Leslie and I have arrived in France, our sixth and (maybe) final candidate for a place to call home. For the next six weeks, we are living in Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, which is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It’s just a little west of Marseille and about 10 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast.
Montpellier is the seventh largest city in France, and the nation’s fastest-growing city over the past 25 years. In 2014, the metropolitan population was 589,610, while 275,318 lived in the city itself. It’s a university city, so there are a lot of young people here — one estimate I saw said almost one-third of the population is university students. The city is old and charming, but the vibe is young and energetic.
Our one-bedroom apartment is on the fourth floor of a 16th-century building that overlooks Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the historic center of town. (If you’re thinking World War II French Resistance — you’re right!) The Prefecture, essentially the state police headquarters, is right across the street and so is the post office. There are lots of bars and restaurants within a two-minute walk, and several markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Two grocery stores are an easy walk from our place — except when there’s an unexpected shower or thunderstorm!
So the location is excellent, but there is a downside — no elevator! I pictured us trying to navigate four flights of stairs and thought the exercise might be good for us.
Nothing prepared me, though, for the stairs. Not four regular flights — a spiral staircase that very well may be original. Feels like it, anyway.
Turn right just outside our front door and you’re on Rue de la Loge, which leads directly to the heart of Montpellier, Place de la Comédie, in less than five minutes. This huge open area is always covered with people of all stripes, including several street performers. There’s an historic fountain, lots of restaurants and bars, and a small antique carousel. Walk only a few more minutes and you go from old to new as you enter Polygone, a big American-style shopping mall on three levels. Then there’s the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where I’ve been jogging in the morning.
Turn left as you leave our apartment and you’re on Rue Foch. In just a few minutes you’re walkingunder the Arc de Triomphe and going into a nice park called the Place du Peyrou with a statue of French King Louis XIV. We’ve been in this park twice now, and both times it’s been full of young people and families having picnics and playing games.
First impressions of Montpellier are good, but only when we’re on foot. Driving in this town is impossible with the narrow streets that are usually one-way but may change direction without warning. And it’s hard to get used to sunset after 9 p.m. Even at 8:45 p.m., it still seems like broad daylight.
There’s a lot to do and see in this city, and we’re just getting started. Next week, we plan to take a city tour, check out the history of this city and investigate cultural opportunities.
Florence is the third and final stop on our Italian tour, and our favorite by far. It’s a beautiful city, and very walkable. Best pizza of the three, too! Leslie admitted she could live here, even though they had snow in March. We’ve never considered Italy as a home, but Florence is a pretty amazing place. Gotta think about this.
We arrived by train (Frecciarossa 1000, cool high-speed train) from Rome on a Sunday afternoon. Our hotel is in a 16th century building on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, near the city’s historic center. When we arrived, the piazza was hosting what appeared to be a farmers market.
Matteo, who admirably mans the hotel’s front desk, said there were a number of cheese vendors there. Well, I couldn’t resist that. We found the cheese, as well as vendors selling fruits and vegetables, shoes, bread, books, musical instruments, and just about anything else you might want. I scored a nice piece of cheese and noshed on it for the remainder of our visit. Bene. Molto bene!
The piazza has proved to be a great source of entertainment. There are always tour groups checking out the bronze statue of Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany and part of the famous Medici family (he was one of the good guys). Or you hear the cacophony of school groups being led through the piazza to a museum that was at one time an orphanage. Much quieter are the groups of art students sitting on the hotel’s front steps sketching buildings around the piazza. Bikes and scooters and tourists, oh my!
Just as in Naples and Rome, there are tons of tourists. Most are here to see the undisputed star of the show, Michelangelo’s 17-foot marble statue of David. It does not disappoint. Although Leslie and I noticed two things that didn’t quite fit. First, Michelangelo sculpted the future king of Israel with a slingshot over his shoulder and a rock in his right hand. But the statue is of a fully grown man, not a youth or a teenager as David was when he slew Goliath. Second, it’s obvious he’s not circumcised. But his father Jesse observed the Law of Moses, and would have circumcised all his sons when they were only eight days old.
