There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Post

This blog has hitherto tended to ignore Christmas - but not this year.

Here, to mark the festivities, is Father Christmas/Santa Claus/St Nicholas

Icon of St Nicholas
Jvari Church, near Mtskheta, Georgia

The Church sits on a hill above Mtskheta, the 'Canterbury of Georgia'.

Just north of Tblisi, Mtskheta looks unpronounceable, but to my ear the locals seemed to say 'Sketa'.

A Happy Christmas to All

and a Happy and Prosperous New Year

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Mexico City (2), Centro Historico and Teotihuacan: Part 2 of South East from Mexico City

By 9 o'clock we were breakfasted and waiting in the lobby for F. By 9.05 we were fretting; after being let down by a different guide yesterday our fear of an immediate repeat was not entirely irrational. F arrived at ten past – not bad considering Mexico City’s tangled traffic - perhaps we have become spoilt by East Asian guides who must always arrive before their clients to avoid losing face.

We drove into the Centro Historico. Built over the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish Cuidad de México was founded in 1521, 40 years before the oldest European city in the USA (St Augustine, Florida) and much longer before almost everywhere else north of the Rio Grande. In part, the 16th century grid pattern still survives and there are many narrow streets, but it was Sunday morning so hold ups were minimal - by local standards.
Pulling into a multi-storey car park with valet parking – a new one on me, but common here - we walked to the Zócalo (main square) passing several stalls setting up what looked like doner kebabs, though constructed of pork. Doner kebab was brought to Mexico in the 19th century by Lebanese immigrants, and although still available the local variant, pork marinated in chillies, spices and pineapple, is more popular. The meat, looking less than appetizing when raw, is described as al pastor (shepherd style) a nod to the lamb-y original.
Setting up the 'al pastor' Mexico City
We walked between the cathedral and a large temporary grandstand. An NFL game was to be played in the Azteca stadium that afternoon and the weird ritual that is American Football had spawned sundry side shows.
Beyond the cathedral and the adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano, built to house the archives and vestments of the archbishop but now the city's parish church, is the Plaza del Templo Mayor. The Templo Mayor, whose excavated remains occupy one corner of the plaza, was the centrepiece of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city destroyed by Hernán Cortés in 1521.
The remains of Moctezuma's Templo Mayor, Mexico City Centro Historico
Cortés built his new city over the top, Tenochtitlan disappeared and was accidently rediscovered only in 1978 during cable laying.
Model of the Templo Mayor as it might have looked, Centro Historic, Mexico City
The history of pre-Hispanic Mexico is complicated, involves long and unpronounceable names and, in the absence of written records, is often guesswork. The Aztecs (the people of Aztlan) migrated south from Aztlan which was located either in north-west Mexico or in mythology. According to that mythology they were on a quest to build a city where the earth met the sky. Where Lake Texcoco lay in a high mountain valley the pressure of population had driven the inhabitants to build floating islands on which to grow crops. On one such island the Aztecs saw an eagle, representing the sky, holding a snake, representing the earth. This was so obviously the place to build their city that the eagle and serpent motif still features on the Mexican flag and coinage.
Mexican flag with eagle and snake motif
The story suggest Tenochtitlan was not the first settlement on this site, but by 1325 it had become one of a cluster of Nahuatl speaking city states. Ruled by the Mexica dynasty the city increased in size and power and in 1428 linked with two neighbouring cities to form the Aztec Triple Alliance, later known as the Aztec Empire, which ruled central Mexico from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In 1517 Hernán Cortés arrived with 550 men and 16 horses, gave the mighty empire a push and it collapsed like a house of cards.
The Spanish had armour and horses. Horses were previously unknown on the American continent and horse and rider were initially thought to be a two-headed beast that could separate and re-coalesce at will. The Aztecs also lacked the wheel (if you have no horse to pull a cart, why invent a cart?) and their leader, Moctezuma II, mistook Cortés for a god whose appearance on earth had been expected imminently. But, with only 16 magical two-headed beasts and a few hundred men in armour he would have been brushed aside but for his ability to exploit grievances on the outer fringes of the empire which enabled him to lead an army against Tenochtitlan reputedly 100,000 strong. Perhaps even more important were the diseases Cortés’ men brought with them. Finding a whole new population with no natural resistance, smallpox cut a swathe through the empire, killing maybe 50% of the population of Tenochtitlan, far more than Cortés’ soldiers.

