Uruguay – April 2017

25 Apr
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Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

For a tiny country in South America which many people in the Northern hemisphere have never even heard of (let alone added to their bucket list) Uruguay certainly was a big surprise!

Squeezed in between southern Brazil and northeastern Argentina it is an up-and-coming destination for beach vacations at Punta del Este on the South Atlantic Ocean and for a more cultural experience there is the thriving capital Montevideo on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. For the last 10 years it has ranked as having the highest quality of life of any city in South America which, considering the diminutive scale of the country, is pretty impressive.

Knowing that we would have had our fill of frenetic city life after 8 days in Buenos Aires (and that Geoff would have had a very busy working week in the office)聽I went out on a limb and booked a long weekend in Uruguay. We were to spend a night and half a day in the small town of Colonia del Sacramento and then move on to a boutique vineyard hotel in Carmelo for 2 nights.

Both are on the banks of the Rio de la Plata – generously translated as “the river of silver”. Even on a brilliantly sunny day, the mildly tidal waters (with the best will in the world) could never be described as anything but brown and muddy.

We arrived by the fast 1 hour ferry direct from Buenos Aires on the Buquebus just in time for dinner at the very pleasant Charco Bistro where we had reserved a table overlooking the river. The apparently normal tranquil waters of the river were churning like the Atlantic by the time we got to the restaurant. There was a howling gale creating waves which any self-respecting body boarder would have found irresistible and we were separated from our romantic view by a thick sheet of plastic screening through which we could see the tree in the garden almost bent double in the wind and the petals on the flowers being ripped from their stems and flung into the water. Everyone was wearing their thick winter coats over their posh outfits inside the screened off garden restaurant and the wind was whistling through a gap in the sheeting down by our legs. This was perfect for me as I am always 20 degrees hotter than everyone else but not so perfect for Geoff who visibly shivered and quivered throughout dinner and began to complain that he had lost all sensation in his legs. He’s such a drama queen 馃槈

As autumnal April is one of the loveliest months to visit Colonia I was mildly perturbed and rather hoped that I hadn’t made a catastrophic mistake with my choice of destinations. I make it a priority that everywhere we go is as near perfect as possible so that the worker-bee always has an utterly lovely vacation and is thereby distracted by wholly positive thoughts and a sense of (usually wine-induced) well-being when it comes to paying the bill at the end of it all 馃槈 As an aside I was already nervous that I might have made another grand erreur in my choice of vineyard destination. It wasn’t until after I had booked the hotel that I discovered聽that the famous wine of the region is “Tannat” – all but undrinkable to anyone who doesn’t like to be kicked in the teeth by wines high in tannins. Geoff hates bitter, astringent wine. Oops!

When I threw back the curtains of our room in the historic quarter at 7.30am the following morning the sun was shining 馃檪 聽Geoff was heaved into the shower and kicked out onto the eerily silent streets of this popular historic town without even stopping for breakfast. Frankly, this was no loss for our waistlines. There comes a point (even for a connoisseur of all foods sugary) when yet another medialuna croissant dipped into dulce de leche (a thick caramel made from sweetened condensed milk) is just one medialuna too many for breakfast.

The upside of the early morning stroll was that the light was fantastic on the colorful, crumbling walls of the historic district and there wasn’t a single soul out on the streets – neither local nor tourist.

Thank goodness the wind had completely abated and the sun was now shining on the gleaming tranquil waters of the river. It was absolutely beautiful. Sustained by a half-decent coffee and a slice of orange cake (when I say there is almost nothing for breakfast which doesn’t involve cake in South America I am (almost) not joking 馃槈 ) we were ready for another tour around the town.

It is small, very quaint and very upmarket in the way historic districts always are which have become gentrified to attract the tourist dollar or peso. (No need to bother exchanging any currencies here – you can pay with almost anything you like!)

Cobblestone streets, elegant clothes shops, art and craft galleries with courtyard gardens, houses in beautiful pastel shades draped in pink bougainvillea and blue plumbago, quaint coffee shops, unbelievably pretentiously expensive tea shops with an array of calorific offerings, the decoratively crumbling Calle de los Suspiros, multitudinous cafes with attractively decorated gardens overlooking the river, Paseo San Gabriel – a waterfront walk, a small wharf with yachts and fishing boats, an old city gate (Port贸n de Campo), a freshly painted white lighthouse – and Geoff barely noticed any of it as he bounced about enthusiastically from one vintage car to the next! The streets are a聽veritable living vintage car museum – even I was enthused albeit only from an entirely artistic photographic perspective.

Before the tourists began arriving it was blissful despite the mosquitoes which must have risen early when they heard there was fresh new blood in town 馃槈 Even after the other visitors began emerging from their beds (and the first tour bus or two had arrived)聽it was still a relatively serene and peaceful place.

Unsurprisingly, given its wealth of wonderfully restored historic buildings “the barrio hist贸rico” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its history is complicated. Since聽it was settled originally in 1680 by the Portuguese it passed backwards and forwards every few decades between the Spanish and the Portuguese until 1828 when Uruguay won independence from Brazil.

You really don’t need more than a day and a night there to enjoy most of its bijou delights although it is a very popular romantic weekend destination for the well-heeled from Buenos Aires. I suspect they must be finding other diversions to fill their time to manage a whole 48 hour weekend in the town without going stir crazy.

We pottered about for 5 or 6 hours photographing its every delightful angle in ever changing light conditions. We sampled the Uruguayan coffee at Ganache – an eclectically decorated street cafe. We savored a surprisingly delicious lunch at Churana watching the sun glistening on the silvery waters of the river (it’s true – given the right company, a glass of vino and some great food even the muddy waters begin to acquire an attractive metallic sheen 馃槈 ! ). We pottered some more… took some more photos and then finished up at Queriendote tea shop lured by the cuteness of the garden and its similarly silvery view; we were wowed by its berry cheesecake and oriental citrus tea served in mismatched china and then ultimately astounded by the size of its bill 馃槈

Colonia is pretty pricey for food. However, the restaurants and cafes are serving some of the best quality food we have had in South America and there is always a price to pay when you demand good food with a view… even in a teeny weeny country which most people couldn’t place on a map 馃槈

Time to continue on to pastures new. We packed up the rental car and聽drove off cross-country heading north west towards Carmelo.

It only takes an hour or so to get there from Colonia. There is barely any traffic and the countryside is pristinely free of trash which is quite a novelty! Agriculture is big business in this part of the country. There are small holdings with happy cows in fields and rolling hills with crops of corn as far as the eye can see. There are weeping willow trees dipping their fronds in streams and ponds, fields of pumpkins, cypress trees dotting the horizon, avenues of eucalyptus trees, oak trees, the occasional palm tree and tall cream pampas grasses growing wild in the scrubland.

In 60 minutes we felt like we’d driven through a potted Europe: undulating hills reminiscent of southern Spain or Tuscany, the gently rolling terrain of northern France and the plains of Portugal. On the left was Italy and on the right a bucolic scene from England.

Charmed as we were by the scenery en route, we had to drive onwards, however.

Destination – Posada Campotinto –聽a boutique vineyard hotel in the Campi帽a San Roque area of Carmelo.

Purpose – to chill out for a couple of nights amongst the vineyards breathing in considerably fresher air than that which we had been inhaling in BA and to watch the sun set sitting by the pool sipping the wines of Campotinto Bodega.

I had barely managed to unpack the toothbrushes when there was a knock on the door. Geoff had wandered off alone and unsupervised to the bar. He tells me had ordered a glass of the vineyard Chardonnay in his very best Spanish. Whilst his linguistic skills are improving they clearly still need some work as the bar staff delivered a聽bottle of the vineyard Champagne instead. Not wanting to cause embarrassment (so he tells me) he politely accepted it. He tottered off to the poolside clutching his champers and聽fell asleep watching the sun set over the vineyards.

Mission – accomplished!

As we were still forced to endure more medialunas with dulce de leche and homemade jam for breakfast we felt obliged to walk off some of the calories and headed out to wander the vineyards with the hotel’s dog which Geoff had acquired as his new friend at dinner the night before. It was rather like stepping back in time, peaceful dusty roads which you could walk for miles without seeing a single car, wild flowers growing in fallow fields, small holdings with gardens overflowing with various exotic flora and fauna, bodegas dotting the landscape (such as the famous Almacen de la Capilla) and, obviously, vineyards!

The Uruguayan countryside must be an ornithologist’s dream. The skies were positively alive with Southern Lapwings, Peregrine Falcons, White-fronted Woodpeckers, Limpkins wading in marshy ponds, roosts of Southern Crested Caracara gathering on trees stripped bare of bark, Monk Parakeets whose screech could split eardrums, Brown-and-Yellow Marshbirds and so on. I don’t know much about bird spotting – that’s more Geoff’s province –聽but I was absolutely enthralled by the 3 beautiful short-eared owls lined up in a neat row on the grass in a field at the front of a vineyard. They spotted us and observed us cautiously through the blades of grass in that way only owls can do – wide-eyed and bobbing their heads from side to side until they suddenly decided they didn’t like the cut of our jib and took flight together. Absolutely priceless!

The mosquitoes in the countryside were a little challenging but the need to expend some energy and explore the locality on foot won out so we spent our couple of hours wandering the vineyards flitting away the swarms of voracious pests and slapping at our arms and legs. It would have been nice if the birdlife had been a bit more voracious and polished off the mosquitoes instead but, as it was, we were lunch and not the mosquitoes 馃槈

It wasn’t quite the relaxing stroll in the campi帽a that I had hoped for, albeit scenic. Luckily the mosquitoes didn’t follow聽us back to聽the hotel pool but remained hovering in the fields looking for alternative tasty victims stupid enough to be out for a vineyard wander.

Finally we sat down, bug free, replete with lunch, a final bottle of champers uncorked beside us and did absolutely nothing for the rest of the trip but scratch at our bug bites waiting for the restaurant to open for dinner 馃槈 聽馃檪

 

Argentina – April 2017

22 Apr
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Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Nine South and Central American countries under our belts, twice previously in beautiful Buenos Aires with barely a single, shifty, sideways glance from anyone with nefarious purpose in their heart, and here we are (jet-lagged but on familiar terra firma) for barely 3 hours, in search of sustenance when someone tries to relieve us of our most prized possessions 馃槮

It wouldn’t be so bad but with all the dodgy and “exotic” parts of the continent I have wandered into entirely alone and vulnerable in search of photo ops whilst the neatly suited breadwinner diligently slaved in various conference rooms and this idiot thinks it’s a good idea to try to scam us together!

So, for anyone visiting our beloved BA anytime soon you might like to google the “pigeon poop scam”. Apparently, it’s a popular tried and tested method of lifting the possessions of unsuspecting tourists without confrontation (which is at least a bonus, I suppose).

