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

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Puebla, Cinco de Mayo and Street Food: Part 4 of South East from Mexico City

This is a new post though it describes the events of the 17th of November 2017.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days time.

In Puebla we stayed at the Méson Sacristía de la Compañía, a boutique hotel in the heart of the old town.

Meson Sacristia de la Compania, Peubla

A colonial building, the atrium is also the restaurant and our room opened onto the gallery above.

The Atrium, Meson Sacristia de la Compania
The door to our room is on the gallery, top left

The room had character. Photographing your bathroom door would generally be considered eccentric, but not (perhaps) when it is a solid slab of wood set in a Talavera tiled wall.
Probably the first bathroom door I have ever photographed,
Meson Sacristia de la Compania

For breakfast we ate huevos rancheros in the atrium. I had been looking forward to this Mexican speciality but found it as disappointing as last night’s mole poblano. Two fried eggs sitting on a tortilla had been hosed down in a thin sauce, its main contribution being to make the tortilla soggy. A dump of the ubiquitous black beans topped with slices of avocado completed the ensemble. Lynne eschewed the tortilla, soggy or not she had decided that corn-based foods were not for her; fortunately there was also fruit and bread and jam so nobody went hungry.
G was a little late. As the first picture shows, workman were busy stringing up Christmas lights, and the street had been closed to traffic, so he had to park further away and walk.

He drove us up to the Fort Loreto Park where there are views over the city, and even a distant sight of Popocatepetl – G’s pronunciation gave this already magnificent word a lilt I wish I could imitate. It is somewhere in the picture, hiding in the mist.
Puebla from Fort Loreto Park

The park occupies the site of the Battle of the 5th of May. We prefer to name battles after their location, it is more informative (maybe, but where are Blenheim and Malplaquet?) while Cinco de Mayo tells us only that the battle took place in spring, offering no clue as to where, in what war and between whom. G clearly thought the battle a big deal so I decided not to mention that I had never heard of it, nor of the war of which it was part.

Cinco de Mayo is a public holiday in Puebla State and is widely observed in the USA as a day of celebration of Mexican culture. In North Staffordshire the date tends to pass without comment. The park contains some of the floats used in the annual procession, like this model of the Monumento a la Revolución we had seen in Mexico City.
Model of the Monumento de la Revolucion, Fort Loreto Park, Puebla

Mexico had hardly recovered from the Mexican-American War (1846-8) when a civil war broke out (the Reform War 1858-60). The government ran out of money and in 1861 President Benito Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on the repayment of foreign debt. The main creditors, Britain, France and Spain, sent fleets to Veracruz. The British and Spanish withdrew after negotiations, but Napoleon III saw an opportunity for a French influenced Mexican Empire.

In late 1861 a French army stormed Veracruz and marched on Mexico City. On the 5th of May 1862, at Puebla, they attacked a smaller, poorly equipped Mexican force. Misled into believing they had the support of the townspeople the French assault was badly organised and over-confident and the result was a crushing Mexican victory.
Veracruz is a major port on the Gulf of Mexico at the same latitude as Puebla
The victory did a great deal for Mexico’s national self-esteem, but little to alter the course of the war. In July 1863 Maximilian, Napoleon III’s nominee and the younger brother of Franz Joseph I of Austria, became Emperor Maximilian I of the Second Mexican Empire.
His empire did not endure. Looming war with Prussia led to French forces being withdrawn in 1866, while the Americans, no longer distracted by their own civil war, sent aid to Benito Juárez and his government in exile, hiding out in Northern Mexico.
The Empire collapsed within a year and Maximilian was executed on the 19th of June 1867.
Leaving the park, G drove us down to the suburb of Xanenetla. Mexico has a graffiti problem, but Xanenetla has a novel solution.
The whitewashed walls of the dwellings have been given over to street artists.

