Lalibela Part 1: A Twisting Tale of Time, Pilgrims and Shoe Guards

IMG_1969Often overshadowed in recent decades by its East African neighbors recognized for their safaris, Ethiopia has been known to Western culture for millennia. It was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, around 1000 BC (3,000 years ago!), when the Queen of Sheba, hearing of “Solomon’s great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom,” journeyed from Ethiopia with a caravan of treasure as tribute.  Unbeknownst to Solomon their union produced a son, Menilek, (meaning son of the wise man).  Years later, wearing a signet ring given to him by his mother, Menilek visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon and stayed for several years to study Hebrew. When his son desired to return home, Solomon gifted the Ark of the Covenant to Menilek for safe keeping in Ethiopia, and to this day it is said to reside in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, where only a select few of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can see it.IMG_1662The story of the lost tribe of Israel or the Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) begins with the 12,000 Israelites that Solomon sent to Ethiopia to help Menilek rule following biblical laws. According to legend, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions for close to three thousand years. This ended 225 generations later, with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.IMG_1754 Blasphemy, I know, but let’s not forget the Hollywood legend with Indiana Jones rescuing the arc from the Nazis, only to have it unceremoniously stored in an underground warehouse in the Nevada desert. That is an aside, but as the writer I’m allowed to digress.IMG_2177Around the same time that Ethiopia appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek writer Homer mentioned “Aethiopia” five times in the The Iliad and The Odyssey.  In the Histories written by Herodotus (440 BC,) the author describes traveling up the Nile River to the territory of “Aethiopia” which began at Elephantine, modern Aswan.

Ethiopian tradition credits the introduction of Christianity to an Ethiopian eunuch in 34 AD, who was baptized by Philip the Apostle. (Acts 8:26-39) He then preached near the palace in Aksum after returning from Israel.

Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were important stops along the trade route that brought spices from India, along with ivory and exotic animals from Africa to the Roman Empire. In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia’s first Christian king, Ezana of Aksum, sent ambassadors to Constantinople, a newly Christian Byzantine Empire, setting the stage for debates about which country – Armenia, Ethiopia (330AD) or Byzantium – was the first Christian state. Archaeologists point to Ethiopian coins minted in the 4th century bearing a cross and Ezana’s profile as solid proof.

After Ezana’s declaration of Ethiopia as a Christian country, civil war broke out between the Christian and Jewish populations, resulting in the creation of a separate Beta Israel kingdom in the Semien Mountains around Gondar that lasted from the 4th century to 1632. IMG_1657 With the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having a site in Jerusalem since the sixth century, Ethiopian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took six months, were common until the route was blocked by Muslim conquests in 1100s and the journey became too hazardous. As it became surrounded further by Muslim territories, the country sank into isolation from Europe.  Ethiopia’s early history and its connection to Judaism and Christianity is a twisting tale, like caravan tracks across the desert, meeting then disappearing behind sand dunes, the story buried by the blowing sands of time.IMG_4066Distraught by this, King Lalibela commissioned eleven architecturally perfect churches, to be hewn from solid rock, to serve as a New Jerusalem complete with a River Jordan for pilgrims to visit. He based the designs on memories of holy sites from his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man.IMG_4015Considering the limited availability of tools in the 1100s, I can’t imagine what a daunting task this must have been. I’m sure the chief architect said, “you have to be kidding.”  It’s believed that 40,000 men, assisted by angels at night, labored for 24 years to create this testament to their faith.  Masons outlined the shape of these churches on top of monolithic rocks, then excavated straight down forty feet to create a courtyard around this solid block.  Doors would then be chiseled into the block and the creation of the church would continue from the inside, often in near total darkness.

European contact with Ethiopia was sporadic over these centuries, until the Portuguese circumnavigated the African continent in the late 1400s and began to establish trading ports along the East African coast.  Early in the 1500s the first European to visit the churches of Lalibela was Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest assigned to the Ethiopian court as an emissary.  He declared them a “wonder of the world,” penning “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” It would be almost four hundred years before the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, a German cartographer, laid eyes on them in the late 1860s.

The magnificence of this accomplishment didn’t reveal itself subtly, like a vision slowly rising from the horizon, but smacked us in the face with a WOW! as we emerged single file from a deep and narrow moss-covered trench dug from the reddish volcanic rock.

“The setting was intentionally designed to give the pilgrims a ‘spiritual journey’ of ascending to heaven as the sky and the 40 ft tall façade of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World), burst forth before them after exiting the darkness,” our guide explained.  The largest rock church in Lalibela and in the world is also significant because it’s believed “The hand of God touched one of its columns in a dream King Lalibela had,” our guide Girma Derbi shared as he explained the church’s columned façade that looks like it was inspired by the Parthenon.

Pilgrims in long white robes made their way through three doors that in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches face west, north and south. The nave is always on the east side of the building.  “All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the church and leave them outside.  You don’t have to, but it’s good if you hire a shoe guard to watch them. Unattended shoes have been known to disappear,” our guide advised.

Fatima, an official shoe guard registered with the historic site, accompanied us for the next two days as we explored the churches and passages. This kind woman helped us numerous times as we navigated treacherous footing and steep steps.  Our wisdom in hiring her was reinforced when we encountered a tourist sitting shoeless, outside a church, contemplating an uncomfortable walk ahead.IMG_1535-2Women worshippers traditionally enter through a separate door and pray apart from the men. Inside, thirty-eight stone columns form four aisles and support a stone ceiling that soars overhead. After walking for days or weeks to reach Lalibela, often fasting the entire time, the journey ends here for many pilgrims, in hopes of receiving a blessing or cure from touching the Lalibela Cross and offering prayers.

We spent the rest of the day following Orthodox nuns in yellow robes, and pilgrims carrying prayer staffs along narrow interconnecting passages, through tunnels and then portals to the other Northern Churches (churches located north of a stream renamed the Jordan River.) In many churches there are stacks of prayer staffs by the entrance.  These are for congregants to lean on, as there are no chairs in the churches and everyone must stand during the long worship services.

Beta Maryam (Church of Mary), Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross), Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins), Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael), and Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha) all share common elements, yet they are all fascinatingly different in their various carved windows, uneven floors covered with carpets, decorated columns, frescoed walls and religious paintings. The high-banked courtyards around the churches contain caves where monks and hermits slept, or became the final resting spot of pilgrims who could go no further, their mummified remains still visible in certain places. The footpaths between churches double as drainage canals in the rainy season to whisk away water to the Jordan River.Karta_LalibelaWe ended our day at Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). This stunning cross-shaped church was excavated over thirty feet deep into the top of a hill. It is the most widely recognized of the eleven rock churches and was easily viewed from a small bluff adjacent to it, its beautiful orange patina glowing in the afternoon sun.

It has weathered the centuries better than many of the other churches which have had protective coverings suspended above them, to shield the stone structures from deterioration caused by the effects of weather and climate change.IMG_1696The next morning, we completed our tour of the cluster of the southern of the rock churches: Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel), Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos), Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius) and Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael.)

