There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Post

This blog has hitherto tended to ignore Christmas - but not this year.

Here, to mark the festivities, is Father Christmas/Santa Claus/St Nicholas

Icon of St Nicholas
Jvari Church, near Mtskheta, Georgia

The Church sits on a hill above Mtskheta, the 'Canterbury of Georgia'.

Just north of Tblisi, Mtskheta looks unpronounceable, but to my ear the locals seemed to say 'Sketa'.

A Happy Christmas to All

and a Happy and Prosperous New Year

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Oaxaca (1) Monte Alban: Part 5 of South East from Mexico City


We breakfasted on melon, pastries, bread and jam, avoiding corn-based products to settle queasy stomachs.

A Bus Ride from Puebla to Oaxaca

G arrived on time for our transfer. A red light was flickering on his dashboard, and the car continually threatened to stall at low speeds. He managed to keep it going, but we were relieved when the bus station came into view. G kindly presented us with a bag of home-made tamales for the journey, we said our ‘goodbyes’ and he went off to fix his car.

Unlike our journey from Mexico City, the bus left Puebla on time and we settled in for the 5hr, 340km trip to Oaxaca (pronounced O'Hacker - well, near enough). Some of our fellow passengers slept, some read, some watched the films, no one but us pulled aside the curtains to look at the passing world.

by bus from Puebla to Oaxaca
At first there was little to see, the maize harvest was over and the cut stalks were piled in the fields.

Harvested maize fields outside Puebla
Further out of town we continued across an uncultivated plateau, with much unfamiliar vegetation and many cactuses…

The plateau once Puebla was left behind
…though the best cactuses were in a garden around one of the toll booths. At a couple of the toll booths inspectors got on the bus, gave a little speech, walked up and down, said goodbye and left. I have no idea what they were looking for, but they seemed friendly.

Cactus garden at a toll booth on the road to Oaxaca
Lunchtime came and went. We considered the tamales, but going without seemed a better option than more corn dough.

Later the land became more rugged, the valleys deeper….

Nearing Oaxaca, the valleys get deeper...
…and the bluffs higher.

Nearing Oaxaca, the bluffs get steeper
As we descended into Oaxaca, 500m lower than Puebla, we realised we had passed through no towns or villages en route. We had seen occasional dwellings and farm buildings, but had by-passed the sizeable town of Tehuacán, and maps show little else between the major cities of Puebla and Oaxaca.

The House and Garden of Cassiano Conzatti, Oaxaca

We were met at the bus station by a large cheerful man who introduced himself as Oscar. He drove us to the Conzatti House Hotel in the Centro Historico, once a rambling colonial-style private home.

Hotel Casa Conzatti, Oaxaca
Italian-born educator and botanist Cassiano Conzatti arrived in Mexico aged 19 in 1881 and lived in Oaxaca from 1891 until his death in 1951. Although lacking a formal botanical training, he collected and studied the local flora, became director of Oaxaca’s Botanic Gardens and published 32 works, describing 92 new species. One genus, numerous species and the garden opposite his former home are named after him.

The carnivorous plant Pinguicula Conzattii
Photographed in Oaxaca by Noah Elhardt and borrowed from Wikipedia
 We took a walk round the garden and surrounding area, finding two Italian and one Moroccan restaurants within a short distance. Oaxacan cuisine is famous and I pride myself on eating local wherever I may be, but neither of us could face more corn dough so that night we went Italian.

Jardin Conzatti, Oaxaca
Oaxaca is lower and warmer than Puebla, but cool rain fell as we tucked into fettuccini with ham and mushrooms, and downed a cheapish bottle of La Mancha red. It was not the best Italian food, nor the finest Spanish wine, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.


