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.

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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.
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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!

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Mayan figures at Kabah, a smaller site near Uxmal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hasta Luego, Puerto Vallarta!

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This little guy is called a social flycatcher. He and his relatives have been visiting our pool for the past two months. Pretty bird with an obnoxious call!

Leslie and I leave tomorrow morning for the next stop in this vagabond lifestyle — Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan (JOO-kah-tan).

This is Hasta Luego (“see you later”) rather than Adios! because we may very well be back. We like this city. San Miguel de Allende is still at the top of the list, and we still have other places to see. But PV is definitely in the running. We need to spend more time in the centro, the downtown area that’s also called the Romantic Zone.

We can already see a scenario that would have us in San Miguel for the summer and Puerto Vallarta for the winter. Best of both worlds.

The good things about this little slice of heaven include:

  • Lots of places where you can contribute to the local economy, including U.S.-based big box stores like Costco (where I got new contact lenses this week) and Home Depot, but also many small locally owned places. Leslie came out of one marina-area shop with lots of great-looking lightweight clothing at good prices.
  • A good Anglican church, Christ Church by the Sea.
  • The locals are warm and friendly. They don’t mind us gringos being here because we help create jobs. And that’s a good thing.
  • Many expats here, and our friends Mike and Sara Wise make sure there are several events a month to get people together. We met David and Michelle Webster at a coffee hour several weeks ago, and later had dinner with them. Fun couple, whom we hope to see again.
  • Lots of great restaurants, and not just Mexican places. Italian, Chinese, Brazilian, seafood, you name it.
  • A number of interesting places outside PV to explore — such as Magical Cities like San Sebastian.

The downsides are:

  • It’s big. Maybe too big. Lots of places and lots of people. Puerto Vallarta is several different areas with vastly different vibes.
  • Walkability is good in the marina but poor if you want to go to other areas, like downtown or the shopping centers — almost essential to have a car here.
  • Access to farmers markets and local mercados is limited.
  • Many expats here (once again, that’s a positive and a negative), and they seem a little bit cliquish, although they would say that’s not true.
  • Not many cultural opportunities here, at least not that we have found. However, we did miss an opportunity to be at a chamber music concert early last month, and last night we attended the second evening of the 11th Festal Vallarta Azteca del Folclor Internacional.
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Mexican folk dances, complete with colorful costumes, were a big hit with the crowd of mostly locals at the international folkloric dance festival that opened Wednesday evening. The beach is just behind that stage, so we had a nice view of the sunset, too.
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We will miss this view. 

Next post from Mérida. We’ve heard the daytime high temperatures hover near 100° F. It’s a colonial city, like San Miguel, but a 30-minute bus ride gets you to a great Gulf of Mexico beach! More to come…

Spain is more than just Alicante

Leslie and I have been living in our Alicante apartment for a little over a month now. Some days are like today: rainy and chilly. So we just stay home and read our books or work on planning our next vagabond move. There have only been a few of those days, although it seems the rainy season may actually be here now. And when I say “chilly” I mean highs around 62º or 63º F. The locals are bundled up in winter coats, while we put on a light jacket or a sweater. Most days, we’re out doing something, like going to Central Mercado for groceries or visiting one of several local museums.

But we also realize that we need to get out of town and see more of Spain. Last week we hopped on an early morning train for Valencia and did an overnighter. Valencia was one of the cities we considered living in for an extended period. It’s famous as the birthplace of paella, and we wanted to see what the “real thing” tastes like. To do that, we found, takes some planning. You need a car to get out into the countryside and find a place that cooks paella outside, over an open fire. That’s the Valencian way. And we learned that true Valencian paella does not include seafood, just chicken, rabbit and sometimes snails.

We took advantage of a walking tour to see the historical sites in the old city, and we got a tip from our tour guide about a nearby restaurant — not a tourist trap — that does Valencian paella. It was great. We definitely needed a siesta after that meal! We’ve had several different kinds of paella now. I can’t decide on a favorite.

The walking tour covered the major tourist sites, such as the cathedral, the archeological museum with its Roman ruins, the Central Mercado and the narrowest building in Europe. img_1206This building is only one meter wide. Really. Take a look (left). One meter. That’s not quite 3.3 feet. And people actually lived in it a few centuries ago. Today it’s just for tourists to gawk at. Most of it has been reworked so that it’s part of the building next door.

Valencia is larger than Alicante, with more than 800,000 people. We liked what we saw and think we could live there. It’s got a different feel, a stronger vibe, more energetic. Get out of the old city and you find City of Science and Industry, an attraction almost like a theme park that includes Europe’s largest aquarium, Oceanografic. We hope to see it on our next visit there.

