Florence: More Michelanglo, but first some cheese.

IMG_2147
Looking out the window of our hotel room in Florence onto a small Sunday market.

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.

IMG_2155
This was great cheese!

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!

IMG_2178
David, the biggest attraction in Florence.

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.

IMG_0253
Here we are with David. 

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.

IMG_2342
The “new” facade of the Duomo. You can see the dome in the back.

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.

IMG_2197
This clock measured time from sundown to sundown, which was important in the Middle Ages.

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.

IMG_2205
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” one of those paintings many of us have seen in one way or another.

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.

Ciao!

IMG_2161
Our Florence hotel, built between 1517 and 1527 as guest rooms for the monastery of a religious order. Its style mirrors a former orphanage across the piazza.
IMG_2184
Detail on the external wall of the Duomo, from a section recently cleaned.
IMG_2192
The inside of the Duomo’s octagonal dome.
IMG_0263
We thoroughly enjoyed a chamber music ensemble doing Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and other works, in St. Stephen Auditorium. This was one of the first churches built in Florence. It was revised and renovated many times through the centuries, then nearly destroyed in World War II. Renovation in the 1990s turned it into an excellent music venue.
IMG_2336
We finally found the Central Market, but it was late and most of the vendors had closed. Fortunately, the bars and restaurants on the upper level were still going strong. We found this little wine bar and enjoyed some nebbiolo and a bit of pate.

 

 

The Vatican: Michelangelo’s work impresses

img_2145.jpeg
St.Peter’s Square, where thousands of the faithful wait hopefully every time a new pope is elected. First time I saw this place was in the movie “Shoes of the Fisherman” with Anthony Quinn and David Janssen. Excellent movie, you should rent it.

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.

IMG_2129
The Pieta, one of Michelangelo’s most famous, and most revered, works.

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!)

IMG_2089
Laura uses photos outside the museum to explain Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is sacred space, and all are encouraged to be silent. Not everybody obeys.

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.

 

IMG_2127
Looking down the nave from the back toward the altar of St. Peter’s. That’s an enormous bronze sculpture, biggest in the world, that marks Peter’s burial place.

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’.

IMG_2101
Greek and Roman sculptures, a small part of the Vatican Museum’s huge collection.

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.

Ciao!

 

IMG_2141
One of the Swiss Guards, who provide security for the Vatican. Tour guide Laura said the uniform and the armament are traditional, but he’s got a gun under that outfit and he can get to it quick if he needs to.

 

IMG_2107
Sculpture of our favorite pagan god, Bacchus. God of wine.

Living in Playa, and a side trip to Tulum

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.
priest-1773
Dac Market is open-air. No walls or doors. See the baskets? Those are your “shopping carts.”

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.
IMG_1769
Colorful jars of bulk spices and seeds at Dac Market.

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.

IMG_1765
Typical new condo building. At one time, developers were limited to three stories. Now, five is the max.

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.

Castle-1757
“The Castle” at Tulum. When Leslie and Stephanie were here many years ago, people could climb those stairs to the top. The authorities don’t allow that anymore because at least one person was injured in a fall here, according to our guide.

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.

priest-0986
One of the few houses still standing at Tulum. Our guide said this was the home of the high priest. There are lots of foundations inside the walls of Tulum. Priests and other high-ranking Maya lived here while most lower-class people lived in villages outside the walls. 

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!

Hasta luego!

Moving on; one stop left in Phase I

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.

chair-1670
Merida’s many parks feature these “conversation chairs,” also called “Las Sillas Confidantes,” or  “Tu y Yo,” or “De Los Enamorados.” This young couple shows the original purpose.

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 Yucatán performs 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.
Cathedral-1655
Merida’s cathedral, completed in 1598. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral on the American mainland. This cathedral and the one in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) were the only American cathedrals built entirely during the 16th century.

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.

Next post from Playa!

