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Day Trip Out Of Merida, Yucatan

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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

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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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Vineyards below mountain

Day Trip out of Sapporo to a Winery

Hakkenzan Winery, Hokkaido, Japan

On one of the days we were in Hokkaido on our last visit, our hosts Satoshi and Max took us on a really interesting day trip: to a winery. Rod had read that Hokkaido was producing some wine, so we were very interested to see how and where that was taking place. Besides being a new crop/product in Hokkaido, the vines and winery are in a lovely setting below a famous mountain. Satoshi and Max explained that Hak=8, Ken=peak, and Zan=mountain.

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Inside the winery

So, the meaning is 8-peak mountain and the winery sits below a mountain that does indeed look like that; some even say it looks like the back of a Stegosaurus. We also went through a tunnel of the same name to get there.

Hakkenzan Winery is an interesting place, unlike any other winery we’ve been to in various countries (and we’ve been to many!). The location under the peaks is very pretty, and the notion of producing wine in Japan’s northernmost island is new and fairly revolutionary.

Trial viticulture started in 2006, and the building was constructed in 2011, the same year the first vintage was produced. It’s apparently a co-op with around 120 shareholders.

It’s not a traditional-looking wine place, but then it’s not in a traditional wine growing area! The building and surrounds are a bit ramshackle and the rooms set out a bit haphazardly, and not well signed or organized inside. If we weren’t with Satoshi and Max we wouldn’t really know what was going on, but then if we weren’t with them we wouldn’t have even known about such a place.

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Us in front of winery building

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Vines labeled in Japanese and English

seibelbottleTasting is offered but isn’t well set out—just some open bottles on a table with small plastic glasses, sip-size.

But, that being said, the guy was very friendly when approached in his office to the side of the tasting area and this whole idea of wine here in Hokkaido is a relatively new venture. So, they are still in the process of learning how to do it. The terroir is totally different to, say, France or South Africa; the cultivars are different; and therefore the resulting wines are too.

The soil of the vineyard is clayey with a lot of gravel. He said that in the test field they are cultivating about 25 varieties of grapes, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

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Kerner grapes

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Riesling vines

The rows of vines outside are neatly labeled and it was fun to see those in such an awesome setting and all with English and Japanese names. We noticed some German cultivars (such as Kerner, Seibel, and Riesling) and some hybrids, so it’s still an experiment really. The owners are searching for new cultivars that work here and therefore produce a good local wine that reflects the terroir. In the vineyard there are not many vines though and some are yielding rather meager bunches. As I said, a whole new venture. It’s a small operation, but you don’t need many vines to make some wine.

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Sauvignon blanc grapes

meagreWe tried a couple of wines: they weren’t great (not unexpected, given the climate and soil) but the Portland white had a good flavor. This is a white cultivar that grows well in the US Great Lakes region too. They working on improving things and appear to be making some profit.

When Satoshi asked, the owner did have a pamphlet in English. We discovered that one of their wines is called Kanonz. The name comes from the name of the mountain, as another name for Hakkenzan is Kannon-iwayama. Kannon is the name of one of the Japanese Bosatsu (Buddhist deities). The wine is a blend of Seibel, Merlot and Riesling.

They also sell jams, sauces, sparkling water and a few curios.redgrapesEntrance and tasting are free.

It’s about 20km SW of Sapporo city and easily drivable.

www.hakkenzanwinery.com

Beach Fun In Winter

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Boardwalk onto the beach

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Be aware of Rip Currents

Central Florida: After our great lunch at Fishlips (see previous post) we drove a short way to the beach at Cocoa Beach.

A long sandy beach, perfect for making sand castles, playing ball or frisbee, or taking walks along the water line looking for shells. There is a lifeguard, but one must still be aware of potential rip tides.

Cocoa Beach is a small city in Brevard County FL, along Florida’s Space Coast, not far from Titusville and Merritt Island (a wonderful nature reserve). It’s the closest beach to Orlando, so if you’ve come to visit Disney but you also want a beach experience, this may well be where you’ll come. It has a sunny shoreline with many activities besides beach swimming, such as para-sailing, casino cruises, and the Brevard Zoo.

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Sand play

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Cousins watching the waves

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Hope the sea turtles continue to come here

This area was first settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. In 1888 a group of men from the nearby town of Cocoa bought the tract of land, but it remained undeveloped until 1923 and was incorporated as Cocoa Beach in 1925.

The town started its major growth during the 1960s because of America’s space program—-NASA’s John F Kennedy Space Center is about 16 miles north of town.

It has a humid sub-tropical climate and even in the coolest months the high temperatures are around 72 F (22C)—on December 26 a couple of our party got into the sea to swim even!

