Playa del Carmen: For a vacation maybe, but not long-term

Leslie and I love the beach. Since we moved to Chicago’s western suburbs late in 2000, most of our vacations have been on Caribbean islands. In February. It helped us survive Chicago winters.  So it seemed natural that a place like Playa del Carmen, right on the Caribbean Sea, would be a strong candidate to be our new home. Wrong. We would love to come back here for a vacation, but living here permanently is out.

There are some positives. Let’s look at those first:

  • It’s a small city, only about 150,000 people, and relatively walkable if you live between the beach and Highway 307.
  • There’s a lot to do here. Playa is a major tourist destination, so you can visit Mayan ruins, swim in cenotes and go to water-related theme parks on the Mayan Riviera. Oh, and there’s the beach. We will miss our wait-person Luis at Kool Beach Club. He tried to teach us some Spanish: “Estamos bien, por ahora.” (We’re good, for now.)
  • Excellent restaurants, and not just in the tourist areas. And not just Mexican food, either. We had terrific gazpacho and paella last night at Mar de Olivo.
  • Good public transportation, especially the vans they call colectivos, which will get you around town and to other cities on the Mayan Riviera. Lots of taxis available, too.
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One great thing about living in Mexico: BIG avocados, some of the best we’ve ever had. Less than $2 USD for a pound.

But the negatives are strong:

  • We’re looking for warm temperatures and Playa has that. But the humidity is 80 to 90 percent or more. We’re tired of sweating constantly when outside. The deodorant works, the antiperspirant does not. It wasn’t so bad when we were here seven years ago in December but again, we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • We’ve been unable to find an English-speaking church. In three other Mexican cities, we have thoroughly enjoyed attending Anglican church services weekly and meeting some terrific people.
  • As a consequence, we’ve been unable to meet other expats. There doesn’t seem to be any organized group here as there were in San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, and to a lesser extent in Mérida.
  • We’ve also been unable to find any cultural events, such as concerts or lectures we might want to attend. This town appeals to a younger, hipper crowd. One of the biggest annual events is the DJ Festival at Mamita’s Beach.
  • Playa is a big-time tourist trap. We gringos cannot walk peacefully down Fifth Avenue. We are assaulted by people selling tours, fishing trips, diving trips, cenote trips, tacky souvenirs, Cuban cigars and lots of other stuff. “Vivimos aqui, amigo,” (We live here, buddy) usually works, but it’s easier just to avoid the street.
  • And as mentioned in a previous post, it seems most of the housing is vacation rentals rather than traditional Mexican homes for more permanent residents. Prices seem a little on the high side.
  • Did I mention the humidity?

So we’ve learned that the Yucatan Peninsula is not for us. Great for vacations, but not more.

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Madre Tierra is one of the few restaurants we remember from our Christmas vacation seven years ago. I enjoyed one of the best steaks I’ve had in years.

We’ve been on the road for nine months now. Time to take a break and head back to the U.S. to take care of things that need our attention and to see friends and family. Our flight from Cancún lands at O’Hare tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, July 15). We will be in the area until the end of August and possibly for the first week or two in September.

What happens after that? You may recall from a previous post that Leslie and I visited the Lake Chapala area for a few days at the end of March to reconnect with an old friend from Texas. At the time, I said this deserved a closer look. So we’ve secured a two-bedroom house in Ajijic for mid-September through the end of October.

Ajijic is similar to San Miguel — high altitude (5,000+ feet), warm days, cool nights, low humidity. The expats who live there say it’s the best climate in the world. And we really liked their downtown weekly farmers market. It will be our fifth, and probably final, Mexican home. Leslie wants to try Ensenada in the northern part of Baja California. I think it’s too close to the border, which is where a lot of the drug cartel activity is. We’ll see.

After that, we’ll be in San Diego for November and December. That lets us spend the holidays with our daughter Stephanie, and it gives us an opportunity to see what it would be like to live there. It is possible, after all, that someday we would want to be closer to her. Knowing, however, that moving in with her for two months would be nearly impossible, we have secured an East Village condo about three blocks from her place.

As 2018 begins, we plan to check out a couple of highly recommended towns in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, and then do another three months in Europe — France and Italy are on the agenda, but we may also try another city in Spain. This time next year, it will be decision time. Where will our new home be? Vegas oddsmakers are already hard at work!

Next post from the U.S.

