When she was young, Leslie had a poster on the wall of her room. It was a picture of the iconic French abbey Mont Saint-Michel(MOAN san-me-SHELL), showing the awesome structure poised at the top of an immense rock with sunset (sunrise?) colors all around. She called it “ephemeral,” and has wanted to see the place ever since. So we did. No sunsets, though.
Seen from a distance, this 10th-century structure rises up like a fortress out of the landscape. When you get closer, it’s truly awesome — there’s the abbey way up on the top of an immense rock, and a village around the lower part. We were there at low tide so we saw people walking in the sand below. At high tide, the rock is an island. There’s a causeway now that leads to the entrance, but in ancient times you needed a boat or patience (waiting for low tide) to get there.
“I’ve always wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel up close,” Leslie said as we were headed back to our group tour van. “I never thought I would see the inside. It’s just amazing!”
What she didn’t count on was all the steps we had to climb to reach the actual church where the monks worship. Lots of steps! But it’s worth the climb because you get to see the inside of a structure that was built over 1,000 years ago. We saw the sanctuary where the monks and nuns worship, and the cloisters where they go to meditate — or they did, before thousands of tourists started pouring in daily. There have been changes to the abbey over the centuries, including installation of a statue of Saint Michel himself on the pinnacle. It looks great, but its real purpose is a lightning rod. I’ll add more photos below.
The are only seven monks and five nuns now. Our guide, Caroline, said this is a plum assignment for servants of the Church. This iconic abbey is only inhabited by the best of the best, and only for three years at a time. We saw one nun walking around in a gray habit talking to people.
The last stop in our tour around Normandy was seeing the Bayeux Tapestry. Formerly housed in the Bayeux Cathedral, it’s now in a museum. The audio guide explains the whole story. The tapestry is an account of events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy seized the English throne from King Harold (who was, in truth, a usurper) in what we know as the Norman Conquest. We know William, the first Norman king of England, as William the Conquerer.
They didn’t allow photography in the exhibit, so click on the link above to see some of the scenes, or Google “Bayeux Tapestry” for more information.
Now it’s on to Ireland! We’re in Dublin for a few days, then back to Chicago. See you soon!
Leslie and I celebrated Independence Day in Normandy, wearing red, white and blue. We visited Sainte-Mère-Église, where paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division spearheaded the D-Day invasion on the night of June 5, 1944. We walked on Utah and Omaha beaches where the American army poured out of little flat-bottomed boats and helped take back a continent. We stood on sacred ground in the American cemetery in Colleville, surrounded by the graves of those who died in that operation, some of whom never made it off the beaches.
This was kind of a “bucket list” trip for me. I had brief affiliations with the 82nd and the 1st Infantry Division during my time in uniform, and I thought of this as similar to a pilgrimage. Our excellent guide, Francois, told us the 1962 film “The Longest Day” was filmed mostly in places where the historic events took place, such as in Sainte-Mère-Église. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember a solider, Pvt. John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the steeple of the town’s church. He was stranded there with German soldiers shooting at him. There’s a dummy hanging there now — in the wrong place. Francois explained that the movie showed Steele, played by Red Buttons, dangling from a steeple overlooking the town square. But in reality, he was on the other side of the building. A minor distinction — except to John Steele.
We went to Utah Beach, where Francois apologized that we arrived at high tide. The invasion happened at low tide, and he wanted us to see how far the soldiers had to move across the beach. We had to visualize how they left flat-bottomed Higgins boats — named for their American inventor — and made their way inland. He said this landing had success in part because aerial bombardment was more accurate than in other sectors, and because most of the Sherman tanks made it onto the beach to support ground troops.
Pointe du Hoc is a spot between Utah and Omaha beaches where U.S. Army Rangers, led by Lt. Col. James Rudder of Texas, had to scale 100-foot cliffs to destroy artillery emplacements that were part of Germany’s impressive Atlantic Wall defense. As Francois explained, the Germans had removed all the 155mm howitzers (big cannons) to protect them from Allied bombardment. But two Rangers found the weapons hidden in a wooded area and the mission became a success. We saw the craters from Allied bombs, and we climbed over and through what’s left of the concrete German bunkers.
