My Most and Least Favorite Things About Spain

Spain has been an interesting contrast with the other countries in which we have lived over the past three years. As we prepare to move on, it is natural to reflect on the high points and the low ones. Here are some thoughts about what I most enjoyed and least enjoyed about Spain.

#1 Least Favorite – Dog poop

I find it incredible that dog owners in towns all around Spain do not clean up after their poopy dogs. There are piles of dog crap on almost every sidewalk of every block of every town I have visited. The big cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, and so on, are well-enough funded to have maintenance employees in the city centers who pick up pet poop along with garbage. Not so in the other areas of the towns. If the people of Spain had any idea how disgusting it is to tourists to have to dodge these piles, and how poorly it reflects on their country, they might do a better job of enforcing dog sanitation regulations. Thank goodness dogs are outlawed on the beaches!

#1 Most Favorite – The people

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me.  Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me. Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

We have made friends in every country we have visited, and Spain was no exception. It is always the memories of places and events shared with locals and fellow travelers that seem the most vivid. Even if we never see some of these friends again, we will never forget the kindnesses they have shared with us that made our time in Spain memorable.

#2 Least Favorite – The poor

There are poor people in every country, but that is no reason to forget about them. The poor economy hit Spain harder than most industrialized countries, and they have lagged behind the rest of the world in recovering. Personally, I think Spain has the resources it needs to take care of its people. Unfortunately, much of the revenues that flow into the economy seem to get siphoned off through corruption and unethical business practices.

When Spain recently announced Felipe VI as their new king, he proclaimed he would work to achieve greater equality and more opportunities for the unemployed and the needy. I hope he has the influence, the leadership and the integrity to bring about these benefits for his people.

#2 Most Favorite – The Food

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

I love fresh markets, and Spain is a fantastic place to find countless varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil and prepared foods to meet most people’s tastes. The land is fertile and productive. There is no reason for the people of Spain to ever go hungry. We also learned they make delicious chocolate in Spain!

#3 Least Favorite – Pickpockets

In the resort towns along the coast, there is little concern about personal safety and security. I have never felt unsafe walking alone or with my wife. And even though we were never directly approached in the big cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Cordoba – we were always cautioned to be on the lookout for pickpockets. This was especially true in the bus and train stations whenever we were toting luggage. After having my wallet lifted in Rome, I have become more vigilant about watching out for thieves. They have become quite sophisticated in some instances. For example, I witnessed a well-dressed man in a fine suit carrying a clipboard and hanging around our hotel in Granada while the tour buses were unloading. When he saw that everyone remained standing next to their personal bags and he noticed my wife and I were watching him, he walked away.

#3 Most Favorite – The Weather

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja's many local parks.

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja’s many local parks.

Although the Costa Blanca has experienced its worst drought year on record and there have been dozens of brush fires in the surrounding countryside, it has been pleasant living on the coast just a few short blocks from the beach. The evening breezes coming of the Mediterranean Sea are cool and refreshing. In fact, we have seen rain here on the southern coast of Spain just a handful of times during our stay. We have been most fortunate weather-wise when we take into account that Madrid received over a foot accumulation of hail on July 3rd. The traffic on the freeways feeding this city of 3.2 million was brought to a standstill and the precipitation eroded the track of the high speed train from Alicante to Madrid. The Metro subway and the airport were flooded forcing delays and diversion of flights. I am grateful that we live on the Costa Blanca where it was 85°F and sunny.

There is something for everyone in Spain, and I am sure I will think of more things I could have added to this list after we leave.  Suffice it to say Spain should be on your list of countries to visit. Should you decide to go, I will be watching for your stories so that I might reminisce about our time in Spain. Buen viaje!

Seville Before and After the Spanish Empire

The Gold Tower was built during Moorish rule in the early 13th century to guard access along the Guadalquivir River.  The tower's lime mortar gave off a golden glow in the evening sun which led to its name, the Torre del Oro.

The Gold Tower was built during Moorish rule in the early 13th century to guard access along the Guadalquivir River. The tower’s lime mortar gave off a golden glow in the evening sun which led to its name, the Torre del Oro.