Tour guide Frederica agreed with us, but said the work was consistent with the style of Renaissance art. Michelangelo wanted to create the finest representation of the human form. And he did. The detail in musculature and form is stunning. You can even see the veins in David’s forearm. Furthermore, Michelangelo purposefully picked a piece of marble that had been rejected because of the veins in it. He then used that veining to sculpt David’s legs so those marble veins look like veins in a person’s legs. Fascinating.
The only “imperfection,” as Frederica explained, is that the hands and head are too big. They are not in proportion with the rest of the body. Explanation: David was designed to stand in a niche near the top of the Duomo, more than 260 feet above the ground. Never happened, but that’s why he was carved with big hands and a big head.
Michelangelo worked on David between 1501 and 1504. It was originally displayed in the Piazza della Signoria. But in 1873, the work was moved into a specially built hall at the Galleria dell’Accademia. That’s where long lines queue up daily to see David. If you go (and this applies to just about everything in Italy), sign up for a group tour with a guide. You get more information that way, plus you don’t have to wait as long to get in.
In most cases, that is. We had to wait over an hour to see the Duomo of Florence, officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower). Frederica explained (and you could tell this bothers her) that the Duomo’s ruling authority recently revoked the tour group preference. Now everybody waits in the same line. That caused us to miss a few other places that were on the tour itinerary. The tour people are rightfully unhappy about it, and so were we.
The cathedral is worth waiting for but we found that the inside is just OK. The real show is the building itself. It’s unlike any European cathedral we’ve seen. Almost as visually unique as Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Construction began late in the 13th century and was completed in the 15th century. The building is covered with marble panels in various shades of green and red, bordered by white. All the marble came from areas near Florence, in what is now Tuscany. In the 19th century, an ornate Gothic Revival façade was added. This Wikipedia entry has a ton of information on how the dome was built. All you architects out there (Hi, Larry!) will be interested.
In the back of the nave is an interesting 15th-century liturgical clock that still works. However, it has only one hand and measures time from sundown to sundown, rather than actually telling the time. It has to be adjusted weekly.
Workers are cleaning the cathedral now, so the scaffolding and the equipment detract from the view. You can easily tell which parts have been cleaned and which haven’t. The city is trying to keep things a bit cleaner now — at one time, some 800 buses a day drove through the piazza. Now, the only vehicular traffic is police cars and electric-powered city trucks.
The last significant attraction we visited was the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is home to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and a number of other fine works of Renaissance art, almost all of which were owned by the uber-wealthy Medici family. Two of those works are by Leonardo da Vinci. Well, two and a half, according to our guide. In one painting, da Vinci painted an angel, while another artist did the rest of the work. Yeah, you can tell. It’s pretty obvious which angel Lenny drew.
So we’re done being tourists in Italy. But before I close this chapter, let me repeat something I’ve said to lots of people along the way: We have felt pretty safe everywhere we’ve been since October 2016. Italy was no exception, even though a few of our tour guides specifically warned us about pickpockets. All the major tourist sites here are heavily guarded by federal police and the Italian army. Some just look important in their dress uniforms, but lurking near most of the crowds are young men and women with automatic weapons at the ready. I paid close attention to these kids, and they ain’t just for show. I watched them carefully scan the crowds, looking for potential trouble. Very professional, in my opinion. Helpful, too. We asked for help from a heavily armed young woman in fatigues who spoke English, and she guided us to the street we needed. “Army?” I asked her. “Yes,” she replied. “U.S. Army Reserve, Retired,” I said, pointing to myself. She gave me a big smile, but no salute.
Now it’s time to get back to our primary mission, to find our next home, somewhere in the world. We’re headed to Montpellier, France, where we will be living for at least six weeks in a 16th century building overlooking the Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the city’s historic center.
Next post from Montpellier! I’ll leave you with more photos of Florence.
On our last day in Rome, Leslie and I spent some time at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Michelangelo’s work on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as his Pieta, completed when he was only 24.
This was the second time Leslie has seen the Pieta. The first was at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The sculpture is stunning in its intricacy, and inspiring in its subject matter. As I tried to get a decent photo, which is difficult since the statue is protected by plexiglass, I noticed a young man make the sign of the cross right after taking a picture. His reverence was balanced, however, by those who felt they just had to get a selfie with the madonna.
