‘You’ll love San Miguel,’ our daughter said. ‘It’s an artsy place.’

That’s what Stephanie said when we told her San Miguel de Allende was our next stop on the retirement tour. Turns out, she was here a few years ago with a group of friends for a wedding. And she was right — there are small art galleries on nearly every street in the Centro. Leslie and I have already been to two concerts and we’re debating about going to the opera next week!

Go just about anywhere in SMA and you’ll see posters advertising the many cultural opportunities here. img_1362And every Friday we spend $15 pesos (not quite 75 cents) for a copy of Atención, the weekly English-language newspaper that includes a listing of all the cultural events in town.

There really is something for everybody. Here’s a sample:

  • Media Luna, acoustic world music, Restaurante Paprika.
  • Magical Kingdom, art opening, The Gallery.
  • The Dream Project, a play by Yonder Window Theater Company.
  • Javier Estrada, gypsy guitar, La Biblioteca.
  • History of Mexico, documentary film at Teatro Santa Ana.

You know we both love classical music. Last week we went to a recital by Misuzu Tanaka, an excellent young pianist with a commanding style. Remember that name — we think she’s going places. And on Thursday night we saw Amit Peled, img_1393an Israeli cellist who plays a 1733 cello once owned by Pablo Casals. Amazing performance!

Both concerts were promoted by the local arts group Pro Musica. They are offering two more concerts while we’re here: the concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a violin recital, and a performance by the Amernet String Quartet (on my birthday).

If classical is not your thing, just wait until next week for the Encuentro Nacional de Jazz. It’s the 14th annual jazz festival, Feb. 7-11 at Teatro Angela Peralta. See? Something for everybody.

Last weekend, the Instituto de Allende — a five-minute walk from our apartment —  hosted a two-day arts and crafts fair. Sure, there was a lot of stuff you would probably see at similar fairs wherever you live. And yes, some of them were expats selling hand-made jewelry. But there were some very nice things, too: wood carvings, paintings, photographs, wearable art. We spent some time there Saturday afternoon but didn’t buy anything. No room in our suitcases!

Finally there’s La Biblioteca. It’s a hotbed of cultural opportunities for expats. You can buy tickets there for most events in the city, and they host some performances, too. There’s an English-language library and a cafe where gringos hang out.

So we’re not starved for something to do here in SMA. On the contrary, we have to figure out which events we want to attend and which we can pass on. And if we were to live here full-time, we could certainly get involved in arts organizations or do volunteer work for some of the many charitable organizations that help families, children and animals.

Next time, more on the cost of living here in San Miguel. There’s good news and bad news. Hasta luego!

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The courtyard at La Biblioteca, something of an expat hangout.

Butterflies and a white horse

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Leslie and her horse got along great.

Show of hands, now — how many of you thought you would ever see Leslie riding a horse? I know you just can’t wait for the explanation, so here we go.

On Thursday, we went to Santuario Sierra Chincua, a monarch butterfly sanctuary high in the mountains about a three-hour drive from San Miguel. This is  one of the places where the mariposa monarca spends the winter.

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Monarchs love milkweed, but there is none in the sanctuary. So they eat as much as they can on the migration.

They migrate from Canada and the northern U.S. down to Mexico every year. Millions of them. And we spent a few hours with them.

 

Leslie and I went with five other people and Daniel, our driver. Getting there was not easy or fun. The van ride is very long and sometimes quite bumpy, and there’s not much to see along the way. But Daniel did a great job and got us to the sanctuary.

Sierra Chincua sits a little above 8,000 feet, and the difference in elevation is obvious — it’s cooler and breathing is slightly more labored, for example. We had a choice of walking up a dusty trail to where the monarchs were, or paying an extra 100 pesos to ride a horse. If you want to come back on the horse, that’s another 100 pesos. So we shelled out 400 pesos (about $20 USD) and we both mounted up. The horses were very gentle, and guides led us the whole way.

We dismounted after a 30-minute ride and walked a bit farther up a narrow trail into the forest. Soon we could see butterflies. They were in the trees, on low bushes and plants, flitting through the air. They were everywhere. They flew right past us sometimes.

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Butterflies everywhere. 

Daniel taught us how to tell the difference between males and females, and he said many males die in the sanctuary after mating. He said that last year there was snow in the sanctuary, which is highly unusual. Many butterflies died. He also explained that birds eat dead butterflies, but only the body. The wings are toxic to birds. Sure enough, we found several places where wings were lying on the ground, but there was no butterfly body.

