3 a.m., Seville, Southern Spain, Semana Santa–The black Spanish sky merges with the darkened vault of the Iglesia de Santa Marina. Inside the church, he waits patiently with his mother. He is 7 years old. His mother fusses with his cape– white, pressed, reflecting in the candlelight. The candle is slightly smaller than he is. The 3-foot wax cylinders touch against the neighboring capes in the sleepy confusion of the early morning hours, adding an element of risk to the austerity of reverence. His fastidious mother straightens the pleats of his robe, adjusts his braided belt and finally, as the procession begins, she assists the placement of his peaked hood upon his small shoulders. Ultimately, his eyes find the horizontal cat-like slits and he is ready. “One man’s feast is another man’s poison.” This adage takes form in comparing the pointed hats of this very Catholic ceremony to the robes of the Ku Klux Klan as they change polarity and meaning, traversing an ocean. This is the culmination of Easter week. It starts with such celebrations as Carnival Janeiro and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This is the culmination of the Lenten season that begins in February and ends in the processions of Southern Spain in mid-April. Just ahead of the boy is a man: 25, stronger, dressed in a turban whose neck shield is is embroidered with the Madonna. He takes his place under the paso with the other 50 men. At the three sharp reports by the major domo on the front of the float, the hundreds of pounds of gold, silver, candle and flame are thrown into the air and vibrate to a singular moment on the backs of the men as the doors of the cathedral open and the Christ paso is framed, silhouetted by the streetlights beyond the arches. Slowly the processional moves forward into the night. The Christ, followed by the wave of candle-bearing penitents, crawls silently by. The paso of the Madonna, awash in the light of hundreds of candles from below, looks down upon the devoted thousands in the streets praying as the parade goes by. pulsing through the narrow arteries of Seville. At each corner the float must carefully negotiate and maneuver with the control of the major domo leading the blind bearers below the float. Each hundred paces the paso halts, the men rest, their necks bleeding, raw from the weight of the reverence they bear. The plumes of the centurions cast feathered shadows from candlelight on the ochre walls framing both sides of the serpentine passage. The armor of the men glistens with the labor of the year’s polishing in anticipating this night of glory. The bell and the incense activate every sense as the paso continues with the sun’s rise. The streets allow little forgiveness for the casual observer. There is no room for the uncommitted. With a 15-foot wide float turning corners on streets barely 20 feet across, the viewers must give full attention. The hierarchy of leadership of the church controls the pace and navigation of the passage through the masses. The dawn’s light adds to the shadows, to the magic light dancing. A warming sun wrestles with the light of the candles for dominance, making the mid-April day begin to cook uncomfortably. The processional stops as a formally dressed matron, mantilla framing her face, looks down on the Virgin and sings carefully, clean, precise and passionate words, the crying of a woman who understands pain and suffering. It is the emotion only another woman can feel and share the loss of a son. The floats throb onward, moving, resting, milling, shuffling slowly forward. Ten a.m., noon, 2 p.m. the candles have not noticeably diminished in height, but the hoods and capes have lost some of their crispness from the coolness of the evening. Still the procession pulsates forward. The Madonna, Christ and attendants of all ages approach the entry after 12 hours’ march, returning to the welcoming Iglesia de Santa Marina. Finally the processional is met by a lone man. He is 47 years old, formally dressed on a balcony overlooking the church entryway. The arrival is marked by a hush among the masses. The vacuum of silence is filled by the piercing beauty of a tenor voice that, a capella, celebrates the return of the column with a note that he has practiced of the 51 weeks preceding this one. The song he sings fills the thick, hushed afternoon air as the moment is suspended. The reverence of the singer is so pure and rich his notes can be tasted. Minutes pass and the motionless crowd remains breathless, the only movement is the falling tears of the devoted young and old who share this moment. The tenor is silenced, weeping uncontrollably as the paso is swallowed up once again by the darkness and coolness of the waiting church. The centurions, penetentias and Moorish bearers offer tears and embraces at the end of the week of Easter, at the end of the day, at the end of the paso. Temporal intersections of religion, music, sweat, tears, light, costume and smells pass and fade as they must. The celebrants leave this instant of reverence and return to the world of the secular, and the masses counter the heat with sangria, cool beers and their hunger with pincho de pollos and pincho de carne. The exhausted children are collected by their equally spent parents. The bars in the barrio are swollen with children grasping hoods and wearing communion-like dresses. They drape over the shoulders of parents who share a beer with the centurions. All slake their their while still dressed in costumes, playing a role, a part in the pageant. The plumes tilt back as their heads are raised to accept the libation of cool beers. There is joy, pride, sweat, love and exhaustion all mixed in a steady stream of conversation, reviewing the pageantry as if it had changed this year from the past 500. It is a line that is not only physical, but spiritual and chronological. The scene changes from day to day with the pasos changing from barrio to barrio. By weeks end the streets are fat with the smell of wax. As the cars navigate the turns, snaking through the streets, the squeal reverberates where the rubber meets the wax. The nights turn into days, the drinks turn from thirst quenching to celebratory, the reverence to joy, party to prayer, light from sun to moon to candles. The city never sleeps. This is the week of sheer joy, devotion, celebration of God, city and self. It is Southern Spain, Seville, Samana Santa.
