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Entries about tourist sites

Tepoztlan, Mexico

After arriving at the airport in Mexico City, we took a bus to Cuernavaca where our friend Yolanda met us and brought us to her home in Tepoztlan. A story unto itself, we met Yolanda several years back on a boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. She is a professor of educational psychology in Mexico City, and when we told her we might be coming to Mexico, she encouraged us to spend a few days with her and her husband Carlos, also a psychology professor.

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Tepoztlan, about an hour a way from Mexico City, is a small town of perhaps 12,000 people. It is surrounded by mountains, and its steep cobblestone streets are home to a cosmopolitan mix of local indigenous folks, a number of expats, as well as artists and intellectuals such as Yolanda and Carlos, who choose to live here to get away from the huge city of Mexico.

Carlos was not feeling well when we arrived in late afternoon, and the following day Yolanda needed to go to university as the semester was just starting. We therefore had the day to ourselves, and spent most of it wandering the streets of Tepoztlan,

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checking out the local market,

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seeing the cathedral, and eating lunch at one of the more expensive hotels in town, which had a view overlooking the whole valley.

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Although Tepoztlan did not seem very touristy to us, Yolanda said that on weekends hoards of people descend on the town from Mexico. Luckily we were there during the week. Yolanda’s condo was a mile or two from the town center, but no matter, we took our time and walked it in both directions, stopping on both the way in and out in one of the ubiquitous ice creams shops with hundreds of flavors.

Jesus in ice-cream shop with flavors along side of him
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The following day Yolanda had the day off and took us Xochicalco, one of her favorite ruins an hour or so from Tepoztlan. More extensive then Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, it has several different levels and ball fields, pyramids etc. and we more ore less had it all to ourselves.

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The most impressive part was the observatory, which is actually located in a made made cave. It has a hole in the roof of the cave which lets in a shaft of light. During the solstice it lines up with the sun in perfect position, and acts as a calendar.

Taken with flash
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There was a guide at the entrance to the cave took us through, and knew just how to position us in the shaft of light to get impressive photos.

No flash this time
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The ruins had quite a spiritual feel to them, and as always, I imagined myself among the crowds of the ancient city during a pelota game. The winning coach considered it a great honor to be sacrificed to Itzacoatal, a plumed serpent that signifies the meeting of earth and sky.

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We left early the next morning for Mexico city, after spending a few hours on the phone to change our flight, as a big snowstorm was expected at Newark Airport on Saturday, our scheduled date of departure. We spent the day at the Frieda Kahlo Museum, Casa Azul, and nearby at the Trotsky museum, of particular interest to me, given my red diaper status.

And then it was back home for a week before our scheduled road trip to Santa Fe.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:59 Archived in Mexico Tagged people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (1)

Excursions from Oaxaca

After a few days of wandering the streets of Oaxaca, we were ready to go a little further afield. We went on a day trip into the Sierra Norte with a small tour group to the Zapotec villages of Lachatao. It took a couple of hours of driving on the curvy mountain roads to reach the village. It is a poor area, but the indigenous people there and in several other small villages, are trying to attract eco-tourists, and have constructed a number of bungalows just outside of town. Our first stop was a small anthropological museum, largely organized and opened due to the efforts of our guide, Oscar. After that, we went on a hike to what we were told was an ancient ceremonial place on nearby Jaguar Mountain. The hike was billed as a ritualistic inner journey, and that exactly what it was. Oscar, though not indigenous, had lived in the village for a number of years, and was convinced that he had found one of the original sites of Zapotec civilization on this flattened mountain. It was not long or difficult, perhaps two hours, but we made a number of stops en route for him to explain certain things to us about the culture and the religion, which was based on worshipping the spirits of the mountains, wind, and animals. We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate on the sounds and smells of the forest. Oscar talked about the Zapotec way of life as being in harmony with Tao, or the Way, similar to the ancient Chinese religion. I'm not sure whether this accurately described the Zapotecs, who apparently were also into human sacrifice, or if it was a reflection of Oscar's time living in San Francisco. When we got near the top, which had wide views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we were instructed to lie down in a certain spot and glance backwards over the horizon, and then describe the colors we saw. The predominant color was supposed to be indicative of a certain aspect of our mood and personality. I forget now what my color was, or its meaning.

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We then gathered around what looked like an ancient fire pit and sent out positive energy to the other folks on the hike, and then in widening circles to all living beings. It was a bit hokey, at least to me, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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On our return, we had lunch in the town's only "restaurant," prepared by local village women. Then some of us climbed up to the roof of the old church, giving us another great view of the mountains beyond.

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Oscar on church roof
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View from church roof
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The next day we hired Luis, to take us on a tour of Monte Alban and a few other nearby points of interest. Having lived in LA for several years, his English was good, and he turned out to be quite personable and informative.

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Monte Alban is one of the oldest ruins in Mesoamerica. It goes back to 500BC, although it was abandoned some 1600 years later for unknown reasons. Like the ceremonial site in the mountains, it is located on top of a flattened mountain with a commanding view of the Oaxaca valley below. It is obviously quite large, and while some of it has been reconstructed, parts of the pyramids are original. Getting there early was a good move, as the place was practically empty.

