Dream of Oaxaca

My four days in Oaxaca last month are a fading dream. I was already starting to feel nervous about riding in crowded vans, as we did one day to get to the nearby ruins, and my hand sanitizer got a lot of use. But basically it was in the Before Times, when one could still move about freely, go into restaurants and shops at will, and travel on public conveyances, faces unobscured by masks.

Oaxaca, in a southerly crook of Mexico, is a lovely place, a city of fine neoclassical buildings and magnificent airy cathedrals set back on broad plazas. But the buildings that struck me most were the simple two-story attached houses, with ornate carved-stone door and window moldings, painted bright yellow, orange, blue, the sun etching sharp shadows across their fronts.

Some are used as inviting coffee shops set in hushed interior courtyards, where young folks with laptops while away the day. Some are mezcalerias, glitzy and cool or funky and old-school. Some are restaurants, many with steep staircases leading to rooftop bars.

And many are crafts shops — of varying quality, but mostly pretty high. Oaxaca has a number of specialties in that realm, including black pottery, textiles, filigreed jewelry, tinware. There are scores of shops large and small.

The city of a quarter-million centers on a zócalo, or central square. Unlike Mexico City’s barren one, Oaxaca’s zócalo is green and shady, thronged with people and surrounded by cafes. Street musicians, women selling textiles from bales slung over their shoulders, children playing, outdoor dance groups. It’s a lively place for sure.

We stayed at Las Golondrinas (“The Swallows”), below, a hotel a little ways from the center, secluded behind a gate. The garden setting is lush, our familiar houseplants grown to Audrey II size. Outdoor breakfast under an arbor was a little disorganized the first morning, because it was a national day of support for domestic violence victims. Women were staying home, and men were cooking and serving. Chaos ensued.

I loved my pink room but for one thing: the glary light from the compact fluorescent bulbs. I spent part of the first full day in Oaxaca on a quest for warm bulbs (I’m exquisitely sensitive to bad lighting), which took me to a large electrical supply store near the central market. Once again, I surmised, the women who normally work the front counter were absent, and the men, who I’m guessing work in the back somewhere, though very kind, didn’t seem to know where anything was or how to ring it up. It was adorable.

The Mercado Juarez is the phenomenal central market, bigger even than the one in Mexico City. I approached it cautiously, spending less time there than I might had I not been getting paranoid about crowds. It’s everything to everybody, aisle after aisle, from meat and produce to pet lizards, bunnies and fish, bolts of floral-patterned fabric, cut-paper decorations, woven bags, colorful clothing, floor to ceiling and overflowing onto surrounding blocks.

Everything’s so cheap to an American vacationer. At one of the high-end restaurants, Casa Oaxaca, it was all we could do to spend $40 apiece, including tip, on an incredible multi-course dinner — salsa made at the table and served with crisp green tacos sprinkled with cheese, a striped bass entree, a beet salad, a fancy dessert and two glasses of chardonnay from Baja’s renowned wine valley. That was by far our priciest meal. Most other full-on dinners in very nice restaurants, half indoor-half outdoor, ran $16-$18. Huge portions everywhere. Sorry to go on about prices, but for me one of the chief pleasures of a Mexican vacation is not feeling stressed about overspending.

At Las Quince Letras, I had a giant squash with chocolate mole sauce (strange), and a pepper stuffed with mushrooms in a different mole. There were seven moles in all, brought on a tray for sampling. At Marco Polo, a more casual place filled with locals, it was snapper baked in a wood-fired oven and for dessert, mamey ice cream, my new favorite flavor.

The tour of Oaxaca City’s botanic garden, above, on the site of the Santo Domingo monastery, is two hours long, a leisurely pace for a six-acre space. Offered in English three times a week and very popular, the official tour is the only way to visit the garden. It’s all native Oaxacan plants, and naturally beautiful, of course, but not a masterpiece of garden design. It’s called an ethno-botanic garden, so the aim of the tour is to tie the plants in with the native people, which was fascinating, though the guide shared way more botanical information than even I needed to know.

We easily arranged a half day small-group bus trip to Monte Alban, below, the Zapotec acropolis, through the hotel desk. That cost $15, inclusive of the services of our personable and well-spoken guide. The extraordinarily impressive site was in existence for 1,200 years, from 500 BC-800 AD. The reasons for its decline remain a mystery, but one theory is that getting water up to the elites who lived on the high ground became a problem when the peasants in the valley, who had been carrying it up there for who knows how many generations, got tired of doing so and moved on to other regions. Excavated and opened to the public only for the past couple of decades, Monte Alban is the partially reconstructed remains of a broad plateau of pyramid-shaped temples to various gods, their construction based on astounding astronomical calculations. It was good to get out of the city, which is sited in a valley, and take in the surrounding topography from on high.