So read on, digest and imagine: there you are strolling hand in hand through a park or along one of BA’s numerous long tree-lined avenues,聽autumnal leaves scattered at your feet,聽minding your own touristy business and suddenly you are crapped on from (what you assume is) a great height by something large and feathered with an especially loose bowel.

You turn and look upwards (naturally) in search of the culprit but are faced instead, a few feet behind you, with a well-dressed middle-aged man with a friendly smile, a grin and a gallic-style shrug who points up into the trees. You dig a couple of wet wipes out of your rucksack to try to mop it up as it drips down your hair, back and legs (largely in vain because this thing has deposited almost the entire contents of a porta-loo on you). The friendly, smiling local rushes over with a tissue and starts to dab at you (which is a touch intrusive, if I’m honest). He’s gabbling away in espa帽ol聽and seems to be concerned about the state of your clothes. Then he tells you it’s not safe to stand there on the roadside whilst you try to clean up so it would be a good idea to put your camera (still hanging safely at this point around your neck where – in my case at least – it has lived for almost it’s entire life) into your companion’s rucksack.

As the treacherous plot unfolded at breakneck speed I fleetingly considered this suggestion in between dabbing at Geoff’s back. I thought it would be a good idea so I stuffed it into his rucksack and quickly zipped it up whilst the man still ran rings around us dabbing ineffectively, pouring water out of a bottle and stuffing the tissue under our noses whilst pulling a face at the repulsive smelling green “poo”.

In case you think we should have been running by now let me assure you聽the nice man was really very convincing. He would step back every few seconds and smile concernedly again… then he would return with another tissue and paw at us a bit more… all within a few feet of a bus stop filled with onlookers entertained (presumably) by the poo-drenched tourists.

Somewhere between the weird smell of the poo (more salad vinaigrette than digested and processed berries) and the constant fawning over Geoff’s sweater (he’d totally lost interest in me since I’d obligingly put my camera into the rucksack he was imminently planning on stealing), our hackles rose. Coincidentally, at that moment he tried to wrench the rucksack off Geoff’s back. Luckily, Geoff wasn’t to be relieved of our possessions without at least a half-hearted struggle and, just as he had appeared out of nowhere, the evil villain slunk back under the trees and disappeared into the shadows leaving us wandering onwards… and wondering what on earth had just happened.

Not another 20 feet down the road another man leapt out of the shadows and appeared at our sides. He very nearly got a large nuclear-sized flea in his ear but he managed to explain, just in time before we decked him, that he was from Brazil and that we were very lucky that we hadn’t lost the lot – as he himself had only just done – having fallen victim to the “pigeon poop scam”!

It transpires that the “bird poo” is a noxious smelling homemade mustard-based liquid which is surreptitiously squirted onto innocent green-looking tourists by well-dressed credible-looking thieves who, in most cases manage to convince the unsuspecting victim to remove their backpack/rucksack/handbag/camera in order to better clean up their ruined clothes.

I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I would take off my bag or camera, put it down at my feet or abandon it on a bench whilst I faffed around distractedly cleaning up my trousers. One might as well just hand it over to the evil villain without bothering with even a minor struggle and say “It’s all yours amigo – I don’t need that passport I just used at the bureau de change to exchange $$… or the $ itself come to that… and I certainly don’t need the camera… off you trot… quick as you can!”

It transpires that this modus operandi is, however, so common that it’s now happening all over the city many times a day. I sympathize with the victims. The criminals are really very accomplished at it. It has been reported that well-dressed couples in Puerto Madero (probably the most expensive trendy dot com area of the city) have also pulled the same stunt. So beware travelers! It also takes a significant amount of scrubbing to get the horrible stinky stuff out of your clothes 馃槈

He wouldn’t have known, of course, that I would have chased him across the 6 lanes of traffic to hell and back to rescue my camera before battering him liberally with it around the torso, but I’m glad I didn’t have to 馃槈

2 days later we were in a taxi passing the same park waiting in stationary traffic for the lights to change on the busy main road and there he was again lurking about in the shadows popping out and eyeing-up various passers-by. Presumably he was making calculated guesses as to whether the contents of their bags looked worthy of the investment of both his fake poo and his criminal time and effort.

Unbelievable!

Anyway, now I’ve got that off my chest the rest of the long easter weekend was considerably more excellent 馃檪

No trip to BA would be worth taking without at least a couple of visits to South America’s best coffee shop – Full City Coffee House in trendy Palermo Soho. This is our absolute favorite part of the city – filled with street cafes, excellent lunch destinations (such as Ninina Bakery and the french cafe Cocu Boulangerie), ornate refurbished 18th and 19th century historic buildings and posh designer shops. I have absolutely no interest in the vendibles of the stores themselves but only in the highly individual architectural designs of the buildings and the commissioned works of art adorning them. Additionally, of course, Soho is well-known for glamorous people-watching.

Obviously, I blend in seamlessly here with the trendy porte帽os (natives of BA) dressed in my ever trusty spangly denim shorts and grubby Nike trainers. My travel wardrobe (restricted considerably in quantity due to the unfairly imposed limitation upon me of one small carry-on bag) is designed for comfort and long distance walking rather than wowing anyone with my style or integrating in any way with the elegantly attired locals as they totter about between Agostina Bianchi and Casa Cavia 馃槈

But, best of all, of course, is the ever changing street art in Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood (although we were pleased to revisit some resilient old favorites which are standing the test of time).

Whilst wandering out of the gloriously pretentious neighborhood of Palermo Soho into the more grungy Palermo Hollywood neighborhood we discovered the mildly diverting Mercado de las Pulgas (a flea market of renown). We were delighted to discover that it is the place to go if you need a donkey’s head, a filthy old broken sink or a really bad oil painting of a tiger 馃槈 On a less flippant note,聽I believe it is actually THE place to go to rummage for antiques and old furniture – allegedly even more authentic than San Telmo. Deciding against trying to squeeze the donkey’s head into our hand luggage, we continued en route to some even more renowned street art at the bus station – a highly salubrious area quite literally knee-deep in doggy poo (both fossilized and aromatically fresh).

The rest of the long weekend (before Geoff had to head to a week of meetings in the office) passed in a flurry of cabs whisking us back and forth between various select destination areas of the city.

Colorful La Boca is a former shipyard barrio at the mouth of the river. The original ship workers (settlers from Genoa, Italy) built their houses from cast-off materials such as corrugated iron and planks of wood. It is still a tough, fiercely working class and distinctly grimy neighborhood albeit also the most touristy part of the city attracting the masses with its cheap bars, craft market and the famous Caminito. Caminito was created in the 1960’s by a local artist who painted the walls of the then abandoned street and made a makeshift stage for impromptu performances. It became a popular haven for artists with its cobblestone streets and colorful buildings. Frankly, it’s about the last place on earth we’d normally want to spend much time but it is just too kaleidoscopically vibrant聽for the artist in me to resist it 馃槈

Luckily, in the midst of all the chaos, tango dancers, tacky t-shirt shops and overcrowding, there is an oasis of tranquility – Fundacion Proa (a contemporary art museum with a library and coffee shop). So, we reclined on the comfortable rooftop sofas in the sun watching the activity below us, sipping Earl Grey tea and sampling the irresistible coconut dulce de leche slices 馃檪

In upmarket Recoleta we went in search of the remaining Parisian-style chateaux and petits h么tels. This neighborhood is most famous (aside from its grand architecture resplendent with marble staircases, intricate ironwork balconies and huge gilded chandeliers) for its cemetery where Argentinians go to pay their respects at the graveside of revered Eva Per贸n. Slightly morbid in concept for one who plans to simply have her ashes returned to the earth – or preferably deposited at a remote beauty spot on some exotic far-flung beach (precise location still to be determined), it is still appealing for the architectural variety of the mausoleums – Art Deco, Baroque, Neo-Gothic and so on. Some are still very well loved and maintained and others have fallen into tragically neglected disrepair… which is partly why I prefer the option of wafting ephemerally along a beach in the breeze until I’ve completely disappeared into the atmosphere 馃槈

San Telmo is one of our old favorite neighborhoods – quaint and quirky – named after the patron saint of seafarers and originally settled in the 17th century by Spanish and Italian dockworkers and brick-makers. It has passed through various stages of evolution from attracting more monied residents who built fabulous mansions to an influx of European settlers from Ireland, Poland, Russia etc. after the wealthy all hotfooted it out to safer parts of the city following a yellow fever epidemic in 1871. Now it is a popular residential and tourist enclave with a bohemian, trendy, artistic, student vibe, famous for its decaying grandeur and street art. You can sip yerba mat茅 (a thoroughly repulsive and entirely undrinkable聽herbal tea) with the locals, or preferably a glass of vino, under the shade of the trees in聽beautiful, leafy Plaza Dorrego watching the聽tango dancers and hawkers. We love it 馃檪

Cobblestone streets, great cafes and bars, plazas, gorgeous crumbling buildings, family-owned bakeries and a central covered produce-cum-flea market resplendent with an elaborate wrought-iron and glass atrium in the heart of which is one of BA’s most renowned coffee shops – Coffee Town. Here you can savour their various delights whilst contemplating the purchase of a battered 3-legged antique chair, a yellowing Che Guevara poster or an ancient shoe last. I’ll admit their pain au chocolat and almond croissants are also worthy of serious contemplation 馃檪

Every Sunday, Calle Defensa and Plaza Dorrego (the original site of the authentic Feria de San Telmo) are transformed into an open air antiques and crafts market selling items of both dubious quality alongside antique jewelry, crystal glassware, old telephones, dusty old fur coats and brass pots. It’s a spectacle to behold and we never miss it when we are here during the weekend 馃檪

Monserrat lies next to San Telmo – notable for many sights including the dusty old historic bookshop Libreria de Avila. It is the oldest bookstore in the city dating from the 18th century… which is probably about the time anyone last tidied up or flitted a duster around it 馃槈

Plaza San Martin in Retiro was decorative as ever. In spring the聽jacarandas are in bloom and the terraces are carpeted with purple flowers. At this time of year, autumn in the southern hemisphere, the palo borracho trees still have the remnants of their huge pink summer flowers before winter starts.

During Geoff’s working week I retraced old steps – turning different corners, milling aimlessly and walking haphazardly for miles across the city trying to burn off the medialunas (half-moon shaped croissants) smeared with dulce de leche which I savored聽daily for breakfast. The usual suspects included destinations such as the Plaza de Mayo at one end of which looms Casa Rosada (the Pink House) – the presidential palace where Evita made her speeches and which subsequently became iconic as the setting for “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”, the signature song of the musical “Evita”; the 1908 Italianate聽style Teatro Col贸n, reputedly one of the world’s best opera houses; Avenida de Mayo lined with Parisian style buildings running from Casa Rosada all the way to Plaza Congreso; the Palacio del Congreso, the seat of the legislative branch of the government, a聽Greco-Roman style building with Parisian Beaux Arts influences; the Avenida de 9 Julio with its centerpiece attraction the gleemingly white Obelisco; pedestrianized Calle Florida filled with flower vendors, newspaper vendors, shoe shines and lottery ticket vendors all noisily trying to vie for ones attention; and, of course, it wouldn’t be South America without the odd protest march or two flanked by heavily protected riot police!

