Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Brief History of Spain (Part Two)

When the Roman Empire fell apart in the fourth century, Germanic tribes from the north swept into Spain to fill the power vacuum.  One of these tribes, the Visigoths, gained dominance and reunited the peninsula with their capital at Toledo.  The Visigoth kings converted to Christianity, and Hispania became a Christian kingdom.

The Visigoth rule, however, was weak, and the kingdom faced a threat from the Moslem caliphate which had expanded across North Africa.  In 711, a Moslem army, composed mostly of Berber tribesmen known as the Moors, swept across the Strait of Gibraltar and within seven years had conquered almost all of the peninsula.  Only a small area in the mountainous north had remained under the control of the Christians. 

The Moors were to remain in Spain for more than seven centuries.  They established their capital at Córdoba in the southern region of Al-Andalus (which we know today as Andalucía).  A large portion of the population converted to Islam.  Christians and Jews were required to pay a special tax, but were allowed to practice their religions.  Throughout much of the Moorish occupation, there was a remarkable coexistence of the three religions. 

Córdoba was at that time the largest, richest, and most cultured city in Western Europe.  It had a population of 500,000 people.  It was a commercial, financial and intellectual center.  It's great mosque was one of the marvels of the world, and it boasted a university and the largest library in the world at that time.  Its philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and scholars, who revived the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans, influenced the rest of Europe, and helped to bring it out of the "Dark Ages".

(image from the web)
The Mosque of Córdoba
In the far north, the Christian kingdom of Asturias, had resisted the Moslem invasion.  The Asturian king, Pelayo, defeated the Moors at the Battle of Covadonga in 722.  This victory marks the beginning of the "Reconquista" (Reconquest) in which the Christians, over the span of more than seven centuries, would gradually push the Moors out of the peninsula.  It was an on again, off again crusade.  There were periods when the Christian and Moorish kingdoms lived in peace.  There were periods when the Moors would reclaim land lost to the Christians. But the Moors were gradually pushed further and further south.  The old Visigoth capital of Toledo fell to the Christians in1035, Córdoba in 1236, and Sevilla in 1248.  Finally the only Moorish territory was the Kingdom of Granada in the far south.  There the Moorish culture had its final expression in the beautiful palace of the Alhambra.

(image from the web)

The Alhambra Palace
The most famous Christian warrior of the "Reconquista", and the national hero of Spain, was Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, commonly known as "El Cid"  In 1094 he conquered the Mediterranean port of Valencia.  The story of "El Cid" was the basis of the earliest epic poem in Spanish literature, "El Cantar de Mío Cid" (The Song of My Cid).

The Christian territories were made up of numerous kingdoms including  Asturias, Galicia, León, and Navarra.  The counts of Barcelona ruled Cataluña and for a time it was an important commercial and political power whose influence stretched throughout the Mediterranean.  By the 1400s the two kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón controlled virtually all of Christian Spain.  In 1469, Queen Isabel I of Castilla (we know her as Isabella) married King Fernando II (Ferdinand) of Aragón.  Although they continued to rule their separate kingdoms, their marriage was to bring about the eventual creation of the modern nation of Spain. 

Isabel and Fernando were devout Catholics and are referred to as "Los Reyes Católicos" (The Catholic Monarchs). On January 1, 1492, the combined armies of their two kingdoms captured Granada, the last Moorish stronghold, and brought to an end the 781 year long Islamic presence in Spain. 

(image from the web)

Fernando II and Isabel I
(the couple that we call Ferdinand and Isabella)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Brief History of Spain (part one)

Since I will soon be traveling to Spain, I thought that I would provide my readers with some historical background on that country... plus it will help me brush up on the history prior to playing "tour guide" there.

