Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around

Arc de Triomf

Arc de Triomf

A couple of years ago we met a photographer friend, Paula, in Antigua, Guatemala who gave us some useful advice as we were checking out the sights.  Our eyes were trained on the uneven sidewalks and streets, both of cobblestone, to sidestep potential trips and falls and dog bombs.  When we looked around we’d try to steer clear of the numerous masonry windows, with decorative grille work, projecting from buildings at concussion-inducing head height and still try to take in the people, the sights and our surroundings.  And then our friend said, “Remember, if you don’t want to miss anything, look up.”Arc de Triomf

Luckily, in Barcelona there’s any number of things for a visitor to see regardless of where you look and one of the best ways is just walking around the city.  Our apartment was in the Eixample (Catalan for extension) district, a 19th century urban expansion that merged the old city with the street scenevillages and towns nearby.  The urban plan was the brainchild of the progressive designer and Catalan Spaniard, Ildefonso Cerdá.  A strict grid pattern of long straight streets crossed by wide avenues helps to keep even the most directionally challenged people (we’re not naming names) oriented. Of course it helps that the streets have signs and numbers on the buildings and maps are readily available at tourist information sites as well as online.  The thing we were most taken with however, was Cerdá’s unique design of octagonal blocks (picture the corner building with its corner cut off) which allows for greater visibility at each intersection.open intersection

A five to forty-five minute walk from our apartment in any direction could take us to a flower, bakery or ice cream shop.flower shop on street

Or we could find a grocery store, farmacias (pharmacies) with their crosses of green or red displayed, organic fruit and vegetable shops and numerous ATMs as well as  metro stations.pharmacy

And of course there were elegant churches.Cathedral near Sagrada Familia

Nearby, we found numerous restaurants and tapas bars, trendy clothing stores and even a castle called the “House of Spikes” built in 1905 by the Terrades sisters."House of Spikes" - 1905 Casa Terrades - Casa de les Punxes

One Saturday we came across an enterprising company who had set up ping-pong tables on the wide sidewalks near the landmark, La Pedrera.ping pong on the street

And on another sunny afternoon people relaxed near an avenue in lounge chairs that had been set out in the common area as an urban park.Sunday in the city by House of Spikes

And we found one of Barcelona’s locations for its bicycle borrowing program called “El Bicing” where we could take one of the free city two-wheelers for a short spin.free bikes for tourists

Another way to look up, down and all around was riding around on the double-decker hop-on, hop-Hop on -Hop Offoff buses.  We took advantage of these to orient ourselves to the city as well as sight-see and while we rode inside the bus for a few stops, riding on the upper level gave us an entirely different experience that we enjoyed much more. The city actually has two companies that offer the tours: the red buses from Barcelona City Tours with 2 routes and the blue and white buses from hop-on hop-offBarcelona Bus Touristic with 3 routes.  The prices are comparable, they both offer one or two-day tickets and each runs in a continuous loop from early morning to late in the evening so that passengers can hop off to visit the sights they want to see and then hop on for the next destination.  Audio guides and headsets give information in several languages and explain each area’s significance, pointing out landmarks along the way and giving a little history.

view from hop on - hop off bus

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

view from hop on - hop off busA few days into our visit to Barcelona both of us noticed our necks were stiff.  It wasn’t too difficult to figure out the cause as we were continually tipping our heads back or craning our necks.  There’s lots to see if one looks down, around and straight ahead but, in Barcelona it’s good to remember to LOOK UP too!

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

By Anita and Richard

 

 

What Lies Beneath: The Lost City of Barcino

Gothic quarterTucked away in the teeming-with-tourists Gothic Quarter of Barcelona we followed the narrow, twisting streets, backtracked along the cobblestones and still managed to turn ourselves around looking for one branch of the Museu D’ Historia De Barcelona.  Finally, we saw a plain brown sign with an arrow pointing the way to the entrance affixed to an unobtrusive building that was, indeed, the Museum of History of Barcelona. Go figure, this marvelous museum tucked away in the oldest part of the city which is itself just jammed to the gills with gargoyles, arches and cherubim.  Could it be that the citizens of the city are a bit jaded about their own rich culture?

