Around the Mosel

Last Spring in Germany was quite damp and we found ourselves donning our rain gear and braving the dreariness often.  After Trier, Andrew drove our rental through downpours and thick cotton candy fog over to the quietly meandering Mosel River in Rheinland Pfalz.  A hot spot for German outdoor enthusiasts, this area bustled with signs of a busy summer to come.  Most of the Germans opted for the more scenic and heart healthy way to see the area: by pedaling along the banks of the river on their trusty bikes.  I personally think they were trying to earn their schnitzel and beer, so maybe next time we’ll grab our Fahrräder and hit the trail as well.

Our lodging was in the guest house of a local winery, which turned out to be a good choice for the area.  The hills along either side of the river’s banks are laden with rows of grape vines, ripe for picking in the fall, that are labored to make some of the world’s finest Riesling.

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz

The first stop we made in the area should definitely be on your list, if ever you visit the Mosel.  We toured the Burg Eltz, the one of only medieval castles on the Mosel to never have been destroyed.  Interestingly enough, the same families still privately own the castle.  If you play your cards right, you could still marry the son or daughter of a German earl!

view of town and grape vines from ridge trail

trail view

the sun came out!

Cochem

In between the rain showers, we hiked along the ridge of one of the hills along the banks of Mosel and checked out a few of the picturesque towns that dot the river’s banks.  We also ate delicious schnitzel and made sure to indulge in Kaffeestunde at least once or twice:  a generous slice of cake made with seasonal fruit and a steaming cup of coffee around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

our schnitzel stop

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I could live in Coyoacán permanently…

View from the top of Torre Latina

Another of our highlights during our first few days in Mexico City was soaring to the top of the Torre Latinoamerica.  Once the tallest building in Mexico City, it is now owned by Carlos Slim, Mexican national and the wealthiest man in the world since 2010, according to Forbes.  Evidently, he has bought up acres of property in the historic center of Mexico City and initiated projects to have some of the major arteries pedestrianized.  The view from the top of the Torre was impressive.  Through the hazy late afternoon light, we could make out the business district, bordered by the most affluent neighborhood and beyond, miles of concrete block, half-built dwellings stretched almost to infinity.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

From above

More disappointing was the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  Expecting grand murals by the most ubiquitous names in Mexican art, we found those, but they were ruined by the layout of the interior. Giant paintings were chopped up by the pillars of the building and the viewer couldn’t get far enough away from each work to see more than a jumble of bright colors assaulting his visual perception. Also, the separate galleries dedicated to various artists were in the middle of receiving a coat of paint during our visit and wouldn’t be open again until the middle of April.  When we asked about them, the guest relations representative promptly invited us back to Mexico in another month and said they’d be waiting on us! Sounds like hospitality to me!

Monumento a la Revolución

A visit to the establishment that houses houses arguably Diego Rivera’s most famous and informative work made up for the earlier underwhelming experience.  Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central rests inside a bare room within a building that, although it only features one piece of artwork, calls itself a veritable museum.   It depicts Mexican history through the interpretation of Diego, of course featuring him at the center, gazing at his wife and lover, Frida Kahlo. No pictures from inside since the proprietors charged extra for that luxury. The painting is worth a google, though.

a view of the alameda central from above

Restaurante en Coyoacán

Los coyotes:  what coyoacán is named after

Continuing our pilgrimage to visit the sites dedicated to modern Mexican art, we took a 45-minute metro trek out to Coyoacán, the birth place of Frida Kahlo. Frida is a legend in Mexican art and her story is as heartbreaking as it is fascinating.  As a little girl she contracted polio, which left one leg longer than the other.  Then, as an 18-year old, probably ready to venture out on her own and find out what life had in store for her, she was involved in a dramatic street car accident.  She was impaled by one of the poles on the vehicle and suffered immense pain caused by the trauma for the rest of her life.  Her personal life is no less interesting.  Wife and lover of fellow Mexican revolutionary artist, Diego Rivera, her spirit continued to endure challenges as they lived out a volatile relationship that involved unfaithfulness, divorce and later remarriage.  If one solace could be found in her life, she resided on a cool tree lined street in a budding bohemian neighborhood and her home of blue stucco was inviting and bright.  Her open, airy home was a mansion, even by today’s standards. The easel she used, a gift from Nelson Rockefeller, faced onto an open courtyard where water fountains bubbled cheerily and the sun warmed the stones.  Frida and Diego did agree politically: both left-wing communist supporters, they even provided a place for Leon Trotsky to live when he was exiled from Russia.

from inside the blue house... sorry no pictures from the inside (that cost extra!)