Spain's story goes far back into the mists of time.  Evidence has been found of human inhabitation going back to the Old Stone Age, more than 18,000 years ago.  The most famous prehistoric site is the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain.  The walls and ceilings of this cave are decorated with paintings of animals.  It was discovered in the late 1800s, and at the time it was thought impossible that prehistoric humans could have created such artistic images.  However, the skeptics were proven wrong when other examples of similar paleolithic art were discovered. The cave is now closed to visitors because the carbon dioxide from human breath was damaging the paintings.  But there is a replica of the cave at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

(image taken from the web)

The earliest inhabitants of Spain in historic times were a group known as the Iberians.  (From them comes the name by which we know Spain and Portugal... the Iberian Peninsula.)  The Iberans were a tribe who spoke a non Indo European language.  They arrived in southern and eastern Spain perhaps as early as the New Stone Age.  Their origin is unknown, but some think they might have come from northern Africa or from as far away as Asia Minor. Through contact with other Mediterranean civilizations they eventually developed a sophisticated culture.  They left behind many artifacts, the most famous being a sculpture know as "La Dama de Elche" (the Lady of Elche).  This highly realistic and detailed bust shows Greek influence.

(image from the web)

Between 900 and 300 B.C. the Celts moved into northern Spain.  They were a pastoral people and left little behind other than the ruins of their round, stone houses which are similar to those found in Celtic areas such as Scotland and Ireland.  It's interesting to note that in the northwestern region of Galicia, the bagpipe is the major instrument in the folk music.

The coast of Spain was visited and colonized by many of the civilzations of the ancient Mediterranean world.  The earliest colonizers were the Phoenicians who built the trading post of Gadir around 1000 B.C.  Gadir is the present day city of Cádiz, and is considered by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe.  After the Phoenicians came the Greeks, and they were followed by the Carthaginians.

Of all the ancient peoples that came to Spain, the Romans were to have the most lasting effect.  Around 200 B.C., as a result of the Punic Wars, the Romans took over the Carthaginian colonies.  They then pushed inland to conquer the rest of the peninsula.  But because of fierce resistance from the Iberian and Celtic tribes, it took nearly two centuries for the Romans to control all of Spain.  Once the conquest was complete, the population gradually became Romanized... its people became Roman citizens, spoke Latin (which was to evolve into the Spanish language of today), followed Roman law, lived in cities built in the Roman style, and worshiped Roman gods.  Eventually many were attracted to a new religion that was spreading throughout the empire... Christianity.  For four centuries Spain was the Roman province of Hispania, one of the most important provinces of the empire.  It was a rich source of grain, wine, oil, wool and minerals.  Several Roman emperors, including Trajan and Hadrian, were born in Hispania.  Numerous writers, including the great philosopher Seneca, were born there.

But by the fourth century the empire was weakening, and Spain was to enter a new chapter of its history.
(image from the web)

The ruins of the Roman theater in Mérida, Spain (formerly the Roman city of Augusta Emerita)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Memories of Past Trips to Spain

Mexico is very dear to me.  I've lost track of the number of times I have been there in the past 40 years... probably at least 50 times.  But I also love Spain.  If it weren't so far away and more expensive, I would probably go there much more frequently.  I have been there six times, and as I mentioned in the previous post, I will be returning again this year.

I wasn't always so enamored of Spain however.  My first trip was back in 1978, shortly after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.  I had a few years of teaching under my belt, and I decided to take a break from my summer work on my master's degree.

On that trip I was, of course, fascinated by the historic sights that I saw, but I really liked Mexico much better.  It would be years before I returned again.  I started my trip in Madrid.  Madrid, back in those days, really didn't impress me that much.  I thought it was a rather dowdy city.  I wasn't even that impressed with the Prado, Madrid's great art museum.  In spite of the collection of masterpieces, it seemed rather gloomy to me.  (Since then, the building has been completely renovated and enlarged, and it is a wonderful museum.)

From Madrid I took a number of day excursions to nearby attractions.  I saw El Escorial, the huge palace / monastery / basilica complex built by King Philip II in the 1500s... Toledo, the medieval capital of Spain... and Segovia, which remains my favorite city in Spain.

The Alcázar, the fairy-tale castle of Segovia

I then set out from Madrid, taking the train to Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors.  Seated next to me was a young fellow whom I assumed was Spanish.  I started a conversation, but he spoke no Spanish.  He did however speak fluent English. It turned out that he was a tourist from Saudi Arabia.  His name was Mahmoud.  He was actually from Lebanon, but he lived and worked in Saudi Arabia.  When we got off the train, he attached himself to me, and we ended up traveling through the southern cities of Granada, Córdoba, and Sevilla together.  This was the area of Spain that has the strongest influence of the Moslem Moors who invaded the peninsula in the Middle Ages.  As we visited the monuments of the Moorish occupation such as the Alhambra Palace in Granada, and the Mosque of Córdoba, he was able to explain to me many of the things we saw, and translated Arabic inscriptions on the walls.  I, on the other hand, explained to him Christian imagery in the Catholic cathedrals.