The red lines are the approximate limits of Aztec domination at its greatest extent

The Aztecs had built their city on a lake with canals for streets. Cortés, with his horses and wheeled vehicles, had no use for a Mesoamerican Venice and when, as a good Catholic should, he destroyed the religious and ceremonial buildings he dumped the rubble in the canals to become the foundations for his new city.

Model of Tenochtitlan in the Plaza del Templo Mayor, Mexico City, showing the widespread use of canals

The Templo Mayor was only a small part of Tenochtitlan, the rest remains beneath the modern city. The regular appearance of sink holes is not the worst consequence of Cortés’ cavalier approach to foundations -  the whole Centro Historico is sinking at a rate of several centimetres a year.

Calle de Tacuba leading away from the Templo Mayor, Mexico City
The further you look down the road, the further the buildings have sunk
The cathedral and adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano now perch on a concrete raft, but this solution is impracticable for the whole area and several churches and old houses lean at interesting angles.
The Sagrario Metropolitano and, behind it, the Cathedral, Plaza de Temple Mayor, Mexico City
We left the plaza following Calle Moneda, once the home of the mint, past the National Palace.

Calle Moneda with the wall of the National Palace to the right, Mexico City
The awning marks the tourist entrance. There is, I believe, an impressive façade on the Zocalo - if the NFL let you see it

To our left the tower of the former convent church of Santa Teresa la Antigua seemed on the point of toppling.

Santa Teresa la Antigua, Mexico City

After a while the narrow street slopes gently into one of the city’s earliest sink holes.

