Always on the Verge

Reflections and connections of a life-long learner.

Andalusia: Olives, Flamingos, Moors, and More Olives…oh, and the Pueblos Blancas

Okay, you sharped-eyed readers – you know those are not olive trees. They are just a sample of the hectares and hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres, in case you were wondering) of grape vines we drove past as we made our way from Valencia to Fuente de Piedra, a small town that put us equidistant from a number of things we wanted to see on this next leg of our travels.

It was between a 5-6 hour trek and well before we got to Fuente de Piedra we were treated to a new agricultural landscape – olives; and as plentiful as those vineyards were, these olive groves clearly outnumbered them. Seeing the vast groves go us to thinking: what do olive processing plants do with all of those pits? We have since learned that the pits, once just considered useless waste, are now being experimented with as a filtering medium for decontaminating sewage and in water treatment plants (they remove heavy metals) ; as a fuel source (similar to ethanol); and as food (roasted and eaten as is or incorporated into energy bars). And that, folks, is why we travel: to entertain unthought of questions and to seek answers; to make connections between what we already know and what we learn; and, of course to eat.

Fuente de Piera, “the stone spring”, was popularized because of its reputation for having healing waters. This fountain, in the main town square is a tribute to the original spring.

Our rental was on the “street of oranges”. We were within an easy walk to the business district, but then so is most everyone as the town itself is small, only about 2000 people. Based on our observation of real estate and the commercial entities, this area has clearly seen better times. That said, we were glad to have chosen this locale as it gave us an opportunity to see a different facet of Spain and appreciate what is going on there economically.

Not just our street, but throughout the town there were orange trees. The trees blossom in the spring and you could smell the lovely fragrance pretty much everywhere we went.. The trees have oranges on them all year unless they are picked. The oranges are very bitter and are used primarily for marmalades, extracts or medicinal purposes.

One of our first road trips/outings was to Seville – just over an hour away. We parked the car outside the city walls and walked across a stone bridge to get into the bustling historic center (right side of the photo).

Easter week, or Semana Santa, is a riot of crowds and festivities. The Seville Cathedral is the epicenter of activities. Originally the site of a Moorish mosque, when the Romans took the city they fashioned a the Gothic-style basilica. The massive structure took over a century to build and claims to be the largest church in the world, though there are those who would debate that.

The bell tower on the cathedral and the outdoor dining options that allowed for some interesting people watching. We took advantage.

Our main sightseeing goal for Seville was to tour the Royal Alcázar Palace and Gardens. The palace was built in the seventh century and it still occasionally hosts the royal family when they visit Seville. While the original structure dates back to the Middle Ages (building seen on right), the current palace complex displays a range of architectural and cultural styles, ranging from Gothic to Baroque. This mashup of architectural elements is known as mudéjar — a Muslim and Christian artistic fusion unique to Andalusia.

The inner courtyard and one of the gardens, filled with orange trees.

Domed ceiling within the newer addition. The blue areas are doorways that open off of the upper arcade. There are small balconies that look out and over the central hallway below.

An example of the beautiful carving, hand painting, and tile work.

In the older sections there are walls and walls of tile work. I was impressed with how they angled the tiles going up the stairway to match the staircase.

Bob does his part keeping things in place.

Our second outing was a bit closer to home: some bird watching at the lagoon just outside of Fuente de Piedra.

The salt water marsh is home to the largest colony of flamingoes in Europe. It seems that the flamingoes are drawn to the salt – just as humans were. As early as the 1st Century, the Romans were collecting salt from the water bed, which dried up during the hot summer.

After time amongst the flamingoes we took a meandering drive back to our flat so we could admire the abundance of blooming spring flowers and take a closer look at the olive orchards. As you may know, all olives are green – until they go through the ripening stages from pink/red to purple to black. Olives that go into virgin olive oil must be harvested directly from the tree, not come from the ground. The growers put nets under the trees and attach a mechanical “shaker” to get the olives to fall into the net.

(You knew there was going to be a food picture, didn’t you?!?) On our way through town we stopped for a late afternoon treat at the local bakery. This delightful bite is what I am calling a Spanish twinkie: sponge cake with a cream filling that was just slightly sweet. The upscale twist is that the outside is caramelized and sprinkled with nuts and has a creme brûlée flavor. Though I have never been a fan of the Hostess concoction, this was a perfect adult indulgence.

After trying to get laundry done amidst a couple of days of intermittent rain (a washing machine but no dryer – everything had to go on the drying rack outdoors) we decided to head for the hills and the pueblos blancas, the “white towns” of Andalusia. Many of these communities were established by the Moors and still have an old-world charm. The white walls are an influence of the Berber architecture of North Africa, the Moors native land. First on our list was Arcos de la Frontera, the largest of the hill towns.

The plan was to park our car in the modern section of the city and take a bus up to the top of the mountain. We lucked into a parking space, found the bus station, and were waiting (and waiting) for our bus to arrive when a kind gentleman who was a driver for another line told us that the old quarter was so crowded that the buses were having a hard time getting down into city. Well, you can imagine our response to that…and back we went to our car to head for the next town on our list – hopefully one with less congestion.

Along our route we stopped to admire Benamahoma, a compact village of about 500 people. It is surrounded by old pine forests, and the steep winding road with its many switchbacks was a thrill in itself.

What came to be our favorite stop, Grazalema, is a high mountain village in a natural park. This photo was taken from where we parked our car. We climbed the edge of the hill to get to the central square, just behind the tall white building on the right of the photo.

The white washed buildings and manicured trees that surround the square.

The medieval-aged water fountain just off to the side of the square.

A tribute to local traditions; this area of Spain is know for its bullfighting.

On our drive between the villages of Grazalema and Rhonda we passed through Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park with its limestone mountains and a cork forest. Cork is taken from a tree every nine years. Contrary to what I had always thought, the stripping of the cork bark does not harm the tree. The lower portions of many of these trees (which are in the oak family) have just been stripped of their cork bark. The year is carved on the tree so that adequate time is allowed between harvests.

Mainly of Roman origins, Rhonda assumes a defensive perch on the edge of a deep gorge.
There are three bridges that span the canyon.