A little back-story. Road trips. This goes back to my kids being 7 and 11 and visiting every national park west of the Mississippi. There is a romance, an abandon being on a road trip. Calories don’t count and it is fine to feather your floating nest with carbohydrates. When my newly married daughter suggested we all go on a road trip for two weeks in the middle of their 10-month honeymoon, I was all over that one. But where to go? Where was it we had all never been that would be enough of an adventure for me, a vacation for my wife and a journey for the four of us?
Croatia? Why not? The name rolls off the tongue as exotic, like Constantinople. Part of the former Yugoslavia (Southern Slavs), it is a perfect mix of familiar and not quite. Think of a perfect vacation in Italy–then cross the Adriatic and meet a similar period and half the cost. Croatia is a bit of a necklace, start at the nape and work your way down. The jewels get more impressive as you work your way south. The journey begins in Zagreb, a city of one million small, affordable, slightly exotic and a portion of Croatia that has not quite caught up with the world. Here the Kunar goes a long way as the EU and the Euro is still in the future. The square is punctuated with a bronze rider on horseback, sword outstretched in the gray drizzle of Southern central Europe Spring. On the periphery of the square is a daily farmers’ market with two floors offering a cornucopia of produce, cheeses, breads, pastas and hams of every description. From the simplest to the most complex. It is hard to find fault with the freshest of ingredients. Up the street, next to the Astoria hotel is Ivan’s hat shop (8-12 and 4-7) with hand made hats spew forth from a treadle sewing machine. Berets and a semi-authoritarian/flight attendant caps are a must. Great and about $17 each.
Croatia doesn’t have the museums that are so prevalent across the way, but what they have is nothing shabby. And the crowds of Florence? – Forget it! Zagreb’s museum of Contemporary Art opened at the beginning of the 2010 with a collection of Croatian and global artists in an eye-popping modern internationalist style building. The work is decent, serviceable contemporary, nothing to overwhelm nor equally nothing to dismiss. The new structure is lined with LEDs that play videos and inundate the vehicular traffic with conceptual narratives as they drive by…perhaps more distracting than talking on a mobile while mobile.
The Modern Art Museum is an exploration of Croatian Artists that ran parallel to the masters of early 20th century French, German and Austrian names. It leaves a viewer unsure as to who came first the Croatian chickens or the western European eggs….The artists of Western Europe obviously had better press machines. The style of display is to pack as many objects into a gallery as can be conceived and then add a few more. This beyond salon style is more evident in the modern museum. Here the collection, which mirrors the style of the larger cities of Europe in the period from 1890-1930s, presents a more attractive destination. It is also walking distance from the main square. Gas lit streetlights still in use from the turn of the last century are still lit and dampened each evening. This should be emphasized as the idea of spending a few days in Zagreb can be well full with an in depth look at the city center and you never really need get in your car…..Unless you start driving to Opatija, Split, Hvar and South.
All the cities of Croatia are walk-able, or Zagreb is easy to get around with a trolley.
Start the road trip in Zagreb, getting a rental on your way out of town. As with any modern European city, there is not reason to have a car with a great public transportation network and being a pedestrian in Europe is a gift rather than a chore. But outside Zagreb, the transportation system is far from great. There is one train (overnight from Zagreb to Venice) daily. Something has gotten lost in the infrastructure and the country remains a bit isolated. Although there is a decent highway in portions of the country, other parts define the expression “hair-pin” curves. Think of driving US1 near Big Sur. Yes the coast line can be beautiful in parts, but for the driver it is all work and lots of it. But With Isteria and Opatija just a few hours west on good roads, it is well worth the visit. The food is Southern Slav mixed with Eastern Italian. While Zagreb has the meats-lamb, duck, pork—the coast moves into a seafood palette. The waterfront at Opatija has a 12 km stone walkway with the Adriatic and small boats on one side and small restaurants and shops on the landside. Walking to a restaurant to build an appetite, and walking back to a hotel after barbeques cuttle-fish (squid) Scampi (a form of shrimp/small lobster) with local olive oil and wine is like discovering the flip side of the Eastern Italian Coast.
