Nov 29, 2007

City Icons—Santa Barbara Courthouse California

Imagine if your local courthouse looked like this? Going to court to defend yourself for the traffic light you swear you didn’t blow through would at least be an aesthetically pleasing experience.

Spanish-Moorish in style, the courthouse was rebuilt in late 1920s after an earthquake destroyed the original building in 1925.

If you find yourself in this beautiful people city you can visit the courthouse’s mural room and gardens on your own or take a free guided tour. You can also take the elevator and stairs up to the tower for panoramic views of Santa Barbara. There is no admission fee.

The courthouse, a National Historic Landmark, is open 8 am-5 pm weekdays and 10 am-5 pm Saturday, Sunday and holidays.

Nov 27, 2007

Talking Statue Rome Italy

Rome’s first “talking statue” may not be the most photographed but this does not diminish its importance to the city’s residents.

For centuries Romans have been sticking notes and messages to this time worn antiquity expressing political discontent. The tradition was started in the 16th century by a tailor named Pasquino. He used the statue to voice his dissatisfaction about the church and ruling class at a time when freedom of speech was not an option.

There are other talking statues in the city but the Pasquino Statue is Rome’s most famous.

The sculpture is located in a square named after it, Piazza Pasquino, near the Piazza Navona.

Nov 26, 2007

Salsa Old San Juan Puerto Rico

The rhythms of Salsa music are the heartbeat of many Latin countries. Salsa isn’t generation specific, a tradition loosing ground to newer sounds.

The Paseo de la Princesa (Walkway of the Princess) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico starts at the ocean and works its way inland. It is popular on the weekend and lined with food vendors and street entertainers.

Strolling along the esplanade on a Sunday afternoon earlier this year we came across an outdoor café with a salsa band in full bloom. Tourists five deep were crowded around the entrance watching people dance and a few slipped in to sit at tables to get a closer look. They were welcome and smiles were exchanged.

Certain music has the ability to make even a chronic wallflower overcome shyness. Salsa is like that. Not a dancer? It doesn’t matter. Someone will grab your hand and pull you on the dance floor. Everyone is included and it’s bad form to deny someone a dance.

Part of the beauty of Salsa is that it is not typically danced to solo. The man in the black and white ensemble in the photograph above had many partners and never left the dance floor. I bet he is there almost every weekend.

Nov 23, 2007

Guatemala Bound

Later today I’ll be making my way to the airport to catch a flight to Guatemala City. The plans for the next nine days include the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango which hosts a large market twice a week where Maya traders gather to sell their goods.

This is my first trip to Guatemala. There is nothing like seeing a new land for the first time.

Naturally there will be plenty of photographs and posts to follow. In the meantime, I’ll be posting next week so that you’ll be able to travel to the Caribbean, Europe and Southern California without the jet lag of course.

Nov 20, 2007

Lama Temple Beijing China

The decadent rooftops of the Lama Temple, or Yonghe Gong in Chinese, are reason enough to visit. The active Tibetan Buddhist monastery is the city’s largest temple. It started life in the late 1600s as a residence for the emperor’s son. The son become emperor in the 1720s and moved to the Forbidden City. It became a lamasery for Tibetan and Mongolian monks in the 1740s.

The temple was closed during the Cultural Revolution and wasn’t reopened until the early 1980s.

Yonghe Gong is a busy place, popular with worshippers and visitors. It has five halls, each larger than the next. Outside its walls shops sell incense and tapes of Tibetan chants.

How To Get There
Take the subway to the Younghegong stop. If you take a taxi ask your hotel reception to write down the name of the temple in Chinese so that you can hand it to the driver. There are plenty of taxis outside the temple for your trip back. Younghe Gong is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is 25 yuan.

Nov 19, 2007

Real de Catorce Mexico

The second to last leg of the long journey to Real de Catorce involves approximately 15 miles of cobblestone, a Mexican version of the road to a rural OZ that ascends the mountains. The final leg and only way to reach the remote, abandoned silver mining town is through a dark 1.5 mile one lane tunnel cutting through the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. Emerging from the black hole we entered another world and for the first time in months time slowed down to a natural cadence.

