Teotihuacan and the Virgin of Guadelupe

I think I’ve had enough of Mexican ruins. Ancient Toltecs, Aztecs, Olmecs, Otomis, and Mayans had similar civilizations and built similar structures, which seem to differ only in their heights and sizes.
Teotihuacan pyramids aren’t the largest in the world, but large enough to impress. Climbing the Pyramid of the Moon was a piece of cake. The Pyramid of the Sun was a bit more challenging, but still a piece of cake compared to the Inca Trail (which will forever stay my one achievement, against which I’ll measure all others; and they will pale in comparison). The most dangerous part was simply standing on the top and being exposed to the wind, which was so strong up there that I was seriously concerned about being blown off the pyramid.
The view from up there was, of course, spectacular.
Most of the site was reconstructed, so the overall impression was of an entire intact city.
The most important distinction of this archeological site was that it had some very well preserved remnants of ancient frescos with vivid colors and distinctly visible figures of men and gods, each doing his own thing.
After the ruins, we visited Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe – Mexico’s national shrine. The place was actually quite beautiful and serene: the original church on the very top of the mountain, the old church from the 18th century, and the newest giant church (looking more like a synagogue) built in the 1970’s. The view from up there was lovely – both volcanos were clearly visible in the clear air. The picture of the virgin that Mexicans worship and consider to be her self portrait (sort of), is affixed on a high wall, but you can take an escalator and ride by to get a better look.
Personally, I didn’t feel any energy here, like in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, near the Wailing Wall, or in Sedona. Some places exude powerful energy, but not this one, not for me, nada.

In Love with Condesa

This is official: Condesa is my favorite neighborhood of CDMX.
Now I understand why people love Mexico City!
We took a walk around Park Mexico, nearby streets and piazzas, and along Avenida Amsterdam. Avenida Amsterdam is actually a rather narrow boulevard built on top of a racetrack. Thus, it is oval in shape, and you can go in circles (or rather, in ovals) as long as you want.
Like the rest of Mexico City, Avenida Amsterdam is an architectural mishmash, but here, most buildings that line up this cosy boulevard are actually remarkable. There are Art Deco, Colonial, Modernist, and those not belonging to any particular style, but still trying to be architectural or just charming. Besides, there is a couple really interesting shops and cute local restaurants. All that is enhanced by the leafy central path, and all of that is on a human scale: compact and cozy.
Granted, this is still CDMX; meaning the buildings are dilapidated, electric wires hung in thick bunches obstructing the tops of the facades, the roads are broken, and construction sites are omnipresent. Still, it is charming to a fault! If one day all of this gets truly gentrified, it will put many beautiful cities to shame.
In the afternoon, we went to the weekly Sunday art market at Jardin del Artes. The whole little park teemed with artists who lined up the alleys with their paintings and sculptures. No high art was to be found here, but great fun it still was.
Then we walked on our tired legs back to the colonial center through another architectural mishmash – some quite interesting!
Had dinner at the lovely courtyard of hotel Downtown, painstakingly restored and gorgeous! Beside the restaurant and the hotel, the inner perimeter of the courtyard hosts tiny artisan boutiques on two floors, with the nicest and most upscale local crafts I’d seen in the city. After dinner, hobbled to Palacio de Bellas Artes for a Mexican dance performance. The dance was entertaining, but it was the palacio itself with its curtain of Tiffany glass and its opulent interior that totally blew my mind!