 

 

 

 

San Miguel is Number One. Just like the Chicago Cubs!

Back when I was working, my good friend and colleague John Peterson and I always made it through depressing pro football and basketball seasons in Chicago by saying, “How long until spring training?” (OK, the Blackhawks are winners, but neither of us understands hockey!) Well, spring training has begun anew. And this year, the Cubs are defending World Series Champions!!!

The Cubs are Number One, and apparently so is San Miguel de Allende.  No, we haven’t reached a final decision, but if we had to choose today our retirement home would be SMA. Will we be here  when the Cubs win the 2017 World Series? Can’t answer that one yet. We’ve still got several places to see.

We’re both a little surprised that we like Mexico so much. I always felt that our primary focus for a retirement home would be Europe, probably Spain, and it might still be that. So why is San Miguel the leading contender right now?

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The iconic Parroquia, the beautiful parish church that dominates SMA’s “skyline.” As the sun shifts during the day, the colors change. So it looks different in the afternoon than in the morning.

The climate here is just great — warm and dry. It’s been as low as 69º F. and as high as 81º F. for daily highs, with humidities usually below 50 percent. And there’s very little rain this time of year. In the six weeks we’ve lived here it has rained twice, both times at night and only briefly. Local expats tell us that during the “rainy season” it either rains at night or for an hour or two in the afternoon. All-day rain or thunderstorms — very rare. Yes, it gets cool at night, but it rarely gets into the 40s until the wee hours, like 4 or 5 a.m. We’re snug in bed then. And in the dead of summer, daytime highs are slightly higher but nothing excessive because we’re at 6,200 feet altitude. Those who have been here awhile say to expect highs in the mid to upper 80s and lows around 60º F. We can handle that!

San Miguel, as noted in earlier posts, has an extensive arts scene with concerts, plays, operas, ballets, films, lectures and tons of art galleries. Many restaurants have live music on the weekends. One of our friends at St. Paul’s Anglican Church — and a long-time expat — put it best when he said, “I try to limit cultural events to one per day.” St. Paul’s is yet another reason to choose SMA. Good group of people there, and we like the rector, a retired Episcopal bishop from the States. There are also a number of charities here with many opportunities to volunteer. So we could stay pretty busy if we lived here. Or not.

Another person from St. Paul’s told us she has a good friend in the real estate business and can help us find a long-term rental. Lots of people come down here for six to nine months and rent their homes when they’re not here.

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This is a boveda ceiling in one of SMA’s many churches. Lots of buildings have this unique brick work ceiling. It’s even in some homes. Go here to see a two-minute video showing how they do it.

Then there’s the food. We love the fresh local produce we get at the mercados, and the meat we get at the carnicieras. But SMA also has a ton of great restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall chicken joints with locals lined up out the door, to high-end places with top-flight international chefs and stunning views. One could never go hungry in San Miguel.

International Living magazine touts Mexico as 2017’s top retirement country. Last year, I think, it was Panama. There are a lot of positives about San Miguel, and about Mexico in general:

  • Mexico boasts one of the strongest economies in the western hemisphere right now.
  • It’s close to the U.S., so we can get back relatively quickly and without great expense in case there’s a family emergency.
  • Health care here is excellent, as we noted with Leslie’s visit to the podiatrist. And we have friends who always see a dentist while they’re here to get crowns and root canals — just as good as in Chicago at one-third the cost, they say.
  • There are many creature comforts in Mexico, like theaters, shopping centers, good cell phone and internet coverage. In the cities, even the small ones, there’s nothing third-world about this country.
  • The cost of living in general is low, especially if you pay in pesos. Friday morning we met another couple at a popular breakfast spot and had a lovely meal for a little over $500 pesos — about $25 USD. For FOUR people.
  • There are a lot of other expats here, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but some from the U.K. and other countries.

OK, what are the downsides:

  • There are a lot of other expats here, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but some from the U.K. and other countries. No, that’s not a mistake. Too many gringos is a problem. It tends to drive prices, especially home prices, higher.
  •  We will need to learn more Spanish. We’re getting by OK with limited knowledge, but if we’re going to live here we need better command. And we would have to do that if we chose Spain, too.
  • We’ll have to adjust to time here, and how things are done. This is Mexico, things don’t always go as smoothly and perfectly as in the States. Even though they don’t do siesta here in San Miguel, mañana is a way of life. You have to be patient sometimes.

