Two Europes in Catalunya

March 17, 2019

It seems fitting that as we entered Spain, we were greeted with a sign (in English) that touted “Self- determination is a right, not a crime.”  A century ago, at Versailles, Woodrow Wilson would have been pleased. Today that sentiment is recaptured in Spain by the efforts of Catalonia to reverse the decision, a result of the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492, that created Spain as we know it,  A referendum called by the Parliament of Catalunya a few years ago, in violation of the Spanish constitution, led to Madrid’s jailing the Catalan officials who did not flee Spain, and they are currently on trial.

Catalunya had a separate history from much of the rest of Spain (which, incidentally has four official languages, including Castillian, Basque and Catalan), much of which I learned about yesterday.  Part of the day we spent looking at the present, or at least the last 150 years, where Barcelona has produced artists such as Picasso and Miro, and architects like Gaudi and welcomed Mies Van Der Rohe to build a pavilion that now stands as a museum of his accomplishments.  They’ve left impressive marks around the world (see the Art Institute and IIT), and impressive tributes here in Barcelona.

Indeed, the Sagrada Familia, a modern basilica, is one of those buildings so iconic that when you see it, you know you are in Barcelona.  Started by Antoni Gaudi nearly 150 years ago, it’s still unfinished, and new architects (12 I understand) are attempting to complete the building, which is Spain’s most visited monument.  That’s a good thing, because it’s funded solely by tour money and requires about $2 million a month in maintenance and development.

Gaudi never liked straight lines, and it’s interesting to see what he did to some apartment buildings around the city—the Catalan contribution to modernism.  One looks like caves (he admired Catholic hermits), with a crowning mountain on top.

The Picasso museum houses mostly works from his younger years, when his father (a painter) tried his best to convince his son if he wanted to make a living he would have to learn portraiture.  While some of the portraits border on “classic”, but Picasso soon moved into blue and cubism, the kind of work that’s mostly in museums elsewhere.  Guernica, the only piece Carolyn likes, is in Madrid.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed the museum itself—a well put together five renaissance palaces—the best room for me being the one left from the old palau, but I’ve been known to prefer baroque to Braque.

I also enjoyed my tour of the old city.  I had to visit the Cathedral, started around 1300 and finished 150 years later, with a neo-Gothic façade added in the late 19th century. The side chapels were all either 1400 or late 17th century, either Renaissance or Baroque, stunning tributes to the wealth of medieval Barcelona.

Once the home of the Kings of Aragon, Barcelona’s history dates from Octavius Augustus, to whom a temple still stands.  In fact, under the palace of the king, part of the building has been excavated as one of the most interesting Roman ruins I’ve seen.  What is uncovered is the industrial heart of the Roman city (1-4 centuries), including a fish sauce factory, a winery, and, my favorite, a laundry.  I learned that one of the “cleansing agents” was urine, which the laundry collected outside its doors in pots for the purpose.  The company paid a tax to be able to gather the precious ingredient, which turned to ammonia. Carolyn doubted my theory about how I could help her with laundry!

That building, part of the palace of the King, also traced the history of religious spots on the site, from Augustus who was treated as a god, through the introduction of Christianity (a la Constantine, who in 313 declared Christianity the official religion. It came too late to save Euliala, a martyr in 303 whose body lies under the present Cathedral); then came the subsequent occupation by the Christian Visigoths, the Muslims (for about 80 years), then the Counts of Barcelona and finally the splendid Cathedral .

The treat today was to have been the impressive National Museum of Catalan Art, which houses a collection of medieval art rescued from churches about to be demolished.  Alas, it being Sunday, the museum closed early, so we contented ourselves with a three-hour tour on the On-Off bus, which took us past another shrine in the city—FCB, the football stadium of Barcelona, home of Lionel Messi and lots of people who think football is played with your foot.

The real treat was the discovery that at 11 this morning the symphony was doing Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  What a novel idea—brunch with Beethoven.  The unusual feature was as simultaneous performance art of people and slides. The highlight, of course, is the final movement, the setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which is the unofficial anthem of the European Union—the statement of the ‘Other” Europe, that all men are brothers, including Castillians and Catalans.

Categories: Europe 2019 | Leave a comment

Adore Andorra?

Europe’s smallest country

March 15, 2019

Andorra is Europe’s smallest country; not in the EU, but an independent entity nonetheless, it has diplomatic representation, its own stamps, uses the Euro, and has maintained its independence for over a thousand years by playing off Spain and France.  That’s the case today, where it’s co-leaders are President Macron of France (“he signs what we tell him to,” our hotelier stated), and a bishop of Spain. A democratic parliament has been constitutionally running the country day-to-day for at least 26 years, a feat celebrated today as “Constitution Day” which shut down everything, including Starbucks—except for McDonald’s and Burger King.

I had expected, honestly, a much smaller city-state (I think the population is about 200,000), but it’s about 20 miles of spectacular scenery, from about 7500 feet down to where we are, in the largest “city”, at 3000 plus.  As I look out the window, what I’m seeing reminds me of Vail—a ski town with new condos halfway up the mountain.  There’s a world ski cup going on, mostly in the upper reaches, which are snow clad, and remain open until April 22 (after which, I think, the slopes become suitable for the mountain biking world cup.). This is tourist country.