Laura, our amazing tour guide, explained that Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. So when Pope Julius II hired him to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, he refused. Turns out it’s hard to say no to any pope, so in 1508 Michelangelo started the project that would keep him on his back for four years. As Laura pointed out, painting frescoes is difficult because you must paint on wet stucco. Once the stucco dries, it’s too late. So he painted on wet stucco on a rickety scaffold about 60 feet above the marble floor. Is it any wonder the artist started dictating to the pope what he would and would not do?
But the ceiling, with the creation of Adam as the iconic focus, was just the first contribution Michelangelo would make to the chapel. Between 1535 and 1541, he also painted The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar, on commission from Pope Paul III. While he was working on it, Michelangelo crossed swords with a powerful cardinal over the nude figures in the painting. But Michelangelo was older now, highly respected and powerful in his own right. He painted the cardinal’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. When the cardinal complained to the pope about this, the pontiff said his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so — no changes. Moral: You don’t mess with Mike! Michelangelo also painted his own face in the work, on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew. (Click on the link in this paragraph to see the whole work and get lots of details. Fascinating stuff!)
Probably the coolest thing about the Sistine Chapel, though, is that this is where the conclave of cardinals meets whenever it becomes necessary to elect a new pope. I recall a great scene from the 1968 movie “Shoes of the Fisherman.” Anthony Quinn plays a Russian cardinal who attends the conclave only weeks after being released from a Soviet gulag. Nobody’s winning, even after lots of politicking and a number of failed votes. Suddenly, one cardinal makes an impassioned speech in which he practically deifies Cardinal Kiril, who isn’t even one of the candidates. His speech sways other cardinals, who end up proclaiming Kiril as pope despite his vigorous refusals (“My brothers, I beg you! Do not do this!”).
I would love to show you the incredible, high-resolution, professional-quality pictures I took of Michelangelo’s works. But The Vatican doesn’t allow photography in the Sistine Chapel. You can go to the Vatican Museum’s website to see what it looks like. And Khan Academy has a site that is very educational.
We ended the tour in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Laura told us the basilica was built on the site believed to be where the Apostle Peter was martyred. Peter was crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same way Christ died. The Vatican claims Peter’s tomb is under the basilica’s altar. Therefore, only the pope can say mass at this altar.
The rest of the Vatican Museum was interesting — a good warmup act, if you will. Works of art in sculpture, painting, mosaic and tapestry. Gallery after gallery of stuff. Impressive, but in a way it made us think the church could sell off a small portion of these treasures and help the poor. Isn’t that what Christ wants us to do? I’m just sayin’.
So it’s time to bid farewell to Rome. It will be a pleasure because Leslie and I have been sharing a summer cold during our time here. Now we move on to Florence (Firenze in Italian), birthplace of the Renaissance, and hope for better health.
Next post from Florence, and more about Michelangelo.
Shortly after arriving in Italy’s capital, Leslie and I climbed the Spanish Steps and gazed out across the city. “We’re in Rome,” she beamed as she grabbed my arm. Okay, we’ve been to many of the major cities in Western Europe by now, so a new town really shouldn’t be making us giddy. But there really is something special about this place. After all, we’re walking in the steps of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren. Lots of other folks, too.
There’s a lot going on in this town. More tourists than downtown Chicago in July! We’ve seen ancient wonders like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, as well as more recent tourist sites like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, both of which were an easy walk from our hotel.
We started with the Colosseum. Our outstanding guide Roberta explained that the world’s largest amphitheater was built by Emperor Vespasian to get rid of a lake and some buildings put up by Nero after he burned Rome. Construction started in 70 C.E., just after the Empire destroyed Jerusalem. Jewish slaves got the whole thing done in just nine years. Impressive. Vespasian got it started, his son Titus finished the amazing arena.
Events in the Colosseum were free, part of the empire’s way of keeping the populace in check — give them free bread and free sports. There were exotic animals fighting each other, simple executions and gladiatorial contests — the main event. Gladiators fought for three years. If they survived, they won their freedom. That doesn’t mean they went at it every day. Roberta said gladiators only had to fight four or five times a year.
The Colosseum could hold more than 50,000 people — some say as many as 80,000. Even though it was free, you had to have a ticket that provided a reserved seat in the proper section.
The best seats were reserved for the emperor, top government officials and wealthy citizens. The good seats were for the middle class, while ordinary folks were higher up. Slaves and women — because they really didn’t count — got the nose-bleed seats (women of wealthy families could sit with their husbands in the better seats, of course).