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    Traffic can be a problem in SMA, but drivers are much more courteous here than in the U.S.

So we have a lot to think about. But now it’s on to the beach town of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast. We have already connected with the expat community there, and we’ve signed up for a dinner on Thursday night after we arrive Wednesday afternoon. This group has lots of social events like dinners and happy hours — every week!

The condo we’ve rented from a Canadian guy named Hal is very different from all the places we’ve lived in on this trip. It’s a modern townhouse in a gated community called Marina Vallarta. It’s on a fairly busy street, but it backs up to a golf course. We have three bedrooms and a huge outdoor area with a plunge pool. It’s nowhere close to the historic centro. We will be able to walk to the marina area and to the beach, but we’re unsure about how to access the local produce in farmers markets, as were able to do in Spain and to a lesser extent in Malta. Hal says taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. We’ll be in Vallarta for two months — all of March and April.

Next post from Puerto Vallarta!

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Go Cubbies!

 

 

Guanajuato. Wow!

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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.

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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!

Altea rises to the top

img_0211We spent the weekend in the small Costa Blanca village of Altea, about a hour up the coast from Alicante.

Altea has about 23,000 people, so it’s a lot smaller than Alicante. And it’s quite charming. This photo (right) was taken from the top of the hill that overlooks the newer part of the town. This is the waterfront area, with shops, restaurants, hotels and apartment buildings.

UnknownBut what’s fascinating about Altea is the old city. This is one of the prettiest places we have seen. In front of many of the white homes, there are flowering vines or bushes. Flowering in early December! And many of the front doors are painted bright colors, mostly blue.

It’s sort of what we’ve been looking for. In fact, Altea may very well be at the top of our retirement homes list.

The old city, or Cosco Antiguo, has very narrow streets. Steep, too. Some are just walkways, too narrow for even the smallest car. And all the homes are whitewashed, similar to the hillside villages you may have seen in the Andalusia region of Spain. Apparently it’s a leftover influence of the Moors from centuries ago. The old city is spread out over the side of the hill. At the top, where a castle once stood, is the iconic blue-domed church of Señora del Consuelo.

It’s a bit of a hike up the hill, as you can probably tell. We still think we could live here. We strolled past some homes in the old city that had rooftop terraces with views like the photo above. We gazed at those terraces and thought how nice it would be to sit on that terrace to watch the sunrise while enjoying that first cup of coffee. Or to sit up there in the evening with a nice glass of wine. That’s first-class retirement!

This little village is not on the radar for most travelers, particularly for most Americans. Lots of Brits come here, and lots of Scandinavians but very few from the U.S., and that’s too bad. We learned about Altea from our favorite magazine, International Living. We enjoyed reading about this little town and had to see it for ourselves. It did not disappoint.

Here we are, in the obligatory selfie, in the plaza surrounding the old church. Could this be our new home???

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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

 

Church came to us this week. Complete with a brass band!

One reason for traveling to foreign lands is to experience other cultures. To see how other people live. Those of us afflicted with the travel bug are usually curious about how people live in other parts of the world. Here in Spain, daily life is — for the most part — similar to daily life back in Illinois. But there are some striking differences. More than just the siesta.

We haven’t been to church in a few weeks (I know, seems like a non sequitur but stick with me here), so this week, church came to us.

On Saturday night, about 8 p.m., Leslie and I were relaxing after a busy day; just reading our books and thinking about a nice salad for dinner. Then we heard music coming from somewhere — sounded almost like a drum and bugle corps, but playing in a minor key. The living room window overlooks a short street that leads to a small plaza, and we can’t see much from that window. As the music got louder, we put our shoes on and headed downstairs to see what was the matter (getting in the Christmas spirit there).

What we saw was this: img_1315From a distance, it looked like a parade float. But as it came closer we could tell it was a platform bearing a statue of Jesus carrying his cross to the crucifixion site. It was probably 20 to 30 feet high. There were flowers on the platform and candles on each corner. It was coming toward us, right down Calle Mayor, accompanied by an impressive procession of people with banners and long metal poles, each topped by a Jerusalem cross. And right behind the float was a brass band, playing what sounded like a dirge.

