How Beer Saved the World

May 17, 2019  Sandton City, South Africa

How Beer Saved the World was not a term paper turned in (year after year) by the Sigs, although I know several who might have penned the original.  Instead, it was our introduction to “The World of SAB Beer” museum, belonging to the newest member of the InBev global empire.  The museum spoke more generally about the origins of beer (the Save involved the Egyptians, who initially developed the drink) than it did about SAB.  While there was an African libation made with sorghum (we were given a sample in the mock up of an African village), the Castle brand—still made today—originated in the gold rush around Johannesburg in the late 19th century.  Interestingly enough, blacks could not buy the beer legally until the 1960s, but a thriving social community invented the shabeen, a saloon in a house (as part of apartheid, blacks were segregated into townships), where African jazz developed. 

SAB has a footprint in Africa, which is part of the reason InBev bought it. This is a great place to do business if you can navigate the drama, and SAB seems to have done so.  We saw exhibits involving the growing of hops and barley and malt—I think my fraternity lads would have treasured every moment, though they might have been impatient for the taste test.  The exhibits also included a gold mine (so you could see why miners were thirsty), a pub, and several huge copper pots.  The major change we saw was the availability in the gift shop of Budweiser, Stella Artois, and Corona mementos, in addition to the local brews. 

The other business visit was one of my favorites three years ago, to AngloGold Ashanti.  The company is the biggest in Africa, and one of the top three in the world.  Headquartered in Johannesburg, it’s in the process of putting its last mine (“you’re sitting on it,” he said) up for sale.  South Africa, he reminded us, has been responsible for 2/3 of the gold in the world.  Today, however, AngloGold has operations in Australia, Latin America, elsewhere in Africa, and is eying projects in Minnesota and Nevada. 27,000 employees work for the company, though the days of cheap labor are long gone. Our faculty guide pointed out that to get mine workers, the government ordered blacks to pay a new tax in hard currency, which broke the agricultural economy and weakened family structures in Africa as the men moved to the cities to work in the mines.  Unions came in the late 80s as an important part of the struggle to end apartheid, and he said personally he was glad to be able to negotiate with a union rather than 27,000 employees.

The speaker talked about sustainability—in a way that initially surprised me.  “Sustainability,” he suggested, “is not what you do with money, its how your make your money.”  Bear in mind he’s in a business that is dangerous and certainly under fire from activists.  As he noted, everyone wants the iPads and cars and other goods made from metals, but “not in my back yard.”  He showed us a list of projects that were either cancelled, delayed,, or put on permanent hold. Hence, the mining industry has had to factor sustainability into its thinking.  He talked especially about working with communities as the key to the mining industry. Another challenge was to make sure the revenue went to improve society, rather than lining the pockets of politicians (today’s local newspaper had a letter to the editor questioning whether there were any honest politicians in South Africa).

He did make one point, though, that I hadn’t considered, and I’ll have to work it into my strategy class…the prevalence of funds that invest in companies that are sound on Environment, Society, and Governance (ESG).  I think he mentioned something like 7 trillion dollars at stake. And if you don’t qualify, the cost of capital (interest on borrowing) moves upward.  His conclusion was that’s the only way companies will respond to ESG activists. Interesting perspective!  He was one of my favorites this year, too.

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Zim Zam Nam Bot, 4 countries, three days

May 14, 2019

I think I dressed appropriately today.  My polo read “Grumpiest old man.”  That’s because we had to wake up this morning at 5 am.  My hat, however, is emblazoned, “Bring on the Adventure,” an old Canadian Scout motto I’ve made my own.

Fortunately, the latter dominated over the former, and it’s difficult to stay grumpy all day when you do the kinds of things I did.

We’ve spent the past few days in four different sub-Sahara countries.  Zimbabwe is probably at one extreme, though we spent only a few hours on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls.  It’s probably Africa’s  equivalent of Venezuela.  The country just evicted a long-time dictator, who was so corrupt the Chinese cut off loans to the country.  Rampant inflation has made the money denomination in the billions.