Calle Moneda dips down into an old sink hole 
The Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad has also slipped elegantly and largely intact into the hole. F indicated the church’s original floor level.
F shows where the ground level - and the church - used to be
Graffiti is ubiquitous throughout Mexico, but it often rises above mindless tagging to become street art. On the side of the sink hole one such artist has shared their view of the September earthquake.
One view of the Mexico City earthquake 19th September 2017
We returned to join the queue for the National Palace.
Inside the door is a small but spectacular cactus garden.
Lynne in the cactus garden, National Palace, Mexico City
She has turned her back on a large prickly pear
The cochineal insect lives among the roots of the prickly pear. I remember my mother icing our Christmas cake sometime in the 1950s and telling me that the red icing was made using pounded cochineal beetles. My initial unease, predictably, did not stop me eating icing, regardless of colour, though my mother was probably not using cochineal which had by then been largely replaced by synthetic dyes. Health scares have since seen cochineal making a comeback in food and cosmetics. Carminic acid, from which carmine dyes are made, forms 20% of the insects’ body weight.  It seemed a good idea for deterring predators until the big-brained monkeys decided they liked bright red. Cochineal eggs, small white blobs are laid on the cactus’ fleshy lobes. F picked one from the leaf with the corner of his credit card and smeared it on a piece of paper. One tiny egg produced a prodigious quantity of colouring.
Cochineal eggs on the prickly pear, Cactus Garden, National Palace, Mexico City
The palace, still used as government offices, was built by Hernan Cortés, re-using material from Moctezuma’s Palace. It has been much refashioned since but we passed through the remains of Cortés chapel to access a central quadrangle surrounded by a three-storey arcade.
The central quadrangle, National Palace, Mexico City
Covering a substantial area of plaster around the stairwell is Diego Rivera’s epic mural of Mexican history. The scale alone is impressive, but with F interpreting the various sections, it became even more remarkable. It tells a long and complex story, but everyone who has played a part in Mexican history from the Sun God to Leon Trotsky via Cortés, Zapata and JP Morgan is represented.
Just a part of Diego Rivera's historic mural
Leaving the palace, we returned to the cathedral, though the scaffolding for the NFL extravaganza prevented me getting far enough away to photograph its façade. Instead, here is a picture of the spectacular door of the adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano, designed by Lorenzo Martinez in Churrigueresque style, a variation on baroque popular in early 18th century Spain among those who thought regular over-the-top baroque was too restrained.
The front of the Sagrario Metropolitano, Mexico City
The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (snappy title!) was built between 1573 and 1813 over Cortés original church, itself carefully placed to desecrate the Aztec’s most holy site.
Inside the cathedral is the impressive Altar of Forgiveness.
Altar of Forgiveness, Mexico City Cathedral
And a flamboyant organ.
The Mexican Organ, Mexico City Cathedral (it has a Spanish Organ, too!)
The front half of the cathedral was cordoned off for a mass and His Eminence Norberto Rivera Carrera, Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico City, was bringing up the rear of a procession making its way around the altar. His accompanying priests appeared keen on processing but the archbishop kept breaking away to bless members of the congregation. Finally, he made his way to the gawpers leaning on the barrier and moved along the line doling out blessings to foreigners and unbelievers. He laid his hand in Lynne's shoulder, but I got the full hand in headed, sign of cross made with thumb on forehead treatment. I expect I needed it more than she did. [It was, perhaps, a fitting culmination to his career, he retired three weeks later]
His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico City just seconds after blessing me (and looking none the worse for his experience)
After that anything in Mexico City would be an anti-climax! We recovered the car and F drove us north out of Federal Capital into the adjacent state, confusingly called Mexico (in full Estado de México - EDOMEX to avoid misunderstanding). This is commuter territory, houses in bright pastel colours made lines across the hillsides and we passed beneath a cable car that brings workers down to the metro station.
An EDOMEX hillside
40km out of the city we reached Teotihuacan, a large archaeological site and major visitor attraction, particularly on this holiday Sunday when food and michelada stalls (about which more later) lined the perimeter road. F chose a restaurant and recommended chicken fajitas, a pile of tacos to fill with strips of chicken, onion, peppers, black beans and assorted chilli based salsas. Washed down with Bohemia Obscura, a pleasant dark lager, it was good but remarkably filling.
Chicken fajitas with F, Teotihuacan
We entered Teotihuacan through the ruins of an extensive building near its northern end.
Approaching the central area of Teotihuacan
The main part of the site consists of a broad, walled avenue two km long – the Avenue of the Dead - with a large pyramid at one end - the Temple of the Moon - and an even larger one -  the Temple of the Sun half way down. This latter is the world’s third tallest pyramid, beaten only by two of the three pyramids of Giza. Bumps and lumps in the ground suggest more structures are awaiting excavation than have yet been uncovered.
The Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacan
Serious building probably started around 100BC and continued to 250AD when the population may have reached 125,000. The major monuments were sacked and burned about 550AD but the city survived into the 7th or 8th century before being abandoned - nobody knows why.
The Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacan
The excavated area is obviously religious/ceremonial, but how it was used is unknown. The names are no indication, the Temples of the Sun and Moon and Avenue of the Dead were so called by the Aztecs who arrived 600 years after Teotihuacan was abandoned. The ‘temples’ are not really temples, nor are they funerary pyramids like those in Egypt.
Without the use of draught animals or the wheel, the pyramids took decades, maybe centuries, to build using relatively small, light volcanic stones rather than the huge blocks of the Egyptian pyramids. A small flat-topped pyramid was constructed first then a larger one over that and so on for up to seven stages.
Visitors climbing the Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacan
Many visitors had climbed up to the highest scalable platform on the Pyramid of the Moon, but Lynne looked at the high, steep, uneven steps and opted out. I decided to save myself for the larger pyramid which can be climbed to the top.
As far as Lynne went up the Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacan
Walking down the avenue involved negotiating a phalanx of vendors. Many sold stone carvings, including some made from obsidian while others peddled basic tourist tat. Archaeologists found many ceramic jaguar heads scattered about the site. Their use is unknown but they might have been pipes for smoking – tobacco has been cultivated in Mexico since 1,500BC. Alternatively, it may not be coincidental that boring a strategic hole and blowing into them produces a sound resembling a jaguar. Modern reproductions were selling briskly and we progressed to the Temple of the Sun accompanied by the growls of a thousand jaguars.
After clambering onto the platform beside the avenue Lynne announced that she would not be climbing the pyramid and neither would I, 'It'll ruin your knees for the rest of the trip' she said forcefully. She might have been right, but I looked at the lines of people on the terraces of the pyramid, and decided that if they could do it, so could I. 
The Temple of the Sun from the top of the platform
I made the knee creaking descent on the other side of the platform and strode towards the base of the pyramid. I could see the lines of people on the terraces, but the base was hidden and it was only when I reached it that I realized there was a line at the bottom, too. The entrance was in the centre and I walked towards the corner to find the end of the queue. Reaching that corner, 150m away, I found the queue not only rounded it but stretched all the way down the side of the pyramid, another 250m, and appeared to continued round the back. Access to the pyramid was being strictly controlled and the queue, and the lines on the terraces were largely stationary. Admitting defeat, I returned to Lynne disappointed but, on a holiday Sunday, I should have expected it. We met up with F for the drive back to Mexico City. It had been a long day and almost 100% successful – better than yesterday.
The queue stretches round the side of the Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacan
Our lunchtime fajitas had not looked huge but we again found the products of corn dough sat heavily on the stomach. In the evening we went for a walk, pausing for a beer each and a tiny cheese empanada and single taco between us – an order clearly regarded as eccentric by our waiter. It was all we could face.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Mexico City (1) Celebrating a Revolution: Part 1 of South East from Mexico City