The country is duty-free, which means it’s either ski (or increasingly snowboard) or shop.  I’m afraid to ask where’s the “old city,” since I’ll probably get shown a 1970s premall store. I think there’s one or two old buildings, somewhere, rather like Hong Kong.  The comparison is apt from the shopping standpoint—high-end stores and electronics. Nathan Road anyone?

The language deceived me, initially; it’s Catalan.  The marquees read “Bon Dia”,not “Buenos dias”, and the directions read “Espanya”, “ not Espana, with a squiggle over the n, but Andorrans seem to be happy to take any currency.  The official map is printed in Catalan, Spanish, French—and Russian. Perhaps neighbor Catalonia, instead of agitating for independence, ought to seek annexation to Andorra?

We’re here less than 24 hours so I think I better take a walk before we leave.  Everything is open again, and tourists are welcome!

Categories: Europe 2019 | Leave a comment

Two Nights, 1 Knight, 1 Lady in 13th Century Carcassonne

March 13, 2019

Carolyn’s other bucket list stop on this trip was the medieval fortress at Carcassonne, the best preserved (or perhaps restored) architectural gem of its kind in Europe. 

It’s no wonder it was important as long ago as Roman times (typically, the Romans founded the locations for the great cities of Europe). It’s on a hilltop overlooking a river valley, in sight of the Pyrenees (another important dimension), and on the trade route from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

The Roman garrison built the first wall in the 4th century A.D., which did not spare the city from being conquered by the Visigoths, initiating a millennium in which warfare played a role in defining the city. 

One major incursion apparently gave it its name.  It was ruled briefly by the Saracens, including the cagey wife of Bulcak, Lady Carcas.  According to legend, when Charlemagne besieged the city, she propped up dummies at the ramparts to trick Charlemagne into thinking the city had more defenders than it did.  Then she fed the last pig the last remaining grain and threw it over the wall, and Charlemagne was supposedly convinced the city could not be taken, and called off the siege; the city has since been known as Carcassonne.

Another highlight occurred in the 13th century, when the viscount was one of the staunchest supporters of an early effort to reform the Catholic church.  The Charthars, Albigensians, rejected the authority of the Pope.  In 1209, one of the Pope’s crusading armies swooped down and conquered Carcassonne under Simon de Montfort, whose ruthless Catholicism had originally taken him on the fourth crusade (the one that detoured from Jerusalem to Constantinople); he left it when the Crusaders plundered the Christian city of Zara.  He came back to France and took up arms against the Albigensians.

Shortly thereafter, the victor transferred the city to the King of France, who built its second wall and reinforced a number of its towers, creating an imposing fortress that was then on the boundary with the Kingdom of Aragon.   Added were the trappings of castles: the barbican, a curve wall in front, and hoardings, a temporary wooden platform to enable archers to shoot directly downward, and death holes (we learned a lot of vocabulary today).  It had 52 towers.

In the mid-19th century, Viollet de Luc, an archeologist interested in medieval restoration (Notre Dame was one of his projects), made the restoration of the fortress one of his major goals.  He was hampered somewhat because the archives had burned down, leaving only one portrait of what the old city had looked like.  He recreated the city of Louis IX, in the thirteenth century, a task which took 50 years.  His first renovation was of the church, an interesting combination of Romanesque (early) and Gothic (under the King); interestingly, it was the discovery of the tomb of one of the early bishops in the church that inspired Monsieur Violett le Luc. 

Parts of the city have since been changed—for example, some of the towers have been restored to appear as they might have been built by Visigoths; part of the Roman wall is still there, marked by smaller bricks, and a row of red bricks so the builders could level the tower.  There’s also a statue to the long time Maire, he who brought water to the hilltop.  Our guide told us that probably no more than 50 people live in the city today  (“You have to get to the supermarket in the lower city before 9, and back before the tour buses get here,” she stated), but nearly 4 million visitors come here every year.

We’re lucky it’s relatively quiet now, and my lady and I can really enjoy our two nights (and one knight) in the 13th century.  It’s much easier based in our 5 star hotel!

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bored in Bordeaux? No way!

March 10, 2019

I knew I wouldn’t be bored in Bordeaux as soon as we stepped off the plane at the airport.  Our guide met us and offered to take our bags to the car.  When he got there, he said, “Carolyn’s wheelchair is in the front trunk, so I’ll put your bags in the rear.” “Say what?” “Oh, it’s a tesla, and it has two trunks.”  “Where’s the engine?” “It’s really small,” he said, “pointing to a 20-inch monitor that was guide to the car and supersized GPS, noting that the battery took up a lot of the room.  Further discussion revealed that this absolutely quiet machine costs around $100,000, which may explain why I don’t have one (yet).

As we drove to the hotel, I thought, “This looks like Paris, with broad boulevards and 3 story high buildings that look like they could be from a Caillebotte painting.”  Reading my mind, Pascal noted that Baron Hausmann, who redesigned Paris to prevent another uprising had worked on the grand plans for the old city of Bordeaux, which was in the process of doing what most 19th century cities aspired to do—to be the Paris of (fill in the missing blank, but in this case, it would be the Gironde, a part of France that gave rise to one of the famous political parties almost wiped out in 1793, the Girondin, bourgeoisie who sided with a liberal monarchy. In fact, behind our hotel, a 110 foot- high pillar, memorialized the 100 years after the event.