Namibia, where we spent two hours visiting a village without electricity (except as provided by generators and a big government compound set aside for the president and government workers with solar power), with 342 people, many of whom commute across the Chobe river to work in the lodges in Botswana (going through customs and immigration every day). We walked through a village of huts made from termite mud, reinforced with sticks, surrounded by fences made of reeds, and across a laid out soccer field with a goal post made, literally, with two y-shaped sticks with a cross branch marking the scoring parameters.  Under a baobab tree reputedly close to a thousand years old, the local women were selling crafts, some of which were local baskets.  Tellingly, they took dollars, euro, south African rand, but could not produce Namibian currency for one of our faculty members (named, Money) who collects money.  They told us when they take the currency across the river, they get charged 30% commission to exchange it—and almost everything they buy comes from the Botswana side.  This strip along the river got tacked on to Namibia when it was German Southwest Africa, I think as a gesture from the British to give the Germans “coast line” without realizing the Zambezi/Chobe waterway was not navigable.  Most interesting to me (besides the passport stamps) was  that one of the concrete houses in the village belonged to a veteran of the Namibian war for independence.  The country until around 1990 was a province of South Africa, and fought a bloody war (part of the Cold War, with China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, and Angola supporting the rebel winners, and the United States and South Africa backing the eventual losers).  The island is hundreds of miles from Windhoek, the capital, and has two cars on the island, both belonging to the government.

Botswana seems to be one of the few working democracies in sub-Sahara, at least historically.  That’s partly because it has only 2 million people, a majority from the Swana tribe, and a government that has been relatively benevolent in spending money from diamond mines and some copper mines along the border area with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The country has also started to develop tourism, but rather than volume based, it has gone after the high end tourist.  That’s true of the resort where we’re at, whose gift shop and other prices, I’m told, are developed world standards.  And that’s partly why we’re here—When I got a Southern Africa Lonely Planet guide book, it suggested Chobe National Park is THE park, especially for elephants.  Though the population of elephants has been declining (as we learned tonight in a talk from the director of Elephants without Borders), I have had 3 different types of safaris in the last 24 hours.

The first was a cruise last evening on the Chobe River, into the park.  Late afternoons are a wonderful time to see wildlife along the river.  The vegetarians all come down to the river, and not surprisingly, peace reigns (except for the impalas, who, like teen agers, wage combat for the babes).  We saw crocodiles (they’re the major carnivores we saw, happily previously fed), hippos, giraffes, and elephants.  The morning ride (6 am-9) featured the elusive wild dogs (we learned later they had treed a leopard), which was really the highlight, along with just watching the sun come up.  In the evening, Carolyn went on a jeep game drive, while I went back on the river for a photo cruise.  I rented a camera with a 150-600 lens, with a guide who was a photographer, and a captain who knew how to position the boat for maximum effectiveness. About 400 photos later, sundown brought an end to the journey, and some relief; even though the camera was on a tripod, it was a challenge to point, decide on zoom length, etc. It got heavy.  We saw and took pictures of a lot of birds, a monitor lizard (wonderfully camouflaged), and watched about 20 elephants lumber down to the river for a drink (it’s five o’clock somewhere), then douse themselves in dust.  I can’t wait to see what the card pictures look like!

When people ask me, “what’s your favorite country,” I always respond, truthfully, “where I’m at.”  But I usually add, “There’s nothing quite like a safari.”  The faculty on this trip, many of whom have never been on a safari before, would, I think, now agree.

I hope you get a chance to go on a real nature walk—it’s just like summer camp, except you see a lot more interesting animals!

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Mum’s the Word

May 12, 2019  Livingstone, Zambia

If you’re looking for a way to impress Mum on Mother’s Day, here’s what worked well for me today:

First, select a four-star resort in an exotic location.  Say, Zambia, a country of 16 million people, with 72 languages, 11 of which are considered major enough to be province specific and taught in the schools. Studies indicated students achieved more if taught in the local languages than in English (at least through high school). Check.

Second, it helps if the resort is in the midst of one of the seven wonders of the natural world,  (I think there must be hundreds of top seven) like Thunder in the Smoke Falls (the original name before Livingstone honored his queen and they became Victoria Falls. Check.

