Havana, Cuba: Beautiful in neglect

The amber glow of sunrise warmed the waterfront as our ship docked.  Its upper deck provided us a view of the port as if we were seagulls soaring above the first commuter ferries of the day crossing the harbor.  Along the water, buildings wore a tired facade of montage color and aged textures. Beautiful in neglect. These were our first impressions of Havana. The few buildings under renovation were easy to spot with their fresh coats of paint. The domes of the Russian Catedral Ortodoxa Nuestra Señora de Kazán, built to celebrate Soviet – Cuban friendship glistened in the sunrise, its onion shaped domes an odd juxtaposition, accented the balmy Caribbean skyline.  We’d be spending two full days in Havana.

By the time Nevada legalized gaming in 1931, Havana, once nicknamed “the Paris of the Caribbean” was already a well-established tropical get-away for gambling, especially if you lived in the wintry northern parts of the United States.  Havana’s balmy weather and swaying palms contrasted nicely against Las Vegas’ dusty strip in the desert where tumbleweeds blew across the sidewalks. In the 1950s, fifty dollars could purchase a three-day package tour to a Havana casino that included airfare, entertainment, food and hotel. Cruises to Havana from Miami were also possible aboard ships like the 725 passenger S.S. Florida for $46.00. For an additional $35.00 you could take your car along if you wanted to explore the “700 miles of Cuban highways,” a travel brochure from the time advertised. Cruise ships arriving at night were occasionally treated to displays of fireworks over the centuries old Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro and the highrise apartments along the Malecon as they entered the harbor. It was city of Jazz clubs, high rollers, zoot suits, large finned Cadillacs and mobsters. Headliners like Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt, and Nat King Cole drew folks to the casinos controlled by New York, Chicago, and Miami crime syndicates.

Mafia payoffs to the rampantly corrupt regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and his associates allowed their casinos, brothels and drug running operations to flourish unimpeded. As flashy as the casinos were, the sugar industry dominated ninety percent of the rural Cuban economy for decades and was the largest employer in the countryside until sugar prices collapsed.  That along with government policies that ignored its impoverished citizenry bred increased discontent as the disparity of wealth between the rural poor and the Havana elite grew intolerable. The jungled mountains of the islands’ interior sheltered Fidel Castro and his armed revolutionaries. 1959 was their year. Batista and his cronies fled to the Dominican Republic. Afterwards all homes, properties, businesses, and cars were nationalized.  An exodus of the Cuban middle class followed with approximately 1.4 million people heading to the United States to reestablish their lives.

While Europeans and Canadians have long traveled to Cuban government-run tourists’ resorts along the coast, we were visiting the island on a cruise during that first window of opportunity which opened to Americans between 2016 – 2019, before access was unfortunately tightened again.  Recently the travel restrictions to Cuba have once again been loosened.

Rush hour in Havana happens whenever the cruise ships disgorge their passengers onto the waterfront to walk into the city center, catch their bus tours or to snag a ride in one of those classic cars from the late 1950s. There are literally thousands of antique cars still on the roads in Cuba, jury-rigged to keep running and often repainted with house paint that reflects the bright ambience of the Caribbean. 

Depending on where you are in the disembarking queue these beautiful classics, especially the convertibles, might already be tooting around Havana with other tourists and you might have to opt for a coco taxi.  These entertaining rickshaw type taxis are covered in a bright yellow, fiberglass shell and have seating for three across the rear axle. When it rains, you are going to get soaked as we did when we got caught in a downpour. The return ride was definitely more comfortable after several Cuba Libre cocktails. 

Down the side streets of the city, it wasn’t unusual to see these vintage cars raised on cinderblocks, their hoods open as amateur mechanics tinkered away to keep their classic beauties running. There are about 60,000 old American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most date from the 1950s, but there are still Packards, Cadillacs, Dodges, Chevys, Studebakers and Fords from the 1940s and 30s that are still road worthy.  This is an amazing testament to the talent of Cuban mechanics that have been “MacGyvering” the repairs with makeshift parts since the revolution ended in 1959, when the U.S. trade embargo began and Cuba banned the import of American products. While some cars look to be in mint condition, often the interiors are taped together, door handles are missing, and the windows don’t roll up. Engines don’t last forever and it’s not uncommon to swap engines between the American makes and models. Sometimes even the motors from Russian Volgas and Ladas work their way under the hood of Fords and Chevys. Fiats and Peugeots were imported after the revolution but proved to be not as durable as the American models. 

With the nationalization of property in 1959 the nicer cars of the wealthy who fled were assigned to government officials, doctors, renown celebrities and famous athletes. Regulations prohibiting the ownership of cars were eventually changed to allow Cubans to freely purchase older cars brought to the island before the revolution. Often cars are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation, with fathers teaching sons the intricacies of keeping the cars running. It’s extremely rare to find new automobiles in Cuba as the government imposes very high taxes on car imports, rendering them highly unaffordable for the vast majority of Cubans.

The ingenuity of Cuban mechanics can surely teach us a thing or two about sustainability. Wonderfully many of these resourceful home mechanics have kept these automotive treasures alive and have created an income for their family by offering rides in their classic cars to tourists. “There are no junkyards in Cuba; everything is still driven.”

Flagging down a Cadillac convertible, we took a ride along the Malecon seafront before breakfast at a paladare recommended on TripAdvisor.  Paladares are small privately run restaurants, usually operated out of the chef’s home, that have been allowed to open as Cuba relaxes its ban on private enterprise in the country.  Typically, their menus change daily depending on what is available at the markets.

