A Travellerspoint blog

Food, Glorious (Oaxacan) Food

semi-overcast 26 °C

It is Market Day in Oaxaca

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But every day is market day in this part of the world and while there are plenty of modern stores and supermarkets stocked with everything we might get at home, the locals and tourists still throng the markets for bargains. The Mercado De Benito Juarez, near the centre of Oaxaca City, is a vast covered arcade offering a huge selection of products and a guaranteed sensory overload...

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We visited early to get a good look at the eye-catching displays and the fresh products. Tradition dictates the way that goods are displayed. For instance, all the chickens' feet are ready to grab passersby...

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And these ladies weave baskets while you wait...

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However, we have struck lucky again and just happen to be here at one of the most festive times of the year. It's wedding season in Oaxaca and it is also Candelaria – the 40th day after Christmas which is celebrated throughout Latin America. Two years ago we were in Puno in Southern Peru and witnessed sixty five thousand locals in costume dancing through the streets on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It will be interesting to see what Oaxaca has tomorrow but we already know that every hotel in the city is totally full and the restaurants selling tomales are packed. However, nowhere is busier than the food market, Mercado 20 Noviembre...

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This market competes with any of the bustling edifices of India and Southeast Asia – although it is a lot cleaner than many. Here are some scenes that need no explanation...

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Tomales, a doughy corn mixture with meat or cheese stuffed into dried maize husks, are eaten throughout Mexico to celebrate Candelaria on February 2nd each year. The tradition is that whoever finds the first baby Jesus figure in the Rosca de Reyes cake on the 12th day after Christmas, (Epiphany) must buy everybody tomales on Candelaria. We will eat tomales on Sunday, along with everyone else, but today we had ice-creams made fresh for us by two enthusiastic young men.....

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It's going to be a busy weekend for everyone in Oaxaca. We will be joining wedding celebrations, street dancing and Cadelaria parades, but first we are off to the opera - Porgy & Bess live from the New York Met.

Posted by Hawkson 14:45 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

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)

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