And here was the museum, housed in A GOTHIC PALACE built between 1497 and 1515.  Serving as the public visage of the museum, the Casa Padellás was dismantled and moved, stone by stone, from its original location in order to preserve it during the construction for the International Exposition of 1929.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - the exit to the Gothic quarter

However, while the new site in the Gothic Quarter near the Placa Del Rei (King’s Plaza) was being readied the ruins of the original city of Barcino were discovered, one of the largest Roman settlements ever found. The archeological importance of the site was immediately understood and the palace was placed upon pillars to allow for the excavation and preservation of the ruins.  In 1943 the Casa Padellás became the headquarters for Barcelona’s Museum of History with the excavated city of Barcino lying beneath it

FYI

We stepped inside the museum and paid for our tickets (with one of us getting the geezer discount) then spent a moment to figure out how to change the audio tour handheld recorders to English.  After thumbing through the introductory pamphlets we viewed a video then took the elevator down two levels … and took a giant step back in time.  From this point we would slowly but inexorably climb back up to the street level and in the process pass through this incredible time capsule.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - public walkway and portions of walls

Beneath the Placa del Rei the immense subsoil museum (4,000 square meters) is devoted to the archeological history of the original city and its people and contains the remains of the fortress walls, homes, workshops and religious structures. Excavated between 1930 and 1960 and painstakingly conserved in this underground site, the timeline covers the period from the creation of the original Roman city to the establishment of the religious structures in the sixth century, a rather imposing sweep of time in one setting.

Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - rubble in fill of wallThe story and the tour began with the founding of the Roman city of Barcino between 15– 10 BC under the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was a colony for soldiers who had completed their obligations to the empire, their families and slaves.  Built at a defensive location on the top of a hill it was fortified by a stone wall with the city laid out in a grid pattern as was the Roman preference. As we gazed around at the stone walls, walkways and columns before us we noticed that, surprisingly, the Romans recycled stones, tiles, pottery and other rubble as fill inside the walls as they expanded the city’s perimeter;  little or nothing was wasted. In that respect, a rather thrifty and industrious group of folks.

walkway  with entrance to shop

entrance to shops

Walkway between shops

walkway between shops

aqueduct

aqueduct

Outside the homes of both the wealthy and the humble the city swirled around them as a place of social engagement and commerce but it also contained the minutiae that’s part of day-to-day living.  Although women lacked a political voice they did possess legal rights; they could buy and sell property and they were very visible in the life of the city. The city streets passed by numerous shops run by Roman citizens and one of the first excavations that we came upon was a public laundry. The clothes were washed and bleached in large round vats with ashes, lime and ammonia mixed with water. After the laundry was done the water would be washed down a drain and flow into an aqueduct which carried it outside the city to maintain sanitation. And the source of the ammonia?  (We loved this interesting little tidbit!)  In the streets, containers were assigned for urine collection from the public at large, which, when mixed with lime, resulted in an ammonia solution that was used during the laundering.

vat in garum factory

vat in garum factory

Also on display was a shop for processing garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment atop all sorts of dishes and beloved by Romans.  The mechanics were a bit messy but the fish (and leftover parts too) and shellfish were smashed, mashed, pulverized and marinated in large vats, macerated in salt and left to rot or be cured and then sold commercially.  According to the lore, the smell was so rank during the fermenting that the citizens weren’t allowed to make it in their own homes – hence the shops.   Definitely an acquired taste!

maceration tanks for garum

maceration tanks for garum

In one section of the ruins were public baths for both men and women:  hot water baths (caldarium), warm water baths (tepidarium) and cold water baths (frigidarium) which were intended to be used in succession. Massages were offered and then as now, the masses and aristocrats were concerned with their appearances.  Cosmetics and unguents and creams to moisturize or hide the signs of aging and whiten the skin were available.  Linseed was applied to shine the nails and a mix of honey and oats polished the teeth while laurel leaves could be chewed to freshen breath.

cold water pool, part of the public baths

cold water pool, part of the public baths

And what’s a society without its intoxicants?   The Romans were egalitarian in the use of wine and, regardless of class, wine was served along with bread and salt at every meal. Structures of a wine making facility were found in the ruins along with vats for fermentation, a wine-press and even a wine cellar.  The wine was produced in great quantities and, while considered an unimpressive, inexpensive wine, it was suitable for export and became a staple in the western Mediterranean.

