Florence for the Weekend

The view from our AirBnB’s front window

On Thursday, we headed out for a couple of days in Florence. Stacey had organized the travel, so it was smooth and easy. After an hour and a half train ride, we were in Florence. We grabbed lunch and checked into a fabulous AirBnB (link), which is two doors down from the first Medici palace. Once we had unpacked and settled in for a bit, (and gawked at what a fabulous and fancy place we had) Sue, Stacey & David headed out explore, while I sat down to work for the afternoon and evening.

Friday, we had a walking tour of Florence, which is a small city and totally walkable. We started by going to the Galleria dell’Academia, which is the art museum that displays Michelangelo’s statue of David (I had never thought about it, but David has a nice tushy too!), among is other works. It is incredible to realize that he sculpted the Pieta at age 23 and the David at age 26. Our tour guide was very informative and she brought our attention to many of the techniques that Michelangelo used to make the masterpiece, such as his enlarged hands and feet.  

We spent about an hour in the Academia and then headed to the Duomo or Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, one of the main attractions of Florence. It is a soaring 13th century Gothic-style cathedral, financed by the di Medici family to let everyone know how rich (and pious?) the city of Florence was. The dome is 90-meters high and can be seen from miles around. (I am sure if you have seen a photo of Florence, you have seen the dome of the Duomo.) It is also the third largest Catholic church in the world.

We headed toward the river to see the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence, and the only one the Germans did not destroy when they evacuated the city. The Italians have a complicated relationship with World War 2, which seems to focus only on the liberation of Italy by the Allies. Mussolini has only been mentioned twice, and both times derisively. The bridge houses a long line of jewelry stores, and I, of course, bought Sue one large piece from each store – or not. We really just wandered across and looked in the windows. We did, however, learn that the stores were originally butcher shops, so that the waste could be tossed into the river. But when the Medici’s built their third palace on the other side of the river, they also built an enclosed walkway that went from the second to the third. The route it took was through the Uffizi Gallery and then across the bridge above all the shops. Not surprisingly, they decided it would be nicer to walk above jewelry stores, than smelly butcher shops.

From there, we walked over to the second Medici palace, called Palazzo Vecchio. It now houses the city government of Florence but was originally a fort and palace for the Medici family. The square in front of the palace is called Piazza della Signoria. It contains a number of important statues and Michelangelo’s David originally stood here before being moved to the Galleria in 1873. My personal favorite is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, in part because the sculpture (Benvenuto Cellini) seems to have carved his face into the back of Perseus’ head. Unfortunately, due to the lighting, we did not get a good photo of this. Interestingly, our guide pointed out that there are three statues with heads that are, or are about to be, cut off. Perhaps as a warning to those who wished to oppose the government? On the south side of the piazza is the Uffizi Gallery, which we did not have time to visit, but Sue and I are returning to Florence in a few weeks, so we will perhaps go in then. Can’t get enough Jesus pictures when you’re in Italy.

After lunch (yes, that was all before lunch) and a short rest, we headed for the Basilica of Santa Croce to play our favorite game – dead person bingo. The basilica houses the mortal remains of Galileo, Dante and Michelangelo. Imagine the conversations going on at night between those three! The church dates from the 13th century – or at least parts of it do. There are many people buried under the floor and wandering through it is easy to find markers as old as the 15th century.

Once we had completed our bingo card, we headed back to the AirBnb and then out for dinner. After dinner, as we were relaxing, there was a protest outside our place by the communists, demanding peace, which seemed somewhat ironic.

Saturday, we just lazed around and did nothing.

Stacey and David and Chianti mascot (in the middle)

Yeah right. Not a chance – Stacey had booked an all day wine tasting trip to Chianti. I know, tough job, but someone had to do it. Our driver, Eduardo – Eddy – picked us up at 10 a.m. and drove us out into the beautiful countryside. We learned the history of how border between Florence and Siena was set and why the local mascot is a black rooster. Here is a link to the very short story. We first went to a vineyard called Fattoria Montecchio and learned about the different types of Chianti (Chianti, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva) and Super Tuscans. We tasted each of the wines that they make and also tried their balsamic which was a revelation to me. I loved it. (It does not involve vinegar, but is simply an aged grape reduction.)

We then headed to Casa Emma, a very small organic winery. They served us lunch and paired the very delicious food with their different wines. Once again the had the three types of Chiantis and a super Tuscan, along with two different balsamics, one of which was aged 20 years.

After a very long leisurely lunch with great company and great food, we staggered back to the van and Eddy took us to the small market town of Greve in one of the valleys, which is known for its smoked meats. Then we climbed (Eddy drove us in the van) up to the top of one of the hills and explored a village that was the defensive fortress for the valley. Finally, we headed to the birthplace of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who apparently did quite a bit of exploring, but more importantly managed to have a bridge named after himself in New York. (It helps to be born into privilege. The Verrazzano castle was quite lovely.)

Sunday morning, Stacey and David headed to Venice while we stayed in Florence for a few more hours. Sue indulged me by going back to the da Vinci museum (which she had seen on Thursday) and then we went to the Galileo Museum. The da Vinci museum is quite small and has replicas of many of his machines. It is incredible how wide his knowledge and interests were. The Galileo Museum was brilliant. It displays the history of astronomy, measurement and other science starting with Galileo and going into the 18th century.  They even have his middle finger on display (they also have his index and thumb, but they are less interesting).