Xanenetla, Puebla
The styles are many,
Painted houses, Xanenetla, Puebla
…the colours bright and varied,…
Painted houses, Xanenetla, Puebla
…as are the choices of subject.
Pandas, Xanenetla, Puebla
Sadly there is a little evidence that this is not a complete solution.
Painted houses and some graffiti, Xanenetla, Puebla
‘Secret tunnels’ make frequent appearances in adventure books for children, but rarely actually exist. The secret tunnels beneath Puebla were long regarded as urban legend until their rediscovery in 2015. Several hundred metres of tunnel lead from near Xanenetla back towards Fort Loreto. Large enough to accommodate horses as well as men, the tunnel was probably built by the conquistadors in the 1530s to move church treasure in times of danger and may later have played a part on the events of the 5th of May 1862. No longer secret and carefully restored, we walked its length inspecting the exhibitions of horseshoes, tools and other detritus left by the original users.
The no longer 'secret' tunnels of Puebla

We emerged in another tidy suburb and waited while G fetched the car, before driving us back into town.
A brief wait while G fetched the car, Puebla

Lunchtime had arrived and G’s brief was to show us the street food of Puebla. Accepting this would involve corn dough we approached a young man with a plastic basket stuffed with tiny, warm tacos folded round a vegetable paste. They were pleasant, if a rather bland before the addition of chilli sauce and onion.
G offers Lynne a tiny taco

After our starter we dropped down into another ‘secret’ tunnel - nobody knows how many are awaiting discovery, but informed speculation suggests they may stretch for 10km below the city. We followed the river that once flowed above ground through the city centre, passing several old bridges. The river is now a sewer and we gratefully left this pungent hole in the earth to emerge in Puebla’s artistic quarter.
The pungent tunnel under central Puebla and an old bridge
Puebla (in full, Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza for Ignacio Zaragoza who led the Mexican forces on the Cinco de Mayo) was previously called Puebla de los Angeles, and angels are still made welcome.
My wife is often mistaken for an angel, Puebla
Tortillas, large blue ones, were cooking on a roadside hotplate. Blue corn cobs look odd but taste the same as the familiar yellow and, except for the colour, their dough is identical. Once ready they were smeared with salsa roja and salsa verde – half green, half red like the Mexican flag - a slick of sour cream was added, followed by a sprinkle of cheese and finally some grated onion.
Our main course is prepared, Puebla
The result was not unpleasant, but I had hoped for something exciting, and this was not it. Eventually the weight of corn dough, lying in my unaccustomed stomach like a lead ingot, defeated me, though I ate more than Lynne.
I hate to be an Eeyore, and I am far from the Brit abroad reluctant to venture beyond omelette/steak ‘n’ chips, but I did not understand what they were trying to do. I love strong flavours, but the salsas were watery and underpowered and having made the tortilla soggy with salsa they piled on yet more wet ingredients. And what is the point of Mexican cheese? Why does it not taste of anything?
Lynne and a patriotic tortilla, Puebla
As we ambled through the artist’s quarter, G suggested we pause for a drink. Two 30cl bottles for 30 Pesos (£1.20) was the attractive lunchtime offer so I bought four bottles between the three of us. Mexican yellow lager is nothing special – Corona’s worldwide popularity is a triumph of marketing over substance – but they brew some more characterful ‘Vienna-style’ dark lagers. On this occasion we enjoyed Dos Equis Ambar, but at other times appreciated Bohemia and Victoria.
Artist's quarter, Puebla
Those who linger too long at the café tables might forget where they are, so the city fathers have kindly erected a large reminder nearby.
Where am I?
The building behind, the Teatro Principal,….
Teatro Principal, Peubla
…is described as the oldest ‘active theatre space’ in America. The theatre was built in 1742 but has since burnt down and twice been rebuilt – though it occupies the same ‘space’. It still has the royal box once used by the unfortunate Maximilian I, though the theatre has been rebuilt since his time!
Inside the Teatro Principal, Puebla
After a lunch dominated by corn dough we were relieved when G suggested ice-cream for a mid-afternoon snack and selected a shop offering a wide choice of flavours, some of them a little odd (cheese ice-cream, anyone?). We could translate most, G helped out with several more, but even he could not render Maracuyá or Guanabana into English, so that was what we chose.
Ice-cream choices, Puebla
The ice-cream was good quality, both flavours were enjoyed and although maracuyá was familiar we could not quite place it. Guanabana remained a mystery. [Maracuyá, we learnt later, is passion fruit, so we should have recognised it, guanabana is soursop. No, nor me. Wikipedia says it is a spikey, vaguely pear-shaped fruit that grows on an evergreen tree widespread in tropical parts of the Americas. Its flavour is a combination of strawberry and apple with a sour citrus note. I have never seen one, but it makes a good ice-cream.]
Eating ice-cream in Puebla
We wandered along the street, dropping into several sweet shops for a taste of the sweeties and, in one, a tot of mezcal (of which more in a future post) a more interesting spirit than the better-known tequila.
The Church of San Domingo, originally the church of the Dominican Monastery, was built between 1571 and 1611 (or 1659, depending on source).
The Rosary Chapel of Santo Domingo,Puebla
The reredos is covered with statues of saints….
Reredos, Santo Domingo, Puebla
…but on the arch in front of the altar are two stucco faces, apparently of Don Quixote. In 1605, 262 copies of Cervantes’ newly published book arrived in Veracruz and it is believed that plasterwork specialist Pedro García Durango chose to incorporate this homage. It is believed to be the only depiction of a character from a novel in the fabric of any Catholic Church.
The stucco on the arch with two depictions of Don Quixote
Santo Domingo, Puebla
The Rosary Chapel was added between 1650 and 1690 in New Spanish Baroque.
Dome of the Rosary Chapel, Santo Domingo, Puebla
At the time it was hailed as the 8th Wonder of the World and it is certainly impressive, if a little over the top. As many others have found the overhead lighting and reflective surfaces make the altar difficult to photograph (though there was no problem with the ceiling).
Altar, Rosary Chapel, Santo Domingo, Puebla
Outside, in the Av Cinco de Mayo (what else?) the shade from the huge trees made it feel like an enclosed arcade.
Av Cinco de Mayo, Puebla
The avenue ends at the zocalo, the main square, with the early 20th century Municipal Palace (Town Hall)…

