Playa is a little different, seven years later

Leslie and I spent Christmas 2010 with daughter Stephanie in Playa del Carmen. In fact, this is the only place in our travels so far that we have actually been to before. Back then, we rented a two-bedroom condo near the beach for about a week, spent nearly every day at Kool Beach Club and sampled some excellent restaurants. We’re back, almost seven years later, and a lot has changed.

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Pedestrian-friendly Fifth Avenue is Playa’s top draw.

Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is still the hot spot in Playa but it seems busier now, with even more opportunities for tourists to spend their money.

On our first stroll down that famous pedestrian-only  street, we were attacked by at least a dozen vendors who aggressively tried to sell us something, thinking we were tourists. Easy assumption to make, I suppose.

I saw one or two restaurants that looked vaguely familiar. Otherwise, big changes. The little wine bar the three of us enjoyed more than once in 2010 — gone. The Mayan-themed restaurant where I got some great cochinita pibil (a traditional Yucatecan pork dish) — it’s Guy Fieri’s Restaurant now. I guess that’s called progress.

We got in last Saturday, unpacked and got settled, then decided to revisit Kool Beach Club on Monday. I remember it as being a place with great food and drinks, and a DJ that played techno-beat electronic junk music that annoyed me.

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Back at Kool Beach Club!

Until I caught my toes tapping to the beat. Then I heard the overlay change — something dropped in and something else dropped out. The music was changing, evolving, interesting to listen to. But the beat was the same. Hard. Driving. Constant. Not annoying anymore — fascinating. Didn’t read much in my book after that.

Well, the beach has changed. The music isn’t nearly as good, and a couple of new condo-hotels have been built, making the beach more crowded. The food is still great at Kool Beach Club. We had some terrific fish tacos Monday and will probably return several times over the next month.

Changes are not limited to the beach and Fifth Avenue. Playa del Carmen (pop. about 150,000) isn’t laid back anymore. It looks like they’ve built condo buildings all over the place in the last few years, especially between the beach and Avenida 30, a major thoroughfare.

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New condos along Calle 34, near our condo.

In 2010, PDC was centered on Fifth Avenue establishments catering to the tourist trade. Not anymore. There are restaurants and boutique hotels along 1st Avenue, 10th Avenue and all along the calles in between (avenidas, or avenues, go north-south while calles, or streets, run east-west).

One big downside to Playa is the lack of an English-speaking Protestant church. We loved St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel de Allende, as well as St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Mérida. Christ Church by the Sea in Puerto Vallarta (also Anglican) was OK, too. Unfortunately, that denomination apparently has no presence in Playa del Carmen, or anywhere in the state of Quintana Roo. There are non-denominational churches in neighboring cities like Tulum (about an hour south) and Puerto Morelos (about 30 minutes north) but nothing in PDC that might meet our needs.

Same with expat groups. Leslie found three groups on Facebook, but all appear to be geared toward real estate. We haven’t connected with any other expats yet.

We’ll be here in Playa until July 15. That should give us time to experience this little beach town and visit other possible retirement locations, such as Bacalar (on a lake near the border with Belize) and Tulum.

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We’re in a modern two-bedroom condo across the street from PDC’s major sports complex, where I join the locals to go jogging around the cinder track every morning. 

As for the weather, it’s hot and humid — really humid. But temps here are in the upper 80s F. instead of the upper 90s as they were in Mérida. Humidity, though is consistently high, so we start sweating when we walk out the door. Nice breeze at the beach, though.

More next time!

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The pool in Aqua Terra, our home for the next month. Not as private as our digs in Merida, but it’s nice. And the big saltwater “pool” is just a few blocks away!

 

 

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!

Merry Christmas from Malta!

We had a little excitement today. As Leslie and I prepared for our daughter Stephanie’s arrival for Christmas, we heard about a hijacked airplane that had landed at the Malta International Airport. There was a possible hostage situation and the airport was closed. It turned out to be a Libyan airliner, hijacked while on a domestic route. Apparently this was a political act by supporters of the former dictator. It was not terrorism, and no one was killed or injured. The good news is, Stephanie’s flight from London Heathrow was only about 15 minutes late.

So she arrived safely and will be with us for a few days to celebrate Christmas. Leslie has a lot planned — we’re doing a walking tour of Valletta, the capital city, and a wine tasting, among other things. Maltese wines are very good — we’re trying to sample as many as we can!