wine factory with vats remnants

wine factory with holes for vats

Christian carving

Christian carving

Towards the end of our tour, well into our third hour of roaming the walkways and as our energy began flagging we came upon the ruins of a 4th century residence of an early bishop of the Christian Church.  As the Roman Empire declined the new religion of Christianity gained in popularity until, by the fourth century, Christianity was Barcino’s official religion as well as entwined in its political life.  Evidence of a small necropolis exists and there’s a display of several pieces of sarcophagi decorated with Christian motifs, some originating from Rome.  Additional renovations in the sixth century changed the bishop’s residence into a grander palace, added a new church and show a religion gaining in influence, power and wealth.  Lastly we admired the remains of intricate tiled mosaic floors and the remnants of some of the remarkable paintings that decorated the ceiling of the baptistery and walls of the episcopal hall.

mosaid tiles from Episcopal palace

mosaic tiles from Christian palace

It was rather disorienting to climb out of our subterranean time capsule and surface into the 21st century sunshine.   Maybe what was more unreal was that we emerged in the midst of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, another chapter of architecture, artistry, religion and history.  What a magnificent city!

By Richard and Anita

Cruise Virgins: Voyage to Spain

At this advanced stage in life it’s terribly embarrassing to admit to fellow travelers that we are, in fact, Cruise Virgins. We’d never seriously given the notion of “cruising” any real thought. Not for us … or so we thought until we found we could travel from Miami to Barcelona, Spain on an eleven night cruise for less than the cost of airline tickets, PLUS a balcony stateroom, PLUS meals and then we said, “Sign us up! We are ready, ready, ready to lose our virginity.”

Goodbye Miami!

Goodbye Miami, USA !

This particular ship, The Norwegian Epic, was a repositioning cruise on its last trans-Atlantic voyage from Miami to Barcelona, Spain;  its new incarnation would be sailing through the Mediterranean. The fifteen balcony room aboard the Norwegian Epicdecks contained a maximum capacity of 4,200 passengers but on this trip there were (just!) over 3,100 onboard, with an average age of 59 years. (It was rather nice to blend in.) The eleven-hundred crew members worked diligently to make sure our time aboard was a pleasurable experience.  The major pastimes of the guests appeared to be eating, sunbathing (in rather chilly temps on the upper deck) and gambling although there were evening shows with a hypnotist, comedians, musical acts and karaoke for those so inclined. There were art auctions, meet and greets for the singles on board and Friends of Bill W. and Friends of Dorothy gatherings.  And, of course, outrageously priced booze for the thirsty ship passengers.  However, the star of the show was the F-O-O-D: well prepared, varied and plentiful.  The buffet and food bars were extensive and overflowing. Pushing back from the table, to our consternation, became a major preoccupation.the Atlantic

Since this was our maiden voyage on a modern floating hotel/casino we were comforted by the fact that the ocean – an impossibly deep, dark impenetrable blue – was relatively flat so there was no upset to our overworked stomachs in the area of sea-sickness. At worst, the swells were eight to ten feet so pitch was relatively mild. The constant thrum of the diesel-electric engines underfoot was a bit disconcerting but soon lapsed into one of those background events of which one is only subliminally conscious.Funchal

We had only one port of call to intrude upon our days at sea and, early on the ninth day the island of Madeira, Portugal, began to slip past us on the port side.  Shortly after 6:00 AM bright klieg lights shone through our Silvestreopen balcony windows from the pier dispelling any future notions of sleep. Having purchased our shuttle passes the day before to take us into the downtown area of the capital city, Funchal, we tagged up with Joe, a fellow traveler from Cincinnati and decided to hire a taxi.  Our mojo was good because the first driver we approached, Silvestre, spoke beautiful English and offered his taxi service, a lovingly tended Mercedes-Benz 220D, at a reasonable rate. We discussed the options and sights we wanted to see, struck a deal and grabbed some Euros from an ATM.  (Note – ATMs are ubiquitous and much cheaper to use compared to the usurious exchange rates charged by the cruise ships.)  Overview of island

And a further aside about the present economy of the island which is based primarily on tourism. In an average year over 360 cruise ships will dock in Madeira and disgorge their passengers who, like us, will descend on the place in mobs to eat, drink, buy souvenirs, and take the quaint tram-way to the botanical gardens and see the island’s other sights. A whopping 70% of the euros generated in the economy come from the guests who flock to this magnificent speck of land. The remaining mainstays of the economy are from produce which is cultivated in the coastal areas and ranching in the highlands around the smaller villages. Fishing provides food for local consumption. terraces