Wrapping things up on our final day entailed a walk around Los Arquitos (“The Arches”), a quiet neighborhood, built around the remains of an old aqueduct, with good-quality craft stalls where artisans sell jewelry of their own design and making. Of course, I wish I had bought more. At the magnificent Museo des Culturas Oaxaca inside the Santo Domingo cathedral complex, we sought out the tomb treasures of Monte Alban, a hoard of beaded and hammered gold jewelry which rounded out the picture of the culture we’d gained from visiting the temple structures the day before.

Four days in Oaxaca was a bare minimum. A visit there could be pleasurably stretched to months. Will I ever go back? I really don’t know. I’d like to. In any case, I’m glad I got there at least once.

First Timer in Mexico City

SIX DAYS AGO, I got back from two weeks in Mexico. It was supposed to have been a three-week vacation, but fears of the U.S.-Mexico border closing suddenly and the possibility, if flights were cancelled, of having to rent a car and drive cross country from Baja California to NYC (38 hours – I checked), caused my holiday to come to an abrupt end.

When a friend and I left JFK on Tuesday, March 3, there were a couple hundred coronavirus cases in New York. I had heard about it, and checked three drug stores for hand sanitizer before I left (to no avail), but it wasn’t something that would cause me to change my long-arranged travel plans, for gosh sakes. When I got back to NYC on Tuesday, March 17, the number of cases was in five digits.

I hadn’t ever been to CDMX (the new official acronym for Mexico City, for Ciudad de Mexico). I expected chaos, noise, maybe a little danger. Instead, I found it as rich in art and architecture as a European capital and cleaner than New York City, with parks full of jacaranda trees in purple bloom. Our two-bedroom, two-bath Air B&B was ridiculously inexpensive and more luxurious than my normal lifestyle, located in the Roma neighborhood, just around the corner from where the movie of that name was filmed.

Roma and Condesa, the adjoining nabe, about 3 miles from the Centro Historico, are both terrific, but Condesa is where I’d live if I lived in CDMX. It was built in the 1920s and ’30 around the jungle-like, oval-shaped Parque Mexico, on the site of a one-time racecourse. I wandered around, taking in the Art Deco architecture that flowered in Mexico City after the devastating economic effects of the 1910 Mexican Revolution had resolved.

All this wonderfulness was enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t paying much attention to the news.

My main goal was to see the murals of the great social realist Diego Rivera, with visits to his monumental works at the Palacio National (nothing less ambitious than the history of Mexico from pre-conquest times to the 1930s); the futuristic “Man at the Crossroads” mural at the Palacio des Bellas Artes, which also has towering murals by Orozco, Tamayo and Siquieros, and another at the Diego Rivera Museum, a personal and political riff on Seurat’s painting “Sunday on the Grand Jetté,” at the head of lovely Alameda Central park.

And we weren’t about to miss what is surely one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions, Frida’s Kahlo’s famous “blue house” in the Coyoacan neighborhood, a 20-minute taxi ride from the center, as well as the extraordinary modernist home and studio built in the nearby San Angel neighborhood for Rivera by his friend and neighbor, architect Juan O’Gorman. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they astounded.

A street food tour with Eat Mexico was a highlight. It satisfied my curiosity about the famous Mexico City street food stalls without my having to risk digestive upset. The small-group tour took us to a central business district, Cuahutemoc, where there are tall glass office towers. It’s mostly office workers and construction workers who find these carts, set up in the morning and broken down at night, some that have been in the same family for decades, so convenient.

The food we tried at a dozen stops, ably guided by Ariana Ruiz, was uniformly fresh and delicious, and incredibly high in carbs. There was atolle, a warm sweet rice drink; samples from several tortillerias (of 65,000 in the city), round discs of corn dough, salted and eaten as a snack; cemitas poblanas, another bready thing, with string cheese, avocado and an herb called papalo. I also tried chamoy, a sweet/salty salsa, Asian- influenced, with tamarind, papaya, pineapple and other fruit; pombazo, a way to use day-old bread by soaking it in salsa and frying; shrimp burritos and a seafood tostada, Veracruz- style. It’s cooked ceviche, basically, sushi-fresh and delivered daily from both coasts, each 5 hours away by truck.