We got to our hotel around 10:30 am, only to learn that our room would not be ready until 3.  A jet-lagged Carolyn insisted we get a room; the only one available, the attendant intoned, was the Marie Antoinette suite, a considerable upgrade.  “Take it,” I was ordered, and I obeyed. 

About three hours into our recovery time, drums boomed, as the “Yellow Jacket” protestor parade filed by.  Bordeaux is a large enough city to have had them, and some violence as a result.  They’re against a variety of French/European changes, and angry enough to have burned some shops.  Stay inside, we were told; and the opera that night had been canceled.

The city remains, like many European cities, on the site chosen by the Romans originally.  The Romans also brought one of their best known and still important contributions—Bordeaux wine—to the area.  While only vestiges of one Coliseum remain above ground, every time something is built, Greco-Roman artifacts get sent to the Aquitaine Museum (another name for the region), which now houses an impressive collection beginning with prehistoric man.

These prehistoric relics are why we came to Bordeaux, the closest major airport to the Caves at Lascaux, where in the 1940s, some boys discovered a cave with art dating back over 30,000 years—art done by homo  sapiens. That’s tomorrow’s story, however.

Today’s was the Bordelaise, the name for residents of Bordeaux, now a city of around 750,000, 20% of whom still owe their living to the wine that has made Bordeaux world-renown.

The city, on an estuary off the Atlantic Coast, was, until recently, France’s major port, and that too has shaped its history.  At its height, over 3000 ships anchored in the muddy waters offshore, many of them involved in the slave trade.  The long connection with England owes to more than the wine trade, however; Eleanor of Aquitaine married two kings.  The first was English, and her sons (she was fecund) included the infamous King john, and the very famous Richard the Lionhearted.  She also married a man who became the King of France.  Not sure I have the order right, but eventually she returned to Aquitaine and married her talents to the arts.  The result of her marriage to kings was that this area was by marriage part of England, and the French contested that claim for over 100  years (during the Hundred Years’ War of course). The city seal still incudes three lions, symbolic of the English connection.

Like most medieval cities, it had a wall—Europeans tended to fight frequently, so it was best to keep riff-raff out, and charge tourists (some things don’t change)—and several gates still remain, including the gross cloche—the big clock tower that is still the symbol of the city.

And again, like most Catholic cities, it has a number of churches, including 2 basilica and one cathedral.  We spent some time in the cathedral, home to the local bishop, and marveled its combination of architectural styles—starting with its 12th century Romanesque origins and continuing through the Gothic and Neogothic—parts of it were not completed or rebuilt until the 19th century. The intellectual life of the Renaissance here made famous Montaigne and Montesquieu, two local philosophes and writers, one of whose sarcophagi is in the Aquitaine museum.

This area prospered too as a result of the slave trade—it was France’s major port on the Atlantic—and some of the money went into building the impressive mansions along the riverfront that are still impressive, even if no longer single-family dwellings. Bordelaise, consequently chafed under Napoleon’s continental system (that forbid trade with the outside world) and of course, had to find other sources of income until the restoration of the Monarchy.

One of the industries that took over for the slave trade was shipbuilding, an industry that existed into World War II, when Vichy serviced and built German submarines. Today, the estuary is not maintained well, and the maritime trade has been replaced with aerospace and high tech and tourism; it’s close to the beaches of the Atlantic, where there is the highest sand dune in Europe.

Happily for me, the area is also know for its duck, and magret de canard, (duck breast) and risotto con truffles with foie grass (goose liver) are two of the dishes now off my to-do-list

As one of the chamber of commerce documents described it, “Charming Bordeaux.”  I thought that was an apt description.

Categories: Europe 2019 | Leave a comment

San Miguel De Allende

January 6, 2019

We left Mexico City yesterday to come 150 miles north to San Miguel de Allende, birthplace of one of the four heroes of Mexican independence.  Mexico City of 9-25 million was much more modern than I expected.  I should know better; the capitals of major countries tend to be ponderous and pretentious, designed to impress.  The Avenue of the Reforma, near Chapultapec Hill, is a wide boulevard with skyscrapers and Starbucks (signs in Spanish), with the Coyacoan neighborhood (home of Trotsky and friends) retaining some local charm including a few 16 century colonial buildings.  Despite heavy traffic, we were able to move around the city  fairly easily.

The road here, for much of the way, was modern expressway.  It goes up to the US border (Laredo) and partly as a consequence has helped propel Quetaranos into one of the fastest growing cities in the northern hemisphere.  It’s the location of macquadillories, the kind of special economic zones for the production of a variety of goods; one of the signs was in Japanese if that tells you anything.  I didn’t read the Lonely Planet guidebook until we got here, so I learned to my regret that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed here, ending the Mexican-American war; and I hope to be able to stop on our way to the airport to visit the site where Emperor Maximillian met his end.

When we left the interstate to come the remaining 30 kilometers, we were on the two-lane highway I had fancied more typical of transportation here.