Funchal (a Portuguese name for a fennel plantation) and the island of Madeira were first established around 1452 and the fertile lands in the coastal and upland areas provided the impetus for future settlements. It’s a small island but a handful of hours is insufficient to see all it has to offer from its numerous historic churches, museums and markets to the scenic vistas and countryside reached through roads winding their way through the hills. Actually, the entire island was scenic and the wow factor was high. (Of course, now we have to admit that we’re Europe Virgins too!) The homes were immaculately painted, yards and vegetation trimmed. The hillsides above and below the road ways were stacked with terraced fields which had been under cultivation for centuries; testament to the longevity of the settlement.  Life on this island looked to be slow-paced and comfortable.Camara de Lobos

One of our stops was at Camara de Lobos, a small fishing village where fishing boats had been pulled out of the water in the late morning and cleaned, filleted fish hung in the sun to dry.  Aside from its antiquity and quaint factor its claim to fame was that after the Second World War, Winston Churchill visited to sketch and paint the harbor. A café in his honor still operates near the wharf. The village also houses the church of Saint Santiago, a deceptively small and modest structure from the outside with beautifully painted plank ceilings and a gilded altar to admire upon your entry.Cabo Girao - highest cliff in Europe

Climbing away from the water we topped out at Cabo Girao and the overlook upon the highest cliff in Europe. Past the cliff the small village from which we had just departed could be seen. The entire sweep of that corner of the island came into view with thin gossamer clouds streaked in the sky, contrasting and merging with the ocean from which it rose. Traveling a bit further we stopped at the view-point of Pico dos Barcelos for another vista. We were not alone as buses, taxis and cars lined the parking lots and the tourists, most likely from our cruise ship, waited to get their photos of the not to be replicated panoramas.basket rides at Monte

tobaggan basketSince we’d hired our very comfortable ride in the Mercedes and a knowledgeable driver we decided not to take the gondola cable cars up to Monte, a parish a few kilometers east of Funchal and famous for its botanical gardens as well as the option to make one’s return to Funchal in the 19th century basket sledges.  The baskets are attached to skis and were adopted as a quick way to take the townsfolk of Monte down the winding mountain roads to the city.  They’re guided by two runners, dressed in white and wearing the typical hats known as straw boaters.

The Church of Our Lady of Monte, built in 1741 and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1818, was reached by a climb up many stairs.  Although a beautiful church, what made it stand out for us was that it is the final resting place of Emperor Charles I of Austria, the last of the Hapsburg rulers who died on the island of Madeira in exile after the dissolution of the great empire following WWI.The Church of Our Lady of Monte

We discovered that our short time on terra firma was fast evaporating.  Reluctantly we headed down the mountain toward the harbor where we were deposited at the gangway to our ship.  After a quick parting photo of our chauffeur and his Mercedes, we again embarked on our voyage having glimpsed but a fraction of the phenomenal island of Madeira.

"Pride of Madeira"

“Pride of Madeira”

By Richard and Anita

 

The Journey, Not the Destination and “Never Go Back”

in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - common hazzardThe Dominican Republic has three kinds of roads:  paved and smooth, once paved but now potholed and, the third, thinkin’ ‘bout pavement.  The first roads, double-lane and as nice or better than our highways back in the in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - toll road feesStates, are toll roads, distanced every 50 kilometers or so, with three to five little manned (or womanned) booths with the motorized arms that block further access until the toll is paid. We kept the smaller DOP (Dominican Pesos) bills and change in the console of the car for the frequent stops and the fare averaged about one-hundred pesos ($2 USD) depending on the direction.  Signs marking turnoffs and destinations were usually posted right at the turn to the desired road which resulted in the person with the best far-sighted vision playing spotter so that the driver could prepare his racing reflexes to make the correct turn.  Many times, however, we saw the sign too late, sailed by the turn and would have to double back…

Our drive from our temporary home base in Punta Cana followed the shoreline west towards Santo Domingo and proceeded smoothly on the toll road. We turned onto the second kind of road, “the once paved but now potholed” per our directions and headed more or less northwest towards the toll road to the “Amber Coast,” so named because of the huge amber deposits found in the north coast area.  The road lured us along unaware until … our teeth slammed together, our heads hit the roof of the car and our behinds thumped back into our seats. There were occasional grinding scrapes with the bottom of the car dragging as we crept from shallow hole to patched hole to gaping hole to speed bumps.  And this was still a well-traveled secondary road in the DR!