Old city housing is similar to where we live here in Alicante. We didn’t get a chance to visit any modern areas, but the outskirts of the old city have newer buildings, and a hustle and bustle that’s similar in ways to downtown Chicago.

The next day, we spent some time in the Cathedral of Saint Mary, built between the 13th and 15th centuries, with additional work done over the centuries since. img_1223When we arrived in the plaza to meet our tour, we thought the building was a synagogue because the stained glass window includes the Star of David, as you can see in the photo (right). On the tour, though, we learned it was designed as a tribute to Jesus having been Jewish.

There are a number of chapels that contain precious works of art, including two Goya paintings. In one chapel, the left arm of St. Vincent the Martyr — patron saint of Valencia — is on display. And in the most important chapel, we saw the Holy Grail. Yes, THE Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper. Always skeptical, I did some research later. One brochure says this cathedral’s claim is actually quite strong. It seems other potential Christ cups have been debunked, but they claim the jury is still out on this one. Anything’s possible, I suppose.

Heading out of town, we were really impressed with Estacio del Nord, the train station that handles most regional traffic. The other station is for the high-speed AVE trains to Madrid. Nord is impressive, as you can see. Built in 1917, the tile work is incredible, inside and outside.img_1209

This weekend we plan to visit two smaller towns just up the coast from Alicante: Altea, which we once considered for a base, and Vila Joiosa which we’ve only learned about since being here. More on that later.

 

Finally, it seems that everywhere we go, we run into a wedding. Remember I told you about the wedding at Edinburgh Castle that stumbled upon us back at the beginning of the journey? And when we were in Greece a year ago with Educational Opportunities, I took some shots of a photographer shooting a wedding on the island of Santorini. Well, we were just about to leave the plaza outside the rear of the cathedral in Valencia when I turned and saw this couple. Weddings are everywhere, it seems. We hope they will be very happy together.img_1218

 

Alicante is the best place in the world!

That’s actually the city’s official motto, as we learned today from guide Maria. She led our little group on a walking tour from the waterfront through the old town and up to Central Mercado, pointing out landmarks and giving us quite a history lesson.

Alicante has a troubled past. Lots of death and destruction in the War of the Spanish Succession and later the Spanish Civil War. This city was on the losing side in both conflicts. But since the mid-20th century — and especially since the 1980s —  things have gotten progressively better. Tourism has created many jobs, helping the population grow to more than 300,000. Now when you look northwest from the heights of the Castle Santa Barbara, you see a thriving city that feels good about itself. Hence, the motto.img_1278

While a few historic structures remain, most of the city’s buildings are 20th and 21st century. Alicante was bombed repeatedly by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and it became the last Republican city opposing Franco’s forces. Many of those who opposed Franco escaped Spain from the port of Alicante, which you can see in this photo, also taken from Castle Santa Barbara. The old city is prominent also. Just right of center, you may be able to see the blue domes of Co-cathedral of St.Nicolas. Stunning from the inside. It dates to the 1600s, but has been renovated several times, once following a fire.img_1286

In an earlier post, I wrote that I didn’t know the age of the apartment building we’re in. Update: Only about 60 years old, according to its owner, but the foundations are over 200 years old. That’s why the streets are so narrow. Some buildings in the area are older, such as the Alicante City Hall and Basilica Santa Maria, both of which survived bombardments from sea and air.

Central Mercado also survived an aerial bombardment on 25 May 1938. But 300 civilians were killed when bombs fell on the plaza just north of the market. A plaque in the plaza floor commemorates that tragic event.

On a cheerier note, Maria explained that tourism started taking off here when Scandinavians discovered Alicante’s beaches. At the time, though, highly restrictive dress codes for women prohibited bikinis. Even into the 1960s! So a delegation traveled to Madrid and petitioned the Franco government for relief. The Scandinavians won’t come  if the women can’t wear bikinis on the beach! And did we mention how much money tourists bring into the city? So the government eased off, and the tourists are still coming today. Here’s part of the main beach on Friday, Nov. 11, from Castle Santa Barbara. img_1289

So the people here think this is the best place in the world. Is it the best place for us to retire? Hey, this is our first stop. And we’ve only been here three weeks. Let us check out some other places.

But it’s definitely on the short list.

 

 

 

CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN!

Just a brief pause in this travel blog to celebrate something not related to travel, or Spain, or retirement. Bigger, some might say.

The Chicago Cubs won baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1908! Just so you know, I grew up in Arkansas watching the St. Louis Cardinals on TV — on Saturday or Sunday afternoons — with my dad. They were the closest major league team, so that’s the team we saw on our TV. One great memory of my dad: Whenever a batter came up in the eighth or ninth inning and the announcer said he was “oh-for-four” or “oh-for five,” my dad would always say, “Well, he’s due.” Invariably, the batter would get a hit.