When we got to San Miguel De Allende, I saw what our hotelier in Mexico City called the “real Mexico.” It got Unesco’s World Heritage status about 20 years ago, got discovered by rich foreigners (over 12,000 foreigners call SMDA home), in addition to beatniks and artists, and got pricey.  Several of the restored colonial homes are listed with Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which makes them expensive, indeed..

The Rosewood, where we are staying, is a case in point.  When we got here, we thought, “Aha, an old monastery, restored, like the five-star hotel we stayed in in Cartagena.”  It had the wondrous courtyard so typical of the Spanish colonial architecture, wide verandas like cloisters, beautiful landscaping.  Bad guess, though; not 1670, not even 1970, but 2011.   And the area, at the edge of the old colonial district, was cleared of trees to build condos which have access to all the amenities of the Rosewood.

On our tour of the city, I could easily see the attractions—weather and ambience, the latter partly a function of a history that goes back to the 1540s, when some Franciscans who had settled in the valley discovered a spring, and moved the mission up on the hillside, building a chapel there that has a cross that’s over 300 years old.  The move might also have been due to attacks from indigenous tribes.

The city really prospered from its proximity to Guanajuato (later), where silver and other minerals were discovered.  The town square, typical in the Spanish settlements, was where the church was built, and the prominent local families, who serviced Guanajuato with produce, meat, leather, etc. built houses that were enviable for size and grace.  One such was the property of the Allende family.  It’s now a museum, and the upper floor recreates the life style of the late 18th century.  The lower floor discusses the quest for independence, which was spearheaded by Ignacio Allende, a Creole (Spanish, born in the new world) who was the military leader of the Independence movement. 

As in Colombia, the immediate trigger was Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and his removal of the king in favor of his brother, Joseph.  Joseph appointed new officials, and the question was whether to support the deposed Ferdinand, accept French/Spanish rule—or seek independence.  The long simmering resentment of the Creoles against first Spanish mercantilism (all local industry existed at sufferance of the mother country; the vineyards here were burned, and locally grown wine did not make its reappearance in this state until about 15 years ago), then “regalism”, the Enlightened despotism that centralized control under Spain (including banishing the popular Jesuits) exploded.

A regional junta was planning a revolt in October 1810, but it was a hard secret to keep; conspirators moved the date to September 1810, when a priest in nearby Delores, Miguel Hidalgo (who knew 7 languages—3 European, three Indian, and Latin) gave an impassioned speech, the Grito (Cry) Independence, in which he urged Creoles not to be cowards.  That ignited a 11-year battle, by which time Hidalgo and Allende were dead (both by 1811), and why the two towns have new last names.

One of the most notable features of San Miguel is the big church, which in the late 19th century got an addition—a new façade based on what he’d seen apparently on a postcard from Cologne.  I knew I’d seen that style before!

That leaves our third town in this area—Guantajuato—is a city of 760000 people on a fairly steep hillside that is the reason for the settlement; those dormant volcanoes have helped Mexico provide something like 20% of the world’s supply of silver.  Even today, the city’s economy is primarily dominated by mining, but tourism is a close second, and education is a third. In addition to the usual splendid baroque churches (Jesuit, Dominican and Franciscan), plazas and squares, the seat of the state’s government (some meeting in what had been a mine baron’s hacienda, that’s how big they were), there’s a major university.

Several of the most unusual features were the product of one of Guantajuato’s most famous son—Porifirio Diaz.  Elected president, he enjoyed the role so much he did not give it up until the Revolution (of 1910).  Supported by the wealthy miners (you should see and compare the Franciscan church in Guantajuato, sponsored by the wealthy, with the Jesuit one, a relatively somber but restful spare Gothic church), Diaz graced his city with a Teatro for all the world looking like something in Paris (our guide said Diaz leaned toward Europe since he and the Americans did not always see eye to eye), and an a covered market ala Les Halles in Paris.  The other feature that struck me was that the city builders used tunnels to connect the parts of the city—the early ones with hammer and chisel (and dynamite), the same tools used in silver mining.  They also had to build up the city, which flooded several times.  The original floor of the big church is about ten feet below the current level.

Well, tomorrow we go back to Mexico City on our way home. From 20 degrees (Centigrade) to 20 degrees (Fahrenheit).

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2000 years, two religions

January 5, 2019

The recent discovery of a new temple complex nearby (dedicated to the “Flayed” Aztec god—you wore the skins of the sacrificed humans) is a reminder of the rich Meso-American cultures waiting to be discovered, unearthed, and understood.

What so far has been unearthed is spectacular, as we discovered at Teotehuacan, about 30 miles from Mexico City.  A flourishing city of some 200,000 people, what distinguished it were two pyramids, one dedicated to the Sun, the other to the moon—separated and joined by the Avenue of the Dead.  Some of the  buildings still have the rich murals and sculptures we had seen in the National Archeological Museum.

Teotehuacan, built originally about 2000 years ago is apparently similar to some of the other sites—such as Chichen Itza, Palenque, and Monte Alban.  The scale and scope are impressive.  The pyramids of the Sun is the 3rd largest in the world—built as so much of Meso=America without metal tools or wheels). Temples once stood at the top, and like its distant cousin, the much smaller mounds at Cahokia (without stone!), left only artefacts with which to construct the use in the past.  The site was occupied for over a thousand years, and the Aztecs apparently rediscovered and reused it. 

