Sunday, November 4, 2012

Back home on Isla Mujeres

At six in the morning I can hear the tired engine and the loud exhaust sounds of the muffler-less municipal garbage truck.  The crew operating the garbage truck are currently only two houses south of ours.  I have to hustle to get the can out on the street before they pass us by.  The guys wave and holler a greeting as the truck slowly rolls up to our curb.  One worker tosses the full can high into the air, towards his buddy who is perched atop the myriad of reeking plastic bags and cardboard boxes.  
Our can is emptied, and carefully placed back on the street right-side up with lid affixed.  They laugh, joke with each other.  One guy sings bits of a song that could be ribald, off-colour judging by the way it makes the others giggle. 

It's good to be back on Isla.
During May and June we traveled for six weeks through Dieppe, Vimy Ridge, Dunkirk, the Loire Valley, Paris, southern France, Cinque Terre, Tuscany and Venice before returning home via London.  We mangled several languages, speaking a combination of French, Spanish, and English with the odd word of Italian tossed in the mix for that truly continental sound.  We ate delicious food, but missed the 'heat' - the spice of Mexican foods.  Apparently our palates have adjusted to Mexican food better than we thought. 

We drank different wines and beers, enjoying Belgium beers and French wines a bit more than German beers and Italian wines.  We dealt with crowded underground transit systems, high-speed trains, city buses and commuter boats.   And the crowds.  Line-ups to see museums.  Line-ups to get on the trains.  Line-ups everywhere! 

The sights, the sounds, the smells - all different.  New.  Exciting.

Now, sitting on our street-side balcony we watch friends speed past on their motos or golf carts.  They yell hello, welcome back, and wave as they speed past.  Sue Lo, on her daily walk around the airport, stops to chat - recounting her recent adventures in Machu Picchu. 

Fashionista riding a bicycle in Paris - K Lock Photo
My sister Joann dashes up the street with her laundry bag in hand, coming for a morning coffee and to do her laundry.  She has misjudged the intensity of the scudding clouds - and is soaked with a warm deluge as she arrives at our house.
A motorcycle slowly putts past with two adults - the woman clutching onto a little one, so small that one tiny foot with a yellow bootie is all that is visible. 

A young girl, standing in the foot-well of a motorcycle turns to chat with her dad as he drives her somewhere special.  She is wearing a pink and white polka-dotted dress and a matching bow in her hair. 
Her happy smile is wide and loving as she looks at him. 

The contrast between the Isla motorcyclists and the Armani-suited motorcyclists or the beautiful fashionistas riding bicycles in Paris is startling to say the least. 

In the evening we sit on the east side of the house, wine glass in hand, staring at the turquoise ocean, aware that we missed this most of all.  The colours.  The sounds.  The smell of the water.

We will always be proudly Canadian, but, Mexico is now home.


This is the last posting for this blog.  Please join us on our other weekly blog Notes From Paradise - living on an island in the Caribbean Sea on the east coast of Mexico.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Venice: Monday - work day

Our last full day in Venice; early on Monday morning the Grand Canal has morphed from a weekend playground filled with recreational boats into a working river.  The main canal and the side canals are stuffed with a myriad of boats, primarily all of a similar design – long and narrow, with an inboard diesel motor, and steered by a stern tiller reminiscent of a sailboat’s tiller. The operators are casually competent, scarcely looking where they are going.  They have traveled these routes – a thousand times over.

A black and red cargo barge is stacked with groceries to re-provision some of the many restaurants, hotels, bars, and grocery stores.  Two latter-day Romeos lean on the cargo, staring brazenly at the camera while I take their photograph.  They are muscled, and lean, and middle-age handsome, not in the least bit camera-shy. 

Aboard the “Marta”, a sleek black vessel with blue and green trim, the two workers heft ninety-pound sacks of cement onto a wheeled-dolly, stacking them tightly in bricklayer fashion.  Shoving hard to overcome the inertia they roll their heavy cargo towards a construction job.  The boat is loaded with still more building supplies to be lifted, stacked, and pushed to the final location. 

A red, yellow and white barge the “Luca” slides past with boxes of new air-conditioners, and pipes.  The driver is nonchalantly texting a friend, while he steers the boat with the tiller placed between his legs.  All I can think of is; what if he hits a wave?  That's gonna hurt! 

Another flat-decked craft cruises past with bulk wine deliveries.  Stacked on the deck are numerous wicker-wrapped fifty-litre flagons, looking like oversized Chianti wine bottles suitable for fairytale giants.  "Do the green tags indicate white wine, and the red tags indicate red wine?"  We wonder aloud.

Garbage scows piled high with the previous nights' trash slowly work their routes, the crews collecting boxes and bags stacked along the narrow side canals.  