We left the museum wandered for a while then stumbled upon a place called La Ricettario for lunch. Sue had a bean soup and I had lasagna. The food was perfect. Simple ingredients, prepared well, served plainly. No fanciness, no experimental ingredients, no fuss, no bother. The meal was brilliant. We sat for close to two hours enjoying the place then headed to the train station and back to Rome.

The end of a perfect week, traveling with those we love, enjoying the sights, sounds and experiences of two new cities in one. Life is sweet.

Mexico City

Four days and just a little sleep

This has been a busy four-day weekend for us and I thought I would give you a quick idea of what our schedule was like. Sue will fill in more details in the next blog, but for now I just figured you might like to see a timeline and a few photos.

Thursday

The now legally required Instagram sign for the city.

9:00 am  – We grabbed an Uber to the airport – it was about a 25-minute ride. Our flight was scheduled for 11:25, so we got there quite early because we were not sure what security would be like.

9:35 am – Through security

10:50 am – Boarding starts. The boarding plan was kind of interesting. We lined up by seat number. First class boarded, then they boarded from the rear of the plane forward. We were row 10, so we boarded pretty late.

11:30 am – It is scheduled as a 90-minute flight, however, wheels up to wheels down was actually about 45 minutes. We barely had time to have our drink and eat a couple of empanadas we brought on board for lunch.

12:45 pm – We are at the gate and off the plane. We received a free transfer from the airport to the hotel, so we found our driver and headed into Mexico City.

1:30 pm – We stayed at a hotel called AR218 in an area of the city called La Condesa. The check-in went without a hitch and we quickly unpacked our stuff.

2:15 pm – We head out to walk up one of the main thoroughfares called Avenida Insurgentes. We relied on my brilliant reading of Google Maps, so we went about a mile an half the wrong way. Oops.

5:00 pm – We found a park called Parque España. It was a cute little park, and in the middle there was a young man giving massages. Sue decided that she wanted one, so for the grand sum of 80 pesos (about 4 US dollars), she had a 20-minute neck and back massage. (It was fabulous!)

5:30 pm – We started to get a bit hungry on the walk so we wandered over to a place called El Rey de Falafel. It was no L’as du Fallafel which you might remember from one of our posts from Paris, back in August. But was still really nice and filled the hole.

6:00 pm – Our wanderings brought us to Parque Mexico, which was busy but still an oasis in the middle of a crazy city.

6:30 pm – We returned to the hotel having covered about 9 miles.

8:30 pm – We strapped on our walking shoes again and head out to Baltra bar, a place one of friends suggested. It was a bit too hip for us, so we had a drink and then left.

9:30 pm – We walked over to another place near our hotel that was recommend to us called Felina. We sat outside and watched the evening go by for a few hours.

12:00 am – Back to the hotel and called it a night.

Friday

9:00 am – We booked a tour to the Teotihuacan Pyramids about an hour outside Mexico City. All in we spent about 5 hours getting there, learning about their history and getting home.

2:00 pm – Back in the hotel for a quick rest.

3:00 pm – Ubered to the center of Mexico City to see murals by Diego Garcia and others. We first went to the Government Palace, but unfortunately, we were not able to get in to see the murals. (Damn Covid!) In Mexico, opening and closing times for public access seem somewhat random. But since our language skills are not the best and we have trouble understanding what the guards are saying, we just shrug our shoulders accept the no, and move on.

The Rockefellers didn’t like this one.

4:30 pm – We walked from the Government Palace to the Palacio des belles artes that has murals by Diego Garcia, José Clemente Orozco and Alfaro Siqueiros. The website that we found said that the museum was open until 7 pm, so we figured we had plenty of time. However, when we arrived, they said it closed at 5 pm (see above comment on the opening/closing times). We knew we didn’t have much time, so we focused on the murals. The Diego Garcia mural was originally commissioned by the Rockefellers, but they had it painted over when they saw that Lenin and Soviet May Day parades were included; he then recreated the original here. We had seen other works by Orozco in Guadalajara (here is the link to the post) and the one we saw in Mexico City was being restored, which was pretty interesting in and of itself. I was taken by the work of Sr. Siqueiros, and we will stumble on his name later in this post.

The ceiling at Comedor Lucerna

5:30 pm-7:00 pm – We wandered from the Palacio over to Comedor Lucerna, a weird and wonderful food court that Sue found.  It wasn’t very far from the Palacio, but we didn’t want to get there too early, so we just wandered. We passed by the Museo Nacional de la Revolución, which luckily for me was closed, as it has a glass elevator, and I am sure Sue would want to go up, so I would feel obliged to join her.

7:00 pm-9:15pm – We had dinner in the food court and relaxed . At about 9:15, we walked a couple of blocks over to a jazz club called Parker & Lenox. The had a really great trio playing and hung out for both there sets.

12:30 am – Ubered back to the hotel having walked just about 7 miles.

Saturday

9:30 am – Somewhat surprisingly we woke up a bit late.. I wonder why😉.

10:00 am – Ubered over to the Museo Nacional de Antropología. It was amazing and overwhelming. We spent about two hours there and saw about one quarter of the collection when we both reached our limit. It is absolutely on our list of places to visit again. (I guess that means we’re coming back to Mexico!)