Third, make sure the resort offers an interesting variety of optional activities (other than the usual Olympic-sized swimming pool, superb dining room, and bedrooms with mosquito netting and other exotic indications that you are in the tropics).

These options could include:

  1. A private tour of Victoria Falls,  along a part of the trail that’s handicapped accessible and dry, in case she’s concerned about having wet hair.  Be sure it is early enough in the day to boast multiple rainbows.  That makes for neater pictures, along with the mist (smoke) and roar (thunder).
  2. A view of the falls from above is a must, whether it’s an ultralight (personally recommended), a helicopter, or, for the risk takers, a multilight flight.  You can’t take a camera with you for the ultras or the multis, but a go pro takes pictures every ten seconds, and you can buy that as a once-in-a-lifetime gift.  It’s an added benefit if the pilot drops down over the national park to show you the endangered white rhino or a herd of elephants.
  3. It’s a long walk to Zimbabwe, which shares the falls with Zambia, an extra visa, and an extra charge for admission to the Zimbabwe side, but you do have the opportunity of getting another stamp on your passport, a walk across a bridge that was originally part of the vision Cecil John Rhodes had for a Cape-to-Cairo railroad (and now in addition the site of a bungee jumping station).  The Zimbabwe side has the deeper channel, with most of the water all year round. In May, the beginning of winter, the falls are almost at their peak, so it’s not essential to go to the other side.  It does, however, offer access to the town of Victoria Falls, which has a wonderfully luxurious colonial hotel.
  4. Fourth, there should be a lot of nature walks—a safari, a boat safari, a lion walk (they’re fed and tame), an elephant ride, and a walk with cheetahs, which can be lovable cats, we learned, if they’re born in captivity and well fed before you arrive (about 10 pounds of meat a day).
  5. Fifth, a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River (almost 2000 miles, but we did not do that much of it), or a canoe/kayak trip, doing your best to avoid the most dangerous animal—the hippopotamus, while enjoying that floating submarine from a safe distance.  (and you doubt it when I write that tourism is the world’s biggest business).

Finally, top off the day with a dinner at the five-star sister resort, the Royal Livingstone, whose dishes include venison (it’s a kudu, we were told)—and you can sample some local dishes, including worms, which some of our faculty did.  (Incidentally, they were ok).

And if you stick around for a few days (we’re leaving for Botswana tomorrow), you’ll eventually learn why it took so long to find Livingstone; I’ve been asking for Dr. Livingston, and, as you clever readers have discovered, it’s spelled with an “e”.  He’s now commemorated as one of the few colonial heroes with a statue on both sides of the border, and spelled with an “e.”

Hope you’re mum’s day was as pleasant as ours.

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Cape Town, May 8, 2019

The Chinese word for scenery combines the characters for mountain and water.   In that sense, the Western Cape certainly has the two, which help explain both the allure and the history of the Cape Colony.

The Cape of Good Hope was first rounded by the Portuguese explorer, Bartholomew Diaz in 1488.  Being a sailor, he named it the “Cape of Storms.”  King Joao of Portugal (or his astute marketers) rechristened it the Cape of Good Hope, based on his good hope that it would help Portugal secure the spice trade recently closed off by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, effectively closing the Mediterranean route to the Spice Islands.

Joao was right; it did open up the way for Portugal’s global sea empire, but not necessarily the opening of Cape Town.  That took the Dutch supplanting the Portuguese (and nearly 200 years) until the Dutch East India Company established a fort, now the Castle of Cape Town.  We visited this wonderful outpost of the VOC (the company in Dutch) and learned a bit more about the colony under the Dutch.  Come and settle, help us re-provision ships bound for the Indies, and increasingly, fight off the locals (the Khoi-an and the Dutch fought some 17th century wars; the Khoi-an were outgunned, but recognized the matchlocks did not fire when wet, so attacked during rain storms, and thus stalled the inevitable).  In the meantime, the Dutch built a hedge around the colony to keep the Khoi-an at bay, and the company also invited French Protestants (who had fled to the Netherlands when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had tolerated Protestants) to add muscle and viniculture to the colony; the French were allotted another encampment, still today called French town in the Afrikaner language.