Scrap dealers aboard the black and white “Morodi Venezia” chug along the waterfront headed away from the busy centre of Venice.  Their boat is loaded with the unwanted broken bits and pieces of a modern life – rusty drums, rotting bits of metal, and a collapsed bicycle.  Different boats deliver the replacement purchases: a refrigerator, more furniture, and a new red bicycle.

At seven in the morning several boats are moored at the fish market; workers toss wet, dripping boxes onto the wharves.  The boxes are full of still-wriggling fish and mysterious sea creatures.  A few I recognize such as calamari, eel, sardines, and octopus.  Others are unidentified species, things that I couldn't imagine eating. 

In contrast to the sweating workers – we watch a finely dressed bride and groom slowly pick their way through the smelly, wet, fish-market.  They are headed for a small romantic bridge that seems to be in vogue for wedding photos.  This is the third bride that I have seen, dress hem held high, stepping delicately in white satin-covered shoes around the leaking boxes of fresh fish.  A compliant groom and photographer trail behind. Whatever the bride wants...

We enjoyed seeing the two sides of Venice; the touristy side and the working side. 

Both Lawrie and I are boat-lovers.  Watching the crews and the work boats ply the canals of Venice was a great way to spend our last day in this fabled city.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Venice: Sunday is fun day

Sunday morning six people stand in a purple gondola, stripped of all of its ornamentation, pulling on long gondola-oars from alternating sides of the boat.  The oarsman in the stern yells out a cadence, a rhythm for rowing, steering a safe course through the flotilla of boats using the Grand Canal in Venice.  

This particular boat holds what appears to be a family of four kids and two adults out for a Sunday on the water.  The side canals are choked with pleasure crafts, plus sight-seeing gondolas, vaporettos (large transit taxis) or individual water taxis.

It's organized bedlam. It's noisy, and colourful. It's fabulous.
As we work our way towards St. Mark's Square at the entrance to the Grand Canal we are swamped by crowds, tour groups faithfully following their leaders with earphones plugged into a wireless system listening to the explanation of what they are seeing, and what famous person lived in which house.  The languages are from a myriad of countries with Chinese groups being the predominate factor.   
People jostle, and squish their way through the narrow winding streets of a city that has an ancient history.
Built on a collection of 118 tiny islands the city eventually grew to over 270,000 inhabitants. The first of 120 churches is San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto was dedicated on March 25th 421 AD/CE.  Sadly, as our third-generation Gondolier recounted to us - due to exorbitant land prices, the high cost of restoring the ancient buildings, and the lagging Italian economy - most of the workers of Venice live elsewhere.  The city population of Venice is now around 63,000 giving the back streets and side canals of the city a ghostly, deserted feel at night when the tourists have returned to their hotels and cruise ships.

Lawrie, with his sister Linda and Richard G.
We spend our first day in Venice riding the vaporetto system, up and down the Grand Canal, then out through the harbour past the cruise ship terminal, out to famous glassmakers on Murano Island, and around to St. Mark's Square again.It is an easy and cool way to view the city, to avoid the crowds and with a 36-hour pass we can hop on and off as we wish; stop for cappuccinos to listen to live music in St. Mark's Square; a stop for lunch at a waterfront restaurant on the outer rim of the city; a stop for a glass of wine on the canal. 

So civilized.

By the end of the day we are tired.  Happy but tired.  With 425 bridges in this city crossing the myriad of canals we are sure that we have trekked over at least 400 of them.    Time to head back to the hotel to nap, and later we will join our travel buddies for a glass of wine before dinner. 

Ah, Sunday in Venice.  Quite, quite lovely.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Siena – Leather, horses, and history

Linda G. looking at Italian shoes.
Gently rubbing the soft Italian leather between my finger and thumb I muse; blue, red, yellow, or perhaps multi-coloured, undecided as to the colour of shoes I would like to buy.  

And then I hear it!  A parade is coming. 

The shoes are tossed onto the shelf: forgotten.  The scowling clerk stares after me.  She was certain that I was about to purchase a pair, or two, of shoes.  Nah! 
Parades, and music, and an opportunity to take yet more photographs are of greater interest to me.
The advancing musicians are dressed in elaborate red, black and white costumes, advertising the mid-June medieval feast in Siena.

The participants sternly march forward, beating a tattoo on the drums, shouldering heavy flags. There is no laughter, or waving, or tossing of wrapped candies to the crowd.

This is serious business.