12:00 pm – We had somewhat of a deadline to leave the museum as we had reservations to visit Casa Azul (Frida Khalo’s house), which is in a southern part of the city called Coyoacán. Our plan was to Uber down to Coyoacán, grab lunch at a place that we found and then head to the museum. But the best laid plans sometimes go awry. The restaurant didn’t open until 1:30 pm, which is when our tickets were for, so we just wandered around the area and killed some time until we could get into Frida’s house.

1:30 pm-2:30 pm – Visiting Casa Azul was interesting and we will write more about it in another blog, but for now, here are a few photos.

Famous Dead Person

2:30-3:00pm – Around the corner from Frida’s house is the house that Leon Trotsky lived and ultimately died in. For those of you who are not up on your revolutionary history, Leon Trotsky was a hero of the October Revolution but, for reasons that would take up too much space to write here, Stalin had exiled and then killed. Interestingly, there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life a couple of months before he was killed, and one of the assassins was Alfaro Siqueiros, the mural painter who I really liked.

3:30 pm – After getting our fill of Trotsky, we headed back to Amatista’s Tostadas (the place we wanted to go, but was closed until 1:30 pm). We had a wait about 15 minutes to be seated, but the food was delicious and quite truthfully, we were starving. After our late lunch we wandered through a little art market that was around the corner and then Ubered back to the hotel.

8:00 pm – Having recovered from the day, we had dinner at little cantina around the corner called Montejo. Once again, we sat outside, watched the world go by, ate, and drank some really nice tequila.

Sunday

The line for Chilaquiles tortas

9:00 am – Our tour guide on Friday had recommended a “place” (really a food stand on a corner near our hotel) called La Esquina Del Chilaquil that served the city’s best chilaquiles. It is just a food stand on the street corner and the line goes up the entire block. What you get when you order is essentially a chilaquiles sandwich (torta). (Corn tortillas and salsa on a roll? Can’t be beat.)

10:00 am-2:00 pm – We Ubered to Bosque de Chapultepec. It is large park in the middle of the city with a botanic garden, a couple of art museums and the anthropology museum from yesterday. Our goal was to go to Chapultepec Castle which has a Mexican history museum in it and was supposed to be open all day on Sunday, only it wasn’t. No idea why, but that is just the way it is sometimes in Mexico. Instead we wandered the park and visited the Museo de Arte Moderno , not my favorite style, but is was very nice.

2:30 pm – We ubered back to the hotel and grabbed lunch around the corner a pizza place called Balboa Pizza. It was pretty good pizza for not New York.

3:00 pm – Back to hotel and grabbed our bags and took a 30-minute ride to the airport. Once again we left lots of time to get through security and once again it took 5 minutes. The flight left about 20 minutes late and arrived just a bit early.

8:00 pm– Back in our AirBnb in Gaudalajara. Maybe just a bit tired.

8:30 pm – I realize I left my phone in the cab. We track it via Find My Phone. Yup, it’s back at the airport. We called the taxi driver, who spoke no English, and managed with the help of translation (it’s hard to speak Spanish when you’re feeling like an idiot) to communicate. He graciously brought the phone back to us and we rewarded him with what was a lot of money to him, but was well worth it to us. There are good people everywhere!

11:30 pm – Finished writing the text of the blog and will add the photos and publish tomorrow.

I need to get back to work so that I can get some rest!

Another beautiful weekend

We were very busy this weekend, and what stands out to me is that we weren’t really doing tourist stuff, we were just enjoying a city where we are temporary residents.

The required photo of the Instagram sign in the park

Friday night Sue made arrangements to meet a friend from school – Teresa – and her girlfriend, Stephanie, for drinks at a restaurant in El Centro – the city center. We sat outside in a plaza that had about half a dozen restaurants of various sizes and shapes. Stephanie is Mexican, but has lived in England for seven years. She speaks perfect English with a disconcertingly good English accent. Teresa is English and they are traveling around Mexico for a year or so.

Saturday, we decided to visit a large park on the northwest side of the city. It is called Bosque Los Colomos and is about 250 acres of mostly natural forests with hiking and running paths. There are   Japanese gardens, kids playgrounds, arts and crafts areas and other outdoor activities. To get there, we rode our Mibici bikes to the nearest Mibici station and then walked about 30 minutes to the park. The park was crowded in the kids areas and in a few other spots (especially the Japanese garden), but most of the time we were just wandering by ourselves. We stayed for a couple of hours, had ice pops (it was the low 80s so we were a bit warm) and then started walking home. The walk back took us right past our favorite grocery store so we picked up food for the week and Ubered home. All in we walked about 8 miles and then biked for another couple. I guess the Sue death marches are back.

A fake meat Tortas Ahogadas It almost looks like real food!

Saturday evening we went out to a vegan restaurant called La Flaca (sorry it is a Facebook page, but that is the big thing here – try Instagram too) with one of the women from our Tequila tour. She is staying about 15 minutes away in Tlaquepaque (which we went to a few weeks ago: here is the post). She is studying Spanish and staying with a Mexican family, but is at loose ends during the weekends. I was fully prepared to have to stop on the way home from the restaurant for some real food, but I was pleasantly shocked that the food was both delicious and filling. I had two tacos, one fake carne asada and one tofu in salsa verde. They were both very good. I even told Sue that I would be willing to go back there is she wants. Late update: Sunday morning I woke up with meat withdrawal so I had to run out and eat a breakfast taco to stabilize my body chemistry. OK, that isn’t true, but I thought it would be funny to say.