Founded by the Spanish in the late 18th Century Real de Catorce’s heyday was in the 19th century when the silver mine was in full swing. It became a ghost town during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921).

About a decade ago the town began undergoing a renaissance. Out of towners, artists and Europeans came to stay and never left. They began, with local townspeople, to restore buildings and open businesses including hotels and restaurants creating a tourist infrastructure.

At 9,000 feet above sea level walking the steep, dusty cobblestone lanes of Real de Catorce can take the wind out of travelers who are accustomed to sea level altitudes. But who needs the ocean when you can explore the ruins of what looks like the set of a western. It brings back the childhood joy of entering abandoned buildings but without having to sneak or face the repercussions of being caught.

Real de Catorce’s atmospheric streets, where restored and crumbling stone buildings sit side by side, and stunning surrounding scenery have caught the eye of Hollywood. The film The Mexican, featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, was filmed here.

In the center of town stands the Parish of the Immaculate Conception where each October thousands of religious pilgrims visit to pray to the altar statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the town. The Parish houses a room full of devotional paintings or retablos.

Other sites include the former mint building, now a museum, and a cock fighting ring. Across from the remains of a bull ring, which was being used a soccer pitch, is a chapel and cemetery, where families lovingly decorated graves during Day of the Dead, when we were there.

Jeep and horse rides into the desert are a popular activity. Every morning men congregate at on a corner of Hidalgo Square offering these services. On the other side of the square is a saloon complete with swinging doors where you might expect to see a horse parked outside. It’s not abandoned.

The surrounding landscape is sacred to the indigenous Huichol people who live in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. The Huichol make pilgrimages to a mountain near Real de Catorce to collect the peyote cactus, the hallucinogenic properties of which are used in sacred ceremonies. You’ll see the Huichol selling their crafts in town.

While Real de Catorce has a good selection of hotels and restaurants, during the week many of the eateries and small artisan shops are closed. It is virtually empty mid week, which suited us fine. As the weekend approached the town rapidly filled up with tourists struggling to wheel their luggage across the cobblestone and lines of cars losing traction attempting to navigate the steep inclines of the narrow streets.

Where To Stay
We stayed at beautiful Meson de la Abundancia, a former treasury building. The owners have meticulously decorated each room with local crafts and antiques. We woke up every morning to a beautiful view of the mountains from our large terrace and to the sound of braying donkeys and crowing roosters. The hotel’s restaurant is open all week and has an excellent menu with hearty servings and a good wine list.

How To Get There
Located in the state of San Luis Potisi Real, Real de Catorce isn’t easy to get to. I recommend taking the journey during daylight hours where on that second to last leg the view from the vistas of hairpin turns of the mountains and valleys below is spectacular. If you travel by bus you’ll have to change buses at the entrance of the tunnel for a smaller bus that fits through.

Mexico’s intercity buses run direct to Matehaula, about a 7 1/2 hour journey from Mexico City. Several daily buses also run from San Luis Postosi to Matehaula, which takes about 4 hours. From Matehaula 3-4 buses run daily, about a 2 hour journey.

Nov 18, 2007

National Geographic Traveler’s Places of a Lifetime

National Geographic Traveler is running a series, Places of a Lifetime, which kicked off with 10 cities. I have the good fortune of living in one of them, have lived in another, London, and traveled to the others, some almost every year.

Here are National Geographic’s picks in order of where I would like to get on a plane and go today: Hong Kong, London, Beijing, Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, San Francisco, Miami and Washington D.C.

I have written about some of these destinations, Hong Kong, Beijing and New York, and will be posting on others. I look forward to seeing which locations NG adds next and how many of them are on my endless list of places to go. If you could get on a plane today where would you go?

The photo above was taken in Wanchai, Hong Kong.

Tomorrow: Mexico's remote Real de Catorce, a ghost town undergoing a renaissance.

Nov 15, 2007

City Icons – Mermaid Statue Warsaw Poland

The mermaid statue is Warsaw’s icon. She spends her days landlocked in the Old Town Square or Rynek Starego Miasta.

The square is a reconstructed masterpiece. It was reduced to rubble during World War II and was rebuilt with great care in the years after. Like the best of the atmospheric squares of Europe the Old Town Square has cafes in which you can sit and take it all in. It’s hard to believe the architecture is only decades instead of centuries old.