The views from this place are incredible. We could see other cliffs in the distance and got a feel for what these young men had to deal with. Casualties were heavy. Of the 225 Rangers who hit the beach that morning, 80 were killed in the assault and only 90 were still able to continue at the end of the day.
The American army met the stiffest resistance at Omaha Beach, where aerial bombardment was less effective and most of the tanks didn’t make it to shore. Francois described how bomber pilots were instructed to fly above the clouds to avoid antiaircraft fire. Only a small percentage of bombs reached their target, and the landing force walked right into a devastating crossfire. Because the assault happened at low tide, some of the landing craft hit sandbars and deposited soldiers too early. Many were forced to traverse a distance of three or four football fields, sometimes wading in neck-deep water wearing full combat gear. More than 1,000 men died on this beach.
We ended the day at the cemetery, which is literally American soil — given to the U.S. in gratitude by the French government. Thanks to Francois’ excellent driving, we arrived just in time to see the 5 p.m. flag-lowering ceremony. Every day, two American flags are lowered and “taps” is played as the second one comes down. I’ll admit I got a little choked up. After the ceremony, I was able to stroll the main walkway and look down the rows of white crosses, with a few Stars of David in the mix too. They’ve been gone for 74 years, but as a U.S. Army veteran I still see them as my brothers. They make me proud to have worn the uniform.
Next time, Leslie fulfills a childhood dream.
UPDATE:Mexico has been knocked out of World Cup competition, but France won its quarterfinal final match against Uruguay, 2-0, so they’re still in the hunt. We’re pulling for France, but no, the World Cup winner won’t determine where we’ll be living six months from now!
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.
As we near the end of our time in Playa del Carmen, let’s examine the cost of living in this neat little beach town. That’s always a major factor in deliberations over where we will spend our retirement.
Meals in Playa restaurants seem a bit higher than in some of the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in. That’s probably because we’ve been to places that cater almost exclusively to tourists. We’ve paid only a bit less than we would expect to pay at similar quality restaurants in places like Naperville, Westmont or Downers Grove. If we lived here, we would go more often to places the locals frequent. They’re usually less expensive.
More important for us is the cost of groceries, because we dine in more often than we dine out. Unfortunately, there is no central mercado here, as there was in San Miguel de Allende and Mérida. Mega is the closest American-style grocery store. We know them from other Mexican cities and they’re generally okay. Our purchases there included:
almond milk, 946ml, $2.51.
toothpaste, 4.5 oz., $2.32.
premium orange juice, 1L, $2.29.
ground beef, 19.7 oz., $4.42.
chicken breasts, 38 oz., $5.88.
olive oil, 750ml, $7.65.
dozen eggs, $.98.
Advil, 200mg, 24-pack, $3.44.
Orowheat multi-grain bread, $2.42.
There are a number of markets that sell frutas y verduras (fruits and vegetables). Our favorite is the Dac Market, where you can get nuts, chiles, spices and dried fruits, such as raisins, in bulk. This market is larger than most neighborhood fruit stands, and their produce is definitely better than the big chain stores. Here’s a sample:
carrots, 27 oz., $.54.
limes, 21 oz., $.58.
white onions, 23 oz., $.60.
romaine lettuce, $1.11.
zucchini, 19 oz., $.30.
raisins, 12 oz., $1.08.
avocado, 15 oz., $1.83.
white potatoes, 17 oz., $.46.
Meat and fish tend to be better at a carneceria or pescaderia. There are two meat shops and two fish vendors close to us. A few days ago, Leslie went to Pescaderia El Mero Mero and bought some very nice grouper for dinner. The owner told Leslie his shop had provided the fish for a Mexican television version of “Top Chef” that featured Rick Bayliss. Good enough for Rick, good enough for us! Leslie picked out two whole fish, then the owner’s assistant filleted them on the spot — fresh, never frozen. We ended up with four six-ounce fillets for less than $10 USD. And what Leslie did with it was muy sabroso!
Real estate is also important, and Playa is a little different from other places we’ve lived. Vacation rentals are everywhere, especially between the main road (Highway 307) and the beach. There are no high-rises here, only condo buildings three to five stories high.