After breakfast, our original plan was to walk to Havana’s Central Park to join a tour of the city with a Guruwalk guide. Unfortunately, we arrived late and missed the group. Unfazed, we decided to wander on our own around the city.

Parque Central is the nucleus of a daily classic car show with the old cars neatly lined up for tourists to choose which nostalgic Ford or Chevy they want to cruise around the city in.  Length of the trip and price can be bargained for with each driver.

Across from the park, sparkling from the completion of a recent renovation, the ornate baroque façade of the Gran Teatro de La Havana drew our attention. Built in 1838, it’s a cavernous structure that can seat 1,500 people and is home to the Cuban National Ballet Company.  President Obama addressed the Cuban people from its stage in 2016 and the biennial International Ballet Festival of Havana is hosted here.

While many hotels and historic public buildings immediately surrounding Havana’s Central Park have been pristinely renovated, you need only to walk a half block down any side street and it’s obvious that the maintenance of the city has been neglected for decades. With many of the buildings in central Havana dating from the 1800’s, most are severely showing their age. Signs of structural neglect were endemic.

This quote I found sums up concisely the housing situation. “In Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time and if a building is ‘collectively-owned’, it’s understood that the State is the one responsible, but the government doesn’t have the resources for maintenance.”

We worked our way towards Real Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas, a historic cigar shop and factory dating to 1845, located behind the Capitolio Nacional de Cuba, a near replica of the United States’ capital building, only larger and with a higher dome. A tour of the cigar factory, where 500 people sort, grade and roll tobacco leaves into world famous habanos, cigars, was not available the day we visited, but we were able to watch a cigar rolling demonstration.

Asking for a recommendation for a place to eat enroute back to the harbor the salesman at the cigar shop suggested Tablao de Pancho, Grupo El Guajirito. Along the way a pleasant young woman, sensing we might be lost, spoke to us in excellent English and offered to guide us to the restaurant. She declined a tip for her assistance, so we asked her to join us for lunch instead. She quietly saved half her meal to take home to her child, because her ration card did not provide for enough food.

Life and business are conducted on the streets of the neighborhood with most doorways and shallow balconies harboring tenants trying to stay cool. A mattress maker refurbished rusted bedsprings on the sidewalk. Vegetable cart vendors pushed their wagons around the blocks. The scarcity of some the smallest luxuries and basic necessities is visible and there was a sense of waiting, but what for was difficult to determine. The hardships of life that the residents of the city endure under a failed socialist revolution are still very much in evidence in the forgotten, gritty side streets of the capital.

The cigar chomping aficionado in our group was determined to purchase the legal limit of Cuban habanas that were permissible to bring back to the states at the time, so three of us crammed into a coco taxi, a not particularly macho ride to cruise in along the Malecon.

Our destination was the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for a smoke and a glass of rum. A historic 1930s hotel and casino, before the revolution it attracted American celebrities like Erroll Flynn, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, and Walt Disney. Now the hotel annually hosts the Festival de Cine Nuevo Iberoamericano and claims Michael Keaton, Francis Ford Coppola, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Steven Spielberg as past attendees.

Later that afternoon, behind the 1500s era Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a star shaped fortress that protected the colonial harbor, we wandered through the Old Havana district, still lively since the days when treasure laden Spanish galleons from the New World stopped in Havana before voyaging back to Spain.

Latin music filled Obispo Street and Calle O’Reilly, the two main boulevards, the later named to honor Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irish born soldier who fought for Spain during the British siege of Havana in 1762. This neighborhood is alive with street buskers and has an entrepreneurial spirit that’s visible in many the restaurants, galleries and shops that line the sidewalks here.

Our ship listed heavily as gale force winds churned the sea as we left the shelter of the harbor and passed the solid stone walls of the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.

Across the water large waves crashed against the seawall that protects the Malecon from collapsing into the sea.

It’s all too easy to romanticize poverty in an exotic destination that’s veiled by swaying palm trees and a pristine Caribbean sky.  The people of Cuba deserve better from their government. Watching the skyline of Havana fade in the twilight we wondered if Cuba’s sea change was coming.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Ronda Road Trip – The Pueblos Blancos or Blinded by the Light

Needing a break from city life we rented a car at the Santa Justa train station and within minutes we were out of Seville heading south to Ronda, one of Andalucia’s many “Pueblos Blancos,” the white villages, so called because of their uniformly whitewashed houses.  Although it was less than two hours from Seville, it took us all day due to the number of planned stops and spontaneous detours we made.

Lime paint was introduced to the region when Rome controlled the Iberian peninsular. Its use was greatly expanded during the mid-1300’s when a bubonic plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean countries.  Residents of villages were required yearly to cover the outside and the interiors of their homes and churches with a limewash, known for its natural anti-bacterial and insecticidal properties, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease. Community inspections were done, and folks were fined for noncompliance. This mandated conformity was eventually appreciated as an aesthetically pleasing look and a symbol of meticulous tidiness. Fortunately, the custom stayed and has become an iconic signature of southern Andalusia.

Cresting a low hill on the A-375, we spotted a small castle with crenellated walls and towers in a shallow valley not far from the road. Turning towards it we followed a dirt track through farmland not yet ploughed for the Spring planting to a small intersection where the castle stood next to a narrow, babbling brook.  The history of the Castillo de Las Aguzaderas isn’t really known, but it is thought to have been built in the 1300’s by the Moors as they retreated from advancing territorial gains made by the Spanish during the Reconquista. 