We arrived at Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el after passing through a wide tunnel that lead to a slender bridge across a deep chasm.  It was silent outside, but as we opened the door to enter, the sound of chanting male voices filled the air. We were graciously welcomed into a cavernous room filled with men leaning on prayer staffs or raising them in rhythm, as they sang a liturgical chant, or Zema, accompanied by a drumbeat and the clatter of sistrum rattles. This form of worship has been a tradition in the Ethiopian church since the sixth century.  To hear their Zema, click here.IMG_3889It’s important to remember that this is not a museum with ancient artifacts and manuscripts in glass cases, but an active holy site where the ancient manuscripts are still used daily, and it is home to a large community of priests and nuns. It has been a destination for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims in the northern highlands (elevation 8,200’) for the last 900 years and continues to be visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims annually.IMG_3852Leaving the churches behind, we walked through an area of ancient two story, round houses called Lasta Tukuls, or bee huts, built from local, quarried red stone.  Abandoned now for preservation, they looked sturdy, their stone construction distinctive from the other homes in the area that use an adobe method.IMG_1802Today roughly 100,000 foreign tourists, in addition to Ethiopian pilgrims, visit Lalibela annually, a far cry from its near obscurity 140 years ago. Located four hundred miles from Addis Ababa, it is still far enough off the usual tourist circuits to make it a unique and inspiring destination.

Our visit to Lalibela was the fulfillment of a long-held wish to see these incredible churches, which are an amazing testament to the faith of the Ethiopian people. The altitude challenged us, and it wasn’t always easy to reach the churches themselves, navigating narrow alleys with uneven footing and eroded steps, but we are so glad we persevered. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

Cape Town Street Murals: Unexpected Treasures

It was the iconic images of Table Mountain and Lions Head Mountain that drew us to Cape Town, along with the chance to enjoy its incredible coast and game parks.  But the reality of life around Cape Town is more complex and was evident immediately as we drove into the city along the N2 from the airport. Past informal settlements, previously referred to as shanty towns, constructed of mismatched, corrugated tin panels under a tangle of telephone poles strung with powerlines that looked like a forest of Christmas trees.  This cataclysmic landscape improved to newer and featureless concrete block housing developments the closer we got to the city.  But then the palette changed.IMG_7124It’s here that we first noticed the really interesting street murals that could be seen on some of the homes.  Not gratuitous bubble-scripted graffiti, but pictorial or political works of art relating to freedom, equality and hope by talented artists that enhanced their surroundings.

Originally they were just interesting side notes as we discovered Cape Town.  Every city and town seem to have street art nowadays.  But as we encountered more of it around the town, it was evident that the street murals here were of a higher caliber,  and that the communities were willing to provide large walls to local and international artists as blank canvases for creative expression. IMG_4658In our exploration of Cape Town, we accidentally and to our delight, came across many wonderful murals while walking or driving about.  Behind our apartment on Harrington Street a wonderfully, whimsical mural of a dog dreaming about flying, by Belgian artist Smates, always made us smile when we walked by.  IMG_4663Farther down the street in District 6, across from Charlie’s Bakery, a colorful mural graced the back of a small building in a parking lot, while its front wall featured an understated portrait of Nelson Mandela by Mak1one. IMG_4435And at the bus station, under the highway, across from the Gardens Shopping Center the dismal gray walls sprang to life with imagery.

Some of the murals are political, commemorating the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.  On the corner of Longmarket and Adderly Streets, in central Cape Town, side-by-side portraits of Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela and Nelson Mandela have been painted by three different artists.

Even walking through already colorful Bo-Kaap revealed tucked away artistic works scattered across this hilly community under Signal Hill.IMG_4037

Many times while driving through the city we would catch a glimpse of color – something that looked interesting down a side street – and circle around to check it out.  This is exactly what happened one day as we headed to lunch at the Ocean Jewels Fresh Fish shop in the old Woodstock Exchange building on Albert Street.IMG_7328 Turns out the Woodstock and Salt River neighborhoods are ground zero for freedom of expression based on the number of street murals we discovered just by driving around.  One seemed to lead to another around the corner.  IMG_7140When we stopped to photograph the mural of the swimming elephant, one of the unofficial parking guards introduced himself as the “curator of street art” and offered to guide us.

We declined and further along discovered the portrait of an endangered mountain gorilla painted by Louis Masai, a London artist who dedicates his work to wildlife conservation awareness.IMG_7213

The streets surrounding the renovated Old Biscuit Mill where the Saturday only Neighbourgoods Market is held were ripe with interesting street murals. Many are of a monumental scale and are within easy walking distance of the mill.IMG_3359Traveling along Victoria Road in the Salt River district, the large mural of a pangolin, painted by Belgian street artist ROA, covers the wall of a factory.  It was painted one year during Cape Town’s International Public Art Festival (IPAF) when local and international artists are invited to wash the district with color for 5 days in February.  IMG_3368The festival is sponsored by BAZ-ART, an NGO that “is dedicated to harnessing the power of art for the benefit of the public – to engage – empower – uplift.”  In the four years that the festival has been running over 100 murals have been created in the Salt River district.  They have a very good website with a map showing the location of all the murals they have sponsored throughout the community.

Muizenberg has its fair share of street art scattered across its small downtown area and near the Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market.  But one of its most iconic murals of an elephant was painted by Capetonian and District Six artist Falko One on the side of a bath house located on a desolate stretch of Sonwabi Beach on the outskirts of the town.IMG_8435 His style is very distinctive, and we recognized many of his works as we traveled around the Cape.  Back in town the exterior wall of Surfstore Africa is playfully illustrated with a giraffe wearing sunglasses.IMG_3393Our most unexpected discovery happened at the indoor parking garage of the Pick N Pay grocery store in Sea Point.  Here several beautiful portraits were painted on the walls of the driving ramp leading from one level to the next. IMG_8888

Hidden away from public view, their discovery was like finding a Renoir in your grandparents’ attic.  Just stunning.  Hopefully, these talented artists have found larger and more visible walls to grace with their talents.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

The Garden Route Part 1: Cape Town to Addo Elephant National Park

Between apartment rentals, we explored South Africa’s famous Garden Route which runs along the southern coast of the country. There’s actually no official route; basically it’s an area that starts at Heidelberg, four hours east of Cape Town, and follows the N2 into the Eastern Cape and ends around Stormsriver.  In between there’s roughly 200 miles of inland scenery and gorgeous coastline at the bottom of the continent.  It’s dotted with small towns and villages, and endless recreational possibilities to satisfy your interests. We mapped an elongated, seven-day road trip that started in L’Agulhas and would end with a safari on a private game reserve, followed by a visit to Addo Elephant National Park, before returning inland to Cape Town via Oudtshoorn and Montagu to satisfy our wanderlust.