And there are more on the way. If you’re a construction worker and you need a job, come to Playa. Several condos or hotels are under construction.
Real estate sales pitches tend to tout income potential — buy a condo in PDC for your vacations and rent it out whenever you’re not here. That’s not for us, but it’s normal here. And prices are all over the map. There’s a third-floor, two-bedroom condo for sale in our building, Aqua Terra, for $245,000 USD. They had an open house last week and we took a look. There’s a rooftop area that would be great for entertaining or sunbathing, but the view is nothing special.
Then there’s a two-bedroom unit in condo-hotel Aldea Thai, right on our favorite beach. It has a private pool and says it has “great views” but none of the photos show an ocean view. It seems a bargain at only $650,000 USD. Right across the street, they’re hard at work on Ocean Residences, one of many new luxury condo buildings. We talked about looking at the model, but haven’t done it yet.
Want to spend more? I found listings online up to $10 million USD. If you’re looking for a bargain, you’ll need to look outside Highway 307 or in some of the smaller towns between Cancún and Tulum. Buying on the Riviera Maya would take a lot of research, figuring out exactly where you want to be, then spending a lot of time with a good agent. There are a lot of properties for sale here.
Rentals, as noted, tend to be vacation rentals rather than long-term. Go on Airbnb or VRBO and you’ll find luxury properties that will set you back $500 a night or more, USD. We were lucky to grab something in our budget. I found long-term rentals online, but there are few bargains at $1,500 USD a month and more. There was one listing in Tulum for $1,000 USD a month. It’s a nice two-bedroom house with good outdoor spaces, but it’s not close to the beach and you would need a car to get anywhere.
So, does Playa stay on the list or not? That’s coming up in the next post!
Living on the Riveria Maya would not be boring, though. There are lots of attractions on this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula that runs essentially from Puerto Morelos (just south of Cancún) in the north to Tulum in the south. There’s also the island of Cozumel, a 40-minute ferry ride from Playa, where scuba diving and snorkeling are big business. We visited Tulum last week to see more Mayan ruins.
Leslie and her daughter Stephanie went to Tulum nearly 30 years ago when they were on a cruise. Back then, she says, the site consisted of “the castle” and not much else. Archeologists have uncovered much more of the site now, and it’s amazing. There’s even restoration work being done right now on a building that’s in danger of collapse.
Our guide Dan told us Tulum was probably the last city the Maya built.
Next time, I’ll review our five weeks in Playa del Carmen and let you know if we’ll be coming back any time soon. Spoiler alert: The humidity here is often greater than 90 percent!
We’re at the end of our six weeks in Mérida. Tomorrow, Leslie and I hop on a bus and travel to the beach city of Playa del Carmen. We’re looking forward to slightly cooler temperatures and a more walkable town.
Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan, is an interesting city.
There are some good things about it:
While there are lots of expats here (fewer in May when it’s so hot), the percentage is smaller than in the other cities we’ve been to so you don’t often run into other Americans or Canadians on the street.
The cost of living seems a bit lower here, especially for food at the local mercados and for real estate.
There’s no beach in Mérida but in 20 to 30 minutes you can be on the tip of the peninsula and enjoy neat little beach towns like Progreso.
Orquestra Sinfónica de Yucatánperforms in a very nice concert hall. They’re pretty good, too. And there are classical music performances every Sunday at a smaller auditorium on the other side of the park. Last week we saw the chamber orchestra Orquestra de Cámara de Mérida do seven Vivaldi works. A free concert!
St. Luke’s Anglican Church has warm, helpful people and an energetic priest who gives insightful sermons. Sunday (June 4), we helped inaugurate the new church building just five blocks from our house.
Never say “never,” but Leslie and I agree Mérida won’t make our final list. Here’s why, in a nutshell:
I never thought we would say a place is “too hot,” but Mérida is too hot. And too humid. Maybe it would be perfect in January, but we’re looking for a year-round home.
This is a city of almost a million people. It’s big and spread out, and outside the centro it’s not very “Mexican.” We liked the smaller towns better.
Being a big city, of course, means it’s not very walkable, and walkability is a big asset.