However, there’s something to be said about leaving the toll highway and slowing down along the bad stretches of secondary road.  We drove through small dusty villages seemingly out in the middle of nowhere scattered between farms and fields.  Many appeared fairly “prosperous” by rural standards, cement homes alongside the road with people sitting on the front porches, flowering bushes and neatly tended dirt yards. in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Further back off the road, houses were scattered between the trees with freshly washed laundry drying on fences or lines with surprisingly little litter to be seen.  But other places were scarcely in the campo - trip to Cabaretemore than shanty towns with shacks of rusting walls and roofs of corrugated metal.  We drove through groupings of sad and desperate hovels where the garbage, plastic bottles and trash had been mounded high alongside the dwellings that lined the road.  We could not avoid seeing the scenes of bleak poverty and decay; people here and there sitting under whatever shade could protect them from the glaring relentless sun overhead.Boca de Yuma - the drive

We referred to this bumpy, rutted roadway as the “Cement Factory Road” for the one industry we saw upon that route and we made a decision to avoid it on our return trip. Eventually we hooked up with the major interior toll road of the DR and drove through countryside rich and lush, beautiful and picturesque: the properties of the wealthy. Living fences of small trees interspersed with wire or intricate walls of carefully piled stones mined from the rocky fields enclosed herds of grazing cows and great horned bulls, horses with foals, goats and kids and the occasional pig.

living fence -wire strung between small, growing trees

living fence

We passed farms of papaya, sugarcane, rice fields and plowed land with mounds of rocks scattered and dug out and cleared for future crops.  Rolling hills, palm trees, beautifully shaped, canopied trees and trees topped with huge orange flowers were silhouetted against the blue sky, all contributing to the beauty of the setting.in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Near the city of Nagua on the northern coast the road opened up to the brilliant and varying shades of blue sea along which we drove for miles watching both gentle waves lapping the seaweed strewn wild beaches and waves crashing into rocky shores of uplifted and long dead coral formations. Back again to the “once paved but now pot holed” roads we made our way through urban Nagua slowly; small businesses perched on the road edge behind parked cars on both sides that frequently necked  the traffic down to one lane at time.  Streets angled out of the narrow main road with more stores and houses, scooters wove their way through the inevitable traffic jams and, everywhere, drivers laid on their horns. It was your typical traffic bedlam.

Cabarete beach

We spent three days exploring the tourist attractions in the popular beach towns of Sosua and Cabarete and then embarked upon our homeward journey to Punta Cana.  The map promised us a road that we hadn’t driven on the western side of Sosua which looked to be a feeder road to the major toll roads. Our selection may have been the correct route, but it turned out to be the third kind of road, the “thinkin’ ‘bout paving” variety. We jounced and bounced past small family farms and homes where people sat in the shade visiting with each other and (probably) commenting on the occasional idiot tourists with their cars scraping along the graveled, potholed, washboarded road.  After about a mile of this abuse and surrounded by a cloud of dust we stopped for directions.  Our elected guide was a grinning fellow, shirtless and washing his car with lackadaisical energy, swigging beer from a long neck bottle.  He pointed down the rutted road and said about an hour more that way would take us to the toll road headed south, explaining that the road was bumpy and slow but that it was better to continue on and saying like a drunken mantra, “Never go back.”  We mulled these dubious directions over and, after some discussion, decided to turn back anyway and take the known road.  And as we passed him, our guide’s look was confused as he gestured again down the road and shouted,”But it’s that way.  Never go back!”in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - bad stretch of road

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Three Road Trips: Three Vignettes in the DR

Okay.  So this first little snapshot isn’t quite the epic road trip we had in mind but it did involve us piling into the little white Kia rental we shared with our friends early on a Saturday afternoon and driving across the touristic sprawl of Punta Cana.  We’d heard there was a parade near the airport named the Carnival Punta Cana. The timing of the event struck us as a bit curious since it was well past Mardi Gras and into the Lenten period when simple living and abstinence are usually observed.  But as guests of the Dominican Republic, who were we to challenge their collective wisdom or rationale? After driving to the event and casting covetous eyes about for a parking spot (no, not on the sidewalk like a few of the bozos we saw!) we drove on and on and, finally, found one on the shoulder of the road not too, too far from the event.

Our feelings exactly!

Our feelings exactly!