San Angel, Xochimilco, and Polanco

San Angel is a far cry from the historical center. It is the Montmartre to Mexico City’s Paris. San Angel is a quaint and picturesque village, an island of tranquility in this chaotic city.
The cobblestone streets are lined with brightly colored colonial houses; huge stone walls carpeted by bougainvillea hide wealthy mansions. Only the stately gates hint at the opulence behind.
We came here early for their weekly El Bazaar Sabado – an arts and crafts market on San Jacinto Square. The (high end) crafts and jewelry market is held inside one of the buildings on the square; while the square itself hosts painters who display their art (often questionable) along the fences and inside the park, in the alleys. The atmosphere is festive and jubilant. Nothing, though, caught my eye enough to give any of the displayed pieces a new home.
Across the square from the crafts building, there was another market going on the roof of another multi-purpose building, the first floor of which is home to a restaurant and permanent art galleries. The top floor was packed with artisans selling handmade handicrafts, many of them for children, and many quite adorable!
In addition to the Saturday market, there were quite a few permanent art galleries and craft stores – most of them charming and some – with lovely merchandise.
Our plan was to leave by 1 but we stayed until 3 – we liked it so.
Actually, everything in CDMX takes longer than expected. First, it takes longer to get an uber. Then, you sit in traffic for twice as long as your phone had promised you would, and third, you end up liking where you are and staying longer.
Destination #2 on my Saturday schedule was Museo Dolores Olmedo – a former home of a wealthy socialite who was an avid art collector specializing is Diego and Frida. Much to my chagrin, Frida had just left the premises for an exhibition at the Dali museum in St, Petersburg, Florida – boohoo 😦
I wouldn’t have gone had I known that, because I went there for Frida, not for Diego (I am not a big fan of his). But since we were already there, we looked at the numerous Diegos Señora Dolores had collected. I was actually impressed by his versatility as a painter. When I think of Diego, I think “murals” painted in his distinct style, but here, there was everything: from cubism to landscapes, to (my favorite) the portraits of Russian kids in the winter painted with a hint of Russian folk art.
In addition, there was a small but very impressive collection of pre-hispanic art – some very well preserved and artistic pieces. There was also a temporary exhibit dedicated to the Day of the Dead – awfully kitschy but fun,
Outside, in the garden, señora kept a pack of hairless Mexican dogs who (or their descendants) still live there. They are odd creatures: reminding me of giant black rats or a version of the Tasmanian devil.
The neighborhood of Xochimilco, where the museum stands, is kind of sketchy, so we happily left the premises for the oasis of Polanco. We walked around the fancy neighborhood, checked out the shops and people, and had dinner at Dulce Patria. Being in Polanco after anywhere else in CDMX is a shock. It took me at least an hour to readjust my eyes and my senses. It’s like being in a completely different city, different country even – the contrast is staggering!

In the Historical Center

The view from the 30th floor of our hotel is fantastic! From this height, you don’t see the rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods, but a vast panorama of high rises set amidst many green areas and flanked by beautiful mountains. The day started well!
For breakfast, we walked to El Pendulo, a coffee shop set inside a bookstore in Polanco – a lovely spot. From there, we endured terrible traffic to the historical center of this town. Here is a question I can’t find an answer to: how is that in a city of so many poor people, there are so many private cars???
The historical center is huge and boasts many old and stately buildings – this had to be one hell of a city in its heyday. The city is a total architectural mishmash! Not only do the old colonial Spanish mansions cheerfully border Art Nouveau, beaux arts, modernist, modern, and simply ugly concrete buildings, the very same building often present a mixture of architectural styles. More often than not, it took so long to build them, that in the meanwhile, a new style became fashionable; and the structure was adjusted accordingly. Granted, if not beautiful, it is interesting to look at, has loads of history, and very lively. Also, it is surprisingly very clean and feels very safe. The number of policemen in riot gear armed with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests and shields is unprecedented! But it feels totally safe despite (or because) of their presence. I have been to Latin American cities where I felt very uncomfortable, but not here – people look perfectly nice, hardly a shady character around.
And beauty is to be found here also. It is hidden inside many doorways and courtyards. Several restored old hotels are insanely opulent, many restaurants have charming decor, and some brasseries, pastry shops, and stores retained their original art nouveau interior. I bought Mexican sweets in an old candy shop, out of a storybook, the one Frida herself once frequented!
Originally, I allocated half a day for the historical center but we ended up spending an entire day- there is so much to see here, and we didn’t even see it all.
Back to Polanco is like going to another country – the contrast is staggering! Polanco is an enclave of white people, while the rest of the city is inhabited mostly by brown-skinned descendants of the Aztecs. It’s like two cities in one! Or rather three cities: the third is the part where people from the first two cities never go: the third city is poor and drug-ridden, and very dangerous. But in the first two cities, people are living la vida loca, eat, drink, shop, dance, and make merry.