Municipal Palace, Puebla
…while opposite, behind a small wooded park, is the cathedral. Started in 1575, it was consecrated in 1649, though it was not finished until 1768 which explains why the façade is transitional between late baroque and neo-classical.
The façade of Puebla cathedral
The interior is large, complex and confusing, with five naves and five altars, one hexagonal central altar (a clear line of sight for a photograph was impossible) and four facing in the cardinal direction.
One of non-hexagonal altars, Puebla Cathedral
With G, a full day’s tour had meant exactly what it said, but now it was time to head back to our hotel. In my photographs the streets of Pueblo look clean, uncluttered and pleasantly relaxed. That is a fair reflection (though if you want to find traffic you can), but Puebla suffered in the September earthquake, there was much scaffolding inside the cathedral and it was not hard to find closed roads and buildings supported by props.
Earthquake damage, Puebla
Back at our hotel we found the Christmas lights had been strung up but were not yet operational so we walked down to find dinner in the gloom.
The Christmas lights are up, but not on, Puebla
The only open restaurant was the place we lunched yesterday. Inside there was no heating, at 2,000m+ Puebla gets cold once the sun goes down, and no other customers.  Lynne thought she could manage nachos with cheese and beans while I had egg, sausage and beans – the distinctively Mexican version of scrambled eggs, salchichas and black beans, so not quite as all day English breakfast as it sounds. We thought we had made a poor choice of venue even before the youthful waiter tried to short change us; it was an amateurish attempt and he backed down as soon as confronted.
It was not a comfortable night, the lunchtime tortillas made themselves felt, but an Imodium was sufficient to solve the problem.
South West from Mexico City

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Breakfast Thoughts in Udaipur: Interlude in Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post is an ‘interlude’ in our journey round Rajasthan. The incident described took place in Udaipur at the most southerly point of our route, but it could have happened anywhere in India – and we saw something very similar in Sri Lanka in 2015.

We were in Udaipur in central southern Rajasthan

As we plonked down our fruit juice and tea cups to 'claim' our morning breakfast table we noticed a lonely bottle of soy sauce standing sentinel on an adjacent table. By the time we had returned from the buffet it had been joined by a stack of pot noodles, and a waiter was approaching bearing a large jug of boiling water. A party of a dozen or so Chinese tourists had occupied a long table behind us and the Chinese tour manager sat behind the soy sauce and noodles doling them out on request. It is easy to mock, and indeed we had a quiet smirk, while acknowledging that British tourists can sometimes be notoriously inflexible, and not only when faced with ‘spicy food’ - I know a restaurant in Portugal that advertises 'all day English breakfast' and is rarely short of custom.