A much younger me, in the gardens of the Alhambra Palace

After Sevilla, we parted ways.  We kept in touch for a few years.  The last time I heard from him, he said he was thinking about returning to Lebanon.  I sometimes wonder what ever happened to him, and if he was a casualty of the civil war that raged in Lebanon a short time after that.

From Sevilla, I took a bus to Salamanca.  It was a holiday weekend, and there was not a hotel room to be found in the city.  I ended up spending the night in the train station, and the next morning I took the train back to Madrid to finish up my stay.

I didn't return to Spain until 1999.  My teaching colleague, Jane (whom you met in my posts on the Yucatán), was organizing a student trip to Spain, and I went along as a chaperone.  I was amazed at how much the country had changed for the better.  Madrid seemed a much more vibrant and attractive place.  Even the food seemed much better.

Typical of student tours, it was a whirlwind trip.  (Can you imagine that in one day we did a brief excursion from Madrid to Toledo, and then returned to the capital to visit the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum?!)  Nevertheless, it was a great trip, and we had a great group of students.  

One place I did not care for was the Costa del Sol.  It is a beach resort area lined with high-rise hotels, and it really did not hold much appeal for me.  The boys in the group were quite excited when they found out that the beaches are topless.  They were disappointed, however, when they found out that most of the women sunbathing topless were older and less attractive than what they were hoping to see.

From the Costa del Sol we took a day trip to Morocco... and that was the one part of the trip that I disliked.  Part of the problem was that the excursion was much too long.  We left early in the morning by bus to Algeciras, a port city opposite Gibraltar, and then took a ferry boat to Morocco.  Another tour bus then met us to take us to two cities, Tetuan and Tangiers.  It was late at night before we returned to our hotel in the Costa del Sol, and we were exhausted.  The females in our group, even though they were dressed very conservatively, were very uncomfortable because the men were constantly leering at them.  The vendors were extremely irritating.  If you think vendors in Mexico are annoying you should see them in Tangiers!  Uncharacteristic of me, I actually shouted at one to leave me alone.  I will not, however, judge the entire country by that one excursion.  That would be like visitors who bad-mouth Mexico after a day trip to Tijuana.

The trip ended with one short day in Barcelona, a place that I had not previously visited.  It was almost painful to have only one day in that beautiful city.

After that trip, I was eager to return to Spain.  In 2004, the year I retired, my retirement gift to myself was a trip to Spain in September (when everyone else was back in school... ha! ha!).  I had three glorious, sunny weeks in Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Barcelona and Sevilla.  After my much too brief visit to Barcelona on the previous trip, I scheduled five days there to see the sights more thoroughly.  It must rank as one of the best trips of my life.

The Cathedral of Barcelona

My next trip was in 2008.  That time I visited some places I had not seen before... the walled, medieval town of Avila, the old university town of Salamanca (this time I got to see more than the train station!), and then down into Extremadura, the region that borders Portugal.  There I saw the cities of Cáceres, Trujillo, and Mérida (the namesake of my frequent destination in Mexico).  I found a certain similarity between Mérida, Spain, and Mérida, Mexico.  They both have a pleasant, relaxed charm, and both are of archaeological interest... Spanish Mérida has Roman ruins, while Mexican Mérida is close to Mayan ruins. 

More recently I took a trip to Madrid  in 2011 to meet my new-found cousin, and again in 2012 when my cousin drove me from Madrid to our ancestral town in Switzerland.  (I previously wrote several posts on the trip.)

I look forward to my upcoming trip to Spain with my sister-in-law.  We will visit Madrid, Segovia and Barcelona, but I will also get to see someplace new, Spain's third largest city, Valencia.  (My sister-in-law is a collector of Lladró figurines, so she wants to visit the Lladró factory outside of Valencia.) 

                                        ¡Viva España!   