The Cape of Good Hope, as some mistakenly believe, is not the farthest point south on the African continent.  That distinction goes to L’Agulhas, where a lighthouse and monument marks the collision of the cold South Atlantic and warm South Indian Oceans, creating some of the fiercest storms for sailors to navigate through.IMG_8646Here gale force winds that blow in from Antarctica and colliding warm and cold currents build ferocious waves that can tower to 100 feet high.  These seas have claimed over 140 ships since the Portuguese first sailed here in the 1500s.  Within sight of the lighthouse, the most recent wreck of a Japanese fishing trawler from 1982 lies on the beach rusting away.IMG_8709We stayed the night at the Agulhas Ocean House, a modern B&B across from the ocean run by Allan & Sheryl, a retired couple from Cape Town.  The hosts were warm and gracious and provided a wonderfully comfortable room with an ocean view and delicious breakfast the next morning.  It was a tremendous value in the off-season.  (We found this also to be true of the other hotels we booked for this trip as well.) IMG_8693The next morning we stopped at Struisbaai Harbor, to try to catch a look at the resident stingrays, the most famous of which is named Parrie . Our hosts told us it was easy to spot these monsters because they were not afraid of people and liked to hang around the shallows and snag snacks from the fishing boats. IMG_8737Afterwards we headed toward Wilderness (the town not the idea,) along a route that traversed barren farmlands and coastal pine forests before skirting the coast again at Mossel Bay. We arrived in time to watch the sunset from our balcony at Beach Villa Wilderness another contemporary inn with spacious, modern rooms set above a wide, flat sandy beach that stretched for about 5 miles. IMG_9141Our room was luxurious and larger than several of the apartments we had rented on our round-the-world journey so far. We were hoping the owners, Leane & Deon, would adopt us. On our sunrise walk the next morning we only sighted a few other folks enjoying the quiet of this vast stretch of pristine beach during the winter season. We noted the considerably warmer weather, a result of the Agulhas Current which swoops warm Indian Ocean currents along the bottom of South Africa and wonderfully moderates the temperature. IMG_9110 After breakfast we backtracked on N2 to the pullover above the Kaaimans River Railway Bridge.  For railroad enthusiasts this was a destination for many years to watch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, the last continually operating steam train in Africa, cross the tidal estuary which slowed settlers’ advance along the rugged coast.  The line stopped operating in 2006 when landslides destroyed an extensive stretch of track. Today it’s an interesting photo-op. IMG_9168 Further up the gorge at Map of Africa View Point, raging waters over the eons have eroded a bend in the river to resemble the African continent when viewed from the overlook on the opposite side of the chasm.  The sky was empty mid-week, but across the road hundreds of paragliders launch from the grassy slope on the weekends to catch fantastic thermals and awesome views of the coast below.

SANParks Woodville Big Tree, off the fittingly named Seven Passes Road, was our next stop, to of course visit the appropriately cited Big Tree. A shaded trail led us deep into the Knysna forest to a more than 800-year-old yellow wood that towered 108ft into the canopy, with a 10ft diameter trunk and a 115ft wide crown.  Few of these majestic giants remain, having been over-harvested in the past for their valuable hardwood which was used for ship building, furniture making and construction. IMG_9215After spending hours rattling along dusty back roads we rejoiced to be on Route 2 again. A little while later we pulled over and enjoyed a late lunch and sunny afternoon on the outdoor deck of the Cruise Café, which overlooked Knysna Bay. IMG_9274We weren’t yet synched to the rhythm of life outside of Cape Town in the off-season and were surprised to find the restaurants and grocery stores in Plettenberg Bay closed when we arrived.  Fortunately, we had a wonderful room with an ocean and lagoon view terrace, right on Lookout Beach, at Milkwood Manor.  We were in luck, we had wine and snacks with us, so we had a picnic on the balcony, watching the high tide come in and lift small boats from their sandy berth while darkness fell. IMG_9295 The sun rose quickly the next morning from behind the Tsitsikamma Mountains, across the bay, filling our room with light.  We spent the early morning slowly sipping coffee and savoring the view.  Upon checkout we were delighted to find a sparkling clean car.  This was a wonderful service the hotel provided for guests, and an easy way for the gardener to earn some extra money.IMG_9322We kept to a strict schedule, and limited our stops for photos today, because we  needed to be at Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve just outside of Port Elizabeth after lunch for an afternoon game drive.  We chose Schotia for their proximity to Addo Elephant National Park and its herd of 600+ elephants, which is second only to Kruger for elephant viewing.  Unlike the parks in east Africa where you can drive cross country in the pursuit of wildlife, the national parks in Africa restrict all tours to the roads.  But at the Schotia reserve, with a guide, we would have the opportunity for some overlanding to get closer to the animals, during morning, afternoon and evening game drives over the next three days. IMG_0250Three guides and three open-sided 4×4 Toyota safari trucks, each capable of seating 16 people, were waiting for their respective groups at the reserve’s headquarters.  Wonderfully, it was mid-week in the off-season, and we had Edward, our guide/naturalist, and truck all to ourselves, while the other two trucks left with groups of six each.  Schotia’s 4,000 acres of gently rolling hills, bush and forest shelter approximately 2,000 animals from 40 mammal species and its’s amazing how difficult it can be to find them. IMG_0123 But that was our goal as we rattled along the rutted paths to a high vantage point within the reserve, that provided distant views of the terrain surrounding us.  Scanning the vista with binoculars, Edward was searching for elephants, giraffes, antelopes and zebra.  “The animals are constantly on the move. We’re never really sure where they will be,” Edward offered. He seconded with, “There’s clouds of dust being kicked up over there. Can’t tell from here what they are, but let’s go investigate.” And our overlanding began, chasing a cloud of dust that turned out to be a small herd of white faced Blesbok, a stunning antelope species we weren’t familiar with.IMG_9525

A few minutes later the reserve’s massive bull elephant the “Boss” rambled up the track toward us and came within touching distance as we quietly sat in awe!  IMG_9473Sightings of impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, cape buffalo, zebra, hippos and crocodiles rounded out the afternoon.

After snacks and a short rest at the reserve’s traditional lapa, a thatched roof structure supported on wooden poles, we headed out into the twilight for an evening game drive to spot some lions on the prowl.  IMG_1427

Hard to spot during the day, lions are even more difficult to find at dusk.  The three teams and guides spread out in different directions while staying in touch with their walkie-talkies to share information.  The radios were quiet for quite a while until a lioness was spotted hunting in some grasslands on the other side of the reserve.  The last blue of the twilight sky was almost gone when we joined the other groups watching the lioness eat her fresh kill in the semidarkness.  IMG_1274On the way back to the lapa we encountered the hippos we had seen earlier, now grazing far from their waterhole.  Large black masses, they were barely visible when out of the headlights.IMG_1234Glasses of wine and a large, warming fire greeted us when we returned to the lapa for dinner.  Inland the temperature fell quickly, and the warmth from the flames felt good.

We hadn’t realized when we planned this road trip, but tonight was the first anniversary of a year on the road.  No home, just two suitcases and each other – oh dear.

Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of a private game reserve, in South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank, but I quickly burst into laughter when I saw a wry smile across Donna’s face as she finished her complaint. “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.”