Christmas Day we plan to worship at St.Andrew’s Church in Valletta, then join our new friends in the congregation for Christmas dinner. img_1273Our Canadian friends Franklin and Judy are preparing traditional turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. This is a fun group, so it should be a great Christmas. So far we’ve met people from Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. Quite an international group.

Here’s a look at the sanctuary (right). I think the building dates to the early 1800s.

There are Christmas decorations all over this island. The city of Mdina is known for works of art in blown glass. Just inside the city gates of Valletta, in front of the Parliament building, stands a Christmas tree made of Mdina glass balls — big ones, little ones, all kinds of sizes. It’s quite festive, and about 30 feet tall. Timg_1288here are also lots of nativity scenes around Malta, some done by churches, some by businesses, some in front of private homes.

I saw an article — can’t remember where — in which Malta was touted as one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas. Makes sense, since better than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Nobody here says “Happy Holidays”!

Stephanie heads back home to San Diego after Christmas, but Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve here. Instead of joining the crowd in the square on Republic Street at midnight, though, we will be at the Mediterranean Conference Center for the President’s New Year Concert, featuring the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. There are a couple of other concerts in the first two weeks of the new year that we hope to attend.

We’re here until Jan. 16, then we have to leave Europe because we don’t have the visa necessary to stay longer than 90 days. I explained the Schengen Agreement in an earlier post. It just means we will be heading to Mexico next, to the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende. More on that later, too.

It will be sad to leave our new neighbors here in Malta, though, especially our new best friends who live here, on these tiny boats, just across the harbor from us:img_1279

The one on the left is bigger than our house in Westmont was!

The boats on our side of the harbor are a lot smaller. We were chagrined, however, to learn that the American Dream is not dead, it’s for sale:img_1275

Merry Christmas!

Adios, Alicante!

First, a brief aside. Something happened yesterday that I did not think would ever come to pass. Someone other than my good friend Traci Sedlock cut my hair! Traci’s been cutting my hair for at least the past 10 years, probably longer. It had been over two months since my last visit with her at the end of September, and I looked pretty shaggy. So I found a pelequeria por hombres and got a corte de pelo. The guy did a pretty good job. Not as good as Traci, of course, but at least I look a little better now.

Phase One of this retirement adventure ends tomorrow. Leslie and I leave Alicante on Friday, Dec. 9, spend one night in Valencia, then catch a plane for Malta at noon on Saturday, Dec. 10. We will spend Christmas in a 400-year-old house built by the Grand Masters and once part of a convent. It’s in Senglea, or L-Isla in Maltese, and is across the bay from the capital of Valleta. More on that when we get there.

We have mixed emotions about leaving Spain and Alicante. We like the area and we’ve gotten accustomed to everyday life here — as it would be if we were to live here long-term. But we need to experience other options, so off we go. But first…

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Alicante, with decorations in the main streets, like this one that runs past city hall (below).

img_0221It seems a little strange, but many of the signs in store windows say “Merry Christmas” in English! The city hall building, however, is decked out with holiday greetings in both Castilian Spanish (left) — a phrase you are no doubt familiar with — and Valencian (right), which, in case you can’t read it, says, “Bon Nadal.”

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And they’ve opened an ice skating rink in the plaza right across from city hall. It was in the low 60s when I shot this brief video, and everybody’s having fun:

Plus, at a number of locations on city streets, vendors have opened temporary churrerias, where you can get traditional pastry items such as churros con chocolate and bunelos. Every time I pass one, I think of my dear friend and former coworker Yvette Pina, who always brought churros to work on potluck days.

Tuesday was Constitution Day, a national holiday marking the approval of Spain’s 1978 constitution by 88 percent of voters in a referendum. That’s when this country became a constitutional monarchy and a democracy. There was a parade through our neighborhood, with yet another brass band, yet another Catholic float carried by lots of people (this one has a pope on top, I think) and some very tall cartoonish figures that I believe are called fogueres. You can see them in the short Constitution Day videos I have attached below for your viewing pleasure. The celebration seemed to focus heavily on children, and included people young and old in traditional Spanish dress. This procession ended at the Co-Cathedral San Nicolas. Enjoy!

So it’s Adios, Alicante! The next post will be from the island nation of Malta.