Transportation back to the States is not simple. When I looked for ways to get back quickly for a funeral, the only options were to fly to Mexico City and catch a flight north, or take a bus or private car to Cancún and hop on a direct flight to Chicago or another U.S. city. Connections are not the best.
Did I say it was too hot?
So it’s on to the final Mexican stop on this part of our journey — Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, about 30 miles south of Cancún. I’ll leave you with some photos of the places we’ve visited here and the things we’ve seen — pics that haven’t made it into any previous post.
CORRECTION: In the last post I said my paternal grandparents had eight children who lived to adulthood. It was seven. My sister corrected me. Thank you, Linda. I must’ve counted a favorite aunt twice!
We’ve had some issues this week, so it’s taken awhile to do a new post. Sorry about the delay. Leslie had been experiencing back pain that kept getting worse, and we both thought it was the extra-hard bed in Casa Walker, where we were living. A visit to an emergency room doctor confirmed that, so we found a new place. For the next three weeks, we are living in Casa San Antonio. We’re still in the same neighborhood and even a little closer to the Santiago mercado. The owners, a retired physician and his wife, are from San Antonio, Texas, where Leslie and I used to live. They are actually there right now! Smart. It’s only 75° F. in San Antonio today. Here, it’s 100° F. with a “feels like” of 107°!
So we had yet another encounter with medicine in Mexico, with a similar outcome to the one we had in San Miguel de Allende. The woman doctor spoke moderately fair English but Leslie understands a good bit of Spanish and there’s always Google Translate, so they had no trouble communicating. You probably know how much an ER visit costs in the States. Many hospitals in the U.S. want your insurance information before they even figure out whether you’re dying or not! At Clinica Mérida, they just asked if we were going to pay cash or with a credit card. Easy answer. We put all medical expenses on our USAA Federal Savings Bank card so we can more easily track medical expenditures for tax purposes. I think we were out of there in less than an hour with a diagnosis and prescriptions. Total bill: $340 pesos. That’s less than $20 USD. Even better, Leslie’s back is much better now.
Leslie and I have been attending church at St. Luke’s Anglican Mission. It’s a bit smaller than the Anglican churches we attended in San Miguel and Puerto Vallarta.
Last week there were six in worship. Yesterday, we had a total of eight. Father José, a native of the Azores (Spain) who has spent considerable time in Canada and the U.S., does a service in English at 10 a.m. and in Spanish at 11:15 a.m. The Spanish service is considerably larger. Even with a tiny congregation, this church does outreach work. On Saturday, Leslie joined a group (English- and Spanish-speakers) that meets weekly to make pulled pork sandwiches. Those sandwiches are distributed Sundays to poor people who tend to gather at one of the local hospitals.
Before getting sidetracked by the need to relocate, we went to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida, an impressive collection of Mayan culture and history. Much of the first section is devoted to how a meteor strike in the Yucatan Peninsula millions of years ago created cenotes that the Maya believed to be sacred. There was also a lot of recent Mayan history, including how the Spaniards brought Catholicism and how descendants of the Maya are contributing to Mexican society today. As we walked through, I thought, “This is not what I was expecting.” I started to think this place was a bust. Then we turned a corner, and there was a statue of Chaac Mool, the Mayan rain god. “OK,” I thought. “Here’s where the real stuff starts.” We saw works by pre-Colombian Mayan craftsmen and artisans, and enjoyed some excellent interactive exhibits. What’s really cool is that the majority of the signage in this impressive modern building is in Spanish, English and Mayan — Yucatec Mayan to be more specific.
Then we spent a day at the beach in nearby Progreso. Mérida is about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. If you want to go to a beach, though, just wait along Calle 64 in the Centro and watch for a bus that says “ProgresoDirecto.” Flag that bus down (there’s one at least every 20 or 30 minutes), just like you would hail a taxi in downtown Chicago, and for $40 pesos (a little more than two dollars), two people can spend a day at the beach. Of course, it’s $40 pesos more to come back!
Not the greatest beach we’ve ever seen, but we appreciated the cooling breezes. There were lots of locals on the beach on a Monday, most with small children. It was fun to watch them playing in the gentle surf. Seaweed had washed up along the length of the beach, and that wasn’t very nice. But we remembered that, “A bad day at the beach is better than the best day at work.”