Of Spain’s 2500 castles this is the only one that does not sit atop the high ground of a hill or mountain to command the surrounding terrain, but according to its historical placard, stands in a hollow to protect the spring that emerges from the earth outside its wall. With no attendant and an open gate, we were free to scramble around the walls and climb stairs in a terrible state of disrepair to the top of the castle keep for views all around. In the distance an ancient stone watchtower, Torre del Bollo, dominated a hill.

From afar the whitewashed casas of Zahara de la Sierra brilliantly reflected the sunlight like polished marble.  The homes, stacked like building blocks, rose up the hillside until they met a sheer butte. A square tower crowned the butte’s summit.

We followed the long ring road that circles the mount through the village and decided to have lunch at Meson Oñate where we were drawn to the outdoor patio that overlooks the Zahara-El Gastor Reservoir and the rolling farmland that surrounds it. 

After lunch, to work off our delicous meal, we hiked to the Castillo de Zahara, which crowns the mountaintop above the village. It was a well paved steep path at the start, but soon the slope decreased to a manageable incline that zigzagged up the mountain.  For our effort we were rewarded with stunning bird’s eye views over the red tiled roofs of the village and to the distant lake below. A tower is all that is left of a larger Moorish castle from the 13th century that was built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement that once called the mountaintop home. Barely accessible, it provided a safe haven during times of trouble. The castle had a turbulent history with its control passing back and forth several times between the Moors and Spanish. Even French troops once commanded its summit through Napoleon’s conquest of Spain during the Peninsular War that raged in the early 1800’s.

With a last-minute decision to take a longer route to Ronda, we headed into the mountains outside of Zahara de la Sierra on CA-9104, a serpentine road with steep slopes that took us into the Sendero La Garganta Verde, a rugged and wild scenic area that is known for its population of Griffon vultures, and Monte Prieto.  The wind was insanely whipping around us when we parked the car at the Puerto de las Palomas (4500ft above sea level) mountain pass and walked to an observation deck in hope of viewing some vultures.  Griffons are large birds of prey that have wing spans up to nine feet across. We were fortunate to spot some, far off in the distance before we ran back to the car, chilled to the bone.

The sun sets early when you are on the eastern side of the steep Sierra del Pinar mountain range.  The last rays of sunlight still illuminated Grazalema as we drove into the village, but the temperature dropped along with the vanishing light of a February afternoon.

We sat in the plaza and had café across the sidewalk from an interesting statue of a bull being roped.  The statue commemorates the ancient practice of hunting wild bulls. The tradition continued through the Romans and Arabs and was Christianized by the church into the feast of the bull to celebrate the Virgen del Carmen. During the festival, three times a day, a bull is released to run through the village for an hour with the men chasing after, in hopes of roping it. The beginning and end of each bull’s run is announced with fireworks throughout the day.  Sections of an old Roman road that led up into the village are still visible from the mirador on the edge of town.

Enjoying the freedom and spontaneity a rental car offers is a big plus when developing itineraries. Finding convenient and affordable hotels that have free or inexpensive onsite parking was another whole issue.  It was dark by the time we reached Ronda and we were having difficulty finding the hotel’s parking. With one last call to the hotel receptionist the garage door to their secret lair, that was our parking space, was magically revealed to us on a back alley, under the Hotel Plaza de Toros. Only big enough for six cars, our tiny Fiat 500 easily fit in its tight confines.

The next morning revealed that the hotel was in an excellent location, just a block from the town’s famous bullring, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, built in 1784. Aside from bullfights it has been used as an armory and calvary training grounds by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a noble order of horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The promenade next to bullring is dedicated to famous literary talents who were enamored with the “Ciudad Sońada” or “Dreamed City,” as Ronda is also called. While Don Quixote didn’t tilt at any windmills in Ronda, his creator Miguel de Cervantes certainly drew inspiration from the area as he traveled between villages for his day job as Royal Tax Collector. Washington Irving found inspiration in the rugged landscape of southern Spain when he traveled through Ronda in 1828 prompting him to write, “There is something in the austere presence of this Spanish landscape that wounds the soul with a feeling close to the sublime.” He also romanticized the brigands, who some saw as Robin Hood figures that lived in the mountainous terrain surrounding Ronda, and Irving was disappointed in not encountering any on his journey through Andalusia, ignoring the poverty and repressive feudal system that forced many into a life of crime. Ernst Hemingway was drawn to the machismo and pageantry of bullfighting in Ronda, where the sword and red muleta cape were first introduced into the ring by the legendary matador Francisco Romero in 1726.  Orson Welles explained bullfighting as “an unjustifiable yet irresistible, three-act tragedy.” Wells was so fascinated with this quintessential Andalusian village that he chose to be buried here on the hacienda of a bullfighter friend – “A man does not belong to the place he was born in, but to the place he chooses to die.” Spanish poet, José Agustín Goytisolo summed it up best for us with, “We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.”

The mirador beyond the park overlooked olive groves and spring fields still dormant.  Past them distant mountains faded into the horizon.  The path through the mirador led to the Puente Nuevo bridge that connects the younger old town to the ancient village across the steep sided El Tajo (The Deep Cut) gorge, carved out eons ago by the rushing waters of the Rio Guadalevín.  Finished in 1793 after 34 years of construction, the new bridge isn’t so new anymore, but it was an engineering feat when it was constructed across the shear 390ft deep chasm that divided the village. It replaced a poorly built 1735 bridge that tragically collapsed after only six years’ use, killing fifty people.

Ronda is a fabulous city for walking and as we continued across the bridge into La Ciudad, Ronda’s old-town quarter, we stopped in awe, to photograph the iconic whitewashed houses that are tenuously perched atop the walls of the gorge. Precarious to the point that if their front door slammed too hard the back of the house might fall into the gorge! 