Breakfast of huevos con jamon would have been better had the cook seasoned the scrambled eggs, but the fruit, bread and jam were good.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Our morning visit to Monte Alban was a shared tour organised by a local company. We waited for someone to pick us up, half expecting the cheerful Oscar, but it was a weasel-faced youth who arrived ten minutes late. It is standard practice for someone doing a pick up to establish their bona fides by knowing your name; Weasel had no idea who we were, and then announced that we should pay him for the trip. I told him we had prepaid. He gave me a look of intense irritation, pulled out his phone and a few minutes later he told me my name and that we had indeed prepaid. We climbed into his empty minibus and for the next twenty minutes toured Oaxaca's hotels as he filled it up.

We expected to go to Monte Alban next, but instead he drove into the courtyard of a large hotel, apparently a minibus marshalling point. We were taken off his bus and sent to sit in the shade with a lone American lad while everyone else was driven away. Our feeling of being sat on the naughty step was intensified when another bus arrived, our new American friend was put on it and we were left on our own.

The organisation may have been shambolic, or perhaps it was just that nobody explained it to us, but another bus soon arrived, we joined a mixed group, mainly Americans and Mexicans, and were driven out of town on a road which became progressively steeper and narrower as it left the urban confines behind.

The Monte Alban archaeological site is 400m above the valley, and from the car park we had a good view down into Oaxaca.

Oaxaca from Monte Alban
Our busload was divided into hispanophones and anglophones (which included several speakers of other north European languages), more people were added from other buses until eventually an anglophone group of about twenty was led away by a bulky elderly man in a large stetson.

Before we could enter we had to endure an argument between Stetson and a twentyish American who wanted to take his drone in, despite the large NO DRONES sign. Stetson said no. ‘But I have no intention of flying it,’ the lad whined. Stetson stood firm, Drone-boy became heated and Stetson continued to stand firm. Eventually, realising he was making no friends, Drone-boy was persuaded to use one of the lockers thoughtfully provided for such eventualities.

After listening to Stetson’s long introductory lecture we finally made it onto the site.

Onto the Monte Alban site while in the foreground Stetson and Drone-boy continue their discussion
Despite the length of the lecture and time we spent there, there is little say about Monte Alban. Built by the Zapotecs, presumably as a civic-ceremonial centre, it was founded around 500BC and abandoned between 500 and 750AD. It has been convincingly demonstrated that the civilization here had cultural and trading links with other centres, notably Teotihuacan but if the Zapotecs had writing, none has survived let alone been deciphered so everything else is speculation. No one knows what they called the site, nor even how it got its Spanish name.

The main plaza is an artificially levelled sward 300m long by 200 wide.

Main plaza, Monte Alban
Along the sides are, probably, civic-ceremonial and/or elite residential buildings,…

Civil/Ceremonial buildings (?) and the north platform, Monte Alban
while the line of structures down the centre of the plaza are …um…important…definitely.

The west side of the Monte Alban plaza, with the buildings along the median on the right - ending with the arrowhead-shaped building (see below)
None of this uncertainty concerned Stetson. Over the years he had formed opinions and gradually these opinions had strengthened until, if only in his own mind, they had solidified into facts. 'Can you spot the altar?' he asked as we stood in the shade of the central buildings. Nobody offered a suggestion. 'It's obvious,' he said and led us towards the only structure not on the boundaries or central alignment. Nobody can be certain this is an altar - nor whether there was an altar, nor even whether it was a religious site at all, but Stetson knew (and he might be right).

The altar? Monte Alban

An arrowhead-shaped building turned at an angle to the median line pointed straight at the Pleiades, he told us. Even Stetson could not explain why this was important, but the stars move, so it must always be pointing at something of astronomical interest.

Lynne in front of the arrowhead-shaped building, Monte Alban
Stetson finished his spiel with the suggestion that we should climb the south platform (the north platform was cordoned off and festooned with wooden props supporting earthquake damaged structures), have a wander and meet our guides in the car park in 30 minutes. 'Fair enough,' we thought, though there was no one we could identify as 'our guide'.

The South Platform, Monte Alban
There was little to see on the south platform itself,...

On the south platform, Monte Alban
...but it provided an excellent view back down in the valley...