IMG_1815
We visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, where henequen (sisal) is grown and made into fibers that are used to make rope, carpets and burlap bags. It’s the only henequen hacienda still operating. At one time, the Peon family alone owned 14 henequen plantations in the Yucatan. Our guide Jose (left) and one of the workers showed us how rope was made by hand, using this simple machine. We saw every step of the fiber-making process. Now, they only produce the fiber as a working museum for tourists and for use on the plantation, and the plantation is dramatically smaller than in the early 1900s during the “green gold” boom.
IMG_1851
Henequen fibers come from a type of agave plant. Yes, agave is used to make tequila. Different kind of agave. At the end of our tour, though, I had a margarita made with henequen liquor rather than the normal agave tequila. It was OK, but not great. Once a plant is started, it’s seven years before any of the fronds can be harvested. Then you can only harvest seven fronds per month.
lr-1869
Hacienda Sotuta de Peon has one of the Yucatan’s many cenotes. We enjoyed about an hour swimming here, and there were no crowds. Leslie enjoyed floating in the crystal-clear water. This cenote is in a cave.
IMG_1775
Uxmal (OOSH-moll), an ancient Mayan site dating to 700 A.D. The temple is to the right, and palaces to the left where priests, scribes and other professionals lived and worked. Lower class Maya lived in villages outside the temple grounds. This site was apparently abandoned around the 10th century.
kabah-1789
Mayan figures at Kabah, a smaller site near Uxmal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A small bump in the road, but a nice new home for us

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.

IMG_1629
St.Luke’s meets in the family chapel of a private home in Merida’s La Ermita area. On the first Sunday in June, they will move to new digs closer to us.

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.

IMG_1630
Father Jose uses a tortilla instead of bread for communion. Isn’t that appropriate?

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.

Chilam Balam 2
 On the ceiling of the museum is a Mayan calendar (we think), a drawing from the Chilam Balam of Ixil, which a wall plaque describes as “an example of the persistence and power of Mayan memory.” Written in the 17th and 18th centuries, these books preserved important traditional knowledge in which indigenous Maya and early Spanish traditions coalesced. But they also contained material that is clearly pre-conquest.

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 “Progreso Directo.” 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.

IMG_1615
A closing shot. You see this all over Merida — people saving parking spaces, just like in Chicago when it snows. Except, there’s no snow here.

Mérida is hot!

A little too hot, 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!

IMG_1599
No, that’s not a “Panama” hat I’m wearing. It’s a jipi-japa (hippie-hahpah), made by Mayans right here in Merida out of henequen (sisal). And this style of hat comes originally from Ecuador, not Panama. Gringos in Mexico need good hats!

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.

IMG_1579
Casa Walker, which we are renting from Arnie and Pam White through Airbnb. 

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!

IMG_1582
About half the size of our pool in Puerto Vallarta, but it’s great for heat relief!

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.

Guanajuato. Wow!

img_1408
The colors are even more amazing in person!

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.

img_1413
Just had to take another selfie!

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.

img_1424
Monument to El Pipila from the lower part of the city.

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,

img_1417
A painting in this church shows Jesus with a white dove flying near His feet. No matter where you stand in the church, the dove appears to be looking directly at you.

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.

img_1431
These up-and-down alleyways reminded us of Malta!

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.

img_1427
Some of the tunnels are wide enough for two-way traffic, and include sidewalks.

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.

Hasta luego!

Not so frequently asked questions

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.

img_1501
The pyramid seen from the inner courtyard.

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.

img_1499
Archeologist Roxana explains the ancient structure.

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!

img_1500
We didn’t walk straight up, we went at an angle with one foot crossing over the other. That’s Roxana leading the way while the rest of us try to figure it out.

 

6306a604-dda8-4214-a83f-87dbaecca6df
View from the top of the pyramid to the inner courtyard. You can see the ancient pathway that led from the distant river valley to the temple.

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.

ce311203-6098-49e6-b1c3-54696243e6e5
This guy knows a comfortable lap when he sees one.

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.

 

That’s all for now. Hasta luego!

