A Travellerspoint blog

All Quiet in Oaxaca

sunny 29 °C

The central square in Oaxaca, the Zocalo, is typical of every colonial city in Mexico and South America. With government buildings on one side and the cathedral on the other the square is completed by arcades of shops and cafes in shady colonnades...
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We are staying in Oaxaca City for two weeks: whiling away the hours under the Zocalo's cafes parasols as we watch a constant procession of Zapotec women hawking their colourful fabrics...
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We sit in the shade as a parade of diminutive Oaxacan women offer us shawls, shirts and scarves at negotiable prices, but we don't bite – they will be back tomorrow, (we assume).
The Zocalo is abuzz with activity as vendors try to lure gringos with all manner of trinkets, all handmade though all suspiciously similar, and the pavements of the surrounding streets are clogged with makeshift market stalls offering identical crafts....
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The Mexicans are big on shiny shoes but in the hot and dusty streets of Oaxaca they soon need a brush up. No problem here in the Zocalo where dozens of men and boys are ready and willing to give a new look to anyone's footwear for a buck...
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It's deliciously warm here in Southern Mexico but anyone feeling the heat or feeling under the weather can be quickly attended to by roving volunteer paramedics...
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These mounted lifesavers come fully equipped to deal with all manner of emergencies and may come in very handy if the coronavirus reaches here.

And so – we come to today when we took our morning constitutional to the Zocalo for our usual coffee and found the place almost deserted...
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No textile hawkers; no enthusiastic stallholders; no balloon vendors. Had we screwed up our days – is it Sunday or some other religious event? Our cafe was open and Nora, our cheerful Zapotec waitress, was happy to serve us but, apart from the shoeshiners, the square was deserted. Then we spotted a trade union leader addressing a crowd huddled under the shade trees just off the Zocalo...
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Where else in the world but Mexico could we find several hundred street vendors on strike for better pay and conditions? We are told that they may be back on the job tomorrow – but maybe not. We shall see.

Posted by Hawkson 16:30 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

Winter Escape

sunny 28 °C

We decided to stay home this winter for the first time since 2007 – and then this happened...
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For most Canadians a mere foot of snow is seen as a light frost, For example: Newfoundlanders are currently digging out from snowdrifts fifteen feet deep and skiers are having a great time on the slopes in the Rockies. The snow certainly looked pretty in our Japanese garden...
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But almost as soon as it stopped snowing on our west coast island the white stuff turned wet and it rained – and rained – and rained. And, if the forecast is to be believed, it may never stop raining. So we packed our bags and made a dash for the airport. And here we are in the historic central plaza of Oaxaca City in sunny southern Mexico enjoying hot Mexican chocolate...
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The bright blue skies and 28 degree temperatures remind us why more than 4 million Canadian 'snowbirds' fly to Mexico every winter. The sun shines all day, the margaritas are chilled and the hotel swimming pools are pleasantly warm – what more could we want...
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Maybe some interesting culture and colonial architecture? This is the cathedral in Oaxaca City...
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Oaxaca has been on our bucket list for awhile and we were headed there this time last year when we were forced to cut our trip short. So now we are here we will be soaking up the sun, practising our Spanish, visiting the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec ruins, and looking for an interesting little number for Sheila to wear at a very special upcoming birthday. Maybe one of these in Oaxaca market...
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If it isn't right for the birthday she can always wear it to a wedding in May!

We have only been here a day and have already fallen in love with the markets – so much to see: so much to buy – especially the local potent booze - mezcal and the speciality cheese. One thing we have learned already is that mezcal apparently goes with anything; almost every shop sells it in one form or another – even the cheese shops, the cremerias...
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As long as we can stay off the mezcal we will be back online in a day or so with a deeper look at this fascinating city.

Posted by Hawkson 19:19 Archived in Mexico Comments (9)

Great Britain

semi-overcast 8 °C

We thought we might stumble into a little history when we arrived in England and we made a start with a city closely connected to North America. This is the harbour in Plymouth...

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While every American firmly believes that: a) the Pilgrim Fathers were the first European settlers in America, and: b) the Mayflower began its transatlantic voyage from Plymouth, the truth is a little different. Here's the proof. This is us in 2010 in Southampton at the actual starting point...

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There were already many European colonies in North America by the time the Mayflower and a smaller ship, the Speedwell, set sail from Southampton on August 5th 1620. However, the Speedwell ran into difficulties in the Atlantic and was leaking so badly it returned to the nearest port, Plymouth. The Pilgrims continued to the New World on September 6th aboard the Mayflower but the voyage had begun in Southampton.

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As we watched this two-master leaving Plymouth under the cannons of the Citadel we could not imagine the conditions under which the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic 400 years ago – more than a 130 passengers and crew on a ship only 100 feet long. The Mayflower reached America in November but more than 65 Pilgrims and crew had died by the following spring when they finally found a safe place to land. While Plymouth wasn't the starting port of the Mayflower it was the place that Sir Humphrey Gilbert set sail for Newfoundland on Jun 11th 1583 to claim it for Queen Elizabeth I.

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This is Plymouth Hoe – the greensward where, it is alleged, that Sir Francis Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before he sailed to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Here's Sir Francis standing high above the Hoe...

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And this is the entrance to the 16th century fortress, the Citadel, that is still a naval base today...

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Sir Francis Drake was an English Naval officer, a privateer, a slave-trader and a pirate who made his first voyage to the Americas in1563 with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, (Not related to James – Or was he?) The Hawkins family of Plymouth owned a fleet of ships and, between 1577 and 1580, Drake sailed around the world and returned home with looted Spanish treasure worth more than 500 million pounds today. Queen Elizabeth I was very grateful as the treasure cleared the national debt. Sir Francis died and was buried at sea but his benefactor, Queen Elizabeth I, lies here, our next stop, in London's Westminster Abbey...