That lasted until the Napoleonic Wars, when, to keep Cape Town out of the hands of the Napoleonic French, the British seized Cape Town twice (giving it back during a temporary truce in the Napoleonic Wars), then landing 7,000 troops, armed with a letter from the Prince of the Netherlands, then an émigré in England, to hand over the property; the command at the Castle, despite working under the Batavia Republic (Napoleon’s stopgap until he could name his brother King), and facing the overwhelming force, surrendered what was to become South Africa.  

The local Dutch, known better as the Boers, then began nearly a century of efforts to either accommodate or expel the British.  After Britain abolished slavery in the 1830s, the Boers trekked across the mountains to another area, and set up at least two Boer-led states (the Orange Free State and the Transvaal), lasting until the Union of South Africa was created in 1911.  The existence of three capitals attests to the lingering results of those wars.  Parliament meets in Cape Town, the Executive capital is in Praetoria (recently renamed; Praetoriawas the commander of a contingent that defeated the Zulus in the Battle of (aptly named) Bloody River, when 5000 Zulus were slain; and the Supreme Court is housed in Bloomfontein.

I said mountains is part of the scenery, both literal and historical, too.  One handle is provided by Cecil John Rhodes, who at the time of his death in 1902 was the richest man in the world.  Like the robber barons in the contemporary United States, Rhodes was both ruthless (and in this country a racist), and a philanthropist.  He came to South Africa from London to seek a cure for TB, and wound up taking advantage of the discovery of gold and diamonds (he forced his competitor to sell, creating the DeBeers company, a relative monopoly on diamonds). The philanthropic part included the National Botanic gardens (we were there; that’s where I saw part of the hedge the Dutch governor had planted in one of the early efforts to separate the races), Rhodes Scholars, and the grounds and buildings of the University of Cape Town, one of the three premier institutions of higher learning in this country of almost 70 million. I think when I was here four years ago, there were student protests to remove Rhodes’ statue from the most prominent part of the UCT campus, and my understanding is that it is now in the National Gallery in London.

As for Cape Town, the setting really is scenic.  The harbor has been one of the major transshipment points for the country, though during the apartheid period (1960s through the 1990s) South Africa was an international pariah, and the port languished.  A company recreated the area as a major tourist shopping and eating mecca (we’re a block away), but we’re visiting the Port Authority so I should have a better handle on what happened to it.  Table Mountain, a 3500 foot high block of granite is one of the three most visited sites in the country, accessible on foot or by a $50 funicular trip; it was ranked as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, alongside Ha Long bay, which is high praise indeed.

And there is something spectacular about the end of the peninsula, about 45 miles away, where sits the Cape of Good Hope, the furthest Southwest point on the African continent.  I still marvel looking south and seeing nothing until Antarctica (I swear I saw it last time I was here), and we’re only at the 35th parallel, roughly even with Buenos Aires.  I wonder what Diaz would have said had he had to sail another 30 or so degrees further to round the Cape.  Storms might have been one of his gentler  epithets.

The election today dictated the day of our nonbusiness visit to the Cape, which included one of my favorite stops—the penguin colony near Simons’ Town.  From a couple (they’re monogamous) in 1982, along with some serious environmental efforts including reduced fishing in False Bay, the colony has around 2,200 cute-as-a buttons in tuxedo-like attire diving and swimming (7 km per hour) to the amusement of nearly half a million visitors a year.  There are only four species of penguins and they all live in the southern hemisphere.  The colony here has been renamed African Penguin; they used to be called Jackass Penguins (and if you hear them, you’ll know why), but that probably is no longer politically correct.

Speaking of which, I’ll have some reflections on what has been billed as “the most important election in the history of South Africa.”

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School Started Today

May 6, 2019

School started today when we officially gathered the 30 faculty who are on this trip for what was our (so first day of schoolish) introduction to the teachers, each other, and the topic of the course.  Professor Rolfe, our host from the University of South Carolina spoke for about an hour and a half describing doing business in Africa (mostly sub Sahara Africa), covering as only he can, past and present, cultural and economic, and putting the economy and the election into perspective.

However, Carolyn and I  had already spent our last “weekend” before school enjoying just being in Cape Town.  I think the indulgence was deserved.