Sunday morning we met up with Doug and Kenta and rode bikes to a very small farmers and craft market in Chapalita, a residential neighborhood about 15 minutes away from our AirBnB. Guadalajara closes many streets to cars on Sunday mornings and so the ride was very pleasant. (The rest of the time the main rule is: pedestrians and bikes never have the right-of-way.) Guadalajara is mostly flat and it is always warm, so biking around the city is very easy. We did a bit of shopping, rode around looking at the houses, and then headed home. Sunday afternoon, we relaxed for a while, then retired to the bar/restaurant at the base of our building complex to watched the NFL playoffs – on the patio with $1 beer and tacos.

Three social events and a death march in one weekend. No wonder I am tired. I need to get back to work for the rest!

This is a completely pointless graph that I created in Excel to remind you all that I love a good spreadsheet. OK, I am leaving this in just to show that I am willing to humor Steven and his nerdy dad jokes.

Tequila Tour

Friday started out like a normal workday. Sue went to school and I sat down to work. Everything was fine until our cleaner noticed that the lights had gone out. I did not have the lights on and was working with my laptop, so I didn’t notice that the power was out. We tried various lights (and I checked the internet); all were off. The cleaner offered to check with the building security guards to see if there was a problem. To keep a long story short, the electricity bill for the apartment was not paid, so they shut off the lights. The cleaner (who works for the AirBnB host) said she would take care of it. She said she had to go pay the bill and then the power would be back in an hour or two. (Steven neglects to mention that he speaks no Spanish and the cleaner speaks no English.) In the meantime, Sue returned and attempted to contact the host, but got no reply. Sue then contacted AirBnB who tried to contact the host, and received a reply that there was something wrong with the electricity. When the cleaner returned, she said that the bill had been paid, the electricity should be back soon and then she left. It was now about 3 p.m., so we decided to head out for some Lebanese food at a restaurant that we passed a few days ago. We hoped that the lights would be back before we returned.

The restaurant is called Sulemaya on Calle Marsella and is tiny (maybe five tables). We sat down and the server came by and gave us menus. As we were fumbling in Spanish he offered to speak English. We (really Sue) explained that we were trying to learn Spanish and bear with us. He said no problem and through the course of the conversation we found that he was fluent in four languages; Spanish, French, English and Arabic. We felt so inferior. Sue had a vegetarian platter while I had kibbeh and a kefta wrap. The food was delicious and we finished up with Lebanese coffee which is similar to Turkish coffee, but contains some cardamon. At about 4:30 we returned to the AirBnb, to find that we still did not have lights.

Weird bathroom

Sue contacted AirBnb and the host asking whether it was possible that the lights would be turned back on after 5 p.m. or over the weekend. We sat for a little while and then decided that since we were not receiving responses, we would check into a hotel and deal with it from there. There is a very nice Hilton in the mall where we go grocery shopping, and I booked us a room for two nights. We packed some stuff feeling kind of irritated and called an Uber. The hotel check in was easy and the room was nice. (The bathroom setup was a little weird. I’m not complaining, it was just odd. There was a front room with a sink and then two compartments with glass doors, one with a toilet and one with the shower. See pic.) We calmed down and remembered that this is an adventure and things do go wrong. No one was hurt, nothing was broken so we had to just shut up and get over it. The key to having adventures is being flexible and if the worst thing that happens here is that we have to stay in a hotel for a few day, oh boy we have no right to complain.

Monse (photographer) and our tour group

We had booked a tour of a couple of local tequila distilleries and of the the town of tequila for Saturday through TripAdvisor with a company called Agave Experience Tequila Tour. It was a small (no more than 6 people) group tour that stopped at two small Mexican owned distilleries, provided breakfast and dinner (11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.) and dropped us in the town of Tequila for about an hour. At 10:30 a.m. our driver, Monse, picked us up and we found ourselves traveling with four young ladies, two who knew each other and two who did not.  The two who knew each other were fresh off a long night out and did not talk much in the beginning due to their hangovers. (Oh to be young and stupid again!) The third, Emma, is from Toronto and is avoiding the cold by working remotely from Mexico (with her cat) for four or five months. Samantha, the fourth, is from Napa and works in the wine industry. She and her husband have their own vineyard Tectonic Wines, which I am shamelessly plugging here. Go buy some of their wines. Samantha is here learning Spanish for a month. Monse’s English is great and she managed to keep the conversation going by asking lots of questions and sharing her knowledge of the area. She had many suggestions for places to eat, drink and things we should do.