Roberta then took us through the Roman Forum, where we saw several temples to pagan gods and a massive victory arch celebrating the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
We also saw the Capitaline Hill, where the Roman Senate once met and which is still home to one of the most important Italian national government buildings. The Forum was a marketplace for ideas as well as consumer goods.
We finished the day at The Pantheon, which was originally built “to honor all gods” but now it’s part tourist trap and part Christian church. Originally built in the first century B.C.E., it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the second century C.E. Parts of it, though, are over 2,000 years old, including the marble floor, the stunning facade and the beautiful dome, which is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. (Yeah, the Romans had concrete.) The dome really is an architectural masterpiece. If you can tear your eyes away from it for a moment, you’ll notice lots of other people looking up and gaping. Great design.
Finally, a bit about Rome itself. Many of the streets are tiny, almost alley-like. But cars and scooters use them at will, meaning pedestrians do not always have the right-of-way. We sat down in the outside seating at one little restaurant and had cars going by less than a foot away from our table. We moved inside, but only because it started to rain. Drivers are stunningly aggressive. The only time they back off is for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Drivers have to stop — it’s the law. If you’re not in a crosswalk, though, stay alert or get run over.
Our hotel is in an area where there are lots of restaurants; one on nearly every corner — sometimes three in one block. The menus are much the same everywhere: antipasti, first course pasta, second course meat or fish. And pizza, of course. No, Roman pizza is not better than Neopolitan pizza. They both taste really good, but I still need to check the pizza quality in Florence. So far, we have not had a bad meal in Italy. And Rick Steves is right about one thing — in Italian restaurants, the pasta is always perfectly al dente.
The downside to Italy in general, in my humble opinion, is that pretty much everybody smokes. There are limits, such as no smoking in restaurants or public buildings, and not on trains. But just about every restaurant has outdoor seating, and smoking outside is OK. Well, not if your table is right next to mine. Also, while waiting for a train one day in Naples, we looked down at the track and saw that it was littered with butts. It’s hard to walk down a street and not smell smoke. Big downside.
I’ll leave you with a few additional photos and this short movie of the Colosseum. Leslie shot this with her phone. It may go into your “downloads” and you’ll have to look for it there.
Our two-week cruise is over. Many thanks to Ryan, our cabin steward, who exceeded expectations, and to Tenisha and Dwight, our favorite wait staff in the main restaurant. Thanks also to the spa ladies, who pampered Leslie just a bit. Great ship. great crew, great food. Would we do it again? No. Once across the Atlantic is enough!
Now we are in Italy — not checking it out as a possible home but just as tourists, like we did in Scotland and England back in 2016. Our ship docked in Civitivechia (chee-vee-tah-VEK-ee-yah), which is the port for Rome. Then we took a high-speed train to Naples so we could begin our sightseeing in the southernmost of the three Italian cities we want to visit: Naples, then Rome, then Florence.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza so we tried a few. I had a pretty good pizza with sausage and broccoli at a restaurant just down the street from where we stayed. And Leslie and I shared a true margherita pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil) at a hole-in-the-wall in Ercolano, which is modern-day Herculaneum. It was pretty good, but I think more research is in order. Is pizza better in Rome? We’ll see.
Leslie has dreamed of visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum since childhood. She even considered becoming an archeologist when she was young. Maybe you did too. Step one in fulfilling that dream was a visit to the National Archeological Museum in Naples, where our guide (and graduate-level archeologist) Enrica showed us the best of the floor mosaics and wall frescoes from homes in Pompeii. They can be better protected and cared for at the museum than on the site, Enrica explained. We gaped at high-quality mosaics — the ancient artisans used tiles smaller than the nail on your pinkie finger!
Let’s refresh our memories for a second. Pompeii and Herculaneum were Roman cities destroyed in 79 C.E. when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Thousands of people died in a matter of minutes. People in Pompeii were buried in volcanic ash, while in Herculaneum they were covered by lava. The main killer, however, was the pyroclastic flow. In Herculaneum, for example, people crowded into areas near the seaport docks to escape by boat. But the super-heated flow of air rushing down the side of the volcano killed them instantly.
