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

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Post

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

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

Icon of St Nicholas
Jvari Church, near Mtskheta, Georgia

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

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

A Happy Christmas to All

and a Happy and Prosperous New Year

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

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

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 now 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

Monday, 20 November 2017

Cholula, a Big Pyramid and Fresh Grasshoppers: Part 3 of South East from Mexico City

We arrived at Mexico City’s Terminal Oriente bus station in plenty of time for our 10.15 bus to Puebla. The electronic sign over the gate failed to mention a 10.15 and when we checked in our cases heads were shaken, teeth sucked and 10.15 was crossed out and replaced by 10.45. The sign showed no 10.45 either.

The relevant corner of Mexico City's Oriente bus station

The 9.30 bus came and went as advertised, but later times proved fictional, no bus actually arriving until 11.30. We joined the queue, the driver surveyed our tickets, sucked his teeth and shook his head. The luggage check-in man appeared to argue our case, and as no one else had tickets for seats 7 and 8 we were allowed on.
Puebla is 100km south east of Mexico City

Curtains were drawn, a film started and the bus set off – nobody but us showing the least interest in the outside world, though there was actually little to see beyond Mexico City’s multi-lane ring road and ninety minutes of autopista. The bus was comfortable, the road in good condition and we made up a little time. At Puebla, G, who had been waiting with mounting concern, found us and drove us to our hotel in the city’s centro historico.
Lynne walks down the road outside our hotel, Centro Historico, Puebla

I will leave the delights of our characterful hotel until the next post, which is devoted to Puebla. G departed while we strolled down the road to find a lunch. Sitting outside a café (the day was warming up nicely) in a small square I had a cheese enchilada and Lynne ate some tacos - corn dough products seemed unavoidable. G reappeared at the agreed time and took us to Cholula.

Cholula is a city of 100,000 people and although it is within the 3.5 million strong Puebla Metropolitan Area we crossed a clear boundary between Puebla City and Cholula which felt like a different city. It has two districts, San Pedro and San Andrés, and is further divided into 18 barrios, each with its own patron saint so Cholula has many churches and many saints’ days to celebrate. Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is the overall patron and her church looks over the city from the top of Cholula’s pyramid.
Nuestra Senora de los Remedios on the great Pyramid of Cholula

The pyramid is Cholula’s main tourist attraction and, according to Google the ‘world’s biggest’. The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, (previous post) is the third tallest (66m), after the Pyramids of Khufu (138m) and Chephren (136m) in Egypt. Cholula is, by comparison, stumpy, only 55m tall it has a base 400 metres square compared with Khufu’s 230m x 230m, and a volume of 4.5 million m³ against Khufu’s 2.5 million. So, a Mexican can say Cholula is the biggest, an Egyptian Khufu and both are right and both are wrong*.

The pyramid, which is largely grassed over, could almost pass for a natural hill. Like the pyramids of Teotihuacan it was built between the 4th century BC and the 8th AD in four stages, a serious of steps and platforms being constructed one over another.

Model of Cholula Pyramid, Museum at Pyramid site

At its peak ancient Cholula had 100,000 inhabitants, but the pyramid was abandoned in 8th or 9th century (at much the same time as Teotihuacan) and the population dropped dramatically. The remaining inhabitants continued to bury their dead around the pyramid until the Toltecs took over in the 12th century and built a new temple. When the Spanish arrived Cholula was still a population centre but the pyramid was completely grassed over; they still thought it worth popping a church on top to be safe.

Excavations started in 1931 and we entered the small but thoughtfully laid out museum to see what they found.

The 57m long mural of ‘The Drinkers’ was discovered by accident in 1969. 1,800 years old it is the oldest known mural showing the drinking of pulque, the fermented sap of the agave. This was done for pleasure, but also to bring the drinker closer to the gods. The mural is not on show, but a section is reproduced in the museum showing pulque being drunk by an old man, a soldier about to go into battle and a pregnant woman – all people in need of a little divine assistance (and we can ignore the modern view that pregnancy and alcohol do not mix). I do not have a good picture, and I cannot find one in the public domain, so here is a link to a picture by AndreaB.

There is also pottery from all periods of the site’s use. It is interesting to trace the development of the craft from crude beginnings to the first steps towards mass production, where a stamp was used to create a uniform design in the base.
Pottery from the Cholula pyramid site

The Manuscrito Aperreamiento is a copy of a 16th century codex held in the National Museum of France. At the top is Hernán Cortés and Doña Marina, Cortés’ Nahua translator and mistress. At the bottom is Andrés de Tapia, one of Cortés’ henchmen, and in between is a record of their mistreatment of the indigenous people.
Manuscrito Aperreamiento, Cholula Museum

We made the short walk to the base of the pyramid...
At the base of the Cholula Pyramid

…and followed a series of tunnels into the interior. Archaeologists have dug 8km of tunnels through the pyramid, locating altars and finding offerings and human remains. Construction involved successively building a newer bigger pyramid over its predecessors. Each pyramid had steps up the side and it was eerie coming across the steps of an earlier pyramid deep in the interior.
The steps of an earlier pyramid inside the Cholula Pyramid