In Optija you have lovely hotels and a beautiful seafront stone walk way to harbor, ocean and restaurants. The best of which is Le Mandrac. This is a must. Four or five perfect courses. Perfect. From the aerated black truffles to the lime enhanced crème fresh over chocolate molten cake. If you are in need of further adventure, you are an hour from Trieste or Slovenia. Drive a few hours down the coast and stop at Zadar. Here on the quay of the island town are marble steps and the Sea Organ of Zadar. This is the coolest name of any public monument or sculpture and a fabulous understated installation waiting for your enjoyment. Its constant deep throated tonal range is energized when any ferry goes by. Visit on a windy/choppy day and it sounds like a magical circus is in town.
Split is home of an enormous Diocylineatian palace that still dominates and defines the walls of the old city. Here shops and businesses are embraced in the architecture and keep it breathing. Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast and worth a few days visit. As beautiful as the city is during the day, it is perfect at night. The Venetians controlled the coast to the north and the history of this 3,000 year old city is marked with architecture and events that well pre-date the modern era. Split is history with a significant bump due to the influence of the Venetian empire and the power emanating into the Adriatic. The history of the entire coast is written into the walls—the city walls that surround all this habitations. The landscape is rocky and roads CAN be tricky. As you drive down the coast on four or two lane, remember the difficulty it would be for any aggressive force to move over these mountains and around these rocks. The far more obvious path is the sea, so every city is a walled fortress with protection aimed to repel a sea-born invader. This has evolved to a series of smaller, limited populations living within world monument class cities and evolving organically with them. Although every conservationist I know would disagree, the idea of “monumentalizing” a city and protecting it from further interaction with a living public is the goal of preservation, but it doesn’t describe how a city forms, grows and evolves. The beauty of the Dalmatian Coast is the living organisms these cities remain. On moving farther south there is more to discover. Cities such as Utica in Tunisia, Pompeii in Italy, Bagan in Myanmar hold well deserved spots on the World Monument and UNESCO historic list, but the cities of Hvar, Zadar, Split are living cities. This is the type of situation that would make a historian cringe. Imagine, someone hanging out laundry, cooking or putting up a satellite dish in a zone targeted for preservation. But these cities of Croatia are organic. They breathe, hold families where people live, die, cook and make noise. They are limited by building codes and more importantly city walls, but they are alive. These are not ruins.
The island of Hvar is an example of a quiet Adriatic Island accessible by ferry for an evening or two by heartbreakingly beautiful harbor. The day’s entertainment could well be sitting in a coffee shop on the square, overlooking the harbor, watching children on three and two wheelers scoot by and sipping a Maciado. There is no museum, no movie—here it is not about what you do, rather the act of being here is the goal in itself. Rarely did our rolling thunder road trip relax to this extent. No one wanted to move. After two days of bliss, the designated driver (myself) drove to the East end of the island Sucuraj 80 km of switchbacks and rough road. Sometimes two lanes, on occasion less. To catch the ferry to Drvenik—This is an hour ferry ride and a pleasant lounge to indulge in more coffee, a newspaper and dominoes, or watch the truck drivers play a seemingly continuous game of cards. It might be easier to take the longer ferry to Dubrovnik as the road from Drvenik to Dubrovnik is another tough drive.
In California tourists describe US1 and the road through Big Sur as breathtaking. It is beautiful if it is not jammed with tourists with, of course—breathless tourists. If you are driving it–different story. The road is a bitch and the driver is sweating and it is the least enjoyable drive on the planet. This stretch into Dubrovnik is tough and not as heroic in vista. The ferry from Sucuraj to Dubrovnik might be a better bet.
The father south you go, the more beautiful the jewels on this necklace….until Dubrovnik, which moves the metaphor from semiprecious to diamond. This is the centerpiece of a medieval city. The city (as is Split) is pure pedestrian. Limestone fortifications are double walled and form the limits of the city in arguably the most beautiful walled city in the world. The streets are unusual in their regularity of grid, which diverts from the normal chaos of a medieval plan. The main drag is a marble walkway bordered by luxury shops, cafes and restaurants. But still there are children playing soccer and local teenagers making too much noise on the way home from orchestra practice. Dinner at Pisrecki, at the harbor next to the former slave market, a two-hour walk on the periphery of the city walls makes a perfect day. But, as part of this history, one should also allow a visit to the museum that commemorates Europe’s most recent acts of barbarism and madness. In the museum to the fallen, the wall of 1991-1995 is presented in portrait and video. Although the entire city is on the historic monument site of every cultural organization it was still bombed by Serbians and Montenegrins and the population is very conscious of the privations and hardships that are part of their recent memory.
