When not sleeping or studying, the student inmates at the Heidelberg University student jail decorated the walls of their prison.

Boys Behaving Badly: The Student Jail at Heidelberg University

The Student Jail at Heidelberg University is proof that college students acting stupid is not a new thing. It is part of a long and rich history of university boys behaving badly.

Every inch of the walls of the rooms at the student jail at Heidelberg university is covered with graffiti.

A stint in the Student Jail at Heidelberg University seemed to bring out the natural artist in its bad boy inmates.
Every inch of wall and even the ceiling is covered with graffiti.

 

Boys Behaving Badly

As I write this, Spring Break has just ended, with the usual reports of naughty, outrageous and just plain stupid goings on by college students in their time off. Many adults shake their heads and wonder what the world is coming to. Where have these kids’ parents gone wrong?

But this sort of behavior is far from new for young people away from home. And the “Studentenkarzer,” the Student Jail at Heidelberg University, is the proof. Starting in 1823 and continuing to the beginning of World War I in 1914, young scholars at the prestigious German university—the oldest in Germany and one of the oldest in Europe—who found themselves in trouble with the rules ended up in these attic rooms designed to keep them off the streets until they learned their lesson.

And speaking of lessons, they were still expected to attend classes and lectures but had to return to their incarceration afterwards. There was a special door that allowed them to enter the Old University building directly from jail.

When not sleeping or studying, the student inmates at the Heidelberg University student jail decorated the walls of their prison.

The walls of the Heidelberg University student jail were a blank canvas for the bored young men. Student inmates passed their time sleeping, studying…and decorating their prison. Young men have always liked to leave their mark!

 

Go Directly To Student Jail. Do Not Pass Go.

The most common infractions that could land a fellow in the college clink? Carousing and rabble-rousing, dueling, and freeing the pigs of the town farmers, apparently a hilariously popular past time. Then, as now, such antics were often fueled by alcohol. The penalties were most often a few days in the Studentenkarzer, though a few weeks or up to a month could be handed down for more serious offenses.

The loo for the students in the student jail at Heidelberg University was tucked into a stairwell... a wooden bench with a lid, and a window!

A “loo with a view,” tucked under the eaves of the student jail at Heidelberg University.

The conditions weren’t bad, and apparently there was an almost universal party feel to the place. Students often broke the rules on purpose just to get a few days “inside” with their chums. Seemingly, serving at least one stint in the student jail at Heidelberg University was something of a badge of honor.

To see how these bad boys lived during their time in stir, you can visit the Studentenkarzer yourself. It’s located in the university quarter in the heart of Old Town, at Augustinergasse 2, behind the Old University building. Look for the hanging sign with an incongruous image of a cherub and the words Uni Shop-Studenten Karzer. Past the entrance, climb a dark wooden stairway to the top floor jail.

There are no cells here, just a warren of rooms high up under the eaves. Iron beds, wooden desks, a few chairs. But the rooms are far from dull or barren. That’s because spending time in the student jail seemed to bring out the inner graffiti artist in these collegiate inmates. The walls are completely covered with graffiti—cartoonish drawings, fraternity badges, family crests, poems, names and clever epithets. Everywhere are silhouettes of the frat boys themselves, each topped with the colored cap that was a standard part of the university uniform in the 19th century.

Family in the Student Jail at Heidelberg University???

While perusing the graffiti and snapping pictures, I came across one that especially made me smile. My grandfather, who I never knew, was born in Heidelberg. He left at 16 for America. I’m told he had a brother named Ernst who stayed behind.

The name E. Meyer is painted onto one wall at the Heidelberg Student Jail. My great uncle's name!

Could this have possibly been my great uncle, leaving his mark from a stint in the student jail at Heidelberg University?
Probably not… but I can imagine it.

So think how delighted I was to find one bit of graffiti scrawled with the name E. Meyer. Yes, I know, I know. Meyer is as common as Smith in Germany. And Ernst as everyday as John. But I still enjoyed the fantasy that perhaps my great uncle had one night imbibed a bit too much and roused some rabble with the guys, maybe chasing a squealing pig along the river… and landed himself in the brig for it.

The entrance to the Heidelberg Studenten Karzer, marked by a sign with an incongruous cherub.

The entrance to the Studenten Karzer at Heidelberg University, located at Augustinergasse 2.

Entrance to the Student Jail at Heidelberg University is included in the Heidelberg Card. The Card is a great bargain at €15-19, depending on the number of days of validity. It also includes entrance to Heidelberg Castle, the funicular ride to get there, free public transit and lots of discounts.

Without the Heidelberg Card, a ticket for the Student Jail at Heidelberg University costs €3, or €2 with a senior discount. This also includes admission to the Alte Universtat Museum, just around the corner, and the beautiful Alte Aule or Great Hall. You can get tickets at the university shop in the jail building’s ground floor.

 


Location: Augustinergasse 2, Old Town, Heidelberg, Germany
Hours: Open daily except Mondays, 10 am to 6 pm (4 pm, October thru March)

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The main facade of Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast of SW Scotland, glows in the warm light of the Golden Hour.

Sleeping With Ike: The Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle

On the top floor of Culzean Castle (pronounced Cull-ANE), in Scotland’s southwest corner, just 50 miles from Glasgow, is a special place. It was where Dwight D. Eisenhower went to get away and relax. To feel pampered and free from the stresses of being a hero… and later a President. Now you can go there too. You can even sleep in Ike’s bed.

 

The main facade of Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast of SW Scotland, glows in the warm light of the Golden Hour.

The main facade of Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast of SW Scotland, glows in the warm light of the Golden Hour.

 

Feeling At Home in Culzean

In the large courtyard of Culzean Castle, a long queue of people wait to pay the fee to tour the public rooms. It’s no wonder. The 18th-century Robert Adam masterpiece is glorious. The castle, which belongs to the National Trust for Scotland, is a popular spot with tourists.

They wait patiently—or not—to gaze at the armor, the massive curved staircase, to wander through the high-ceilinged rooms and admire the elegant furnishings, the elaborate plastered ceilings, the gilt and marble. From the looks of the line, it‘s going to be awhile before the last of them gets in.

But for you? No worries. You reach into your pocket and pull out a key. You walk across the courtyard to a small door in the wall of one of the large side wings. You calmly unlock it and let yourself into the building, where a private 1920s-era elevator whisks you to the top floor. Is it your imagination that the people in line watched you enter and wondered, “Who is she? Why is she so special?”

But that’s just what staying at the Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle does to you. It makes you feel special, pampered, like an important and special guest of the house.

A Welcome with Afternoon Cream Tea

It was afternoon when our group arrived at Culzean, and misty. To get the full effect of the castle’s magnificent first impression, we opted to ignore the elevator and enter though the main hall.

Robert Adam's grand sweep of oval, colonnaded staircase at Culzean leads to the Eisenhower Gallery.

Robert Adam’s grand sweep of oval, colonnaded staircase at Culzean takes you up to the Eisenhower Gallery on the top floor.

It was a good choice. Our first view of Culzean’s interiors was the great sweep of Adam’s double-curved and colonnaded oval staircase. We stepped from marble to carpet the rich red of the best British claret. We tried to keep our jaws from dropping as we rose to our home for the night. Home? The idea made me smile.

When we’d climbed to the Eisenhower Gallery on the top floor, a very un-stuffy butler greeted us and ushered us into the round sitting room. A misty sky veiled the wide view of the Firth of Clyde from the windows. We were grateful for the welcoming fires crackling in the pair of fireplaces at opposite ends of the large room. We had arrived just in time for tea.

Steaming pots of tea, dainty sandwiches, light scones, jam, and double cream served by a butler—could anyone ask for a more perfect welcome to a Scottish castle? It felt like we were at a genteel British country home house party from the 19th century.

The round sitting room at the Eisenhower Hotel at Scotland's Culzean Castle.

The round sitting room at the Eisenhower Hotel at Scotland’s Culzean Castle is a lovely meeting place for Afternoon Tea.

 

Why the “Eisenhower Hotel”?

But why is a Scottish hotel in a castle in Ayrshire named after an American general and president? In the region where Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, lived and wrote, how did Dwight Eisenhower come to have his Scottish White House?

Before World War II, Culzean was the home of the wealthy and prestigious Kennedy family for many generations. As direct descendants of Robert the Bruce, the Kennedy’s were one of the most important families in Scotland. It was David Kennedy, 10th Earl Cassillis, who commissioned Robert Adam to redesign the original 16th-century castle. Adams, the most important architect of his day, finished the Georgian masterpiece in the 1790s.

By 1945, the owner had been made the Marquess of Ailsa. The country was beginning its long recovery from the ravages of World War II. Taxes were high and the Marquess decided it was the better part of financial valor to gift Culzean to the country. He made his generous gift to the National Trust for Scotland.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his first visit to Culzean Castle, in Scotland, with his son John, in 1946.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his first visit to Culzean Castle, in Scotland, with his son John, in 1946.

But the gift contained one stipulation. On the top floor, they must create a self-contained apartment reserved for the use of General Dwight D. Eisenhower during his lifetime. The gift was made as gracious thanks from the people of Scotland to the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, for his part in saving Europe from the Nazi nightmare.

Eisenhower visited Culzean Castle several times, including once as President. He loved Culzean. “I can relax here,” he said of it.

It was easy to see why he loved it. So did I.