Friday, April 25, 2014

Future travels

I have only just returned home from Mexico City, but I am already getting ready my next trip.  At the end of May I will be leaving for Europe.  My sister-in-law has been talking for the last couple years about going to Spain, with me as her personal tour guide and interpreter.  We will visit Madrid, Segovia (my favorite town in Spain), Valencia, and Barcelona.  We will then take the train to Paris and spend five days there. (I've never been there before.)  After she returns home, I will continue via the "chunnel" train to London.  I figured as long as I am on that side of the pond, I might as well visit my English cousins.

While I was in Mexico City, I received an e-mail from Werner, my Swiss cousin who lives in Madrid, inviting me to come to his birthday party in September.  I'm not sure how old Werner is, but I suspect it must be a major milestone since he is planning on a big, weekend-long celebration with some of his family coming from Switzerland for the event.

My first reaction was, "Two trips to Europe in one year?  I really need to stay at home once in a while."  But upon reflection, I think I will go, and several friends have said, "Why not?"  I guess I have reached the age where I realize that I only have a finite number of years where I will have the good health (knock on wood) and energy to travel.  In twenty years I might not be physically able to travel so much.  So I might as well stop worrying about things that should be done around the house, or the fact that this summer I won't be going crazy with my flower gardens.  I'll soon be packing my bags again!   

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Back home

I returned home from Mexico yesterday evening.  My flights went smoothly.  In fact I arrived in Cleveland twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Here in Ohio it's chilly, but there is no snow. (There was an April snowfall of about an inch while I was gone!)  The daffodils and hyacinths are in full bloom. 

Once things get a bit warmer, I have to get busy working on the yard and the flower beds.  I have a trip to Europe planned, and I will be leaving at the end of May.  So this summer I won't plant a lot of annuals.  I will take a sabbatical from my usual gardening and just let the perennials do their thing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Gringo Easter in Mexico City

On Easter Sunday, Alejandro came to the apartment in the morning and drove me to his parents' house.  I had brought with me plastic eggs, a bag of jelly beans, a bag of chocolate eggs, and a small package of Peeps.  We were going to give Alejandro's three year old nephew, Ezra, the experience of a "gringo-style" Easter egg hunt.  The whole family was meeting at a nearby restaurant for a late breakfast.  Before we left, we filled all the eggs with candy and hid them around the patio.  I also had an Easter card (which said that the Easter Bunny had been there), and I put it in a visible spot.

We had a very good, and very filling breakfast at a little neighborhood spot... nothing fancy, but with good. simple homemade food.  The place is very popular and we had to wait a while for a table.  The family ordered a half portion of lamb "barbacoa" (that's where we get our word barbeque), and we shared that.  In additional we each ordered a breakfast.  I had "huevos toluqueños", scrambled eggs mixed with sausage.  The breakfasts included fresh-squeezed orange juice, a fruit plate, home-made bread, and Mexican-style coffee.  We even had dessert... I had flan with "rompope" (Mexican eggnog).  Needless to say, we were quite stuffed after that huge meal, and I had no desire to eat until that evening when I had a light supper.

Ezra and his parents made it back to the house before we did.  He had found the Easter card.  He knows how to write his name, and recognized "Ezra" written on the envelope.  I read the card to him (translating it to Spanish), and told him that he had to find the eggs that the Easter Bunny had left.  He squealed with delight each time he found one.  After collecting all of the eggs, he then redistributed them so that each of us had an egg.  What a sweet kid!

I then brought out something else that I had brought Ezra... an Easter Bunny that dances and sings and wiggles his ears.  (It sings "La Macarena" but with different lyrics... "Oh, jelly bean-a.)  Ezra loved it!  I was beginning to think that I should have brought some extra batteries because he played it again and again and again.

It was a great day, and nice way to bring my trip to a close.  Today I am doing laundry and packing my suitcases.  This evening Alejandro and I will go out for dinner.

My flight leaves Mexico City tomorrow at nine in the morning, and I will be arrive in Cleveland around eight in the evening.

It has been another wonderful trip.  I didn't do quite as much sightseeing as I usually do, but I did have the opportunity to see some very interesting aspects of the celebration of Holy Week in Mexico.   