To reach these two historical sites, we took a train called the Circumvesuviano. It’s a local train — similar to a Chicago “L” but above-ground — that makes all stops between Naples and Sorrento. It’s quite an experience in itself: dirty, covered with graffiti, un-air-conditioned and over-crowded, especially headed into Naples.
In Pompeii, we were able to see a few of the houses, like the House of the Faun, that had mosaics and frescoes featured in the museum. But the site is so huge it would take most of a day to see it all. We used Enrica’s information and found most of what we wanted to see. Here’s a 2009 four-minute Rick Steves video about Pompeii.
Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii. The beginning of a visit here can be a little depressing because one of the first sights is the skeletons of those who hoped for a boat rescue that never came. Leslie overheard one of the Italian guides tell his group that he could not go with them to this place because it is too difficult for him. In the rest of the city, we were able to see how these first-century Roman citizens lived. For example, we saw a bakery, a laundry and some restaurants.
Leslie and I left the U.S. on Friday, April 13, for our two-week transatlantic 25th wedding anniversary celebration on the Celebrity Reflection. We next saw land on Saturday, April 21, as our ship docked at Tenerife (tenor–REEF), which is off the coast of North Africa but is part of Spain. We also visited Malaga (MAH-lah-gah), Cartagena (car-tah-HEY-nah) and Murcia (MIRTH-ee-ah) in Spain, as well as Ajaccio (ah-JAH-see-oh), the capital of Corsica, which is a French island. In a few hours, when we dock at Civitavecchia (Rome), we’ll be in our fourth country on this cruise.
Spending time in Spanish cities has made us think fondly of our first foreign living arrangement over a year ago in Alicante, Spain. As we head for the final country tryout (France), Mexico is still in the lead to be our new home in retirement, but Spain is a very close second. Yes, it’s a long way from family and friends, but the pace of life and the general feeling in Spain just can’t be beat. It’s very civilized. This is going to be a tough choice.
I don’t have much to say about our stops along the way on this cruise, so I’l just be visual. You visual learners will just love this:
Our visit to Malaga was for a wine-and-tapas tasting tour. For some reason, I’m unable to upload photos I took of our little group. We drank some wine, but not so much that it would affect the photos!
It’s been smooth sailing (relatively) as Leslie and I head for Europe the old-fashioned way — by ship. One of those random thoughts I’ve had on this trip is about people like my ancestor John Rogers who left his home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1635 and sailed west to find his fortune in Surrey County, Virginia.
He sailed on a ship called George. I’m sure it was quite small, probably less than one-quarter the size of Celebrity’s Reflection, and I’ll bet the North Atlantic waves bounced that little ship around fairly well. We started out in five- to eight-foot waves, but for the last two days and nights it’s been more like 11- to 18-foot waves. The captain promises that will change tomorrow. This is a huge ship, but there are some big waves out there that sometimes make passengers (crew, too) walk like drunken sailors. So far, my motion-sickness patch is working perfectly.
I doubt my ancestor’s ship had a huge international crew, as this one does, to serve the passengers and meet all their needs. I’m willing to bet the facilities were quite limited: No pool, no library, no fitness center or jogging track, no shore excursion options, and likely no restaurants. In some cases, passengers on 17th century ships sailing to and from the New World had to bring their own food for the journey, which could take a month or longer. Our ship has 15 different restaurants, and we’ll be in Europe in less than two weeks. Plus, we have all the amenities mentioned — and then some.
It’s quite possible John Rogers didn’t have a private stateroom with his own bath, and he most certainly didn’t get room service for any meals. We not only have a nice stateroom, we opted for one with a king-size bed and a private veranda, from which we can see the Atlantic Ocean — and nothing else. A few days ago we had breakfast on our veranda, which seemed decadent. But we’ll just ignore that and do it again soon.
There’s a pool and a solarium, with deck chairs and lounges on all the upper decks. Leslie and I have both gotten haircuts, and she’s made use of something called “The Persian Garden” several times. They have a room full of tiled chaise-like loungers that are heated. Great place to meditate or nap. Crew members are from many different countries. We’ve been served by crew from Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Malaysia, St. Lucia and South Africa. They all smile and say “good morning,” and they do a great job.