We spent the long Easter weekend in a boutique hotel in San Telmo; so as to be as close as possible to the action on Plaza Dorrego and to one of our favorite French restaurants – Petanque – with chocolate lava cake so memorable we had to return twice 馃槈

Then we moved to Puerto Madero for the working week. Puerto Madero with its centerpiece rotating footbridge “Puente de la Mujer” rose from industrial wasteland along the Rio de la Plata to cutting edge glitzy skyscrapers in a decade. Some porte帽os and tourists may complain that they find it bland聽compared to聽the more authentic character of the older parts of the city but, the fact remains, that it is the only part of the city where I聽didn’t have to continuously watch what I stepped in with every footfall. Clearly, the young professionals who reside here require a certain level of street cleanliness which cannot be sniffed at 馃槈

If I’ve missed anywhere out… apologies… it’s a huge city!

Over the course of our current visit we had a sense of a slight slip into decline in some areas with more scruffy graffiti (fundamentally distinct from street art, of course) which must be extremely frustrating for building owners. Whilst it makes for more interesting atmospheric photos for tourists (like me!), it must be depressing to live amongst it all.

We didn’t analyze it at any great length over our various coffee and croissant stops at Full City, as the golden autumnal leaves fluttered past us in the breeze at our sidewalk table, but we did briefly聽wonder if the doggy poo situation around the city had worsened since this time last year. The economic situation in Argentina is nowhere near as dire as, say, in Venezuela, but with prices having increased here by around 40% since last April and salaries increasing at a rate of 30% a year (clearly not enough to聽keep up with inflation!), something has to give. I guess road maintenance and general street cleaning is taking somewhat of a back seat in the overall economic climate.

All of that aside we adore the city聽for its amazing variety of architecture, fabulous French food and crazy markets… and, of course, I probably don’t need to say that Geoff loves it for its impressive selection of Argentinian wines! 馃槈

BA is still one of our favorite ” little pieces of Europe” in Latin America – and this visit gloriously illuminated in soft autumnal color with picture perfect blue skies 馃檪

Difficult though it was to tear ourselves away, we left the city behind us聽for our last weekend in the southern hemisphere and hopped aboard the ferry for a short one hour ride to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay… blog to follow… 馃檪

 

 

 

Cozumel, Mexico – February 2017

12 Feb
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San Martin Beach, Cozumel, Mexico

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

The Mayan Riviera was certainly an entirely different Mexican experience than our more recent ventures into the Central Highlands and a previous trip to the Pacific Coast a few years ago. It wasn鈥檛 a trip entirely entered into with the full enthusiasm of most of our adventures but was more the result of having to forfeit our much loved annual skiing vacation in Colorado due to a knee injury. There were tears and tantrums but eventually we conceded that a less physically active vacation would have to take the place of our pre-planned trip to Breckenridge. So, I stuck a pin in the map and came up with an alternative destination for picture-perfect February weather on the Mexican Caribbean island of Cozumel.

To be fair, the weather was absolutely perfect. Puffy white clouds drifted across bright blue skies and a warm Caribbean breeze gently fluttered the curtains of our well-padded, hibiscus flower-adorned cabana bed overlooking the translucent turquoise waters at our hotel (The Explorean) on the west side of the island in the hotel zone. Aside from Coz Coffee (purveyor of the worlds most delicious vegan peanut butter coffee in the world鈥 and probably the only purveyor of said coffee in the world), the town centre of San Miguel de Cozumel offered few delights. It is a concrete jungle of cheap bars, grim divers hotels and jewelry stores (as per every major cruise ship destination in the Caribbean).

So we rented a Jeep and headed off in search of beaches on the wild east coast of the island. It was a quality vehicle聽with a hand painted interior, copious quantities of mold in various stages of bio-hazard growth and a gearbox with more play than a 1973 Austin Allegro 聽馃槈 There are pretty much only 2 roads on the island – the coastal road running around the periphery of the island and a central road which crosses through the jungle – so Cozumel doesn鈥檛 really require a lot of time or effort to explore.

First stop was the (allegedly) ancient Mayan village of El Cedral dating back to 800 AD and subsequently discovered by Spanish Conquistadors who razed much of it聽to the ground (as was their wont). Aside from a small portion of a fertility temple which looked about as exciting as a聽dilapidated聽garden shed with bars at the window there didn’t seem to be聽any sign of anything vaguely ancient remaining in the village. On the upside, of course, we could have bought a Mexican hat or some ceramic ornaments if we had so desired 馃槈 聽Now, the village is full of weekend holiday homes for wealthy Mexicans, a few tourist shops and a tequila museum where Geoff sipped his way through a not inconsiderable quantity of samples before weaving his way back to the Jeep and continuing around the coast until we reached our first (and what should have been our last!) beach club at Punta Moreno.

Here, Geoff bee-lined to the nearest massage table on the beach and was charged the exorbitant sum of $90 for an hour slumbering in the breeze. Left to my own devices I marveled at how the locals were unilaterally attempting to destroy what would once have been an absolutely beautiful deserted east coast beach. Maybe once, 20 odd years ago, there would have been聽a palm leaf topped beach bar filled with character and charm. To be fair most of the island is still undeveloped but what has been developed has not been done with the greatest taste in the world. The coastline is littered with聽Disneyesque water parks of varying degrees of commercialization and none of it remotely attractive or appealing to the eye. I know that we are old and miserable now but we prefer not to spend our days lounging on the beaches with 100鈥檚 of other tourists in regimentally laid out regulation sunbeds getting slowly sozzled on beer in plastic cups. Concrete swimming pools and kids slides, multicolored plastic inflatables and parks where you can swim with unhappy looking dolphins is an abiding memory I could take home from Cozumel, but I won’t, because there were still pockets of loveliness and we did have a very relaxing vacation 馃檪

Any day starting with a dip in the warm transparent waters, snorkeling along the Dzul-Ha Reef directly outside of the hotel, followed by ceviche and fish tacos for lunch at the beach bar and then ended sipping pina coladas and mojitos watching the sunset from the cabana bed is obviously a good vacation day. However, unless you are a die-hard diver or are trying to entertain a family of kids at one of the endless Disneyesque theme parks this is unlikely to be the Caribbean island of your dreams.

When we did actually tear ourselves away from our cabana bed with a view, I will concede that it was an absolutely beautiful drive on the east coast: crashing waves, sandy beaches, coral reefs and water in every shade of blue and turquoise. Happily, we stumbled across the almost deserted beach of San Martin where we laid claim to one of 4 or 5 palm covered shades so that Geoff could resume lazing and dozing in the sun and I could walk on real sand. The west coast hotel zone is largely reef with no sand which is why it’s big for divers and snorkelers as they can leap straight off the hotel docks into the water. However, what I really wanted to do was paddle about in the warm waves, soft sand between my toes, without my senses being assaulted by some hideous manmade, multicolored monstrosity designed entirely to relieve the tourists of their pesos.

Back at the hotel on Dzul-Ha Reef, thank goodness, the snorkeling was fabulous. Sunfish, Eagle Rays, Stingray, Yellowtail Snapper, Blue Tang, Horse Eye Jacks, Sergeant Major fish, Durgeon, Great Barracuda, Honeycomb Cowfish, Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Reef Butterflyfish, Grouper and Tilefish, Blue Chromis, Blue and Yellowhead Wrasse – the list goes on鈥. none of them hung around long enough to do any modeling shots but they were happy to let me snorkel amongst them at the surface.

The coral was a little brown and trodden down (the legacy of decades of divers and snorkelers before us since Cozumel was first made famous back in the 50’s)聽but the fish were entertaining鈥 all except the jellyfish, of course, which seemed to find me聽inordinately attractive because I rarely left the water without having an encounter with one or two of the irritating little creatures swiping their transparent tentacles at me 馃槈 聽Geoff tended to head to deeper waters and spent most of his time free-diving whilst I dodged the jellyfish at the surface 馃槈

Columbia Reef at the bottom of the island was far more interesting and less trampled – partly because it was accessible only by boat.

A brief 30 minute ferry ride from San Miguel de Cozumel to Playa del Carmen on the mainland and an unbelievably overpriced Jeep rental (pushing $200 per day鈥 hence the reason we only took 2 day trips on the mainland) saw us out and about doing what we like to do best – exploring the offerings of the country.

Firstly, however, we felt obliged to make a quick tour of Playa del Carmen which, in the end, comprised a desperate search for a coffee shop recommended by a friend (Ah-Cacao Chocolate Cafe where I indulged in a mayan hot chocolate 馃檪 ) and a quick stroll down Calle 38 which was a pretty tree-lined avenue with great looking bars and street cafes in shady courtyards. The beaches were very narrow and wall to wall log-jammed with people so we headed north to the attractive fishing village of Puerto Morelos. Understandably, the town has fought hard to prevent hotel development, high rises and the slippery slope of the ubiquitous “beach clubs” from springing up along their waters. As a result it was probably the most authentic place we visited in our 8 days in the Mayan Riviera. It also had a very appealing vegetarian friendly cafe (El Nicho) which made us feel slightly less guilty about all of the fish tacos we had eaten back at our local beach shack 馃槈

Heading south of Playa del Carmen again we passed mile after mile after mile of massive conglomerate golf/spa hotels all, no doubt, with pristine parcels of jungle and immaculate white sand beaches. We were looking for something a little more accessible, rugged and slightly less enormous. After a few u-turns and frantic googlemap searching we finally located a dirt track with a hand painted sign pointing to the beach I was looking for. We could have gone to the beach club next door with the loud music and sat with the melee of other tourists and backpackers in their regimental rows of sunbeds but I was determined to find a less commercial ingress to the beach. It still cost $1.50 each extorted from us (I say this tongue in cheek as I have no objection to a little free enterprise) by a young girl sitting in her garden who diligently wrote down our license plate and then lowered the rope across the dirt track to let us pass through the family land until we pulled up at the end of the track, dumped the car in a ditch and emerged onto the most beautiful mainland beach we were to see for the entire vacation – Xpu-Ha. I have to say it was the best $3 we spent in 8 days 馃檪

Another beach, another massage cabana, naturally! Poor Geoff endured yet another hour of pummeling with the breeze wafting through his hair, listening to the softly breaking waves whilst I frolicked in them like a child 馃檪

Sufficiently rested we headed up to Akumal famous for it’s protected turtles nesting on the shore. Another horrendously touristy enclave with beach bars and chaos and locals trying to sell you guided tours of the waters. We were categorically informed that without a paid guide we would have no hope of finding even a single turtle… hmmm… we took our chances and headed away from the people soup and found 3 turtles within 30 seconds grazing on the grasses as far away as they could get from the noisy families and tour guides 馃槈

To round off a day of non-stop excitement, we threw in a side-trip to Cristalino Cenote. A cenote is a聽natural swimming hole in the jungle formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock. Many of them have subterranean rivers which you can dive and snorkel. They contain groundwater, tiny freshwater fish which nibble at your toes and they are absolutely brain-numbing freezing! In essence, you are swimming amongst the mangroves and tropical flora in crystal clear water teeming with fish… which felt a lot like swimming in a fish tank.