Arriving at the parade route we quickly came to the conclusion that this event was another commercial extravaganza gratis of the dreaded All Inclusive Resorts. All the shaded seating areas seemed to be the exclusive domains of the aforementioned rascals and, yep, colored wrist bands were indeed the price of admission for the day.  By then we’d walked quite a ways, so back we plodded past the merry tents serving frothy libations behind barricades that prohibited us from simply crossing the street, to the parade entrance.  We crossed over to the free side of the street which of course was in full sun, found an open spot along the barricades with the potential for some afternoon shade and hunkered down to protect our viewing rights and enjoy the parade.

The festivities themselves were a strange amalgam of young women, many children and several depictions of disproportionally buxom females.  Interspersed were stylized demons in colorful, elaborate costumes designed to strike fear into the hearts of the young or whimsy into the heads of the inebriated; both of which were in abundance that afternoon. We admired the extravagant costumes parading by and noticed that many of the participants in the parade were representatives of the Caribbean Island Nations.  All was well until the Haitian contingent paced by us with an intriguing voodoo float and suddenly there were boos, rude catcalls and objects flying.  Peace was quickly restored and later we learned that, for many reasons good and bad, there is no love lost between the side-by-side neighbors, Haitian and Dominican, who share the island of Hispaniola.Carnival in Punta Cana

A few days later we took a rather nerve rattling drive through the provincial capital of Higüey several miles into the interior to visit the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, which could more simply be said as the “Church of Altagracia.”  Driving in Dominican city traffic is not for the faint of heart, which amply supplies the reason that neither of us was piloting our rental car. That onerous duty we left to our friend Bryce, an aspiring, derring-do, wanna-be Dominican driver. Our quest for the day was buried in the heart of the city and our relieved group exited the vehicle in the near empty parking lot. One of the most famous cathedrals in the country, this modern Basilica was begun in 1954 and competed in 1970.Basilica de la Altagracia

Designed by two French architects, it is a mixture of the sublime and the mundane: towering arches, massive stained glass windows and a jewel-encrusted framed painting of the Madonna of Altagracia as well as the designation as a Basilica in 1970 by Pope Paul VI anchor its upside. But the church structure itself is not regal, it is more compact and angular than the traditional churches and the unadorned, gray cement walls are the dominant theme within the sanctuary.La Basilica de la Altagracia

However, the quiet of the interior, with light streaming through the multitude of stained glass windows and the glow radiating back from the highly polished mahogany  pews, pulpit and the Madonna’s repository with suspended, foot-long, carved leaves encircling it, suffused the air with a tranquility, broken only by our superfluous guide’s uninspired soliloquy.

Ready for more adventure, but heartily relieved that we were still passengers in our rental, we set off again several days later and found ourselves on the eastern side of the Parque Nacional del Este, alongside the Caribbean Sea near Boca de Yuma, a stretch of rugged coast and coral reef that has been lifted by geologic forces from the ocean floor to become an island land form. The iron shore is stunningly beautiful with its ragged imperfections, numerous waterspouts and the quaint village of Boca del Yuma.  Boca de Yuma

Friends had recommended a restaurant, El Arpunero (The Harpoon) which sits regally atop the cliffs, open-aired so that the sea breezes flow in; a palm-leafed, thatched roof shades the whole dining area.  Immediately adjacent to the restaurant is a swimming hole, totally contained within a punch bowl of the old sea bed. It has a sandy beach but also outcroppings of coral rock; the water level fluctuates with the tidal action fed through a hole in the rocks which form the outer rim of the bowl. Boca de Yuma

Following one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve been in the DR (langustinos or jumbo prawns and tempura battered shell-fish) and after a little dreamy fantasizing about owning a home in the area, we took a quick hike around the nearby cave, Cueva de Berna, a large cavern with openings blocked off behind warning signs and, unfortunately, graffiti marring many areas.  We returned back to the restaurant, cooled off in its filtered saltwater pool, did a bit of basking in the sun while enjoyed a cold libation as well as a few quick hands of Gin Rummy.

Road trips, short and long are entertaining past-times to get briefly acquainted with several of the various locales in any given area. Nothing is in-depth, but all of it is a slice of the life of the country. When added up, these dribs and drabs can fill in puzzle pieces forming a more complete portrait of a complex nation.  Speaking of which, there’s another road trip that we could fill you in on …in the campo  - trip to Cabarete

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

 

Diego, The Ocean Blue and What’s an Alcázar?