Navigating the maze of narrow pedestrian streets is is a fun way to spend some time in the late afternoon.

Upon leaving the city we pass the bull ring with its statue of the toreador swirling his cape.

Our next stop: 3 days in Tangier, Morocco. If I can sort through my photos fast enough I just might get another blog post out in the next week. On the other hand, we are now in Seixal, Portugal (across the river from Lisbon) and our list of things to do is long and tempting. An abundance of blessings, for sure.

Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias; Extraordinario!

Focusing on the good stuff.

Valencia: from our downtown third floor flat we enjoyed a week of busy urban living. We were less than a mile from the historic city center, less than a mile from the modern art museum, and within temptation’s reach of a multitude of restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. By walking just a few blocks from our rental we came to what was once the river Turia. The river has been diverted (a response to a flood in 1957 that inundated 60% of the city, with 60 lives lost) and the river bed has been paved over and made into this 5-mile green space of sports facilities, parks, bike and walking trails, fountains, sculptures, and event spaces.

The crown jewel of this oasis is The City of Arts and Sciences. It is a modern architectural complex that totally wowed us. And, while we had wonderful visits to The Silk Exchange, City Market, and IVAM (Institut Valencià d’Art Modern), and a road trip to Sagunda to check out the Roman Castle; the entirety of this blog post will be sharing what we thought was our best day of the stay.

Let’s start with the Palace of Arts. It is a 40,000 square meter, 15-story complex – it’s huge! And it’s gorgeous. This performing arts center is home to the city’s opera, a variety of musical ensembles and, with Placido Domingo as a major supporter, a training center for young opera tenors.

Front entry with its distinctive plume-shaped arch, affectionately christened by locals as “the feather”, that skims across the steel-plated and ceramic-skinned dome of the building.

Close up of the feather flowing over the dome.

For good measure, the feather as it tapers to a point at the opposite side of the dome.

Standing directly under the feather…just had to include this as it has an other-worldly, almost cartoonish, look to it.

We opted for a tour of the facility as we were eager to see how it compared to performance spaces we have worked in. Our guide took us indoors and three flights underground, where we were ushered through a maze of rehearsal spaces and into their smallest performance space – used for experimental theater and as rehearsal space.

Next we went up five flights to the main lobby.

View from the front of the lobby (that feather tip is now right over our heads). Through the windows we can admire the other buildings and get a sense of how they flow together.

Our second performance space with a set just readied for an upcoming Spanish opera. This house is one of four that are connected via a shared backstage area. Each stage backs up against the other, forming an X-shape.

Here’s a better visual of how that works: We are standing backstage of one house, looking across at another house, and there is a house on our left and one on our right. The floors are on wheels and can move in and out. Just so you know, this part of our tour was a fortunate serendipity given to us as an unscheduled behind-the-scenes peek. We had told our guide about our interest in the technical aspects of the space and, since it was just Bob and I, she took us back and showed us around. We got to wander a bit and watch the crews at work.

A closer view of one of the movable floor units.

Another of the adjoining theater houses.

On the rear wall of this house was a beautiful mural, “The Dancers”.

Back out to the lobby to catch an elevator for the main hall. We could have opted to use the snail of a staircase (which was featured in the George Clooney movie, Tommorowland). Haven’t seen the movie but guess we will add it to our list. Then we will keep our eyes peeled to see if we can actually spot the stairs.

This was our view as we walked into The Sala Principal (Main Hall) which seats 1,470 people.

As seen from the front of the house.

On stage, they were finishing construction on the set for “Rigoletto”.

The walls are all finished with ceramic tile, which makes it an acoustic challenge. To address the sound bounce, the architect lined the side walls with curves.

The back walls undulate with convex shapes. This is one of those places that screamed for touch. It was allowed.

Each seat has built in audio and provides for simultaneous translation. The same manufacturer that makes seats for Ferrari was commissioned to make these.

Attention to detail: these are one of the unique door pulls. On the opposite side of the female head there is a male head. Other doors had dancing forms and heads of horned bulls.

Our tour over, it was back outdoors to admire the other buildings in the complex.

All of the buildings are surrounded by pools with wide interlocking walkways. The walk in front of the Palau features two-sided display boards telling of the accomplishments of women scientists. It is the Palace of Arts and Sciences, after all.

The building next to Palau de Les Arts is the L’Hemisfèric — an IMAX Cinema, planetarium and laserium. The building is meant to resemble a giant eye.

Beyond the L’Hemisfèric is El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe — an interactive museum of science that is an architectural take on the skeleton of a whale.

Along side the museum are cafes and various sculptures. I especially like this photo as it helps give a sense of scale to the vastness of the buildings.

The largest building is L’Oceanogràfic — an oceanographic park. It is the largest aquarium in Europe with 110,000 square meters and 42 million liters of water. It was built in the shape of a water lily and houses 9 distinct aquatic environments. Disclaimer – we knew we had just one day for this outing so we chose to delve into the building that held the most interest for us. The other facilities, though tempting and intriguing, will have to wait for another visit. Maybe a grandson along with us for the sea creatures…??!

On top of the parking garage, which runs along side the pools and other major buildings, is L’Umbracle — an open structure enveloping a landscaped walk with plant species indigenous to Valencia. We wandered through as we went back to the restaurant at the Palau for a late afternoon repast of small plates and wine.

View from our restaurant seating. From stem to stern; from start to finish. A day that will provide us with many happy memories. (Though I cannot help wondering when Bob will stop asking, “Can you imagine how much this place cost?”)

Catalunya Escapades

Caught peeking through an installation at Fundación Antoni Tàpies.

What a week! Probably our busiest one yet on this year of adventure…and I must give thanks to the friends who insisted that we not just visit this area but that we allow plenty of time to enjoy the wide range of delights to be found here. As it stands, we already know we want to return to go to restaurants we missed, to linger in museums we found captivating, and to just soak up the Costa Brava vibe.

Our flat was about 30 minutes north of Barcelona in the lovely beach town of Lloret de Mar. This allowed us great access to picturesque fishing villages, regionally-themed restaurants, and quiet times away from busy streets and crowds in Barcelona proper. It also helped that we were not here in high season. From the amount of beachfront development, it is obvious that this place gets its own share of crowds when summer rolls around.