Siena like other Tuscan hilltop cities is said to have been founded sometime between 900 to 400 BC (BCE) by the remarkable but mysterious Etruscans.  Around 60 BC it was next colonized by Romans, reportedly Senius the son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome.  Siena's city emblem is the she-wolf that purportedly raised Remus and his brother Romulus.  
In the later part of the 5th century AD (CE) the Kingdom of Lombard controlled much of Tuscany including Siena, allowing the city to prosper under the rich empire. 
The heart of the city is the huge piazza known as Il Campo the site of the famous Palio di Siena horse races held twice a year in July and August.  Unfortunately we were in Siena in June, so missed the event.  It is often a brutal and dangerous battle for the horse and bareback rider, but the city thrives on the pride this competition brings with passions and rivalry similar to a football match.   


On race day a massive crowd jams the centre of the piazza, and the overflow fills in the surrounding restaurants and bars.  The brightly attired riders and horses circle the piazza three times running along the edge of the crowd, pounding over the dirt-covered cobblestone streets.  The fast treacherous turns frequently spill the riders from their mounts, leaving a rider-less horse to finish the race.  With all the pageantry, colour, singing and cheering it is a fascinating but quick race; normally over in just 90 seconds!
Lawrie and Richard G., enjoying the shade and cool drink.

We settled for the more sedate activities of Siena – shopping, eating, and sight-seeing. 

Leather, food, wine, and ancient ornate cathedrals.  It’s enough activity for us to fill the afternoon, perfectly. 

I contemplated returning to the store to buy the shoes, but reality set in.  We live year-around in the tropics, with frequent, albeit brief, rainstorms.  Fine leather shoes would turn to mouldy goop in mere weeks.   I’ll leave them for someone else to enjoy!


Monday, October 8, 2012

The hills are alive with the sounds of ... which way now?

This could have been us!
Fine white road dust, the consistency of sifted flour, settles in thick drifts on our little rental car. Turning on the wipers and spraying the windshield with water creates a sticky grey muck. Nice!  We are stopped at the crest of a hill, waiting to see which way the lead car in our two-car caravan is going to turn next.

Reverse!  The road ends at a stream in a farmer's field.  Our wee little rentals cars are not designed for fording creeks.  Three grimacing scarecrows beside the road resemble lost tourists – thin and tattered, desiccated from a lack of food, and wine. 
We are in the Chianti wine region in Tuscany Italy, searching for our rental house.

Retracing our route, we make one more attempt to decipher the directions, and we find it - Villa della Vista (house with a view) in the Le Bagnaie estate.  And what a view; lush vineyards, impressive hilltop estates, olive groves, and a distant view of San Gimignano the beautiful medieval city that we visited a few days ago. 

We haven't travelled very far from our previous rental house in Alberi Italy, merely moving a bit east into the Chianti wine district.  There are gorgeous villages and stunning stone fortresses - that were once strategic in the battles between the armies of Siena and Florence - perched on every summit.  And of course, the famous Chianti wines crafted out of Sangiovese grapes.  They are delicious wines, not the cheap basket-covered-bottle-converted-to-a-candle-holder-wines, so popular in Italian-style restaurants in the 1970’s. 

 After settling into the house we drove a few kilometers to the closest hilltop town to re-provision our supplies. Castellina di Chianti is an ancient little town dating back twenty-eight centuries. Gone are the armies of old. It now features wine shops, good restaurants, a butcher store, a wi-fi café, and a small grocery store. We are able to find most things, except peanut butter!

Our plan is to explore the surrounding areas, eat lunch in one of the many interesting nearby towns, and have dinners at our rental house so that we can relax and enjoy the sunsets with a glass or two of wine. 
The weather is hot, dry, and sunny, very similar to the summer weather of the Okanagan Valley in Canada where we lived for twenty-something years.

It's a gorgeous area.  The only downside being the abundance of narrow dusty roads that wind through the hills; fine white limestone dust smothers buildings, vineyards and cars.  The dust sifts under door sills, and through windows.  It will probably find its way into our suitcases for the return flight home.  A souvenir of Tuscany!

 Looking back through the guest book of Villa della Vista, I saw a note addressed to the owners that made me smile; "Per favore!  We were very lost.  Please revisit your directions and distances for turning." 

Ah, we weren't the only disoriented guests – lost in the hills of Tuscany.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

City of the Beautiful Towers (delle belle torri)

He broods in candlelit darkness - a richly clad forearm resting on a long wooden table, a chalice of good local wine in his hand.  Laws.  Stupid laws.  How can I build a suitable palace?    

San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy June 2012
 Shaking his head in disgust, the wool merchant raises the cup to his mouth and drinks deeply of the delicious wine, wiping his mouth with his embroidered sleeve. 

Legislatori stupidi.

In 1255 the local lawmakers of San Gimignano, Tuscany, legislated that new buildings must not be more than 12 arm-lengths wide, and 24 arm-lengths deep to ensure that every house remained inside the stone fortifications. 

