Toulouse

Toulouse came as a surprise – we didn’t expect it to be such a lovely and largely non-touristy town.
Whoever called it “the pink city”, though, must have been slightly color-blind, as it is not at all a pink but rather a reddish-orange city. Built mostly of brick, with tiled roofs, Toulouse comes in all shades of reddish, orange, and brown.
In the US, brick facades are rather plain and boring, but not here. Here, they are ornately elaborate: the masons laid out brick in intricate designs, which were then decorated with long lacy cast-iron balconies.
The city was never bombed during WWII, and its mostly 16th century core survived intact. Even though overall, the old city is a mishmash of individual houses rather than an architectural ensemble, it is still lovely somehow.
Brick is the king here. You see it everywhere: from old churches and bell towers to brand new apartment houses. The streets are lined with cobblestone; they are narrow, but wider than those in medieval cities. Both streets and lively squares are on a human scale: not too wide, not too narrow, but just right.
Oddly though, in our modern times, with the advent of the internet, tv, and fashion magazines, it is still a backwater town. Not too many beautiful people are to be found here (have they all left for Paris?) and the fashions are dated, both on people and in the stores. Granted, it’s a far cry from the villages of Dordogne we left behind. It is a city, albeit a smallish provincial city, populated by city folk, not the peasant stock we found back in the country. An abundance of foie gras and duck meat clearly took a toll on the bodies of those countryfolk! I won’t even mention the missing teethe, greasy hair, and Kmart-type clothes. But tourists don’t go to Dordogne to people watch, right?

Font de Gaume

So I was totally off in my speculations. It was stupid of me to try outsmart the archeologists 🙂
The animals our ancient ancestors painted, as a rule, weren’t the animals they hunted. The preferred image was that of a bison repeated over and over, and as I found out, those Cro Magnons didn’t hunt bisons.
Font de Gaume is one of the last real caves open to the public and the last one with polychromatic paintings (the other two are Lascaux and Altamira, both now closed to visitors).
There is something to say about going into a real cave, even though, I must admit, the paintings here aren’t as impressive as those in Lascaux (I mean the copy thereof), as they have greatly faded. But standing in a cave that was actually painted by a prehistoric human being, who even left an imprint of his left hand on the ceiling, is totally awesome! It’s not clear if he left the handprint as his signature or was just leaning on the ceiling with his left hand while paining with his right.
The great mystery of cave paintings is: why did they do it? Were the caves their temples? Was it just art for the sake of art? Is it possible that our desire for art and beauty is so programmed into our DNA that those people, whose whole existence was a daily struggle for survival, made time in their harsh lives to seek out caves, make and mix paints, create something they could use as brushes and sharp carving instruments, and paint those noble animals while using the natural topography of the stone walls to breathe some life into their art?!

Sarlat la Caneda and Lascaux

Traveling from Bordeaux to Sarlat was a step-by-step improvement on the scenery. Not that Bordeaux wasn’t a good-looking city, it was. It had a lot of stately architecture that would make many a city proud, but somehow, it was missing something. Maybe charm.
The large village of Saint-Emilion in the heart of the wine country was lovely, and Perigueux, the regional center of Dordogne, boasted several perfectly charming squares, but Sarlat la Caneda was the prettiest of them all!
This fairy little town, which is virtually unknown to Americans, is a little jewel of honey-colored stone houses topped with dark conical roofs and turrets and an unexpected peekaboo effect of semi-hidden stairs and towers. It is more redolent of an opera set complete with mise-en-scenes, than of a real live town.
While all the towns we visited thus far in this region were built of whitish-yellow stone, the stone houses of Sarlat are the color of golden honey. They are succulent yellow, as if they soaked up the rays of the Southern sun.
The countryside around Sarlat is also right out of a storybook. It is natural and unspoiled, with green meadows, fields of wild flowers, ponds of still water surrounded by sedge swaying lightly in the gentle wind.
We passed farmhouse estates the size of small palaces and farmers who were actually tending their fields by hand!
The freshly plowed soil here is not brown but the rusty color tinted with ochre. The whole field of view is a carpet of greenery punctuated by golden-yellow stone houses, reddish earth, splotches of lilacs and fields of sunny yellow flowers. The scenery is tranquil and calming, and softly beautiful.
This area has been populated by humans for tens of thousands years, and they left their marks on the many caves in the surrounding hills. Today, we visited the queen of them all, Lascaux.
Nobody knows why prehistoric artists painted this cave. What archeologists know for sure is that prehistoric humans didn’t live in these caves; but why they went through the trouble of painting the walls and ceilings with magnificent animals is the staff of speculation. There are several theories. Mine are that either those prehistoric humans painted the animals they killed, believing that these paintings would ensure that those dead animals would come back in the form of new animals for their future hunting pleasure; or maybe, they painted the animals they wanted to kill in the next hunt; or maybe, they painted the animals they killed to ask their forgiveness.
Whatever the reason, those early humans were amazing artists who skillfully used the shape of the cave walls to created volume, and knew how to make vivid dyes, some of which hardly faded after 25,000 years. The animals they painted would not look put of place as a part of a modern painting – they are that sophisticated. The only primitive drawing was of a fallen hunter: a stick figure with a head of a bird, sticks for arms and legs, smaller twigs of fingers splayed out wide, and a large erect penis.