The main avenue (Avenue of the Dead; there’s a real preoccupation with death here—I saw an altar of skulls in the history museum) was once five kilometers long.  What’s been excavated is 2 kilometers, symmetrically balanced with temple-platforms on each side. 

There are obviously other mounds nearby, awaiting rescue from the scrub and cactus landscaping.  A nearby volcano reminds one that perhaps a reason for the abandonment of Tenochtehuan is a volcanic explosion.  The volcano also explains the obsidian, and the use of volcanic stone in the building.

The other “religious shrine” we visited was the churches built to celebrate the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531.  The Spanish (Franciscans were prominent here) had had trouble converting the Meso-Americans.  One compromise, our guide suggested, was to use a cross without Jesus outside the churches.  The padres could hardly condemn human sacrifices if Christ appeared on a Cross. The other miracle was the appearance of the Virgin, in the body of a Meso-American, promising to protect Mexico if they were to convert.  On the site of the vision, there is a church built around 1750 (interestingly, it had to be restabilized after a recent earthquake, while a companion is leaning to the left from the quake), and a much more modern building erected in 1976, where the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe is housed today.  In the churches we have seen since, there is a prominent place given to the Virgin of Guadalupe—and Mexico is at least 85% Catholic today.

2000 years, at least two religious messages near Mexico City.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Breathless in Mexico City—Literally and Figuratively

January 2, 2019

I’m breathless in Mexico City, and that’s only partly because I’m at 7200 feet, 19 degrees north of the equator, and about 1600 miles from Bloomington.

My physical state is partly due to what we’ve seen and done the last day and a half. Carolyn has had a long fascination with pre-Columbian art, and our library has a nice sprinkling of coffee table books accumulated over the years from exhibits at the Art Institute, but they pale before what we saw today at the National Archeological Museum of Mexico, and the remnants of the pre-Conquest ruins in Mexico City.

David Hoyt thought the museum was equivalent to the Louvre of the Western Hemisphere (he’s a Francophile), but that’s not quite accurate.  The Louvre not only has treasurers of French painting (Liberty storming the Barricades), but European as well (Mona Lisa anyone), as well as Nike and other European paintings and sculptures—at a minimum. 

The National Archeological Museum of Mexico is primarily Meso-American in focus, and that almost is exclusively what is now Mexico.  And what treasurers it has! A 20 ton head from the Olmec period  (bear in mind Meso-America awaited Europeans to introduce metal tools. Southern Mexico had gold, but most of the area used obsidian for all purposes, including knives to kill and extract hearts for sacrifices), huge pyramids and temples and tombs (we saw the excavations of one in Zocalo, the central historic district of Mexico City), and huge stone monoliths celebrating or pacifying the gods—water, war, corn, and maize.  The latter really struck home for me—the region seems to have had abundant crops, far different than Europe.  It was the New World the contributed squash and beans and corn (flour and tortillas), and maguey (the Century plant, good for everything from soap to booze), and chilis—can you imagine Thai food before the European discovery of the New World?   Perhaps the two most stunning rooms in the museum were dedicated to the Aztec (Mexica) and the Mayans.  The Mayans whose crowning achievements are in the Yucatan were a little earlier than the Aztecs.  Interesting to me were some of the similarities with Cahokia Mounds, our Illinois counterparts, which indicated to me that the culture and trade stretch through the Americas.

The Spanish, of course, led by Cortes and an army that our guide insists were dregs from the prisons, arrived in 1521 determined to find gold and treasures, and dethroned (and decapitated) Montezuma and two successors, a period known as the Conquest, which initiated almost 300 years of “Nuevo Espana”, Spain’s prized possession in the new world, to which Spain brought “civilization”—the Inquisition, the Catholic Church, and the Spanish language, among other legacies.

The rest of our day was in the Historic Center, which had been the Aztec capital, destroyed by the Spanish, who erected their colonial capital on the site.  That included a monstrous cathedral (of course), the largest in Latin America.  Built in the 18th century, it’s in the baroque style I greatly enjoy, with an addition in a local style named for the architects that is even more over the top. Our guide said that every time there’s an excavation, something new is found.  The famous Aztec calendar (did you know it’s about 6 feet in diameter?) being one item, and Temple Mayor, the chief Aztec temple, being another now under excavation.  Indeed, looking at the map of what’s known, less that 5%s of the historic sites have been excavated.

  We also visited the 18th century Palace Nacional, now the president’s palace, that had been the home of the 60 or so Spanish Viceroys.  The building houses spectacular murals by Diego Rivera, encapsulating his (mostly socialist/Marxist) view of history—when Rockefeller commissioned him to draw a mural in the Rockefeller center it had likenesses of Karl Marx; the Standard Oil baron paid his friend Rivera, but tore the mural down.  The sketches included Mr.Polk’s war (1846-7) and the bizarre interlude when the Archduke Maximillian of Austria was offered the Mexican throne in 1864 and lasted three years before he was deposed and executed, leaving behind the furniture in Chapultapec Castle that I’ll tell more about tomorrow.