We worked our way to Plaza Duquesa de Parcent in the center of the historic district for lunch. Passing architectural details from Ronda’s Moorish and Spanish past still evident on some of the ancient buildings.

In the off-season not all of the restaurants were open, but it was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind waiting for a table in the fascinating historical surroundings. A few minutes later we were seated at a table in the sun, caddy corner between the Convento de Clarisas de Santa Isabel de los Ángeles and the Convento De La Caridad, both built in the 16th century. The classic symmetry of Ronda’s Town Hall with its two-tier colonnade anchored the far side of the plaza.  

Adjacent to the town hall the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is the real draw to this side of the historic district.  With two rows of covered balconies next to an adjoining former minaret turned belltower, it’s a unique façade for a church and it’s built on the foundation of a 14th century mosque. Ronda and Granada were the last Moorish strongholds in Andalusia, and the mosque was ordered destroyed after Ronda surrendered in 1485. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel immediately ordered that a Gothic church be built upon the spot. 

The balconies on the front were added during the reign of King Felipe II in the 1500s for the well-to-do and nobles of the city to watch maestranza tournaments in the plaza, before the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda was built. A century later the church was partially destroyed in an earthquake and the rebuilding over the next two centuries embraced a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that sends architectural purists into a frenzy of “how could they.” Though smaller than the churches in Seville, we found the Iglesia very refreshing with its lofty interior and fabulous religious art.

Just inside one of the side entrances, a worn stone stairwell led up to a walled catwalk that wrapped around the side and back of the building. The views from it over the red tiled roofs of the old quarter seemed not to have changed for centuries.

Later that evening we explored the new town and found Grabados Somera, Shallow Engravings, a wonderful workshop and gallery filled with etchings of matadors, senoritas and Ronda, all the creations of master printmaker engraver Pedro Somera Abad. Writing this now we regret not purchasing a print as a souvenir of our time in Spain.

We eventually came across La Casa de Jamon, a gourmet store and Iberian Ham bar that will leave any carnivorous epicure salivating. Here a leg of the best jamon to take back to your casa will dent your wallet an extravagant 600€.  We never realized those acorn fed porkers could command such a price. Along with jamon, they have locally sourced sausages, wine and cheese from the Andalusia region. We decided to order a charcuterie board for dinner and we were not dissappointed with the tasty assortment presented.

The next morning we walked through the Jardines De Cuenca along a walled path that traced the course of the Rio Guadalevín through El Tajo gorge far below. Across the chasm the hanging gardens of the old palatial homes that lined the cliff edge were redolent with color. The path through the park slowly descended to the Puente Viejo; built in 1616, it is the oldest stone bridge over the river.

Across the bridge the route split to go back into La Ciudad, the old town, through the Renaissance era Puerta de Carlos V, where taxes were once levied on the wares merchants brought into the city.  Or we could go downhill to the impressive arched ruins of the Baños Arabes, a 13th century Moorish bathhouse on the outskirts of the city, that provided heated water, an impressive feat 800 years ago.

Along the river that supplied water to the Arab baths, grist mills once stood just inside Ronda’s double ring of fortress walls that protected this side of La Ciudad.  The mills ground wheat harvested from the surrounding countryside. The stones of the outer wall were repurposed long ago. Now only remnants of the massive inner wall, the last line of defense before entering the city still stands, causing us to pause and imagine its former glory. Walking under the last vestiges of Ronda’s mighty defenses, we headed back.

It was lightly raining as we strolled along Carrera Espinel in search of an interesting place for dinner.  Most of the inside tables at the restaurants we passed were taken with diners escaping the damp evening chill.  But the aroma of savory clams drew us to an outside table at Restaurante Las Maravillas, where the waiter was attentive and refueled the tower heater next to our table to help keep us warm. The dinner and wine were delicious.

Plans to visit Olvera and Setenil de las Bodegas the next day were made over dessert and coffee. It had been a long satisfying day, our “walk a little then café” evolved to “walk a little more, then bed.”

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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Seville Part 2 – Walking Through History Under the Orange Trees

One of the tenets of slow travel is the ability to revisit a place many times to savor the changes in its ambience. The Plaza de España in Parque de María Luisa was one such lively spot that we enjoyed and returned to several times. 

It is an iconic landmark for Seville with its eclectic mix of Baroque, Renaissance and Moorish architectural styles embellished with hand painted Mudéjar tiles created across the Guadalquivir River, in the Triana barrio.

Along with an expansive plaza, signature horseshoe colonnade, and boating moat, it has been a popular destination since it was constructed for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.  It, along with the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and the Archeological Museum of Seville in Parque de María Luisa, are hubs of activity on the weekends when they fill with friends and families looking for more elbow room.

Several other architecturally interesting buildings were constructed in the park and along Paseo de la Delicias at this time to host exhibitions from countries that were formerly part of the Spanish Empire and which would later be used as consulate building. 

On the way to the park one morning, we stopped for café along the edge of Jardines de Murillo and unsuccessfully tried to order cappuccinos from a brusque waiter who replied, “No,” just no and without any further explanation turned and walked away. Confounded, we left.  This happened again several days later when we were early for a dermatologist appointment, for an overdue skin cancer screening at Hospital Fátima, a private hospital in Seville that facilitates multi-lingual medical tourism services for travelers. We used TripMedic to arrange our appointments.