IMG_1265Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve. There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounds totally different in the darkness.IMG_9793We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds, while managing to have some wonderful experiences along the way.  Tomorrow, Edward would guide us through Addo Elephant National Park.IMG_0358The eastern cape was once home to tremendous herds of elephant which were hunted by the Xhosa and the Khoe (Khoi) tribes for sustenance, and much like the American Plains Indians and buffalo it did not end well.  As colonization spread across the region in the 1700 and 1800s the tribes succumbed to smallpox and were pushed into different regions, and the elephants were slaughtered to near extinction for their ivory and to protect farming interests in the region. With the killing of 1400 elephants in 1919, public opinion slowly turned.  Only eleven elephants remained when Addo Park was established in 1931 with 5600 acres. IMG_0901 The park was enclosed with an elephant proof fence in 1954, to protect the surrounding citrus farms from their rampages, when the size of the herd had rebounded to 22 elephants.  Today the park is the third largest in South Africa and encompasses 1,700,000 acres.  Home to over 600 elephants now, the reserve has expanded its mission to protect a growing number of mammal species within its borders.IMG_0993We could have done a self-drive tour through Addo, but we thoroughly enjoyed Edward’s knowledge of wildlife and the region.  It was a good decision.  Sitting up high in an SUV provided better visibility into the bush, where in our small rental car we wouldn’t have been able to see much.  And his timing was perfect in getting us to a waterhole just as a very large herd with calves was creating a trail of dust as it emerged from the surrounding dry bush.IMG_0936We witnessed elephants smiling as they drank.  It was a tremendous experience.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Tram 28 – Part II: Chiado/Bairro Alto to Campo de Ourique

Starting the second part of this magical ride through Lisbon, tram 28 leaves the Praça do Comércio area from two nearby stops on Rua da Conceição, and climbs steeply around a huge curve into the Chiado and Bairro Alto districts before traveling to its terminus at Jardim dos Prazeres in Campo de Ourique.  Rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755, both these districts have a totally different atmosphere than Alfama’s time capsule, reflecting a vibrant, more cosmopolitan Lisbon with fine upscale shopping, nightlife and historical monuments that often reminded us of Paris.  Praça Luís de Camões is the center of all this activity and tram 28 will drop you off amidst all the fun. There are so many things to do from this location that you might want to consider coming back here more than once. IMG_1626As if guarding the plaza, Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Loreto / Igreja dos Italianos, known as “the Italian Church” and Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação face each other with refined, simple exteriors.   The Italian Church was built in 1518 by King John V to celebrate Lisbon’s Italian community of Genoese and Venetian merchants.  The interior is lined with marble imported from Italy.

Exiting the Italian Church, you can walk right across the street into Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação to view spectacular ceiling paintings by Simon Caetano Nunes.  After the 1755 disaster, reconstruction of this cathedral lasted until 1873.  The cathedral also features several contemporary religious relief sculptures and a ceiling mural in a side chamber.

Once you’re back on the sidewalk, follow the sound of music to a small plaza. Here street musicians, performance artists and dance teams entertain crowds of tourists.   Outdoor cafes edge the plaza, which is centered by a statue commemorating António Ribeiro, a Catholic cardinal who supported the democratic movement that lead to the toppling of the military regime in 1974.  Pop into Café A Brasileira,  Lisbon’s first coffee house in 1908, with its Art Deco style interior of sculpted wood, polished brass and mirrored walls.  Many famous Portuguese writers and artists nutured their caffeine addiction here.  Poet Fernando Pessoa visited so often, he is immortalized here with a bronze statue depicting him seated at “his” table.  Immortalized in bronze, poet Fernando Pessoa sits permanently outside at “his” table.

Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas with its ornate tile facade illustrating the sciences can be seen as you work your way to the Carmo Archaeological Museum. Set in the ruins of Lisbon’s largest cathedral before the 1755 earthquake, this small museum has a diverse collection of tombs, ceramics and mosaics along with other ancient artifacts. A few steps from its door, the viewing platform of Elevador de Santa Justa offers beautiful views of Lisbon.  Walking back to Praça Luís de Camões, pass the Guarda Nacional Republicana to watch Lisbon’s less elaborate version of the changing of the guard.

From Praça Luís de Camões you can also walk or take tram 24 up Rua da Misericordia deeper into Bairro Alto.  There is so much to do on this one street, you will want to return several times.  If you are looking to be selective about the churches you visit in Lisbon, Igreja de São Roque and its Museu de São Roque should be at the top of the list. The highly carved gilded interior was the first Jesuit Church in Portugal.  The museum exhibits an intriguing, world-class collection of Italian religious art in a contemporary setting. 

Riding a funicular tram in Lisbon is a must and the street-art covered walls of the Ascensor da Glória route are just a block from Igreja de São Roque.  It’s a pop culture experience to board the graffiti-painted tram and descend to Praça dos Restauradores.  The walls along the route have been given to the artists of Lisbon and are covered with spectacular street murals.  Older murals are painted over on a regular basis and replaced with new inspirations.IMG_5455Shady Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara overlooks this colorful chaos and has splendid views of Lisbon below.  From the miradouro it’s a gentle uphill walk into Bairro Alto. Fortunately, there’s no lack of places to rejuvenate yourself along the way.  For lunch we found A Padaria Portuguesa an artisanal bakery and restaurant that we would return to several times during our stay in Alfama just to buy their delicous bread.  This was especially rewarding if we combined it with buying cheese at Queijaria Cheese Shop just a few blocks away.  Listening to the proprietor describe the nuances of each Portuguese variety and offering samples to tweak our palette, we usually left with the makings for a nice picnic under the towering specimen trees of Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Lisboa, just across the boulevard.  Jardim do Príncipe Real, with its iconic trimmed cypress tree shaped to look like giant shitake mushrooms, was always a good alternative destination. 

For dessert and coffee, we’d indulge ourselves with a sumptuous visit to Bettina & Niccolo Corallo, a wonderful artisanal chocolate and coffee shop with seating for only 6-8 people.  Just down the street, in what was once an ornate, private residence, the Ribeiro da Cunha Palace has been subdivided into unique boutique stores.  The lavish, original architectural detailing can still be seen in all the shops as you wander through. If you are staying late in the area, Tapas Bar 52 is a popular place for sharing delicous, small plate creations. 

One stop away from Praça Luís de Camões, you can climb aboard funicular Bica and descend the steep hill into its gated ticket terminal on Rua de S. Paulo.  On your way down you might catch a glimpse of a middle-aged man walking along the tracks, his pot-bellied pig on a leash.  Outside the terminal you’re back on flat terrain again and only a short walk away from the Time Out Market.IMG_5363Set in a historic 1890s building in Cais do Sodré, this is a huge, lively food court with numerous restaurant choices that is very popular with Lisboans. Whatever you are craving at the time, you’ll find something satisfying here.  Next door, during the week, Mercado da Ribeira operates a central market with fish, meat and produce vendors offering Portugal’s finest products.  Brightly painted Pink Street, popular for its club scene, is nearby.IMG_3326Take funicular Bica back uphill, and around the corner you find tranquil Miradouro de Santa Catarina,  with views of the Tagus River and Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge in the distance.  The Museu da Farmácia is also located here. Also, nearby along Calcada do Combro, or just off it, are several landmarks worth quick visits.