Seeing where Frida did the majority of her work and visiting the barrio that was the backdrop to her life definitely tops the list of my Mexican experiences.  Like my mom said, this trip was as much vacation as it was continuing education for us.  The only unit I clearly remember from high school Spanish 4 was the chapter on art. As deeply disturbing as some of the images that Frida shared with the world on canvas are, I’ve never felt repulsed by her, only felt a sadness for the damage and pain she suffered.  Getting to see her home and some of her original work was worth the trip.

la casa azul from the outside

¡Viva México!

Evening time.

We successfully completed our first adventure south of the border!  Andrew, the trip planner, takes all the credit for the former exclamation.  He read and informed himself on how to navigate around México and I depended on him to know what to do while I threw out helpful comments like, “I will NOT step out of the hotel after dark!” and “We will definitely have diarrhea for at least a week after this trip, not to mention the fact I’ll probably have to go to therapy for (insert whatever horrible experience you’ve dreamed up that happens to tourists in Mexico on a regular basis).”  Not surprisingly, moms and dads all around weren’t all-together astonished when the announcement was made that our Spring Break destination of 2013 was México City.  They were ever supportive, but I am sure they spent extra time on their knees in prayer that we’d come back whole, without any visible markings or emotional scarring and with all of our important documents still on our person. Thankfully, I can say not only did we feel relatively safe in D.F., we also had an thrilling glance into the chaotic, colorful country of Mexico and the lives of its people.

Patio, Palacio Nacional

Diego's grand mural, palacio nacional

We stepped off the plane in Mexico City, not sure what we’d encounter.  If our experience entering through passport check, grabbing our bag and passing through customs was any indication of the trip to come, we were going to conquer Mexico with a single guidebook and our Spanish expertise. The first challenge, finding the authorized taxi stand, strengthened my confidence in Andrew’s extensive preparation.  Per his research, we bought our ticket inside the airport, wheeled out to the line of taxis, pre-paid for our ride and were on our way, through the shanty towns near the airport to the historic downtown.

La catedral metropolitana

During our time in the capital, we tried to hit the highlights on the tourist circuit in the largest city in the world.  The Zócalo, or the main square, of the city is the second largest in the world, only behind Red Square in Moscow.  The sheer number of people, mostly all Mexican tourists and residents of the city, strolling around the square, taking in the sights themselves, was overwhelming.  They were with their families, eating ice cream, paying homage to Jesus and Mary inside the cathedral, holding hands, pushing strollers, swinging babies from their shoulders, snapping pictures with their iPads and showing off lots of PDAs.  Located on the Zócalo are a couple of noteworthy sites: El Palacio Nacional, La Catedral Metropolitana and El Templo Mayor.

Catedral, view of volcanic stones taken from Templo Mayor to make new Cathedral

One of our favorites was the Palacio Nacional.  Built next to the ancient Aztec Temple ruin, the Palacio Nacional boasts traditional Spanish architectural grandeur and clearly demonstrates the attitude of the Spanish toward the Aztec civilization (we’ll destroy your inferior culture and customs and construct our civilized empire right next to it).  A sunny patio inside is surrounded by three floors of archways, with the main staircase decked out in true Mexican fashion with a giant mural painted by Diego Rivera.  His murals depicting Mexican history and daily life continue around the walkway of the second floor.  Outside behind the palace, a shady, lush oasis of palm trees and hibiscus flowers seem out of place in a city dominated by concreted blocks and pavement.  For a minute, in the quiet of the garden, almost cool again, I almost forgot about the herds bustling by just beyond the building.

Templo Mayor ruins

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The Templo Mayor is also incredible, the ancient Aztec’s shrine to their sun god, to whom they made frequent human heart sacrifices.  The volcanic stone that is left, leaving shape to the grand pyramid, worn down, doesn’t seem as if it could have witnessed the rise and fall of Tenochtitlan, the great Aztec city that once stood where Mexico City thrives today.  Ironically, the Spanish took the stones from the demolished Aztec pyramid and used them to raise their own temple, a Catholic church, the Catedral Metropolitana, right next door.

Street view in the casco antiguo

view from the torre latina

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I’ve barely covered days 1 and 2! There is a lot to say about the country that borders ours to the south!

Back to Laredo

We’re back to Laredo and resting while it is raining April showers outside. This post is mostly to tell you about how Portugal is an (almost) ideal travel destination and also to make sure you know that a wife being sole navigator for her husband can lead to extremely tense situations. We happen to both think our job (ie him driving and her directing) is more difficult than the other’s. I was told many times that I need to go off feel for a city that I didn’t innately have. Instead I offered names of streets to turn down (that happened to occasionally be one way-whoops) and we managed to arrive successfully to each and every location. The smart car made it back without a single scratch and we are more or less unscathed too. Andrew has commented on our cholesterol levels more than once though, since we’ve been eating a pretty meat and dairy heavy diet. Back to munching veggies for us!