We found the small café, Bar Puerto Chico, on the block behind the hospital. It was full of folks on the way to work, having the traditional Andalusian breakfast that consists of tostada, soft Mollette bread, perfectly toasted to a golden brown and drizzled with olive oil, a smear of crushed tomatoes and maybe a slice of jamon, along with coffee and zumo natural, fresh squeezed Spanish oranges.  “Dos capuchinos por favor.” The barman smiled this time when he responded with a “No,” but seemed to be delighted that two foreigners had found his establishment, when he explained that they only serve espresso or café con leche. In some local bars cappuccinos just aren’t done. Mystery solved.

Heading back into the city center, the sidewalk along Paseo de la Delicias eventually dips down, near the Escuela de Mareantes (School of Navigation) and widens to a scenic esplanade for bicyclists and walkers, that parallels the Guadalquivir River through Seville for several miles.

Speckled with buskers, sculptures, and benches, there are plenty of excuses to saunter slowly and savour the view. The river is popular with numerous kayaking and sculling clubs that launch miles upstream and then race down the river. 

The waterway on the weekends was always bustling, but even during the week there were a good number of paddlers and rowers on the water, from sunrise to sunset.

It’s also an historic stretch of river that was the Port of Seville, where galleons returning from the Spanish colonies in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries unloaded cargo and registered their treasure of gold and silver bullion at the Torre del Oro, tower of gold bullion.  The 118 ft tall tower dates from the 1100s and was part of the Moorish defensive wall that once encircled the entirety of ancient Seville and was the anchor point for a heavy chain that was stretched across to the Triana side of the river to control shipping.

Ferdinand Magellan launched the first circumnavigation of the world from this quay in 1519. For the 500th anniversary of this tremendous feat the city commissioned a full-size replica of his ship, the Nao Victoria, to be moored on the river.  A small vessel by today’s standards, it made us wonder how they ever succeeded in sailing around the world. 

Nearing sundown, the quay along the river fills with folks waiting to watch the sky erupt with color as the sun sets behind the bridge and Triana.

At the base of the bridge stands the lofty, wrought-iron and glass Mercado Lonja del Barranco, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1883. It functioned as the city’s fish market for several decades before it was re-envisioned in 2014 as an upscale food hall with a contemporary, architecturally beautiful interior.  It’s definitely a fun foodie destination; it is a savory gauntlet of display cases offering the full spectrum of Spanish cuisine prepared by twenty different restautrants.  There is something delicous for everyone available here.

Aside from the completion of the Puente de Triana bridge in 1852, which replaced a well maintained 700 hundred year old Arab-designed pontoon bridge, it’s alleged that the Triana riverfront looks unchanged since Columbus recruited his sailors from the barrio.

While it still retains its authentic character, some wonderful alterations have been implemented, starting with the pedestrian only Calle San Jacinto that starts at the foot of the bridge on the Triana side. It is a lively stretch of outdoor cafes that offer an array of different cuisines.

The ruined dungeons of Castillo de San Jorge castle, located under the Mercado de Triana, are now a museum and Interpretation Center for the 300 year terror known as the Spanish Inquisition.  Nearby a short alley leading up from the river, the “Paseo de la Inquisición,” was the last walk of freedom for many before the prison door slammed behind them.

The mercado is a thriving, lively spot that draws locals for the seafood, meat, cheese and vegetable vendors, along with a slew of always busy restaurants.  We caught a lesson in buying fresh fish while waiting in line at a fish monger’s stand. “Always look at the inside color of the gills, they should be very bright,” is what we gathered as he showed several large whole fish to the customer in front of us as we waited to purchase a filet of tuna to cook back at our apartment.

One stall, which we dubbed the olive porn store, only sold decadent large olives garnished with all sorts of delicious extras.  Another booth offered artfully decorated puff pastries, which were as tasty as they were visually stunning. The mercado was a long walk from our apartment, but one of our favorite traditional markets to shop at, which we returned to several times during our six-week immersion in Seville.

We were on the Triana side of the river one late February morning and came across a crew of city workers with ladders and buckets harvesting all the softball size Seville oranges from the trees that were lining the street. The fruit was brought to the city by the Arabs in the 9th century and Seville now, unbelievably, has 46,000 bitter orange trees that produce close to six million tons of fruit annually. Most of it is sold to be used to make marmalade, but it is also an ingredient in Cointreau, Curacao, Grand Marnier and Triple Sec liquors. Oil from the bitter orange skin is used for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps. Recently the city started using the unsold oranges in an innovative Biogas program, where the methane gas created by the decomposing oranges is used to make “clean electricity” to run a water purification plant.

Before continuing our day, we stopped for coffee at one of the cafes that line the riverfront on Calle Betis. From our previous experiences we believed it was impossible to get a bad cup of coffee in Europe. All of it is usually made to order on one of those fancy deluxe espresso machines that you see behind the bars. My wife is more the coffee connoisseur than me as I’ve been known to make a mug of coffee last all day. But that day we both had the worst cup of coffee ever and couldn’t drink it beyond our first sips. It must have been the last pot of drip coffee from the day before that was left on the burner overnight. It’s amazing how waiters can vanish; perhaps ours did from embarrassment, but this could explain the beginning of the inquisition. Bad coffee leading to misplaced aggression, we all know what happens without that caffeine.  Sympathetically the second waiter understood when we explained the situation and he didn’t request payment.

Triana was also famous for the ceramic workshops that painted and then fired in massive kilns the Azulejo and colorful Mudéjar style tiles that adorn many of the historic buildings in Seville.  Along with sailors, Triana has cultivated many famous flamenco dancers, guitarists and bullfighters. The most admired matador was Juan Belmonte who stood famously close to the bulls and was gored several times over a career that spanned 109 bullfights. His statue stands in the plaza across from the Triana Mercado and if you follow his gaze you’ll see Seville’s beloved bullring, Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, often simply called the Maestranza, across the river. It has been holding corridas in the same ring since 1761. 