Unimpressive from the outside, Igreja de Santa Catarina, built in 1647, has a rich, baroque style, gilded interior and impressive pipe organ.  The buildings along Rua Vale frame Igreja Paroquial das Mercês sitting prominently atop a small hill at the end of the street. First constructed in 1615, a masterpiece of tile work created in 1715 and installed on a vaulted ceiling in a small room survived the 1755 earthquake. This is one of Lisbon’s hidden treasures.  Credited to tile master Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes, the mural illustrates the Litanies of the Virgin Mary.  Ask the church attendants to open the room for you. The rest of the church is an eighteen-century reconstruction.  Down Rua Vale from the cathedral, Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar, a small contemporary art museum, has rotating exhibits and a permanent collection of works by Júlio Pomar (1926-2018.) Some consider him to be the most influential Portuguese painter of his generation. 

A mass of sun worshippers greeted us a we stepped off the elevator at Park Bar.  Every chair in this oasis of lush greenery, hidden above Lisbon, was turned towards the sun to take advantage of the view on this early spring day.  With a quick look at the name, you think the bar is in a park, but instead it’s on the sixth-floor rooftop of a parking garage next to Igreja de Santa Catarina.  Finding the entrance was a bit challenging, since there was no signage, but once you locate the elevator or stairs inside the garage you’re set.  The place gets packed at sunset and the party grows into the night with DJ’s providing the soundtrack.IMG_6126 Heading west, tram 28 weaves through a very narrow section similar to parts of its route in Alfama, before reaching the open area around Assembleia da República. The parliament of Portugal is headquartered in a neoclassical building that was first used as a convent in the sixteenth century.  Formal gardens behind the parliament building, hidden by an imposing wall, can be seen from tram 28 or if you stand on your tip-toes and peer over.  Never immune from criticism, the politicians must endure a large satirical wall mural, painted on a nearby building, as they head to work each day.

Past the Assembleia da República the character of the city changes.  The streets widen and some multi-storied apartment buildings dot the cityscape between historical buildings.  If you are ready to picnic, Jardim da Estrela is a wonderfully landscaped park with ponds and sculptures of historic figures scattered along the walking paths. Across the boulevard, one of Lisbon’s lesser visited cathedrals, eighteen-century Basílica da Estrelaor, safeguards the tomb of Queen Mary I.  She was the first monarch to rule over a united Portugal that included Brazil.  She ordered the construction of the cathedral in 1761, as a religious obligation, after the birth of a male heir to the throne.  Unfortunately, Queen Mary outlived her son (José – Prince of Brazil) who died of small pox at the age of 27.  The cathedral also has a 500-piece nativity scene, made of cork, on permanent display.

Tram 28 ends its charming journey in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood at Jardim dos Prazeres, a small park with two cafes, in front of Cemitério dos Prazeres.  Here the tram waits for several minutes before following its route all the way back to its starting point in the center of Lisbon at Martim Moniz.   This tranquil cemetery is the final resting place for many of Portugal’s most notable citizens.  Tombs of famous fado singers, artists, architects, doctors, writers and poets share the cypress lined lanes with politicians, nobility and a variety of songbirds.  Many of the mausoleums are ornately decorated with artistic sculptures that represent the deceased’s career.  Stop in the office to get a map outlining several different self-guided tours. There are numbers on the curbs in front of some of the tombs to help cross-reference the person’s contribution to Portuguese society.  The far side of the cemetery offers views of the Tagus river and Ponte 25 de Abril bridge.

A few blocks away Mercado de Campo de Ourique has been revamped into a trendy food hall where organic and artisanal food purveyors share the space with small bars and restaurants.  It’s a great place to rejuvenate before heading home.

Lisbon is an intriguing city with an amazing variety of activities in which to immerse yourself.  There is no one “correct” way to see the city, but tram 28 offers a splendid six-mile route through this charming capitol that passes many of the top attractions.  Multiple sites are close together so it’s easy to walk from one to the other and then just hop back on the tram to cover greater distances.  Don’t expect to see everything along this famous route in one day; there’s just so much to explore and many wonderful diversions!

We loved Lisbon and can’t wait to return one day.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan – The Road Was Un-named

img_1653The scenery along the drive to Lake Atitlan, along roads that continued to climb higher, was spectacular with verdant greenery and distant volcanos appearing then disappearing again with each twist of the serpentine route. img_1668Arriving in San Pedro we thought we were on a movie set for a sequel to Mad Max or Water World.  Down by the Panajachel dock dreadlocked travelers, wearing eccentric attire, filled the streets along the lakeshore.  Feeling as if we had time traveled, we were relieved to find our Airbnb far out of town on a dead-end road that ran along the lake.  According to Google maps the road was unnamed.  Our host said “tell the tuktuk drivers you are staying on Calle Finca,” which referred to a distant and abandoned coffee farm, about an hour’s walk from the trail head at the end of the road.img_0540-2Our new home for our last week in Guatemala had a wonderful porch with great view of Lake Atitlan and tranquility.  A relaxing change of pace was called for after the Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations in Antigua.  Bird calls or the soft Mayan chatter of coffee pickers, harvesting ripe beans right outside our door, were the only sounds that filled the air.  Fortunately, we were much closer to town than the abandoned coffee finca and were able to walk to the daily outdoor market, along streets where we could see women washing clothing in the distant lake, and make-shift scales were set up to buy coffee beans hauled down from the slopes of Volcan San Pedro.

As we neared the market the streets became steeper than those in San Francisco, CA.  Every morning vendors set up vegetable, poultry, meat, flower and used clothing stands.  The fish monger displayed freshly caught fish, pulled from Lake Atitlan earlier in the morning, still flapping in baskets along the edge of the road.  And multiple varieties of avocadoes were available to satisfy our cravings for them.  San Pedro lacked a proper super market, so if we wanted meat or chicken, we had to purchase it here.  The key to buying meat or poultry was to go first thing in the morning, before the heat of the day and most importantly before the flies started to stir.  Shopping this way, we did not have any issues with the meat, poultry or vegetables we bought.  There were several small panaderias in the blocks around the market that had great baked goods. We rounded out our pantry with fresh eggs, yogurt and coffee from the farmer next door to us.  Large numbers of tourists didn’t seem to venture up the steep streets of San Pedro away from the waterfront, which was filled with coffee cafes, art galleries, hostels, restaurants, and bars.