Northern Italy, particularly the area around Florence, Sienna, and San Gimignano were immensely wealthy as the merchant class flourished with a stable banking system, good sea trade routes and money to spend.  San Gimignano was a stopping point on the Via Francigena, the route that traversed the hills between Florence and Rome. 

The merchant families became rich due to the constant influx of affluent pilgrims passing through.  In time the prosperous citizens yearned to exhibit their own wealth by building grande casas and palaces.  The only solution under the current law was to go up. 

The food choices are vast.
Soon the merchant families of San Gimignano found themselves in war of status-symbols, building taller and more splendid stone towers.   At its economic height the city had a total of seventy-two distinctive tower-shaped palaces giving rise to the sobriquet of delle belle torri.

Then in 1348 the Black Plague devastated the city, killing more than half of the population.  The city faded into obscurity, gradually disintegrating as the empty towers crumbled or were torn down, the materials reused for smaller buildings. 

In the 19th century San Gimignano was re-discovered as a tourist attraction, drawing the affluent to the city once again.  Over time the fourteen towers that had escaped the ravages of the economic disaster were restored, and the city is now classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The colour choices bewildering.
We recently spent a day wandering the steep, winding streets of San Gimignano, weaving in and out amongst the crowd of tourists.  We dithered over colour choices for the inexpensive and well-made leather purses, shoes, and wallets. 

We perused the array of food choices, and of course the wine selections – red and white and what we called giggle juice, Prosecco, an Italian dry sparkling wine.   

Making savoury purchases for our evening meal we wandered away as the afternoon sun began to sear the stone buildings, heating the air. 

The wine choices extensive.
Time to head back to our rental house in Alberi.

Time for a cool nap.

As we drive up the adjoining hills, we can see the distinctive tower-spiked sky-line. 

It’s worth a stop for another photograph: delle belle torri.  San Gimignano Tuscany.

Artist painting San Gimignano - on distant hilltop.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alberi Tuscany, Garden of Eden

Pots of Lemon Trees

He peers through the patio window, smiling.  Tall, and lean with thick white hair and innumerable smile lines - the gardener wants our attention.  "Come, see my garden.  See what I am planting today."  I have no Italian, he speaks no English but the pride shines from his sun-baked smile. I admire the pots of ivy-geranium that he is planting.I show him a store-bought lemon and motion towards the five terracotta pots in the garden. "Are they lemon trees?" He nods in agreement. "Si, si."
In the garden surrounding our rental house, in Alberti, a tiny Tuscan village, there is a wide variety of edibles. There are mature olive groves with small hard fruits taking shape.  There are fig trees drooping with green forms - just waiting for the summer sun heat to finish ripening the figs into dark lush fruits. 

Lawrie and his sister Linda Grierson
We freely clip chunks of fresh rosemary to include in our evening meals.  Still deeper in the garden are peach, apricot, cherry and kumquat trees; and artichoke plants with their spiny buds hiding a tasty tender heart.  It is the early part of June and everything is almost ripe, not quite.  Lavender shrubs scent the driveway and patios.  Rose bushes, hollyhocks, and jasmine spill over onto pathways.  In the evenings we sit on the patio sipping delicious local wines, enjoying the enticing smells that scent the air, reliving the day’s adventures.  Heaven!

Lawrie sipping wine in Montaione
Tuscany is everything we expected, and more.  Our three-bedroom rental house is situated only a few kilometres away from the little hilltop town of Montaione.   Lawrie and I discovered a wine store, with a few tables and chairs set out in the central plaza overlooking the church. 

Christine, one of the owners, helpfully recommended a local white wine to sip while we soak up the sunshine. 

It was so good we bought three more bottles to take back to the house to share with our travel partners.  They had been busy stocking up as well.  Perfect!  Now we have many different Italian wines to savour.


The 6 of us have been busy shopping for local wines.
Our rental house had a well-stocked kitchen, and a charcoal BBQ.  The willing chefs in our group created gourmet meals with the fresh ingredients available in the local stores.  We ate very well; morning coffee by the swimming pool, lunches at restaurants, and dinners at the house.  Using the house as our home base we spent the next week exploring the countryside, visiting ancient fortified towns such as San Gimignano, Certaldo, and Volterra. 

Our last night in Alberi we treated ourselves to a classy meal at the nearby Casa Masi Trattoria.  The location, the food, the wine, and the service were all fabulous; with an added bonus of being greeted by two extremely well-behaved Great White Pyrenees dogs, and one cute tabby cat. 
At Casa Masi Trattoria Italy.  Wonderful!

Here’s their website for more info:
We're not allowed inside, can you come out to play?
It’s an experience we’d happily share again – the week in Alberi and Montaione, and the dinner at Casa Masi Trattoria.  Heaven on earth.