When the procession passed our apartment, we fell in with other people and followed. It ended at Basilica Santa Maria, the Roman Catholic church just a block or two from where we’re living. It’s the oldest church in Alicante, built between the 14th and 16th centuries. The people carried the platform by placing long poles on their shoulders. They were very close together and completely in step.  I counted 42 in front and 46 in back. With the massive church doors open, as you can see in the photo (left) img_1299they carried the platform right inside. This solemn procession was very impressive, and quite moving.

We watched the band milling around in the plaza outside the basilica and it seemed they were waiting for something. Sure enough, after about 15 or 20 minutes, those carrying the Christ statue brought it out of the church, turned it around with some deft maneuvers, and went right back up Calle Mayor to the Plaza Santa Faz.

Leslie and I felt like we had been to church — or rather, that church had come to us! I hope you’ll be able to see this 2-minute video and hear the band, but it was dark and all I had was my iPhone. I shot the video as they left the church, and at the end you can Basilica Santa Maria. Cue the bells!

Now, I’m not Catholic so I can’t say this with total certainty, but I doubt you would see anything like this in a U.S. church. This is one of those cultural events that we can only appreciate through travel to other countries, and becoming immersed in other cultures. We’ve asked around but still don’t know exactly why this event was happening. We know it was something the Santa Maria congregation does regularly.

As the procession made its way away from the church, I noticed one priest on a cell phone. Maybe he was talking to the pope, who knows. And I noticed one little trumpet player in the band who was very determined. Looked like he was marching next to his father.img_1321

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Just one more note on the band — and how many churches in the U.S. have a brass band for cryin’ out loud — some of the instruments looked like bugles, but with valves. Now, I played trombone in the high school band, so I know my brass. But I have never seen anything like these valved bugles. Not valves like on a trumpet or cornet (I saw both of those instruments, too), but valves nonetheless. Maybe they’re historic. Who knows?

Are there downsides to other cultures? Of course. We’ve noticed that lots more people smoke in Europe. And they smoke in outdoor seating at restaurants, which is annoying to those of us accustomed to fully non-smoking restaurants.  It was true in the U.K. and also here in Spain. They don’t always clean up after their dogs, either.

But experiences like the Saturday night procession remind us why we travel, why we try to get a feel for what people do in other countries. When we learn about other cultures, we grow and expand our horizons. When we learn about other cultures, we often see more similarities than differences. When we learn about other cultures, we tend not to mistrust them or fear them.

 

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.

 

 

 

The good life in sunny Spain

Today, Leslie enjoyed getting a pedicure at a nail salon here in Alicante. We found this place online, then stopped by yesterday afternoon and made the appointment. You should understand that she really liked getting her toes done at Karma in our former hometown of Westmont, Ill. So going to someone else, especially someone who  does not speak English, was a big question mark. I think Leslie has a new favorite nail tech! They managed to communicate just fine, and the pedicure was slightly less than at Karma, just 25 euros.

We’re trying to be like locals, so Leslie is cooking our main meal at midday, which for Spain is around 2 p.m. We have a big dinner, what we would call “lunch,” between 2 and 3 p.m., with a glass of red wine. Then we enjoy siesta until 5 or 6 p.m. Sometimes that’s an actual nap, sometimes it’s reading a book, or taking a walk or working on a blog. Many shops close between 2 or 3 p.m. and 5 or 6 p.m., then reopen until 8 or 9 p.m. Siesta is very civilized. Here’s one of those midday meals, a favorite of mine and one of Leslie’s amazing creations: Spanish steak baroness, along with a 2012 crianza from Protos winery in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain.img_1189

OK, the selfie’s not that great, but the meal was incredible!

Most Spaniards have their evening meal as late as 9 or 10 p.m. Something light like tapas. I’ve been making dinner salads for us almost every evening, usually about 7: 30 or 8 p.m. That was our lunch back in the States. Having a light meal before bedtime is, we think, healthier.

We usually dine at home, but some evenings we go out for tapas and a glass of sangria. And a few times we’ve had the midday meal at a restaurant, taking advantage of the menu del dia. For a fixed price, often less than 10 euros per person, you get an appetizer or soup, entree, wine and dessert.