The different types of Tequila (round bottles l to r: Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, Extra Añejo, and Cristalino

A small diversion here to talk a little about tequila, tequila manufacturing and regulation. Tequila can only be made in five states in Mexico, must be made only from blue agave and each distiller is given a license number call a NOM (which stands for Norma Oficial Mexicana, but in translation means name, which is pretty funny because it is a number). Every bottle of tequila has a NOM. There are something like 180 distilleries, that produce 1,800 different brands. If the bottle does not say 100% agave, the distillers are adding sugar cane before the distillation process, which is allowed. Tequila only has to be 51% agave to be called tequila. There are five different types of tequilas that have to do with how long they have been aged in barrels (only oak barrels allowed):

  1. Blanco: aged less than two months
  2. Reposado: aged two months to one year
  3. Añejo: aged one to three years
  4. Extra Añejo: aged three years or more
  5. Cristalino: Añejo that has been charcoal filtered to remove some of the sweetness and the color.   

We headed for an agave field that is owned by the first distillery – Casa Marengo (NOM 1560). Monse explained how the agave was harvested (the leaves are cut off using a tool that looks somewhat like a flattened and sharpened spade), that the harvesters are called jimadors, and that the plant needs to be about seven years old before it is ready to be harvested. The jimadors need to harvest 5 tons of agave a day each and work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

Once we finished wandering in the agave field we headed back to the distillery to taste. We tried some of each type of tequila from one of their brands. Sue and I preferred the older (no jokes please) types as we found them sweeter and smoother. During the tasting, Monse provided little bottles that contained extracts of flavors we might find in the tequila. We smelled the bottles and tried to guess the scent. We tried six scents and I was 1 for 6. I found it difficult name the scent even if I could identify that I knew the smell. It was fun and interesting. Once we were done tasting and looking around the distillery, we exited through the gift shop (I bought a bottle of their Amor Lindo extra añejo for about $50) and headed to the second distillery.

That one is called Cava de Oro (NOM 1477). Once again we toured the distillery and tasted all five types of tequila from one of their brands. We also tried a mezcal and another añejo that had been aged in red wine barrels.  This time as part of the tasting, Monse gave us fruit and sweets that were paired with each of the tequilas (and the mezcal) in order to bring out the flavors. It was very interesting, We preferred the first distillery to this one, that not meant to be a criticism, simply a matter of taste.

We headed from Cava de Oro to a restaurant called Ruinas El Chimulco. It is a pueblito called Amatitan and it perfectly encapsulates what we have found in Mexico. We parked at the top of the hill when we entered the village. There were a bunch of nondescript houses on the main street. We suddenly stopped and entered through a doorway and we were in a beautiful, park-like courtyard. It was gorgeous. I ordered a shared meat platter and a chicken mole with the two ladies from San Diego. Everyone else ordered some for themselves and some for the table. We had a huge amount of delicious food, most of which we finished.

We piled back into the car and we drove to the town of Tequila. Monse dropped us in the center of town and we spent about 30 minutes wandering around. The town has a large square (with a church in the center of course).

Around the corner of the church there was another square with a small tourist market and the obligatory Tequila Instagram sign. There were lots of people selling cantaritos (a local tequila drink) on the street in ceramic mugs. We passed by the Jose Cuervo and the Sauza distilleries in our wanderings, but did not stop for their tours. We headed back to the square, found Monse and headed home.

We got home at about 9:30 and promptly decided to head out to a nightclub…Only kidding, we collapsed into bed and watched the football game and some tennis.

….and that was just Saturday.

Our First Weekend

I didn’t realize that it has been nearly a month since I wrote a post. Many thanks to Sue for keeping everyone posted on our plans and travels. This is our first weekend in Guadalajara so we figured we should pack it full.

Friday night we decided to go out to eat, and quickly settled on sitting on the balcony of Casa Dolores, which is just across the street from our AirBnB. Sue picked out a sipping Tequila called Ollitas. It was sold in 60ml, 250ml and full bottle. We decided to share the 250ml bottle, which we figured was about 2 or so drinks each. It was very smooth and I would highly recommend it. (Please be aware that we will be taking a tequila tour in the next few weeks, so we may learn that we currently drinking the tequila equivalent of lighter fluid – so perhaps take this suggestion with a grain of salt). Sue had a fish dish that arrived on fire (literally in the literal sense of the word), while I had a very nice steak. I also ordered a dish called potatas arriero, which translates to potatoes muleteer. I had no idea what a muleteer was, but figured I couldn’t go too wrong. Turns out that they were fingerling potatoes is a spicy tomato sauce. It was a very enjoyable meal and we lingered well into the evening.

A section of the Mercado

 On Saturday morning we started by walking to Sue’s school (she will be taking an intensive Spanish course starting a week from Monday — because that way I can not really speak two different romance languages, capice?) which is in downtown Guadalajara, about 3km away. The mornings here are cool, maybe 15° C (60ish F), and we set off around 10am. We wandered in and out of the neighborhoods, taking note of places we wanted to eat, including the wonderfully named El Terrible Juan Cafe. We passed the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, unfortunately, we could not go inside as they were saying Mass. 

Watch out, dad joke ahead: Thought I would saddle you with this picture.

We continued to wander through the downtown and finally found our way to the Mercado Libertad – San Juan de Dios. It is a huge (40,000 m2) indoor marketplace. There is everything from kitchen utensils to electronics to clothes, fruit, vegetables, leather goods (including saddles!) and food. We either bravely or foolishly decided to eat at one of the food stalls. Sue ordered chilliquiles (Mom – click on the link to see what they are) and I ordered chicken enchiladas. We were both quite hungry, the food was good and as an extra bonus did not upset our stomachs.