Back at the ranch, Geoff took it upon himself to teach the bartender how to make Bushwhackers and then plied his offerings to the other hotel guests until no-one could stand upright any longer 馃槈 聽The end to a perfect day!

Another day, another overpriced Jeep – this time we headed further south on the mainland to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum which has been on my bucket list for a while due to its stunning location on the coast. Despite our ridiculously early morning (6am – which is completely unacceptable on vacation!) we still didn’t manage to avoid the crowds… and by crowds I mean more people than I’ve even seen in my life trolling through the various ruins and sights. It was a miracle we managed to get any photos with as few people in them as we did. Once upon a time it must have been a fantastic place to have discovered and explored – ancient ruins in the jungle against a backdrop of spectacular white sand beaches and electric blue and turquoise waters. Now, the lawns around the ruins are mown flat and there is a constant stream of half naked people heading to the beach under the ruins which ruined the ambience somewhat! Actually, if I’m honest, there really isn’t any ambience – it’s just a hot, sweaty photoshoot opportunity in the jungle with 20,000 other people 馃槈

Happily, the day trip didn’t end there! I had my heart (and stomach) set on locating Raw Love on Tulum Beach south of the ruins. A vegan cafe, steps from the beach in an eco-resort serving the best carrot cake known to man 馃檪 聽If we ever return to the Mayan Riviera it will be to Tulum Beach. The sandy beach road is lined with beautiful boutique stores with palm leaf roofs, creative and unusual bars, coffee shops and restaurants tucked into the jungle overgrowth. Totally bohemian, half back packer, half luxury eco-resort. We loved it. This is where we should have been hanging out for the week 馃檪

I wouldn’t be as complimentary, however, about the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve not 10 minutes drive away. Allegedly a pristine piece of natural real estate – a World Heritage Site renowned for its flora and fauna. The literature promises jaguars, deserted beaches and an escape from the commercial world.

Again, I was aiming for a specific beach – Playa Akun – apparently the聽pi猫ce聽de r茅sistance of Mayan Riviera beaches. Our real world experience wasn’t quite up to expectations, however. We tried to pull up at the side of the road (where indicated from my various blog researches) and were moved on by a local selling boat trips under a palm tree opposite. We were directed to a beach club (big mistake) where the sign said we could park for $5. That was fine – after all this beach was the beach to end all beaches 馃槈 聽As the owner of the bar sauntered over to us we explained we only wanted to walk on the beach and swim and didn’t want to use his facilities聽– whereupon the price doubled – an entry fee per person – now $10. Hmm… OK… I told Geoff it would be worth it and the owner spent a good 2 or 3 minutes telling us how gloriously beautiful the beach was and that it was a small price to pay for such beauty… blah… blah… blah… The word “clean” was used relentlessly in both languages so I felt sure all would be well. We grabbed our towels and headed across the dune to be faced with 3 feet deep of rotting seaweed as far as the eye could see liberally strewn with litter – bits of old plastic, bottles, parts of boats, discarded mechanical parts… you name it 馃槮

Whilst I seethed in the afternoon sun, Geoff thought he’d make the best of it and use one of the beach club sun loungers under a palm tree. I don’t think it was as comfortable as Geoff led me to believe as the base was broken and had a nasty looking list to one side 馃槈 聽Frankly, the biosphere and the El Ultimo Mayo Tulum beach bar was an utter disgrace. I went off to rant at the owner at how disgusting his property was (in quite impressively constructed Spanish, if I say so myself !) and even he finally conceded through a toothy grin that the beach was filthy.

Anyway, I could take no more and suggested we try to retrieve the day by speeding all the way back up to Xpu-Ha beach for a final massage and a dip in the briny before we headed home. Thank goodness for Xpu-Ha 馃檪

 

 

Mexico – December 2016

31 Dec
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View of Guanajuato from our Rooftop Terrace

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

As we loved Christmas so much last year in San Miguel de Allende we decided to head back to the Central Highlands of Mexico to the neighboring city of Guanajuato. Guanajuato is distinctly more “authentic” Mexico than the highly popular expat enclave of SMA in a variety of ways: in its slightly less buffed, polished and manicured streets and buildings; in the quality of its drains ;-); in the glaring absence of gringos and, as a consequence, the almost total lack of english speaking native residents. So… great for Geoff as he likes to escape our relatively pristine, sanitized world from time to time…but not so great for me as pretty much every transaction was down to me and my fast fading linguistic skills. Still, as you can see from the photos, we hardly starved to death through our limited ability to communicate!

Perhaps that owed more to luck than judgement – and undoubtedly more to the presence of the chocolate shop Xocolat in our second favorite square (Plaza de Baratillo). There are a couple of other distinct and fairly fundamental advantages of SMA over the more rustic and far less touristy Guanajuato. Firstly, the top rated restaurants in SMA are open over the entire Christmas period for the eating pleasure of the hordes of incoming wealthy American tourists and, secondly, options for vegetarians (or even pescatarians) were far more accessible there.

Mexicans celebrate Christmas on the 24th which is the day when families get together for Christmas dinner so the most revered chefs and their staff are on holiday on the 24th and don’t return to feed the masses until the 27th. Not brilliant news for us and definitely not great when you have no intention whatsoever of cooking your own Christmas dinner on one day – never mind 3!

As a consequence, we had some distinctly average meals for 3 days whilst we waited for the best chefs in town to return to work after their extended Christmas revelings! Thank goodness for the chocolate shop and the poor lady behind the counter whose cruel boss didn’t allow her time off for the celebrations 馃槈

Miraculously however, we did discover (after some frantic and hunger induced googling) that there are indeed a few options for vegetarians in this overwhelmingly meat-eating part of the country. We wouldn’t normally survive for days on a diet of falafel and hummus wraps (courtesy of the excellent Habibti)… nor on seaweed salad (at the equally excellent Japanese Delica Mitsu)… nor, in fact, on totally delectable French quiches (at La Vie en Rose) but we managed admirably in the circumstances and didn’t suffer any noticeable loss in weight 馃槈

Christmas Day itself remained a torturous problem for me (as chief vacation planner and restaurant booker) with everywhere closing for the holiday. So I racked my brains and eventually hazarded a guess that the very posh Villa Maria Cristina Relais and Chateau Hotel wouldn’t let its venerable inmates starve on the 25th. I was correct although on the big day itself Geoff very nearly lost the lining of his throat when he opted for an unidentifiable dish with double chilli sauce. My tentative warning fell upon deaf ears, of course. For a few moments, as I mopped up the tears streaming from his eyes, I suspected another falafel wrap might have been his preference for Christmas dinner after all 馃槈

Anyway, we didn’t starve, as I have said, for our week long escape from the excesses of a typical American Christmas and the best restaurant by far in a sea of really bad ones (Truco 7 being a particular low point despite its incredible popularity) is Los Campos – for anyone thinking of following in our footsteps. We were good vegetarians but pretty bad vegans. Aside from the 2 or 3 pounds of handmade chocolates we nibbled upon whilst sipping vino every afternoon admiring the spectacular view from our rooftop patio, we also stopped in a few times to Estacion Gelato… also highly recommended 馃檪

Not to dwell entirely upon food the real highlights of this聽UNESCO World Heritage city are its architectural delights (Baroque Spanish Colonial, Neoclassical and Mexican Churrigueresque), its shady plazas with cooling fountains, its courtyards, its famed subterranean streets (which you can walk if you don’t mind inhaling life-shortening carbon monoxide) and its buildings painted in every color of the rainbow. The city is a veritable artists palette of color – the more fluorescent the better! The brightly colored steep, narrow, cobbled, residential streets radiate uphill from the central artery in the city and spread throughout the long, narrow valley. They say it is impossible to get lost here as all streets lead downwards. We gave it a try and strangely all streets did, in fact, lead back to Xocolat 馃槈

Guanajuato was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish when they discovered silver in the surrounding hills. By the 18th century it was the worlds largest centre of silver extraction. Perhaps they’ve sold it all because, try as I might, I couldn’t find a single piece of jewelry I wished to appropriate and re-home in the US 馃槈

We had a wonderful time staggering aimlessly up and down the winding residential alleys; watching the world go by from one of the beautifully ornate but hideously uncomfortable benches at the Jardin de la Union and聽enjoying the brass band performances in the bandstand; we listened to the mariachi singers wandering the streets; we had a couple of massages of dubious quality (mine was more akin to being lightly dabbed with particularly malodorous body lotion); we gate-crashed a Christmas wedding at the Basilica; we watched processions of singers clutching candles going door to door performing the “posada” (a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter) and we dodged children with large sticks beating candy-filled聽pi帽atas strung up across the narrow alleyways. On the subject of pi帽atas I received an unexpected Christmas present purchased (no expense spared) from one of the stalls at Mercado Hidalgo. Lucky me! Just what I always wanted – my very own candy-filled papier-m芒ch茅 crepe paper covered yellow, orange and pink pi帽ata donkey. We took him for a walk to our favorite plaza – Plaza San Fernando – to see if we could find a deserving new home for him for Christmas. It didn’t take long… it looked as if his new owner was going to love him forever 馃檪

Christmas Eve was as noisy, chaotic and terrifying as usual in Mexico. The fireworks started at 10pm and went on all night echoing across the valley until 7am on Christmas Day. It is impossible to sleep even with the very best earplugs known to man when the kids on the street outside of your bedroom window are letting off rockets all night long less than 3 feet from your eardrums. Our alleyway was littered knee-deep the following morning with the debris of a million exploded and unexploded fireworks, sparklers and other exotica (which is one reason why we’ll be going to the Caribbean for Christmas 2017, if I get my way 馃槈 ).

In addition to the usual street entertainments, food markets and arts and crafts stores to keep us occupied there are also a plethora of highly-rated museums in the city. However, the closest we got to the inside of any of them was the coffee shop in the Quijote museum. We are planning on saving the more intellectual tourist pursuits for when we retrace our steps around the planet when we are 80 so read no further if you seek intelligent comment and advice. On matters of caffeine, however, we can highly recommend our local purveyor (Cafe Tal). We felt we’d earned a shot by the time we’d staggered down hill to the city centre from our house on Callejon del Espinazo every morning.