Food in general was a highlight of CDMX. We ate everywhere from a retro lunch counter in an 18th century Baroque building entirely clad in blue and white tiles, to the vegan cafe down the block where we sat outside one evening under string lights, to Dulce Patria, a fancy restaurant for which we had made advance reservations, that took us into Mexico City’s poshest neighborhood, Polanco.

We did many of the things you have to do your first time in CDMX, including the 14th century Templo Mayor excavations and museum, dating from when Mexico City, called Tenochtitlan, was on an island linked to the mainland by causeways, and the dizzying, world-class anthropology museum. I’m not sure one of the things you have to do is take the subway, but we did, as an adventure. It was impressively efficient. But Ubers are too, and hardly more costly.

Five days in Mexico City was perfect for must-dos and a bit of wandering, with guidebook in hand. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to carry one around.

By the time we left for Oaxaca March 8, the coronavirus news was casting a pall. We encountered worried Americans there, which we had not in MCDX. Mexicans, too, were conscious of it and big on the hand sanitizer.

Oaxaca, sleepy by comparison to CDMX but of great charm and interest, will be the subject of another post. I’ll have plenty of time to put that together, from quarantine here in brownstone Brooklyn.

Hope you are all doing well in your seclusion during this weird, anxious time. I have faith it will eventually be over, and we’ll get back, not to the old normal, but hopefully better. After our enforced staycations, we’ll be well-rested and well-read, less crazed consumers, more appreciative of the low-wage workers who keep us going, less frenetic, more introspective. We’ll have caught up with old friends and cleaned out our closets. And I, I hope, will have revived my dormant blog.

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, with a Pit Stop in Noto

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is the most amazing place you’ve never heard of. At least I had never heard of it, until I began planning a trip to Sicily a few months back.

Turns out Sicily’s south coast has an ancient Greek temple complex said to be the most outstanding outside the Acropolis in Athens (and unlike the Acropolis, it has the advantage of feeling undiscovered).

But first came Noto, above, a half hour from Syracuse, a hill town of quiet (except for the church bells) Baroque beauty. For lack of time, we breezed in and out. Noto had to stand in for Modica and Ragusa, which are surely worth extended visits as well. Can’t do it all, I kept telling myself.

Noto’s long, elegant promenade, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is centered on — guess what? — a grand and glorious Duomo, built or re-built, as were all the towns in the southeastern corner of Sicily, in the early 18th century following a devastating earthquake in the 1690s.

An hour’s stroll through Noto’s relatively un-touristed streets, a pistachio/almond granita in a café, a peek into a few of the town’s fifty antique churches, which were more restrained on the inside than their intricate stonework façades would suggest, and we were on our way again.

Choosing (blind) one of several routes suggested by the GPS, we ended up taking a three-hour drive to Agrigento, which encompassed everything from ugly urbanity (Gela, an industrial port) to heart-stopping beauty, deep in the countryside. There were fields of wildflowers, infinite sea views and agriculture on a grand scale — greenhouses filled with tomato plants, olive orchards, wine grapes reaching over the hills into the distance.

We arrived after dark at the Villa Goethe, below, in Agrigento’s historic center. The B&B is so named because the German poet actually stayed in the building in the 18th century as a guest of the then-owner, a baron.

Though the old town has a bunch of highly rated restaurants one can’t possibly sample in a two-night stay, Agrigento draws visitors mostly for those 5th century B.C. temples, seven of them in total. Each was dedicated to a different god or goddess, not all known, but Zeus, Heracles and Juno (or Hera) were among them.

The temples are strung out along a mile-long walking path, interspersed with 500-year-old olive trees. They are in varying states of preservation, from barely to incredible. All have now been stabilized, a feat made possible in recent years with the help of EU funding. Needless to say, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors are now able to scramble over most of the ruins, without a guard in sight, though not over the Temple of Concordia, the least ruined of them, above, which vies with Athens’ Parthenon in terms of preservation, scale and grandeur.

The bronze sculpture, below, depicting the fallen Icarus is a monumental contemporary work.

The Agrigento temples were built of an ochre-colored, locally quarried limestone, not the white marble of the Parthenon. Otherwise, they’re architecturally similar.

A couple of the temples are little more than fallen stones against the perfect Mediterranean sky, overrun in Sicily’s full-on spring with wildflowers of purple and yellow, rosemary and other fragrant herbs.

The Temple of Zeus was the largest of them, once held up by telamon, or figures that are the male equivalent of the caryatids of the Acropolis. One — at least 30 feet high — remains at the site, below, lying horizontal on the ground.

Another is displayed at Agrigento’s extraordinary archaeological museum, an absolute must to round out an understanding of the temple sites and the culture that produced them.

The museum has a vast collection of Greek Attic pottery from the area that the Met must surely covet. The scenes on the red-and-black vases, exquisitely etched and painted (and signed, often by both painter and potter) offer a trove of detailed information about life in that era.

If all that’s not enough, the Valley of the Temples also contains a sunken garden of some 12 acres called Kolymbethra, below. It’s set in a deep pool, dug by Carthiginian prisoners of war in the 5th century BC, but later filled in and used for agriculture.

It’s now an Edenic citrus grove where we gorged once again on stolen fruit, from bitter citrons tasted and quickly thrown away to the sweetest blood tangerines.

Rarely have I been so reluctant to end a vacation. A final day of roaming in Rome, mostly camera-free, was a nice and necessary buffer. We stayed at the faded grand dame Hotel Quirinale, enjoying its vintage cage elevator and Negronis in a 1950s ballroom-turned-guest-lounge.

We wandered the streets, checking on the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona and other greatest hits, just to make sure they were still there (they were, and crawling with tourists). One highlight: an outdoor lunch of pasta with cheese, pepper and truffles at La Maretta, a restaurant in the Regola neighborhood where most of the patrons were actually speaking Italian.

My Kind of Place: Syracuse’s Ortygia Island

I’ve found a spot I could make my base for a period of time some winter, when I’m not rushing through Sicily as fast as I can in the time allotted: it’s the island of Ortygia, a labyrinthine medieval quarter connected to the city of Syracuse by two or three short bridges.

I can see myself settling in for a spell and enjoying many a cup of espresso on its sun-splashed cinematic piazzas; taking walks along the embankment overlooking the calm, circular harbor on one side of the island and being lashed by serious winds off the Ionian Sea on the other.

Maybe I’ll read some Homer, take the sun on a bench overlooking the papyrus garden known as the Fount of Arethusa, buy fresh fish in the market alongside the remnants of the 6th century B.C. Temple of Apollo, above, whose remaining segments of fluted columns just sort of sit there, with no fanfare, in a commercial part of town.

I’ll cook up that fish (and pasta al dente, natch, with tiny clams, shrimp and chopped pistachios in a light tomato sauce) in a rented pied à terre with a roof terrace, do some hand washing and hang it out to dry in about five minutes on that roof terrace, swan around in the linen tunics and beaded jewelry they sell in the chic shops on Via Roma, chat with the artisans working in wood and leather in the rear of their shops, enjoy interesting conversations with people from exotic places like Tunisia and Cambodia, and spend time in one of Europe’s great public spaces, the searingly white, uncrowded Piazza Duomo.

If I lived in Ortygia, I might not pay 2 euros to peek into the duomo, one of the largest in Sicily, with a Baroque facade but built on the site of an ancient Greek temple, whose Doric columns were repurposed along both sides of the nave and are still visible inside and out.

If I lived in Ortygia, I might not visit the archaeological park just outside of town any more than New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty, but as visitors we surely did — first the well-preserved Greek theatre of 2,500 years ago, below, and then the Roman amphitheatre of half a millennium later, along with the nearby quarries from which the limestone to build them came.

Mulling over how, at the Greek theatre, acoustically perfect though built for 15,000 people, Aeschylus’s plays were staged (his “Women of Aetna” premiered there in 467 B .C.), while at the Roman theatre, animals and men mauled each other in a pit for the amusement of the citizens, I began to be convinced I preferred the Greeks.

Ortygia worked its way into my heart all the more when I remembered reading that there is a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) there, pre-dating the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily at the beginning of the 16th century, and that one-quarter of the population of Ortygia was once Jewish and that several streets — among the narrowest and most picturesque of them — were the Jewish quarter, still labeled as such today.

“Second alley of the Jews”

We walked to the address at which the mikvah was located and were met by a young woman who led us down about fifty feet of dark, dank stone steps to a vaulted, columned room, where four small pools are still filled with spring water and there’s a Hebrew inscription on the wall.

Even without the mikvah (“miqwe” in Italian), Ortygia is my kind of place. I left there feeling: not for the last time.

Central Sicily in a Day: Hill Towns, Mosaics and Unbeatable Views

We were reluctant to leave Palermo without visiting its renowned archaeological museum, below, so we squeezed in an hour there on our last morning. Seeing the magnificent sculpture and decorative arts of millennia past always helps put things in perspective.

Much of the museum’s permanent collection centers on architectural salvage from Selinunte, a Greek city on the southern shore of Sicily with a vast complex of five temples, which I never even heard of before this trip. Seems the city didn’t last long: it was largely destroyed by the Carthaginians around 405 BC, never rebuilt and abandoned a century or so later. Left behind: sculptures of stone, marble and terra cotta, grave goods, friezes, sarcophogi and more.

The museum’s holdings, along with such treasures as a basalt stele with exquisitely detailed Egyptian hieroglyphics of four thousand years ago, make it abundantly clear that these ancient civilizations were well-organized and highly educated, and parts of their societies, at least, lived far more graciously than we do now. We think we have such an advanced culture? Ha. It’s chauvinistic to think our modern civilization has much, if anything, on the ancient ones.

Human dysfunctions like war and slavery haven’t gone away in modern times, but I got no sense that women were particularly subjugated in ancient Greece and its outposts, perhaps because they worshipped goddesses as well as gods? The tidbits of knowledge I pick up on a trip like this never fail to generate more questions.

We hopped a bus to the Palermo airport to pick up our rental car and headed down through the center of the island. The day — Tuesday — was clear and bright, with puffy clouds, as we drove through a portion of the Madonie mountains and through cultivated hills of olive and cherry trees. I was thrilled to be enjoying such fabulous scenery from a major highway.

We stopped en route in Enna, the highest medieval hill town in central Sicily, but it seemed in our hour-long pit stop that the view of Calascibetta, above, another nearby medieval hill town, was the best thing about Enna.

At an otherwise deserted little bar, the kind woman behind the counter scared up some impromptu antipasti for a pair of American vegetarians who stumbled in ravenous at 4PM. And of course the wine — Nero d’Avola (a dark red) and Grillo (crisp but flavorful white) — like all the Sicilian wines I’ve tasted, were superb.

I had a bit of a meltdown in Enna when our car got stuck on an impossibly narrow street. Trying to follow GPS directions, which told us to turn onto one-way streets that weren’t sign posted and no wider than a single-car driveway, we got boxed in and had to undertake precarious maneuvers to back out, while other cars kept coming around the corner. The Fiat Panda felt like a truck as we tried to turn it around with centimeters to spare, especially while worrying about scratching the brand new car, which had all of 14km on it when we picked it up at the airport.

That was only the first of two such events that day; the second occurred when we were sliding backwards toward a staircase leading down a steep embankment. The stresses of driving in Europe, where the streets are as hilly as San Francisco’s and as twisty as a plate of linguini, and a distance of forty miles can take hours, are not small.

Enna was the first of three central Sicilian hill towns we visited in two days on our scratch-the-surface tour of the island. It seems that by following signs reading Centro Storico, you invariably come to a piazza with a beautiful Baroque cathedral and a belvedere (i.e., scenic overlook), usually a parklike strip with benches and fountains, bars and restaurants — but, if it happens to be between 2:30 and 7:30 PM, not a one open to serve hungry travelers.

Wednesday was socked in with rain and heavy fog. Fortunately we had planned a visit to Villa Romanas des Casales, below, an extraordinary late-Roman villa and UNESCO site that has only been open to the public since 2006.

It was possibly the summer palace of Marcus Aurelius and is now a major draw for visitors who come chiefly to see its extensive floor mosaics, often ‘themed’ to the purpose of the room. Outstanding among them: the 200-foot-long ‘hall of the hunt,’ an encyclopedic pictorial of how wild animals were captured in Africa and transported to Rome; another room depicting young women in bikinis training for athletic competitions; others of children playing; chariot races, banquets and more, all at amazing levels of detail.

Most of the villa was buried under mud for centuries, and only fully excavated, restored and and made accessible to the public in recent years. It has to be one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world.

Still in the rain, we drove up into the atmospheric (as are they all) and charming hill town of Piazza Armerina, above, took a few photos and checked out its requisite Duomo, then drove another half hour to the town of Caltagirone, top. We were interested in its signature ceramics, and also in lunch.We wandered in and out of shops to see the former, as well as climbing its 142-step staircase and admiring its Baroque architecture, but found none of the latter.

Luckily we had half a dozen oranges picked right from the trees outside our room at Vecchia Masseria, below, an agriturismo whose stone buildings have been converted to tourist lodging and where we stayed one cushy night in the area. It’s a luxurious full-service resort as well as a working farm with a lovely candlelit restaurant, where we had joined European couples of all ages for dinner the night before.

The stolen citrus tided us over until we arrived after dark at the Hotel Gutkowki in Syracuse for a two-night stay. The rain and wind coming off the Ionian Sea was appropriately Homeric, setting us up for further immersion in ancient history, trusty Blue Guide close at hand.