We’re buying food at a couple of different places, but the most interesting is Central Mercado on Avenida Alfonso X El Sabio. Built in 1911-12, it’s a cavernous old building with  modernist architecture and tilework. Seems like hundreds of vendors on two floors, selling fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, cheese, etc. Like the Downers Grove farmers’ market on steroids, but indoors and all year ’round. Prices are even better than the farmers’ market, too. And if we don’t know the Spanish name of something we just point to the item and ask, “Como se dice esta en Espanol?” This morning, Leslie pointed to the broccoli and asked that question. “Broccoli,” the vendor smiled. Sometimes it’s easy.

Another great thing about this part of the world: We’ve been here a little over two weeks now and have not used heat or air conditioning in the apartment. Most days, the windows are open. It’s been a little cool the past few evenings, but most it’s usually at least  22 degrees in the afternoon, and the coolest overnight so far has been 10 degrees. Remember, they use the Celsius scale in Europe so that would be a high of 70-plus and a low of 50. And very little rain.

One more month here in Spain,  then we move on to the island nation of Malta for another month. We’ve heard lots of good things about Malta, and can’t wait to check it out. The original plan was to go to France or Italy next. But even southern France is a bit chilly this time of year. And our preferred location in Italy, the Amalfi Coast, was a logistical nightmare. So we opted for Malta and we’re still hopeful our daughter Stephanie will be able to join us for Christmas.

On Jan. 15, we must leave the Schengen Zone. Options include hanging out for three months in the UK, Ireland or Croatia, or something more exotic such as Cyprus or Israel, then back to Europe proper. The current Plan A, though, is to come back to the New World, probably to Montevideo,Uruguay, where it is now summer!

That could change, though.We’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

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 vacation is over. Now we try out the Spanish lifestyle.

We are now in Alicante, Spain, where it’s nice and warm. No jacket required here! Our “vacation,” traveling through the UK and spending time in Barcelona, is finished. We have moved into our temporary quarters at Calle Mayor, 43, first floor, apartment 1. We are in the Casco Antiguo, or Old Town, with narrow cobblestone streets and very old buildings. Our apartment, however, is modern and cozy. More on that later.

First, a bit about Barcelona, since this is partly a travel blog. We visited the Gothic Quarter and walked down the famous Rambla. Some of the shops and restaurants are for locals, while some are just there to take the tourists’ money. Fascinating to see the stalls in the Mercat de Saint Josep de la Boqueria. You can buy candies, pastries, seafood and the Spanish “jamon iberico,” the thinly sliced cured ham that comes only from black Iberian pigs. Sabroso!

But the highlight of any trip to Barcelona is seeing Sagrada Familia. This is the cathedral designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Construction began in the late 1800s and continues today. You can see construction cranes in any photo you take of this building. The authorities say they expect completion in 2026.

It’s unlike any church or cathedral anywhere. You’ve probably seen photos of the soaring spires, the crazy architecture and the modern statues depicting the life of Christ. img_1240But your jaw drops when you go into the basilica and look up.

Gaudi designed the stained glass windows differently for the east and west sides of the basilica. On the east side, struck by the morning sun, he used blues and greens. Cool colors. On the west side, he went with warm colors of red, yellow, orange. The difference is stunning.

We were there about 3:30 p.m. The sun coming in those west windows was dazzling. So bright I could not get a good photo. Here are the east windows.img_1252

 

Heavily influenced by nature, Gaudi designed the supporting pillars in the center of the church to look like trees. You can see how the branches spread out as they approach the ceiling. Yes, I did get a little dizzy looking up, but you have to look up!img_1253

Then there are the statues on the two main facades. They are stark and modernistic. The photo below shows Christ on the cross, but looking up toward Heaven, not down as in most crucifixes. Below that are Roman soldiers, but they appear to be wearing midaeval style armor. On either side of this sculpture are statues of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and Peter, who denied Him. This facade is all about Christ’s death. The opposite facade is about the Nativity.img_1275

Barcelona practically worships Antoni Gaudi. You can see more of his buildings throughout the city. His unfinished cathedral draws millions of tourists, and his style is now Barcelona’s style. Meanwhile, the English word “gaudy” means something that does not look stylish at all.

When Gaudi died in 1926 in a tram accident, thousands attended his funeral. He is buried in the crypt section of his cathedral. He saw the structure as his gift to God.He once responded to a critic who thought the work was taking too long, saying, “My client is not in a hurry.”

The crypt, below the main level, is actually the only place were services are held. There is an altar set up there, and priests say mass daily. There is also a small chapel behind the nave set aside for prayer. Leslie and I spent some time there, and it was awesome.