Whilst I have touched upon the subject of our adopted neighborhood for the vacation, I would say that it was certainly interesting and definitely authentic! Stray dogs… local residents milling aimlessly at strategic points up the hill having a chat or perched on the steps savoring a beer or two with their amigos… and makeshift stores in the front rooms of homes聽selling Christmas decorations paired with plumbing supplies. Without doubt, it is very helpful聽to know (for future reference) that you can pick up a replacement u-bend at the same store as you can buy those last minute emergency twinkly lights for the tree.

Naturally, it is聽the height of rudeness in Mexico not to say good morning/afternoon and/or evening to everyone who passes you on the steep pedestrianized streets (which is nice). It also pays (according to the one and only American we bumped into and who is now a聽full-time resident) to smile sweetly at everyone – man, woman and child – to avoid any unnecessary run-ins with the local mafia. We certainly didn’t want to offend the locals and it is for this reason alone that we suffered silently through a second night of sleep deprivation when a roving band of mariachi singers (together with full musical entourage) wound its way slowly down our hill and stopped outside of our bedroom window for a good 45 minutes at 3am. Literally blasted out of our reveries for the second time in 24 hours by a trumpet so loud that the trumpeter might as well have been sitting at the bottom of the bed. We were tempted to stick our heads out of the window and encourage them to move along for their own safety but we decided that discretion was the better part of valor … for our own safety 馃槈

Anyway…we loved Guanajuato as much as we loved San Miguel but for different reasons. Geoff preferred the more raw aspects of Guanajuato and I couldn’t choose between them as they are both fabulous in their own ways.

We still love Mexico but next Christmas we are going somewhere more sedate and fitting with our advancing years where we can get some sleep 馃槈

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

England – October 2016

13 Oct
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Arlington Row, Bibury, Gloucestershire

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

For reasons unknown (but probably connected to my advancing age) my memories of England have become thoroughly romanticized over the last few years. Geoff is far more pragmatic about it but my ears have been firmly plugged for a while against our friends’ complaints of rain, relentless grey skies and penetratingly cold temperatures for months on end. My memory of those frigid, pitch black mornings in winter when I left for work to head to the office (returning in exactly the same bleak wintry conditions after a day of busy lawyering) have been miraculously erased by the passage of time 馃槈

“My” England is a verdant pasture of rolling hills and patchwork fields… mist rising on meadows in the morning clearing to a beautiful blue sky… puffy white clouds drifting across the horizon… lambs skipping through farmers’ fields and wild flowers blooming in the hedgerows…

Purple wisteria, pink clematis and old english roses tumble over walls and clamber around doorways… honey-colored limestone cottages are warmed golden in the afternoon sun… there are thatched cottages… village fetes… quaint medieval villages and market towns with bustling town squares… friendly village pubs… frill-decorated tea shops with homemade scones, clotted cream teas and Victoria Sandwich cake (preferably the labours of a couple of blue-rinsed elderly ladies from the local Women’s Institute).

There are peaceful churchyards… babbling brooks… manor houses and country house estates with glorious herbaceous borders… and most importantly, there are enduring towns and villages “of substance” and of history which have survived for hundreds of years largely unscathed by the less appealing ravages of time and modernization…

Obviously, Geoff thinks I have completely lost my marbles聽but I know that there are pockets of this England still remaining and… even better… I know where to find them! 馃檪

Surprisingly, I won the battle for risking the notoriously unpredictable British weather in October again and this year (post an admittedly considerably warmer European vacation) we headed into the Cotswolds, one of my favorite parts of Ye Olde England, and more importantly, one which I know fits the description of “my perfect England” almost entirely 馃檪

….all I had to do was keep my fingers crossed for equally perfect autumnal weather otherwise I may never hear the end of it 馃槈

To make the whole romanticized package even more wonderful I made a reservation at聽a particularly charming country house hotel (Abbots Grange) for the weekend in Broadway, one of the Worcestershire Cotswolds villages and one of the most picture-perfect and well-known of the Cotswold Hills region. To add a cherry to the top of our long anticipated weekend in the glorious English countryside we invited two of our best friends to join us, Gary and Tracey 馃檪

Abbots Grange is a medieval monastic manor house built in 1320 with fully functioning contemporary 2016 plumbing.

Four poster beds… full and plentiful English breakfasts (with vegetarian sausages 馃槈 )… scrambled eggs and smoked salmon… croissants worth every calorie… afternoon tea and cakes fresh from Huffkins Tea Shop. We loved it – in all of its understated elegance and (simultaneous) pretentiousness.

Even better, it聽was a 2 minute stroll to a particularly good gastro pub (The Swan) and our postprandial evenings were passed sipping whisky and sherry in the great room with its fabulous exposed beam vaulted ceiling warmed by a roaring log fire.

What more could you want?

The Sky Gods hadn’t received my memo requesting the crystal clear blue sky on Saturday morning but they had at least given us a break from the rain, wind and/or freezing temperatures which Mr Negativity was predicting 馃槈 So we spent the day pottering aimlessly through the streets of Broadway, along the River Coln and Arlington Row in Bibury and down the High Street of the steep-hilled market town of Burford where we stopped in for an emergency 3-tiered afternoon cream tea… as you do 馃槈

In an effort to burn off a fraction of the thoroughly indulgent and unnecessary calories we shuffled off in the late afternoon in the direction of one of the most well-known short walks in the Cotswolds between the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter. Wardens Way – part of the Great Cotswold Ramble – passes through meadows with grazing sheep, alongside the River Eye, crosses footbridges and passes millponds and an historic mill.

Only a 2 mile round trip, it would barely have burned off even one of the clotted cream and strawberry jam laden scones (let alone the array of crustless finger sandwiches and other sugary delicacies) but it was invigorating to stroll through the fallen golden leaves (the first chill of autumn in the air) and pretend that we were getting some exercise 馃槈

Happily, the Sky Gods were far more benevolent on Sunday. I flung open the old hinged windows in the Gardner suite letting the cold morning air pour in. I kicked Geoff out of the warm comfort of the four-poster bed and slung him (with some protest) under the shower with rather more urgency than normal for 7.30 on a Sunday morning. A lazy morning sipping earl grey tea in bed and nibbling on Huffkins lemon shortbread before breakfast was definitely not on the cards once I had spotted the sun rising in a clear blue sky 馃檪 聽I, for one, was not going to pass up the peaceful tranquility of bundling up and strolling the early morning streets of Broadway before the clouds rolled back in.

It was all utterly lovely 馃檪

Once the rest of our party had dragged themselves unenthusiastically from the warmth of their own four-poster bed we continued the aimless explorations and passed through Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh (where more emergency pre-lunch tea and cake were consumed in yet another frilly tea-shop) before our parting Sunday lunch in a pub in Bourton-on-the-Hill.

The common consensus was that Broadway was (hands down) the loveliest and most livable village and if we ever decide to invest in a summer holiday cottage back in our drizzly homeland to escape the heat of a typical Floridian summer in our dotage,聽it will be there 馃檪

Burford is no doubt more famous with its sweeping views and beautiful High Street filled with tea rooms and antique shops but Broadway was still the firm favorite.

Neither Moreton-in-Marsh nor Stow-on-the-Wold could match the immaculate, peaceful, timeless, middle-class aura oozing from every dwelling and shop front in Broadway with its select few stores, gorgeous stone cottages and upscale cafes and restaurants.

The most diminutive village and the most popular with the tour buses was Bibury which was positively thronging with Japanese tourists. Their poor bus driver was trying to unsuccessfully round them up as they chattered excitedly and milled about in the main road taking photographs of each other on the bridge whilst the traffic dodged around them. I felt even more sorry for the poor local residents, however, who must have had some bizarre interactions over the years with foreign tourists escaped from their guides. This tiny village is just about the last place on earth that I would have expected to see “Private – no entry” signs pinned onto farmyard and garden gates written in Japanese, Korean and Chinese 馃槈

Of course, the quintessential English village “experience” was further enhanced聽in “near-perfect” Broadway by bumping unexpectedly into the Adlington Morris Men on a tour of the Cotswolds from Cheshire. It doesn’t get any more eccentrically British than standing in a chilly autumnal village square watching grown men dressed in top hats, white shirts, cropped trousers and long white socks, decorated liberally with striped green, yellow and red ribbons with bells hanging from their shins dancing around in circles to the music of an accordion whilst smashing sticks together over their heads. There are, apparently, stories to be told in this traditional form of dance but I have always been far too transfixed by the apparent lunacy of it all to consider聽the greater meaning 馃槈

The weekend sadly over, we headed with heavy hearts to London where the sun continued to shine (lucky me!). Geoff was otherwise engaged with meetings in the London office whilst I made the best of the weather and braved the rush hour crowds streaming across London Bridge and through the Square Mile. I couldn’t resist another photo shoot meander past the spaceship exterior of Lloyds of London and through the spectacularly decorative Leadenhall Market building.

I made it unscathed from the sea of bankers, lawyers and other suited city types and continued along the river around the Tower of London and across Tower Bridge to join, instead, a sea of other happy-snapper tourists. I passed through Southwark, by the Shard and into Borough Market (with its diverse, cosmopolitan market stalls selling everything from bubbling cauldrons of paella to fresh fish, French cheeses, saucisson and organic green juices) before catching the tube out to Camden to wander amongst the weird, wonderful and frankly inexplicable in Camden Lock and its Stables Market stalls under the railway arches.

Whilst Geoff was busy at work I took the opportunity to bundle up my octogenarian聽mother into the car and whisk her away for the day back to the Cotswolds! I hadn’t been to Bourton-on-the-Water for a good 20 odd years and I was interested to see if it had stood the test of time and survived the deluge of tour buses arriving on a daily basis. Unfortunately not. The shallow, fast-flowing River Windrush still runs through the village criss-crossed by stone foot bridges and the ducks still waddle around the green but I fear that the village has all but lost its identity to a rash of cheap cafes and tea-rooms catering to one-time visiting tourists. The only upside was the discovery of an artisanal bakery next to the Motor Museum where mum and I enjoyed “2nd lunch” sitting by flower-filled pots next to the river in the sun (mainly because “1st lunch” at the Small Talk Tea Room was so awful that I needed cheering up with a decent pot of earl grey and a particularly delicious upside down cake). Lesson learnt… never eat in a deceptively chintzy tea-room in Bourton. Should I ever pass that way again I would head straight for Bakery on the Water 馃檪

The trip nearly over, I managed to squeeze in another (slow) walk with my parents through Eton, shuddering once again with memories of my early childhood in infant and junior school (the mere sight of those school gates at Eton Porny still makes me come out in a cold sweat), across the famous Eton Bridge into Windsor and along the River Thames to see the swans, the house boats and Windsor Castle in the distance.

