties of it.

But every day we walked down town from our apartment we felt relaxed, whilst never quite knowing what we would see. One day, there was a wedding with huge puppets representing the bride and groom, and all the guests dancing in the street; another day a load of parades (political demos?), another day we came across some kind of municipal festival in a huge open air amphitheatre, with lots of stalls, and free tastings of food, and local dances. One day, as advised by our “Oaxaca guru” Renee, we went to the public lending library for a language exchange, where I tested the limits of my Spanish, and D met a man whose mother tongue was not Spanish but the Zapotec minority language. It was all great fun. Oaxaca is a city where you can walk around and continually be surprised.

Oaxaca is such a pleasant city that  it’s hard to really sum it up. I can say that the market is a great place to eat and sample the special cuisine they have, and that there are many lovely squares where you can sit, eat, drink and people watch. It is highly recommended to try the local chocolate, which is not like any other chocolate I have ever tasted. You can pop into art galleries and chat to the artists everywhere you go. And in the evening there is (as in everywhere else we went in Mexico) live music of all kinds to go with your beer or mezcal. We found a lovely restaurant-bar called Praga, which had live jazz every evening, and lovely quotations from poets all over the walls.

Of course there were also many churches, museums and galleries to see in Oaxaca. But just hanging out there was really the thing I will remember most about our stay there.

One day on one of the main parks, El Llano, we saw a VW bus painted like the Magic Bus, from which a woman,a  blond girl and two dogs emerged. They were from Patagonia, in Argentina, and were travelling from Patagonia to ALASKA in this bus. The girl had been born on the road. They were financing the trip by selling a book and T shirts. When we asked them when they would get to Alaska, the woman said, “It doesn’t really matter, but it won’t be this year!”.

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from Oaxaca, we knew we had to be in Mexico City by a certain date to fly home, and we didn’t want to miss the main sites in the capital, so we gave ourselves a week to be in DF, as it is called, before our flight, so eventually we had to book our Airbnb in Mexico city and buy a bus ticket, for our final ADO bus to the capital, a mere 8 hour trip. So stay tuned for the Mexican finale, DF, the Mexico City bit….

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!