And finally, Dubrovnik. First, get your accommodations in order and make sure you stay at the Excelsior . This is THE hotel and the perfect cherry on the whipped cream. Dubrovnik is the star of the show and the excelsior is the five-star. Crammed within its city walls are parallel streets of tradesmen and history. The oldest continuously function Sephardic Synagogue is here, the lentils and posts of the doorway tear with their stories of battles that continued until the most recent destruction that came with the Serbia-Croatian War that lasted from 1991-1995.
Dubrovnik has a small museum—a room with plaques, video, mementos and a periphery of faces of young men killed in the war, looking like a Christian Bultanski installation. Maps of the damage done by the shelling adorn many of the public streets. The population does want the 250,000 killed in this war forgotten. The wounds here are fresh and the resentment toward Serbia is overt. There is an air of superiority here and the distinct feeling that Croatia was the victim of Serbian aggression and attempt to conquer or retain was is rightfully Croat. This is a complex political world and the citizens are both anxious and hesitant to discuss it. The wounds are fresh. People remember the privation of an anxious world not more than 16 years past. Rooftops have been too recently rebuilt from aerial and naval bombardments. That a city this small and precious could be the target of such violence has to be one of the mysteries of the world. One resident quoted a Serbian as saying “If we had leveled Dubrovnik we would have rebuilt it newer, older and better.” Who can argue with that logic? For all the adventures you must have in this perfection of pedestrian passages…it is lovely to return to the sheer quality of the Excelsior hotel. Open the window overlooking the Adriatic, view the walls of the city and listen to the lapping of the tide below. It doesn’t hurt that you are sitting in a 20-pound terry cloth bathrobe and sipping on Russian Standard Vodka, sold in the convenience stores. Yum. The excelsior has it all with an enclosed heated lap pool, saunas and spas. Perfection indeed.
Two weeks on a road trip through Croatia. My daughter and her new husband still had months to go as we boarded the plane for Zagreb to go on to home, while they deplaned there and continued their odyssey for months. (I think the rule of thumb is your honeymoon has to end by your first anniversary.)
In truth, it could have been anywhere. When you are invited to travel with your adult children, and their spouses, should they exist, you can go anywhere. I can be in a cheap motel in the middle of a ghetto and I would be fine to crack a bud lite rather than a two olive martini. It is about the people more than the places.
Croatia is more that “that will do.” It is a discovery, a vacation and an adventure. Too frequently left to German tourists as the closest access to the Adriatic beaches and days drive from the homeland…..Croatia is becoming discovered and it’s not to late to join in. But I would suggest haste. Go in the shoulder or slightly off-season, before the press of tourism. These are small towns and cities that become consumed by those that are there to appreciate them. This is the basic paradox of tourism. It is great because it is under visited, undervalued and under appreciated. As soon as it is “discovered”…it consumes itself. The lovely “Sea organ of Zadar” is actually a quay for a cruise ship. As the ship comes it, the site it uses to create the safe have, so beautify in its voice and solitude, goes silent with the protection of the ship and obscured by the gangplanks disgorging the passengers who are coming to enjoy it. Tourists eat their young…..so hurry.
***Time to go is Very late March…before tourism starts. Weather may be a bit sharp, but to have the streets empty, and the cities to yourselves is a joy.
Summer and you are battling German tourists in Wall-to Wall dysfunction and you loose track of what these cities are.
Hotels, Astoria, Excelsior. A note on this hotel and spa. My colleague asked the meaning of the word, and rather than reach for a dictionary I thought, plush robes, a steam room, sauna, 180 degree views of the Adriatic, a six floor sitting room, the lights of a ship cruising in the distance across placid waters, the lit walls of the city as I sit on the patio of my suite with a chilled martini. This is excelsior in my dictionary.
IF YOU GO
The Excelsior, Dubrovnik
Le Mandrac. This is a separate article and a destination on its own.
Each element of a dish grown, caught, picked or selected, each dish conceived and blended of a multitude of taste and texture, four dishes put together in a symphonic fashion to create a meal that is a destination in its own right. Four courses with a bottle of wine are about $65/person. Not a meal, but a memory. Black truffle that could only be described as eating angel pussy.
Obala F. Supila 10, Volosko
051 701 357
The Park Hotel Split.
Staff with all the warmth and charm of cold war era border crossing guards. Breakfast with cold refrigerated croissants. A must to avoid.