As a parting gesture we took my parents to dinner and got them tipsy on a few sips of a shared martini. They are tea total so it was vaguely amusing although, obviously, very irresponsible of us 馃槈

By our last day the thermometer was dropping rapidly. It had rained overnight so it was bone-chillingly cold (which is, of course, a good thing for those departing their homeland again for almost another whole year) and even I聽will have to admit that it will be nice to get back to sunny Florida now for the winter to warm up 馃檪

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portugal – September 2016

7 Oct
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Monsaraz, Portugal

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

We miss Europe from time to time… the Europe of my daydreams to be absolutely specific! Geoff is a little less romantic in his musings…

Cobblestone streets, secluded courtyard cafes, abundant history, ancient architecture, plazas, fountains… the occasional whiff of ancient roman drainage systems 馃槈 鈥 and, most of all, a sense of permanence that its ancient cities and towns have stood the test of time.

When I am feeling particularly “European” I suggest to Geoff that we should spend more time there and maybe even think about investing in a modest pied-脿-terre somewhere in some (as yet undiscovered) town, city or beach destination which we could call home for a few months of year to escape the steamy floridian summers.

Neither of us have ever been to Portugal 鈥 too close to England to be “exotic” enough for a vacation destination when we lived there 鈥 and now that we are precisely 4250 miles away it is too far away to nip over for a quick visit or a long weekend. Still, my extensive research had lead me to consider the Algarve as a possible future summer destination 鈥 popular as it is with British ex-pats.

So, when the opportunity arose, I planned an exploratory visit with English friends Dave and Ali to see if Portugal might fit the bill.

First stop – Obidos – just north of Lisbon, a beautiful fortified walled town with cobblestone streets and traditional white-washed houses. Once owned by the Queen of Portugal, Obidos is one of the most picturesque and immaculately preserved towns in the country, albeit hardly undiscovered!

Excited to find our cottage as quickly as possible we did as instructed by the owner and followed the GPS directions from the airport. All was fine until we reached the outer walls of the town after which聽the GPS had no clue whatsoever where the cottage was located. She made a valiant effort at first, burying us deeper inside the maze of one-way cobbled streets and narrow alleyways (never intended to be traversed by anything wider than a donkey) and then, frustratingly, back out again onto the main road. After 45 minutes of circumnavigating the tiny walled town, having been led down increasingly narrow one-way switchbacks and then instructed to reverse back up or down hill again in the pitch black our cheery vacation goodwill started to falter. Geoff and I had flown overnight to the UK and then caught the afternoon flight from Heathrow straight to Lisbon so it was something in the region of 2am for us after a sleepless transatlantic聽night the day before. We were in no mood or condition to humor the GPS indefinitely and finally Geoff’s valiant perseverance failed him and he pulled the car up at the side of an unidentifiable road somewhere deep in the inner walls. We called the owner who abandoned her dinner to come and find us in the dark. We weren’t optimistic that she would even find us but suddenly she appeared through one of the stone archways and we all breathed a sigh of relief 馃槈

Miraculously, it transpired that we had abandoned the car less聽than a 2 minute walk from the cottage which was fortuitous as we had to drag our multiple cases of聽luggage (and bags of shoes 馃槈 ) up dark, uneven, ancient stone steps to the front door. With no sense of irony whatsoever the owner complained that nobody’s GPS could ever seem to find the house. What a surprise! I was too tired to suggest that聽it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man (or woman) to聽provide a map to her paying customers in advance so that she didn’t have to be dragged out late at night every couple of days聽to find them聽in the dark nameless streets of Obidos 馃槈

We dumped our bags and wandered into the almost deserted town for dinner聽and life聽improved immediately聽with our discovery of a traditional local drink called Ginja de Obidos – cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup. Things were looking up 馃檪

We were wide awake the following morning to watch the sun rise from the terrace over the surrounding cottages and the town walls which was glorious. We encouraged Dave and Ali out of bed and headed into town to explore聽before the deluge of tour buses transformed the peaceful streets. All was lovely until 10.05am when a tour bus arrived and simultaneously all of the stores opened and the streets were filled with the paraphernalia of the tourist industry… mementoes, postcards and Portuguese tiles.

We escaped the worst of it by walking the walls before the sun got too hot and then hiding out in a cafe in a walled garden. It was all quite lovely and we passed a very relaxing day and a half soaking up the atmosphere – largely pre tour bus arrival and post exodus 馃檪

Heading south to the Algarve, where we would be spending another 4 or 5 days we passed the coastal town of Cascais en route. Dave had been there decades before and described it with some fondness and my research confirmed that it would be worthy of a detour… so I can’t really blame him entirely 馃槈

Our first impression was encouraging but it was, sadly, fleeting. It all went rapidly downhill as we stumbled past an Irish bar, an English pub and a raft of burger bars. Abandoning our overpriced parking space we unanimously decided that this probably wasn’t for us, so I grabbed some emergency Portuguese egg tarts and wallowed in my disappointment covered in flaky pastry crumbs and road maps in the back of the car 馃槈

If I’m honest, I’m not sure that the Algarve itself was actually a great improvement over Cascais. There were some definite highlights but it didn’t take us long to work out that it was unlikely that this part of the country would be a long-term future summer destination for us in our dotage.

For those seeking travel guidance I would highly recommend not bothering to get out of the car at either of the following hotspots – Vilamoura (which is simply ghastly) or聽Carvoeiro (unless you are desperate to find a cheap cafe serving beans on toast for breakfast). Having said that, the view of Carvoeiro聽and the old whitewashed fishing cottages聽from the coastal path opposite is quite stunning.

If you have 5 or 10 million sterling going spare you might think of building yourself a mansion at聽Vale de Lobo with its very pretty yellow sand beach, backed by red sandstone cliffs. I can see why the well-heeled Brit might want to escape the bleak British winter by buying a golf villa here but, at the end of the day, it is an utterly聽soulless modern enclave… not at all what I had in mind for our own summer聽pied-脿-terre.

Lest I sound too negative I will allow that there were a few worthy highlights in the Algarve 馃檪 馃槈

The coastal walks linking various villages and towns were absolutely beautiful. Part boardwalk and part rough clifftop, the views were well worth the effort of having flown half way across the world to see them 馃檪

Our first clifftop walk, however, at spectacular Praia de Marinha nearly brought our adventures to an abrupt and bloody end. To cut a long story short Geoff was trying to haul me up onto a clifftop view point (on the other side of which was an abyss) and for reasons neither of us can now fathom, instead of launching forward I toppled backwards landing on a stone wall. In an effort to prevent me dashing my head open on the rocks (which probably would have put a damper on the holiday) he clung on to聽me and, in so doing, I (effectively)聽pulled him off the wall and he landed on top of me impaling his flip-flopped toes into the wall. I’m not sure why he聽wasn’t wearing his walking shoes like the rest of us聽but there you are…

Poor Geoff was hopping about coloring the air with shades of iridescent blue – his big toe-nail bent backwards and my elbow (which luckily had lost all sensitivity) was pouring blood down my white shorts.

Not to be deterred (once Geoff had stopped hollering and hopping about and I had dabbed ineffectively at聽whatever biological horrors were ingrained in my elbow) I insisted upon seeing the view I had missed. My camera operating finger was, after all, still fully functioning 馃檪

Another day trip took us to聽Ponta de Piedade and the town of Lagos. The coastal walk here, at one end of Lagos, was聽equally as fabulous as Praia de Marinha. The Algarve did not, at least, fail to impress us with its dramatic rocky coastline, sea caves, inlets and pristine beaches far below us. No injuries sustained this time around we ventured into Lagos which was considerably more attractive, civilized and authentic than the above-mentioned towns.

To add icing to the cake of aesthetic loveliness (the architecture, the tiled buildings, the waterfront promenade, hidden alleyways with cafes and boutique stores) we fell upon the London Tiger Coffee shop. This fine establishment served excellent metro-style coffee with homemade cheesecake and as much free Scottish tablet (fudge) as ones arteries could take… all served up by a friendly Scottish retiree who had always wanted to own her own coffee shop 馃檪

Glossing聽over the more obvious聽signs聽of the locals聽having sold out something of the authenticity of their town to the needs of the massive annual influx of Brit holiday makers, we decided that we liked Lagos 馃檪

Tavira, the “other” Algarve, however, we loved 馃檪 Again, hardly聽undiscovered but it is certainly a gem which remains reasonably untouched by the worst of the British pub, fish, chips and a pint of Watney’s beer brigade. Tavira is a traditional fishing town (replete with the requisite whitewashed buildings and colorfully tiled houses) located on the banks of the tidal Gilao River.

Dave and Ali were unable to join us on the rest of our explorations as they had to return to England so we left them and the Algarve behind us and drove north to the Alentejo region of Portugal in search of authentic Portugal.

They don’t know what they missed! 馃槈 馃檪

Our next night was to be spent in Evora but en route to this much lauded city we crossed the sun-baked plains of the Alentejo and headed uphill to Monsaraz for lunch. Monsaraz is high up on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the Guadiana River which forms the border with Spain to the east. A tiny fairytale walled medieval village (originally fortified by the Knights Templar) is today a hamlet of narrow, winding cobblestone streets and flowering vines draped over immaculate 16th and 17th century whitewashed homes. We wandered into聽a tranquil village square. In the shade of the church 2 elderly residents sat chatting with an聽equally ancient dog asleep at their feet. They didn’t look too troubled by the woes of the 21st century world 馃槈 We climbed the granite stone castle battlements and gazed down upon this perfectly formed village and its expansive countryside views 342 meters below. At last – we had found the Portugal that we were looking for 馃檪

Reluctant to leave on one hand, I was also anxious聽to see if our聽24 hours in Evora 鈥 a UNESCO World Heritage university city – would live up to my hopes. A historic city of wealth and culture: museums, public gardens, ornate Venetian architecture, plazas and courtyards, street cafes, roman ruins dating from the 1st century A.D. with impressive fluted granite columns, churches and a Cathedral, boutique shops, good restaurants, cobblestone streets, a fabulous back street bakery, the beautiful main square Pra莽a do Giraldo, a 16th century aqueduct and a vaguely chilling Chapel of Bones created by Franciscan monks around the 17th century.

What more could anyone want? 馃檪

Breakfast at the Pastelaria Conventual Pao de Rala, decorated with ornate blue azulejo tiles, was to die for: portuguese egg tart, plum cake and a croissant 鈥 all freshly baked (reputedly by a white-robed nun from the convent) and washed down with caf茅 latte. You have to admire any nation which can function effectively on a diet constituted almost entirely of聽cake 馃檪

This was the cosmopolitan, sophisticated Europe we love and miss so much鈥 a million miles from the Algarve鈥

I wish we could have stayed another night and revisited Pao de Rala but we would have burst straight聽out of our shorts if we had enjoyed another one of the sugary breakfasts so we headed further east towards the Spanish border en route to Marv茫o.