After lunch started walking home and the temperature had reached into the mid-20’s, on the way, found a panaderia called El Abuelo. After a few minutes of confusion we figured out that we were supposed to grab a tray, pick out what we wanted and then take it to a counter. The nice young lady at the counter put them into bags and gave us a receipt. We took the receipt and paid a man who was in booth (about 2 steps away), who then signaled to the young lady that we had paid and gave us the bags. We bought to large rolls and three cookies. Total price was 43 pesos (by the way the symbol for peso is $ – very confusing!) or about 2 US dollars. The cookies were yummy!

On Sunday, Sue’s friend Kenta and his husband Doug invited us over for brunch. They live about 40 minutes walk north of us. It was the first time Sue had met Doug and the first time I had met either of them. We had a really great brunch with wonderful conversation. A special thank you to Doug for cooking. Delicious! After brunch we walked over the supermarket near them called Fresko that they recommended. It is much more like an American grocery store than we have found here (but according to Sue – it ain’t no Monoprix) so we loaded up on lots of stuff that we needed. We grabbed an Uber home and called it a day.

All in, we are happily getting settled in yet another new city.

Nice is Nice

We have made our first significant change to our plan (remember when I said our plans were firmly set in Jello?). We, like the French in World War 2 have abandoned Paris. We were persuaded by two factors: First, the weather will be pretty nasty in October and November — cold, damp, wet. If we wanted that, we would go to London, where you can get it all year round. Second, we could not find an AirBnB or other short term rental that really seemed to fit us. Everything had drawbacks, and we seemed to constantly be compromising to fit ourselves into expensive places, none of which really fit.

Our solution? Let’s go to the Côte D’Azur! We looked first at some places in Provence, but in the end, the draw of reasonably warm weather, a beach and an interesting city has drawn us to Nice. We spent a couple of days looking at tour books and making an outline of what we would like to be near. Then onto the short-term rental sites for places to live. We found a very nice two bedroom just outside the old part of the city and after a bit of back and forth about the price and whether it was suitable, we booked it. Boom! Done.

Here are a few photos of our place:

We have also started to deal with some of the more mundane issues. At least we are making a list of them so that we can remember all of them. We arranged for trip insurance so that we are covered for any medical issues that arise (Yes, I do remember Costa Rica!) and trip cancellation. Next week, I want to organize our Global Entry applications and we have started to look for storage places for our stuff and cars.

Our trip to France has been cancelled

My wonderful wife was a journalist in a previous life, and I am pretty sure she will accuse me of burying the lead (I would spell it lede) on this one. Yes, we are cancelling our France trip in July. However, the real lead is that we have decided to spend nine (and maybe more?) months abroad.

The whole insanity started when Sue’s friend, who lives in Burgundy said that we could rent a place in her village really cheaply. Sue looked at me and said: “Want to live in France?” I looked up from the Yankees game (pretty sure they were losing – it has been that kind of season so far) and said: “Sure, how do we make that work?” The answer, believe it or not, was pretty straightforward. All we really need to do is:

  1. Decide when we want to leave, where we want to go and for how long
  2. Ensure that we have enough income to cover the costs
  3. Find a place to live
  4. Go.

Ok, so maybe not so straightforward, but as someone once told me. Solve the first problem first, then move to the next one…

Step one.

Figure out when, where and how long we would want to live abroad.

The when was pretty easy. Our lease is up on Aug. 31, so after that day we have nothing tying us down. September 1st seems like a good day to get started.

On to where: Our starting thought was that it had to be somewhere our cost of living was not higher than our current spend. In reality that isn’t very hard. We pay nearly $3k per month for rent, utilities etc. We hopped onto AirBnB and started listing the places we wanted to live…Fez, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Almalfi Coast, Istanbul, Israel, Amsterdam, Copenhagen….and that is just Western Europe (and Morocco and the Middle East). We found reasonable places in our price range wherever we looked, so we put price aside as a limiting factor.

How long was next on the list. We decided pretty early on that we didn’t want to be away for longer than three months – at least for the first tranche. In part because we want to be home for Thanksgiving, in part because that seems like a nice amount of time to spend in a place. That means tranche one will be 10 weeks long (Sept. 1-mid-Nov.). Our initial thought was to go to Fez to start. Sue is very keen to live there and it seemed like a great place to kick off the adventure. Our second choice was to go to Paris and Burgundy. Might be nice to be near someone who knows our name and speaks our language (neither Sue nor I speak French yet, we are Duolingoing: Je m’appelle Susan). After a bit of negotiation, review of weather and letting it marinade in our minds, we decided to start in France, come home for Thanksgiving then go to Morocco for Dec.-Feb. This decision is firmly embedded in Jello – so who knows if we will change our minds.

Decision one made….now move to can we afford this foolishness

My consulting work is doing reasonably well. I have a few clients and with the amount of projects they have asked me to do, I should be reasonably (25-30 hours per week) busy for the foreseeable future (is foreseeable redundant in this context? yes, I don’t believe in foreseeable except that I have picked up the matriarchal saying, “Mark my words”). In addition to teaching, Sue has been doing some freelance writing, 10-15 hours per week right now. (If you or anyone you know is in the market for a writer, I am available!) All in we are pretty comfortable that we have more than enough income to keep the circus on the road.