With raised sword and shield the mermaid (syrena in Polish) managed to survive the war and was moved to the square in recent years. The statue is the cast of a sculpture made by Konstanty Hegel in 1855.

The mermaid has been the symbol of Warsaw for centuries and is featured on its coat of arms.

Previous City Icons – Shanghai, Beirut and Jaipur.

Nov 13, 2007

Matehaula Mexico The Last Supper

There was a three hour layover at the bus station in Matehaula, Mexico on the way to Real de Catorce. We opted to take a taxi to the town’s plaza de armas for a bite to eat and to kill some time.

The Santa Fe restaurant was perfect. It had an excellent choice of good stick-to-your-ribs Mexican cuisine.

The large dining room was filled with families. Clad in classic black and white uniforms the waiters were attentive, the atmosphere casual.

On one wall was a large painting of The Last Supper. If you look closely you will see this rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece has Jesus and his disciples dining in the Santa Fe for that fateful meal.

Speaking of Mexican cuisine some fellow travel bloggers have been kind enough to include a post I wrote on chapulines in carnivals they have hosted. Mary Jo of Flyaway Cafe, hosts a travel carnival each month and this month’s theme was food .The theme for the next carnival is music. Meanwhile, Perceptive Travel who also participated, mentions my post here.

IgoUgo’s travel blog hosted a Food Edition of this week’s Carnival of Cities. Last week’s Carnival of Cities was hosted by Argentina’s Travel Guide who included a post I wrote on Shanghai.

Nov 8, 2007

Mailboxes From Around The World

When is the last time you sent a letter to a loved one the old fashioned way? To give you some inspiration here is a small selection of mailboxes from around the world.

This whimsical winged piece of art calls Santa Fe, New Mexico home.


This bright red mailbox was on a stilt house in the fishing village of Tai O on Launtau Island, Hong Kong China.


Photographed in the former Jewish Ghetto in Rome, Italy this antiquity certainly wasn’t meant to have bulky junk mail deposited in it.


May you come home today to find a letter or postcard in your mailbox (or letter or postbox depending on your corner of the world) from someone with whom you’ve meant to get in touch.

Nov 6, 2007

Retablos Mexico

Giving thanks for answered prayers is an art form in Mexico. Even if you are thankful for getting away with running over an old lady.

Retablos, like the one in the photograph, are devotional paintings thanking a saint for answering prayers. This one reads: “I give thanks to God and Saint Francis of Assisi for having let me out of jail for running over an old woman.”

It was one among hundreds of votives that fill an entire room floor to ceiling in the Parish of the Immaculate Conception in the remote former mining and ghost town of Real de Catorce, Mexico. Others illustrated a variety of misfortunes including medical operations and car accidents, some quite graphic, with devotees thanking Saint Francis of Assisi for helping them pull through.

In October of each year thousands of religious pilgrims travel to Real de Catorce to pray in the parish to the altar statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the town.

Retablos in Mexico, which are typically painted on tin, are a fusion of Catholicism and Mexico’s indigenous artistry. They have become highly sought after by folk art collectors, the older ones commanding high prices.

I will be posting more on the surreal Real de Catorce in the coming weeks.

Nov 1, 2007

City Icons – Bund, Pudong Shanghai China

Shanghai’s icons are all about its cityscapes and the juxtaposition of old and new. The city has two distinct skylines competing with one another, the colonial era Bund and directly across the Huangpu River futuristic Pudong. Both are brilliantly lit up at night.

The grand and elegant architecture of The Bund was built during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the most distinct buildings include Customs House, the Peace Hotel and the granddaddy of them all the former Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building.

Pudong’s space age skyline is always being updated, each new structure looking to steal the show. The Feng Shui compliant Jin Mao Tower was the tallest building in mainland China until the Shanghai World Financial Center, which will be completed next year, surpassed it.

It’s hard to believe the land on which Pudong’s buildings sit was farmland less than 20 years ago. Its young skyline is flashy in comparison to the elder Bund. The bling bling neon of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the glass orb of the Shanghai International Convention Center glow well into the night.

Previous City Icons: Beirut and Jaipur.