Freshly arrived and a bit travel weary, our first day’s outings were simple: the supermarket for some basics, the near-by train station to check on ticket and timing logistics, and a visit to Marimurta Botanical Gardens. Located high on steep cliffs that run along the Mediterranean Sea, the garden has both panoramic views and extensive gardens with many exotic plants.

Though early in the season, we were still able to see many unusual flora. These seed pods on a cactus reminded us of olives.

As is typical in our marriage, Bob and I chose alternate routes of investigation. He stayed on the high road.

Wanting to get closer to the water, I opted for the the low road.

Following our travel planning routine, we had made a list of museums to visit during our stay and discovered that six of them were included in the Barcelona Articket. Our goal then became to see all six of them in 2 days. This was possible because we trained in from our flat to city center (a 90 minute scenic ride right along the coast) and caught a Hop-on-Hop-Off bus that delivered us to the various locales. We used two different bus routes and got to see a lot of Barcelona in the process.

First stop: Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya, a gorgeous building that featured two wings of Modernisme – a movement based on the cultural roots and reidentification of Catalunyan identity. Its main form of expression is in architecture, but many other arts are involved (painting, sculpture, literature, drama etc.); throughout, there is an especially strong emphasis in design and the decorative arts. Remember this as the photos continue and you will come to see how Barcelona embodies the Modernisme ethic.

The painted cupula in the center of the gallery.

A lovely example of Antoni Gaudi iron work. Gaudi, who practiced in the family iron trade before becoming an architect, was a leading proponent of Modernisme and most of his buildings are in Barcelona. His style was innovating as he played with the balance of space and volume, showing his genius for 3-dimensional creations.

Sofa (designer unknown, amazingly…). This made me think of something out of a Disney set. Alice might have sat upon this sofa for tea in Wonderland.

On to the Fundació Joan Miró. We had seen lots of Miró’s work during our visit to The Maeght Fondation in St. Paul de Vence, where they have a large Miro maze filled with is sculptures. We were eager to see how the two collections compared. Our conclusion: the Spain museum has more diversity and many more large pieces. The tapestry above takes up an entire back wall.

We are retitling this work “Bob in a blown-apart box”.

Something whimsical to make us smile.

Our favorite rooftop siting. We then took a nice walk around a public park and garden before hopping back on the bus… we had places to go and more art to see!

In the courtyard entrance to MACBA, the Contemporary Art Museum. The work was done by Jaume Plensa, who was currently the featured artist in their temporary collection. (More on him to come…) In addition, there is a vast permanent collection which takes the form of a series of rooms that display the progression of Modernisme along with a timeline of world-wide social, cultural and historical events. This is a fabulous way to get a sense of the movement and gain perspective on how it evolved.

This piece hangs on the wall overlooking a two-story central reception area. I have new respect for an unmade bed.

Just had to include this. Look closely, as you might be able to discern that the wall of curtains is actually tromp-l’œil, “fool the eye”. I stood there a long time appreciating this – right down to the shadows along the floor and drape of the “fabric”.

More from Jaume Plensa. Part of the intrigue with his work is how he has it installed to play with light and shadow.

Putting Music in the World.

In the gallery corridor was a life-size floor to ceiling photo of Plensa’s studio.

In each of these photos you can see his progress on work that was included in the exhibit.

The Fundación Antoni Tàpies with its rooftop of what looks quite a bit like spaghetti. Truthfully, this was not a favorite, the outside being more interesting than inside: that Modernisme-detailed facade.

Our final Barcelona museum was Museu Picasso. We went during the evening after having a scrumptious meal of paella and grilled squid. (When in Catalunya…) So very glad we had prepurchased the Articket as the event was sold out, but our passes got us in. Of note: “Olga and Paolo: la sopa”. This etching, on zinc, shows Picasso’s first wife, Olga, feeding their son, Paolo. Picasso often pictured Olga as a perfection of motherhood; yet perversely, he began relationships outside their marriage almost immediately after their son was born. It became an unhappy relationship but Picasso refused to divorce her, effectively denying her financial support and access to his works.

Picasso’s take on a Diego Velázquez painting, Las Meninas.

Copy of the original work and Picasso’s work studies for what would become his version of Las Meninas. Fascinating to see the progression.

Between the museums there were the city sites, where every building seems to take a statement and art is incorporated everywhere.

Miró gives shade to a city park.

Great steel spheres collect over intersections.

No tour of Barcelona would be complete without a stop at La Sagrada Familia. Cathedral building began in 1882, and architecture supervision and completion was taken over by Antoni Gaudi in 1883. He devoted his life to this project and is buried in the crypt. Construction has been a roller coaster affair, with interruptions for the Spanish Civil War, an attack by anarchists who burned sections of the building, and a break-in during which the plans for the building were torn up and largely destroyed. However, the work is on-going and is estimated to be 70% complete.

Evidence of construction can be seen everywhere.

Eventually there will be six more of these spires atop the building.

Modernisme meets religious edifice. Most of the church’s structure are to be completed by 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death; decorative elements should be complete by 2030 or 2032.

We saved Dalí for our final outing. Driving to Port Lligat near the city of Cadaqués was a wonderful way to wind up our escapades along the Costa Brava. Dalí’s intriguing home, actually made from seven fishing cottages and assembled over a period of years, is exactly what should be expected: a surrealist’s dream.

In the entryway visitors are greeted by a stuffed polar bear which also holds a collection of Dalí’s canes. The lampshade is a repurposed fish trap. The yellow dried flowers are ubiquitous, and all the rooms hold their distinctive fragrance.

Owner-designed window grills and a stunning view.

The artist’s atelier. When Dalí’s wife and muse, Gala, died Dalí left this house, taking nothing, and did not come back. Almost all of what is in the house is original, though books and all but two original art pieces have been moved to the museum for conservation purposes.

Just a short distance from the Dalí House is a panoramic overlook and lighthouse. We enjoyed the views, a bite of late lunch, and the tranquility of the setting.