Aside from researching an affordable and charming place to stay on Lake Atitlan we didn’t know much about San Pedro La Laguna itself.  Fortunately, we were able to reach out to one of our Instagram followers who does medical missions to the area several times a year. Cathy was right on with her coffee and dining recommendations.  Straight uphill from the Panajachel ferry dock, Luis at Cafe Las Cristalinas brewed a great cup of coffee and served wonderful empanadas, among other delights as promised.  On the street that follows the shoreline, La Terraza Coffee Shop & Kitchen offered a quiet respite and a wonderful view of Indian Nose mountain towering over the village of San Juan, just across the lake.  Closer to the Santiago Atitlan ferry dock at Restaurant Idea Connection we enjoyed their Italian menu and coconut macaroons, outside in the garden. The brunch offered on Saturdays and Sundays at El Barrio can’t be missed if you are in San Pedro over a weekend.  Plan on eating only one meal the day you choose to go, so that you can fully enjoy their incredible and very affordable four course brunch.  Smokin Joe’s BBQ has a store on this side of town which sells local and imported meats, all vacuum sealed and frozen.  We were impressed with their selection.img_0767A short ferry ride took us to San Juan La Laguna, a weavers and artists village that visually celebrates its Mayan heritage with colorful street murals.  The steep walk uphill from the boat dock to the center of town was lined with art galleries.

The streets at the top of the hill of were full of various weaver’s cooperatives that use locally grown cotton, wool or bamboo and only natural dyes.  Here we serendipitously stumbled across the Casa Flor Ixcaco, the first weaver’s cooperative in San Juan, founded in 1996 with only five members.  Today more than 100 women support their families through this weaving cooperative.  The variety of designs created on backstrap looms and the color range they created from natural dyes was amazing.   The question here was “what not to buy?” because everything was so beautiful.img_0864Six years ago, when we first visited the lake, we stayed at Posada de Santiago in Santiago de Atitlan and met Carolina, an American expat who has been in Guatemala going on thirty years now.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.  Being so close by, a reunion was in order.IMG_1019It’s a long ferry ride to Santiago de Atitlan and even longer when the wind churns up whitecaps on the water, and the small boat we were in rocked side-to-side for the duration of the crossing.  We silently said our prayers when the local folks stated to reach for the life preservers.  Fortunately, we were never too far from shore and know how to swim.  It is a breathtaking view coming into the boat dock at Santiago with its namesake volcano towering over the town and Volcan San Pedro just an avocado toss away, across the water.

The waterfront seemed the same with kids swimming and women doing laundry in the lake, but the walk up to the tuktuks overwhelmed with craft stands and vendors calling out their sales pitch.  Lunch was as delicous as we remembered at Posada de Atitlan and as wonderfully lively as we anticipated with Carolina.  Very interesting embroidery art by the late artist Antonio Ramirez Sosóf hung on display in the restaurant. These are truly amazing pieces of cultural art that were all delicately hand stitched and depicted indigenous and Mayan culture around the lake.img_0669Enjoying the stars from our porch we were surprised when fireworks celebrating Epiphany lit up the night sky above villages across the lake, their colorful bursts reflected brilliantly on the water.  With magical moments like this, still fresh in our memories, Guatemala tugged at our hearts as we packed for our next adventure.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

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Antigua – Snow Birds in Paradise

img_0920Paradise is such a subjective feeling and if you don’t require a turquoise blue sea and white sand beaches, Antigua, Guatemala just might fit the bill.  This charming colonial city with its ever spring-like weather was perfect for our two-month stay. img_6117We arrived in Antigua at the end of October so that we could attend the Sumpango Giant Kite Festival held every year on November 1st, All Saints Day.  That spectacularly colorful event and a religious procession that burst forward from La Merced Church on October 28th would prove to be representative of the people and life in Guatemala we experienced.

Settling into our spacious two-bedroom Airbnb on Alameda Santa Lucia, with views of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, was a breeze after living in two studio apartments and a boat cabin in Ecuador. At first, we thought the cost of living in Guatemala was going to be considerably higher than that of Ecuador, but that was due to eating dinner out the first couple of days before we got fully settled.  The dinner restaurants in Ecuador are considerably less expensive than those in Guatemala, but once we started shopping in the central market our food expenses dropped dramatically. We were delighted with the freshness and quality of the local produce. img_9629On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays the market tripled in size when the outdoor portion was open, and farmers brought in truckloads of fruits and vegetables from the surrounding villages. There we experienced one of the best markets going, set in a bustling, dusty lot with Volcans Agua, Fuego and Acatenango touching the sky in the background.  Most produce was sold in quantities of 5 quetzals (60 cents) so bring lots of small bills, as vendors didn’t usually have change for anything larger than 10Q.  The flavor of the locally grown vegetables was amazing. Being backyard gardeners ourselves, we were duly impressed.  Twenty quetzals would buy enough vegetables for a week.

On Sundays we would walk to Caoba Farm, just on the outskirts of town, for their organic produce and stay for their brunch, which featured live music in a beautiful outdoor setting.  They have mastered the farm-to-table restaurant concept.img_8874Shopping at the local supermarket, La Bodegona, was a wonderfully hectic experience.  At times it could feel like you were shopping from a conga line, weaving up and down aisles, afraid to leave the line for fear of not being able to enter it again and being stuck in dairy for eternity.  Numerous store employees lined the aisles offering samples of cookies, deli meats, drinks and other temptations to keep the energy level of the beast alive. It was a hoot! We had to psych ourselves up, like players before the big game, to shop there because it was so hectic and required a certain mental and physical stamina.  I will confess though to dancing in the checkout line to blaring Latino Christmas music – the mood was contagious. img_0714 On the same block D&C Cremas, a Walmart affiliate, offered a more sedate shopping experience. Both supermarkets had excellent poultry, which was more tender and tastier than back in Pennsylvania.  We were also fortunate that a pork butcher opened a new shop a half block away and offered fresh meat and sausage daily.  We enjoyed all the different varieties of Guatemalan sausage he made and found them to be very flavorful and lean, with almost no fat.

Antigua was a delight to explore on foot.  Charm, color and textures greeted us around every corner.  Every open doorway revealed something of interest.  Old colonial doorknockers featuring various faces, animals or hands graced many of the doors and we became intrigued by their artistry.  There are still several metalsmiths in town that cast and forge these works of art.

Most folks greeted us with a “Buena Dia” as they passed us on the sidewalk, though navigating the sidewalk hazards could be challenging at times.  Our early weeks were spent exploring the ruins of convents and cathedrals destroyed in a 1773 earthquake. This cataclysmic event led to Antigua being abandoned as Guatemala’s capital and left as a forgotten backwater to evolve unchanged into a charming UNESCO heritage site. Today Antigua is a very cosmopolitan, old colonial city with sophisticated dining and museums, yet still retains a quaint authenticity with its Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets which haven’t changed for centuries.  Many local women still wear traditional, locally woven blouses – guipils, created from the textiles for which Guatemala is renowned, which adds tremendously to the cultural atmosphere of the community.  Antigua had a genuine character that we hadn’t experienced to this extent before.

Finding our new favorite spots was a fun quest we eagerly embarked upon. There were many choices: our favorite coffee café is Fernando’s; a roof-top bar with the best view is Café Sky; there were five wonderful panaderias, bakeries, among which we rotated.  Six years ago, when we first visited Guatemala and Antigua, it was difficult to find a good cup of coffee. Instant coffee was served nearly everywhere, since the good beans were saved to be exported, and cappuccinos were unheard of.  Now the barista culture is firmly embraced, and cappuccinos have become a competitive art form.