Some of the restaurants along Progreso’s malecon (boardwalk, or esplanade) have beach chairs with umbrellas and bar service. We found one of those and staked out a spot, ordering some bottles of water and a few drinks. But their lunch menu was not inspiring, so we found a restaurant just a few steps down the beach that gets high marks on Trip Advisor: Crabster. I had some fantastic shrimp tacos and Leslie enjoyed coconut-almond shrimp that was crunchy and very tasty. And we enjoyed the whole meal with our toes in the sand.
In the next post, I hope to provide some cost of living details. Here’s a teaser: We had lunch several days ago at our new favorite place in the Colonia Santiago. It’s called Maize, Canela y Cilantro — a very small, very cozy, breakfast and lunch place. We had soup, entree with small salad and rice, warm corn tortillas, black beans, amazing salsa, and four glasses of jamaica (hibiscus) tea. Total bill with a healthy tip was $270 pesos. That’s a big lunch for two for less than $15 USD.
A little toohot, actually. It’s 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon and the heat index is 104° F. Good thing we both bought some new warm-weather clothing in Puerto Vallarta!
Before I tell you about this new place, please allow me a brief personal aside on the end of an era. My aunt Sue Rownd died Tuesday, May 2, in Little Rock, Ark. She was 96. Aunt Sue was my dad’s second-youngest sister. My grandparents, James Claude Rogers and Janie Teeter Rogers, had eight children (if I recall correctly) who lived to adulthood. Today, they and their spouses are gone. Aunt Sue was the last of her generation.
I learned only in the last few years that Aunt Sue was a writer, and she had done quite a bit of writing over the past few years. She was, in fact, the first female editor of the Weevil Outlet, student newspaper at Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello). That was in 1941. I am proud to say she was a fan of this blog and sometimes emailed me with comments that I always appreciated. She had a great run. My sympathies go to my cousins Ed, Carolyn and Judy. I wish I could get back to the U.S. for her funeral, but there are some logistical issues. Unfortunately, I can’t resolve those issues to get there in time.
Thanks for your patience.
Mérida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, is incredibly hot and humid. And it’s big — almost a million people live here. It’s on the western side of the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, but inland — about 22 miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast. Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico. About 60 percent of its people are of Mayan ancestry, so the conquistadores didn’t wipe out the Mayans — they’re still here and going strong. In fact, they’re great at marketing. We both bought new hats from them just yesterday!
Founded in 1542, Mérida was built on the site of a Mayan city that was a cultural center for centuries. So, Mérida could be the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas (that’s according to Wikipedia, so it might be true). It’s a beautiful colonial city with lots to offer, both here and in nearby places. We’re planning trips to Mayan archeological sites such as Uxmal (oosh-MAHL) and Ek Balam (eck bah-LAHM). Leslie and I learned about Ek Balam yesterday when we visited the Museo Palacio Cantón, also known as the Museo de Antropologia y Historia (Museum of Anthropology and History, but you probably figured that out even if you don’t know Spanish). We also plan to visit some cenotes. I’ll explain more about them when we’ve been to a few.
We’re staying in a 100-year-old house in the Colonia Santiago, which is home to lots of expats. The Mérida English Library is just a few blocks away. We plan to attend a Library-sponsored wine tasting next week. And on Sunday we’ll probably take an Uber (yes, Uber is here in Mérida!) to St. Mark’s Anglican Mission. We hope to meet more expats at church and at the wine tasting.
We’ve already been to our local Mercado Santiago,about a 15-minute walk from our house. But we’re looking forward to experiencing the mercado in the centro historico, which they tell us is huge — covers nearly a city block. On Saturday morning, we’re heading to the northern part of the city for the Slow Food Market. That one sounds great!
The house itself is a bit quirky, but it has a nice plunge pool on the patio and a rooftop area with great views of the city.
We’re not right in the centro, but a bus or our friendly Uber driver will get us there fairly quickly, or we can take about a 20- to 30-minute walk. Depends on how hot it is!