Many of the taverns surrounding the bullring are full of corrida memorabilia. Our favorite was Bar Baratillo on Calle Adriano which is also full of shops catering to the Andalusian equestrian tradition.  La Feria de Abril is a colorful weeklong festival that celebrates this Andalusian equestrian tradition with the women wearing traditional traje de gitana or faralaes (flamenco style dress), while the men wear a cordobes hat along with a fitted short jacket, riding trousers and riding boots, refered to as traje corto. Every midday during the festival a parade of carriages and riders, called the paseo de caballos, heads to the bullring to watch the best matadores on Seville’s bullfighting calendar perform. Bullfighting season in Seville starts at the end of Semana Santa, Holy Week, on Easter Day.

Farther behind the bullring the Hospital de la Caridad, founded by the Holy Charity brotherhood in the 1600s, still follows its mission to help the poor and infirm. Its beautiful baroque chapel is now a museum filled with art.

Also, in this neighborhood in Casa Morales, we found one of Seville’s oldest abacerías, a small grocery store with a small tavern in the back, on the corner of Garcia de Vinuesa and Castillejo that is still run by the same family since its opening in 1850. The bodeguita retains its original atmosphere with antique cabinetry in the store and tall, large earthen wine vats lining tavern’s walls. It’s definitely worth a stop here to try their traditional tapas or montaditos, small sandwiches.

Just off Calle Adriano one Saturday in the weeks prior to Semana Santa we came upon a Christian brotherhood training to carry their float for the holy week processional. With military marching precision, the muscular team turned the weighted float around a tight corner and continued down the block in synchronized step. 

We followed the marching band that accompanied them to a fundraiser for the brotherhood.  Very much like a church bake sale, the only difference was they surprisingly sold bottles of various liquors.

We smiled, bought one and saluted Seville’s spirit later that evening.

Salud! – Till next, Craig & Donna 

Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.

Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”

Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture.  English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.

The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reef which is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.  Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.

We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy. 

In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless.  Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael.  It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany.  The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.

Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.

Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks.  Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.

The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents.  A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there.  Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.

For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye.  The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico.  But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay.  The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.

We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.

Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst.  Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard. 

In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery.  Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.

Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry.  Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.

On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning.  They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms.  Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.

The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs.  Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.

There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties.  The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.

Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.

The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals.  Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people.  The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.

Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day.  If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.

The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.

There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation.  We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Christmas in Milan – A Monumental Cathedral, Cemetery and Horse

Snow started falling as we brewed the morning’s first cups of coffee on the stove using a traditional Italian Moka coffee pot.  Invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, Italians readily accepted it as an easy way to make espresso at home, and it quickly became symbolic of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life and for us a pleasant morning ritual. The day before had been warmer, and bundled up we were able to take our coffee outside on the balcony of our fourth-floor Airbnb rental and enjoy a great sunset view.  This morning though, the tracks of the tram line melted through the thin blanket of freshly fallen snow and left two parallel lines, as if someone had drawn them on this new white canvas with a pencil.

Continuing with our philosophy of slow, immersive travel, we had opted for an apartment in the Isola neighborhood.  Though far away from Milan’s city center, it was situated near the Porta Garibaldi train station and the recently built modern skyscraper complex that surrounds Piazza Gae Aulenti. The illy Caffè here was a frequent stop for comsmopolitan people-watching and excellent coffee.

Nearby were the twin apartment towers of Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, Vertical Forest, famous for their lush foliage-covered balconies, and the Isola and Zara subway stations. The latter was only seven quick stops from the Milan Duomo.

The neighborhood also had numerous tram lines traversing it, but it was impossible to find a hardcopy map of this very extensive system while we were in Milan, though we were able to find this online map of the Milan Tram System while writing this. Ultimately, we relied on our phone’s mapping App to view our tram trips in real time and determine where to change lines to continue our journeys across the city.

Two blocks away, the bi-weekly outdoor food market closed the streets around Piazza Tito Minniti for the bulk of the day while families shopped the stalls for fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood along with socks, pants, dresses and blouses. We enjoyed this aspect of Italian life after learning its subtle nuances – for example, only the vendor touches the fruits and vegetables. There is also a protocol of queueing. Sometimes though our schedule required us to shop around the corner at La Pastaia for fresh pasta or the Penny Market grocery store, where we signed up again for another shopper club card.  We’ve done this in every city where we have stayed long term – Cuenca, Antigua, Lisbon, Cape Town and Kotor. It seems silly, but those small savings do add up and jokingly it helps us feel more like a local.

Emerging from the darkness of the subway station onto the Piazza del Duomo, we were momentarily blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the monumental cathedral that towered before us. Breathtaking in its size and capable of holding 40,000 worshippers, the cathedral is the second largest in Europe, following Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the third largest in the world.  Designed in 1386, the ornate and dramatic Gothic façade of the cathedral is covered with 3,400 statues and spires, which required the recruitment of hundreds of stone masons and artisans from across Europe. 

The opulent exterior belies the cathedral’s spartan interior.  While massive in scale, the interior’s gray stone walls and towering columns are cold and austere even with the soft, filtered light of beautiful stained-glass windows illuminating the space. Most moving was a ghastly sculpture by 16th century Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate of Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin, depicting how he was punished for converting an Armenian King to Christianity in the first century AD.