Step two down…Time to find a place to live

Sue’s friend in Burgundy has been helping us with areas in France. Once again, after much discussion, we decided to split the 10 weeks into 4 weeks in Burgundy and 6 weeks in Paris. AirBnB or VRBO seem like the best choices as houses/apartments come fully furnished including kitchen utensils and linens. We have both been trawling through the sites looking for appropriate places (interestingly, while we both put in the same filters we do not always see the same places – especially in Paris as the how close in/far out the zoom on the map is seems to effect the listings shown). Our first stop is a town called Clamecy (shown on the map with the big red(ish) balloon. It is about two hours by train from Paris and in the heart of Burgundy.

Here is an aerial photo of the town; it is at the confluence of the Yonne and Beuvron rivers. Read more about it on the Wikipedia page. Please remember that Wikipedia will tell you that it is not a reliable source, so do not use it as a reference for any scholarly materials. (This blog falls well short of scholarly…I personally am hoping for nearly cogent).

I really have no idea what the photo to the left is, but I found it when I was searching for photos of Clamecy, and it was too weird/cool not to include in my ramblings. Anyway, back to the story…

We found a nice little apartment in the center of town and Sue took care of booking it. One place to live organized.

We have looked at a bunch of places in Paris, but not booked anything yet. You, dear readers, will have to login in next time for updates on Paris. Following our six weeks of Parisian indulgence, we are going to return to the States to celebrate Thanksgiving. We are flying home mid-November, stopping first in Chicago to visit with friends, then back to Baltimore for a few days of overeating and watching football – American football that is.

Next stop: Fez! Before we started this blog we did a three-week tour of Morocco. It was fabulous and I would highly recommend a visit there to anyone who has even a little bit of an adventurous spirit (although spirits themselves are hard to find there as it is a predominantly Muslim country). We stayed in Marrakesh, Fez, Tangier, climbed the 13,671 foot Mt. Toubkal (well more accurately Sue climbed it, I tapped out at 11,000 feet), visited Ouarzazate (one of the worlds largest movie studios (Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Game of Thrones (Season 3) were filmed there) and glamped in the desert (our tent had running water). As with Paris, you will have to tune in next time to see where we will be living. Our goal is to live in the Medina (the old walled part of the city) at at the moment, we think we have found a place, but until we book it, it isn’t firmly set.

Everything after Fez is up in the air, other than we have from end of February until the middle of May (we have a hard stop in Mid May as it is our granddaughter’s birthday and we will not miss that!) to wander, we may come back to the states for a week, or maybe not. Currently high on our hit parade is Istanbul, but for no reason other than it seems interesting. Suggestions are always welcome.

Obsessed with Lodgings in Italy

Image result for italian villa

I don’t know why I get this way, but now that I know we are going to Italy, I am obsessed with finding just the right places to stay at just the right prices. I know. We have five months! Maybe I am a little crazy when it comes to travel, especially with my niece or nephew, but I want to make sure everything is perfect, I don’t break the bank, and we don’t miss out on a great place to stay because I was disorganized.

As I have mentioned, I prefer Airbnb because we can get two bedrooms (teens need their privacy and alone time), a lounging space, and a kitchen for about the same price I would pay for a single hotel room.

Here’s how I search:

  1. Just as in buying real estate, I go for location, location, location. The first thing I do is research neighborhoods. I am not that picky since every area as something to offer and it will all be exciting and new to me. I prefer to be a bit off the beaten track in a neighborhood where real people live. That’s another benefit of Airbnb. It does mean that it takes a little longer to get to the top tourist sites, but that is a trade I gladly make.
  2. Price. To trick myself into not getting big eyes, I put this filter on immediately. I don’t want to know what I can have for $300 a night, because I am not going to be able to have it. Make sure you look at the total and not the per night price. People set all kinds of cleaning and service fees that can make one place look cheaper up front, but really be more expensive.
  3. Amenities. We need WiFi. Sorry, but this is the modern world, we don’t speak the language, and we are leaving loved ones home. Plus, how would I post the blog? We also want a well-equipped kitchen. I don’t need to eat three meals a day in restaurants. Sometimes you just want to bring a sandwich with you. Then, I think about specifics. I want air conditioning in case of an Italian heat wave. Convenience of public transport is also key since I am almost certain I will not rent a car no matter how enticing driving the narrow, winding roads of Italy seems. Check the list of amenities! I saw one where a visitor said the oven wasn’t working. The owner replied that he should have checked the listing more carefully because the oven was not included in the price although it was pictured. What? Also, make sure the price includes linens and towels, unless you are bringing your own.
  4. Reviews. Yes I read them, using Steven’s rules. Throw out the gushiest and the worst and see what’s left. There’s always one complainer, but if many people mention that the bed was lumpy, it probably is.
  5. Check the specifics. What are the check-in and check-out times? Are they flexible if you have flights that don’t coincide? What is the
  6. Agonize, search a dozen times, make a decision and forget about all the other places you looked at. Let’s face it: We’re going to have a great time whether we stay a few blocks to the east or west, or even 20 minutes by bus. Everything is an adventure when I travel.