Our calendar for November and December filled quickly with fun and interesting activities to attend.  The city sponsors many free events such as concerts on the central plaza; an annual Flower Festival, November 17th, which runs along the same street as the iconic arch; and the annual Waiters Race (Carrera de las Charolas) that starts early in the morning, so no one misses work. On November 14th. hundreds of waiters and waitresses filled the starting lines at the central plaza and, for cash prizes, zoomed around several city blocks to the cheers from a mostly local crowd.  Saturday afternoons found us heading to the Santa Catalina Arch to watch wedding parties pose for photographs amidst admiring spectators under the iconic symbol of Antigua.

December 1st brought the first music concert of the Christmas season. It was held in the ruins of Antigua’s first cathedral, behind Iglesia de la Escuela de Cristo, just off the central plaza. The musicians and audience sat under arches now open to the stars.  Christmas carols reverberated off the ancient walls which provided amazing acoustics.  The concert ended with fireworks bursting over the open domes. And then the spectacular and noisy religious festivals and processions of December began.  Guatemalans love their FIREWORKS!! And I swear every family has an arsenal of them at home, under the beds.  Some peaceful religious events resembled imagery seen on the nightly news, of war-torn streets filled with smoke and the sound of large explosions.  The smell of gunpowder was ever present and filled the air.  It was difficult to find a comprehensive list of local events, but InGuat, the Guatemalan tourism agency, compiles a list of events that changes every day and it is available on their Facebook page.  OkAntigua.com proved to be a good resource for upcoming events, also.  Around town shops and restaurants hung posters announcing activities too.

For a change of pace, we rented a car from Renta Autos de Guatemala, that went very well.  The cobblestoned streets of Antigua quickly changed to smooth pavement as we headed to Santa Maria de Jesus which is high up on the slope of Volcan Agua. In the evenings we could see the lights of this village from our rooftop.  They don’t get many visitors up there, so this village was a wonderful destination for a very authentic market day. After getting directions at the communal laundry basin we found everything you could imagine on sale in front of the church: hand crafted guipils, cooking utensils, fruit, fresh fish from the Pacific and Lake Atitlan, and rabbit hutches to name a few. Fried iguana was available for the willing.  Horses carried jugs of water for home delivery and hay for animals out in distant fields down the streets around the market.  And women carried those rabbit hutches home on top of their heads.

Lower on the slope of Volcan Agua, San Juan del Obispo offered the colonial era Bishop’s Palace and a chance to taste some wine made from locally grown nispero fruit, for which the town is famous.  Knock loudly on the door so the nuns can hear you and usher you inside for a tour.  The plaza behind the former bishops’ residence has a beautiful church and a nice view of Antigua.  Just uphill and around a corner from the palace is Casa Museo Luis De Lion.  This is a small family-run museum dedicated to the Guatemalan poet who celebrated his country in verse.  Today it doubles as a child care center for children displaced from their homes by the frequent eruptions of Volcan Fuego.  Musicians travel from as far as Guatemala City to give these young children free music lessons. It’s a wonderful program run by dedicated staff.

Most of the beautiful textiles you see for purchase in Antigua are crafted in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, so we decided to check out the source.  At Mercado de la Artesanía, we watched women create intricate weavings on their back-strap looms as they sat on the floor in front of their stalls.  Upstairs the sales pressure was less intense, and we found Anna, a delightful weaver who pleasantly shared her life with us.  I turned away for moment only to find Donna fully clad in traditional clothing when I turned backed.

Pastores offered handmade leather boots and shoes, for unbelievable prices, in shops that lined both sides of the road.  A week later we returned, via Uber, to pick up our custom fitted boots. Cost $40.00 per pair. On our way back, we diverted to Finca Filadelfia, a quiet coffee plantation, to review our shopping expedition and plan further adventures with our wheels.img_1797The next day we a followed a serpentine mountain road, second gear all the way, up to Santo Domingo del Cerro, a beautiful sculpture and art park with museums, walking trails and a restaurant that overlooks Antigua.  Plan on spending at least a half day there, because it is a beautiful setting for a restful day or afternoon. Casa Santo Domingo offers a free hourly shuttle to the park from the hotel in town.

For the nine days before Christmas, Las Posadas de Navidads proceeded through the neighborhoods of Antigua. Each evening smaller processions, led by fireworks and accompanied by a band and carolers bearing torches, carried a small float of the Holy Family door to door to a different home, re-enacting their search for shelter as they traveled to Bethlehem. Arriving at the predetermined host for the night they sing, “In the name of God, we ask for shelter, for my beloved wife cannot walk.” (En el hombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.)  It is considered a great honor and blessing to be a host, and the family provides the participants in the procession with traditional food and drink after the statues are brought into the home.  Home town Saint Hermano Pedro started this tradition in 1663.

On Christmas Eve we watched from our rooftop as the surrounding countryside exploded in a spectacular display of fireworks.  All around us our neighbors and families near and far, lit the night sky for at least two hours.  The night’s fireworks displays rivaled July 4th celebrations in the states.  Instead of our usual cold northeast weather and a large family gathering, our first Christmas away from home was celebrated with weather in the high 70’s, blue skies and shirtsleeves.  It was odd because we had broken a tradition and we were a little blue because of it.  Then again it was warm and sunny, Feliz Navidad!! I think we have quickly become snowbirds. img_2637Antigua filled early with people in all their finery on New Year’s. Vendors selling textiles the day before were now offering party hats and all sort of 2019 memorabilia. Concerts were held in Plaza Mayor and under El Arco.  Firework launchers were being setup amidst the crowds in the streets. Families were picnicking in the park and folks were staking their spots early to watch the fireworks later.  At midnight a loud and colorful display filled the night sky. We could hear the roar of an appreciative crowd from our rooftop.  We heard random explosions throughout the night to sunrise.  Guatemalans love their fireworks!

Two days later we boarded a tourist shuttle to San Pedro La Laguna for our last week in Guatemala.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

El Barranco – Cuenca’s Most Interesting Neighborhood in Ecuador’s Renaissance City

With a vibe and cultural scene reminiscent of Florence, Italy, Cuenca continues to reap tourism awards as a hot new destination in South America. The city is investing heavily in infrastructure with a new tram line opening soon, but with all this positive press the streets are still mostly filled with Cuencanos (people of Cuenca) going about their daily lives.  Masses of flag-led tour groups are unheard of, as are masses of tourists in general.  We have been in Cuenca for five weeks and have never felt the crush of tourist season descending upon us.Parque de San Sebastian_001The city does a wonderful job supporting its craftspeople who still use traditional, made by hand, methods to create exceptional pieces in jewelry, textile, ceramic, wrought-iron, tin and copper workshops located across the city.  Toquilla straw weavers in the villages around Cuenca who carry unfinished sacks of Panama Hats into the city’s sombrero (hat) factories also need to be included into this group.  There are also several traditional felt hat tallerias (workshops) that cater to the indigenous women who live in the rural areas around Cuenca. The fine arts scene is also well represented with galleries and artists’ studios often next to traditional crafts workshops. To get the broadest experience of this vibrant arts and crafts community a tour through Cuenca’s most interesting neighborhood, El Barranco (the cliffs), and along its busiest street Calle Larga, is a must.  The colonial buildings that front Calle Larga back onto the cliff which overlooks Rio Tomebamba and the newer southern part of Cuenca. Wide stairs in several parts lead down to Paseo 3 de Noviembre, a shaded pedestrian walkway and bike path that follows the river for several miles.Coronel Guillermo Talbot Stairs_001This route actually starts several blocks west of Calle Larga at Cuenca’s Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) across from Parque de San Sebastian which has a large fountain and several nice places to eat. Casa Azul, which has rare sidewalk tables that face the quiet plaza, and Tienda Café are good choices.  Most of the workshops won’t have business signs over their doors or street numbers, might open by ten, but will reliably close between one and three for lunch.