January 3, 2019

Mr. Polk’s War, which could really be called “The war of Yankee aggression”—though “Southern aggression” to expand slavery might be more appropriate.

We’re staying near Chapultapec Hill, which means “Grasshopper Hill”—and yes, grasshopper snacks are available.  They’re not bad with lemon and salt.  Read that as not necessarily good.  Or maybe an acquired taste.  Chapultapec was one of the major battle sites in the Mexican-American War, one which the Mexicans have naturally a different spin on than we do.  About a third of Mexican territory was wrested away—including California, Texas (which had declared itself independent of Mexico, that being one of the casus belli) and much of the American Southwest, for something like 15 million pesos—and a short war.  I remember reading something about it in the new biography of Grant, who was one of the many Civil War participants who cut his military teeth on the battles here, including Chapultapec Hill.  It was one of the major battles because it is a hill above the city (the city itself is 7200 feet high, with 10-12000 foot mountains, some volcanic, nearby. The city, once an island in a lake, has twin problems—earthquake activity (an 8.1 quake 33 years ago severely damaged the cathedral) and the marshy bottom means that parts of the historic center are sinking.

Roughly, the story we were told is that Chapultapec housed the military academy, and General Santa Ana told his army to stand and  fight, then fled with their bullets.  The 100 academy cadets though, stood their ground and perished.  The last 9 became hero-martyrs with a large monument to los nueve ninos in the park.

The castle served duty for the Archduke, who was invited to assume a Mexican throne and put an end to chaos, supported by a French army. Maximilian brought over his own furniture from Europe at the cost of bankrupting the Mexican treasury, which, in part, led to his downfall and execution.  The sumptuous furniture remains as a major attraction of what is now the National Museum of History.  Among the other items I saw were the banner of Cortes (the Virgin Mary) and the banner of one of the founders of independent Mexico, a priest who rallied the troops with the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an apparition of the Virgin that is one of the pillars of Mexican Catholicism.

We spent most of the day in the 20th century, in the artistic, political, and intimate triangle of artists Diego Rivera, his sometime wife Frida Kahlo, and the political refugee (friend of Diego, lover of Frida) Leon Trosky. Rivera went to Russia to study, flirted with Communism, and the circles in which he and Frida traveled steered from socialism to communism.  Frida’s bedroom, where she died in the early 1950s had portraits of Mao, Lenin, and Stalin.  Trotsky got Rivera to get him admitted to Mexico (he and Stalin broke after 1924; Trotsky spent time in Kazakstan, Turkey, France, and Norway before living in Mexico.  Rivera asked him to leave the house when he had an affair with Frida (though they stayed friends) but built a house that was an armed camp with live in guards (some of them Mexican police).  He survived one gang attack, but a Catalan Stalinist got access to Trotsky and stabbed him with a pick axe.  He is buried in the compound.

Frida’s house was mobbed—known as the casa azul, the blue house, it (and Trotsky and Rivera’s house/studio are all in an area of town called Coyote, which had been a small colonial village until overrun by the growth of Mexico City.  Before we left, I was reading Howard Kline’s, The United States and Mexico, a 1940s classic; at the time, the population of Mexico was 25 million.  Today that’s yje population of Mexico City. The neighborhood is still pretty quaint, with some homes including the “Casa Cortes” dating from the conquest.  Artists—and tourists—hang out there.

Categories: Mexico 2019 | Leave a comment

Finally Louisbourg

August 8, 2018

I’m sitting in the Quality Inn Halifax reflecting on our week-long trip to the Atlantic Provinces grateful that our 24 hour plane delay (due to maintenance!) came at the end of our trip; had it come at the beginning, we might have had to scramble to book new reservations; by and large, we stayed at bed-and-breakfasts that had limited capacity, and this is the busy time of year up here (like so much of the north woods, which it resembles, you have 3 months or so to survive on tourism, now the number 1 industry in Nova Scotia).

Indeed, the decline of the traditional fishing (cod overfished, I understand), and oil, coal, and steel industries were factors that led to the recreation of Fortress Louisbourg, reconstructed as part of a “make work” project in the 1960s, and lasting nearly 20 years.

Louisbourg was the largest French fort in the new world—for good reason.  As the British and French sparred to control, ultimately, the Great Lakes and their access to the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, the deep harbor (85 feet at the entrance), easily controlled entrance (there was only one channel into the harbor) and its ice free qualities suited it well.  The French constructed it after 1713, when one of the many European wars resulted in France ceding Nova Scotia to the British, but retaining Cape Breton Island, which is where Louisbourg sits. 

The location and harbor made it a big trading port—ultimately fourth largest in North America—after Charleston, New York, and Boston. It was profitable for Louis XV, too; the cod generated over 3X the revenue of the fur trade.   As our guide explained, 19 million Catholics in France had 145 meatless days (Friday, Lent, etc.), which generated a lot of shipping. (Incidentally, France still controls St. Pierre and Miquelon in the St. Lawrence, the cod fishing rights being the one thing retained in the treaties after various wars.