First Day in Mexico City

Mexico City doesn’t make a good first impression. Being a hapless victim of the infamous Mexico city traffic jam, you endure a slow and torturous ride through the seemingly endless third world neighborhoods and wonder: what do people love about this city?
Even Polanco, the ritziest area of the city, where we are staying, failed to impress.
We headed to the Anthropological Museum by foot. Not expecting uneven pavement and unusually high and uneven curbs, I tripped and went flying down on the ground. Miraculously, with no bones broken but scraped and bruised, I headed on, my mood further dampened. The museum also disappointed. With raving reviews on all tourist sites, my expectations must have been overly high. It is definitely a must-see for first-time visors, but not on par with the best museums of the world. Maybe so because pre-Columbian art is not my thing, and maybe, because so many exhibits are replicas of the real mccoy.
Still, we stayed until closing and then walked to the restaurant we reserved for dinner in the trendy Roma neighborhood.
Nighttime does magic to decaying cities. Shrouded by darkness and lit up in the strategic places, they look their best and come to life. Restaurants and shops became lively and inviting, and old colonial buildings looked polished and stately.
The restaurant, Fonda Fina, was charming and served a modern take on traditional Mexican food. Our bill for two, including 3 drinks (wonderful!), two appetizers, one main course, and two deserts came to $55. And all that was delicious! Sadly, my waking up at 4:30AM, flying, and being in the high altitude of Mexico City, took their toll on me – the dinner went back the way it came in.
Oh well, at least no weight gain the first day of overeating. But not a good start of the trip 😦

Cheese, canals, and prayers

We went to Alkmaar today for their Friday cheese market.
Alkmaar cheese market tradition started in 1365. There is still lots of pomp and circumstance surrounding it. Cheese guild members are dressed all in white except for the bow ties and straw boater hats of matching colors that represent their positions in the guild. Ancient traditions of cheese inspection and purchasing are carefully followed. The cheese is weighed on enormous antique scales using huge and heavy weights to match. I tried to lift one weight that must have been made of solid lead- couldn’t even move it an inch!
The cheese is carried to the scale by a pair of cheese carriers in a wooden hand barrow matching the color of their hats. They carry 8 large loaves at a time, which must be heavy. They walk with a funny gait, more like two horses doing a trot on their hind legs all the while screaming something in Dutch. And everybody, the cheese men and the crowd, are making merry. It’s like a party, which it must have been in the Middle Ages.
The town of Alkmaar is tiny and cute. The residents probably get a day off on cheese market days because after the market’s closure at 12:30 pm, the streets around teemed with people, the cafes were full, and the shops opened wide to customers.
It’s an easy trip from Amsterdam, which takes less than an hour.
In Amsterdam, we went on a treasure hunt for hofjes, the hidden inner courtyards behind (not-so-)secret doors, discovering the new parts of the city on the way.
Several times, I was almost run over by a biker. They think they own the streets and are worse than the cars! They don’t obey traffic signs and ride on sidewalks if they so desire.
Whenever once oppressed elements of any society get rights and gain power, they promptly become oppressors in their own right.
In our search for the hofjes, we stumbled upon a long line snaking around several buildings. We were baffled – we hadn’t seen any lines in Amsterdam until now. Since it was almost 5 pm, we thought it could have been a line to a hot nightclub. Hell, no. The line was for Anne Frank’s house!!!
What is it, this fascination with this girl, one of the million children killed in the Holocaust?! What is this odd fixation all about? None of those standing in line read or would ever read her diary, never read Night, never heard of Primo Levi, and don’t know nor care to hear stories of other Holocaust victims?!
In today’s day and age, with rising anti-semitism and Israel-bashing for something as little as sneezing at a terrorist brandishing a knife at an old woman, why is Anne Frank’s house a #1 attraction in Amsterdam, with Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and even pot paling in comparison???? Why is she compared to the”refuges”, most of whom are young, male, and able-bodied, who chose to escape to the prosperous West rather than stay and defend their country? How did she become a symbol of wrong things?
On a slightly different note, in the city that Anne Frank used to call home, tonight, at Friday night services in the historic 17th century Portuguese Synagogue, there was barely a minyan, which only came about owing to the few tourists who came here more for the sake of checking it out than praying.