The Comfort of the Ailsa Suite

Warmed and satisfied after tea and those lovely scones and jam, I was happy to have the friendly housekeeper show me to my room. Others in our group of travel writers were led to the Eisenhower Suite (yes, Ike Slept Here), the Cairncross Suite, or one of three other rooms. I was taken to the Ailsa Suite. After asking if I preferred tea or coffee to be brought in the morning, she left me to enjoy my room. And what a delightful space it turned out to be.

The lovely Ailsa Suite at Culzean, with its carved and canopied four-poster bed and wooden steps to get up into it.

The lovely Ailsa Suite, named for Ailsa Craig, a haystack rock island offshore in the Firth of Clyde,
was my most comfortable home for the night.

The carved and canopied four-poster bed is original to the Kennedy family. I loved having to climb the trio of wooden stairs to get up into it because of its height. A fire was already burning brightly in the marble fireplace. The bathroom was huge and I made a mental note to enjoy the deep tub later.

The mist was clearing and pale sunshine began to seep through the sky, lighting the impressive views of Culzean Bay as well as the Clock Tower Courtyard below. As inviting as the stuffed chairs before the fire were, I wanted to take advantage of that bit of sun. Coat, scarf and gloves on, I headed out to explore.

Culzean Castle: Romantic as All Get Out

Culzean Castle aeriel view from the water side. Photo shows the drum tower, where the Eisenhower Hotel's round sitting room on the top floor.

Culzean Castle is magnificent from the water of Scotland’s Firth of Clyde.
The top floor of the central drum tower is the round sitting room, where we had tea.

Culzean Castle reigns from atop a 100-foot cliff overlooking the Firth of Clyde where it flows into the Irish Sea. It commands sweeping views of the water and the haystack peak of Ailsa Craig, a rock island jutting up 10 miles offshore. They say that on a clear day you can see the coast of Northern Ireland.

It wasn’t clear that day, but the mist had lifted enough to reward a shoreline wander. I took the path down the cliff to the rocks below. I wandered and jumped over tide pools, picked up stones and shells and watched a crab scuttle away. I listened to the waves as they rippled over the rocky beach like music. I felt the salt on my skin and my tongue.

I admired the view back up at the huge, elegant pile of stone. From the water, you get a powerful overview of Robert Adams’ brilliance with the architecture—elegant, imposing, opulent… but seeming just a bit lonely, perched there on its cliff facing the sea.

Finally the chill drove me back up the cliff, across the extensive gardens toward the castle. It was then that I made use of my key to bypass that line of tourists waiting to tour the public rooms.

There was just time to warm myself a bit in front of my private fire before a pre-dinner drink in the sitting room.

Food Fine Enough to Match the Setting

The three-course meal in the dining room was as elegant and finely detailed as the hotel itself, yet not at all stuffy. My red pepper-crusted salmon with couscous was perfectly cooked, pink, moist and flaky. The vegetables came from the property’s own gardens as did the fruit in my fruit crumble dessert, served with Arran ice cream.  After-dinner coffee and conversation in the round sitting room, with a pair of fires roaring, completed the day to perfection.

Next morning’s breakfast was everything you’d hope for in a Scottish castle, with rashers of thick Ayrshire bacon, smoked salmon and perfect oatmeal among the options.

So Much to See and Do at Culzean Castle

Before leaving Culzean Castle, you really have to tour the public rooms of this stately home. The neo-classical Georgian interiors open to the public include the State Bedroom and Dressing Room, the Dining Room, the Round Drawing Room with its beautifully plastered and painted Adam ceiling, the Blue Drawing Room, Lady Ailsa’s Boudoir and the Kitchens. All are worth your time.

Watercolor painting of the main facade of Culzean Castle painted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Eisenhower painted when he visited at Culzean, including this lovely watercolor of the main facade of the castle.

The property itself comprises more than 600  acres. Stables and a gas house and other out-buildings are surrounded by gardens, ornamental ponds, a deer park, follies. There is a conservatory, an herb garden, orchards, a peach house and an elegant camellia house dating from 1818. The formal terraced garden and Fountain Court are filled with flowers. Add in the 13-acre swan pond, an 1814 pagoda and sweeping lawns, and you realize you don’t want to rush off from Culzean Castle. There is too much to see and do right on property.

Culzean Castle: the Perfect Setting for a Hero.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a visit to Culzean Castle, now home to the Eisenhower Hotel, in 1959.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a visit to Culzean Castle, now home to the Eisenhower Hotel, in 1959.

Most of our generation of girls grew up on fairy tales. We knew about heroes—they were the ones who always rescued the heroine. Also for our generation—those born when World War II was still a very fresh and recent memory—Dwight Eisenhower was certainly a hero, idealized by parents and grandparents, the Savior of Europe, later the President of the United States.

So it is only fitting that Ike found respite and comfort at Culzean Castle. With all the dragons already slain, and the terror of World War II behind him, he could relax here.

So will you.


Room rates at the Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle include afternoon cream tea in the drawing room and a full breakfast. Dinner is separate and is served only on Fridays and Saturdays unless by prior arrangement.

A tour of the castle is included in the price.

For more information, more photos and booking details, visit The Eisenhower Hotel’s website.


I visited the Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle as a guest of the British Tourist Authority. I appreciate the opportunity. As always, all of my opinions and comments on the hotel are my personal observations. I will never recommend a hotel or event I didn’t love myself. I heartily recommend the Eisenhower Hotel for a deserved splurge.
Photos courtesy of The National Trust for Scotland.

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Four brass-topped solpersteine are engraved with the names, birthdates and date and place of death of four members of the Wertheimer family in Heidelberg.

Stolpersteine: Stumbling Across Reminders of the Holocaust

Stolpersteine are small, only noticed if you happen to be looking down. But these “stumbling stones” hold large pieces of the individual and collective memories of those the world lost to the Nazi Holocaust.

Photo of The Week: Stolpersteine

There are many monuments great and small to the millions of Europeans lost to the Nazi Holocaust. There is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., the gray abstract pillars of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and dozens more.

In Heidelberg, I “stumbled across” another memorial to the murdered millions. It is both very small and enormous. It is 10 cm (4”) square and it ranges over thousands of kilometers in diverse towns and cities in some 23 European countries.

Four brass-topped stolpersteine are engraved with the names, birthdates and date and place of death of four members of the Wertheimer family in Heidelberg.

Four small brass-topped solpersteine commemorate the last freely chosen residence of four members of the Wertheimer family near the Old Town Square in Heidelberg, Germany. Three of them died. One escaped.

This monument is called, collectively, solpersteine in German. That translates as stumbling stones because you can easily “stumble across” a part of this monument unaware. Thousands of the cobblestone-sized blocks have been laid. They memorialize the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Resistance fighters, black people, the mentally ill and physically disabled and others who were all victims of the Nazi’s rabid “purification” campaign during World War II.

The stones I found near the Old Town main square in Heidelberg mark the last family residence of the Wertheimer family. Julius was apparently the head of the family, father to two sons. He was 56 when he was first taken into “protection” at Dachau. Two years later he was deported from there and killed. Klara, his wife, was 59 when she was deported and died shortly afterward. Fritz was just 16 when he was taken away. The last two lines on his stone read 1940 Auschwitz. Murdered. His older brother, Karl, was the “lucky” survivor. In 1937, at age 22, he fled to Colombia.

How the Stolpersteine Came to Be

The concept of the stolpersteine began in Berlin in 1992 when German artist Gunther Demnig had an idea. December 16the of that year was the 50th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s 1942 order to deport the Sinti and Roma “gypsies” in Germany to concentration camps. Demnig thought the date should be commemorated. He engraved the first sentence of that infamous decree onto a stone and laid it in front of the town hall in Cologne. From there, the idea blossomed into what he calls a “decentralized monument.” It would become the largest in the world.

He began making small concrete blocks topped with inscribed brass plaques. One person, one block. He then set them into the pavement in front of the last place where those people had freely chosen to live before falling victim to the Nazi terror. Whether it was deportation to an extermination camp, death by exhaustion, hunger or disease in a labor camp, euthanasia, suicide, or a more fortunate escape abroad that caused them to leave their homes, the stumbling stones now mark where they were a part of daily life before the horror.

Personalizing the Holocaust, Bringing the Victims Home

Six million dead—or eight million or twelve million—is a number impossible to comprehend. But a group of small brass squares in the sidewalk, each marked with “Here lived…” followed by a name, a date of birth, the time of leaving, a date and place of death… that is something personal, comprehensible. That is something that allows you to feel the true tragedy of one plus one plus one, and on and on to seeming infinity.

The stolpersteine represent a kind of “coming home” for these disappeared people. Set flush with the other paving stones, they become an intrinsic part of the neighborhood, just as those they commemorate once were. They remind us that these people walked here. They rode their bikes here, walked their dogs, took out the trash and brought in the shopping. They laughed and cried, courted, gossiped with neighbors, perhaps danced in the street on festive occasions, all right here, over this pavement, where the stones still remember them.

By 2017, stolpersteine have been placed in more than 1400 cities, neighborhoods and towns in 23 European countries.

Who Places the Stones?

The stones are ordered by relatives of the victims, by concerned individuals, often by residents of the buildings where these people once lived. Students, historical researchers and others all help come up with the names and other information and the correct locations for the stones.

The entire solpersteine program is a private initiative, although Demnig does require that all local state and city permissions are received before he begins to create new stones. To have a solperstein created and placed costs 120€, and there is a waiting list of many months. That’s because each stumble stone is created and laid by hand. Michael Friedrichs-Friedlander makes the stones and embosses the brass plate. He can make about 450 per month. Demnig then travels across Europe and lays them.