The ill-defined boundaries, tensions, and European wars, however, led a British-Massachusetts force to besiege Louisbourg in 1745, and capture and occupy it.  The treaty ending THAT war returned the fortress to the French.  The Fortress (a designation given to an enclosed city) resumed its importance to the French, eventually reaching several thousand fishermen and merchants in the city.  The governor of the province—with really elegant quarters in the King’s Bastion, had, in 1744, over 5,000 bottles of wine in his cellar.

The fortress currently features 1744 persona, before the first siege. One of the female slaves, freed, became the first black woman businessman in Canada. If you come next year, our guide assured us, there will be a reenactment of the six-week siege.  I doubt that the governor’s wine cellar will be available, though.

As part of the French and Indian War, on his way to besiege and capture Quebec, General Wolfe besieged and captured Louisbourg.  As was typical, the British had over four times the army, and four times the navy. This time, fearful that the diplomats would give it back, Wolfe ordered it destroyed.

And so It remained until the Canadian government rebuilt about 40% of it, mostly the residences and shops, to give an idea of what it must have been like to live in the Fortress, or as in the case of many fishermen, just  outside the fort.  There’s two rebuilt gates—the important one in the harbor—but for me the King’s bastion was the neatest building, with the chapel, the governor’s sumptuous quarters, and single officer’s housing.  Married officers built or rented their own houses, and several were rebuilt.  One attractive feature of the New World was that it was healthier==50% of infants in France died before the age of 1; one in six children in New France died before the age of 12.  The garrison, mostly Marines, signed up for 6 years, but many borrowed from officers to make ends meet (9 livres was pay, 7 livres deducted for room and board), and would up extending enlistment to repay debts.

There were various programs, many of them charging a fee: firing a cannon and learning about artillery, for example.  You could also spend a night in one of the rebuilt hotels, or in a tent,  like the ones we have in Troop 19 for our reenactments at Fort de Chartres.

Interestingly enough, the last buildings were in the 1980s; since Canada enacted a law forbidding the building on the original site (to protect artifacts) the Fortress will give you only a good idea of what it looked like—but you’ll have to imagine what 2 ½ miles of walls would look like. 

It certainly makes Fort de Chartes look like what it was—a frontier outpost on the fringe of empire.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A four F vacation

August 5, 2018

Nearly a week ago, we left Bloomington on my quest to add one more experience to my understanding of the French and Indian War.  Having seen where it started (Fort Necessity, thanks to George Washington), Montreal and Quebec (1759 and 1760), the big battles that determined North America’s fate (France traded Canada for molasses islands), Fort De Chartres, the last French fort to be turned over to the British (and places like Manila, India, and Havana, where British and French clashed), not to mention San Souci, from where Frederick The Great directed his armies, Louisbourg remained—the bastion that guarded the entrance to the Saint Lawrence.

We’re not there yet—tomorrow is our invasion day—but so far, it’s been a 4 F vacation since we arrived in Halifax.  The first F is for forts, and my thirst for forts (and more forts) has not yet been satisfied.  Halifax itself was settled as a fort in the 1740s, preparation for the ongoing wars between Britain and France that lasted the better part of a century.  It has the second largest ice-free harbor (Sydney is larger), and has been the home of the North Atlantic fleet.  The Citadelle, built later, has reenactors

It’s not the only fort here, for the area was a battleground not only between the British and the French, but between New Englanders and the French, and the British and the French Canadians (Acadians).  Indeed, the first settlement (before Quebec) was in 1605 at Port Royal in the Bay of Fundy.  An expedition from Virginia destroyed it in 1611 (the effort to rebuild it in the 1930s included a plan to ask the descendants of the destroyers to rebuild it).  When later generations of New Englanders grew exasperated by French-incited attacks, the Bay of Fundy was closer than Quebec, and expeditions came into the Bay to retaliate.  And so we saw forts at Port Royal, and a neat one near Sackville, that went from Beausejour to Fort Cumberland when it went from French to British hands (It successfully repelled a siege during the American Revolution, otherwise it might be named Fort Washington). Tensions with the United States lasted really until the 1840s, when Irish Americans sought to provoke a war between the United States and Great Britain in order to free Ireland.  Indeed, there are a few islands that are still contested between the United States and Canada—ill-defined as far back as the treaty of 1783.

The second F is for the French, whose history in the Maritime Provinces doesn’t stop in 1763, though there were several attempts to deport the settlers.  Though parts of the area had been British since 1713, French Canadians were able to coexist with the British until the Seven Years’ War.  At that time, the British demanded an oath of allegiance which included a willingness to fight against the French, if need be; earlier French Canadians had to swear the oath and did so with the proviso that they would not be forced to fight the French.  Consequently, the British packed them up and shipped them off to France or elsewhere.

Many returned—after all, families had lived in the province for hundreds of years—but they were not given citizenship until the 19th century.  Today, Acadians are part of Canada’s diverse population, but pockets (many in northern Nova Scotia and on Prince Edward Island) proudly fly a flag that resembles the French Flag, but has a yellow star on it.  The original French settlement at Annapolis Royal was the capital city after the British conquered it until the British built Halifax.