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Getting into the water on Boxing Day!

The economy is based largely on tourism—the beach and surfing, and cruising—with

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Beach, and Cocoa Beach Pier in the distance

2.4 million day trippers annually (a parking nightmare). Ron Jon’s is a famous surf shop (supposedly the world’s largest) and Cocoa Beach is home to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. There are also surfing festivals and a surfing parade.

One of the landmarks is the Cocoa Beach Pier, built in 1962 (formerly known as the Cape Canaveral Pier).

More information here http://www.visitflorida.com/en-us/cities/cocoa-beach.html

A Restaurant Called Fishlips

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glassesFishlips—an Intriguing Name for a Restaurant

Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill, 610 Glen Cheek Drive, Port Canaveral, Florida

Their slogan: From hot burgers and cold beer, to fresh fish and fine wine – Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill in Port Canaveral has “Something for Everyone!”

There is a row of four or so restaurants near the port terminal at Port Canaveral, but our Florida family has been to Fishlips before and we were happy to be guided by them. We were not disappointed.

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Our family group

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The baby loved the boats and birds

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An interesting logo

This lovely place is close to Cocoa Beach, so if you’re planning on spending some time at the beach, this is perfect for lunch or an early dinner before driving back to Orlando. You pay $15 per car to park in Jetty Park for the beach, but parking at Fishlips is free.

On Boxing Day (December 26) our large extended family group did just that: drove to Fishlips for lunch and then spent the afternoon at the beach. Coming from the Mid-West, where frigid and icy weather had been the norm, we were so happy to feel warm sunshine.

It’s a nautical-themed seafood grill and bar, with an extensive menu (see here http://fishlipswaterfront.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/FishlipsMenu_March2015.pdf ). They have a special Sunday brunch, and can also offer special facilities for parties, banquets etc.

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A surfing photo op!

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View from waterfront patio

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Cod encrusted in mashed potato

You can dine downstairs inside, or outside on the waterfront patio. They also offer an indoor sports bar, and sun deck with Tiki bar upstairs. We opted for the outside waterfront tables that face the port inlet and it was wonderful to see and hear the sea birds wheeling and calling, to see dolphins splashing in the water, and to watch boats of different sizes and shapes glide by: from a small motor boat with two people and a dog, to a ferry, to fishing boats, to a huge container ship. Cruise ships apparently also pass by here, but none came the day we were there.

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Fresh oysters

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Triple skewers

We were a large group, with varying tastes, so many different items on the menu got chosen. Everyone in our group seemed to be pleased with their choice—from a dozen fresh oysters, to conch fritters, to coconut shrimp, to baked cod, to burgers, to a crabcake sandwich, to scallops risotto, to mention some of the dishes. My daughter has a baby and our server was very happy to bring small side dishes of vegetables for her. Considering the number of people in our party, we thought that our server did very well—she was accurate and always smiling and pleasant. Prices are pretty reasonable too, if you remember this is Florida and this is close to where huge cruise ships dock.

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Fried conch

I hope that we can return here on our next visit back to Orlando.

Open 11am-2am

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Asparagus field on Hokkaido

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Plaque at rest area

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View point, but Ezo Fuji is shrouded

Hail to the Asparagus!

Hokkaido, Japan: Boyonakayama Rest Area, on Hokkaido Route 230

Satoshi and Max planned a big day trip out of Sapporo one day, making a loop around the south part of the island. We saw and did many things, such as visiting a winery; having a great soba lunch; and visiting Lake Toya to look at the new volcanic mountain, Showa Shinzan. I’ll cover those later.

On our way to Lake Toya we stopped at Boyonakayama, which has been open since 1993. This is a big rest area and shopping/souvenir place at the top of the mountain pass in Lake Shikotsu-Toya National Park in the south of Hokkaido. People stop here, as on a clear day there are good views across to the local Fuji Mountain, called “Ezo-Fuji”. “Ezo” is the old word for Hokkaido, so it means “Hokkaido’s Fuji”. Apparently this mountain does look a lot like the original Mount Fuji, but we never got to see it, as the whole area was shrouded in mist.

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Asparagus statue

Close to the large building at the summit is a statue of a young monk who came here at age 19 from Kyoto to help build roads, which must have been quite a feat in those days.

There’s also a marker explaining that this area was the first place in Hokkaido to grow asparagus, now a very popular crop. There’s also a modern sculpture of asparagus spears—honoring a popular vegetable. A lot of fun to see and to talk about.