On the other hand, many travellers of all nationalities make it a point of honour to eat local, though maybe I am a little hardcore in eating local lunch, dinner and, particularly, breakfast. In France I eat croissants (doesn’t everybody?), in China I enjoy noodles with vegetables and soy sauce and today from the Indian section of the buffet I had selected sambhar with idlis and coconut chutney - perhaps a touch south Indian for Rajasthan, but let's not be too picky.
Sambhar, idlis and coconut chutney

But most European visitors eat a largely European breakfast. This generally includes Lynne, and once in a while me - I occasionally yearn for a comforting fried egg. We have stayed in several non-tourist orientated hotels in China where only a Chinese breakfast was available, but generally, throughout Asia you can choose between a local breakfast or something more or less western*. And so it was today, there was a choice between Indian and western, the western option being overwhelmingly taken by western customers - indeed I might have been the only European (or North American or antipodean) to take the Indian option.
I thought this post needed more pictures, but apparently I rarely photograph my breakfast. This one is from Marari Beach, Kerala
The fruit would suit everyone, Indian, European or Chinese, but only the Indians seem to have spotted that a squeeze of lemon turns papaya from ho-hum to magnificent....but I followed this with....
But what about the Chinese? There was no option for them. At the time of day when many people feel the need for something familiar, they were offered nothing, so they brought their own pot noodles. It looked odd, but I understand and, to a certain extent I sympathize (but I still think they should try the sambhar and idlis).
....largely the same breakfast as at Udaipur, though with a dosa instead of the idlis
*In China (and elsewhere) this usually means sweet, flaccid bread, a scrape of something yellow which certainly won’t be butter, and jam whose only discernible flavour is sweet. It is always worth avoiding, as is the glass of black, unsweetened Nescafé which well-meaning Chinese waiters occasionally try to force on tea drinking Brits.

Rajasthan, Land of Princes

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Mandawa, Town of Havelis: Part 2 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post covers day 3 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan. 
Day 3, Jaipur to Mandawa in north east Rajasthan
The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.
In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a curtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, have supplemented their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.

Jaipur to Mandawa

Escaping Jaipur's urban sprawl took some time....

...but eventually we were on a good dual carriageway heading north. As I observed in the Jaipur post slow traffic usually travels in the outside lane, and the inside lane is for overtaking.... not officially, but this is India.

About to undertake on the dual carriageway out of Jaipur
After a while the dual-carriageway ceased, but progress remained much swifter than yesterday, despite the problems of the occasional camel cart....

Camel cart, and other traffic, between Jaipur and Mandawa

...and the yellow painted roadblocks. Allegedly these are calming measures but introducing an unannounced chicane into India's unruly traffic creates more dangers than it calms. [update Feb 9th 2018. On the day we left the Hindustan Times was reporting that a traffic policeman in a Delhi suburb had joined two such barriers with a wire before going home for the night. The unwary motorcyclist who later attempted to drive between them died instantly and an angry crowd had gathered outside the police station.]
Traffic calming measures between Jaipur and Mandawa

Mandawa, our destination for the day lies off the main highway and the final fifteen kilometres were on a minor road on the margins of the Thar desert, a flat, parched and dusty land.
The minor road into Mandawa


We reached the small town of Mandawa around twelve and Umed found (or guessed) a route through the narrow streets to the Sonthaliya Gate. The existence of a city gate, might suggest a city wall, though I have found no evidence for one, there is just a gate in the middle of the narrow main street.
The Sonthaliya Gate, Mandawa