Since pedestrians generally step around them, the brass plates tend to oxidize instead of being regularly “polished” by shoe soles, as Demnig intended. They can turn brown or even black and unreadable, so residents often keep them cleaned and polished.

One observation the artist has made is this:

“One of the most beautiful pictures, I find, is this aspect that, when you want to read, you have to bow, before the victim.”

For more information about the stolperstein project and Gunther Demnig, visit the Stolpersteine website here.

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You know you want to remember this for your next trip.

Paris street sign-Rue de l'Arbe Sec

Losing Myself at La Galcante, My Favorite Paris Shop

It’s a secret, a wonderful secret. It’s La Galcante, a Parisian shop probably like none you’ve ever been in before. It’s books and magazines, dust motes floating in pastel lemony light, soft jazz from the radio and the musty-lovely perfume of old paper. It’s magic. Come inside with me.

When I’m traveling, nothing is more wonderful to me than stumbling across a little-known treasure that most tourists never find. It’s those secret places, addresses passed from friend to friend, with instructions to “turn right and look for the blue door,” that put you behind the scenes in a new city and make you feel like a local.

So when a friend told me about La Galcante, a shop that specializes in what they call “Old Press,” I was intrigued. The name itself is a play on words. It’s a combination of galerie (gallery) and brocante (a kind of flea market or second-hand business). As a flea market and vintage junkie (more about that here), I was eager to see it for myself.

Follow Directions to Find La Galcante

The corridor entry to the courtyard where La Galcante is located.

The entyway to La Galcante is a perfect Paris scene. Let yourself get drawn in.

It’s not the kind of place you stumble across. You have to know where to look. You must be told that it is in the 1st Arrondisement, just a few streets from the Louvre. You are told to walk down Rue de l’Arbe Sec to #52 and look for the blue door with the heavy brass knocker. Through that door, you’ll step into a shadowy corridor, maybe with a bike or two leaning against the old walls. At the end of the cobble-stoned corridor, there it is, tucked into a corner of one of those fabulous little Parisian courtyards that make you think you’re in an Audrey Hepburn film.

Step through the arched glass doors and you discover yourself surrounded by seven million bits of paper—stacks of paper, shelves and tables and boxes and crates of paper, towers of paper. It’s a bit overwhelming. But let yourself sink in and be surrounded. The treasure hunt is about to begin.

The shop’s “Old Press” specialty includes newspapers and broadsides from the time of the French Revolution to the present. Most of the collection dates from the 1850s forward, with the most popular requests being for items from the 1920s to 1970s. But they also stretch their mission to include most things paper. Beyond the newspapers and collections of old New Yorker magazines and the entire run of Paris Vogue, you’ll find calendars, vintage advertising, catalogs, broadsides, prints, etchings, cigarette cards, vintage maps.

Walls are lined with shelves stacked with boxes of flt files, and ladders to reach them all.

Wall-to-wall, floor to ceiling shelves and drawers are filled with everything paper-related at la Galcante.

When you first enter the shop, you’re met by walls lined floor-to-ceiling with shallow drawers and shelves stacked with white boxes full of flat files. These are all carefully labeled: Piaf, Hemingway, Hitchcock, Bowie. Those are stuffed with assorted and sorted ephemera about whomever you are currently obsessed with, including articles, photographs, drawings and magazine stories. Others are labeled with subjects like Suisse Chocolat, Chansons, Mode Masculines. Still others merely have numbers, with catalogued newspapers someone will direct you to if you ask.

Wend your way through the narrow aisles towards the back, where you’ll find a perfect Paris atrium ceiling, pouring light down onto that lovely, dusty old paper.

I was greeted by Pierre, tall, slender, and very French in a long-sleeved black sweater, with an offer to help me look for anything special. Casual and friendly, he speaks excellent English and can find most anything in the shop. But since I had no specific requests at that moment, he left me to browse.

Stacks of bagged magazines, books and some old film canisters on a table at la Galcante.

Vintage children’s books, comic books, posters, even cans of fill the shelves and boxes at La Galcante.old film

I spent a couple of solitary hours simply foraging—pawing through stacks of old photos and bags of advertising stickers. I scanned magazines, thumbed newspapers and studied the shelves at random. I could easily have stayed there the whole day, doing just that, forgetting that the beauties of the Louvre and the sunshine of the Tuileries were just a few minutes’ walk away.

After a while, Juliette arrived. She’s lean and leggy, with a bouncy energy. Juliette has been working at La Galcante a long time and she seems to love a good hunt. Ask her for a copy of Pilote magazine from 1963, with the serialized story of “Asterix and the Banquet.” Her eyes will take on a moment of intense inner concentration and then off she will go to find it for you. She knows every inch of the place, back to front, and apparently every piece of paper in the shop. If it is there, she will find it.

La Galcante first opened in 1975, the brainchild of Christian Bailly, a former journalist and a passionate collector of old newspapers. In the 1970s, he inherited hundreds of thousands of the things. He found that newspapers with stories of significant events are easy to sell, but the others? Not so much.

So he invented the concept of the “birthday newspaper.” People can ask for copies of newspapers printed on the day they were born, or an anniversary or other fond memory—not a copy but the actual, original paper. The idea is now a significant part of the shop’s business.

crates with vintage magazines

Magazines are a staple here, all kinds and all eras.

Shelves show off some of the 7 million items in stock at Las Galcante.

There are over 7 million items in the collection. that’s Million!

With limited luggage space and a tight-ish budget, I planned only to browse that day. Easier said than done. While it’s true that it’s free to enter the shop and browse as long as ever you like, unpressured and unmolested, temptation lurks on every shelf and table, in every box and drawer.

When I finally left, my wallet was 100€ lighter and my one carryon bag just a bit heavier.

Watch this video to get something of the experience of wandering the aisles at La Galcante.

La Galcante | Weld Art Collective from weld art collective on Vimeo.


 
La Galcante
#52 Rue de l’Arbe Sec,
Paris, 75001
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 am-7:30 pm

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands: The Power of Silence

In Holland, Liberation Day is for celebration. But Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, “Dodenherdenking,” is for the silence of deep and painful memories, the solemnity of “We Will Never Forget.”

Liberation Day is celebrated in the Netherlands on May 5th. It marks the day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Holland and the occupation of the Netherlands officially ended, and with it the long nightmare of World War II for the Dutch people.

Liberation Day, Bevrijdingsdag, is marked by celebration. It’s a national holiday, a happy day, a day for fun and picnics and laughter and parties. Everyone gets the day off from work. There are music festivals throughout the country. The day’s festivities end with a major concert on the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The people celebrate their freedom, democracy and joy.

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

British soldiers from the 49th (West Riding) Division—the Polar Bears—attached to 1st Canadian Army,
liberate Utrecht, the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands Comes First

But for the Dutch, the rule has always been, “First commemorate, then celebrate.” And so the day before all the fun and festivals, May 4th, is the day to remember all those who died or were murdered in World War II and in every armed conflict since. Remembrance Day ceremonies are still taken very seriously and are held throughout the country, with the major one taking place at Amsterdam’s Dam Square, where wreaths are laid by the King and Queen.

Remembering My Remembering

My own memories of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands are smaller, more personal than the pomp and royalty on the city’s main square. But perhaps the more powerful for all that.

It was 1971 and I had been living in Amsterdam for only a few weeks, but I was already in love with the country and the people. I was not on Dam Square that day. I didn’t see Queen Juliana lay a wreath or hear the bugles play. I didn’t watch any of the pageantry or hear the solemn speeches—which I would not have understood anyway as my Dutch was non-existent at the time. I was not part of any crowd. But what I saw was much more meaningful to me.

It was a beautiful spring day in Amsterdam, I recall, with flowers spilling from every window box and a few flat-bottomed white clouds dotting an unusually blue sky. The windows were open in many of the flats, their so-Dutch white lace curtains ruffling slightly in a spring breeze.

I was walking along the Rozengracht near where it crosses the Prinsengracht. I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner at a favorite café and hoping we’d be able to find a table outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. The Dutch are such inveterate sun-worshippers, they were out in force, filling every available seat of every terrace café I passed.

People at a terrace cafe in the sun in Amsterdam

Today, as in 1971, Amsterdammers love sitting outdoors at a terrace cafe canalside on a sunny day in May.


A tour boat slid quietly up the Rozengracht canal, leaving a small wake where the sunlight glistened off the water. Moms pushed strollers and prams along the cobblestones. A young couple bicycled past on their traditional old-fashioned Dutch bikes, each with one hand on the handlebars and the other clasped between them, in perfect balance. The café patrons laughed and chatted over their drinks—a koffee, a pilsje, a jenever.

And the World Stopped

The sky was still light at 8 pm, the sun sailing low in the sky when, almost as if the earth took a deep breath and held it…everything and everyone in the Netherlands simply stopped.
Cars pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A tram moving down the middle of the street slowed and rolled to a complete stop mid-block. Pedestrians stopped walking and stood like relaxed statues. People in the sidewalk cafés put down their cups, their forks, their glasses of pils.

A waiter stepped from inside to the doorway, looked out and stopped. A streetsweep stopped and leaned on his broom, looking down at the now-clean cobblestones beneath his feet. The pair of bicyclists back-pedaled to brake to a halt, still holding hands. On the humped bridge over the canal at the corner, a couple leaned on the railing of the bridge, completely still.

My shadow across the pavement stopped too, as I took in the whole, still, surreal scene and its meaning.