Old Masters, Art Nouveau, and more Food

Walking in beautiful cities is rewarding – you never know what you are going to find!
We passed by the Tuschinski Theater on our way to the Jewish neighborhood.
Unlike other European countries, Jews in Holland were never confined to a ghetto. In other countries, you can always sense when you are in a former ghetto – it is always Medieval with narrow cobblestone streets.
The former Jewish area of Amsterdam in nondescript and modern, safe for the Portuguese synagogue built in the 1600’s. For a synagogue built that long ago, this one is highly unusual because of its size (huge) and grandeur (major). In other European countries Jews were allowed to build their synagogues on the condition that they would be small and look like regular houses. This one is humongous! The most remarkable thing is that it still has no electricity and for special occasions, it is lit by a thousand candles! It’s all wooden on the inside, the old floors loudly protest when you walk on them.
I don’t understand how it wasn’t burnt in the many fires Amsterdam endured and why the Nazis spared it.
But back to the theater. If you like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, this is the place for you. As over the top as Paris Opera, but in its own Deco way.
For ten euro, you get an audio tour of the theater and a cup of coffee or tea.
The theater decor is amazing (but only for the Art Deco/Nouveau lovers). The interior is dark and sensual. It feels like a bordello more than a movie theater. And this must be the most opulent movie theater in the world, with red velvet seats and an organ to accompany the silent movies once played here. The hallways are silent and empty – you are transformed to another era. You almost expect a girl in a flapper dress to appear at the end of the hallway!
And she might: that is her ghost or that of Mr. Tuschinski who is visiting from Auschwitz, where he was gassed in 1942, as was customary thing to do to the Jews at that time: rich or poor, total equality, no discrimination.
Then we headed for the Rijksmuseum. We were warned about long lines, especially in the afternoons, but we just walked to the counter and bought the tickets. The museum was almost empty.
I was a bit disappointed by the Rijks. Well, the few paintings by Vermeer, Hals, and Rembrandt were superb, of course: it wasn’t the quality but the quantity that was a let down.
While four Vermeers are a lot for a museum (he was a slowpoke painter and didn’t leave too many paintings behind), but I think even the Hermitage had more Rembrandts! I did expect a bigger collection in the biggest Dutch museum.
The rest of the museum was just ok. I am a big fan of the Metropolitan Museum of Art not because of the collection but because of the way art is displayed there. It’s light and uplifting, and all the art is placed just so, as if by the most talented interior designer.
Rijks is a typical old world museum, with art displayed on the walls. That’s all.
At night we went to a restaurant, Hotel de Goudfazan, which was so off the beaten track, that it didn’t even have an English menu! It occupies a warehouse on the water in an industrial zone of warehouses and auto repair shops. To get there, you can take a free ferry from Amsterdam’s Central Station.
The place was set up as a diner, but was made hip by the magic wands of Dutch designers. There was a cool vibe in the restaurant, the food was beautifully presented and tasted decently (we are in the Netherlands, not in France -you can’t expect much from the local cuisine after all). But at 31 euro for a three-course mea, you can’t go wrong.