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Pelota field
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Local man at the ruins
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After Monte Alban, we stopped at a Mescal factory, just out of town. It was interesting to see how they made it from roasted agave.

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Of course we had to sample the product. Unlike most liquor, the newer stuff, made from wild agave, was more expensive than the aged ones, most likely because they are made from cultivated agave.

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Then it was on to see the Tule tree. Said to be 1600 years old, its circumference is immense, at least 50 feet or so.

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We stopped for a late lunch at favorite buffet that Luis knew. They had all four different moles, as well as a huge assortment of other meats, fish, vegetables etc.

Finally we ended the day by going to a weaving "factory." It was very much a family run business, and although they sell some of their handwoven rugs right there, they sell more at the Santa Fe Indian Market during the summer. We wouldn't see them there, but Santa Fe was going to be our destination in a few weeks.

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It was a long day, but I couldn't resist taking a shot of these kids on the way back to our hotel.

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Posted by jonshapiro 08:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes mountains people food tourist_sites Comments (5)

Heraklion, Crete

We seem to have a serendipitous knack for arriving in places during times of celebration. Heraklion, the largest city in Crete is very lively today, as this is their Independence Day, when the Greeks defeated the Turks some 200 years ago. Despite the less than ideal weather, everyone is eating and drinking outside, and very friendly. The owner of a restaurant saw us glancing at the food, and offered us a taste of charcoal broiled octopus, and some of the local hooch, raki.

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We stopped to hear some music being played by some young people in a small piazza. It was all acoustic, with several lute like instruments, and mandolins, or similar sounding, and a small drum. Another young man, Migueles, told us that they were playing to raise money for a friend who needed an expensive surgery for an aneurism. We made a small donation, and then continued to talk with him. He helps to run an adventure travel agency in Crete, which takes tourists on hikes and sea kayaking around the island. He also has a brother who lives in Denver, and has been to the US on a couple of occasions to visit and travel.

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The next day, also cloudy, windy and rainy, although the worst of it held off until we completed our visit to 2000 BC Knossos. The Capital of Minoan culture, which predates the Greeks by a 1000 years or so, was home to more then 100,000 people, and the residence of King Minos. Knossos is also said to be home to the Minotaur, who was locked in a labyrinth until he was slain by Theseus. On arriving, we met a young Indian couple from Mumbai, although they have lived in Cambridge, near Boston for the last 8 years. And of course, the conversation first revolved around the snow in Boston this past winter, as well as our visit to south India last year.

Many parts of the ruins were reconstructed by Evans in the late 19th century, but it is still difficult to get a sense of the grandeur of the place as much of it is incomplete.

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There are some frescoes, also reconstructed from small pieces found on location, and these help to show how advanced Minoan culture was at that time.

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We continue to find the Cretans a very friendly bunch. For example, we stopped in a small cafe for cappuccino, and they gave us a big plate of cookies, no charge, to go along with it. Faces light up when we attempt to say hello and thank you in a botched form of Greek, and all of the staff in our hotel, as in Victoria Inn in Athens, are helpful and engaging.

Although we have only spent a few days in Greece, it is easy to see that they are much less concerned with appearance than the Italians. As in Italy, most stores close in mid-day for several hours, which is when the biggest meal is consumed.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:41 Archived in Greece Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)

Athens, Greece

In Athens we stayed outside the downtown area in a small hotel, close the the business school of the University. However it was a short subway ride away from Monasteraki and the old city. The modern city has been built around the Acropolis hill and the Agora, the center of the city during Greek and Roman tImes. With the economic crisis of the past several years Athens has clearly come upon hard times. There is graffiti everywhere and many buildings in disrepair. Some students at the University told us the unemployment rate for young people is more than 60%. All of this makes Athens rather a depressing place, especially in some locations. The only major site worth seeing is the Acropolis and the area immediately around it. We had heard this from friends who had been there a few years earlier, but it was our feeling as well. On the other hand, the food was decent and the baked goods excellent. One bakery near our hotel had a round thing made with fila dough and something like Romano cheese. It looked suspiciously like a bagel, only it tasted better. I had one nearly every day we were were in town. What will happen now with Greece and the euro seems to be anyone's guess. The few people we have talked to seem to be all over the map as to what should happen. Whatever it is, I fear Greece and especially Athens will remain in the economic doldrums for quite some time.

Our first stop was Syntagma Square to see the government buildings and the changing of the guard.

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The National Archeological Museum was well worth a visit.

Death mask of Agamemnon
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But not surprisingly, it was the Parthenon, now under reconstruction, that we found most interesting. What I didn't know was that the city was sacked by the Persians in 480AD and the Acropolis destroyed. So this is clearly not the first time it is being reconstructed.

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View from the top of Parthenon hill
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Outdoor theater on Parthenon hill
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The Agora, the area around the base of the Parthenon, which has several old buildings and ruins, also provides a look into ancient Greek culture.

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Looking up at Parthenon Hill from the Agora
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After walking around the extensive grounds of the Agora, we had built up a powerful thirst, and stopped to sample the ouzo at this factory in the old city.

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Posted by jonshapiro 13:39 Archived in Greece Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (2)

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)

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