 

Different Parts of Malta, Part Two

In the last post I forgot to say Leslie and I had a great Christmas with our daughter, Stephanie. We enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner in our house and went to church Sunday at St. Andrews, where we sang carols and heard an excellent message from Pastor Kim Hurst.

After the service, we feasted on Christmas dinner with about 40 people from the church and the community. There were people from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Malta, of course. Maybe a few others. We didn’t get to talk to everyone.

Our new friends Franklin and Judy cooked turkey and dressing with lots of potatoes and vegetables. Since they are Canadian, Judy called it, “a traditional North American Christmas dinner.” Here we are:img_1297

 

Now, Part Two of our private guided tours of Malta, conducted by Victoria, who did a great job. In the last post I detailed our visits to the Blue Grotto, two of the island’s megalithic temples and Casa Bernard. But there’s more!

We had  a “Taste of Malta” experience that started with some Maltese coffee and traditional pastries. Didn’t like the coffee. It has anise in it, and I don’t like that flavor. Leslie liked it, but not enough to make it at home. The pastries, on the other hand, were very nice. We each had something different, and we also tried traditional nougat treats. For lunch, we dined at Diar Il-Bniet in the town of Dingli, a restaurant featuring food from a nearby farm. We asked Victoria about the menu and she said, “Everything they serve is food that Maltese people prepare at home.” Baked macaroni with minced beef, beef marrows, beef olive with Maltese sausage, and cauliflower lasagne. Probably the best meal we have had in quite some time. Maltese food is very flavorful!

But we did more than eat. We also walked through the walled city of Mdina, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century and Malta’s capital until medieval times. Only a few hundred people live within the walls, mostly members of Malta’s noble class.

The biggest attraction in Mdina is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Originally built in the 12th and 13th Centuries, the cathedral was severely damaged in a rare earthquake in 1693. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style we see today. img_1400

The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while being taken to Rome to stand trial before Cesar, his right as a Roman citizen (see Acts 21-26 for the whole story). The cathedral is dedicated to him, and most of the art is about Paul, including a beautiful frescoe above and just behind the altar depicting the shipwreck.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is known for its Christmas “crib,” what we in the U.S. would call a nativity scene. Only this one is massive. There are so many people and animals in this crib that it’s hard to even find Mary and Joseph! It’s probably 12 to 15 feet across. This is a Maltese tradition. Many of the faithful have cribs in their homes, or in a display case right beside their front doors.

Here’s the cathedral’s crib — shepherds on the left, angels descending from Heaven:img_1410

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the close-up (below) you can barely see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Look near the center, then see the Magi just to the right of the baby:img_1411

We left the cathedral to visit the Mdina Glass factory, which is actually in the village of Ta’ Qali. Each piece the company sells is hand-made. We watched glassmakers working, effortlessly creating items like the ones on display in the shop. Leslie and Stephanie both contributed to the economy of Malta!

If you want to know more about the art they produce, click on the link in the previous paragraph.

Finally we visited Meridiana Wine Estate, also in Ta’ Qali, where we got a tour of the winery and did some tasting. This winery, and its vineyards, are on land that was a British airfield during World War II (see photo, below). Vines were planted and the winery built in the 1980s. Click the link above to learn more.img_1426

Leslie and I had tried some Meridiana wine at a wine shop in Valletta a few weeks earlier. We were surprised at how good Maltese wines are. Meridiana is our favorite, but there are other excellent wines here.

Our good friend Sean Chaudry at Hinsdale Wine Shop really needs to try and score some of their Isis Chardonnay. It’s one of the best chardonnays I have ever tasted, but I doubt it’s available to distributors in the States. Sean, your next trip should be to Malta! You won’t regret it. img_1423

This photo (left) shows Leslie and Stephanie in the barrel room. We descended a tightly wound spiral staircase into the cellar and learned how their wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak barrels, like these.