Seville, an elegant city of over 700,000 people, rose to prominence as a working seaport on the Guadalquivir River.  It served as the launching point for the exploration voyages of Christopher Columbus.  Subsequent wealth that poured in from the New World making Seville one of the most important trade centers in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.  In addition, the wealth of treasures the conquistadors plundered from the Incas and Aztecs funded an expansion in Spanish military power greater than anything in human history up to that time.  That wealth is nowhere more evident than in Seville.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville was originally a minaret for the mosque which once stood adjacent.  Over 340 feet high, the top is accessed by 36 ramps which allowed horsemen to ride to the top.  The Giralda is named for the weathervane at its top.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville was originally a minaret for the mosque which once stood adjacent. Over 340 feet high, the top is accessed by 36 ramps which allowed horsemen to ride to the top. The Giralda is named for the weathervane at its top.

Seville from the Giralda Tower and the Alamilla Bridge's slanted white tower built for Seville's '92 World Expo.

Seville from the Giralda Tower and the Alamilla Bridge’s slanted white tower built for Seville’s ’92 World Expo.

Seville added to its prominence in the era of exploration with the global circumnavigation voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, which left from Seville in 1519.  The city monopolized trans-Atlantic trade with the discovery of the New World and opened a Golden Age of art, literature and music.  It was during this era that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote de La Mancha and the art works of Diego Velazquez and El Greco gained world recognition.  The influence of these and other Spanish artists has carried over through The Renaissance to modern times.

The vast scale Cathedral of Seville inspires awe.  It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in both area and volume.

The vast scale Cathedral of Seville inspires awe. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in both area and volume.

Today, the architecture of Seville is a study in contrasts.  The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic style cathedral in the world and third largest cathedral of any type.  The ultra-modern Parasol Metropol is the largest wooden structure in the world, and covers a subterranean archeological site.  On the ground level is fresh market where vendors’ stalls offer extensive choices of meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables and baked goods.  While it is not the largest of public markets, it offers a full range of purchase options.  It is also maintained to a level of pristine cleanliness that outshines any public market I have ever seen.

The Metropol Parasol is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world - 490' x 230' and 85' high.  On the street level is the public market.

The Metropol Parasol is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world – 490′ x 230′ and 85′ high. On the street level is the public market.

The public market is housed below the Parasol.  It sparkles with cleanliness and offers the full range of produce, meats and baked goods.

The public market is housed below the Parasol. It sparkles with cleanliness and offers the full range of produce, meats and baked goods.

Seville buzzes with vibrancy like any great university city with lots of young people surrounded by the bustle of commerce.  I found a rich mixture of modern and historic architecture.  There is no denying the artistic elegance of the city which proudly proclaims its class and style.

This vibrant city will resonate with me for a long time.  There is so much to see in Seville that I wish I would have had more time there.  Unfortunately, a single day was all we had.  That was most important thing I learned from our visit to Seville – to not try to fit in everything worth seeing into a single day.

This pavilion marks the entrance to the Park of Santa Maria Luisa, once the grounds of Seville's 1929 World's Fair.

This pavilion marks the entrance to the Park of Santa Maria Luisa, once the grounds of Seville’s 1929 World’s Fair.

© All photos copyrighted by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Cordoba, Spain – Crossroads of History

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

Our ride inland through the fertile and most populous region of Spain, Andalucía, revealed a checkerboard of golden acres of wheat alternating with verdant fields of sunflowers.  I have never seen or imagined so many sunflowers, and the fields in full bloom glowed with bright yellow made all the more vivid under the shining sun.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

Our ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) ultimately led us to La Mezquita (The Mosque), now known as the Cathedral of Cordoba.  There is nothing like it in the world and a bit of history is necessary to appreciate its story.

Pushing back the boundaries of a weakened Roman Empire, the Visigoths built a Christian church in Cordoba on the site of a temple honoring the Roman god, Janus.  The Visigoths controlled most of what is now Spain for over 100 years before the Muslim conquest early in the 8th century.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The Muslims (referred to as Moors in Spain) made Cordoba the capital of their Al-Andalus region in 718 AD.  Beginning in 784, the emir of Cordoba ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of the Christian church, which was demolished.  During this period, Cordoba also became one of the most prosperous cities in the world, known for its advancements in science, art and architecture.  The Christians and Jews in the city were welcomed to stay and worship as they pleased as long as they paid a tithe to the Muslim emir.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

Over a period of 200 years the mosque was enlarged and enhanced until it became one of the largest and finest mosques in the world.  It is an impressive structure covering some 250,000 square feet.  From the outside the mosque does not appear that impressive.  While ornate by today’s architectural standards, the mosque gives off a distinctly military feel with forty foot high walls and iron gates at its arched entries.

