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Entries about churches

Mexico and New Mexico

This winter was different. Instead of our usual travels we decided to go closer to home in consideration of a possible move from upstate New York. The Mexican portion of the trip was the only "abroad" section and was really a chance to have a couple of weeks of warm weather before driving across country to Santa Fe. We had visited both of these places many years ago.

In Mexico we spent all of our time either in Oaxaca or along the Oaxacan coast in the small town of Zipolite. We went on this trip with our friends Debbie and Bill, and stayed in what had been an ancient monastery close to the center of town. Our room, on the second story, faced an inner courtyard where we had breakfast everyday. Oaxaca did not disappoint. Although there are obviously tourists it is not overrun by them, and manages to retain its distinctly Mexican and indigenous feel. The Zocolo is remains the center of life in this mid sized city, and many of the colonial buildings are still standing. It is quite lively during the day as well as the evening, with Mexican families taking a paseo or young people just hanging out. There are shops and restaurants lining the nearby streets.

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The pace of life is relatively slow, and though the province of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico, it doesn't feel that way in the center of town. The poor live on the outskirts and in the rural areas. The city spreads out in a wide valley between two mountain ranges, with the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other.

Most days we spent wandering around the streets, and exploring.

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We went to the nearby market, although we were told there was an even larger one about a mile away.

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We checked out the main catedral, and on one day they were filming a quinceanera.

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Oaxaca is said to have the best food in Mexico, and with four different kinds of moles, great seafood and beer, and inexpensive prices, I would have to concur. So when we weren't walking, we were eating.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches people food air_travel buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
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Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
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Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
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Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
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Basilica at the edge of ravine
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Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
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Alley's about town. Nanette on right
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There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
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Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
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A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

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Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

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We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
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Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

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Though on a few days we had sun.

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We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

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We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

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Selfie from across the ravine
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After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Trinidad, Cuba

Hostal Margaritas, Trinidad

Picture postcard cute, Trinidad is an almost fully intact colonial city of about 30,000. It feels a bit like San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, with hills and cobblestone streets. Of course, that was close to 40 years ago. Plaza Mayor has been almost fully restored, and is the center of tourism in town, of which there are plenty. In seems almost everyone who comes to Cuba stops here, mostly Brits, French, Italians, Spaniards, and a smattering of Canadians. The are also plenty of Jinteros, touts, who seem more aggressive than elsewhere in Cuba. People are still friendly, but they are clearly a bit jaded with all the tourists around, and are quick to overcharge for agua and comida, especially around the plaza.

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Step away from the center of town however, and life proceeds in typical Cuban fashion, with buildings in need of major repair, horse carts and bicycles, tiny tiendas and mercados, etc.

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We have spent the last few days wandering around, sometimes with our friend Terry, and sometimes not. We have eaten a couple of tasty meals here at our Casa, and then last night, based on the advice of our casa's dueno, we found Restaurante San Jose. Excellent Cuban food at reasonable prices. We had to wait, but it was worth it.

One of the oldest churches in town, now just a shell
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On one of the days we took a short hike up one of the colima's (hills) on the edge of town. We walked up to the cell tower/radio station, and got into a lengthy chat with the caretaker. He took us to the roof of one of the buildings for a panoramic view of the city, sea on one side, mountains on the other. As a largely self-educated black man, he confirmed the presence of racismo here, and was not sure that even if the embargo is lifted entirely, that the common people would benefit. Of course, the hombres de negocios, businessmen, will profit, he said, but probably not guys like him. He had similar complaints about the government as most of the folks we have talked to, but again, it was even handed. He told us about the free medical care, education, food allotments, etc. that the government provides. We spoke with him for quite some time, and he let us know that most Cubans are very interested in reading, and line up for books at the library or when there are book fairs. Although a compesino, he was very well informed about what goes on in the world, more than you can say about his counterparts in the United States.

Yesterday we took the 2 CUC tourist bus out to the Ancon beach. Said to be the best beach on the Caribbean side of the island, it was nice, though not perfect for swimming because of the seagrass which started close to shore.But no matter, as it was too cold to swim, at least for us. There were several large and expensive hotels nearby, but we spent an enjoyable day lying on lounge chairs, in the shade of umbrellas made from palm leaves.

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After dinner, in my endless quest for rumba, we wandered up to Casa La Musica, which is an outdoor venue just off the plaza. not a casa at all, Although not strictly speaking rumba, which has been variously defined, it was a hopping place with a very good band, that had several congas and timbales, trumpet, singer, electric base and piano etc. We met a young Belgium couple there, intentionally, as we had run into them earlier in the day at the beach, and who we had previously met at Zunilda y Raya's place in Cienfuegos. It wasn't long before Nicholas and I were buying each other mojitos, with his girlfriend Caroline keeping up without any problem. Actually, they had a few rounds before we got there.

There were some incredible dancers in the crowd, almost all Cuban, who were moving in perfect sync to the music. It inspired me to consider taking lessons once again when we return to New York. It seems that Cubans know intuitively how to swivel their hips, and it is easy to believe, as the book I just finished reading about cuban music suggested, that Elvis had seen a Latin movie in the States, and copied his moves from the movie. There was one old guy there, probably in his 70's, who was dancing expertly with a few women less than half his age, and he had no trouble leading them around, twisting and turning them with his arms, sometimes more than one at a time. A placer para mis ojos. And then there were a couple of white folks, also our age, who knew how to dance to this afro-cuban stuff. Spaniards? Possibly.

After an hour or so, another group came on, all black this time, with even more drummers and singers, along with costumed dancers. They sang in a combination of Spanish and African, and although clearly done for tourists, they were damn good. I felt, really for the first time, that I was getting to hear some of the music that I was hoping for in Cuba, which until now has eluded me. It was a mixed crowd of locals and tourists with a very nice vibe. We stayed two hours before walking home. The music seems to start earlier here than in Habana, which is a good thing for us older folk, though I could have stayed even longer. Tomorrow it's back to Habana for a night before heading to Europe.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:55 Archived in Cuba Tagged churches buildings people postcards Comments (4)

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