We emerged on the far side and followed a path through a grassy area and round to more excavations at the side of the platform.
Excavations at Cholula
‘The Drinkers’ is in a building near here, but so far only 6ha of the 154ha site have been dug. There are no current plans for further excavation, but there are undoubtedly other major finds waiting to be made.
Excavations at Cholula
We finished in the Courtyard of the Altars a large open rectangle with four altars on the perimeter. It may have been used for major ceremonies like those associated with the passing of power, but nobody really knows.
On the Courtyard of Altars, Cholula
Leaving the archaeological site we found ourselves in a open square with a market on two sides.
Market, Cholula
G paused at the grasshopper stall. We tried grasshoppers fried plain with a squeeze of lemon, grasshoppers fried with garlic and grasshoppers fried with chilli, which we liked best, so we bought some. I think G was a little taken aback, but we have enjoyed them before as beer snacks in Laos, so it was not a new experience. I have, though, drawn the line at some of the larger beetles and scary arachnids we have seen in Cambodian markets.
Grasshopper saleswoman, Cholula
We walked through the colourful streets of modern Cholula…
…where some buildings showed damage from the September earthquake…

Earthquake damaged building, Cholula
…including San Gabriel, built in 1549 as the main church of the Franciscan Monastery and plonked, with heavy handed symbolism onto the site of the former temple of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who had previously been Cholula’s presiding deity.
San Gabriel, Cholula
The oldest part of the San Gabriel complex….
Capilla Real, San Gabriel, Cholula
…is known as the Capilla Real though it has no royal connection. The 1540 building was remodelled in the 17th century but what makes it unique, at least in Mexico, is the mosque-like pillars and cupolas.
Inside the Capilla Royal, Cholula
We reached a pleasant central square. ‘Have a coffee,’ said G pointing to the cafés lining one side of the square ‘while I fetch the car.’ After being walked up to, into and through a pyramid and then round the town we had no idea how far away or in what direction the car was, but that was not our problem. We chose a table and ordered two cappuccinos (or should that be cappuccini – perhaps not in Spanish).
G was an enthusiast, and although darkness was falling he felt the need to show us another aspect of his city before finishing for the day. En route we stopped at traffic lights but for once no gang of would-be windscreen washers appeared, instead there was a girl with a hula-hoop. She performed an impressively athletic little act, finishing just in time to collect her money as the lights changed.

‘Puebla’ is the feminine of ‘pueblo’, meaning simply ‘town’ but formally it is Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza – calling a city by a nickname or part of its name is common in Mexico (and not unknown at home, ask the residents of Kingston upon Hull). Puebla was founded in 1531 as Puebla de los Ángeles (‘The first LA in the Americas’ said G) and the new business district is known as Angelópolis. G drove us through this gleaming city of steel and glass; no doubt it is the image the modern city of Puebla, home to the highly automated factories of Volkswagen and Audi, would like to project, but it feels characterless and could be anywhere.
After seeing the Puebla Hilton - exactly like 400 other Hiltons in 40 other countries - we happily returned to the unique Méson Sacristía de la Compañía in the old colonial city. The restaurant has a good reputation, so we decided to eat in.
Those who know me - whether personally or through this blog - will be aware that I am not given to standing back when drinks are being poured. It is therefore some admission to say that tequila had never before passed my lips (or Lynne’s), so we ordered our very first margaritas. And very good they were too, I liked the flavour and the glace frappé, and they were big enough to drink throughout the meal, but I struggled to understand the point of the salted rim.
Lynne and a margarita, Puebla
Lunch had been smallish, but Lynne’s difficulty digesting corn dough meant she settled for soup. Mole poblano, though, is Puebla’s speciality, so I had to try it. There are other moles in Mexico, mainly heavy, rich dark sauces which dominate the dish. I had rice topped with a slice of radish, the ubiquitous beans sprinkled with cheese and spiked with a nacho, and a nicely cooked piece of chicken lurking below the sauce, but these were the side shows, I was eating mole.
It was not unpleasant, the smoked chillies give it a mildly spicy flavour, but I found it seriously underwhelming. Searching for mole poblano recipes, the first I found had 26 ingredients. By the time you have that many the inevitable result is a fuzzy confusion of flavours. There are many, Rick Stein included, who hold moles in high regard – I respectfully choose to differ.
Mole Poblano, Mesones de Sacristia de la Compania, Puebla
The dishes were heavily embossed, distinctively blue and decidedly chunky. After 25 years as North Staffordshire residents we have acquired the Potteries habit of turning over side plates to discover their origin. The waiter clocked this and took his opportunity to launch into a lengthy lecture on Talavera pottery.

Maiolica was brought to Mexico early in the colonial period and the fine clay of the Puebla area led to the development of a local style. The golden age of Talavera pottery was 1650-1750 but there has been a recent revival with a Denominación de Origen now protecting Tavelera Poblano made using the original 16th century method. Each piece is thrown by hand and all are unique and individually signed.

*Excluding the platform on which the Cholula pyramid sits, Khufu wins on both counts, though neither can compete with the as yet unopened 330m tall Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang (see Last day in Pyongyang).