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Yucatán in Mexico City

Saturday afternoon, Alejandro and I went to a restaurant that he had heard serves excellent Yucatecan food. The restaurant is called "Círculo del Sureste" (Circle of the Southeast), and it is located at Lucerna 12.  It's not a neighborhood frequented by tourists, although it is within walking distance of the Paseo de la Reforma (one of the city's main boulevards) and the Zona Rosa (one of the city's main tourist areas).  

The place was quite crowded, but I was the only "gringo" in the place.  The clientele is made up of upper-middle class Mexican families.  The decor is pleasant with paintings of Mayan ruins, but it is not super elegant.  (No white tablecloths, but there are cloth napkins.)  The service was impeccable.

Those of you who have read about my travels in the Yucatán know that the food there is quite unique from what is found in central Mexico... in fact, it could be considered a separate cuisine unto itself.  The menu featured a variety of Yucatecan specialities.  To drink we ordered a pitcher of "agua de jamaica", a refreshing beverage made from hibiscus flowers. We began with "sopa de lima" (lime soup), a traditional soup made with a chicken broth base flavored with lime juice.  The soup was excellent.  The lime taste shined through, without giving the soup a bitter taste.  For the main course Alejandro ordered "cochinita pibil" which could be described as Yucatán's version of pulled pork.  I had a taste, and we agreed that it was very good.  

I had a traditional dish which surprisingly I had never had before...  "frijol con puerco" (black beans and rice with pork).  It too was very tasty. 

The waiters kept us well supplied with piping hot tortillas so that we could make tacos with our "cochinita" and "frijol con puerco".

For desert Alejandro had "pastel de elote" (corn cake), a sweeter and moister version of our cornbread.  I had flan with "cajeta" (caramel made from goat's milk). As an after-dinner drink I also had  X'tabentún, a Yucatecan honey liqueur that is difficult to find outside of the Yucatán.

Our bill was rather high by Mexican standards, but we also ordered a lot of food and drink.  I would highly recommend "Círculo del Sureste" to any visitor to Mexico City who would like to sample the wonderful cuisine of another region of Mexico.   


On Saturday Alejandro and I went to the super-ritzy neighborhood of Polanco, an area devoid of "Mexican-ness" that could be an affluent, modern district of most any major city of the world.  In a way it's nice that Mexico City has neighborhoods like this.  They certainly shatter the stereotype of a backward country where men in big sombreros take a siesta beneath a cactus.  But since such neighborhoods could be found anywhere in the world, they are not the kind of places where I spend much time when I am traveling.

We went to Plaza Carso, a new commercial development that was built by Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico, and one of the richest men in the world.  (For a few years his estimated fortune surpassed that of Bill Gates, but then in the last year he slipped down to second place.)  The centerpiece of Plaza Carso is the Soumaya Museum, which houses Slim's huge collection of art.  

The windowless, metallic building was designed by Slim's son-in-law, and has been compared to the buildings of Frank Gehry.  I have to admit that I like this building better than Gehry's convoluted, metal jumbles.  The museum's collection has had mixed reviews.  Some critics have said that Slim is a better businessman than art collector, and that he has put together a collection of second-rate pieces by first-rate artists.  Both Alejandro and I have been there, and I tend to agree with the criticism.  The museum is worth a visit, but my hometown Cleveland Museum of Art has a far superior collection.

We came to the Plaza Carso to visit a brand new museum, "el Museo Jumex", a collection of art acquired by Jumex, the Mexican juice company. 

I was unaware that the collection was of contemporary art... which is often not my cup of tea. The museum consists of only two large, very Spartan halls.  At the moment only one of the halls had artwork on display.  I use the term artwork loosely, because most of the stuff was very "avant garde". 

Call me an unsophisticated rube, but to me 90% of what is on display here is self-indulgent, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual crap.  Yeah, I know that people were once saying the same thing about the Impressionists or Picasso... but I can't imagine that this stuff will pass the test of time.  A newspaper clipping in a box, or a piece of molded plastic that looks like a large turd is art??  Really??     

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday in Santa María la Ribera

After everything had calmed down following the Friday morning earthquake, Alejandro wanted to show me the typical observance of Good Friday in Mexico..."la via crucis" (the Way of the Cross).  In some churches the worshipers simply go around to each of the stations of the cross on the walls within the church.  But other churches will have a procession in which the parishioners march down the streets to stations that have been set up throughout the neighborhood.