I lost interest in baseball when I wasn’t picked for a Little League team. I think that was 1960. Flash-forward to 2000 when Leslie and I moved from San Antonio to the Chicago suburbs and I landed a job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Having a cubicle right next to Mick Hans, and working closely with Sue Pastor, I quickly became a Chicago Cubs fan. Not long-suffering like those mentioned, but a fan. And I did love my lengthy Cubs-related conversations with fellow editor John Peterson.

Today, in glorious retirement, Leslie and I spent some time on the beach here in Alicante, Spain. Yes, on Nov. 4 we were on the beach. Here I am:

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Luggage space is highly limited when you’re packing for a 10-month trip over three seasons, so I only brought the cap. I wore it one day in Barcelona and was approached by someone who recognized the logo. Fist bump.

Today I wore it proudly, even though most of the other people on the beach were speaking Spanish, French, Italian or Russian. I’ll wear it again tomorrow. Proudly.

So what was the U.S. like in 1908? Teddy Roosevelt was president, Henry Ford produced the first Model T and Thomas Selfridge became the first person to be killed in an airplane crash. Grover Cleveland died and Lyndon B. Johnson was born. Mark Twain was still alive, as were Harry Houdini, Florence Nightingale and the Wright Brothers. None of them, however, saw the Cubs win that year.

So even though I am many miles from Chicago today, I’m excited about this historic win. Let’s do it again next year, guys!

Fly the W!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Settling in to the Spanish lifestyle. The siesta is alive and well in Alicante!

img_1186Buenos tardes from our apartment, or “piso” in Spanish. Here’s a photo (right)  of our end of Calle Mayor in the Cosco Antiguo, the Old City of Alicante. I have yet to learn how old the buildings are in this area, but much of the city was destroyed by cannon fire from English ships in 1691, so most are likely 18th or 19th century, although a few older structures survived the battle. More history later.

The Cosco Antiguo, as you can see, has narrow streets, some of cobblestone. Just wide enough for one car, or most likely for two hombres with their burros to pass each other. Vehicle access is restricted to those with special permits.

Below is a shot of our building, Calle Mayor, 43. It’s a very comfortable apartment with two bedrooms and two baths. We’re in piso 1 on the first floor, but European “first” floors are what we would call the second floor in the U.S. Here, though, when you enter from the street you are on the ground level, or floor 0. We’ve checked out the rooftop terrace, from which we can see most of the Cosco Antiguo and Centro barrios, and just a small part of the Mediterranean Sea. Looks like a great place to hang out with a glass of wine in the afternoon.img_1188

It’s about 1600 as I write this. If you were in the military, or if you’ve spend much time in Europe, you will recognize that as 4 p.m. Lunch is over and siesta has begun. Most shops, and some restaurants, close around 2 or 3 p.m. and re-open after 5 or 6 p.m. Spanish families generally have their main meal of the day at lunch, anywhere from 1 to 3 p.m., then a light dinner or tapas after 8 or 9 p.m., often followed by a stroll through the plaza or down the rambla. It’s not unusual for tapas bars to be full of people at midnight or even later. We’re not fully acclimated to siesta yet (although Leslie is napping right now!) but we think it’s highly civilized!

We started our day early today (Friday, Oct. 28) with a walk along Alicante’s most popular beach, Playa del Postiguet, for sunrise at about 8:30 a.m. Lots of local folks were out, too. Some were jogging, some walking dogs, a few were even swimming. We were very comfortable in T-shirts. High today, about 74 degrees F. Here’s what it looked like this morning during our walk: img_1184

Later we roamed through Central Mercado, an indoor market place with hundreds of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, seafood, and pastries. This is where the people of central Alicante come to buy food.

The fruits and vegetables area brought to mind our Saturday mornings at the Downers Grove farmers’ market the past several summers. But this was much bigger, with more vendors. At one stall, we picked up some lemons, apples, celery, broccoli, potatoes, a big red pepper and a bunch of seedless grapes– all for 8 euros, less than $10.

We still have some exploring to do in our temporary home, but so far we like Alicante. Hey, it’s been almost a week and we have yet to turn on any AC or heat. We could get used to this.

Adios!

 

 

 

 

The Adventure Begins!

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We have sold our home of over 15 years and are ready to begin a great adventure, which begins by transitioning from a three-bedroom house to a tiny one-bedroom apartment!

We are Leslie and Mike Rogers, soon to be vagabond retirees. Leslie retired in 2007. Once Mike retires at the end of July, we begin our travels in southern Spain. From there, probably France, from there — who knows. We’re looking for a new home. Might be Europe, might be Central or South America. This is the research phase.

You can keep track of our travels through this blog. The adventure begins. There’s a lot more to come!