If we had a complaint it would be that we are required to reset our watches one hour ahead almost every night during the passage. That means we lose an hour of sleep, but it also means we gradually adjust to European time. I think we have one more “spring forward” to put us seven hours ahead of Chicago time. We’ll be in that time zone until we head back to the U.S. in mid-July.
Celebrity tries to keep the passengers entertained. There’s a show every night in Reflection Theater and musicians perform at various spots around the ship, mostly near the bars. There are games, lectures and special sales in the many shops that line Decks 3 and 4. Leslie and I enjoyed a wine tasting a few days ago. We tried reds and whites from the U.S., Austria, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. A few were just okay, but two or three of them are now on our list of, “buy this wine whenever you can find it.”
It’s interesting that many of our fellow passengers are from Europe. We met a lovely British couple at dinner a few nights ago, and we’ve encountered people from Canada, France and Italy. That gave me a second weird thought: I wonder how many of these folks are just going home from a long vacation and they’re afraid of flying? Hmmm.
Not much else to relate. I’ll try to post again after we’ve visited our first port, which is Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.
While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.
On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.
There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.
But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.
Other downsides include:
There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.
Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.
So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.
Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.
After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.
We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.
Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!
As we get ready to leave the land of pura vida, it’s time to talk dinero. If we choose to retire to Costa Rica, what would our cost of living be? It’s a key issue for us and always an inexact science.
Costa Rica’s currency is the colon. The current exchange rate is 566.795 colones to one U.S. dollar. So when you see something priced at 3,000 colones, that’s just a shade over five bucks. The guy at the airport car rental place called it “Monopoly money.”
Simply put, Costa Rica is not cheap. Eating out in restaurants, for example, costs us only slightly less than what we might pay in the U.S., and in some cases about the same. Last night we had steak and barbecued ribs at one of this town’s nicest spots, and it was slightly over $80 including wine and dessert. But last week we visited an excellent Thai/Balinese restaurant a short walk from our condo. Leslie had pad thai and I had Balinese beef stew. With lovely chicken spring rolls and two glasses of wine, we paid 27,400 colones — $48.34.
But we have most meals at home, buying groceries and cooking. As in Mexico, the food bargains are at Jacó’s Friday morning farmers market, where roughly $30 USD buys us a bag full of amazing fruits and vegetables. We bought a pineapple that was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. Great tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans and avocados. Most of the produce is local, but some comes from other Latin American countries, such as the apples from Chile.
We’ve shopped mainly at two grocery stores, and remember this is only for Jacó. We haven’t bought food anywhere else and prices might be different in other areas. Maxi Pali is a Costa Rican chain owned, I’m told, by Wal-Mart. It’s just down the street from our condo, and prices are lower than some of the other local stores. Here’s a sample:
fresh orange juice, 64 oz., $6.26.
15 large eggs, $2.81.
local chorizo, three links, $1.50.
mayo, 14.1 oz., $1.98.
oatmeal, 42 oz., $2.21.
white onions, 20.8 oz., $1.41.
The more Americanized option is called Auto Mercado. It’s about a five-minute drive down the main highway in the Plaza Herradura shopping center. Prices are a little higher, but we can find things like gluten-free bread and pasta, and their wine selection seems to be the best. We got one of our U.S. favorites, Apothic Red, but it was $17.81 a bottle and we usually pay $7. Of course here, it’s imported! Here’s some of what we bought:
six limes, $2.50.
Costa Rican coffee, 12 oz., $7.59.
Ritz crackers, 9.14 oz., $2.71.
seedless red grapes, 28.7 oz., $8.75.
gluten-free pasta, 8.8 oz., $1.42
head of Boston lettuce, $.97.
We’ve gotten some meats at these stores, but we’ve also gotten great cuts at a lower price from El Rodeo, a carneceria just off the main street through town that was recommended by our new friend Lisa. She also guided us to a relatively new pescedaria where we got a little over 2.2 pounds of fresh mahi-mahi for just under $9. I think we made three meals off that fish.
Moving on to real estate (all prices in USD), and I’ve tried to find properties in all three areas featured in this blog. I did not look in San Jose, although the San Jose neighborhood of Escazu (ess-kah-ZU) and the suburb of Alajuela (allah-WAY-la) are prime for North Americans to buy or rent. And please remember, we haven’t actually looked at any of these properties — I’ve just done a lot of research, either on the internet or by checking listings posted in real estate company windows.