We arrived Saturday and that in itself was adventure (her bag arrived Sunday; someone mistakenly took her black suitcase for hers; we took someone else’s black suitcase thinking it was hers—don’t ask),.  So we had a day and a half to exorcise our substantial jetlag.  Even though my GPS says we’re “only” 8590 miles from Bloomington, it’s a loooong flight.  1 ½ hours to Atlanta; almost 9   hours to Amsterdam; and about 11 hours from Amsterdam to cover the almost 6500 miles to Cape town.

Carolyn spent much of the flight (you can run out of films you want to see pretty easily, and peasant class is a tough one to sleep through) questioning my routing.  “Why didn’t we go straight from Atlanta to Johannesburg?  We’re flying home that route.  Planes must go both ways.”  Turns out THAT route is 18 hours, too, depending on headwinds, so there’s nothing to be gained.  The Atlanta Johannesburg route, apparently, is the second longest in the world.

But we got here, eventually, and had arranged a tour with my guide from four years ago, targeting some places I had not seen last trip—Table Mountain and Stellenbosch—together with some sampling of the famous vineyards of South Africa.

Sunday, I had wanted to take the cable car up Table Mountain, but it was Sunday and mobbed; if we’d gotten into the lines, we’d probably still be waiting for the ride up.  Table Mountain, which looks like a table (it’s sandstone peak has eroded, and it is flat, marking Cape’s location as one of the most memorable physical locations for a city);alas, we contented ourselves with the view from the road, a trip to nearby Signal Hill (where Carolyn firmly said  No Way to my plea to test paragliding),  thence to the “Green belt” and the winelands around Cape Town.

Our guide has an interesting perspective on South Africa, being descended on her father’s side from th original 250 Huguenot (French Protestants) welcomed by the Dutch in the mid 17th century to help establish the colony as an agricultural way station on the route to the Indies.  Grow crops and raise beef, and reprovision ships on the route, and you can settle in French town; even then, the Dutch (better known as the Boers) had thoughts about who belonged where. The Huguenots brought viniculture, and thus was born one of South Africa’s prominent exports.  Though not being able to label bubbling wine “Champagne” –I learned that’s protected by the treaty of Versailles (since the US never signed it, Taylor can label its New York bubbly Champagne), the region produces world class wines. One, pinotage, is a local contribution, grown from pinot noir and another variety, perfected by a professor (we’re not all theoreticians) in 1925, but not commercialized until the 1960’s, as well as a mix of mostly dry and some sweet wines.  We hit three of the wineries, one for lunch, about two short of what is “recommended”. (Can you imagine the consequences of sampling 5 wines at four wineries?) We learned about the varieties—four of chardonnay for example, and why this area is so good for growing wines, and how different wines depend on process, weather, kind of wood, how long aged, shape of bottle—an education no doubt.

Our guide,who speaks Afrikaans, a simplified descendant of Dutch with no genders, which is one of the major languages in South Africa (there are 11 or so), told us about her family’s history during the Boer War.  We know it primarily because of Baden-Powell, the general commanding British forces during the siege of Mafeking; as a result, he thought British boys needed to become more “manly” and started Scouting for Boys (resigning from the Army in disgust after World war I to turn scouting into a force for peace.  Christelle’s “grannie” and her family were put in concentration camps (the Boers fought the British for nearly ten years in the second Boer War).  She said they survived because her aunt was a nurse who was able to get extra food rations.

For South Africa, the result of the war was the peace among the whites that led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1911.

The other discussion in the winelands had to do with the important issue in the “biggest election in South Africa’s history”—land reform, since the vineyards are large plots of land in a country where 73%  of the land is still owned by whites.  One of the 3 parties, a new populist spinoff from the ruling (since Independence in 1994) African National Congress has introduced a “land seizure without compensation” amendment to the current constitution.  The political situation is quite complex, since the parties list their candidates (all 400 apparently, in order of preference) and the election is based on the number of votes for the party.  If you poll 60% of the vote, you get 240 seats in Parliament. And the party votes for the chief officer.  The theory is that every one gets represented.  It will be an interesting time to be here.  We’re doing a tour on Wednesday, partly since most businesses will be closed in this national holiday.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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).

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