Palace of ColumbusThose of us who are a “certain age” grew up with the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”  We learned of Christopher Columbus (now the subject of a hot debate but we’ll pass on that story) and his voyage west, bumping into the “New World” along the way.  But we never heard about his family. His eldest son, Diego, for example, spent much of his adult life trying to regain the titles and perquisites bestowed upon his explorer father that were stripped from Christopher in 1500. Being a clever fellow like his padre, Diego married a woman with family ties to King Ferdinand. Recently, we became aware of the younger Colombo during our visit to the Alcázar de Colón in the historic central district of Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

renovation in Santo DomingoOur road trip to the capital city of the Dominican Republic began smoothly enough as well-marked and maintained toll roads run between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo. Upon reaching the sprawling city, however, the carefully thought out route to the hotel that our friends had downloaded to their iPad went awry.  Roads in the center of town were completely blocked off by piles of bricks, paving stones and mounds of dirt with huge gaping holes where the streets had once been.  A massive project of renovation and utility improvements within the old city was underway.renovation - historical zone

And there we were, driving down a one way-street the wrong way, four pairs of eyes looking frantically for a street sign to hint at our location.  A stern-looking representative of the Nacional Policia motioned us to stop with an imperious wave of his hand, allowed us to turn around and then led us along an unimaginably complex route to the destination where we were quartered for the evening. The officer finally smiled as profuse thanks were offered by all of us and we lugged our bags into the Boutique Hotel Palacio.  A few minutes later one of the hotel staff informed us that the policeman was still outside and we, somewhat gingerly, inquired of the officer if it was permissible to offer a “propina” (a gratuity) for such exemplary service. “Only,” he gravely and courteously replied, “If we wished to do so…”

sideview of Alcázar de Colón

side view of Alcázar de Colón

But, we digress.  Back to Diego and the Alcázar de Colón, the most visited museum in Santo Domingo. The royal palace was commissioned by Diego who became the Viceroy of Hispaniola in 1509 assuming the post his father had previously held. Construction initially began between 1510 and 1512 and, when it was finally completed, it encompassed fifty-five rooms and was the Viceroy’s residence as well as the administrative center of the New World for much of the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón

Alcázar de Colón

Today only twenty-two rooms survive and we’re fortunate to have them.  Our old friend, whose dastardly deeds we’d first run into in Panama and then Colombia, the English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, sacked the Alcázar, or Palace, in 1586.  As the importance of Santo Domingo waned in the New World, the Alcazar was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Finally, in 1955, renovation began to preserve what remains.

Picture a square with a central courtyard populated by a fewinside Alcázar de Colón strutting peacocks and rooms leading like railroad cars to other rooms.  Weaving our way between tour groups of school children we tried hard to stay ahead or behind them as we went from one display to another admiring the period pieces of furniture, paintings, tapestries, armaments, clothing and other accoutrements of life among the royal families.  As an aside, it’s an unnerving feeling to be contemplating a royal dignitary’s bedroom, with its itsy-bitsy little bed, trunks, chairs and bureau (for they truly were small people) and look out the open-shuttered window and view a cruise ship docked not two hundred yards distant alongside the quay in the old city dwarfing the Alcázar.courtyard  cruise ship

apothecaryEntirely unique to our experiences in Latin America was a room containing what once must have been a fully stocked apothecary. A wall of individually labeled bottles, rather resembling Delft pottery in appearance, stored the herbs, spices, ground potions and liniments which an eminent physician would naturally have had at his disposal, especially when his clientele included the ruling masters of the New World.  Another wall contained shelves loaded with beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles, even a small copper distillery for producing the extracts and essences of the medicinal products. The Alcázar’s medical practitioner also possessed a handsome cabinet which, behind the screened front, revealed eighty-one individual drawers, each painted in exquisite detail, identifying its contents. While no plaques attested to the physician’s prowess in the healing arts this stupendous collection should, at the least, have assuaged some of the qualms of Diego Colón.apothecary

Much of our time in Santa Domingo was spent on the Calle da las Damas, the first cobblestoned street in the Americas and the heart of the New World back in the day. It lies parallel to the waterfront on the Caribbean Sea and the Ozama River and nearly abuts the Parque Colon and La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor also known as La Catedral Primada de America, the first church of the Americas.