Conversations stopped. Laughter stopped. The sounds of tires on cobbles and wheels on steel tracks stopped. The clatter of cups and glasses and forks stopped. Everything except the breeze, the soft ripple of water in the canal and the cooing of pigeons just stopped.

For two minutes, no one spoke, no one laughed, no one moved. Instead, they stopped and they remembered. They remembered what their country had suffered.

In the silence, they remembered the ones who died—the Jews sent to be exterminated, the Dutch fathers and brothers and sons sent to become slave labor in the German munitions factories who never came home, the Dutch Resistance fighters who saved so many lives but could not save their own. They remembered the Dutch citizens who died in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. They remembered the Dutch children and the old people who died from hunger in the last brutal “Hunger Winter” of the war.

And they remembered every Dutch citizen who has died in armed conflict since World War II because the world has not yet learned to live in peace.

For those two minutes of silence, I stood there, feeling the low-angled sun on my face as I listened to the quiet lapping of the water. I realized I was only a two-minute walk from the very building where Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Gestapo for years until finally they were found only months before the war ended and sent to the concentration camps, where most of them would die. I realized what these people, this country—like so many others in Europe—had been through and how fortunate we in the US had been to escape so much of that suffering.

The tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, where the bells toll for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, along with all the other church bells in the city.

The bells in the tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam began to toll, like all the bells in all the churches in all the cities in the Netherlands for Remembrance Day.

When the two minutes of silence were over, the church bells began to ring. The sound seemed to come from every direction. I was less than a block from the Westerkerk, and those bells seemed to sound almost inside my head. All the bells from every church in Amsterdam tolled out the memory of their loss and the end of their suffering. It filled the air and it filled me, that sound of relief that it was finally over.

Slowly, the world around me woke up again. The tram began rolling down its steel tracks once more. The tour boat resumed its easy float along the canal, pointing out to people from all over the world the magic of this beautiful city. Cars moved, bicycles rolled again, people started walking. Conversations and coffee resumed in the cafés.

The ceremony of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands was over for another year. Normal life resumed and I continued on my way, off to meet my friend, hungry for my late dinner.

But I was not quite the same person. I never would be again.


If you are planning to visit Holland and your timing is flexible, consider planning your trip to coincide with Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, May 4th. The silence, the remembrance, the respect the people still show for those who died–and are still dying today from the idiocy of war–will leave you moved, and touched. Then stick around for the parties, the fun and the pure joy of Liberation Day.

Pin it For Later: Pin for Later: Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, a time of silence, remembrance and resolve

I bite into my first ever Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

Hooked on Lisbon’s Delicacy: Original Pastéis de Belém

When in Lisbon, Portugal, eating Pastéis de Belém, the iconic Portuguese egg tart, is an absolute requirement, whether you’re a foodie or not. Here’s why you must try it and how to enjoy it at its best.

I admit it. Last year in Lisbon I became a junkie. Obsessed. Hopelessly addicted.

My drug of choice? The Portuguese egg tarts that fall under the general term Pastel de Nata. And for the best fix of all? The original, the only, the best… the supreme Pastéis de Belém.

Portugal is famous for Pastel de Nata, and you’ll see them all over Lisbon. Most are good, a few are great. Some are just… meh. But once you learn to spot the good ones—and it’s not hard to do—it’s near impossible to pass them up. Or at least it was for me.

A plate full of Pastéis de Belém egg custard tarts of Lisbon.

The beautiful, delicious and iconic original Pastéis de Belém egg custard tarts of Lisbon. Photo by Jordiet on flickr, CC license.


A Religious Source-Tarted Up Like Sally Fields

So how did these pastry treats come to be an almost universal symbol of culinary Lisbon?

Back in the day, say in the 17th century or so, many priestly garments, nun’s habits, headdresses and such were heavily starched. (For our generation, think Sally Fields lifting off as The Flying Nun and you get the idea.) Can’t you just imagine the intimidating “swish” of the stiffened underskirts as they glided past? Anyway, to get that desired stiff and glossy finish, they used beaten egg whites.

But this practice of basically painting their clothes with meringue made for a whole lot of leftover egg yolks lying around monastery and convent kitchens and laundry rooms. What to do? Wasting them would surely be a sin, would it not? Such thrifty folk couldn’t simply toss such golden goodness down the drain.

So the nuns in the kitchens began inventing a lot of special dishes to use up all those otherwise-to-be-wasted egg yolks. (Apparently gluttony must have been seen as a sin of a lesser order than waste.) As it happens, there was also a sugar cane refinery next door to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monastery in the Belém area southwest of Lisbon, so sweet desserts, cakes and pastries became the use-up-the-egg-yolks recipes of choice. Convenient how that worked out, no? Clearly, the religious folks there dined well and often.

Skylinde detail of the wedding-cake Manueline style architecture of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos monastery.

Detail of the elaborate Manueline architecture of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos monastery in the Belém section of Lisbon, where the famous Pastéis de Belém egg tart was created and just 100 meters from the bakery where it has been sold since 1837.


Pastéis de Belém as Financial Savior

The sweet egg tarts might have remained safely hidden away within the walls of the convent and monastery of Jerónimos forever, fattening only the prayerful and lucky few. But in 1820, there was a liberal revolution in Portugal, and things did not go well for religious institutions. By 1834, monasteries and convents had been closed down and the inhabitants lost all public and government support. The days of dining on sweet pastries were over. They were left to fend for themselves and hunger was looming.

In order to survive, the nuns from the Jerónimos monastery had the idea to begin selling their delicious egg tarts. The sugar refinery had a small store attached, and this became the first outlet for the Pastéis de Belém (Pastéis is plural for pastel, which means cake or pastry in Portuguese.) Eventually, the nuns sold the recipe to the refinery bakery.

At around that same time, the grandeur of the Manueline architectural style of the monastery itself (which is beyond amazing in its size, wedding-cake ornamentation, and beauty) and the nearby Tower of Belém, became popular tourist attractions with the good folk of Lisbon. They could take a steamboat from the city for a day excursion and sail right up to the monastery’s own docks. The fame of the delicious sweet treats sold at the sugar refinery store, now officially known as Pasteís de Belém, began to spread. By 1837, their popularity had outgrown the small store, and the baking moved to larger premises about 100 meters away. The visitors quickly made their pilgrimages to the new location.

They are still doing it today. Now they come in hordes, both locals and tourists. But these tarts are so good almost nobody minds standing in line for them.

Bue and white sign of the Pastéis de Belém bakery with the date, "since 1837"

In 1837, the business had outgrown the tiny refinery store next to the monastery. They moved 100 meters down the street
to a larger location, where they are still do business today.


A Secret Signed in Blood?

Even 180 years ago, when the recipe was first passed on to the sugar company, the secret of making the perfect Pastéis de Belém was entrusted only to a few “master confectioners.” That still holds true today. And those few who do know it are sworn to secrecy. One guide told me, in hushed tones, that it is a blood oath. Another said it was a signed and sealed sacred legal contract. Then he added that the few people who know it are never allowed to all travel together. Imagine if they were all lost! He rolled his eyes and shuddered quite dramatically while telling the story. Apocryphal or not, it’s a good one, you must admit.

There was a line outside when I got to the Café Pastéis de Belém, just as I had been told to expect. I had also been told it would move pretty quickly. But I was hungry, my feet hurt from wandering the vast halls and lovely cloisters of the Monastery, and I felt like sitting down. So instead of getting in the take-out line, I went in the door to its left, which had no line at all, and into the café itself.

The place is much larger inside than it looks from the street, with many tables winding through several small rooms. Except for the very busiest times of day, it’s generally possible to find a seat without much of a wait. If it looks full, just keep wandering through the corridors towards the back, through room after room, until you find a free table.

You will also find clean bathrooms inside as well as a glass window where you can watch the magic happening in the kitchens as the bakers produce dozens upon dozens of tarts as well as other bakery treats.

I found a seat at a table in a front room, beside a wall covered in traditional blue-and-white Portuguese tiles. In only a few minutes, I’d ordered a pastel and a galea—a tall glass of milky coffee. There are also beer, soft drinks and other options on the menu, but for me, a coffee drink is the perfect accompaniment.

As I bit into this warm piece of heaven, the look on my face must have been like something out of a movie—a sort of Meg Ryan look in “When Harry Met Sally” prompting the woman at a neighboring table to say “I’ll have what she’s having!” The young German couple at the next table started to chuckle. Then with sign language, they offered to take a photo of me enjoying my treat. How could I refuse?

I bite into my first ever Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

As I bite into my very first original Portuguese Pastéis de Belém, I am tasting a bit of heaven. I will never be the same!

First, you realize your tart is so fresh it is still warm, just out of the oven. The first thing your mouth encounters is the crust. It’s super flaky, like a thousand layers of phyllo-type dough have been gently laid atop each other, with crispy bits offering gentle resistance. Then you reach the warm custard, soft, almost-but-not-quite runny enough that you think it really has melted in your mouth. The top is lightly blackened is spots, like the best crème brulée. Shakers of powdered sugar and cinnamon are offered on the table. Add them if you like—or you must—but necessary they are not.

Ordering a single tart was a mistake obvious from that first bite. It was never going to be enough. I ordered another as soon as the waiter passed by. When I asked him how many of these delightful treats are swallowed here or toted out the door every day, he happily answered. “We bake 20-22,000 on a normal day.” While I was still blinking at that enormous number, he added, “but on special days, holidays and such, it can be 40,000.”

Yeah, you might say that Pastéis de Belém are just a mite popular.