Wandering around the flying buttresses and sculpted spires on the roof of the church was the highlight of our visit to the Duomo. The day was crystal clear, and the panoramic view stretched from the Milanese skyline to the snowcapped Italian Alps. It was spectactular.

Across the plaza the Museum of the Milan Cathedral has an extensive and interesting collection of art and sculpture that at one time or another was part of the Duomo.

On the other side of the plaza stood Milan’s official Christmas tree, a modern conically shaped metal structure covered with thousands of multi-colored changing lights. Beyond the tree was the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where four-story tall buildings and the promenade between them are covered with a spectacular vaulted glass ceiling.  It is considered the world’s first indoor shopping mall, built shortly after the unification of the Italian peninsular into the Kingdom of Italy in the 1860s when Vittorio Emanuele II was named king.  Lovingly nicknamed “il Salotto di Milano,” or “the living room of Milan” by the Milanese, the phrase acknowledges it’s the place to meet friends and be seen.

Wanting to stay in the city center till night fell, so that we could fully appreciated the Christmas lights on the tree in front of the Duomo, we wandered farther afield until we found the Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro. First built in the 9th century, the present church dates to the Italian Renaissance and  features a gilded interior and a rare example of Trompe-l’œil in a church. This painter’s effect utilizes a forced perspective to create an illusion of depth behind the altar.

After dark the plaza in front of the Duomo continued to fill with people eager to enjoy the festive mood of the Christmas season.  The Christmas tree was stunning, and its modernity nicely complimented the historic buildings surrounding the piazza.

From our balcony we could see the silhouette of Tomba di Manzoni, the grand entranceway and “Hall of Fame” mausoleum for the noteworthy, though not as wealthy, Milanese who are interned at the Cimitero Monumentale. 

As we wandered farther into the cemetery, we realized that monumental might be an understatement. It was difficult not to confuse this extraordinarily extravagant place of entombment for an outdoor sculpture garden with memorials created by a who’s who list of famous 19th and 20th century Italian artists and architects for prominent Milanese families. 

The family names on the mausoleums also adorn roads, parks, tram and subway stations across the city. There seemed to be an afterlife version of one upmanship in play here with each monument more grandiose than the last.  As if competition or success in life was not enough and had to continue till your final committal.  It was a fascinating place to explore. Plan on spending most of the day.

Donna’s mom had passed away the year before and one of our reasons for staying in Milan was to revisit a project her mother was instrumental in as a member of the United State’s Italian American Heritage Foundation and Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Foundation. She helped for fifteen years in the 1980s and 90s to raise 2.5 million dollars to the see Leonardo da Vinci’s 24ft tall Il Cavallo recreated. The sculpture was finally realized by American sculptor Nina Akamu

Da Vinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482 to create, at the time, what was the largest equestrian statue in the world, as tribute to his late father, Francesco Sforza.  The full-size clay sculpture was completed in 1491 and was waiting for its terracotta mold to be made and enough bronze amassed for its casting when the French invaded in 1499. Subsequentially, the clay model was totally destroyed by French crossbowmen who used it for target practice.

On its 500th anniversary, da Vinci’s Il Cavallo was unveiled outside the Ippodromo Snai San Siro, Milan’s famous horse racing track. Smaller artistic interpretations of Il Cavallo stand in the plaza behind it. This being modern Italy though a horse just can’t be a horse, and many were psychedelically painted and wore tutus or unicorn horns. Wonderfully whimsical, they definitely made us smile. 

One rainy afternoon we took the tram to the 15th century Sforzesco Castle, seat of power for the Sforza dynasty that lasted only 100 years. But in that time the fortress/palace was expanded to be one of the largest citadels in Europe and filled with works of art by numerous Italian Renaissance artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, Correggio, Bernardino Zenale and Bernardino Butinone were commissioned to adorn the walls and ceilings and sculpt pieces to fill the vast space. Today the castle houses several of the city’s museums and art collections where the artists’ contributions to the palace can still be seen. A heavy fog had blanketed the citadel by closing time and was evocative of the moods cast in the historical fiction novels set in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Dunant. Later that evening we attended an Anglican Lessons and Carols service as a prelude to Christmas, then headed back to our apartment humming Christmas tunes as we window shopped.

Signs for Artigiano in Fiera, the Fair, dotted our route into Milan when we first arrived from Bergamo and piqued our interest.  We hadn’t heard of it before, but with a quick internet search realized it was the shopping event of the Christmas season in Milan. While in line to enter the center we noticed many people pulling large suitcases. Toward the end of our shopping spree, laden with purchases, we realized the bags on wheels were pure genius, and allowed the seasoned pros to carry their holiday shopping with ease. The Fiera is a tremendously popular annual, nine-day event that draws over one million visitors to the Fiera Milano, Europe’s largest exhibition center, located in Rho, just outside Milan. Folks shop for home furnishings, fashion, jewelry, arts and crafts, along with artisanal foods, wines and liquor. The sites’ nine cavernous exhibition halls were filled with vendors from 100 countries, though displays from the twenty regions of Italy occupied ninety percent of the space. Plan on spending the whole day if you hope to see everything. It was all very interesting and entertaining and truly a marathon event. From Milan it’s an easy trip on the M1 subway, which stops right at the venue.

Wanting to make our last night in Milan special, we made dinner reservations at a highly reviewed restaurant, only to be turned away into a rainy night because we arrived early as the staff was enjoying their pre-work communal meal together. (The later you dine out in Italy the more you’ll feel like a local. Though this does take some getting used to and we haven’t mastered this yet.) “Okay, we will have a drink at the corner bar and return,” we agreed.