Hotel Palace in Hvar, still has a key, not a plastic card swipe– modest but lovely.
Archeological museum, highlight of the collection is the “Zagreb mummy” and its bandages, which are actually a linen book inscribed with Etruscan script. http://www.amz.hr/home.aspx
- Modern gallery for Denis Matia, www.mdc.hr
-Ethnographic museum www.etnografski-muzej.hr
Visit to Morton Museum www.muzej-marton.hr
-Art Pavilion, www.umjetnicki-paviljon.hr
-Museum of Contemporary art, www.msu.hr
-Zagreb city Museum www.mgz.hr
-The Strossmayer Old masters gallery www.hazu.hr
Sea Organ of Zadar
Veracruz, a party for the senses. Multi-colored skirts lift and twirl as the dancers spin to the accompanying music that fills the night air. The evening is filled with jasmine blossoms riding on mist; droplets of water from waves warm with Caribbean rhythms.
A breeze snakes over moonlight sands. It is accompanied by fragrances from islands far away. Intertwined with the air are notes spilling like drops of water from the doorway of a nightclub. Inside drums, trumpets, guitars and piano are played by ancient musicians to accompany their equally enthusiastic audience as they dance the “Dancon” A normal weekend evening in Vera Cruz, where time has stopped.
The music is Cuban, played by six expatriate musicians in a nightclub, or traditional Mexican to accompany the “Dancon,” a mannered, stylistic, semi-samba. The dancers are unselfconscious; dancing young and old with the sheer joy and exuberance of movement. Move further along the square and there is a military brass band. It is as if you are living in a house full of teen-agers with varying musical tastes. As you walk from block to block, the music changes, nut never stops. It is a seamless carpet of changing sounds; a paisley quilt of dance.
The Veracruzanos are a people that celebrate themselves. The seaport, 260 miles from Mexico City, is a destination and escape for the crowds and pollution of the capitol and the occasional tourist, the “norteamericano.”
The Zocalo, a classic Mexican square, centers the nightlife of restaurants, cotton candy vendors, natural herbalists, bands, fortune tellers—the entire spectrum of a culture that enjoys walking on warm Fall evenings, rather than watching MTV at home. This is traditional Mexico; a city that invites to in to share rather than exploit you as a tourist.
Walk a block from the Zocalo, near the Cathedral, and have a coffee at the “Gran Café de Parroquia.” This landmark is white tile room, punctuated with white-coated waiters who place clear glass cups in front of diners. The customer will “clink” the side of their cup to signal the desire for milk and a small boy will appear and arch a stream of warm milk into the center of strong black coffee from an alarming height with unbelievable velocity and accuracy. The room is dominated by two giant chrome and copper coffee urns, topped by two gleaming metal birds.
As you walk from the café to the zocalo, you can encounter a young naval cadet, ablaze in a starched whiteness with gold braid, standing under a streetlight, talking to a young woman in an emerald green suit. The circle of light embraces the couple in Pirates of Penzance splendor. They are engaged in each other, and oblivious to the stimulation around them. The sailor and his girl are blind and deaf to the sights and sounds cacophonous around them. She takes his arm, on the side without the sword, and they begin their walk.
Veracruz is a pedestrian city. Walking isn’t a convenience, it’s a way of life. The Malecon, is the traditional oceanfront walk. These offer the two basic after dinner venues, and the evenings entertainment. For a few pesos, you can have your name etched into a grain of rice and sold as an amulet or just sit on white, lace iron benches flanked by swaying coconut palms, and contemplate the dark water on moonlit nights. This is a postcard from the 1950’s, both visually and temporally. This is not the instant gratification of the Internet; turn off your cell phones and beepers, they won’t work here—or they shouldn’t. Progress can be a pariah, and Veracruz has not be tainted.
The beaches are not as clean as they should be, the city is far from manicured, but there is a gentleness and tranquillity that shouldn’t be missed. During the warm tropical days, you can relax on the soft brown sands and swim in the inviting gentle body-temperature waters. In California we live in the land of environmental monitoring, grown accustomed to listening with half an ear to potential beach closures. The water is not exactly the azure clarity of the traditional islands of the Caribbean, nor the deep royal blue of the Pacific, and there seems to be a noticeable slick on the horizon. For more enticing, exotic beaches visit the shop Tridente, that offers trips to some of the 22 off-shore coral reefs, islands and clean beaches. Here the few tourists in Veracruz, become non-existent. The world is yours alone.
I wouldn’t visit Veracruz for the hotels or the food. It is not a city that requires you to do specific sites, nor events—but it is the being there that finds you walking slower and listening more.