The Oaxaca Valley from Monte Alban
...and, of course, across the whole Monte Alban site.

Monte Alban from the south platform
Several steles are positioned round the site. One group, known as the Danzantes, were once interpreted as carvings of dancing men. This fitted well with Stetson's view that the Zapotec civilization was a golden age and Monte Alban a Shangri-la. 'There were no human sacrifices or anything unpleasant until the Aztecs came,' he told us with certainty. Later archaeologists wondered why the Danzantes were missing certain important organs, and current thinking is that they represent the tortured and mutilated bodies of prisoners taken in war. Stetson might disagree.

Stele, Monte Alban
Our return to Oaxaca was as chaotic as our journey up the mountain. I will spare you the details, but we eventually arrived back at Casa Conzatti in the car of the tour company boss in time for a late-ish lunch of soup and chunks of bread.

A Stroll into and Around Central Oaxaca

In the afternoon we strolled to the city centre, 20 minutes away. Oaxaca's precise grid of narrow roads with frequent traffic lights make driving frustrating, but is good for walkers. Even the fiercest of monsters is no problem...

Fierce monster in the streets of Oaxaca
...and if you are unsure of your location the city tells you, colourfully. Behind is Santo Domingo de Guzman, and we intended to visit the church and museum on Thursday.

Oaxaca sign, Oaxaca
The centre is a square, part paved and part wooded. There is no excuse for having dirty shoes in Oaxaca...

Shoe shine stalls, Oaxaca city centre
...and anything you require can be found in the shops or stalls, some semi-permanent, others very temporary.

Some of the more permanent stalls round Oaxaca city centre
The non-paved part of the square was covered in tents. The earthquake that shook Mexico city on the 8th of September was followed by another, slightly smaller but centred near here, on the 25th. The tents were occupied by those made homeless two months before.

Tents, Oaxaca city centre
Just off the square is the cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Construction started in 1535, earthquake damage required a couple of rebuilds and the present structure dates from 1733, though the towers needed rebuilding in 1931. The central section is highly decorated but the rest is plain – why bother with all that work when it will come down in the next earthquake? Oaxaca is known as The Green City as much of it is built from the local green-tinged Cantera stone. The Cathedral is a fine example – and no, it does not look very green to me, either.

Oaxaca Cathedral
The inside is relatively simple, as Catholic cathedrals go, though the railed off section down the centre was something we had not seen before and do not understand.

Inside Oaxaca Cathedral
Back in the square we drank a cappuccino at one of the many cafés...

Cappuccino in the main square, Oaxaca
.before strolling back towards our hotel.

The misleadingly named Day of the Dead is actually a three day festival (31st Oct to 2nd Nov) where families gather to celebrate the lives of deceased relatives, rolling together Christian All Saints Day with pre-Hispanic cultural practices and adding a touch of Halloween. Although the festival was three weeks ago, some of the decorations remained, like the skeletons in the photo below.

Day of the Dead skeletons climb around the balconies


Further along we found the entry to an Organic Market. We wandered in, but it was largely food stalls and in the late afternoon most were packing away. The pulque stall, though was still operating.

Pulque stall, Oaxaca Organic Market
Pulque, the fermented juice of the agave, has been drunk by Mexicans for millennia. Lonely Planet says “it retains an earthy, vegetal taste and has a thick, foamy consistency some people find unpleasant.” It is often sold 'curado' (mixed with fruit juices) to make it more palatable, and we had tasted a curado version at Teotihuacan. This, though, was the 'natural'; it was very pleasant, not thick or foamy in the least, and had a refreshing sharpness.

Drinking pulque, Oaxaca Organic Market
In the evening we visited the second Italian restaurant for pizza, spaghetti and more cheap Spanish wine. After two full days without corn dough we were feeling much better.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Puebla, Cinco de Mayo and Street Food: Part 4 of South East from Mexico City

Méson Sacristía de la Compañía, A Characterful Hotel

In Puebla we stayed at the Méson Sacristía de la Compañía, a boutique hotel in the heart of the old town.