So magnificent was the finished mosque that when the Catholic Church proposed building its cathedral addition in the middle of the mosque, it was over the objections of the people of Cordoba.  Opposition to the cathedral was overruled by King Carlos V without his ever having visited the site.  In 1526, when the king did witness the damage he had unwittingly allowed, he is said to have remarked, ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

Once we entered the huge courtyard and the cathedral itself is its grandeur revealed.  Florence and I both looked at each other and simultaneously mouthed, ‘Wow.’  (If only there was a word that equaled Wow to the tenth power.)  The expanse of the mosque is filled with over 850 columns made of onyx, granite, marble and jasper, all holding up brightly colored red and white arches which in turn support much higher arched ceilings.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

Cordoba today is a tranquil city with parks and plazas with plenty of fountains and statuary.  It is also one of the premier locations in the world for bullfights.  Many people find bullfighting to be a cruel sport.  In fact, bullfighting has been banned in some areas of Spain, most notably Barcelona in the Catalan Region.  However, bullfights remain popular in Andalucía.  There are fourteen bullrings in Cordoba, the largest of which is the Plaza de Los Califas, which seats 16,900 spectators.  The excitement stems from the possibility of death faced simultaneously by both fighter and bull.  It is worth noting that bulls bred to fight are raised and treated gently and fed only the finest food fit for a bull.  As for the moral principle of bullfighting, I personally find it hypocritical to criticize a fight to the death between man and bull when we as a society raise vast herds of cattle to be unceremoniously slaughtered without giving it much thought.

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

We topped off our tour of Cordoba with a stroll through the picturesque Jewish Quarter with its artisan ceramic and leather shops and a synagogue dating back to AD 1350.  We passed the museum of the Spanish Inquisition in which about 3,000 people (some estimates are higher) were executed for their religious beliefs.  We also visited the nearby Alcazar Castle with its spectacular gardens.  The royalty of Spain clearly knew how to live in grand style.

The power of the once mighty Spanish Empire came full circle for me after having seen the Spanish influence in colonial Latin America during our two years touring and living there.  Even though Spain is no longer considered a major world power, its place in history is forever set with an elegance that rivals any country.

The Grandeur of Granada

The main altar in the church of the Monastery of Caruja

The main altar in the church of the Monastery of Cartuja

Traffic posts topped with pomegranates

Traffic posts topped with pomegranates

Named from the Spanish word for pomegranate, Granada is a vibrant city with the energy and buzz you would expect from a university town.  Rather than one sprawling campus, the University of Granada is parsed out over a number of sites including buildings with historic and cultural importance – churches, seminaries and royal houses.  I tried to imagine how unique my college experience would have been had I studied in such a historic atmosphere.  Rated one of Spain’s top universities and with 80,000 students, I now understand the youthful dynamism that Granada radiates.

The altarpiece in the Monastery of Cartuja by master, Sanchez Cotán, is painted to give the illusion it is made of grey marble.

The altarpiece in the Monastery of Cartuja by master, Sanchez Cotán, is painted to give the illusion it is made of grey marble.

The most iconic site in all of Granada is The Alhambra, the Moorish citadel and palace overlooking the city dating back to the 9th century.  We did not tour The Alhambra mostly because I did not purchase tickets in advance, and admissions sell out daily.  I felt bad at first about missing out.  However, I have seen so many palaces and fortresses in the last couple two years of travel that I am not too disappointed.  Also, every blogger who has traveled to Granada has written much about The Alhambra.  I do not think I could have shared anything new.  We made up for any loss of discovery with a few stunning additions to our ongoing ABC Tour*.

This marble and ebony shrine sits beyond the main altar of the Carthusian Monastery behind a wall of Venetian glass.

This marble and ebony shrine behind the main altar of the Carthusian Monastery is partly concealed by a wall of Venetian glass.

We first visited the Monastery of Cartuja.  The construction, which began in 1516, was never completed even after three centuries.  The Carthusian Order of monks derive their name from the Chartreuse Mountains of the French Alps, as do the English Charterhouse monks.  Although this order at one time occupied twenty-four monasteries in Spain, most of these were confiscated and secularized in 1836.  Today, only four Carthusian monasteries still exist in Spain.