Restaurants in Veracruz are nothing special; the sit down, white-tablecloth variety are nothing special, rather the best in town are in the Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s central market. The second floor is filled with competing food stalls. Here the fish is always fresh, and best prepared as “Veracruzana”, a mixture of garlic, tomato, olive, chile and spices. The market is populated with live chickens, fresh vegetables, and endless rows of “pescas y camarones.”
The major tourist site is the fort, the Castillo de San Juan de Uluia, which guards the harbor. This was the site of the climactic scene of “Romancing the Stone.” This was perhaps the forts most notable accomplishment. As a fort, it was a singular failure. Invading forces would invariably land somewhere up or down the coast, capture the city, cut off the fort and wait. This was a well proven strategy employed by Caribbean pirates, the French and even twice by US forces.
If you grow tired of walking and absolutely have to see the sights, and perhaps prefer to explore a more exotic landscape, take a cab and drive to Coatepec, a Spanish Colonial town, high in the mountains surrounding Veracruz. Surrounding Veracruz the mountainside is full of lush greenery, dancing to the peaks of surrounding volcanoes, where waterfalls slam down into the streams feeding Veracruz. Here the air here is fat with the smell of roasting coffees. The houses are the colors of spice. The air is cooler, crisper and Veracruz seems a world away.
When visiting Veracruz, “seeing” or “doing” is not the goal; rather it is “being” in a relaxed 1950 small Mexican coastal city. If it were not for an extravagance of color and music, you might even be an extra in a Black and White silent movie. Relax and enjoy it, perhaps even dance.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Mexicana and Aeromexico have several flights daily through Mexico City, Continental flies direct from Houston.
Accommodations: Mar y Tierra 10 minutes from the zucola, at the beach-front mid priced tel 52-29/32-02-60 or the Royalty, close to the center, friendly staff tel 52-29/36-14-90
Seedy—but the best location–Hotel Imperial, Located in the center of the zocolo, balconies overlooking the endless parade of locals and tourists on weekend nights, one of the oldest, most beautiful elevators in Mexico. Architecture lovely, but rooms smell like a combination of insecticide, mildew and mold in a cocktail shaker of air-conditioning. Rooms approx. $40/night. Miguel Lerdo 157. Tel 011-52-29-32-12-04
Eating: Gran Café de Parroquia, Independencia 105 (6AM-1AM)
Information: Helpful tourist office (at the square) 52-29/32-19-99 (9AM-9PM)
A trip to Taxco (3 hours south) to see the ornate gold-leaf ornamentation of the carvings and architecture of the Santa Prisca church rewards the visitor with its decorative Baroque architecture but a view of a relatively unspoiled mountain town, quiet, pedestrian, filled with reflections of jewelry displayed in every window and mined underneath the town itself. Here you will also find real Mexican crafts, colorful masks and baskets, not the Taiwanese souvenirs that seem have invaded other cities.
Travel north four hours and visit San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city that is home to many American expatriates. A brief negotiation with a taxi and you can visit the Atontonilco church nearby. It was from here that Padre Hidalgo took the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe that became the flag of the Mexicans in the War of Independence. Six chapels with murals. The cappelli, inundated with baroque silverwork, the posterior alter room, circumscribed by the apostles are a hidden masterwork at the end of a bumpy cobblestone road. There are few building in this pueblacita other than this parish house and supporting structures. The isolation and beauty of this gleaming white plastered exterior, framing the gold and silver within, is one of the more remarkable discoveries in Mexico. Buy one of the most unusual souvenirs, key chains that are tiny replicas of the coarse whips were used by Atontonilco pilgrims to flagilate themselves.
Further east, approximately 450 kilometers east is Veracruz , the first town founded by the Spanish in Mexico on 1519. and the Castillo de San Juan de Ulua (accent over second u). This fortress once protected, or tried to protect a city of now one million inhabitants. San Juan de Ulua is now threatened by the encroachment of the sea, the undercutting of the foundations by the corrosive tides, and the encirclement of the activity of the harbor as monumental cranes describe the perimeter of the skyline surrounding the fort. In addition to being a fort with the first lighthouse in the Americas, it has some frightening remains of a prison, including a stone chair carved out of one wall, where prisoners were chained and a fire was built underneath them. The center square is charming, where dances are held on the weekends. Couples, both old and young, gracefully execute their steps on the marble plaza. Have breakfast at the Cafe de la Parroquia where the waiter pour hot milk in a flowing stream into your coffee.