A nice man at the tourist office in Evora聽had recommended an unscheduled lunch stop at Vila Vicosa, a sleepy town in the heart of the marble mining region with a huge marble palace and an attractive central plaza with orange trees. On the hill just above the town there is a 13th century castle encircling聽a dusty little village complete with impressive church and gleaming white graveyard fabricated entirely from marble. The castellated village seemed to have been almost entirely forgotten by time.

Back in the central plaza聽in the “newer” side of town we were treated to a local delicacy – gazpacho. Not exactly a stranger to gazpacho, I was very surprised to find it served with an unanticipated side plate of salami (oh dear 馃槮 ) and a cheese omelet. The soup consisted of luke warm clear water with a few solitary chunks of cucumber and tomato floating forlornly in an olive oil slick at the surface鈥 If this is typical of the Portuguese version of gazpacho I’ll give it a wide berth in the future.

Luckily, no time to linger long over the soup聽we had to reach Marv茫o before sunset. The countryside became more hilly and wild as we passed farmsteads, cottages and groves of chestnut and cork trees for which the region is famous. With the sound of chirping cicadas around us and the temperature gauge pushing an unexpectedly high 30c/86F, we caught our first glimpse of the famous village and its castle perched way up on a granite outcrop. We wound onwards and upwards via a steep, serpentine road punctuated by hairy hairpin bends. We squeezed the car through the fortress walls and finally entered our soon to be favorite Portuguese village.

Marvelous Marv茫o聽is a聽medieval, fortified, hilltop village (one of the most iconic and beautiful in Portugal) replete with white-washed cottages, terra cotta roofs, gothic arches, ornate Manueline 16th century windows, wrought-iron balconies and a castle. From its lofty perch at聽843 m (2900 feet) it has a commanding view over聽the Natural Park of the Sao Mamede Mountains,聽the Iberian plateau and the surrounding hills and villages. Only 10 miles from the Spanish border this tiny town has hosted Romans, Arabs and, happily for us, relatively few other tourists 馃檪 It was an oasis of peace and tranquility. From our vantage point on the wall of the 13th century castle, the panoramic sunset view over the mountains and valleys, the picturesque town and its various churches, the convent and the ornate gardens were breathtaking. Overhead, swifts were dive-bombing and swooping into the rocky crags and there was utter silence around us. It was absolutely fabulous 馃檪

Breakfast on the terrace watching the sun rise over the mountains, bathing the walls of the castle with a warm early morning glow, was equally spectacular.

It was hard to leave鈥 we should have stayed for a few days hiking in the surrounding countryside but even paradise in the mountains has a flaw. No bakery! No Portuguese egg tarts within miles!聽Obviously, that simply wouldn鈥檛 do so we threw our cases back into the car and descended once more to the 21st century passing back through the dusty sun-baked plains, traversing聽hills and valleys, and through olive groves and vineyards en route to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra, close to Lisbon.

Oh boy, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Traffic was log jammed trying to get into the small town centre and the sidewalks were packed 4 deep with people. Tourists strayed aimlessly across the roads packaged and labelled with sticky blue name tags so that their tour guides could find them easily and round them up if they strayed too far from their designated tour routes.

We wound our way down an alarmingly narrow, steep and tortuous road, hemmed in by high stone walls until we found the apartment which would be home for the next 2 nights. In all the chaos of the town centre, the apartment was, thankfully, an oasis of calm with a gorgeous flower-filled garden, arches, patios, statues and views over the valley below. And even better it was only a 5 minute walk back into the madness for sustenance and the welcome respite of a half decent coffee shop filled to overflowing with Portuguese egg tarts 馃檪

Still, we hadn鈥檛 driven all that way back across the country just for me to continue my pilgrimage around Portugal’s bakeries so, refreshed, we tackled the crowds and made the grueling trek聽to visit our first palace. As I am chief planner, researcher and vacation booker Geoff rarely knows where we are heading to 鈥 or with what purpose. Occasionally he asks for a brief synopsis of the intended grand tour upon our arrival in a new destination聽but rarely does he look at me in bewilderment聽and ask 鈥淲hat on earth are we doing here?鈥 馃槈

We could have ventured instead (I suppose) even further north from Marv茫o聽to Monsanto (another pristine hilltop village) – which we certainly will visit next time we are in Portugal. However, as variety is the spice of life, I chose to visit the extraordinarily popular destination of Sintra to see the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Parque Natural de Sintra.

First stop, the聽Palacio y Jardines de Regaleira (Regaleira Palace) with influences from Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian and Renaissance architecture. A building with a highly ornate fa莽ade and a very dusty interior. Attractive wooded gardens with shady, winding paths, terraces, turrets, grottoes, pitch black tunnels and a subterranean tower with a descending spiral staircase known as the Initiation Well – used for Tarot initiation ceremonies. One of the wells has 9 platforms descending 27 meters (88 feet) underground and it is said to represent Dante’s 9 circles of Hell, 9 sections of Purgatory and 9 skies of Paradise. At the bottom of the well is a compass and a Knights Templar cross.

Finally! Geoff cheered up once there was something more magical and mysterious to contemplate than聽a dusty, boring old palace 馃槈

Still, there was a vaguely Disney feel to the whole experience as people clambered irreverently over turrets and walls for family group photos but this was Disney without the sensible rules and organized herding which we all know is intended to keep everyone safe from their own stupidity 馃槈 Where there is no control there is utter chaos. Wedged in a turret at the top of a聽tiny spiral staircase (wide enough for only 1 very diminutive person at a time to pass), a stream of giggling, oblivious Portuguese visitors continued to force their way up the staircase until we were聽pinned flat against the turret wall trying to avoid being pushed clean over the edge of the tower. We wondered at what stage the climbers would realize that there was simply no more physical space into which to squeeze another human before someone was squashed to death 馃槈

A similar Portuguese laissez-faire approach to the safety of the general public culminated in an exciting interlude watching grandma being rescued by the emergency services from the centre of Waterfall Lake. We can only hazard a guess as to what she was doing tottering about in the emerald green pond. There are stepping stones across its centre but聽surely poor grandma hadn’t actually been encouraged to hop across the stones just for a family photo?…聽That sort of thing just wouldn鈥檛 happen in the good ol鈥 US of A because we are thankfully protected from our own dull-wittedness. We would never聽have the opportunity to inadvertently聽dunk grandma into a weed-filled, bacteria riddled pond鈥 even if we really wanted to 馃槈

Our final day in sunny Portugal was a mad dash around 2 of Portugal’s most iconic historic sites.

The most famous is Palacio Nacional de la Pena (Pena Palace) which sits atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains – a 19th century Romantic-era palace painted in vivid shades of red, yellow and grey. It is Sintra’s most famous historic site. Turrets, domed belvederes, Moorish tiles, terraces and watch towers. It was the distinctly flamboyant and highly decorative summer home of the royal family before they fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. Stunning, if not gaudy, we pondered from our lunch perched on the “Queens Throne” which is carved into a rock at Saint Catherine’s Heights, the choice of clashing paint colors, quite incongruous in the palace’s verdant hilly setting.

… and then finally on to The Moorish Castle (Castillo de los Moros), a medieval military hilltop fortress which was built, due to its strategic location,聽by the North African Moors around聽the 10th century聽to defend the locality and importantly maritime access to Lisbon. After a tumultuous history it fell into rack and ruin after the Christian Conquest of Portugal. We wandered the battlements and clambered up the steep ramparts until it was time for another Portuguese egg tart and then we headed back into town feeling suitably virtuous from the activities of the day 馃檪

Portugal (in parts!) is definitely a place to add to the “must do” list of European countries for those contemplating a Grand Tour of Europe 馃檪 …it’s unlikely to be staying on our list of potential retirement destinations, but we will certainly revisit and explore more of the countryside and mountain villages 馃檪

 

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New England – August/September 2016

26 Sep
Click here for the photos!

The Lobster Pound, Cape Neddick, Maine

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Summer 2016! Once again we spent an extended period of time (avoiding the heat and humidity of home) back up in New England. This was largely courtesy of an old friend with a condo in Gilford on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire which he generously allowed us to use at will and largely unsupervised (which was brave 馃槈 ) for those parts of June, July and August which weren’t filled with art shows or trips to Europe and Canada. We struggled heroically through the summer months with breakfast, lunch and various dinners on the patio overlooking the tranquil blue waters of the lake watching the yachts glide by on windier days and the speedboats career past on the calmer days. From time to time we spotted the M/S Mount Washington cruise vessel in the distance on its crossing from Meredith to Wolfeboro… and all against the scenic backdrop of the White Mountains.

Of course, Geoff was still working during the week and as my paints and easel were a good 1500 miles due south sweltering in the heat of a Floridian summer, I had little option but to pass my days exploring the lake and its environs in preparation for the Grand Tour when Geoff would finally have a free weekend at the lake in mid-August. Just in case that sounds like an easy task – be assured that the pressure is always on to mastermind a seamlessly crafted “perfect” summer weekend filled with a flawless balance of activities and suitable rest periods… fueled by the best coffee the New Hampshire Lakes Region can offer, strategic visits to a smattering of fine, artisan bakeries and purveyors of the best lobster rolls, all topped off with delectable dinner dates to be enjoyed with a sunset view over the water 馃檪

As luck would have it the sun shone in a cloudless sky for said weekend and, though I say so myself, I think I managed to pull it off reasonably efficiently with a guided tour of the highlights of the lake (Meredith and its charming waterfront boardwalk, the rolling countryside and idyllic farms around Center Harbor and Moultonborough and the pretty town of Wolfeboro); including a stop to sample by far the best coffee and lemon square of the state in Cup and Crumb (somewhere in Moultonborough and almost impossible to fall upon by accident without prior knowledge of its existence from an in-depth online search and a good GPS); the best crepes of the lake at Seven Suns in Wolfeboro; absolutely the best artisanal bread and flourless chocolate cake of the entire state from Boca Bakery in Wolfeboro (required for the picnic planned for the following day 馃檪 ) and various waterfront eateries which were suitably romantic until precisely 2 minutes after sunset when the mosquitoes come out to feast upon the tender flesh of their victims…