The third F is fishing villages—cute ones that dot the coast and indicate the importance of fishing;  even in 1763 France held out for the right to dry cod on what is still French territory—St. Pierre and Miquelon. Towns like Peggy’s Cove and Lunenberg attract hordes of tourists for their scenery, houses, and ambience.  Indeed, we saw little agriculture until we to Prince Edward Island, a province with about 150,000, resembling for all the world Wisconsin with cattle and corn (and oysters and lobsters and mussels—let’s not get too carried away).  The staff at the bed and breakfast (one of two we’ve stayed at owned by Chinese—my Chinese got us upgraded in St. John) was studying “islands” at the University of Prince Edward Island, and how to develop sustainable agriculture on islands.

The final F is for the Bay of Fundy, and its picturesque rocks (similar formations exist in the Pacific Northwest and Pictured Rocks, but Hopewell Rocks are on steroids) sculpted by the ocean.  At low tide, you can walk around them; at high tide, the 40-foot swing in height covers the bases.  Indeed, the tide in the Bay is the highest in the world, and it is used not only to attract tourists, (we paid $16 to walk over a “reversing falls” where the tide overcomes the St. John River and pushes it upstream), but to generate power.

Tomorrow the fifth F—Finally Louisbourg.

Categories: The Maritime Provinces | Leave a comment

Scout Camp Again–on the Equator

Scout Camp on the Equator
May 20,2018
I’m literally in the southern hemisphere, having crossed the equator, in a TENT.
Crossing the equator resulted in a discovery of a young entrepreneur. Stationed alongside the road, at the equator, is a sign indicating that you are in the middle of the earth. There’s a pull off with shopping opportunities. The owner of stall #8 came over to take my picture with the sign and introduce me to a young man who—for a substantial fee—demonstrated that water does indeed swirl differently north and south—and at the equator, where it drains straight down. Plus, for an additional fee, he signed a certificate verifying that I had indeed been there. As the retail experts say (and it used to be true), the three most important things in retail are “location, location, location”.
About 10 kilometers east of there (almost on the equator) is the Sweetwaters Tent Camp. But it’s not like the Scout camp we usually attend. There’s concrete floors with carpeting, and an in-tent bathroom and hot shower, along with electricity and wifi (these improvements would definitely benefit Canyon Camp!), with a buffet lunch just after I got here. Right now, I’m looking out at a watering hole where I’ve seen rhinos, water buffalo, and the ubiquitous wart hogs. They told me there was a pride of lions last night. In between the two game drives a day, in other words, the animals are invited to come visit us. I’ve issued an invitation, but since it’s Sunday, they must all be in Church said one of the waiters. It’s also a little chilly and overcast.
In the distance out my front veranda, is Mt. Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa. The camp is fit for a khan, and, indeed, I learned today that the owner of the camp, and the other hotel in this 90,000 acre game preserve, is none other than Aga Khan.
I knew I was going to like this place when the attendant arrived last night and put two hot water bottles in my bed, which kept me toasty all night. That’s another addition I’d recommend for Scout camp, albeit on cool evenings.
The 90,000 acre preserve offers some really good game drives. On our first drive yesterday, we saw 4 lions in one group, and two in another. That’s the first sightings of a cat I’ve had on this trip. On a night drive yesterday (9-1130), we watched a pair of lions for nearly half an hour. The guide said they pair for four days then find someone else, but these two for most of the time looked like old marrieds, not honeymooners. They couldn’t have been more than 15 feet from us. At night, we also spotted a zebra herd that’s an endangered species.
There’s another endangered species here, the northern black rhino; the only two still in existence—both female—are sequestered in a large, fenced-off area. The ranger-scientists here are hoping the ladies can birth via in vitro; otherwise, assuming I see some today, I will have looked at the last representatives….
The preserve also houses a chimp sanctuary. Having worked hard to see chimpanzees in the wild, I was a little dismayed to be taken to a 250 acre fenced area that housed 39 chimpanzees, until I learned that these were orphaned or injured chimps. One, for example, about 30 years old, walked mostly upright—because he’d spent his first nine years in a small cage in Abu Dabi, which gave him no room to play. They really are clever. We watched our guide throw some peanuts (it really was like a zoo, with a big cage!) that the chimp could not reach. He wound up finding a stick which he used to move the peanuts close enough to grab, without touching the electric fence. They are also like fraternity members; they’re cliquish. Newcomers are put in quarantine for 4-6 months before they’re gradually introduced to the group, and still the groups fight if they get together. The chimp area is split by a river, and since chimps don’t swim, the sanctuary can accommodate two groups, one on each side of the river. Even separated, they fight a lot, said the guide, and we could hear them in the bush, as George was contesting power with the current alpha chimpanzee.
The camp sits in the central highlands, one of the most fertile areas in Kenya, and the home of the Kikuyu, one of some 40 tribes that together constitute the country. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, was a Kikuyu as is his son, who is or has been President.
Well, I’ve got one more game drive, then an overnight and the long trek back to Central Illinois Regional Airport—3 hours to Nairobi, a midnight flight to Amsterdam, a flight to Atlanta, and thence home, hopefully Tuesday.
By Thursday, however, I bet I could have my bags packed and be ready to “bring on the adventure” again!

Categories: East Central Africa 2o018 | Leave a comment