Meson Sacristia de la Compania, Peubla

A colonial building, the atrium is also the restaurant and our room opened onto the gallery above.

The Atrium, Meson Sacristia de la Compania
The door to our room is on the gallery, top left

The room had character. Photographing your bathroom door would generally be considered eccentric, but not (perhaps) when it is a solid slab of wood set in a Talavera tiled wall.
Probably the first bathroom door I have ever photographed,
Meson Sacristia de la Compania

For breakfast we ate huevos rancheros in the atrium. I had been looking forward to this Mexican speciality but found it as disappointing as last night’s mole poblano. Two fried eggs sitting on a tortilla had been hosed down in a thin sauce, its main contribution being to make the tortilla soggy. A dump of the ubiquitous black beans topped with slices of avocado completed the ensemble. Lynne eschewed the tortilla, soggy or not she had decided that corn-based foods were not for her; fortunately there was also fruit and bread and jam so nobody went hungry.

Fort Loreto Park and the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, Puebla

G was a little late. As the first picture shows, workman were busy stringing up Christmas lights, and the street had been closed to traffic, so he had to park further away and walk.

He drove us up to the Fort Loreto Park where there are views over the city, and even a distant sight of Popocatepetl – G’s pronunciation gave this already magnificent word a lilt I wish I could imitate. It is somewhere in the picture, hiding in the mist.
Puebla from Fort Loreto Park

The park occupies the site of the Battle of the 5th of May. We prefer to name battles after their location, it is more informative (maybe, but where are Blenheim and Malplaquet?) while Cinco de Mayo tells us only that the battle took place in spring, offering no clue as to where, in what war and between whom. G clearly thought the battle a big deal so I decided not to mention that I had never heard of it, nor of the war of which it was part.

Cinco de Mayo is a public holiday in Puebla State and is widely observed in the USA as a day of celebration of Mexican culture. In North Staffordshire the date tends to pass without comment. The park contains some of the floats used in the annual procession, like this model of the Monumento a la Revolución we had seen in Mexico City.
Model of the Monumento de la Revolucion, Fort Loreto Park, Puebla

Mexico had hardly recovered from the Mexican-American War (1846-8) when a civil war broke out (the Reform War 1858-60). The government ran out of money and in 1861 President Benito Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on the repayment of foreign debt. The main creditors, Britain, France and Spain, sent fleets to Veracruz. The British and Spanish withdrew after negotiations, but Napoleon III saw an opportunity for a French influenced Mexican Empire.

In late 1861 a French army stormed Veracruz and marched on Mexico City. On the 5th of May 1862, at Puebla, they attacked a smaller, poorly equipped Mexican force. Misled into believing they had the support of the townspeople the French assault was badly organised and over-confident and the result was a crushing Mexican victory.
Veracruz is a major port on the Gulf of Mexico at the same latitude as Puebla

The victory did a great deal for Mexico’s national self-esteem, but little to alter the course of the war. In July 1863 Maximilian, Napoleon III’s nominee and the younger brother of Franz Joseph I of Austria, became Emperor Maximilian I of the Second Mexican Empire.

His empire did not endure. Looming war with Prussia led to French forces being withdrawn in 1866, while the Americans, no longer distracted by their own civil war, sent aid to Benito Juárez and his government in exile, hiding out in Northern Mexico.

The Empire collapsed within a year and Maximilian was executed on the 19th of June 1867.

Xanentla and a Solution to Mexico's Graffiti Problem

Leaving the park, G drove us down to the suburb of Xanenetla. Mexico has a graffiti problem, but Xanenetla has a novel solution.
The whitewashed walls of the dwellings have been given over to street artists.