Seoul

After a day of touring Seoul, my conclusion is that this is not a city for tourists. It’s neither beautiful nor charming. It’s modern, clean, very livable, and very wealthy but nothing here catches an eye even with a very tepid “wow”.
The royal palace was one of the most boring palaces I’ve ever seen; the houses in the reconstructed village were almost identical and not remarkable; the folk museum would be perfectly suited for a small provincial town, but pathetic for a capital of a first world country. The Buddhist Temple was a pitiful complex of traditional Korean pagodas. The modern buildings were rather uniform – no attempt of avant guard architecture. The pedestrian shopping street was lined with sad little shops selling mass-produced souvenirs and trinkets. The street market – was a flee market of cheap clothes and shoes made in China.
The only place that made a deep impression was Shinsegae department store adjacent to the hotel. Take Galleries Lafayette and Bon Marche combined, multiply by two, and you will get Shinsegae. 10 floors (+ 11th of restaurants, ad the food basement) featuring all major and medium-level designers I heard of and those I never heard of. Enormous amounts of merchandize was displayed in style and curated by hordes of salespeople. They stood guard by their sections and if you as much as slowed down your pace to look at an item, would rush toward you ready to offer their assistance.
Beside the merchandize, the shoppers were a sight to behold. Mostly young, beautiful, well-dressed, and well-heeled, they toted around, toddlers in tow, grasping their Chanel bags and sporting the latest and newest fashions.
I was an odd bird there – older than most, a single Caucasian, and simply being single – all of them came in groups.
The food basement dazzled! I couldn’t decide which one of the stupendous-looking desserts to select for my dining pleasure.
And then, I saw a line. The line led to the shop selling one single product that looked like a small lemon tart but was called “cheese tart”. The sign said the origin of the tart was Hokkaido, and that they would only sell 7 pieces a person. The line drew me in, the limited quantity allotted per person sealed the deal.
The little tart was perfect: the shell, crispy, crumbly, with just enough sweetness complemented the semi-liquid eggy cream filling.
The wonder basement also housed a supermarket selling $40 watermelons, $400 boxes of fresh porcini mushrooms, and other slightly less expensive but still picture-perfect fruits, so perfect indeed, they didn’t look real. I want to know what the store does with these prize-winning fruits at the end of the day if no one buys it?
Another luxury food item that made a lasting impression was a case of dry fish, looking a lot like the lowly Russian vobla and guarded my a man in a white apron. The price of one modest package of several voblas was a whooping $1,275!!!
Seeing this cornucopia, all I could think was that bordering this wealthy country, there was one of the poorest countries in the world, populated by the same people but governed by a different party. And how some years ago, the sadistic government of that second Korea told its impoverished citizens that their brethren in the evil capitalist hell next door are exploited and just about dying of starvation, and that the comrades in the socialist heaven should do all they could to help. So the semi-starved paupers tightened their belts, and gave what they could to the government to send to their hungry neighbors. Right.

Good Bye San Miguel de Allende, Good Bye Mexico City

On our last morning in SMA we visited a private mask museum at Casa de la Cuesta. The owner has been collecting Mexican ceremonial masks for over 20 years; buying them after celebrations or directly from mask makers. The best masks he collected are displayed in a museum, and arranged by celebrations, characters, and regions. Explanations are given to each group of masks, and there are also videos of actual celebrations.
The predominant majority of the celebrations are aimed at Christian holidays and feasts: conversion to catholicism seems to be complete here.
THe museum is quite amazing and very interesting, but I walked away in the state of nausea and with a headache.
First of all, some of the masks were really scary.
Second is that a lot of masks were from the reenactments of the Passion of Christ, and the indigenous people do it the old-fashioned way.
There is a section marked “Jews” and another “Pharisees” (explained: “conservative Jews”). All are depicted as horned, hooked-nosed satan-like monsters. At the end of performances, the masks are usually burned or drowned.
I was wondering if the participants would drown or burn me also, as a member of the hated tribe, in their religious frenzy?!
After the museum, we visited the upscale art center Fabrica La Aurora. Nice space, but I wasn’t much impressed with the art they offered for sale.
Afterwards, back to the streets and the courtyards of the centro.
Towards the evening, we stumbled upon a crowd dancing on the street to the sounds of a Mariachi band. In addition to the mariachi, we spotted two donkeys adorned with paper flowers, and two mojigangas (giant Mexican puppets). It appeared to be a wedding, but we saw no groom; and the mojigangas were two girls (at Mexican weddings, they represent a bride and a groom). Then it became obvious, that this was a wedding, but the marrieds were two girls – thus no male mojigangas.
The guests were cheering and urging the girls to kiss, the girls were dancing away, and the happy mama of one of the brides was screaming “Viva Cristina! Viva (another name).
I didn’t know that Mexicans were so open-minded!
I also didn’t know how polite, respectful, and clean they were!
On a street in SMA, I saw a little boy with all the visible signs of needing a bathroom. The father picked him up and ran off, clearly to the bathroom.
I have seen kids in Asia peeing on the streets, in the squares, and into the fountains.
I have seen grown men peeing in a street corner in Stockholm; I have seen drunk German men peeing at walls; and just last month, I saw an African man peeing on a pretty townhouse on the upper Eastside in the middle of a bright and sunny day!
Not here. The streets are clean, people are clean, when you walk into a store, they say “Good morning/day/night, and welcome”. In the hotel, when Americans walked into an elevator, they pretend they don’t see anybody inside, but the Mexicans greet you “Hello”. They always seem to try to be helpful – they are just pleasant people! Amigos, in a word.
A lot of Americans travel to Europe for history and culture, but there is a country next door to us with so much history, architecture, and great food, which is also inexpensive and easy to get to. My fellow Americans, if you don’t come here, you will be missing out!