We could only see a small part of the sanctuary, which covers several acres. But in the small area where we were allowed to stand, we could look up into the sky and see them wafting around. We could look into the forest and see trees heavily laden with butterflies at rest. And there was no sound. All you could hear was the wind in the trees. Amazing!

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Those are clusters of monarchs taking a nap in the trees. You can also see them flying.

Then it was time for a late lunch. Daniel took us to one of several small restaurants in the sanctuary compound, where he said the owner made a great mushroom soup. Several people, including Leslie, had the soup and all agreed Daniel was right! I had a potato and chorizo quesadilla, and it was fantastic. The hot sauce they served with it was great too. And really fresh hand-made corn tortillas — so much better than store-bought. Even better than our favorites, El Milagro.

Daniel explained that the local indigenous people make a living by taking care of the butterflies, and of the tourists who come to see them. They start as children, offering to watch your car for you while you’re spending time with the butterflies. As they get older, they work as horse wranglers or guides, or they do other work in the sanctuary, such as selling tickets or working in maintenance. Most don’t get paid much, if at all. They depend on tips, so our group tipped well.

According to Daniel, former Mexican president Vicente Fox provided substantial funds to build a nice entrance to the sanctuary, as well as quality buildings for restaurants and gift shops. This made the experience better for the tourists, and helped the people who work there.

Next time, arts and culture in San Miguel de Allende. Spoiler alert: There’s lots of culture!

 

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.
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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!

Malta is cool

Actually, a little cooler than we expected — and not in a good way. Leslie and I thought we would enjoy highs near 70 degrees F. on this island, but it’s about 10 degrees short of that mark — about the same temperature as Alicante. We can’t put our sweaters away just yet.

We’re dealing with a few other challenges in the 400-year-old house in which we’re living until the middle of next month. It’s in a town called Senglea, or L-Isla in Maltese. Here’s what the house looks like:img_1265

That’s the front door — the one on the left. It’s called Ave Maria and the address is 7 Triq-Is-Sirena. All the houses have names, most of them church-related in some way, as well as addresses.

We’ve been told the house was built by the Grand Masters. The full title of this ruling class is The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or Order of Malta. It is a Roman Catholic lay religious order traditionally of military, chivalrous and noble nature, founded as the Knights Hospitaller in 1099, around the time of the First Crusade. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order.  And that they developed the Maltese Cross. Yes, it’s still around. But Malta is an independent nation now, part of the European Union.

I’ve provided a few links here for you to find out more about Malta, if you like. It’s not on the vacation radar for very many Americans, but a lot of British tourists come here in the summer. This is the Wikipedia page.  And here is the official tourism site.

But back to the house we’re in. The building was apparently once part of the city walls, and at one time it housed a convent. Now it’s been refurbished with all the modern conveniences. Except one. There’s no heat.

Most homes of this age on Malta don’t have central heat or air. So in the very short winter (I guess it’s just while we’re here) people run dehumidifiers to make the indoor air feel warmer. And it seems to work, too.

One upside to this house is the view. Walk out the front door and look to the right, and you can see part of the bay, with lots of boats moored. There are simple rowboats and water taxis — traditional Maltese design — and larger sailboats with 20- to 30-foot masts. Sleek, nice boats. img_1268Then there are the super-yachts, moored on the other side of the bay. Several of these yachts are bigger than our house in Westmont was! Probably bigger than your house, no matter who you are!

If you walk along the waterfront (on the right in the photo), there are a number of small restaurants. All have outdoor seating so you can see the water and the boats, and watch the ferry head over to the capital, Valletta, every half hour. The trip over takes about 15 minutes by ferry, 20 or 30 by bus.

Walk down to where you see the white van parked, turn left and you can walk along the waterfront and see Valletta.

One downside to Senglea is that it’s built into the side of a hill. And since the house is pretty close to water level, we have to climb stairs to get to shops, the bus stop or the local ATM.img_1270 It’s also very quiet. There are no other tourists here. Most visitors to Malta stay in Valletta, or in the town just north of Valletta, called Sliema. We plan to visit those places in the days to come.

Finally, this country has two official languages: Maltese and English, because the Brits owned this island for a very long time. Everybody speaks English, at least some English, but with a heavy accent in most cases, and not a British accent, either. Sometimes it’s hard to understand. Maltese is kind of a blend of Arabic, Italian, Spanish and English. It actually sounds Arabic, and a neighbor told me last night that Arabic-speakers can understand Maltese pretty easily. At least most of the signage is in both languages.

Now we get to explore this place and determine if it’s a possible retirement home. 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.