Xanenetla, Puebla
The styles are many,
Painted houses, Xanenetla, Puebla
…the colours bright and varied,…
Painted houses, Xanenetla, Puebla
…as are the choices of subject.
Pandas, Xanenetla, Puebla
Sadly there is a little evidence that this is not a complete solution.
Painted houses and some graffiti, Xanenetla, Puebla
Puebla's Secret 'Tunnels'

‘Secret tunnels’ make frequent appearances in adventure books for children, but rarely actually exist. The secret tunnels beneath Puebla were long regarded as urban legend until their rediscovery in 2015. Several hundred metres of tunnel lead from near Xanenetla back towards Fort Loreto. Large enough to accommodate horses as well as men, the tunnel was probably built by the conquistadors in the 1530s to move church treasure in times of danger and may later have played a part on the events of the 5th of May 1862. No longer secret and now carefully restored, we walked its length inspecting the exhibitions of horseshoes, tools and other detritus left by the original users.

The no longer 'secret' tunnels of Puebla

We emerged in another tidy suburb and waited while G fetched the car, before driving us back into town.
A brief wait while G fetched the car, Puebla

Street Food and Another Tunnel, Puebla

Lunchtime had arrived and G’s brief was to show us the street food of Puebla. Accepting this would involve corn dough we approached a young man with a plastic basket stuffed with tiny, warm tacos folded round a vegetable paste. They were pleasant, if a rather bland before the addition of chilli sauce and onion.
G offers Lynne a tiny taco

After our starter we dropped down into another ‘secret’ tunnel - nobody knows how many are awaiting discovery, but informed speculation suggests they may stretch for 10km below the city. We followed the river that once flowed above ground through the city centre, passing several old bridges. The river is now a sewer and we gratefully left this pungent hole in the earth to emerge in Puebla’s artistic quarter.
The pungent tunnel under central Puebla and an old bridge

Puebla (in full, Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza for Ignacio Zaragoza who led the Mexican forces on the Cinco de Mayo) was previously called Puebla de los Angeles, and angels are still made welcome.
My wife is often mistaken for an angel, Puebla

Tortillas, large blue ones, were cooking on a roadside hotplate. Blue corn cobs look odd but taste the same as the familiar yellow and, except for the colour, their dough is identical. Once ready they were smeared with salsa roja and salsa verde – half green, half red like the Mexican flag - a slick of sour cream was added, followed by a sprinkle of cheese and finally some grated onion.
Our main course is prepared, Puebla

The result was not unpleasant, but I had hoped for something exciting, and this was not it. Eventually the weight of corn dough, lying in my unaccustomed stomach like a lead ingot, defeated me, though I ate more than Lynne.

I hate to be an Eeyore, and I am far from the Brit abroad reluctant to venture beyond omelette/steak ‘n’ chips, but I did not understand what they were trying to do. I love strong flavours, but the salsas were watery and underpowered and having made the tortilla soggy with salsa they piled on yet more wet ingredients. And what is the point of Mexican cheese? Why does it not taste of anything?
Lynne and a patriotic tortilla, Puebla

As we ambled through the artist’s quarter, G suggested we pause for a drink. Two 30cl bottles for 30 Pesos (£1.20) was the attractive lunchtime offer so I bought four bottles between the three of us. Mexican yellow lager is nothing special – Corona’s worldwide popularity is a triumph of marketing over substance – but they brew some more characterful ‘Vienna-style’ dark lagers. On this occasion we enjoyed Dos Equis Ambar, but at other times appreciated Bohemia and Victoria.
Artist's quarter, Puebla

Puebla's Centro Historico

Those who linger too long at the café tables might forget where they are, so the city fathers have kindly erected a large reminder nearby.
Where am I?