Four of our first five stops on this journey are in cities once ruled by Maharaja’s, little Mandawa (pop 20,000) is the exception. Shekhawati was the princely state immediately north of Jaipur and this arid semi-desert region’s capital moved several times before settling at Jhunjhunu, a much bigger city (though hardly a household name) 20km north east of Mandawa.
In 1640 the Maharaja of Shekhawati made his younger brother the first Thakur (lord/ruler) of Mandawa, though there was then little to rule in this remote rural corner. In the 18th century burgeoning trade brought wealth to Shekhawati which lay on one of the main east-west caravan routes. In 1740 Thakur Nawal Singh dug a well and built a fort at Mandawa, though whether to attract the caravan trade or in response to a growing demand I do not know. Mandawa grew rich, and its merchants built themselves fine houses, the richly painted havelis that still adorn the town.
For two hundred years Mandawa prospered, but in the 20th century transport changed, the caravans disappeared, the rich merchants left and their havelis fell into disrepair. The 21st century has given some of them a new lease of life. The 18th century Mandawa Haveli by the Sonthaliya gate, once the home of a jeweller became a heritage hotel in 1999. It looked stunning from the outside...
Mandawa Haveli Hotel, Mandawa did the atrium...
Atrium, Mandawa Haveli Hotel, Mandawa
...and our room. Though full of character it had no heating, which matters little for most of the year, but January nights are chilly.
Our room, Mandawa Haveli Hotel, Mandawa
We lunched on vegetable and paneer pakoras in the haveli’s garden before taking a walking tour of the town.

The first haveli we saw boasted a rooftop restaurant. Here the paintings are bright and shiny...
Monica restaurant in restored haveli,Mandawa

....while at the second, they were unrestored and faded...
Partially restored haveli, Mandawa
...but include an interesting view of a European woman with a gramophone.
Woman with gramophone, Haveli wall, Mandawa
Another haveli's faded paintings show a cyclist and British soldiers apparently bridging a ravine.
Cyclists and the Royal Engineers, unrestored haveli, Mandawa
Elsewhere there were lines of sad, crumbling havelis.
A line of sad, crumbling havelis, Mandawa
One restored building was open to the public, the new paintings bright, crisp and maybe a little less respectful of their subjects than the original would have dared to be. There are disputes as to how far restoration should go, should the old paintings merely be conserved so they deteriorate no further or is repainting acceptable? Having this debate is healthy and I will merely observe there are enough restorable havelis to embrace both approaches.
Over-restored paintings? Haveli in Mandawa 
The view across the town from the roof was less controversial...
View over Mandawa from a  haveli roof
...and they demonstrated that although tourism in Mandawa is in its infancy they understand the principle of 'exit through the gift shop', and we acquired a small antique brass Ganesh.
Mandawa's havelis, whether restored or decrepit, have a basic similarity so it was a relief to see something different. The town's elaborate well (and I have no idea how it is related to Thakur Nawal Singh’s original) is no longer in use but it is typical of the area. The design can be seen in local villages and standing alone among the fields.
Mandawa Town Well
On our way to the fort we encountered a red-wattled lapwing delicately picking is way across a small sandy square. I am pretty confident of that identification, but being far from expert in the field.... It is a common bird, but it is a wader and I could think of nowhere in this parched landscape he could go for a paddle.
Red-wattled lapwing, Mandawa
Nawal Singh’s fort, like his well, no longer fulfils its original function. It is now Mandawa’s premier heritage hotel – or at least its most expensive.
Mandawa Fort
Nearby the modern Raghunath temple has been constructed and decorated in haveli style. It is a pretty little building, but I have been unable to find out anything about it except that Raghunath is an alternative name for Rama.
Raghunath Temple, Mandawa
Returning to our hotel we passed the other way through the Sonthaliya gate. Though two sides are very different, this one being topped by a statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God.
The other side of the Sonthaliya Gate
In the evening the rooftop candlelight dinner seemed as good an option as any – not that Mandawa offers many. All who passed through the atrium were treated to a puppet show with percussion accompaniment. Amusing and skilful it lasted around five minutes, the ideal length for a puppet show.
Puppet show, Mandawa Haveli Hotel
Roof access was by two flights of steep concrete stairs inside the walls (access to the breakfast room next morning was even more precarious - this is not a place for those with mobility problems).
The candlelight was helped out by wall lights, so we could almost see our food, and warmth was provided by charcoal braziers which the staff kept nudging closer and closer to the tables as ‘cool’ progressed to ‘cold’. January days in Rajasthan are pleasantly warm, sometimes hot, but the temperature plummets once the sun has set. I generally dislike lunchtime and evening buffets (breakfast buffets are another matter) the is food often cooked too long in advance and it is easy, particularly in the dark, to pile your plate high with too many, sometimes conflicting, flavours. That said, we ate well enough (though by the end the charcoal braziers were no longer adequate) and there was Kingfisher beer to drink.
Rajasthan, Land of Princes