Jacó is a beach town that’s known for surfing and partying. A 2/2 at one end of the beach with amazing ocean views is listed for $389,000. Pretty good for ocean view. Don’t need a view of the Pacific? Here’s a nice 2/2 condo with a short walk to the beach for only $227,000. On the high end, a stand-alone villa for $1.2 million. Rentals are available, but it appears the focus is on short-term vacation rentals. I did find a 2/2 in central Jaco for $1,000 a month, but it’s not close to the beach. Right on the beach, in nearby Playa Hermosa, there’s a 2/1 for $2,000 a month.
Atenas isn’t near a beach, but the mountain views from this Central Valley village can be stunning. Here’s a 2/2 with two 1/1 casitas on the property for $699,999. And there’s a more moderately-priced option, a 3/2 in Grecia for $178,500. As for long-term rentals, I found a couple of nice 2/1 properties just outside Atenas running from $1,200 to $1,400 a month.
Prices are lower in the area around Lake Arenal. You can even get amazing views for a bargain price. Like this new 3/2 in a gated community with lake views for only $169,000. If you’re on a tight budget and you don’t need to see the lake, there’s this 2/1 renovated house in the village for just $89,000, and you can walk to many stores and restaurants. I had to work hard to find a high-dollar property but here it is, just reduced to $995,000. It’s a 3/3.5 with a garden shower and an infinity pool with waterfalls! Area rental prices are low, too, running around $500 a month. I found a 3/3 with volcano and lake views for $800 a month on a six-month lease. From a price standpoint, Arenal wins.
So does that mean we’re moving to Costa Rica? The answer is in the next post!
The last major eruption was in 1968, when 87 people were killed. It was active up until 2010. Now it’s a major tourist attraction, as are Costa Rica’s other volcanoes. At least five are still active.
This side trip was another effort to see more of this country, since our time here is limited. We stayed two nights at the Lucky Bug Bed & Breakfast, which is right at the edge of a rain forest. Upon arrival, we heard howler monkeys in the jungle. Rob, one of our hosts, told us the howler is the loudest animal on earth. Louder than people?
We heard a lot of strange bird calls that were also pretty loud, and frog noises at night. Never caught a glimpse of a monkey or any of the strange-sounding birds. But we did see hummingbirds at Rob and Monika’s feeders, and a white ibis on their small pond.
The Lucky Bug is just outside the town of Nuevo Arenal. The “Nuevo” part is because the original town of Arenal was flooded in 1973 when a dam was built and a very small lake became a huge lake. That dam now provides 12 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity and the lake is beautiful, with lush, green hills all around it. We saw some people kayaking, but the tourist boat that will take you out for a ride (like we did on Scotland’s Loch Ness back in 2016) was only available in the town of La Fortuna. We didn’t get that far. If you lived here you would definitely want a view of the lake. And there are a number of properties for sale, as well as long- and short-term rentals.
Nuevo Arenal is quite small. There are other villages in the area, as well as the larger town of La Fortuna at the other end of the lake. La Fortuna got its name after the 1968 eruption, which spewed volcanic material up to five kilometers away and destroyed the small town of Tabacón. But La Fortuna was spared, so the name was changed to reflect its good fortune. One website I checked says that’s a myth. Maybe.
Lots of gringos live in this area, including our B&B hosts (he’s from the U.S., she’s from Germany). Some of the other local B&Bs appear to be gringo-owned and catering to North American tourists. I got directions at one point from a small group of North Americans at a bar called Karacters. Seemed like a fun crowd.
The climate is nice: mid-80s F. in the daytime and mid- to low-60s F. at night. We actually had to close the windows our first night there. Driving is a challenge because of the hills — lots of turns and twists on narrow roads.
Leslie and I thought the region was just a bit too rural. A dearth of health care would probably keep us from relocating there. Our host Monika complained about having to see what she called “cow doctors” unless you went to San Jose, which is almost a four-hour drive. So if we choose Costa Rica as our new home, the Lake Arenal area would probably not be our first choice. Great place to visit, though.
Next post will be a review of what it costs to live in Costa Rica. Spoiler alert: It ain’t cheap. I’ll leave you with some photos.