Needless to say, we loved it! For every photo in this blog I have 10 more I could have added. When we are back in the states you are welcome to stop by for a full viewing. Tapas included, of course.

Pueblo Mágico

After our two months in Guanajuato it was time to move to another nest – this time to Santiago de Querétaro – the capital of the state of Querétaro. We had visited here briefly last winter (see Hanging out in Querétaro with Maria) and decided that it would be fun to spend more time getting to know this area and all it had to offer. For our first few days my sister and brother-in-law were with us and we spent the majority of our time walking into Centro (which is just eight easy blocks from our flat), shopping, eating, site seeing, and wine tasting.

Turns out Querétaro is the second most important wine growing area of Mexico and the primary wine exporter nationwide. It is also the largest producer of sheep’s milk cheeses. To sample these delights we took off on the Art, Cheese, and Wine Route – which happily includes the “Magical Towns” of Tequisquiapan, Bernal, and Cadereyta.

FYI: There are 121 Magical Towns in Mexico. Towns have to apply for the designation and show that they offer a combination of historical, cultural, and aesthetic qualities that make it wholly unique and worthy of a visit from tourists. The upside is that visitors are pretty much guaranteed a lovely experience; the downside is that lots of people head to these towns for vacations and getaways. Guanajuato has the Magical Town distinction and we can tell you we avoided the city center on weekends due to crowds.

We put Tequisquiapan into our map app and were on our way. Being a Sunday, we knew there would be lots of people, but we could not even find a place to park within walking distance of Centro. We did a bit of driving about to check out whether or not it was worth fighting for space and decided we could come back another day for town attractions, if we were so inclined. There are a number of lovely parks and an artists’ market which features pottery and wicker goods. We’ll see…

So on to wine and cheese! First stop: La Redonda Vineyards. They have a large festival coming up in a week and we were happy to arrive ahead of the party crowd.

Beautiful bougainvillea growing alongs the entrance wall.

One of the fountains scattered around the property.

In advance of the festival they were setting up tents. If the number of covers is any indication they are anticipating quite a large gathering.

Children’s play area near the restaurant.

These fantastical fellows stand guard outside of the restrooms.

We ordered a nice (but honestly not great) rosé and a specialty pizza with a “secret” recipe. The ingredients were not unexpected except for the surprise of grapes on top. Actually quite delicious; some of the cheese was local as well.

The restaurant has a tented roof that reminded us of Shoreline Amphitheater, which Bob opened for BGP (those were the days!?!) in Mountain View, CA.

Next stop on our tour was Los Rosales. The wine tasting area felt like a beach resort. I tried a dry white – not good. Bob tried a red, but it was served cold so he felt he could not really make a decision on how good it was. We both liked the rosé and ended up getting a bottle to take home with us.

In an interesting aside, we noted that the area boasts an abundance of water parks. In fact, there are more water parks near the Magic Towns of Querétaro than there are wineries. Competition seems to be quite stiff as we noted the lengths people would go with their displays of advertising on the hillsides.

Before heading back we went by the town that is home to Peña de Bernal. Known for its picturesque hue, it is said to have a sacred and mystic environment.

A lovely Sunday outing. And the solar street lights gave us unintentional art to enjoy on our way back home.

En el Corazón de la Cuidad

In the heart of the city: a parking garage we use because it puts us right in the middle of many things we enjoy doing and seeing. (Close to the Mercado for fresh tortillas; our favorite bakery for rolls and pastries; three different public squares (Reforma, Plaza de la Paz, and Jardin de Union) along with the restaurants that surround them; shops and cultural attractions.) Interestingly, the mural in the pedestrian lobby is very like a jigsaw puzzle the family worked on over the recent December holiday.

Our sightseeing targets: the Legislative Museum and the Rul de Valenciana Mansion. We have admired these buildings, adjacent to Plaza de la Pax/Peace Plaza, each time we strolled through; but this is the first time we have been in Guanajuato when there were public exhibitions. Lucky timing… Oh – those $25 pesos = $1.25US. Quite the deal.

First stop was the Legislative Palace with its historical displays commemorating the birth of the republic and the role of Ignacio Allende.

A plaque inside the door honors the English architect: C. Louis Long. The building was officially opened by Porfirio Diaz in 1903. Diaz was one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution and served seven terms as President.

And while the displays are very interesting it is, indeed, the architectural style (neo-classic and art nouveau) that really captures my attention. Central stairway with its tile mosaics.

Moving up to the second level.

Detail of the column topper I am smitten with.

Metal panels that appear on columns and on walls.

The beauty of the flow: stairway, hall, and balustrade.

Painted tin ceiling panels.

Rows of overhead lighting. (It always pays to look up!)

One of many hand painted, highly-detailed and gilded wall panels.

The Legislative Chamber.

Close up of the rostrum and lecterns. It has overtones of a church interior. And those chandeliers!!

Furniture detail from a bookcase in the Legislative Library.

Looking through an etched glass window and onto the interior gallery. The etching is the Mexican Coat of Arms: the eagle and the snake sitting atop a cactus. There is an interesting history for those who might want more:

Putting myself into the picture in one of the conference rooms.

Next stop was the Rul Mansion. This is the original residence of Don Antonio de Obregon, Count of Valenciana, erected with the wealth obtained after thirty years of uninterrupted excavation of his silver mine. The house sign (above) notes that Alexander von Humboldt, a German geographer, naturalist, and explorer resided in the mansion in 1803 while he was studying and writing about the mining industry. His contributions to the understanding of mining infrastructure and culture are still recognized with conferences held at the University of Guanajuato. Following his time in Mexico Humboldt traveled to America to consult with Thomas Jefferson on the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase – supplying Jefferson with information on the population, agriculture, trade, and military of “New Spain” and helping verify the southwestern border of the new territory. Jefferson would later refer to Humboldt as “the most scientific man of the age”. How’s that for a history lesson?!?

No photos were allowed inside the rooms themselves, but the interior courtyard was camera-friendly.

Had to include a closer image of that beautiful face and the headdress of maize.