If your goal on heading to the Café Pastéis de Belém is to have some of the tarts to take home for later, my advice is still to go inside and find a seat, order a pastel and a coffee, enjoy it at your table, order more to go, which your waiter will happily bring all wrapped up in a lovely box, and then go on your way. You’ll have your pastéis to take home, you will have had a nice break and a treat, and you will probably still have saved time!

If you can’t wait until you get back to your hotel to tuck into that pretty blue-and-white box for more, the tranquil Jardim de Belém park, directly across the street from the café, makes a refreshing spot to sit and down another one—or more.

Pretty take-out boxes await customers buying Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

Pretty take-out boxes lined up and ready as the crowd throngs the counter at Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.
There’s always a line, but it moves quickly. Photo by Andres Monroy Hernandez on flickr CC license.


Good Pastel de Nata Beyond Belém

While the original Pateís de Belém recipe is so secret is has never been precisely duplicated—and likely never will be—you will find similar egg tarts everywhere you go in Lisbon. These copycats are called Pastel de Nata and their quality ranges from excellent to good to meh to awful… basically a dollop of thickened custard pudding in a pre-baked mini pie crust, and the whole thing’s been in the display case too long. Most of the Pastel de Nata I had was quite good, and I would have been happy to have it every day, had I never eaten the real deal in Belém.

The best Pastel de Nata I ate in Lisbon, almost, but not quite, as good as the original, was at a small café just outside the entry gates to the Castelo San Jorge at the top of the city. Its name, appropriately and accurately, is The World Needs Nata. The tart was served warm, and I had it with a glass of galea. The custard was rich and smooth, the pastry light and crispy. When I came out from exploring the castle a couple of hours later, I sat down and ordered another!

My personal bottom line for Lisbon: Do not—repeat, DO NOT—fail to make the trip out to Belém while you are in this beautiful city. There is much to see and do there, including the Monastery, the amazing collection in the Coach museum, the Monument of the Discoveries, the Belém Tower and the Presidential Palace, among others.

But for me all that is icing on the tart. The TRUE reason to go to Belém is the egg custard bites, the true, the original, the one-and-only Pastéis de Belém, eaten right where they were created some 200 years ago.

Powdered sugar and cinnamon shakers and a box of napkins sit on the table to add to your egg custard tarts.

Shakers of cinnamon and powdered sugar sit on every table for adding to your egg custard tarts–a nice addition, perhaps, but not really necessary. They are perfect just as they are! Photo by Inayaili de León Persson on flickr. CC license.

As for me, I am jonesing for more Pastéis de Belém as I write this. And since I quite fell in love with Lisbon on my last trip and have plans to go back as soon as possible, I have no intention whatever of looking for a recovery program for my addiction. On my next arrival in this gorgeous city on the Tagus River, I’ll hit the ground running—toward the first tram that will get me out to Belém, a tall glass of galea, and a plate full of warm, crispy-crusted, runny-fillinged goodness. With my plate of Pastéis de Belém before me and a look of total joy and satisfaction on my face, I will be fine once more. Just look for me there.

 

For more information about the original Pastéis de Belém and more pictures of the bakery and restaurant, visit their website here.


Café Pastéis de Belém
Rua de Belém, 84-92
Belém, Lisbon, Portugal
Open 8 am -11 pm in winter, 8 am–midnight in summer

The World Needs Nata Café
Rua de Santa Cruz do Castelo 7,
Lisbon, Portugal
Open daily, 9:00 am-9:00 pm


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Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Strolling Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa, Mexico City

Let’s go for a walk. In La Condesa, the hip and trendy neighborhood in Mexico City, let’s take a slow afternoon stroll along a paved path beneath trees in full leaf, surrounded by beautiful architecture, chic cafes and unexpected corners. Let’s discover another side to this crowded, cacophonous, sometimes overwhelming megalopolis. Let’s wander along the green and leafy peacefulness of the oval called Avenida Amsterdam.

 

La Condesa—A Place to Breathe Peace in a Crowded City

If you’ve never been to Mexico City, one of the largest and most congested urban megalopolises in the world, you probably have an image of what to expect—smog, noise, crowds, crazy traffic, noise, street vendors on every corner, noise, food stalls, beggars—roiling untidy noisy life in all its messy humanness. And in much of this great city, that image would not be far off the mark. With an estimated 25 million people in the greater metropolitan area—no one really knows for sure—the cacophony and assault on the senses is undeniable.

But Mexico City is far more than just that. It is also a city of world-class museums, amazing churches and other historical monuments, great centers of music and art, universities, parks, architecture to turn your head, friendly people, stellar food. And many pockets of green and peace and simple urban joy.

Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The pedestrian walkway, called a camellón, on the leafy green Avenida Amsterdam
in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

One of my favorites of these peaceful, leafy spaces is in the heart of the chic, young artsy neighborhood of Condesa, sometimes called the SoHo of Mexico City. Let’s take a walk together and discover why I fell in love with Avenida Amsterdam on my recent trip to this not-to-be-missed city.

Colonia Hipódromo, the Original Heart of La Condesa

In the core of Barrio La Condesa in the very early 20th century, there used to be a popular horse racing track, called the Hipódromo. Its shape, the classic oval, still defines the area where horses once pounded the turf. When the racetrack moved out, green and people moved in. The center of the oval became the popular Parque Mexico, surrounded by Avenida Mexico. And around that, presumably where ladies in hats and men with cigars and fists full of pesos for betting used to sit and watch the racing thoroughbreds, runs Avenida Amsterdam.

It’s here we will travel today, at a much more leisurely pace than the horses did. We will stroll, stop for photos and gazing and breathing in the peace and perhaps a coffee or a chocolate treat. Since the street still runs in an oval, just as it did in its racetrack days, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. So we can just start walking it anywhere and keep going. We’ll eventually end up back where we started.

Condesa has been a trendy part of the city since the early 20th century, when wealthy people began moving out of the Centro looking for more space and more green. Many of the buildings that line Avenida Amsterdam were built after the 1920s. The area is rich in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style with some newer higher-rise apartment buildings. That makes it a great street for one of my favorite city activities—façade gazing.

House painted in black-and-white geometric pattern on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This house with its geometric paint job really stands out.

A colorful house on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa-Mexico City

A more traditionally Mexican-looking home but with some early 20th-century influences visible.

An Art Deco style building in Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Art Deco Style runs rampant throughout Barrio La Condesa in Mexico City

A "streamline moderne" style building in La Condesa, Mexico City

“Streamline Moderne” is another style you see frequently in this part of La Condesa in Mexico City

To say the Avenida Amsterdam is quiet is perhaps an overstatement. Mexicans, at least in the city, don’t really do quiet. I sometimes think they are actually uncomfortable when things get a little too quiet. But by Mexican standards, it’s peaceful and inviting. It’s a broad two-way street with a wide central pedestrian meridian called a camellón. This paved path is lined with plant beds and trees, benches, the odd sculpture here and there. It’s popular with doe-eyed young couples, new mothers with strollers, dogs walking their owners. The benches attract sitters, people watchers, readers and cell phone gazers. Work-out stations invite fitness mavens to come under the trees. And there are always runners.

Two young mothers with baby strollers on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The “camellón” in the center of Avenida Amsterdam serves many purposes, including strolling with the baby.

Youn men working out on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The young man on the left had just run past me a moment before, then returned on his hands, with a friend spotting him from behind. The young man on the right was taking advantage of a convenient work-out station.

Even on a hot day, it’s cool and pleasant in the shade of the elms and alders, oaks, palms and rubber trees. And jacarandas. I was there in early autumn, but I must go back in spring when all those jacaranda trees will create purple clouds of blossoms drifting above the camellón. Yes, I must do that; I must see that.

Original concrete benches, street signs and lampposts from the 1920s

The original concrete street signs, benches and lampposts on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City’s La Condesa neighborhood date to the 1920s.

The neighborhood is mostly still residential, but we do pass several chic shops, small businesses like the tailor and the dry cleaner, the electrical repair shop and the flower stall. And the cafes, bars, and restaurants. Because Avenida Amsterdam—indeed, much of Condesa—is café society central. We definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty on the oval Avenida.

We might stop for a coffee at Milo’s, a chic, deco-style spot suggested by the host of my AirBnb home. A friend and I went there for a snack one afternoon and it was exactly what we needed, perfect in every way. We shared a plate of Vietnamese rolls and each had a glass of delicious white wine seated at one of the sidewalk tables.

Milo's restaurant/bar on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Milo’s is a chic cafe/bar on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City

Vietnamese Rolls at Milo's, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Delicious Vietnamese Rolls at Milo’s on Avenida Amsterdam

Let’s stroll along a bit more, looking at the odd and delightful combination of Mexican architecture, a smattering of overdone French-accented pseudo-Gothic, and a lot of Art Deco through ‘50s Moderne buildings with some fading-glory-Mexican thrown into the mix for seasoning. This façade gazing is both art and diversion on Avenida Amsterdam and, indeed, throughout La Condesa. With unexpected nooks and crannies, with surprises tucked into unlikely places and with the Mexican love of saturated color, you’ll want to have your camera along. For those of us old enough to remember the phrase, Avenida Amsterdam definitely present a whole bunch of “Kodak moments.”

Pair of doors in an archway, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Is it just me, or do these doors on Avenida Amsterdam look just a bit “hobbit-y”??

A colorful blue house, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Mexicans love highly saturated color… seen everywhere in La Condesa, Mexico City

Steel constructed building with geodesic dome on the roof, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This one took me by surprise… a modern steel construction building with a geodesic dome on the roof!