Just around the corner from the Museo Municpal de Arte Moderno at 7-49 Coronel Guillermo Talbot is the unimposing metal embossing workshop of Carlos Bustos. With his workbench by the door to take advantage of the daylight and his finished pieces hanging behind him, he works until the sun sets.  Still keeping the traditions of his family alive he offers embossed decorative pieces which can be traditional or whimsical.  At the end of the street a mural-lined staircase will take you down to the Rio Tomebamba; instead make a left onto Presidente Cordova and then veer right at the Y in the road onto Bajada del Valo. A few doors down is the felt hat Sombrereria of Camilo M.  Hanging from his walls are dozens of white felt hats in various stages of completion with name of the person who ordered it pinned into the brim.  Ask permission to take photos and you will be greeted with a smile.  Just past the hat maker,  Plazoleta Cruz del Vado merges with Mirador del Barranco.  This small plaza has several whimsical sculptures, largest of which depicts the traditional festival game Palo Ensebado (the teaching stick – climbing a greased pole) and a religious cross which celebrates the founding of Cuenca in 1557.

Walking along this scenic overlook, open doors reveal artists’ studios and Casa Museo La Condamine, a museum/antique store that houses an interesting menagerie of long forgotten Cuenca furnishings and antiquities.  Next door to them is the Prohibido Centro Cultural, an alternative museum that displays sculptures and art that could have been inspirational for your worst nightmare or an award winning sci-fi/horror film, depending on how you look at things.  It has a café. Further along the balustrade, musical chords waft from an instrument maker’s workshop, drawing you in, as the craftspeople test their work . Stairs from this scenic overlook lead down to Calle la Condamine and several coppersmiths.

Rounding the corner onto Calle Larga is like returning from the Amazon to New York City. It’s tenfold busier, with the Mercado 10 de Agosto (Cuenca’s central market) accounting for most of the activity in the first block.  This a great short detour to get some exotic fruits or fresh bread and rolls from the numerous panaderias that surround it.  Diagonally across the street is the Museum del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (free), a still operating panama hat factory where you can watch the manufacturing process and try on the finished product.  They have a lovely rooftop café, the only one in Cuenca, that overlooks the Rio Tomebamba and park below.  They offer you a free cup of coffee when you purchase a hat.  From the rooftop here you can see the jewelry workshop and store of Andrea Tello on Av 12 de Abril across the river. One of Cuenca’s finest silversmiths, having created filigree masterpieces that are in museum collections around the world, she earned the UNESCO Award of Excellence in Handicrafts in 2010.  Just a few doors away is the wide alley Bajada del Padron where you will find the workshop of an ironsmith who makes Pucara, a symbol given as a gift to bring good fortune and prosperity. The sculpture incorporates the Christian cross with images of the Sun and Moon to honor Pachamama.

Continuing east along Calle Larga you will cross the intersection of Benigno Malo. For the next several blocks the restaurant choices are tremendous, with options for Arab and Indian cooking to gourmet Ecuadorian cuisine and everything else in between.  El Mercado and El Jardin offer fine dinning experiences that are very enjoyable. For a more casual environment try Goza Espresso Bar which has outside table facing a small park. The lower level of Museo Remigio Crespo Toral (free) offers the Café del Museo, which is truly an oasis of calm in this bustling city, has terraced outside dining that looks over the lush greenery along the Rio Tomebamba and Paseo 3 de Noviembre. The museum itself is worth exploring to see how Cuenca’s gentry lived at the end of the 19th century.  Or you can head to the Wunderbar Café on the Francisco Sojos Jaramillo stairway that leads to the Centro Interamericano de Artes Populares (CIDAP – free) which offers changing, monthly craft exhibits.

Back on Calle Larga the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes looks unimpressive from its entrance, but the museum upstairs has an enthralling collection of 8,000 indigenous artifacts that spans 15,000 years and 20 pre-Columbian cultures, stone-age to bronze-age. Downstairs there is a very good, no-pressure gift store with excellent pricing. Next door is the fascinating studio of metal sculptor Julio Machado who creates hummingbirds and other animals in bronze and aluminum.  Stay straight on Calle Larga when you come to the fork in the road at Todos los Santos Church; this will lead you to a store front painter’s studio where his favorite subject seems to be the church you just passed.

At the end of Calle Large at what once was the Inca city of Tomebamba, its terraced gardens still home to grazing llama, now stands Museo Pumapungo (free), one of Ecuador’s finest museums. The first floor offers changing contemporary art exhibits as well as a fascinating collection of artifacts discovered on site here. Upstairs features exhibits which represent all of Ecuador’s diverse cultural groups and their historic way of life.  Topping it off, there is an unusual exhibit of shrunken heads, tzantzas, along with how-do instructions in Spanish and English from the Shuar people of the Amazon.

Across the river from the Museo Pumapungo is Las Herrerias, the street of the iron forges, where several workshops create utilitarian and decorative works; to locate the workshops, just follow the sounds of hammers striking anvils. Plaza del Herrero, at the end of the street, has a very interesting monumental sculpture dedicated to the ironworkers who helped build Cuenca.  Be sure to try Tortilla de Choclo, a scrumptious corn pancake that is pan-fried on large griddles along the street in this neighborhood.

Artisans not in the Barranco neighborhood, but definitely worth the effort to visit, are ceramicist Eduardo Vega (internationally recognized for his decorative arts.) His workshop and home are a short walk downhill from the Mirador de Turi. Located on the new tram-line that runs through the historic potters’ Barrio Convencio Del 45, at 2-90 Mariscal Lamar, is the traditional, ceramic workshop of Jose Encalada where he and his son Ivan still form every piece using a potter’s kick-wheel. A few blocks over on Vega Munoz is the contemporary, ceramic studio of Eduardo Segovia where he creates whimsical decorative pieces influenced by South American traditions. Closer to the historic central part of Cuenca is the Mama Quilla silversmith shop on Luis Cordero. Here, Harley-riding Ernesto creates fine filigree pieces that reflect the cultures of the Andes.

We enjoyed walking through El Barranco, and specifically Calle Larga.  The route we suggest here provides a wonderful overview of life and art in Cuenca.

Till later,

Craig & Donna