Alejandro thought that the traditional neighborhood of Santa María la Ribera might be a good place to see "la vía crucis".  We drove to Santa María (the traffic was unbelievably light), and when we arrived in the neighborhood, Alejandro asked people where the nearest church was located.  We were very lucky, and our timing was perfect.  The church to which we were directed turned out to be a perfect choice for viewing the Good Friday observance.  When we arrived the procession was due to return very soon.

The exterior of the church was not especially noteworthy, but the interior was quite lovely, particularly the ceiling.  Following Mexican custom, all of the altars and images were covered for Lent.

 We went outside, positioned ourselves across the street, and awaited the return of the procession.  There was a stage set up in front of the church.  This was a "vía crucis" in which the stations of the cross were being reenacted.

                                   Soon the procession was coming down the street.

                       Following Jesus were the thieves who were crucified beside him.

The actors mounted the stage in front of the church.  The Roman soldiers tied (not nailed) the three condemned men to crosses which were then propped up against the painted backdrop hanging from the wall of the church 

The entire Biblical account of the crucifixion was reinacted.  Some people in the audience were visibly weeping throughout the ceremony.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Thursday in Iztapalapa

Iztapalapa is the easternmost of the "delegaciones" or boroughs of Mexico City.  With a population of 1.8 million people it is the most populous of all the "delagaciones".  At least fifty percent of the inhabitants live in poverty, and crime is a serious problem there.  Then why in the world did Alejandro and I go there yesterday?  Because Iztapalapa is the scene of the largest Passion Play in the world. 

The reenactment of the Passion draws more than two million spectators, and has a cast of 450 actors drawn from the population of Iztapalapa.  Shortly after Easter a committee will chose the young man who will play the part of Jesus the following year.  That person must be of excellent character, and will undergo a year of religious training and physical training.  (The actor must be in top physical condition in order to drag the 200 pound cross.)

Unlike the famous Passion Play of Oberramergau, Germany, this reenactment is not presented as one long performance, but is stretched out over the course of Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday.  Nor is the play presented in a theater setting.  Each scene of the Passion is performed in a different location in Iztapalapa.  
The most attended portion of the play is on Good Friday, when the actor portraying Jesus carries the cross (while being whipped by Roman soldiers) one and a half miles through the streets of Iztapalapa and up the "Cerro de la Estrella" (Hill of the Star) where the crucifixion is enacted.

Alejandro wanted me to get an idea of the event without enduring the huge crowds that attend the major parts of the play.  We took the subway to Iztapalapa on Thursday afternoon, and walked to the church at the center of the reenactment area.  

                      You can see how the church's altar has been covered for Lent.

              This stage, set up on the plaza near the church represents Pilate's palace.

 And next to it is a stage representing the Temple in Jerusalem.

Among the crowd you will see young men dressed in purple robes who are referred to as "Nazarenos".  They are not actors in the play, but as an act of devotion they will follow Christ up the hill, often barefoot and carrying a cross of their own.

That afternoon there was a procession through the streets of some of the actors in the event.  While they were waiting for the procession to begin, I was able to capture some portraits of them.

Earthquake update

Fortunately there have been no reports of injuries, but the TV news is reporting more damage.  There are some buildings in the neighborhood of "Doctores", not too far from where I am, that suffered structural damage (large cracks and separation of walls), and they have been evacuated.  Downtown there were many reports of broken windows.  There are also reports of damage in the state of Guerrero where the epicenter was located.


For any of my readers who heard about this morning's earthquake, I want to let you know that all is well here.  This was the third time that I have experienced a tremor in Mexico City, but this morning's seemed to be the strongest and lasted the longest.  I was still in bed when it occurred.  I ran down the stairs (my apartment is on the third floor) and went out to the street.  I was barefoot and dressed in nothing but a pair of gym shorts.  There were many other people on the street... and I was not the only one who was partially dressed.  Standing on the street I could feel the pavement vibrating under my feet.  When it was over I returned to the apartment and found a few things had fallen to the floor (nothing broken) and drawers and closet doors had been jarred open.  It wasn't until closer inspection that I found a number of cracks in the plaster and some plaster on the floor.  But there was no major structural damage.  The owner of the apartment happened to be in the neighborhood having breakfast at a nearby restaurant.  She immediately came over to make sure that I was all right, and to see if there had been any damage.