Restaurant Matisse, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The Restaurant Matisse is a well-known gourmet experience on Avenida Amsterdam.

By now it’s quite likely we are hungry again! Good thing there are eateries of every type everywhere we look. With no previous research, and having had my fill of Mexican food, I’m voting for that Italian place I see on the corner of Michoacán and Amsterdam—Nonna Cucina Bar. Let’s take this nice outside table.

I’ve decided on the Pollo in Crosta di Limone, a smoked chicken breast with parsley sauce, topped with thinly sliced lemons and then grilled. It is served with a salad of spiral cut carrots, beets and zucchini with grilled peaches and is as pretty as it is tasty. It comes with a plate of lovely warm puffed-up pita bread and olive oil with balsamic for dipping.

While we are eating, an accordion player comes buy and stops to play a few songs before passing the hat among the customers. I don’t mind giving him a few pesos. I love living in a country that still has a robust job market for accordion players!

Polla in Crosta di Limone with salad at Nonna Cucina Bar, Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa, Mexico City

Pollo in Crosta di Limone with a salad of beets, carrots, zucchini and grilled peaches at Nonna Cucina Bar,
Avenida Amsterdam 240-1, La Condesa, Mexico City

Time to stroll some more and work off that meal. But soon we will want dessert. And the only possible place for that on Avenida Amsterdam, I am told, is Tout Chocolat at Amsterdam 154. It is chocolate heaven, I am told. Just go, I am told. Nothing else comes close, I am told. I always do as I am told… at least when it comes to chocolate.

So off we go to the pretty and classy shop on the corner owned by Luis Robledos Richards. He trained at the prestigious French Culinary Institute’s “Classic Pastry Arts” program and the Ecóle Lenotre in Paris, and then worked as head pastry chef at both Paris’ Le Cirque and the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He’s been named one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America and has won the World Chocolate Masters competition TWICE. Yeah, the guy has the creds. And now Mexico City gets the benefit. And so do we!

Tout Chocolat patisserie and chocolate shop, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Tout Chocolat, in La Condesa, where you can get some of the best and most innovative chocolate in Mexico City

Open the door. Close your eyes. Inhale. Ahhh… that smell. Pure chocolate decadence. What could be better? And remember, Mexico is where chocolate was first invented!

The beauty of the offerings is staggering and so are the choices. Chocolate bars, cakes, brownies. Truffles and hot chocolate and bonbons. Just a few of our flavor choices include: marshmallow or maracuya, spicy chia, white peach and apricot, hazelnut balls, lime caramel, mezcal truffles with sea salt (quite amazing and impossible to describe but YES!). Then there are pear chocolates, ginger chocolates, white chocolate, salted caramel chocolates…. Sorry, I am running out of room and drooling onto the keyboard here. But be sure I am buying some to take back with me!

Our stroll is nearly done as we return to the spot on the oval of Avenida Amsterdam where we began. The din of traffic notches back up a few decibels. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll explore more of this hip Condesa neighborhood. Or maybe pop over to Roma or Polanco. Or head into the Centro and check out the enormous central square called the Zócalo. Or marvel at the pre-Columbian treasures in the Anthropological Museum.

A flower stall on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Flowers to take back to a hotel room or an AirBnB temporary home.

Perhaps for now, we’ll just stop at that stand on the corner and pick up a bunch of bright flowers to take back to our room, a little something to bring a bit of the peace and color of Avenida Amsterdam with us. How nice to remember the pleasure of a slow stroll beneath the trees—the peace and the people, the food and the color, to take in this part of Mexico City that so many tourists never see.

And besides… chocolate!

 

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On my visit to Mexico City, I stayed in an accommodation I booked through AirBnB. Have you tried it yet? I love AirBnB and have used it in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Mexico and the US… so far! In expensive cities, like Amsterdam and Paris, I find I often save money over the cost of a hotel, and I love the convenience of having kitchen facilities. I even host guests in my own home in Mexico through AirBnB.

If you haven’t yet tried the service, consider signing up today. If you use this AirBnB link to register, you’ll get a $20 credit you can use towards your first booking. In some inexpensive locations, that’s like getting your first night free! And I will also get a credit towards my next booking, so I’ll be a happy Nomad Woman too! Don’t you love win-win?

Remembering Joy in San Miguel de Allende:
The Concheros Dancers

How the Concheros—the pre-Hispanic-style Dancers of Mexico–and all the movement, color, and joyous sounds they bring with them, rekindled remembered joy in a depressed heart.

When you live where every day is a holiday of some kind—an excuse for a fiesta always at hand—it’s easy to forget one. That day I had forgotten. But Mexico has a way of reminding us.

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

I’d had a bad night, full of dark images and lonely threats and deceptive might-have-beens. Still living the aftershocks of a destroyed 25-year marriage, financial worries, aging, and the accumulated weight of depression, I had no smiles left.

Walking blindly across the cobblestones, I trudged up one of the many hills that make up San Miguel de Allende, moving toward the Jardín, that central plaza that is the very heart of the town and functions as everyone’s public living room. My mind wandered too, dreading some errand to be run, some friend to be called, some smiles to be summoned up on demand from a well that seemed drained dry. Sore of feet and blue of spirits, all I really wanted to do was go back home and crawl into bed. But there was little food in the house, the library book was overdue, and finances urgently required a stop at the bank.

Lost in my thoughts, I saw but did not register the young woman dressed in the standard conchero costume of neon lamé and huge red and green feathers on her head as she passed me going down the hill in the sun.

The wooden sticks pound the hide skins of the concheros drums

The pounding of the concheros drumming vibrated up through my sandals.

The first thing to get past my funk was the vibrations. The thrumming rhythm of drums had penetrated the paving stones, crept down the hill and wriggled straight up through the soles of my sandals. Had I been paying more attention, I would have heard them before I felt them; their pounding was strong, deep, relentless. A reminder.

After years of living in San Miguel de Allende, I’d forgotten to check the calendar. It was the first Friday in March, one of my favorite feast days in a city that has more than its share and one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende. The day honors Our Lord of the Conquest and celebrates the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico. It is a day when many Mexicans honor the twin traditions of their indigenous roots and their deeply held faith in their Christ and their God.

Here in San Miguel, a magical colonial pueblo perched on the high plain of central Mexico, it is also called the day of the Concheros, dancers named for the “conchas”—shell-like seed pods—wrapped around their ankles to rattle as they dance, spin and stomp, jump and leap, mimicking the Aztec dancers of Mexico’s glorious past. A robust mix of pagan and Catholic, this show of their devotion is a highlight of the year. Every year on this day, they fill the Jardín with their fervor, color, movement. And sound. Lots of sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

I emerged from the narrow street into the wide space in front of La Parroquia church. Its pink cantera stone spires glowed and shimmered in the spring sunshine, that elusive light that draws so many artists to San Miguel. A wave of sound—no, make that noise—almost knocked me over as the pounding of the concheros’ drums rolled over me. I felt assaulted by sound, color, movement. Settling onto a wrought-iron bench beneath the trimmed laurel trees, I let the exuberance take me.

The Concheros Engulf My Senses

The concheros’ flashy pseudo-Aztec costumes, heavy with Pre-Hispanic symbols, neon-colored lamé and fringe, and their two-meter long pheasant plume headdresses, undulated across the plaza, riding the wave of the drumming beat.

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle--symbols of the conchero dancers' devotion

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle–symbols of the conchero dancers’ devotion

From the center of their circle, the pungent bite of copal incense pricked my nose, wafting up from a pottery burner set beside a mandolin made from an armadillo shell, a conch shell, fragrant herbs and a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A low mournful note sounded as a senior conchero lifted the giant conch shell to his lips.

All around the Jardín, the celebration pulsed. Three separate groups of concheros twirled, jumped and lunged on the three sides of the square. No group danced or drummed in time with the others. The un-synched roar attacked from all sides.

Three photos of conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

The dancers and drummers were not alone in their push to summon the gods of music and joy. In the pretty kiosk centering the square, the town band played. A brassy Souza march rolled across the cobblestones, the notes slightly off-key but the oompah strong and enthusiastic. The tuba player looked to be at least 70 years old. The young drummer might have been his great-grandson.

In Mexico, no reason for a fiesta goes to waste, so preparations were being made to continue the concheros’ party well into the night, but to a different beat. In front of the church, a wooden stage waited for more festivities. A rock band sound-checked equipment to make sure it was sufficiently deafening. Then a guitarist launched into a ragged rehearsal, a weird counterpoint to the traditionally beloved oompah blaring a few meters away in the kiosk.

From the southwest, clouds of black, boat-tailed grackles rolled into the square to settle into the branches of the laurel trees where they roosted for the night. It always took them a while to settle in as they discussed their day, squabbling over favorite perches perhaps or crowing over fattest-worm bragging rights. Their raucous cawing rained down like sharp pebbles onto the paving stones.

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

I closed my eyes, feeling pleasantly assaulted by the noise surrounding me. It rolled up from all sides, like a big cushion determined to block out all thought, all pain, all sensation of anything but itself.

And then the bells began. The huge bronze bells of La Parroquia poured down their peals like waves from the high faux-Gothic spires. They were almost—but not quite—in sync with the throbbing drums, the concheros’ rattling seedpod anklets, the conch shell’s moan, the off-key Souza march, the wailing rock guitar and the grackles’ cackles.

The black mood that had engulfed me an hour earlier was fighting for dominance. And losing. The feeling of that heavy cloud of despair lifting from my shoulders was almost palpable, carried off on the enormous wave of sound and dissipated into the brilliant San Miguel light.