Here as in several other locations such as Chiapas and Chiuhaua, the World Monument’s Fund focuses the attention of the world, and injects funding to halt erosion, collapse and eventually rehabilitates and restores these sites.
A diverse and exciting itinerary can be formed by simply picking up a list of these locations from their offices in New York.
In the midst of the centuries of cultural development, little can equal the memory of Senorita Por Favor. A simple working woman, stretching her tired body hands linked as she stretches and pulls her arms above her head and 180 degrees to the rear. This while accompanied by a limbering of her Achilles tendons as she rises from the loft of her already heady six inch heels. Here the lovely Senorita references the mysteries of the building of the pyramids of the sun, of the moon as the viewer must wonder about the substructure that supports such power, tension, architecture and virtual torque. This is architecture to be admired from a different aesthetic viewpoint, but miraculous none-the-less.
Mexico City is the capital of a foreign country and a foreign culoture, make no mistake. Take for example the restaurant, El Sabor del Grito—The flavor of the cry or scream—The TV monitor centered on the open wound, the dark cavity, probed by surgical steel, yielded endless feet of intestine, glistening, drops of blood clinging to the whiteness, the fat moisture glistening as feet yielded to yards and the organic material kept coming as the surgeon pulled to find the tear, the rip to be sewn, the wound repaired. Just at the moment of discovery, the waiter served my dinner. Upstairs, the matador, Gleason was being interviewed, as he sat at the dais, watching and narrating the surgery on the screen. In front of him, his suit of lights was propped in homage on a chair, in the middle of the room, surrounding the monitor, the matador, the suit sat 50 matadors, in rapt attention to the narrative, while eating their dinners, drinking their beers.
In Mexico, TVs are in nearly every restaurant. The soaps are on in the finest seafood restaurants, the football games are watched through the smoke of the grill serving 5 tacos for 15 pesos, food stand on wheels, lit by a bare bulb, at the corner of Insurgentes and Reforma. The surgery accompanies the enchiladas at “The flavor of the cry.” It’s not a bad idea to take a Pepto-Bismol each morning to act as a preventative…..but do check with your physician and remember bottled water or bottled liquids is standard, and remmber the words “sin hielo, without ice.”
From the pre-Columbian Indian Civilizations to the wonders of the modern physicality, fashion and style of the local citizenry, Mexico is a country that is too often over-looked, too frequently “slammed” by the cliches presented to off-handedly, casually to discourage. It is unjustified. Open your eyes to the charm of the Mexico, the rewards are ample. If only they would shut off the TV during dinner.
If You Go
Mexicana, Delta, Continental, American; avoid AeroMexico
Hotels in Mexico City-Fiesta Americana Reforma ($100+/night for a double). Reforma 80
06600 Mexico D.F.
beautiful, exemplary service hotel. A great clean, safe salad bar in their CAFÉ REFORMA coffee shop. (After a week of cautious eating most Californians will find this an oasis of roughage.)
Veracruz-Hotel Imperial, Located in the center of the zocolo, balconies overlooking the endless parade of locals and tourists on weekend nights, one of the oldest, most beautiful elevators in Mexico. Architecture lovely, but rooms smell like a combination of insecticide, mildew and mold in a cocktail shaker of air-conditioning. Rooms approx. $40/night. Miguel Lerdo 157. Tel 011-52-29-32-12-04
Taxies are about 100 pesos ($11) from the airport to town (fixed price)
Tourist taxis in Mexico City are the highest prices, set rates and negotiated, green and white Volkswagen taxis are cheap (The front passenger seat is always removed to allow entry for the two passengers in back. Make sure the driver uses the meter and doesn’t have it on a speed-reading setting.
Minibuses go up and down Reforma for 2 pesos (22 cents) a person, no matter what the distance. The distance buses are a normal mode of transportation to places such as San Miguel of Teotihuacan, either first or second class, they are comfortable alternatives to flying for the shorter hauls. Bottled water and all intestinal precautions are a must. A little common sense and most tourist discomforts can be avoided.
There are certain myths and unknowns about Rio that need to be dispelled and elaborated. These are the basics.
Keep Rio in Perspective—Music is the skeletal system of Brazil and Samba is the Pulse.
It is not the most dangerous city on the planet. Using every caution that you would find in any major urban center it should be a memorable, in fact un-missable experience.
The beaches are not topless. The Brazilians have a great attitude toward the body. Everyone wears the skimpiest of Bathing suits. Older women, overweight men, all shapes, sizes and colors let it all hang. Hey, this is the beach…. miles and miles of it.All the string bikinis could be places in an envelope and it would still only require one first class stamp. Skin rules the beach and it exists in abundance.