Stairway from interior courtyard up to the art galleries. We saw fabulous installations, all done by Cuban artists: Joel Corrales Márquez, Yaumil Hernández Gil, and (my favorite) Manuel Antonio Álvarez Suazo (Lolo).

After the history and art it was time for a short break before lunch. We had our Kindles, so we decided on time at Plaza Reforma. I hope someone notices the capturing of the water fountain – the gusher on top that mimics the church tower and the cascading drops of water. Just a bit of serendipity, but I’ll take it.

Bob takes a reading break to do some people watching.

A brief stop at Jardin de Union to admire the statue of El Pípila, the hero of the city of Guanajuato.

A day of observation, reflection, contemplation. A day well spent.

Friday = Cleaning Crew = Get out of the way

Our lovely casita rental includes a weekly cleaning service – which we much appreciate; and, though we really don’t get our nest too messy (as evidenced in the photo), it is nice to have things freshened. Our gals (they are always gals) arrive promptly at 10am, and we leave the house until they are finished – which means being gone until at least 4pm. It is not as if they are slow (though they do keep a pretty moderate pace), but they are extremely thorough. All sheets and towels get changed; floors get mopped; bathrooms get sanitized; shelves and objects on them get dusted; patio furniture is wiped down and even the outdoor areas get wet-broomed. Like I said – thorough.

This also presents us with the challenge of finding something that will keep us occupied for a day away from home. For now we are taking turns coming up with a plan. Last week it was my turn and I proposed driving to Leon to check out a couple of fabric stores and then coming back to Guanajuato to see a movie ( Mary Poppins Returns is showing in English at our local Cinamex!)

When we came to Mexico this year I brought along my sewing machine and much of what I needed for 2-3 projects. I had already made dear grandson, Harper, a couple of pillow cases: one to commemorate his holiday trip to Guanajuato and another for his first birthday – coming up in a couple of months. Now I was itching to begin a quilt using precut squares I got when friends and I visited Hamilton, Missouri this past spring. The decision was to find some deep gray for the background. I checked fabric stores in Guanajuato – no luck. In fact, no 100% cotton fabric was available anywhere. Definitely had to expand the search.
Leon, still in the state of Guanajuato, is a large city. “How large?”, you may ask. 1.24 million. Large. I figured there had to be cotton (algodón) options in a place that big, and I had done some research on fabric stores to check out. First up was Telas Biba, an actual manufacturer and marketer. The store had lots of great fabrics but anything with a bit of cotton was mostly polyester with the exception of the juvenile prints – which were not right for the project. Next store option was Parisina, a chain that I have shopped at before. Same story – polyester blends aplenty. At this point I was thinking I might have to start looking at cotton sheets – if those are even available in a non-blend. (I am learning a lot along the way, so not all is lost.)
But then, on our way to grab lunch I spotted a store not on my list: Modatelas. There, to my delight, I found four bolts of 100% cotton: dark blue, light blue, white, black. Black was close enough for me. Hallelujah. (That is Bob overseeing the fabric cutting.)
Down the street from Telas Biba was an interesting square and church. The street lamp and the saint caught my eye. In truth, the light pole is behind the arch, but the perspective created an interesting illusion.
The parking garage we used had to be near a police station. We never identified the building itself, but there were blocks of parked Policia Federal cars.
The weekend was the celebration of the Feast of Three Kings. These fellows, and many others just like them, were working the streets.
Their goal was to get people to buy Rosca de Reyes, a sweet bread with a plastic figure of the baby Jesus baked inside. These breads also come with packets of white frosting and bags of colored sugar to sprinkle on top. Makes my teeth ache to think of it.
If you didn’t buy your bread from the street venders, you could also pick it up at a grocery store. Or favorite store bakery had racks full.
Back to Guanajuato for our movie. The mall was filled with families and children enjoying the stage shows.
I had my heart set on trying this popcorn flavor, but it was not to be. We had checked on line for movie times for Mary Poppins: 3:40, 6:40 and 10p. We got to the ticket window ahead of the 3:40 showing and got tickets. When we went to enter, however, it seems we were sold tickets for the 6:40 show. We explained the error to the ticket taker who in turn got a manager. Turns out there was not a 3:40 show, nor a 6:40 show – only a 10pm show. When I showed them the times listed on their website (which I had on my phone) the manager told us they had just, within the last 2-3 minutes decided to change the schedule. So – no movie, no popcorn. But we did come away with a couple of passes to be used in the future. Our plan is that next time we go to the theater we take along our Kindles – just in case we have to sit and wait for whatever time the movie is actually screened. Like I said, I’m learning…

The Family that Ails Together Prevails Together or An Odd Post for a New Year

Well, it’s official…we have had our first all-of-the-family holiday stomach flu marathon. It started with our sweet grandson (who we though was just having the normal little guy tummy changes), then on to my daughter-in-law and myself (and we tried blaming it on the frappes), then one son, then the other, and finally my Bob. It was the classic domino transmission, and it made me recall similar circumstances and previous holidays with my family or origin. But in those days it was a family of 11 (2 parents and 9 kiddos) in a one bathroom home. Fortunately, our Guanajuato casitas gave us more options. I am guessing everyone who reads this has a similar holiday/illness memory. True – not a fun recall, but often a funny one.

The take-it-easy time gave me an opportunity to work on my knitting. My first stockings project, and I literally just tuned a major corner. As a distraction I have indulged in a bit of binge watching: Grace and Frankie on Netflix. Cannot say enough about how much I adore this show. I am laughing out loud just writing about it. Lily Tomlin; Jane Fonda – what more can I say?
Our spokesperson, Harper Edward, sending wishes from our family to yours for a happy, and HEALTHY 2019.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

We have landed in our winter headquarters, and since this is a new location for us (still Guanajuato – but in Valenciana, not Guanajuato City) I thought an afternoon on foot would be a good way to begin.