All their wines are named after Phoenician gods, such as the goddess Isis, previously mentioned. I know what you’re thinking — Isis was an Egyptian goddess! Well, it seems folks here on Malta think she was a Phoencian goddess first, and the Egyptians borrowed her. Either way, the wine named for her is stunning. Crisp and citrusy. Great with Maltese seafood.

Steph bought a few bottles, some red and some white, to ship home to San Diego. Leslie and I got a few bottles for ourselves because the winery price was lower than the Valletta wine shop price.

Since we don’t have a rental car, these tours gave Leslie and me a great chance to see more of Malta. And it was super entertainment for Steph. We all learned a lot.

But then it was time to say goodbye to our beautiful daughter. She took a very early morning flight to  London on Dec. 29, and arrived safely — much to the delight of her two cats, Louis and Piper. Fortunately there was no hijacking this time!

Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve by attending The President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Then we will watch the fireworks. We haven’t decided where to go yet; there are several possibilities. We may join the crowds in Valletta’s St. George’s Square or watch from Upper Barrakka Gardens, near the underground bunkers where the Allies planned the Mediterranean campaign in World War II. Or, if it’s too cold, we may head back home to watch the fireworks from the Three Cities side of The Grand Harbour. We’ll let you know.

Happy New Year!

Seeing different parts of Malta

img_1323This is a view from above of the famous Blue Grotto on Malta’s southeastern coast, one of the places our daughter Stephanie wanted to see while she was here for Christmas. Leslie found a private tour company to help us all get a better look at parts of the island we haven’t seen.

See that itty-bitty boat down there? We got in one of those little boats (it only holds nine passengers, and you have to wear a life jacket) for a close-up view of an amazing place. Stephanie got a great selfie of the three of us:img_0035There are several caves and limestone structures on the 20-minute tour, but Blue Grotto is the star. Take a look at the incredible color of the water:img_1343

From the Blue Grotto, we drove past a rather large, somewhat isolated home that is often rented to the rich and famous who come to Malta for privacy. Our guide Victoria said the current occupant is Tom Hanks, although she did not know if he’s here to film a movie or just for vacation. Too bad he didn’t come out so we could say Merry Christmas!

Then we moved on to see the Hagar Qim temples, just two of the 23 megalithic temples found on Malta. They are the oldest free-standing structures in the world — 1,000 years older than the pyramids! This (below) is what the temple sites look like, covered by a tent to prevent damage from the elements. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site.img_1378

Unlike at Stonehenge, which is 2,000 years younger, the temple builders here used locally quarried limestone rock. There are two types in the area: a hard limestone and a softer limestone. Builders mainly used the soft variety because it’s easier to decorate. They also used it to draw their plans. Look at the two photos below. In the first, you see what might be considered an architect’s drawing. In the second, what the temple entrance looks like today.
img_1386

img_1387

Maybe my friend and international architect Larry Hartman can weigh in on the “blueprint”!

Just one more site to discuss in this post. We visited Casa Bernard in the village of Rabat. Built in the 16th Century, this was the home of a Maltese noble family of French origin. The current owners, Georges and Josette Magri, are not nobility but they have owned the house for many years and they still live in it. They open a portion to the public on a limited basis, but this is their home. They had a family Christmas dinner in the formal dining room. I think Josette said they had 40 for dinner, and yes, she had it catered!img_1391

She and Georges are collectors, as were both sets of parents. The place is like an antique shop. A very high-class antique shop! They have lots of small items to show off — pill boxes, match boxes, jewelry, china, silver services and other items. But there are also paintings on the walls that date to the 17th and 18th Centuries. A few are portraits of some of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John.

Our tour with Victoria continued to the walled city of Mdina with its glorious cathedral, to the famous glass factory outside of Mdina, and to the Meridiana Wine Estate. Malta has some outstanding wines. We tasted some at Meridiana. Stephanie bought half a case to be shipped to her home in San Diego. She will have the only Maltese wine in San Diego — maybe in all of California!

More on that next time! Happy New Year!