An image sprang to my mind, myself as a young girl with long red braids and freckles sitting in a Sunday School class, reciting and memorizing Bible verses. We were learning the opening of the 100th Psalm:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

My eyes, my ears, my whole being swept around the square and took in the scene—the color, the movement, the vibrations… the SOUND.

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

And with a smile of pure joy, a heart light and clear, I thought… finally, I know what a joyful noise really sounds like.

It sounds like San Miguel de Allende on the first Friday in March.


If you go:

In San Miguel de Allende, the Conchero Dancers perform for Dia de La Conquista every year on the first Friday in March in the plaza in front of La Parroquia church. The dancing begins around mid-morning and continues throughout the day and often into the evening. Photographing the dancers is allowed.

San Miguel de Allende lies in the central highlands of Mexico. By car, it is nine hours south of Laredo, Texas, on highway 57. The nearest airport is Bajio International Airport (BJX) located in Silao, about an hour from San Miguel. International flights also fly into Mexico City, about 4 hours from San Miguel by bus or private shuttle.  For more information about visiting San Miguel de Allende, visit Experience San Miguel de Allende.

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The Eiffel Tower seen in the distance, framed by an iconic Paris pillar.

Paris is Perfect… and Always Will Be

In the wake of the terrible events this week in Paris, I think this is the perfect time to write something about this beautiful city. Because I believe in solidarity in the face of tragedy and horror. Because #JeSuisCharlie.

Louvre Museum seen from inside the courtyard glass pyramid

The Louvre Museum, seen from inside the I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid in the central courtyard.

My fear is that, faced with the reality of a terrible terrorist attack on Paris, on Parisians and on freedom of speech itself, some potential travelers to the wonderful “City of Light” will now decide to stay home. That happens so much whenever these terrorists act out their limited vision and hatred anywhere in the world. Logic gives way to irrational fear. People are made to feel vulnerable and they crawl into a shell to protect themselves.

I just want to say this…and to say it very loudly: When we give in to fear, the terrorists win! Fear is their weapon of choice. When they use that weapon against us and we become afraid, i.e. we accept the ammunition they hand us, they win. Our fear is their victory!

I refuse to be afraid of them.

OK, enough about these losers with minds full of nothing but hatred and violence. They will never win, because we won’t let them. So let’s talk about something much more pleasant. Let’s talk about Paris!

She is so beautiful, any time, any season, for any reason.

The Eiffel Tower seen in the distance, framed by an iconic Paris pillar.

The Eiffel Tower is visible from most of Paris and is beautiful from up close or far away.

Paris is always
a good idea.
~ Audrey Hepburn


I made my first visit to Paris when I was 25—a number of decades ago! I loved it then. I loved it on several subsequent visits. And I love it still.

I spent a solo week in Paris in September of last year. I wish it could have been a month. I walked, I looked, I talked to people (a struggle with my very limited French), I ate. I walked some more. I ate some more! And it was all fabulous.

This visit was quite different from that first trip as an eager and adventurous young woman. Back then, I ran from place to place, from museum to monument to not-to-be-missed site, my tattered copy of Europe on $5 a Day always at hand. I wanted see it all, do it all, taste it all.

Now, I am more inclined toward what has come to be called “slow travel.” Maybe it’s age. Or perhaps it’s greater wisdom. Whatever, I took Paris slow, savoring each day and each moment, relaxing into the city at my own pace.

Instead of choosing a hotel for this trip, I used AirBnB to book a tiny studio apartment for the week. It turned out to be cheaper than a hotel and much nicer than a hostel. I moved in, settled, slept till I woke, lingered over morning coffee in a local café, then set off to wander. I walked and walked and walked some more, barely getting the full value of the discounted one-week Metro pass I bought in advance of my trip.

The slower pace meant I saw both less and more of Paris. I saw fewer monuments and museums and more people, fewer works of art on walls and more natural works of art in gardens and parks. I never hurried; I strolled. I stopped and just looked and breathed, tasted and smelled. As it turned out, it was absolutely the best way for me not just to “see” Paris but to experience her.

A corner of the Palais Garnier roofline against a blue Paris sky.

A golden statue glows against a blue Parisian sky at one corner of the Palais Garnier, home to the Paris Opéra until 1989. The company now uses this building mainly for ballet performances.

My first day in Paris, I joined a volunteer from Paris Greeters for a free walking tour. They are offered in various parts of the city and always lead by volunteers who know the neighborhood well. My walking tour was in Montparnasse. My guide was Jean-Jacques, a retired teacher full of wisdom, humor and great stories. Often there are several people in the group, but this day I was the only one on his walk. We wandered at our own pace, stopped for coffee, stopped for photos, and simply had a lovely morning.

Montparnasse is a neighborhood I had never explored before and I learned so much. Jean-Jacques was full of stories about the artists and writers who called this quartier home in the late-19th and early-20th centuries—after Montmartre became too chic and expensive for them! I saw where Degas painted, where Hemingway drank, where Mondrian loved.

Entrance to artist's studio in a hidden courtyard in Montparnasse.

Entrance to an artist’s studio in a hidden courtyard in Montparnasse. I would never have known about it or found it without my Paris Greeters guide, Jean-Jacques. Degas had his studio in this very courtyard.

Me enjoying the sunshine at Cafe de la Rotonde

Enjoying sunshine and coffee at Cafe de la Rotonde in Montparnasse, a favorite hang-out of Picasso, Modigliani and Soutine, Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau, Hemingway, Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Debussy and the ballet dancer Nijinsky, among others.

My main activity throughout my week in Paris was simply walking around this glorious city, often without much of a plan, seeing where my feet would take me. I spent a lot of time sitting in sidewalk cafés just watching the world go by. I wrote in my journal. I took pictures. I breathed in the special magic that is Paris.

The studio apartment I rented was right in the center of the Ile St. Louis. Can you say… LOCATION?? You can’t get any more central in Paris. I fell in love with my neighborhood. There are tiny shops and patisseries and cafés everywhere. The famous Berthillón ice cream store was just around the corner… very dangerous! By my second visit to a neighborhood café or mini-supermarket, I was considered a local.

Another thing that made the location so perfect was that no matter where I was headed, I passed Notre Dame on the way. I spent several hours wandering around the beautiful cathedral, inside and out, taking pictures and just feeling the ancient wonder of this glorious work of architecture and faith.

Notre Dame de Paris at the golden hour

The main facade of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris glows in the “golden hour” of late afternoon against a blue Paris sky.

dtatues of saints on the high buttresses of Notre Dame, Paris

Statues of saints line the roof and high buttresses of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
Always remember to look up!


I spent much of one whole afternoon wandering from stall to stall of the book and print sellers along the banks of the Seine, mostly along the famous Rive Gauche, the Left Bank. And yes, my suitcase was noticeably heavier when I left than when I landed!

Open-air bookstall along the Left Bank in Paris

When strolling along the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) in Paris, don’t plan to hurry… ever. The open-air book stalls
will be calling your name… if you are like me.

My “slow travel” schedule meant I passed on several of the iconic Parisian must-sees on this trip. I spent very little time in the Louvre, put off by the crowds and my own already tired feet. I never made it to the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe. I did not get anywhere near the Eiffel Tower—although I did have some lovely views of it from all over the city. It is pretty hard to miss!

I did make it to the Cluny Medieval Museum, in the heart of the Quartier Latin on the Left Bank. It is one of my favorite spots in Paris, and I spent more than an hour just sitting peacefully with the gorgeous tapestries in the “Lady and the Unicorn” series. It is basically impossible to capture the vibrancy and life in these centuries-old weavings in a photo—at least for me—but here is a taste.

A detail of one of the series of medieval tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn.

A detail of one of the famous “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries from the middle ages.
In the Musée de Cluny, Museum of the Middle Ages, in Paris.

I was fortunate with the weather. Except for waiting out one short rain squall in a doorway crowded with a few other Parisians near the Opéra, the sun shone brilliantly, sparkling off the waters of the Seine and pulling my eye up to roof lines and chimney pots, sculptures and that ever-present view of the Eiffel Tower.

I wandered through the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Park behind Notre Dame, snapping photos of flowers and lovers. What better place than Paris to photograph lovers?

Parisian lovers

Paris is for lovers….

Parisian lovers kissing on a concrete wall.

… and you can see them everywhere.


On my last day in Paris, she gave me a special gift… a perfectly Parisian sunset that set the Seine aglow, an apt image to remember her by.

 Parisian sunset

What could be more beautiful than Paris at sunset…?

This was not my last visit to Paris, of that I was determined. In fact, I have already booked my return ticket, this time for the spring. Paris in April! What could be more perfect?

What should I make it a point not to miss on my next trip to this golden, gorgeous, light-filled city? Tell me in the comments below.

View of Las Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon of Mexico

Company at the Copper Canyon

Finding Unexpected Friends on the Edge in Mexico

 

As I learned at the Copper Canyon of Mexico, not all the best travel experiences involve breath-taking adventures, cultural lessons and deep understanding. Sometimes the best ones are small, intimate, and almost silent. Sometimes they don’t involve people at all… but you can have a party just the same.

 
I flopped onto the bed and kicked off my shoes. It was quiet here, blessedly quiet. No sound but the breeze whispering through pine needles, then scurrying down into the depths of the great canyon below. Las Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s fabled Copper Canyon—it plunged below me in more shades of green and gray and rust and yellow than I had words in Spanish. The sun was low, tinting the shadows in the hollows the deep coppery bronze that gives this giant snaking hole in the ground its name.