Heathrow - Mexico City flights are scheduled at almost twelve hours. Kind winds allowed us to leave a little late yet arrive early at 6.30pm (half past midnight British time). We made it through formalities and met Francisco who drove us to our hotel through heavy traffic as the country prepared for a three-day weekend celebrating the 1911 revolution when Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, among others, laid the foundations of modern Mexico.
This journey will take us from Mexico City to Puebla, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque
We checked in, discovered we had been upgraded and by 9.15 sleep seemed irresistible. Visiting the bathroom my eye was caught by the bidet which had three controls and a variety of ways of hurling water upwards and I could not resist a fiddle - unwise in a state of advanced tiredness.
Well at least it's a nice big room
At the Casa Blanca, Mexico City (on the next day)
Water was soon swirling in a merry dance but as the level rose I found I could not stop the flow – one, or both, of the taps had a left-hand thread and working out which did what was beyond me. Then I discovered the fourth control, the lever that lifted the plug, didn't. The water level was rising steadily and whatever I did made things worse. I asked Lynne to phone reception and set about removing discarded clothes from the bathroom floor.
Water was now cascading from the bidet, Lynne's phone call was being resolutely ignored, and I was beginning to run round like a headless chicken. The apparently flat bathroom floor turned out to be subtly domed, water quickly collected a centimetre deep in one corner and would soon rise above the lip and start flooding the bedroom. Another desperate whack to the plug lever lifted it just enough for me to insert my fingernails underneath and prise it out. To my relief water started emptying faster than the bidet was filling and soon it was low enough to see the precise effect of twiddling the taps and I was able to turn it off.
Bloody, bastard bidet
Mopping up took until ten thirty; the drain being inconveniently set at the highest point of the dome. We finally collapsed into bed only dimly aware that the party next door was now in full swing.
By two o'clock our body clocks were adamant that it was time to get up and the continuing party thwarted all attempts to override this instruction. We had a cup of tea. The sound insulation room to room was good, the noise merely a burble but when participants felt the need to go out into the corridor their conversations might as well have been in our room.
Around four they ran out of stamina and we managed a couple of hours more sleep.


In the morning we both felt better than we expected. Breakfast was good and I enjoyed my black beans and nachos with chicken and rice followed by tropical fruits, all soft and sweetly ripe.
Our hotel, Mexico City
We were to join a party for a guided 'market and street food' tour, meeting in the entrance of the Sears Tower, about a kilometre distant, at 10.30 so we took our time.

The Monumento a la Revolución was very near our hotel. Intended as a neo-classical home for the Federal Legislative Palace, building started in 1910 but was halted two years later by the revolution. In 1938 the completed first stage was adapted as a monument to the revolution that halted its building and it now contains the tombs of five revolutionary heroes including Pancho Villa. Transforming the core of a parliament building into a triumphal arch altered the neo-classical intention into something that has been described as Mexican socialist realism. Whatever the label, I think it’s ugly (sorry Mexico). At 75m high it is claimed to be the world’s highest triumphal arch, but please don’t tell Kim Jung Un, he would only have to make his bigger.
Monument to the Revolution, Mexico City
The bright sunshine - and corresponding heavy shadow – might have made photography difficult but had so far failed to warm the air. In the early morning Mexico City's 2250m elevation was winning out over its tropical latitude.
East of the monument we crossed Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city's main thoroughfares, into Av Juarez. Following Juarez for 500m brought us to the Sears Tower (though that is a generous use of the word 'tower'). Having reached our rendezvous half an hour early, we crossed the road to the ornate Palacio de Bellas Artes…
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