Guanajuato

About an hour and a half’s ride from SMA, there is another Unesco Heritage site: the colonial city of Guanajuato.
The most spectacular view of Guanajuato is to be had at the approach to the city at the bottom of the mountain. There is a viewing platform that provides travelers with the best panorama of this colonial town.
Guanajuato blankets a slope of the mountain with an array of houses in bright, almost fluorescent rainbow of colors. While white is dominant, hot pink, magenta, fuchsia, emerald green, teal, cobalt, periwinkle blue, orange, red, yellow, and all the shades in between freely invade the white majority.
Even the main church is painted bright yellow and cupped with a red cupola.
Guanajuato is older than SMA, and some buildings date back to the 16th century, which is practically prehistoric for the new world. While SMA is mostly a one-story town, Guanajuato boasts two and three-story palaces and stately haciendas. What is mind-boggling is that this provincial Mexican town of about 200,000 inhabitants has its own magnificent opera house, which stages monthly operas in addition to concerts and other performances!!! The theater sits 1100 spectators, and has a splendid decor that had been recently restored to its former glory!
Right in from of the theater, stands a modern surrealist sculpture of a giant woman representing the rise of feminism. The town also hosts an international Cervantes festival, and the statures for both Cervantes and his famous creation Don Quixote are to be found in several squares.
The restaurant we had lunch at across the theater was a show in itself. Not only did its interior looked like we were transported back in time, the patrons were also from another era.
Next to us, a group of elderly Mexican matrons in their provincial finery was having lunch. I couldn’t help myself and kept stealing glances at their outfits, jewelry, and the hairdos.
The wait staff, all male, all dressed in black suits and sporting ear pieces, looked more like secret service agents or a mafia entourage than waiters.
A pianist was playing softly some nondescript tunes, but when he started playing hava nagila, all that became way too surreal and we burst out laughing!
This town is much less sophisticated, less gentrified, and less upscale than SMA. It is also decidedly less touristy, much more real, and unspoiled.
For all those staying in SMA, coming here would be a great one-day outing and a glimpse into the real Mexico.

San Miguel de Allende

SMA’s reputation was so hyped up that at first glance it failed to impress.
My expectations were too high, and it didn’t take my breath away.
It doesn’t have the type of beauty that envelopes you and makes your heart skip a beat. No Stendhal syndrome here for me.
Mind you, it is a nice-looking colonial town, but not stunningly beautiful on the outside. What is beautiful here for me is what’s not immediately visible: the courtyards, interiors of the colonial houses, the cobblestone under your feet, the panoramic views off numerous hills, the carved doors, the cast metal door handles, and the facades of vivid, luscious, succulent terra cotta colors with peeling paint that gives them appearance of abstract paintings
There are some awesome spots though.
The churches have gorgeous cupolas and spires. The main church is a Gothic Gaudi: a rhapsody in grey and pink.
The streets around the main square teem with artsy stores and art galleries. The merchandise they sell is hardly what I would want to buy but it is original, artfully displayed, and so much fun to look at, that shopping here could be a destination in itself.
There are also loads of restaurants: one more charming than the other.
But tonight we dined at a not terribly charming restaurant, Bistro Mi Casa; although, it is located in an awfully charming courtyard. And the food was mediocre at best.
But!!!
We came here not for food but to hear a band that plays here once a week; and the band was FANTASTIC!!!
The lead was a well known Mexican guitarist Gil Gutierez who was FABULOUS!!!!
The second acoustic guitar was a young Mexican kid, and he was SUPERB!!!
The band also included a French accordion player, a Spanish electric bass-guitarist, a Mexican drummer, and a cute Spanish balladeer.
They were just so super stupendous!
They played to a mostly American audience, and for the encore, they did a song they dedicated to “the wall”.
And everybody laughed, heartily and lightheartedly 🙂