In between various periods of idling on sunbeds down at the condo beach (and eating – as above) the planned highlight of the “big” weekend was kayaking to one of the distant beaches from Meredith. Luck wasn’t entirely on my side by that stage of activities as a head-on wind picked up as we left the dock and battered us about like a cork in the ocean. In addition to the general swell and trying to paddle into the wind there were some interesting moments as the waves crashed over the end of the kayak… my end… so Geoff was nowhere near as perplexed as I was about the possible watery fate of the camera 馃槈 Still, eventually we landed onshore and collapsed onto the beach in the sun for a while gathering the strength to eat my carefully curated picnic 馃檪 Naturally, the wind had changed direction by the time we summoned the energy to tackle the return journey and we were once again barreling through choppy waters reminiscent of the North Sea in a full frontal gale. By the time we returned to the safety of the lake condo we were fit for nothing but straightening out our shoulders from paddling for 4 hours and dozing for the remainder of the afternoon on a sunbed until it was time to head out for the final lobster roll of summer at the lake 馃檪

In addition to my comprehensive efforts to research the lake and its offerings, the rest of my time was unprofitably (but well-spent) re-exploring my favorite old stomping grounds along the coast:

… the harbor, boutique stores and Breaking Grounds coffee shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire… I might also have stopped in briefly at my longtime favorite Ceres Bakery 馃槈 ;

… walking the Marginal Way and pottering aimlessly in beautiful Ogunquit, Maine with it’s huge sweeping beach and sauntering through Perkins Cove watching kids dribble ice-cream onto their flip-flops and fishing boats come and go in the harbor;

… photographing (from every conceivable angle – and for the umpteenth time) the quintessentially New England (and drop-dead irresistible) lobster shack at Cape Neddick;

… re-acquainting myself with the equally cute tourist town of Kennebunkport, Maine and walking Parsons Way along the coast to the headland at Walker’s Point (also known as the Bush compound) where President number 41 has his summer home;

… there was also a return visit to York Harbor, Maine to walk the Cliff Trail and breathe in the sea air punctuated from time to time with fragrant wafts of beach rose perfume and wild flowers around every corner.

Summer in New England is a sight to behold… I would, however, still need a 6mm wetsuit to brave the frigid 64F waters of the Atlantic (on a good day) but plenty of brave souls disagree (clearly without the limitation of the thinned blood of a Floridian coursing through their veins) 馃槈

On the days when I wasn’t conducting valuable research for the “big” weekend at the lake (and when I simply couldn’t justify another day trip out to the coast) I spent my time spit-roasting down at the lake beach with a good novel – the smell of warm pine in the air – and a determination to maintain a modicum of fitness by swimming for 2 hours a day. It was all rather blissful – accompanied by聽fluorescent blue dragonflies hovering over the water and the occasional octogenarian wealthy enough to have his summer home on the lake and the wherewithal to stagger down to the waters edge and topple in without having a coronary from the cold. Quite impressive as the temperature of the lake was a rather bracing average 75F – that may sound balmy to some but to put it into perspective – the temperature of the Gulf back home is pushing 90F at this time of year (as is our pool)… so I think I deserve full marks for effort and discipline!聽Conversely,聽Geoff’s attempt to take advantage of the proximity of the sparkly clean, clear lake water a few steps from the condo was woefully inadequate… largely involving dangling a big toe, shivering and whimpering like a child 馃槈

Many months ago back in winter Geoff was surfing the web unbeknownst to me, as a result聽of which I received an excited, breathless and rather panicky phone call to say that Coldplay (a hugely famous British band – for those who may not keep up with these important trends) would be playing in Boston on their “A Head Full of Dreams” tour on the night of an art show weekend in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Rather nonplussed by the possibility of a 5am morning to set up the booth, standing all day in the sun flogging my wares and then driving 2 hours to the venue (the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough) followed by who knew how long driving back again in the early hours of Sunday morning – I wasn’t keen to make a snap decision as to whether to pay vast amounts of money for the experience. To cut a long story short, my dilly dallying lost us the tickets he wanted… he was summarily ejected from the online ticket purchasing website as the page timed out… my name was mud for an eternal 10 minutes before he was allowed back into the system… and finally we got the 2 seats next to the ones he’d lost… which probably saved my scrawny neck 馃槈 Anyway… despite the unbelievably long lines snaking back down the approach road to the stadium on the night of the concert and our final arrival (after 3 hours on the road and, worse, 30 minutes after the concert had already started – luckily we only missed the support singer) the concert was utterly brilliant 馃檪 Incredible laser displays, confetti falling from the sky, huge balloons falling from the sky, fluorescent wristbands coordinated to change color with the on-stage activities and video screens… and to top it off the band and the rather appealing lead singer, Chris Martin, wandered over towards the end of the concert to a small stage 3 feet to our right. If I had risked having my neck broken by one of the hefty security guards (or possibly by Geoff 馃槈 ) I might have been able to reach out and kiss the venerable Mr Martin’s feet 馃槈 All in all, it was worth every penny and probably even worth the 4 hour line to get out of the venue and return to our beds…

Finally, we had to say goodbye to the lake and I headed south to Florida for 10 days (just in time for Hurricane Hermine which was a lovely welcome home 馃槈 ) and Geoff flew to Singapore and Vietnam for 10 days for work. We flew back in to Boston variously wind blown (me 馃槈 ) and severely jet lagged (Geoff) and then headed onwards to our penultimate port of call – Fort Point in sunny Boston – for the next round of shows during September. Gorgeous as always at this time of year but particularly special this visit because we were lucky enough to camp out in the spare bedroom of a very old friend who recently moved to a new apartment in Boston’s latest primo real estate boom area. Locations don’t get much better than this… walking distance to downtown, spitting distance to聽the fabulously scenic Harborwalk (passing piers, wharves, residential areas, tourist hotspots etc etc), close to Chinatown, Boston Common, the Italian area in North End and to Back Bay. Naturally, I was sold immediately due to its proximity to the best coffee shop in the city (Barrington on Congress) and to an impressive array of baked items at Flour Bakery and Cafe… neither more than a 3 minute walk from the apartment. I believe the reasoning behind the choice of location for Jan, at least, is the 3 minute staggering distance to Drink – apparently the best cocktail bar in the world according to those with the qualifications to pass such a judgement – specifically Jan and Geoff 馃槈 I can attest, however, to the superior quality of the mocktails. Thank goodness we don’t live here… a week was quite enough to break the bank surrounded, as we were, by excellent restaurants (Bar Mezzana, Menton, Row 34 etc etc), 3 visits to Drink as Geoff couldn’t stay away 馃槈 and opportunities to empty the piggy bank in exchange for delicious comestibles every minute of the day.

Tearing myself away from the big city for an afternoon, I left Geoff frantically tapping away on his laptop and ventured out to the coast to one of our favorite coastal towns, Rockport, Massachusetts in Cape Ann to breathe in some fresh salty sea air and realign my karma in between art shows. Gloriously touristy and tackily quaint, this beautiful聽fishing village is New England’s answer to Olde England’s Cornish fishing villages. Replete with art galleries, pretty coffee shops (the Bean and Leaf Cafe with its view over the inner harbor, ducks sunbathing on the tidal sands and sailing boats bobbing about in the water is a particular favorite), fishing boats, colorful buoys, artistically creative gardens, lobster pots and the piece de resistance – Motif #1 – a bright red fishing shack in the middle of the harbor – it is an artists dream 馃檪

And so on聽to Washington, DC for a week for Geoff to work before the last of the September shows.

It was cloudy and miserable nearly all week in DC so, whilst Geoff was busy in the office at Tysons Corner blissfully unaware of the inclement weather, I decided to explore further afield. I couldn’t wait to get out of 聽the vast nightmarish miles of shopping malls (I managed 2 minutes in the acclaimed Galleria before I gave up the will to live and retreated to the safety of the hotel 馃槈 ), away from the stresses of the 24 hour stationary traffic and the spaghetti junction conglomeration of metro rail stations and fly overs – 聽which pretty much sums up Tysons Corner for me in one damning sentence 馃槈

Still, maybe I shouldn’t have got my hopes up as far as I did with a trip south to revered historic Fredericksburg, Virginia. Many people obviously love it! Perhaps if I were a US colonial and/or civil war history buff I’m sure I would have found it infinitely more interesting. I have no doubt that it is a great educational day out for families who enjoy a trip down pre-memory lane in “living museums” where the guides dress in period costume and act, look and speak the part for the mid-1700’s. For MY part, however, having choked my way through the dust of the roadworks being conducted on the main thoroughfare, Caroline Street, and then near poisoned myself, firstly, on one of the worst latte’s ever to pass my lips and secondly, endured a less than memorable corn chowder for lunch with a side of stale focaccia, I huffed my way unenthusiastically around town with its very many scruffy-looking antique malls ignoring all of the probably good advice from the twinkly-eyed septuagenarian volunteer at the (undeniably) very helpful tourist office. Concluding that the town was really a little bit grubby and in need of some extra TLC in parts (to say nothing of a decent coffee shop 馃槈 ) I called it a day by early afternoon knowing that the insanely busy traffic around DC would start building up if I left it any longer and an otherwise 1 hour journey would inevitably become a soul destroying 3 hour crawl up the I95 and around the I495 clogged with millions of commuters. So perhaps I am being grossly unfair and should give Fredericksburg another shot and perhaps I might try to be a little less apathetic next time. No doubt some sunshine and a little less humidity would have enhanced its attributes. Maybe I would even bite the bullet with a highly recommended tour of George Washington’s sister’s house…聽amongst other highlights… or Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary (one of his patients being the venerable GW’s mother, Mary). I was told that I could visit and ask for the good doctor but that I would inevitably be informed that he was out and would return shortly… in the meantime, however, if I were happy to discuss my ailment I could look forward to a remedy fitting for the age… perhaps a course of leeches or a quick thrust of the lancet, some snakeroot or maybe a crab claw. And these are of course some of the very many reasons that I am constantly grateful that I was born in 1966 and not in 1766 馃槈

… and then finally the sun shone upon the righteous in the beautiful historic state capital of Maryland – Annapolis – one of Americas most romantic main street towns located on the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay. And all was right with the world once again 馃檪 OK, it’s very touristy (in addition to being the home of the US Naval Academy) but it’s also very quaint, distinctly more refined than Fredericksburg with a popular harbor liberally decorated with beautiful boat people.聽The white dome of the State Capitol is an impressive backdrop for the peaceful residential streets of colonial and brownstone gems which are ornate and immaculately maintained… albeit that you do have to have your wits about you if you aren’t going to end up face down in your artisanal ice-cream having failed to successfully navigate the dips and troughs of the cobblestone sidewalks – presumably left untouched for historic preservation purposes since 1649 馃槈

We braved聽the stationary traffic one evening to go in to Georgetown (my very favorite part of DC) and wandered along the Potomac River to The Washington Harbor – chock-full with buzzing bars and restaurants in a semi-circular building centred around a fountain entertaining the tourists with its rotating colored lights. Great people watching and fab cocktails 馃檪

So in the end, at least I could finally leave DC and the states of Virginia and Maryland behind me with a smile on my partially sun kissed face before our penultimate show in New York and another transatlantic flight back to Europe 馃檪