View of Copper Canyon from Hotel Mirador

View of Urique Canyon, part of Las Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, in the state of Chihuahua.
Photo copyright Ted McGrath
(CC license)

But I was tired after a long day—though hopefully my passengers were not. As a professional Tour Director, my job was to make their days effortless, exciting, relaxing, adventurous, full of new sights and sounds and information but not over-full, not overwhelming. Name your vacational dream; my job was to provide it. And I was good at it.

But creating all that effortless-looking magic could sometimes be a slog. As a Tour Director you are Social Director, Logistics Manager, Entertainer, Teacher, Emergency Tech, Problem-Solver and Explainer-in-Chief. Also hand-holder and sometime baby-sitter. At the end of the day, your passengers head off to enjoy the bar and the mariachi music and watch the hummingbirds lured by the red-siren sparkle of the feeders hanging on the balcony over the canyon’s edge.

And all you want to do is leave them to it. Hide in your hotel room. Have a hot shower. Read a book. Enjoy the silence. Be alone. Or at least that’s what I thought I wanted that night. I really did.

The Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas is perched directly on the edge of the massive hole that is the Copper Canyon. You can step onto the balcony of your room and look down on the birds flying below. This night it was chock full. I had a good-sized group on my tour and we were not the only bus-load in the hotel. The dramatic beauty of the Copper Canyon and its iconic train ride made for a popular tour, and every room in the main building was full.

The owners, the Balderrama hotel chain, were building a new wing, way at the top of the property. They called it El Nido del Aguila, the Eagle’s Nest. To get to it, you took a long stone path and stairs that snaked through madron trees, sotol cactus and the long-needled Arizona pines the Tarahumara people use to make their lovely baskets.

Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas\ on the edge of the Copper Canyon.

Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas perches right on the cliff edge of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. The “Eagle’s Nest” eyrie at the top was just being built at the time of our story. I was in the first room on the right, likely the first guest in it.
Photo copyright: Bad Alley
(CC license)

 

I finally reached my lovely, quiet, blessedly isolated room. There was no phone. No TV. No radio, no cell signal, no internet connection. The light smell of fresh paint jousted with the sharp tang of the pines edging the balcony beyond a pair of sliding glass doors. There were no other guests in the new, partially built eyrie. I could taste the aloneness and it was delicious on my tongue.

The main building may have been full to the brim with merry-making and margarita-slugging tourists, but up here it was completely and utterly quiet, or at least quiet of human sounds. The best kind of quiet when you spend your day shepherding a few dozen people from point A to Point B, smiling all the while.

It wasn’t really cold enough for a fire, but I was pining for the scent and the crackle and yellow flames to stare into mindlessly. An armload of pine logs and splinters for kindling from outside my door soon had the carved stone chimenea singing its fiery song. I slid open the balcony doors to let in the soft evening air. A long hot shower, a silent sit before the leaping flames restored my soul. I lay on the new bed, listening to the crackle of the fire and the overlaying silence. I ate a cracker, enjoying the bite of salt on my tongue. I reveled in the mundanity of it all. Such rare peace, to be savored in the mouth, mind and muscles.

The First Member of the Party Arrives

I grabbed the book I seldom had the peace to read. After maybe a half hour with it, something made me glance right, at the lamp on the bedside table. That’s when I discovered I was not actually alone. There on the lampshade was a pale brown praying mantis, poised in perfect elegance, head up and face turned toward me. The creature was at least three inches long (about 7.5 cm). His big, calabata-olive eyes were perhaps two feet away, yet he paid me no attention at all. He seemed neither impressed nor bothered by my presence and proximity. He just perched there preening, cleaning his long feelers exactly as if he were a cat.

Praying mantis

A Praying Mantis – “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
Photo copyright Stavros Markopoulos
(CC license)

One long beige leg came up, the end hooked itself around a feeler and pulled it down in an arc. Then beginning at the head end and moving methodically toward the outer tip, he passed it slowly through his mouth, cleaning each tiny section as it went. That done, he picked up the other delicate front leg, reached up for the other feeler and repeated the process. Then back to the first.

My book lay forgotten as I sat fascinated by the mantis’ performance. I forgot the scent and beauty and depth of the Copper Canyon just outside the sliding doors. I moved as close as I thought I could. He never flinched. I edged a little closer. Any closer and I would not have been able to focus. He was less than a foot beyond my nose.

“Hello beautiful,” I said. He cleaned a feeler. “You are doing a wonderfully thorough job.” He cleaned the other feeler. At one point, he stopped and looked at me for a long moment, then slowly dipped his head as if saying “Yeah, I guess you’re okay. You can stay.”

It might have been ten minutes I watched him, or maybe thirty. I was lost to time, absorbed by the elegance of his movements and the perfection of every part of him. But finally, I did roll away and refocus on my book, leaving the mantis to his prayers and ablutions.

Guest Number Two?

Another chapter read and I glanced back to the lampshade to check on my guest. He was not there. I panicked for a moment, though I don’t know why. He was better suited to this place than I was. But I was worried, so I knelt on the mattress and peered over the headboard and down along and behind the nightstand looking for my pretty new friend.

He was nowhere to be seen. But… there on the floor, just sticking out from under the nightstand, was a minuscule pink nose. It twitched. Then it froze. I moved a fraction and it disappeared. But I had seen enough to recognize a tiny gray mouse.

A small mouse in a corner

A tiny wee mouse came out to say a timid hello. I fed him cracker crumbs.
Photo copyright Sean Dreilinger
(CC license)

On a whim and a hope, I broke off a piece of cracker, crumbled it and dropped it on the floor where the nose peek had been. Then I lay down, hanging crosswise off the edge of the bed, and waited. It took a few minutes. But I think the little guy was hungry. Pretty soon, the nose appeared again, all quivering pink and twitching whiskers. The little lad then darted out from safety, all one-inch-plus of him, grabbed the cracker pieces and darted back to safety again.

“Would you like some more?” I asked politely. “I have plenty.” I crumbled another cracker, dropped it in place and waited. Out he popped, grabbed, scurried back.

We continued the game awhile. I wondered what he was doing with all the crumbs, which must be piling up faster than he could eat them. Perhaps he was a she with a nest of babies clamoring for cracker feedings. I was afraid if I got down to look I would scare her off, and I was enjoying the company.

Praying mantis in silhouette

The praying mantis perched on the headboard behind me, like he was tying to read over my shoulder.
Photo copyright Ken Slade
(CC license)

Eventually I unfolded myself and turned back to my book… only to discover the preacher was back. Praying earnestly just above me, or perhaps studying my book, was the mantis, his delicate body perfectly arched atop the headboard behind me. I wished my book was a field guide to the trees and wildflowers of the Copper Canyon so he could enjoy reading over my shoulder. It was most likely a trashy historical romance novel, but he didn’t seem to mind.

I settled down to read, enjoying the feeling of having companions around me.

…and One More to Come

As the evening wore on and the air got chillier, my feet grew cold. I got up to retrieve some socks from my suitcase, lying on the terra cotta floor. There I startled guest number three to the party in room 101. As I reached into the bag, a wee frog, greeny-brown and no bigger than a gumdrop, hopped out and across the room, stopping only when leap met wall.

“Hoppy” seemed less inclined to be friends than my prayerful insect companion or even Ms. Mouse. He trembled a bit, cornered as he was. I retreated a safe distance to give him a little confidence and watched him. I had no froggy equivalent of crackers to offer and lull him from his fright.

Full night had fallen. The fire had burned down to embers. The subtle sounds of the Copper Canyon had quietened to almost nothing. And tomorrow morning, my passengers would expect me to be “on” and ready—to answer every question, solve every crisis and make sure they got what they had paid for. It was time for everyone to sleep.

I reluctantly turned off the light, tucked my sock-clad feet under me and snuggled down into my brand-new mattress.

I’d left the drapes open to the wide swath of canyon. The sun awakened me with a wink, then a laser, first peeping then pouring over the edge of the canyon’s horizon and straight into my room. I felt more refreshed than I ever feel on tour mornings. Stretching, I looked around the room. There were no visible remains of the party we had held the night before, no bottles or empty cups, no party hats or stretched out streamers. And no guests.

I looked all around. The mantis was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he had a lady friend further down the slopes of the mighty Copper Canyon. Perhaps he had been preening the night before just for her, wanting to impress. The frog in the corner had used the cover of darkness to hop off to safety. And Ms. Mouse was who knows where?

The mini-menagerie had all gone home, wherever home was, and I was alone again.

But there was evidence if you looked hard enough. There was proof of our revels. On hands and knees, forehead to the floor, I peered under the night stand, wondering if Ms. Mouse was still there. No mouse and no babies either. But there, in at least a dozen neat little mounds, like miniature haystacks, were heaps of cracker crumbs, precisely spaced, awaiting her return.

I checked my suitcase once more for stray amphibians then closed it and set it outside the door for pick-up. I headed back down the long stone path and stairway, lured by the faint smell of coffee wisping up from the hotel dining room. It was time to show my passengers more of the wonders and glory of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, four times bigger than the Grand Canyon, to introduce them to some of the Tarahumara Indians who lived there, tell them the names of the plants and the trees and the rocks.

But I decided I would not tell them about the party I’d held in my room the night before. I didn’t want to make them feel left out.

View of the Copper Canyon of Mexico

Late afternoon at the beautiful Copper Canyon of Mexico.
Photo copyright Adam Singer
(CC license)


 


Get more information about the Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas at the Copper Canyon in Mexico.