On the news there were some reports of minor damage, but apparently no injuries.
It was a rather scary way to begin Good Friday, but, as I said, all is well. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Back to Coyoacán

One of my favorite areas in Mexico City is the neighborhood of Coyoacán.  It was a pre-Hispanic settlement on the southern shore of the (now vanished) lake which surrounded the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.  In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, Coyoacán means "Place of the Coyotes".

Until well into the twentieth century Coyoacán remained a separate town on the outskirts of Mexico City.  Although it has been swallowed up by the capital, it still retains a unique atmosphere.

I had visited Coyoacán a few years ago, but when Alejandro and I returned there for a couple hours on Palm Sunday, I decided to spend some more time exploring the neighborhood.  This morning I took the subway to the Viveros station.  From there I walked south a couple blocks to Avenida Francisco Sosa, one of Coyoacán's most picturesque streets.  The shady avenue is lined with lovely homes, as well as small shops, restaurants and cultural institutions.  Many of the buildings date back to colonial times.

This interesting colonial house with a beautiful courtyard is called "la Casa de Alvarado".  Today it is an archive for the preservation of historic audio recordings. I wondered if the house might have been the home of Pedro de Alvarado, one of the officers with the army of the conquistador Hernán Cortés.  The guards inside weren't able to tell me, but they did tell me that in more recent times it was the home of the famous writer Octavio Paz.

                    Another colonial mansion down the street is today a cultural center.

The Chapel of Santa Catarina dates back to the sixteenth century.

Many of the cross streets are narrow residential lanes called "callejones" or "privadas".  These quiet little streets seem a thousand miles from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City.

Even though we have had strong thunderstorms the last two evenings, some of the jacaranda trees are still hanging on to their blossoms.  The sidewalks beneath them are carpeted with purple petals.

                           Bougainvillea are ubiquitous throughout the neighborhood.

The avenue eventually leads to the neighborhood's central plaza and the beautiful sixteenth century church of San Juan Bautista.


Alejandro and I had poked our heads in here on Palm Sunday.  He had been surprised that the images and altars had not been covered with draperies as is the custom in Mexican churches during Lent.  However today I saw that they were starting to cover the altars.  I suspect that by Good Friday, everything will be covered.

                           Most of the church's ornate decoration was still on display.


 It is said that Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world.  Some of them are spectacular... and others are underwhelming.  There were two museums in Coyoacán that I had not seen, so I paid them a visit.

First I went to the National Museum of Popular Culture.   Pretty impressive name, but I was in and out in ten minutes. The only thing of interest was a 10 foot high "tree of life" at the entrance.  (Instead, I would recommend the excellent Museum of Popular Arts downtown.)

I passed by the most famous museum in Coyoacán, the "Casa Azul"  (Blue House) where the celebrated painters Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived.  I went to the "Casa Azul" a few years ago, ánd I would normally recommend it.  However today the line to enter the museum stretched down the block.  Unless you're a real Frida fanatic, I'm not sure that it is worth the long wait. (When I was there, I didn't have to wait at all.)

A few blocks away from the "Casa Azul" is the other museum which I had not visited... the Trotsky House.  Leon Trotsky was one of the main leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  When his rival Stalin came to power, Trotsky was forced into exile.  In 1937 he and his wife came to Mexico, and for a time they stayed at the "Casa Azul" as guests of Frida and Diego.  (Trotsky and Frida reportedly had an affair.)  The Trotskys eventually moved to a place of their own.  It was there in 1940 that an agent of Stalin murdered Trotsky.

 The Trotsky House
The windows were all bricked over after an earlier, unsuccessful attempt on Trotsky's life.

This is Trotsky's office where he was murdered,
The assassin, a Spaniard by the name of Ramón Mercader, had gained the confidence of the household by becoming the lover of the sister of Trotsky's secretary.
Mercader pulled an ice pick from his coat and smashed it into Trotsky's skull.

Trotsky's ashes are buried in the garden of the house under a monument engraved with a hammer and sickle.

For those with an interest in history (or an interest in the macabre), the Trotsky House is worth a brief visit if you are in Coyoacán.