The chauvinistic male characteristic of being focused on breast development doesn’t exist. Brazil, is in love with the bottom. Heads turn to follow “a bunda.” Large or small, always extremely revealed. This is the land of the rear view.
Higher education is not what it appears. The Academia da Cachaça is a lovely, refined bar with every manner of this sugar cane derived rum possible. Courses in learning of this wonderful drink may leave you higher, but knowledgeable in only one aspect of consumption. The “Samba Schools” are actually fraternal organizations that create the world famous carnival displays, costumes and floats. There are 18 major schools. They begin early September and are centers for late night drinking, dancing, and heart-pounding samba. These are open to the public on weekend evenings for small admission charges.
Learn to dance. This is a city where everyone of every age, ethnicity and economic background, not only sings but also knows all the words. No one stands still and everyone dances constantly. Sensuous singers with sloe eyes spout gentle strains about loves and passions, while drums are woven with guitars and mandolins and a hint of brass. These enclaves are heard in the clubs, on the streets, around the beaches. Music is everywhere.
This is the home of the Museum of Carmen Miranda. Who can say more? But it also houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, built by Niemeyer, also the architect of Brasilia. In his nineties, he still holds court on Saturdays at the Hotel Caesar Park. Well worth a visit to meet one of the defining minds of 20th century architecture.
The cheapest food is best. The national dish is Feijoada. Made from black beans and organ meats and traditionally served on Saturdays, after cooking all day. Fish is surprisingly expensive for an oceanfront community. Better meals in the most upscale restaurants can cost $15-$18 for an entrée, but picking up some ham, cheese, fresh baguettes and a bottle of water will cost you less than $1 in a grocery one block from the beach.
This is an industrious country but they take their fun seriously. Time is divided into three segments; before, during and after “Happy-Hour.” Conversation will ramble in a stream along the street in a melodic Portuguese when you hear the English words “Happy Hour” interjected. Happy Hour is the defining moment of the day. As with many Latin countries, the real life of the city begins late and continues well into the night. It is not a hard regime to adopt, but most distinct from the southern California, “early to bed-early to rise” routine.
Go off the path a bit. Many tourists will be seduced by the luxury of the world famous beaches, Copacabana, Ipanemaand Leblon. They will visit the normal attractions and shop at the touristic “Feira Hippie.” All well and good, but with a little effort and a world more adventure, you can see the North East Fair, populated by a distinct smaller, regional group of people that dance the Forró, late into the night, all night and sell regional meats, grains and spices that you see nowhere else in the city. Also worth a visit is a Macumba ceremony. Usually, these are well into the suburbs or hills of Rio and are Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies where devotees dance in circles, offer food and fall into trances. The father out you can find one, the later the hour the more exciting these are. But, these are very difficult to find and gain invitation. Think of these as African-Cuban, Chongo ceremonies or Haitian Voodoo. VERY exciting.
Geographically, you can fit eleven Europes into Brazil and still have room for Texas. The land and the people are a diverse, integrated population. People here are constantly offering you a sign of “thumbs-up”. It is a city with scale. Rio boasts the worlds premier Samba-drome, a symmetrical tiered ¼ mile of reviewing stands, 100 rows up on either side complete with luxury corporate sky boxes. Here also is “Maracanã” the world’s largest soccer stadium for 93,000 people. As well is the largest Favela or slum in South America, a river of lower-income housing that flows down the mountain and overlooks the ocean over Leblon beach.
I approached Rio with media-inspired stories of robberies, dangers and people waking in iced bathtubs, a note, telephone and no kidneys. As I left Rio, I could not wait to return. I believe the dangers are romanticized fantasies and the realities are a place that can only be realized in dreams or on the beach. Drinking Caches in the moon shadow of Sugar-loaf mountain while lights, attached to fishing lines arc through the night sky and gently splash in the Atlantic surf…….I’m packed and ready, skimpy Speedo and all.
IF YOU GO
There are a variety of quality hotels, pick your pleasure. At the beginning of Copacabana and one of the best in town is the Le Meridien Copacabana.
Avenida Atlantica 290 – Leme
Rua Gonçalves Dias, 32 – Centro
Arco do Telles—Several outdoor bars and restaurants. Great for Happy Hour.
Avenida Armando Lombardi, 800 – Condado de Caiscais
Barra da Tijuca
Rua Gonçalves Dias, 28 – Centro
Toca do Vinicius has every shape and form of Samba and Bossa Nova
Rua Vinicius de Morais, 129- Ipanema
Museum of Carmen Miranda
Parque do Flamengo
Web site for further information: