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We saw many pelicans

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Merida has many interesting street signs

waterBEACH, BIRDS, AND BYGONE CITY

If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun

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Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!

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Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the

flamingo

Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.

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Xtambo

Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not

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A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.

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Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.

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Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas

PRACTICAL INFORMATION—MERIDA:

Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php

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Balloon sellers are popular on the main square

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Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.

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Part of the colorful Merida market

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Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house

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Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)

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Variety of chile peppers

 

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generalestate

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How’s that for a view!

Rustenberg—Gardens, a Labyrinth, and Wines

A Stunning Combo

Tranquil, beautiful, lush, green, pastoral are words that sprung to mind as we drove up, past pastures with cattle, small estate houses, and vineyards.

Rustenberg is a lovely wine estate in a really gorgeous setting up on a hill, overlooking vineyards, in the valley of the Simonsberg Mountains. It’s literally at the end of the road on one of the wine-route roads north out of Stellenbosch, but is well worth the drive.

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Gorgeous Cape-Dutch architecture

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Schoongezicht, the old Cape-Dutch homestead

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Part of the gardens

What do we find?—lots of pretty, white gabled Cape-Dutch buildings; an impressive, modern tasting room; and lovely gardens ringed with huge oak trees. The gardens have small ponds, a gazebo, flower beds, and the jewel—a labyrinth.

Founded in 1682, the estate has a long history and heritage. The Barlow family has owned it since 1941, and various generations have been very involved in all aspects of wine making there. (The Barlow family had made a fortune with an engineering supplies company established in the early 1900s, also buying and selling woolen goods and Caterpillar machinery, among other things. The company expanded into neighboring southern African countries too. The family had also owned Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West from 1941-1987, so were very involved with wine estates).

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pergola2The public Schoongezicht Garden, open every day, is next to the Cape Dutch homestead, Schoongezicht, which dates back to 1814. In 2001, Rozanne Barlow, wife of the current owner of Rustenberg Estate, decided to regenerate and restore the garden. She had walls constructed, and converted the 25-meter-long swimming pool into a lily pond, now home to many fish. The charming pergola, originally built by John X Merriman, is covered in climbing roses, clematis and other fragrant climbers. John X Merriman was a former owner of Rustenberg. He bought it in 1892 and helped to revitalize the estate and to promote tourism in this valley. One range of Rustenberg wines is called John X Merriman, in his honor.

The garden is essentially laid out in a formal style with four different areas linked by pathways, and because it’s so harmoniously done one doesn’t really realize that the garden is quite sizable—about a hectare. The garden is a plant-lover’s dream, best described as “English”, with roses, foxgloves, salvias, agapanthus, sedum, anemones, day lilies and many more. There is always something to catch the eye, no matter the season.

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A labyrinth is now part of the gardens

The surrounding landscape of vineyards, green pastures and the majestic Simonsberg labyrinthclosermountain backdrop all help to make this garden a magical place.

The garden is open to the public during the week from 09h30 – 16h30 and on Saturdays and Sundays until 15h00.

There’s also a private garden, the Rustenberg Garden, which is open once a year to the public on Rustenberg Day.

Making these gardens even more magical is the labyrinth.

labyrinthwalking

 

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Outside the Tasting Room

As part of the garden make-over, Rozanne Barlow transformed the site where the old tennis court stood into an eleven-circuit Chartres-style labyrinth, laid out in half brick and river stone. Information boards explain the origin and symbolism of the French Chartres labyrinth. We walked a part of it and it is a contemplative experience. If we had more time (and no demanding kids!) it would be nice to try walking the whole thing.

After that it was fun to wander up to the tasting center to do wine tasting, which was great. The Tasting Room is in the old horse stables, which have been beautifully converted architecturally. We all thought it was a great wine-tasting experience. Our hostess lady was friendly and knowledgeable and we enjoyed chatting to her. The wines are world-class, from an excellent terroir—red clay-rich granite soils on a variety of slopes and elevations. No food is available here though.

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Tasting great Rustenberg wines

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An excellent rose wine

Wine tasting is R40 per person (waived if you buy some bottles). We did buy a bottle of Petit Verdot Rose (R75) to take back for dinner that night, and it was excellent. We also ordered some wines to be shipped back to USA, and you can also order them to be shipped to UK, I believe.

Wine Tasting and Sales open Mon-Fri 9-4:30, Sat 10-4 and Sunday 10-3. Every day, except Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Good Friday.

Where is it?

Lelie Road, Idas Valley, just north-east of Stellenbosch

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An unusual Rousanne wine

www.rustenberg.co.za

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chickens

chickencrowingWe found Ybor City, Florida, really interesting for 4 main things: the old cigar stores and stories; the Columbia Restaurant; the World Trade Center Memorial; and a fairly large population of feral chickens (which is what Rod was looking for there as part of some research).

Ybor City is a historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, just northeast of down town. It was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers, and is named after Vicente Martinez Ybor. Ybor was a Spanish-born cigar manufacturer, who moved his operation from Cuba, to Key West, to near Tampa. Thousands of immigrants, mainly from Cuba, Spain and Italy, came to live in this area, many as cigar workers. For the next 50 or so years, workers in Ybor City’s cigar factories rolled millions of cigars each year. It was an unusual immigrant community in southern US at that time because of its multi-ethnic and multi-racial population.

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cigar2Another historical tidbit: A plaque tells us that the Rough Riders rode by here in 1898. “The intersection of Seventh Avenue and Twenty-second Street was a sandy cross-road connecting three army encampments in the Ybor City area during the Spanish-American War. At this cross-road was a water-trough where the Rough Riders watered their mounts. Col. “Teddy” Roosevelt frequently rode by here on his horse “Texas” followed by his little dog “Cuba”.”

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Lions Club

A plaque at Columbia Restaurant explains the involvement of the Lions Club

During the Great Depression a slow exodus out of the area began and became worse after WW2, leading to a time of abandonment and decay. From the early 2000s, part of the original neighborhood has been redeveloped into a nightclub and entertainment district, with movies, restaurants and shopping opportunities.

The neighborhood has been designated a National Historic Landmark District and a number of structures in the area are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2008, 7th Avenue (the main commercial street in Ybor City) was recognized as one of the “10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association.

In 2010, Columbia Restaurant was named a “Top 50 All-American icon” by Nation’s Restaurant News magazine. Besides serving food, this restaurant has played a large role in the history of Ybor City. For example, it’s the headquarters of the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago, and the Lions Club of Ybor City was organized and met here.chickensbycar

See next posts for Columbia Restaurant and the World Trade Center Memorial.

How the chickens came about, who knows? But they are very pretty birds.

 

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Cafe just outside the city walls

Cafe just outside the city walls

Helpoort

Helpoort

More new uses for old spaces (following on the “repurposed churches” post)

At the end of one section of the old city walls is Helpoort (Hell’s Gate), the oldest city gate in the Netherlands, marking the medieval boundaries of the city. From the imposing Onze Lieve Vrouwe Church (Church of Our Lady) walk south on St Bernardusstraat to the old walls and the gate at the end of the street.

Today, inside is a small exhibition on the history of the fortress city of Maastricht. As you pass through the gate, you can see the groove along the sides of the arched construction, used for lowering the portcullis originally in the gate. Above the gate entrance, you can see an extension to the structure, whose floor once had holes that could be used for hurling projectiles at the enemy from above.

Jeker Tower

Jeker Tower

Entrance to the cafe---notice the angels painted on the doors

Entrance to the cafe—notice the angels painted on the doors

Close to the gate is a lone tower, the Jekertoren, which was once the marker between the two factions that ruled Maastricht (Liege and Brabant). From there it is easy to cross the Jeker River and wander in Old Jeker Quarter with its university, or climb up onto the walls for a lovely walk along the walls, with planted gardens.

In the section of the old walls next to Helpoort there is now a café and art exhibition center. We’re not sure what used to be in that space, perhaps a guard room?

The café, called DM Hemel, has tables and chairs out on the grass next to the wall and if the weather is good, it’s a great place to sit and sip a drink and soak up some sun and the scenery. “Hemel” means “Heaven” and the theme seems to be angels, as there are pretty angel pictures on the door. We sat outside and had a beer (only 3 euros) and were very impressed with the service and the setting.

Rod M enjoying a beer in this bright and cheerful cafe

Rod M enjoying a beer in this bright and cheerful cafe

Another example of a re-purposed space, adapted to modern use.

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