… and from there entered Almeda Park past a statue dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven which might well have raised one of his shaggy eyebrows.
Beethoven monument, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
From the right it looks less like a man performing a sex act on a Beethoven-headed angel - but it is still weird

The park is a favourite place for the city's middle class to stroll among greenery, fountains and classical statues and equally popular among its less fortunate citizens who sleep on the benches, padded by cardboard boxes.
Almeda Park, Mexico City

The sunshine eventually worked its magic, the air became warm - and the temperature would remain comfortable until darkness fell.
Classical statues, Almeda Park, Mexico City

Returning to the rendezvous we waited as 10.30 came and went. At 10.50 we phoned our local agents who had arranged the tour though another company. The guide, it transpired, had called to inform them we had not turned up. After a series of text messages, we had the instructions to reach a place where we could meet the guide and join the rest of the group.
By 11.10 we were outside the Pulqueria las Duelistas, a venerable institution specializing in pulque, the fermented juice of the agave cactus (of which more in Oaxaca). Half an hour later we were still there and after a further exchange of calls and texts we gave up, with the promise of a refund. We had, presumably, been given the wrong meeting place or time.
Waiting outside the Pulqueria las Dualistas, Mexico City

We conducted a self-guided tour of the area, finding the handicraft market and lots of interesting food shops, but we failed to find the San Juan food market! We walked back towards Av Juarez through the Barrio China - even Mexico City has a Chinatown.
Chinatown, Mexico City

Back on Juarez it was lunchtime and, as luck would have it, we found ourselves outside a likely looking cerveceria. We ordered a tostado topped with octopus, tacos with prawns and a bean sauce and unspecified draught lager. Before our order arrived we were brought (gratis) several small discs of fried corn and three pots of salsa consisting mainly or entirely of pounded chillies; habanero, jalapeno and an unremembered third. Unlike other chilli loving countries we have visited - India, Thailand, and parts of China (among others) - Mexicans value chillies for their flavour as well as their heat, so they care about the variety. Our three little salsas each had its own flavour, the red one tasting strongly of sweet peppers as well as being ferociously hot. Surprisingly, most Mexican food is restrained in its use of chillies, but they have a huge variety of piquanté salsas and commercial preparations of bottled fire which they sprinkle liberally.
Lunch among the tacos, Mexico City

We enjoyed the salsa, and the tacos and tostada that followed, though sadly this was to be our high point for tortillas. We discovered that the various and ubiquitous products of corn masa (dough) were, for us anyway, difficult to digest, lying in the stomach like dead weights. This is a handicap when it comes to enjoying Mexican food as most meals and certainly anything that could be called a snack, involves discs of corn dough cooked soft or fried crisp with various toppings.
We had almost finished eating when we heard the sound of drums and marching bands, the wind instruments, mainly saxophones and clarinets, being blown with an intensity that is uniquely Latin American. It was the start of the parade celebrating the revolution, and it would clearly go on for a while so there was no need to rush outside to watch.
Some marched and played their instruments…,
Marching band, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
...some danced; there were girls twirling flamenco style dresses...
Dancers, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
...and boys with gruesome face masks recalling prehispanic times...
One lady seems unimpressed by the masks, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
..or perhaps just fancy dress.
Does this mean anything or are they just dressing up? Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
The paraders were mainly school or youth groups, each proceeded by a banner telling us who they were.
Here come the Halcones Dorados (Golden Hawks) from the city of Puebla
Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
Many were local, some came from other parts of Mexico and there were visiting groups from further afield.
Part of a visiting contingent from Bolivia
It did indeed go on for some time and we walked slowly down Av Juarez watching it all.
Some watch in comfort and get their shoes shined, Revolution Day Parade, Mexico City
The last group passed as we reached the Paseo de Reforma. From there it was a short walk back to our hotel and a much needed nap.
We felt no need for food that evening, though whether as a result of re-adjusting body clocks or the weight of the tacos I cannot tell. We did go for a walk, finding the temperature had fallen with the coming of darkness and it was noticeably nippy. In the plaza by the Monumento a la Revolución a fountain was shooting up random jets of water illuminated by coloured lights and children (and even some adults) were dancing in and out of the jets.
Two fathers with identical gestures urge their sons to get a soaking, Revolution Celebrations, Mexico City
It all looked good fun for a good-humoured crowd, but the children in soaking wet clothes must have been cold.
And having got the kids in the firing line, the dads stand well back, Mexico City Revolution Day.