Part of the quirkiness is that the pool and patio actually separate the living area and kitchen from the two bedrooms. There is a full bath right off the kitchen, and that’s handy. There’s also an outdoor shower in the master bath.
The heat alone might drive Mérida off our list fairly quickly. One chart I saw indicated that, historically, this city has recorded a high temperature of 100° F. or more in every month of the year, including the winter months. But we’ve been here less than a week, so we need to have patience.
More to come after we’ve had opportunities to check out this city and its environs.
This is the colonial city of Guanajuato (gwan-ah-WHAT-oh), about a 90-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende. It was founded in 1548 as a silver mining town, and is now the capital of the state of Guanajuato (SMA is part of the state of Guanajuato). It was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. We were here a few days ago and were just blown away by the beauty of the place. The buildings are even more colorful than in SMA.
We see the yellow and orange and rust colors — like on the church just to the right of the top of Leslie’s head — on buildings in SMA, but look at the blue and pink! You may even be able to see some green. Most of that is paint, of course, but many of the buildings and sidewalks in Guanajuato were built with local sandstone, which can have pink or green hues, depending on the copper content.
The Spaniards discovered silver here in the 1500s. There were several silver mines, at least one of which is still in operation. There were also some gold mines, but silver has been this city’s claim to fame for hundreds of years. Freddy, our excellent driver and guide, told us that about two-thirds of the world’s silver comes from right here in this pretty little town.
Guanajuato played a major role in the 1810 Mexican War of Independence. In fact, Freddy started us out on the overlook where I took the above photos. There is a huge monument on the hillside to a poor miner, Juan José de los Reyes Martínez, better known as El Pípila.
When the revolution began, the Spanish elite and loyalist soldiers fled and locked themselves in the granary, an enormous building with few windows. From this veritable fortress they were able to pick off the insurgents when they attacked. El Pípila strapped a large flat stone to his back for protection and crawled to the wooden doors of the granary’s main entrance. He then smeared the doors with tar and set them on fire. Once the doors burned, the insurgents were able to take the building. The first battle of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain was a victory for the insurgentes.
The granary is also where government forces later displayed the severed heads of the revolution’s four top leaders, including Ignacio Allende (he’s the “Allende” in San Miguel de Allende), one on each corner of the building. The structure is scheduled to become a museum soon.
Freddy showed us the San Cayetano Church, which is outside the central city near the Valenciana mine. The mine’s owner, Antonio de Obregón y Alcocer,
spent years in a fruitless search for silver, and prayed for God’s help in his effort. When his mine became one of the most successful in the world, he built this church (between 1765 and 1788) and dedicated it to Saint Cajetan. When his daughter got married, he had workers install a temporary sidewalk of silver bars. She walked on silver for several hundred feet, from the street into the church for her wedding. Inside there is amazing amount of gold on the altarpieces, as well as some enormous 19th century paintings.
The big white building behind Leslie (in the photo above) is a former convent, now the University of Guanajuato. We also saw the house where famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera was born. He lived in Guanajuato as a child, then his family moved to Mexico City. Some of his works are displayed on the second floor, but to see the good stuff you have to go to Mexico City museums.
The central city is in a valley, with parts of the town going straight up the hillsides. There are two streets on the upper level and two on the lower level. A funicular goes up and down one hillside, but the main way to get around is little alleyways called callejónes. Some are quite narrow.
The most famous of these alleyways is the Callejón del Besos, or “Kissing Alley.” It’s only 66 inches wide in places, with balconies that nearly touch each other. Folklore states that couples who kiss on the third step are guaranteed seven years of happiness together. We spent quite a bit of time in a local silver shop (yes, Leslie has a couple of nice new silver trinkets) across from the San Cayetano church, so we didn’t have time to see this callejón. Guess we have to go back.
Most of the streets in the central part of the city are underground. Being in a narrow valley, Guanajuato was prone to disastrous flooding for many years. So a series of tunnels was built in the 18th century to protect the town.
In the 1960s, a new dam permanently fixed the flooding issue. The tunnels were then widened and turned into streets. Much of the central city traffic — including foot traffic — is in these old tunnels. It’s fascinating.