Our back door leads to a road taking me downhill, past the University of Guanajuato’s Center for Mathematical Investigations (red building on the left).
The right side of the road is a steep ravine, but from the edge there are great views of the ruins of the Hacienda de Guadalupe (part of the ownership structure related to the Guadalupe Mine). Imagine what this might have looked like in it’s heyday!
As I got to the bottom of the road (but by no means the bottom of the mountain) I came upon a building site and was reminded of my father-in law, Floyd. He and his wife, Ethel, spent many years as snowbirds in Mexico; and he would joke that it was important to hang around for a good period of time so you could figure out if they were putting something up or taking something down. So true.
Less than 10 minutes from the house I found myself at a bit of a commercial space. (I am being optimistic in this description as business areas spring up in the oddest of places.) The mining museum seemed to be quite a popular stop. Guanajuato is a destination site for Mexican holiday travel, and on the day I went walking the area was filled with tourist vans. History tidbit: The mine contained both silver and gold, and during its peak years (early 1800s) this mine produced 60% of the world’s silver. The mineral resources were used to finance Spain’s colonial expansion efforts.
Beautiful stonework wall that surrounds the museum.
Across the street from the museum are a number of shops – the usual stuff: jewelry, religious artifacts, tourist temptations. But the thing that Valenciana seems to have lots of are candy stores.
This carousel has dulces tipico – caramel figures made to look like like mummies. There is a long story that goes with this and you can read about it at this link:
The short version: the bodies, likely buried during a cholera outbreak, underwent natural mummification processes and when they were dug up (due to a newly imposed tax on perpetual internment) they were relocated to a museum. Yes, we visited the museum – years ago, and once was enough. However, the mummies are one of the top tourist attractions.
Oh – The caramel candy does come in other forms and is quite delicious.
Further on down the line of shops was a very relaxed street dog doing his thing.
At the end of the line of shops was a small ceramics studio. Pots had just been set outdoors for drying.
And directly across the road from the drying tables were mama goat and her two young ones. Remember what I said about business areas in odd places? This gives a whole new meaning to mixed-use zoning.
After the visit with the goats I headed in the direction of town. Along the way were a number of lunch counter-type restaurants. We are cautious diners, but have found that most everything we can select here is USA – tummy friendly (water being the exception).
Many of the houses along this street have beautiful metalwork doors. The black wrought iron is very indicative of this part of Mexico.
In the very center of town is La Valenciana Templo. It is an 18th-century Mexican Churrigueresque-style church with an exterior of pink volcanic stone built at the opening of the La Valenciana mine to honor Saint Cayetano for the riches that were found.
The interior is in the shape of a cross with 3 alters – one at the head and two at each end of the crossbar. The gold leaf that covers the alter came from the local mine. Some versions of the building’s history talk about how the church was commissioned by the mine owner and his Spanish colleagues to appease their consciences for taking all of the vast resources out of the earth. Being one of the most dangerous mines, it also claimed its share of indigenous workers. Though an unfortunate commentary, there is no doubt that the overall effect is breathtaking.
Chandeliers made from Valenciana silver adorn the sanctuary.
Across from the Templo is a small square and the place we catch our local bus into town. Just in case we have to wait and are need of a snack there is a CANDY STORE!
Loved that the tickets are First Class. They cost 7 pesos each way – about 35 cents – and we are dropped off just a couple of blocks from the Hidalgo Market in el Centro. Perfecto.
Because I essentially made a big loop, I took another road back to our house and stopped to admire this tiled exterior. Lots of stonework and ceramics everywhere, but this took things to a new level.
Home again.

France: Seconde Parte, Acte II – Luberon Valley and beyond


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this latest blog post figures to come in at over 50,000. So many interesting things to see that I am going to let the places we visited pretty much speak for themselves.  But before all of that, a few comments on our latest rental – which I do not have pictures of. (It was lovely, just not something that cried to be photographed.) We stayed in Châteaurenard, basically a farming community less than 15 minutes from Avignon. It turned out to be the perfect lily pad, allowing us to leap frog from place to place for day trips and adventures. Our VRBO hosts were most gracious; they spoke very little English but wanted to communicate with us so they kept their iPad handy and wrote us messages which were electronically translated. It was so heart warming to see them coming up the steps to our flat with another bit of helpful information.  They also treated us to a very nice bottle of locally produced red wine. In terms of lodging, the rental unit was our least expensive yet most spacious: eat-in kitchen with a complete set of appliances, great room with a dining area for 6 people (including a sideboard filled with china), two nice sized bedrooms, a big bathroom, a shaded patio, and even a laundry room. We were minutes from the town center, though the setting felt rural. To add to our pleasure there was an extroverted cat who liked to push the door open to visit us indoors, a hard-of hearing/not very well seeing dog that had to almost bump into us before he knew we were there (he made up for it by making regular rounds of the patio just to check on our whereabouts) and a bunch of chickens that felt no need to move out of the way when we were driving into the parking area.  Like I said – rural.

Avignon: our specific destination was Palais de Papes (the papal palace). There are actually two palaces. A large Gothic edifice and this smaller one. When we got to the square we found ourselves in a sea of tourists. We took one look at all of those groups swarming behind the hand-held flags of their tour guides and decided we would skip the interior of the palace and people watch instead. We found a convenient coffee spot and snapped a couple of photos. Factoid: When Clement V was elected Pope in 1305, he decided to transfer papal power to Avignon to avoid political unrest in Rome.  Avignon was the site of papal power for seven decades.


Close up of the stone carvings.


The Carmangue: A natural wetlands reserve that has fairly recently been designated a national park.  (France has 10 national parks, the first one designated in 1963.) Sign on truck was too good to pass up.  On our list for things to look for in the park: 1. bulls – raised here and used during agility competitions where the bulls run through city streets as people try to steal flowers or tokens that have been placed between the bull’s horns. Really.  I’m not making this stuff up  (check!)  2. Camarguais  – a horse breed specific to the area; the horses are born grey and become totally white when they are five. These horses are used by cowboys to herd the aforementioned bulls.  (check!) and…


3. FLAMINGOES!!  Thousands of them. (check!)


Open air classroom at the park. Focus on that chalkboard in preparation for the next photo.


A whole new look when the sun was overhead and the roofing cast intriguing shadows within.