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There is so much history in Westminster Abbey that we wouldn't know where to begin. Thirty English kings and queens are buried here along with hundreds of Britain's elite. It is a magnificent building nearly a thousand years old but we were not allowed to take photos inside. We can show you the Pyx Chamber under the Abbey...

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This vaulted strongroom built in 1070 was where official samples of gold and silver coins were kept so that newly minted coins could be tested against them.

And so to the last event of the day – a thunderous evening of classical music at the Royal Albert Hall culminating in Puccini's Nessun Dorma, the 1812 Overture complete with cannons and muskets, and a rousing rendition of Land of Hope and Glory.

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It's enough to make us feel nostalgic!

Posted by Hawkson 06:08 Archived in England Comments (5)

Picture Perfect Pisa

sunny 18 °C

As our Silk Road experience nears its end we couldn't resist revisiting Pisa. No matter how many times we have seen the Cathedral and its alarmingly tilted bell tower we are still awed by its beauty...

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Pisa cathedral is unusual because it was deliberately built outside the city walls starting in 1063 in order to show the Venetians, Florencians and Luccans that the Pisans were not scared of their regional rivals. It is also unusual for the numerous Islamic elements included because the Pisan merchants traded with the Byzantines in Constantinople – the end of the Silk Road and one of the centres of Islamic power. This bronze sphinx is one of the many Islamic features of the cathedral...

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The baptistery is a particularly beautiful structure.

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Imagine being baptised in this font!...

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Impressive cathedrals were used as symbols of wealth and power in the middle ages and each of the feudal states sought to build the biggest and most beautiful. Pisa cathedral is certainly spectacular though whether it is the best – who knows? The apse is truly impressive...

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However, the Campanile, the cathedral's most famous structure, is certainly the most unique feature because of its alarming lean. No matter what angle you view the tower it is difficult to believe that it isn't about to topple...

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The bell tower was started in 1173 but it took 199 years to complete because of wars and construction problems. The foundations were laid in soft soil and 5 years after construction began, when only two floors were finished, the whole thing began to sink. Luckily for the tower, and for us, Pisa then became involved in almost continuous wars with its neighbours for half a century that gave time for the foundations to settle.

It wasn't until 1272, that construction fully resumed and, in an effort to compensate for the tilt, the engineers built upper floors with one side taller than the other. Because of this, the tower is curved. Then there was another war and construction was halted again in 1284. The seventh floor was completed in 1319 and the bell-chamber was finally added in 1372....

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Over the next 600 years the tower gradually tilted further and further until at the end of the last century it was believed to be on the point of falling. Then a miracle, (and some very strong steel cables), held it up until the foundations could be reinforced. It should be good for another 200 years – but it still looks precarious.

That's it for our time following the Silk Road from Uzbekistan to France and Italy. Next stop - England for some family time. Maybe we will discover some fascinating history there?

Posted by Hawkson 12:15 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

The Walls of Lucca

sunny 18 °C

If only these walls could talk, what a tale they would tell...

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They would tell of their first builders and masters, the Romans, who came here with their legions in 180 BC to plunder the verdant valleys of the Northern Appenine mountains, and of the Etruscan inhabitants who were unable to fend them off...

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Almost all of the Romans' constructions now lie in the foundations of later buildings, but as we walk and cycle around the top of tree-lined walls we still wonder at the incredible feats accomplished by them more than two thousand years ago...

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The Roman walls stood for more than a thousand years until the 11th century when the city outgrew its bounds and needed stronger and higher walls to protect its growing riches. It was at this time that great churches like the cathedral of San Martini rose high into the sky above the walls...

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But Lucca just kept growing and growing and by the 14th century the walls were pushed out even further into the surrounding countryside – closer to the Appenine mountains with its hot springs, olive groves and vineyards. But walled cities need fortified gates and the original three, in the north, south and west, still survive...

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Lucca's greatest claim to fame today is the completely intact city wall that was built at the very end of the medieval period beginning in 1504. No no-one can avoid the imposing wall because the way into the historic city is through one of the fortified gatehouses...

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The drawbridges and portcullises are long gone and there are no soldiers pouring boiling oil or dropping rocks onto potential enemies today. Five hundred years ago the inhabitants were ready to fend off attacks from their powerful neighbours, the Medicis, and for that reason there was no gate on the eastern side of the city: from the direction of Florence - the centre of Medici power. In addition to the great gates there are easily defended secret passageways that snake up inside the walls that are only wide enough for pedestrians...

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If these walls could talk they would tell of two thousand years of political intrigues, of commercial wranglings, of romantic assignations and war. Despite the walls the city was occupied by Louis of Bavaria in 1408, sold to a rich Genoese, Gherardino Spinola, then seized by John, king of Bohemia. It was pawned to the Rossi of Parma, ceded to Mastino II della Scala of Verona, sold to the Florentines, surrendered to the Pisans, and liberated by the emperor Charles IV. In short, Lucca doesn't need a museum – it is a museum - and from the top of the wall we look down on history. The rich Luchese built soaring towers to show off their wealth in the middle ages and some survive. This is the most famous 12th Century tower– the Torre Guinigi...

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However, many medieval palaces survive and one of the finest is the Palazzo Pfanner with its beautiful grounds...

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The palace was built in 1660 by Luchese nobility – the Moriconis. However, as soon as it was completed the Moriconis were financially ruined and forced to sell. After many owners the palace became a brewery but has now been restored to its former glory complete with a statue garden full of lemon trees...

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The sun is shining so we are off to visit one of the wonders of the world.

Posted by Hawkson 09:35 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

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