To our delight, our aperitives were accompanied by small sandwiches with chips and olives.  We had every intention of heading back to the restaurant, but our waiter was engaging, and the Aperol spritzes were very good. We spent the time watching folks fight the wind with their umbrellas through the bar’s rain-pelted window. The specular highlights from the streetlights added magic to the scene. Occasionally some groups popped inside seeking a warm reprieve from the downpour outside, shook out their umbrellas and found a seat.  Recapping our adventures, tentatively planning the next six months, and talking about Christmas with our kids back in the states, the evening flew by until the waiter said they were closing. Umbrellas up! We headed home.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS – The Artigiano was canceled in 2020 due to the Corona virus lock down in Italy. Hopefully, it will be allowed 2021.

Lake Como – Natural Beauty, Swiss Olives and Pliny the Elder

We had only been settled into our Milan rental for a few days when, upon checking the long-term weather forecast, we decided to take the train to Lake Como the next day.  The days were solidly cold now in northern Italy, but still very pleasant if the sun was shining. By the end of the week, it was expected to rain for a while. What we didn’t expect was a dusting of fresh snow along the route.  In the distance the snowcapped Italian Alps were a blur as the train sped along, delivering us to the town of Como in an hour, the last stop in Italy before Chiasso, Switzerland.  Unsure of where we were heading, we followed the flow of day trippers into the town center past a blend of Gothic, Renaissance and 18th century architecture.

The famous inverted “Y” shaped lake was created by receding glaciers, 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Since the 1st century, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about it as an “A list” destination for poets and writers. Today artists and celebrities continue to be mesmerized by its natural beauty. The Goths, Ostrogoths, French, Spanish and Austrians have all contributed to its convoluted history until the region was united into the Kingdom of Italy by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s troops in 1859.  Even Mussolini visited one last time as he tried to flee Italy in April 1945 and cross the border into neutral Switzerland, but he was captured by Italian partisans in Dongo, a small village on Lake Como. He was executed the next day.

It was an especially sunny day and the town’s Christmas market on Piazza Cavour across from the lakefront was thriving with folks enjoying the weather and shopping amidst all the stalls for the quickly approaching holiday. At the restaurants lining the piazza, outdoor dining was still in full swing, but was only bearable if you found a table in the sun and used the provided lap blankets to help ward off the winter chill.

Aside from the usual cheese, jam, sausage and porchetta sandwich stalls, there was an olive vendor with an incredible variety of olives for purchase.  One of his most surprising offerings was Lugano olives which originate from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland! – south of the Alps, on the shores of Lake Lugano, just over the hills from Como.

The Passeggiata Amici di Como, a lakefront promenade, was busy with tourist watching swans bob about on the water and folks queuing for the various ferry boats still offering tours.  We followed the walkway as it spurred onto a long pier that extended almost two thirds of the way across the lake and culminated at a large, futuristic monument called Life Electric. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind in 2015, the highly polished chrome sculpture brilliantly reflects the sun, sky and water surrounding it and changes continually with the light, evoking continuous motion. It is dedicated to hometown physicist Alessandro Volta who is credited with the invention of the electric battery in 1800.

From here we also watched and listened to a continuous flow of seaplanes roar across the water from the Aero Club where one can book an aerial tour of Lake Como and surrounding mountains.  It’s been a popular activity since it was first offered in 1913.

Back in the historic center we headed to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta-Duomo di Como. The façade is an exquisite example of Gothic architecture and includes sculptures of hometown stars Pliny the Elder and his nephew, Pliny the Younger, which flank either side of the church’s rose window. 

The interior is decorated with antique tapestries made in Antwerp, Florence and Ferarra during the 16th and 17th centuries. The church’s construction was started in 1396, but wasn’t completed until almost 400 years later in the later part of the 18th century, due to legendary Italian bureaucracy, civil unrest and a stone cutters strikes. (I’m just speculating here, but in 1629 the bubonic plague halved the population of Northern Italy and brought economic hardship to the area that lasted for decades afterward.)

Farther along, the Basilica di San Fedele commanded the other side of the street.  Substantially altered in the 12th century, it incorporated some architectural elements from a 5th century church that originally occupied the site. Entering the church, we were confronted with a terrifying hand-carved wooden sculpture of hundreds of sinners, painted red, being consumed by flames – it’s reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s Vision of Hell. We imagine it was a highly effective teaching tool in the middle-ages.  By late afternoon only a dim light was filtering through the church’s ancient windows as an organist dutifully labored to get the right pitch from the ancient pipes.

Darkness fell early as we walked back through town. Many of the buildings were colorfully illuminated with Christmas holiday projections. It was magical.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Verona – Courtesans, Hermits and Grappa

Occasionally, I will suggest we return to a place we have visited before, to relive that good time and explore the things we missed previously, or if it was a super affordable destination.  “The world is so big. I’d rather go someplace new,” is often Donna’s response, said with a sweet smile.  But “the rule” doesn’t apply to Italy! – the land of her people.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Donna has been there, but I maintain I’ve followed along often enough to receive honorary citizenship. Let’s face it, Italy is a great place to explore, which led us to Verona, again, for a night. Anyway, it was sort of on our roundabout way to Milan.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the budget friendly Accommodation Verona, (yes, that is the correct name) on the edge of the historic district. We double parked while the proprietor took our bags upstairs. He then hopped in the passenger seat to show the way to the underground car park and the hotel’s newly purchased garage spaces, with overhead doors to totally secure your wheels, which he was immensely proud of. It was a bit of a hike from the hotel, but the car was safe in the parking garage equivalent of Fort Knox.