Some quick highlights of our trip:

Bom Jesus. A gorgeous monastery built on top of a mountain near the Northern Portuguese town of Braga. Glossy emerald moss and mosaic tiles make up the path to the top of the monument and the gardens behind the cathedral are reason enough to pack a picnic and spend the afternoon in the shade. The walk from the bottom is a 15 minute one, up steps the whole time, but it is shaded and delightful. Devout Catholics sometimes complete the journey on their knees, a sort of pilgrimage. The fountains along the way are interesting as well, representing the 5 senses. My favorite was sight- a sculpture of a man with water flowing from his eyes.

Guimarães. Restored city, almost perfect old town. It is the birthplace of Portugal.

Porto. My first impression of the city was disastrous. Our hotel was frightful (sorry, Andrew), the first street we chose to saunter down was the very definition of sketch and our restaurant for the evening was difficult to locate. We went to bed a little stressed, but woke up to sunny skies and a gorgeous city after a full night’s rest. We slipped into a church decorated with traditional Portuguese blue and white tiled mosaics, we ate our first and only ever franceshina (a ham and cheese sandwich base that includes a hot dog and some type of mystery meat slapped in the middle, topped with a soft fried egg and a secret sauce), toured a Port wine cellar (and tasted!) and walked high above the Rio Duoro. Next time I am definitely cruising inland on the River Duoro!

Belém. This town, essentially a part of Lisbon, is a site that is featured in every tourist book written on Portugal. Its monuments best represent the Golden Age of Portugal. Also noteworthy is the café that serves the original recipe for the pasteis de Belém (cream custard filled phyllo pastry). These little beauties are made all over the country, but the best are found in the blue awned shop in Belém.

Portugal is a unique country, full of cultural and historical sites for tourists. We both agreed that we could have easily spent much more time there, exploring, enjoying the cuisine and just relaxing in the laid back atmosphere of its cities. I also can’t forget to mention how affordable Portugal is for travelers. An espresso shot (uma bica) is between 50-75 euro cents. In comparison, here in Spain, the same beverage will cost 1.10 euro. A night in a comfortable, family run hotel costs between 50 and 65 euro and should include breakfast and parking. Entrees for dinner run between 8-12 euros and a bottle of wine (at a restaurant) is 6-10 euro. Not to mention that the attitudes of the folks working in tourism is astonishingly helpful and positive. Almost everyone we ran into spoke a little bit of English, as well. Here’s what I’m trying to say… Go to Portugal!

If we can ever offer any help with travel questions or give you hotel suggestions for places we’ve visited, we’d love to. Let us know!

Saint Emilion

Our first night in France, we stayed at a family run hotel and restaurant combo. Andrew and I both really respect the work of a locally owned and managed establishment like this one. Friday night we were treated to a jazz concert and three course meal, slept soundly in a comfortable room and woke Saturday to a basket full of fresh pastries and jam. It was obvious the owner was doing the bulk of the work, aided heavily by a competent and friendly staff: he met us at check in, took our orders for dinner, served breakfast and waved goodbye as we payed the bill. And, for all that, not a detail was overlooked. In an area of France where many well off travelers opt for a night in an 18th century chateau and don’t bat an eyelash at the hundreds of euros calculated on the final bill, Le Bon Duq offers a comprable service for a fraction of the price. If you want to check out the vineyards of Bordeaux and le entre-deux-mers, but are on a tighter budget, please, stay here.

From our hotel in Les Billaux/Libourne (a 40 minute or so drive from Bordeaux) we set off to discover the popular (for good reason) and well preserved wine town of Saint Emilion. We arrived fairly early, so the first half hour of exploring, we had the streets blissfully to ourselves. Birds chirped gleefully, baby lambs nuzzled mamas, the sun sparkled in the cool morning air and French grandmas tended their flower boxes. It was a scene from a movie. Surrounded entirely by vineyards, the buildings of the town are made of more gorgeous blonde stone. Wine vendors dotted the store fronts and servers at cafés set tables outdoors for lunchtime. After traipsing around St. Emilion for a while and dreaming of buying our own little cozy home in town, we headed off to find a winery open for tastings. Easier said than done. Ultimately, our mission failed, but we did have the opportunity of meeting a former vineyard and winery owner who had recently sold his business and property to new Chinese owners. The Chinese flag waved next to the European Union and French flags out front. They didn’t open for visitors.

From the countryside we drove towards the Dordogne region, stopping for a quick walk in Bergerac. Even though it is the main hub town of this region, we wouldn’t recommend a stop. There are more beautiful views of the Dordogne and more tastefully restored timber homes elsewhere.

Our final stop for the day was in Sarlat, a town we’d visited in December when it was gray and raining. It was lovely even in the wet and cold weather, but Springtime turned it magical. More later…