Aigue Morte: Tower of Constance. We had hoped to climb up the tower and walk the ramparts (which I had enjoyed doing on a prior visit) but we happened to be in town during the 15-day Votive Festival and the tower was closed. A carnival completely circled the outside of the walled city and within there was lots going on – including a number of beer gardens with live music. We totally understood why they wouldn’t want revelers walking about on stone ledges. As we walked about the city we noted the metal barricades on various street corners. Bet you guessed…they were there to set a course for the bull competitions.


We watched a bocce tournament. There was large court with many sets of players. Lots of loud conversations as well.


We indulged in some nougat – which was delicious and (happy surprise) not too sweet.


We window shopped.


Aix-en-Provence: regulated access to the city center. Walkers only unless you have a special pass for a work vehicle. Note the metal barricades, but this time not for bulls. They are doing major street improvements throughout the historic zone. Figure that means we have to come back in about 2-3 years to see how it looks.


The Aix Cathedral.


Cezanne’s Atelier.  We walked up the hill from town – just as the artist would have done, and we found it to be a healthy climb – even without the painting materials that Cézanne would have likely carried. Apparently Cézanne was know for being quite physically fit, and I can see why.  For you art buffs – can you spot items that Cézanne included in some of his still lifes? Confession – I got a few, but certainly not all, and I had the advantage of getting hints from the docents.


The floor to ceiling windows he had put into his workroom so he could take advantage of his beloved northern light.


The tall door opens onto to a sliding floor platform. Cézanne had it installed so that he could put large canvases on the platform and then push it outdoors so he could see his painting in full natural light.


The door, close up. Or as close as I was allowed to get.


A bit of wine tasting along the way. Very different from the way it is done in the states. For most wineries you need to make appointments. If you are lucky to come upon one that is open you will be asked what you want to taste rather than being offered a menu of selections. You can ask to try whatever they have in stock, and sometimes the choices are fairly limited as their bottling numbers are not large and most bottles are snapped up by area individuals or local eating/drinking establishments.


Since we were in Rosé country we had a bit of fun with some small flights. Bottle on left was really good. Bottle on right was okay. Bottle in middle had just come home with us from a winery stop – but turned out to be our favorite.  A short defense of Rosé: what we enjoyed in France is nothing like the pink drink we have experienced in the USA. We were pleased with the dry, crisp taste and the under tones of minerality. The fruit is there but not in your face and is offset with a bit of citrus. New summer deck favorite – if I can just get my hands on the good stuff.


Luberon Mountain Towns: First up was Oppède. This was the lowest lying and most modern town on our route. No photo as we didn’t see much photo-worthy uniqueness – though we both agreed it was a nice spot. We drove through at what was clearly morning yoga time. Lots of people with mats under their arms. Our next stop was Ménerbes (photo) – made famous by Peter Mayle, who wrote his ‘Year in Provence’ books while living there.  This perched village is small and we walked the entire city center in about 30 minutes.


We stopped for coffee at a small shop that drew us in with the promise of panoramic views.


The city entrance.


A lovely vignette with some pretty steep stairs.


Next stop – Lacoste, which turned out to be our favorite mountain town in France.


We admitted that our decision was likely influenced by the presence of Savannah College of Art and Design. (SCAD) We have been fans of this institution since we learned of all they have done for historic restoration and preservation in Savannah.


A couple of streets have been entirely taken over by the college. (SCAD-ified I am calling it.) Their presence adds a fun and fanciful note.


The sign on the door says this is a professors meeting room/office. Bob agreed to stand alongside to help add persecutive regarding the height of the opening.


Spotted another sundial version. Didn’t appear to be totally accurate. But it says 1715, so maybe something has changed between then and now???  The sun still looks the same to me.


Loved the mishmash of pathways and buildings. 


Some of the turns brought us to breathtaking overlooks.


By following a path up the mountain and through the narrow door…


across expanses of rock outcroppings…


we arrived high up on the top to find a large plateau (sculptures in center area courtesy of SCAD) which was in front of…


the ruins of the summer home of the Marquis de Sade. How’s that for an unexpected twist?


Directly across from Lacoste is our next mountain town – Bonnieux, viewed in center of photo.



We arrived mid-day and surprised a couple of felines taking a mid-street cat nap.


We were hoping the Boulangerie Museum would be open – but it was closed for the season. Next time. We settled for some street wandering and came upon this still-puzzling sign. A lover…for rent???


Just had to get a photo of the climb to the scenic overlook. And this was just one section.


But totally worth each step.


Final town for the day – Roussillon, the city of ochre cliffs. For those of you who have been to Sedona, it was similar, but the landforms were much less grand. Still worth a visit.


Nîmes. The Roman Coliseum. They brag that it is the best preserved one in Europe. Not sure what the folk in Rome would think of that boast.


When we were at Iowa State people would give us funny looks when we referred to the entrance ways to seating sections at Hilton Coliseum as vomitoires. Just sticking with history.


The incredible vaulted ceilings that lead into the galleries.


How many years of dripping does it take to see stalactite formations on stone steps? We know these steps have been around for about two centuries.


Next to the Coliseum is the Museum of Roman History. Looking through a opening highlights the contrast in architecture.


And while we were doing Roman architecture we drove to Pont du Gard, the aqueduct that is even older than the Coliseum.


We marveled at the stone work and the engineering that went into the construction.


And, ahhhh, the views from the walkway across.


Hard to believe this leg of our vagabond journey is almost over. We have our lists for future visits – but for now we are more interested in our list of what we are looking forward to when we return to the states. We both are eager to see family and friends. Bob wants a shower that will accommodate his tall frame and he would also like a really good washer and dryer. (In our experience, washers can take up to 3 hours to do one load and drying is done outdoors.) I want a cup of coffee that is bigger than a thimble and I want real cream. Pretty small wishes, overall. Another reminder that life is good.

France: Seconde Partie; Acte I – Côte d’Azur

Just lodged for 10 days in a converted sheep barn in Vence, France.  Had the joy of some fabulous and disappointment of some not so fabulous meals. We were busy enough, but not so much that we succumbed to full vacation mode, as we balanced outings with restful days and evenings. And then there were the mosquitoes…


Where we stayed:

At the foot of the mountains, below the old city of Vence we had beautiful views all around. This is Bob’s chosen spot for Kindle time. Because of mosquitoes, I had to stay indoors more than I would have liked. The circumstances were actually quite unusual as it seems we were there for a particularly horrible infestation, and the locals warned us about the challenges. Good news is that the stores had large displays of bug prevention options.  We stocked up on sprays, wrist bands, and even found room diffusers – which all seemed to help.