 

Random Thoughts From Utah (and Vegas)

This is a bit of a rant, but so be it. If there’s one thing that really bugs me, and I am a pretty laid-back guy, it is the old bait-and-switch. Tell me up front and I’m fine; sneak in different conditions after I’ve bought, and I’m not fine. This happened when we checked into New York New York. I had booked what I thought was a room with a king bed. When we arrived, the woman at the reception desk said, “Oh no, you get whatever we have and we only have rooms with two queen beds.” We could have upgraded for $30, but why should we have to. Then I looked online and saw that they list the king room and the queen room separately and you can book either one. Frustrating.NYNYrooms

We also had an issue with our AirBnB. Again, tell me the rules up front and I can decide if I want to follow them or go elsewhere. The day we were checking into the place, Sue got an email asking us to strip the bed, put all the dishes in the dishwasher and turn it on, put the towels in the hamper, and take out the garbage. OK, but you’re charging us a $52 cleaning fee. The silliest was that in the rules of the house, it said, “No shoes in the house.” Fine, but we had to walk into the condo in our shoes in order to see the rule book. Later, we asked our real estate agent, the Marvelous Mrs. Megan Ahleen, and she gave us a reasonable explanation: The soil is a very fine, red sand and it gets on everything. Somehow, it managed to get under my shoes and socks during our hike. The place itself was perfectly comfortable, with a few nitpicks I won’t bother to enumerate here.

IMG_20190819_203941447.jpgThe best feature of the condo was that we could walk to the end of the road where there was open land and watch a gorgeous sunset.

One thing we were looking forward to was a visit to Hash House A Go Go. The Chicago outpost of this Indiana chain closed. They say they serve “twisted farm food.” I don’t know about that, but I do know they serve is enormous portions. Sue had a vegetable skillet plate that came with two eggs and tons of veggies smothering crispy fried potatoes and just in case that wasn’t enough food, a biscuit. I had the “downsized” burger , so named because it only has one patty the size of my forearm. My favorite part was getting to use the 55+ (he means old man–next step, early bird special) discount. Woo hoo!

 

The “Joy” of Booking Travel

We are all set to go to St. George. We spent this week searching airfares, hotels in Las Vegas, AirBnB’s in St. George, and rental cars. It always ends up being more complicated than it should be and there are way too many permutations that can’t be searched at once. Our plan is to fly to Las Vegas on Saturday, stay overnight, then drive to St. George in the morning. We will look around St. George from Sunday to Wednesday and then fly home from Las Vegas on Wednesday evening.

We started on the big search sites like Orbitz and Travelocity. The nice things about them is that we can search for a package of airfare, hotel, and car. The drawbacks: We could not exclude the basic economy flights from the search and so any pricing required us to separately search for airfare and add back any additional costs if the site allowed us to “upgrade” to regular economy. (I am sure Sue will use a blog post at some point to rant about the injustice of the multi-economy pricing model, but we will leave that for another time. You know it.) I will confine my whine to say that the option to upgrade–if available at all–is usually buried somewhere towards the end of the booking.

We also searched the airline websites, which also offer packages and while we are able to book the right airfare, the hotel booking option is limited–at least on American (and United as far as I could tell) –to a hotel in the city where you are flying and for the entire time you are there. Not what we are looking for, so strike two. We were able to book the flights and then a separate booking on the airline site for the hotel (which got us extra miles!), but it is the same price as booking the hotel from the hotel site. Both of those exclude the mandatory resort fee from the price of the room. I don’t mind if they exclude the costs of options that we may not use (breakfast, internet, parking, etc.) from the listed price of the room. I might not want those extras and so I shouldn’t have to pay for them. But the “resort fee” is mandatory so I don’t have any option but to pay it. Seems like that should be part of the room fee. What next? Mandatory check-in fee? Or perhaps an elevator use tax? Please, just add $35 to the price of the room and just be done with it.

Parking is another issue. Since we need a car, we will have to park at the hotel for one night. I thought it might be a better idea to pick up the car Sunday morning–one fewer day of rental and not paying for the parking would be offset by the cost of two taxi/Uber/Lyft rides from/to the airport. The taxi/Uber/Lyft ride would be $10 each way. When I searched the cars, it is somewhat counter-intuitively $10 less expensive to rent the car on Saturday rather than on Sunday. No idea why. Perhaps there is a sin tax for renting on Sunday, although not likely as it is Las Vegas and if they were going to tax sin, renting a car on Sunday would have to be pretty far down the list. Either way, we have now booked it for Saturday and will pay the $15 to park.

We booked an AirBnB in St. George and I have the same sort of issue with their pricing. he place was listed at about $70 per night but the total was about $350. Last time I checked, and I realize I have been out of school for a long time (although he is allegedly an accountant) 4 nights@$70 per night should be about $280 (for those of you following along with your calculators do this: press the 4, press the * key press the 7 and then press the 0. Now press Enter; you should see 280. I don’t mind paying $350 per 4 nights, but that is NOT $70 per night.

So, here is my recap for this post. 1. Please let me search your site for what I want. 2. Give me a break and allow me to define what options I want/don’t want up front 3. Please organize the prices in a reasonable and logical order and 4. (and finally) JUST TELL ME THE DAMN PRICE. NO MANDATORY FEES OR NO HIDDEN CHARGES.