Flaming Red “Flamingo”

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In December

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In fall

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From our hotel room

Timeless and graceful…A beautiful piece of art that stands out from its surroundings

In Chicago we usually stay at the Club Quarters Hotel on Adams Street, which we did again last weekend. The view from our hotel room was across to the Federal Plaza, with its intriguing red outdoor sculpture. We’ve taken photos of this many times before, at different times of the year, but this time, with the lighting and the snow, we saw it from a new angle and I decided to research it a bit more.

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Zoom from hotel room

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Reflection in Post Office windows

Chicago is a city famous for public art and for us this is one of the classics. Others (among many) are the Picasso (1967) in the Daley Plaza, with jungle-gym-like characteristics; Monument with Standing Beast, which is open to multiple interpretations, by Jean Dubuffet (1964) in front of the Thompson Center; and Cloud Gate, aka as The Bean, in Millennium Park.

This red sculpture is called Flamingo, and it does evoke a flamingo-like bird if you look closely. The artist is American Alexander Calder, and the sculpture was unveiled in October 1974 in the Federal Plaza in front of the kluczynski Federal Building, one of three Bauhaus-style federal buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe. A model of Flamingo was unveiled at the Art Institute in April 1973, where it still resides.

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Model in Art Institute

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Looking through Post Office

It’s a painted-steel stabile (as opposed to a mobile), 53 feet tall, painted vermilion (now called “Calder red”), the bright color contrasting very nicely with the steel and glass office buildings around it. These modern rectangular buildings surround the square, so this abstract arching form is also a nice counter point, form-wise.

However, Flamingo is constructed from similar materials and shares certain design principles with the architecture, so it’s successfully integrated within the plaza. It’s an example of the constructivist movement, popular in Russia in the early 20th century. This refers to large sculptures that are made of smaller pieces joined together.

The sculpture is monumental but the open design allows viewers to walk underneath and around it, so we can experience it on a human scale too.

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Market day

mrket2On Tuesdays, in the season, there’s a farmers market on the square, which makes the Flamingo seem even more interesting.

A small-scale replica (one-tenth the original size) was installed in 1975 in the Loop post office right on the plaza. Calder created it specifically for the visually-impaired, as it is meant to be touched, and it is the same bright color.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) has created many sculptures for open spaces throughout the world. He is probably most famous as the originator of mobile sculptures or kinetic art, a type of moving sculpture made with delicately balanced or suspended shapes that move in response to touch or air currents. In contrast, Calder’s monumental stationary sculptures are called stabiles. He also produced wire figures, which are like drawings made in space. He was a prolific artist who worked with many art forms, large and small.

 

 

Homegrown Murals

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In Bicycle Alley

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In Bicycle Alley

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Bicycle Alley

Urbana Murals: Transforming Urban Spaces

Walking around Urbana recently, I stopped to take pictures of some interesting murals that we’ve seen but never photographed before. They brighten up walls and bring a smile to one’s face.

A little research turned up some snippets of information on many of them. I find this fascinating, as it’s part of the history and culture of our town.

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Part of Bicycle Alley murals

The first series is in Bicycle Alley, a graffiti hallway between the Courier Café and Pizza M and Siam Terrace. It’s a series of large-scale murals by local artists, spearheaded by Langston Allston. Allston is a local artist and an alumnus of the University of Illinois. This was part of the 2013 Downtown Mural Project and much of the funding came from pledges on Kickstarter. It started as a homage to local history and bike culture, but it looks to me as though others have painted and glued various graffiti on top of the originals. The alley is now an outdoor bar/meeting place during the warmer weather. We’ve never tried it, but it looks like a fun place.

 

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Bicycle Alley

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Courier Cafe mural

Nearby is a large mural on the outside wall of the Courier Café (one of our favorite casual eating places in town). The Courier used to be the space of a former local newspaper and the owner of the Café, Allen Strong, has kept many of the old features. The artist is Glen C. Davies, who is illustrating a bit of history of this very location. The Courier is close to the site of the first settlement cabin in Urbana. It was William Tompkin’s cabin, built in 1822 along the Boneyard Creek, right behind the Courier building.

Davies has been in town since 1974 and at one time he delivered newspapers for the old courier2Courier newspaper, which went out of business on March 31, 1979.

The left hand side of the mural starts with the Big Grove (settlement area), moving across to the influence of agriculture and the railroads. We see Lincoln and his influence, and the portraits of four journalists whose careers started here — George Will, Gene Shalit, Bob Novak and Roger Ebert. Then it moves into current times with downtown Main Street, the university, and a bicyclist through town. It ends with an antique car, which symbolizes Allen Strong.

Glen C. Davies is also the artist of a smaller, but striking, mural near the Urbana Free Library.

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urbana Free Library mural

I couldn’t find any information on the dog mural, on a house on the corner of Race and Illinois Streets in Urbana—it’s eye-catching and cute, though.

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