La Catedral

La Catedral – building began in 1514

This venue houses the Museo de las Casas de Reales (Museum of the Royal Families) which was initially the Royal Court, the first court of law in the New World.  Also on the Calle de las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally a Jesuit church which, after many iterations, became the resting place of many of the leading revolutionary figures and national leaders. A single sentry stands a silent vigil over the crypts.

There’s more to see in the venerable old city of Santo Domingo, first established in 1496, than we anticipated.  We returned to Punta Cana with the feeling that we could have spent another day exploring and learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Zona Colonial and the first and oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas.

19th century statue honoring Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon - La Catedral in background

19th century statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon – La Catedral in background

By Richard and Anita

 

“Long Time No See” and Island Hopping to the DR

We left Curacao on a lovely warm day flying in a small passenger Airbus over the teal blue Caribbean above puffy, white cumulus clouds.  We were headed north towards the island of Hispaniola and Santa Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, where we would meet our friends.

A funny story about our friends. We first met B & C in January, 2013, in Merida, a good-sized colonial city (population approximately one million) in the Mexican state of Yucatan.

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

We spent our month-long visit walking miles around the city, locating various parks and neighborhood churches, visiting museums, wandering down the lovely wide avenue Paseo Montejo, waiting in the bus station to hop buses to the near-by ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza’, the seaside city of Progresso, the yellow city of Izamal, among other places.  And we kept bumping into the same couple, strolling about sight-seeing.  We’d nod, exchange a few words and a laugh and go on our way.  One night we ran into them again at dinner on Avenida Reforma and carried on a lively conversation, filling in our backgrounds and exchanging travel stories.  At the end of our stay in Merida we moved on to further travels throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and  Chiapas and then on to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and…

Nicaragua. Late December of 2013 found us in Granada strolling the streets when we heard a familiar voice say, “Long time no see.”

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

And there they were. What were they, stalkers? This time we met for a lunch, exchanged email addresses and actually arranged to meet again for a short jaunt to San Juan del Sur in January of 2014.  Again, we went our separate ways but this time we stayed in touch updating each other on our plans and travels until …

Ecuador.  There we were, contemplating a 7-week housesit in Curacao for January/February of 2015, deciding where to go in December (Colombia) and figuring out what to do with the several weeks we had in March/April until we departed for Europe.  A note from B & C said “We’re in the DR for four months – feel welcome to come and visit …” And so we did and here we are in …

Punta Cana on Map dominican_republicPunta Cana, Dominican Republic. After a week of staying with B & C we found an airy condo unit on the second floor of the same complex – because, after all, we’d like to cultivate our friendship not smother it!  We split the cost of a month-long car rental which makes getting around the spread-out, ill-defined area that offers stores, restaurants and other services much easier. The car rental has the additional advantage of simplifying navigating around this island nation to visit other towns and cities, historic landmarks and the rural countryside and coasts.

walled cityAlthough the coastal town of Punta Cana is written on a map it’s hard to encapsulate its location in precise terms since there’s no such thing as city limits for the sprawl.  Large cement letters lining a wide road and spelling out D-O-W-N-T-O-W-N Punta Cana lead to … nothing.  Poorly regulated growth has spawned these place holders for the all-inclusive end-destination resorts that blanket the eastern end of the island. These resorts tend to keep the vacationing guests and their money inside the gated walls and exclude the “others”, be they ex-pats or Dominicans, from the mix. Approaching the resorts from the land side is not an option due to the high walls and sentries at the gates which offer tantalizing glimpses of vast pools and lounges for reclining sun worshippers.

resort map

resort map

Access from the beach is ill-advised as well since the public area is small and the resort areas with their vast stretches of beach, while not roped off per se, hurry to shoo away folks who might decide that their beach stroll would be improved with a cold beverage or a bit of sit on a lounge in front of any particular resort compound.  Colored wrist bracelets clearly identify those who belong versus those who don’t.

For those not ensconced in the all-inclusive resorts, the people who actually live in Punta Cana or long-term visitors like our friends (who won’t return) escaping from harsh northern winters, the area presents a clean, modernized face with many amenities on its soulless interior. Certainly this is a vacation paradise where the living is easy but the city lacks any authenticity. “There’s no there, there.” aptly describes this urban area. For the sun worshiper it’s a vacation paradise. However, for someone seeking to learn about another country, Punta Cana is an unfair and unflattering representation of the Dominican Republic that is packaged and presented in this pasteurized, homogenized tip of the island.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

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