Freddy told us that the alleyways are also the site of a university tradition. In the evenings, university students gather in the Plaza de la Paz and go through the alleyways playing guitars and singing, with people following them along the way. It sounded quite festive, so we will have to go back and spend a few evenings there to experience this tradition.
There’s a lot more I could say about Guanajuato, but this was just a day trip. It’s probably not a place we would want to live, especially if we have to go up and down stairs very much. Leslie and I are more focused on San Miguel de Allende, and we’re leaving soon. In the next post I’ll reveal how we’re feeling about this neat little colonial town we have called home for almost six weeks.
Some of you have been asking questions about our journey to a new home “somewhere in the world.” So a few answers first, then more about this amazing part of Mexico where we’re living for the next two weeks.
What if you need a doctor? Health care in Mexico is very good and very affordable. Last week, Leslie went to see a podiatrist for a minor toe irritation. (We walk a lot here, so foot health is important.) She called and got an appointment the same day. She liked the doctor, who spoke English fairly well. He fixed her up with no problems. Fee: $200 pesos — that’s not even 10 bucks. He gave her a cream to use for the next week or so, and that cost another $200 pesos. No need for insurance. She just paid cash.
How do you get your mail? We use a great mail forwarding service, U.S. Global Mail in Houston. It’s a physical address, not a P.O. box — sort of like we have an apartment in Houston. They email me when we get mail, and I can look at a picture of the envelope and decide whether I want them to open it and scan the contents, forward it to me or throw it away. Most of it gets thrown away, just like if we were at home. But while we were in Spain, we got a $500 refund check. U.S. Global Mail offered several options for delivery, some of which were less than $20 USD. I chose an option through DHL that provided a tracking number, and that cost us about $40 to have it sent. DHL got that check to me in two days. I can’t say enough about U.S. Global Mail. If you plan to travel for an extended period, go to their website and sign up. Just click on the link above for information.
If you have more questions, send me an email or comment through the blog.
We did some exploring this week — went to a place called Cañada de la Virgen, about 30 minutes outside San Miguel. This is an archaeological site that wasn’t discovered util 1998.
Excavation began in 2002, and the site was opened to the public in 2011. We were very fortunate to have Roxana as our guide. She is an archeologist who worked on the early excavations, and actually did her Ph.D. dissertation on Cañada de la Virgen. It was incredible to have a guide with so much knowledge of the site. Her passion for the site, and for mesoamerican culture, came through clearly.
She said the main pyramid and other structures were probably built by the Otomi people sometime in the sixth century, and were likely abandoned by the 11th century. She explained astronomical aspects of the pyramid, how the pyramid is aligned with the solstices.
She also explained how people would approach the holy site on a pilgrimage. The architect actually built the road leading to the pyramid first, and you can still see it today.
Three things were needed to have a holy site: a mountain, a cave and water. Roxana said the pyramid is the mountain. Ask the local people, even today, about a pyramid and they won’t understand what you mean. To them, it is a mountain. This mountain is smaller than the better-known pyramid in Chicen Itza, but it has the same very narrow steps. Roxana showed us how the ancient people probably walked up those steps, and we tried her method. Leslie and I are quite proud that we walked up and down the set of steps leading to the inner courtyard, and all the way up to the top of the pyramid!
Yesterday, we treated ourselves to a dip in the mineral waters at La Gruta, just outside SMA. We spent a few hours there, starting out in a big pool of warm water. Then we moved to the second pool, which is even warmer. From that pool, you go through a tunnel into the hottest pool, which is like a hot tub without the jets. There’s a dome over this area so it’s a grotto — La Gruta. We spent a few hours lolling around in the warm baths on a day that wasn’t quite so warm. It only got up to about 70º F.
Following advice from several people, we got there in the morning to beat the crowds. But on a Thursday when the weather was cool, there weren’t many other people there. We got out of the pool and changed, then had lunch at their restaurant. We both had some excellent enchiladas verde and a margarita. But the highlight of lunch was a visit from a friendly cat who prowled the grounds like he owned the place.
He got a small treat and wandered away to visit another table, but he came back when we were done and almost immediately jumped into Leslie’s lap and made himself at home. Made us both think about our Sam, whom we know is being well cared for by our friend Barbara Hoch in Naperville.