Evidence of the barn walls made our living area uniquely cozy.  In the mirror you can see the “stairs” up to the bedroom and bath.


Getting on to the ladder was a might tricky. After that, the climb up was a piece of cake.


If the ladder was a problem there was an outside entrance to the bedroom. Perfect for getting suitcases indoors.  Not so perfect given the lack of light  in the evening and the bug patrols that gathered about.


Walls were three-feet thick. Kept us nice and cool when the days were warm.


Ceilings were pretty low in some places. Bob made it through the stay without one bonk on the head.


What we ate:

Our first stop after arriving in town, as usual, was to get provisions. When we got to the grocery store we were a bit befuddled with getting a cart/buggy (depending on what part of the USA you live in). The carts/buggies are locked together. Turns out you have to use a coin to push the catch backward. The coin stays in place and when you bring the cart/buggy back and relock, the coin is returned to you. FYI: we did not see strays anywhere in the lots, so it appears to be a good system.


Mussels, mussels, everywhere – even at our house. Bob found a bag, cleaned and ready to cook, so it seemed like a good time to make it happen. We played around with ingredients for the broth and decide that it had to be provençal. When in Rome…or in this case, Provence. They were incroyable!  I am embarrassed to admit we finished that whole pot. But, as Bob kept reminding me, there really isn’t a lot to eat in any one of those critters.  But still… a whole pot… along with green beans, cucumbers and baguette.


On the way back from one of our outings Bob jokingly commented that he could sure go for a McDonald’s burger. I typed it into the GPS and Voila! – there was one just ahead. We parked our car in McDonald’s gated and ticketed lot (first 2 hours free) and went to make our choices. All orders are done at kiosks, and when I saw a Croque McDO I just had to try it. Background: Croque Monsieur, essentially a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, is one of my French restaurant stand-by options.  A perfect Plan B for all occasions.. But, heck – I like a grilled sandwich most anywhere/anytime. (Just ask my kiddos about our make-your-own grilled cheese buffet nights.)  McDO = McDOn’t.


This is the disappointing truth of the McDO: a hamburger bun turned inside out (in France, with all of that great bread – a sacrilege!), white America cheese (again – in a county with some of the best cheeses available; American???), and a processed pork product that strongly resembled bologna.  My myrtille frappe (blueberry shake) was tasty for about one slurp as the sugar quickly overpowered everything else. Bob’s chicken sandwich was dry and bland, made from processed chicken with some sad lettuce and a “soft and icky” roll; fries were soggy; diet soda passed muster – but that is probably because there wasn’t much McDonald’s could do to change the Coke product. Let’s just say, in a rephrase of the chain’s slogan, We were NOT lovin’ it.


Favorite place for a long and leisurely lunch : Vence city center square, under the gorgeous sycamore trees. Made me a bit homesick for the trees that line our yard in Reno.


The pizza with its thin crust, the mound of fresh greens, the chilled rosé. It is a bit of a surprise that we ever eat anywhere else.


But of course, we did. Part of the fun of dining out is reading the menu boards and the featured dishes of the day (plat du jour). Just so you know – I am a sucker for restaurant specials, so this was right up my alley. If a restaurant offers a featured dish, I order it. If a chef puts her/his name on a dish, I order it. If an establish puts their name on a food offering, I order it. That’s just the way I roll, and it has provided me with some of my best meal experiences. So – if you want me to order it – name it.


What we did:

A drive through the Maritime Alps to Castellane – a lovely small town that gateways the Verdon Gorges. Stopped for lunch at a charming restaurant on the town square and had – what else – the plat du jour!


More of those beautiful sycamores.


The sycamore leaves even showed up in the ironwork on their streets.


And after lunch we sat on this bench to enjoy a treat from a local patisserie.


On to The Gorges. The huge rock outcroppings are the first sign we see of the beauty that lies ahead.


Coming into The Gorge we comment on the the striations and coloration in the cliffs. Because of erosion, it almost looks as if it is melting.


Verdon Gorge, itself. Not as grand as our Grand Canyon, but breathtaking in its own right.


Into busy Nice for a museum day. We joke that traveling new roads with signs that are not in English can make finding a parking garage a day’s worth of excitement. Then once at the garage there is the whole ticketing thing to navigate. I am going with the theory that these challenges provide enough mental stimulation to counteract some of the aging brain syndrome.


Musée d’art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain.  Contemporary art, but not much to get excited about. Many times the highly conceptual and, frankly, unfocused art pieces felt like a reach; contrived. (Remember this comment comes from a novice, not a true art critic; but I do know what I like.) The building, on the other hand, made this a worthwhile visit. The structure kept us investigating spaces and views. The downside – it needed some serious interior maintenance. I believe Bob compared it to NYC subways in the 70s. Ouch.


The piece we both liked: Birds, by Armand Ferdinand.


On closer inspection, vice grips!


Same artist, with his take on coffee grinders.


A day at Eze. We left our car down there.


So we could walk to the top to get the views from here – Jardins Exotiques.  It was windy, and for some reason that added an extra thrill to being up so high, overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. Or maybe I am just getting more like my Grandma Dahlstom (Grandma D) who had to put her head down by her knees and close here eyes whenever we drove to high elevations. I can still see her crouched in the back seat of our car on the way up to Lake Tahoe.  Neither of our boys could figure out what that was all about (cue infectious childhood laughter)… but I get it.


Just 6KM from our rental – one of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera: St-Paul-de-Vence, home to Fondation Maeght. Now THIS is what I appreciate in modern art, displayed in a perfectly curated environment. We loved the Miró labyrinth.


We loved the hilltop views.


We loved the indoor galleries where you can walk up close to each piece.


A blissfully wonderful 10 days. Putting this locale (sheep barn and all) on our newly created Return Again list. France, Part 3 awaits.