The building behind, the Teatro Principal,….
Teatro Principal, Peubla

…is described as the oldest ‘active theatre space’ in America. The theatre was built in 1742 but has since burnt down and twice been rebuilt – though it occupies the same ‘space’. It still has the royal box once used by the unfortunate Maximilian I, though the theatre has been rebuilt since his time!
Inside the Teatro Principal, Puebla
After a lunch dominated by corn dough we were relieved when G suggested ice-cream for a mid-afternoon snack and selected a shop offering a wide choice of flavours, some of them a little odd (cheese ice-cream, anyone?). We could translate most, G helped out with several more, but even he could not render Maracuyá or Guanabana into English, so that was what we chose.
Ice-cream choices, Puebla
The ice-cream was good quality, both flavours were enjoyed and although maracuyá was familiar we could not quite place it. Guanabana remained a mystery. [Maracuyá, we learnt later, is passion fruit, so we should have recognised it, guanabana is soursop. No, nor me. Wikipedia says it is a spikey, vaguely pear-shaped fruit that grows on an evergreen tree widespread in tropical parts of the Americas. Its flavour is a combination of strawberry and apple with a sour citrus note. I have never seen one, but it makes a good ice-cream.]
Eating ice-cream in Puebla
We wandered along the street, dropping into several sweet shops for a taste of the sweeties and, in one, a tot of mezcal (of which more in a future post) a more interesting spirit than the better-known tequila.
The Church of San Domingo, originally the church of the Dominican Monastery, was built between 1571 and 1611 (or 1659, depending on source).
The Rosary Chapel of Santo Domingo,Puebla
The reredos is covered with statues of saints….
Reredos, Santo Domingo, Puebla
…but on the arch in front of the altar are two stucco faces, apparently of Don Quixote. In 1605, 262 copies of Cervantes’ newly published book arrived in Veracruz and it is believed that plasterwork specialist Pedro García Durango chose to incorporate this homage. It is believed to be the only depiction of a character from a novel in the fabric of any Catholic Church.
The stucco on the arch with two depictions of Don Quixote
Santo Domingo, Puebla
The Rosary Chapel was added between 1650 and 1690 in New Spanish Baroque.
Dome of the Rosary Chapel, Santo Domingo, Puebla
At the time it was hailed as the 8th Wonder of the World and it is certainly impressive, if a little over the top. As many others have found the overhead lighting and reflective surfaces make the altar difficult to photograph (though there was no problem with the ceiling).
Altar, Rosary Chapel, Santo Domingo, Puebla
Outside, in the Av Cinco de Mayo (what else?) the shade from the huge trees made it feel like an enclosed arcade.
Av Cinco de Mayo, Puebla
The avenue ends at the zocalo, the main square, with the early 20th century Municipal Palace (Town Hall)…

Municipal Palace, Puebla
…while opposite, behind a small wooded park, is the cathedral. Started in 1575, it was consecrated in 1649, though it was not finished until 1768 which explains why the façade is transitional between late baroque and neo-classical.
The façade of Puebla cathedral
The interior is large, complex and confusing, with five naves and five altars, one hexagonal central altar (a clear line of sight for a photograph was impossible) and four facing in the cardinal direction.
One of non-hexagonal altars, Puebla Cathedral
With G, a full day’s tour had meant exactly what it said, but now it was time to head back to our hotel. In my photographs the streets of Pueblo look clean, uncluttered and pleasantly relaxed. That is a fair reflection (though if you want to find traffic you can), but Puebla suffered in the September earthquake, there was much scaffolding inside the cathedral and it was not hard to find closed roads and buildings supported by props.
Earthquake damage, Puebla
Back at our hotel we found the Christmas lights had been strung up but were not yet operational so we walked down to find dinner in the gloom.
The Christmas lights are up, but not on, Puebla
The only open restaurant was the place we lunched yesterday. Inside there was no heating, at 2,000m+ Puebla gets cold once the sun goes down, and no other customers.  Lynne thought she could manage nachos with cheese and beans while I had egg, sausage and beans – the distinctively Mexican version of scrambled eggs, salchichas and black beans, so not quite as all day English breakfast as it sounds. We thought we had made a poor choice of venue even before the youthful waiter tried to short change us; it was an amateurish attempt and he backed down as soon as confronted.
It was not a comfortable night, the lunchtime tortillas made themselves felt, but an Imodium was sufficient to solve the problem.