Carthusian monks are permitted leave their cloister only three or four times per year.  The rest of the time they spend in silent meditation and prayer.  They speak only when necessary.  They dine together only on Sundays and Holy Days.  Their meals are always vegetarian.  They pay for their basic needs by performing various crafts including making rosary beads from rose petals.  We saw some samples of these rosaries in the monastery gift shop, and they still have a flower scent.  A set of rosary beads costs €40, about $55.

There are two identical pipe organs facing each other overlooking this massive sanctuary of the Cathedral of Granada.

There are two identical pipe organs facing each other overlooking this massive sanctuary of the Cathedral of Granada.

We later made our way to the Cathedral of Granada.  The towering Gothic façade has one tower because the original design calling for two towers was too massive for the foundation built atop the city’s ancient mosque to support.   The cathedral’s Renaissance interior is so huge in scale that I could not help but feel small.  The massive, ornate columns soar nearly 200 feet to the arched ceiling.  It took over 180 years to build this cathedral, and I can understand why given its size and infinitesimal detail.

One last stop on the ABC Tour was the Church of San Jerónimo, or Saint Jerome, the 4th century priest who translated The Bible into Latin.  While modest compared to the grandeur of the Cathedral of Granada, it was still impressive.  The Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, founded the monastery and church, which was built in a distinctive Renaissance style.  If the names of these monarchs seem familiar, these are the same Spanish monarchs who commissioned the sailing expedition of Christopher Columbus to find a western trade route to the East Indies.  His discovery of the Americas led to the rapid rise of Spain to the stature of a world power.  The tombs of the king and queen now rest in the Royal Chapel just outside the Cathedral of Granada.

Classical music played by students of the music conservatory made our Granada visit complete.

Classical music played by students of the music conservatory made our Granada visit complete.

Granada made the leap from a medieval city with narrow, winding streets to a modern city by razing some medieval buildings that had historic significance.  What was lost to antiquity was replaced by a downtown with gardens, parks, plazas and streets lined with sidewalk cafes, bakeries, shops, apartment buildings and hotels.  The current mix of old and new is quite appealing.  Add in a free classical quintet concert (flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and oboe) at the top Royal Conservatory of Music during this, Granada’s 2014 Week of Chamber Music, and this made for a great addition to our tours of the great cities of Spain.

*ABC Tour stands for ‘Another Blessed Cathedral’ in reference to the churches and cathedrals we have visited in a dozen countries in the last three years.
Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.
The high mountains of the Sierra Nevada provide winter skiing and year-round fresh water for Granada and the fertile valley where it lies.

The high mountains of the Sierra Nevada provide winter skiing and year-round fresh water for Granada and the fertile valley where it lies.

I Hit the Jackpot in Torrevieja

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians pay tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians stand on the Paseo Vista Alegre in tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

This was the final week of the Tapas Crawl, the 10th Annual Ruta de Las Tapas. We set out for the town center to check out the annual Book Fair on the downtown waterfront. Florence and I are avid readers, and we were interested to see if there were many books in English available at reasonable prices. Granted, the local library has a decent English language section, mostly fiction. A range of restaurants would be serving their best tapas for whenever the hunger bug hit, but first a little shopping was in order.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

We were surprised to learn that Suzy and Rob, purveyors of the Bargain Books shop downtown, were the only outlet for English language books in town. I would have thought there would be demand for more given the large English expat population in Torrevieja. According to Suzy, that used to be the case. However, the other businesses folded, and now she and her husband have the last remaining English language bookstore.

Tomato and cheese pizza - 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

Tomato and cheese pizza – 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

We had eaten light that morning. Then it was time to ‘tapa off’ our appetites. I was already salivating in anticipation of our return visit to La Mila-Grossa, the Argentine restaurant we had discovered the previous weekend. We made a stop at La Bella Lola, which offered an excellent toasted tomato and cheese tapa. Next stop – La Mila-Grossa Restaurant.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela - As soon as the aroma hit my nostrils I knew I was in for a treat.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela – The aroma told me I was in for a treat.

We started with some fine appetizers. However, we had the main courses in mind. Florence longed for a vegetarian pizza, and I planned to make a meal of the house specialty empañadas. I had sampled them the weekend before, and the anticipation was killing me. When the empañadas arrived, I inquired if they had hot sauce thinking I had spied some on a side counter. Our server, Mariano, asked if I wanted ‘picante’ – the hot stuff. Oh, yeah!

Let me interject here that I love hot, spicy food. I have not tasted a decent hot sauce since we left Mexico over a year ago. Suddenly, a plain bottle with a generic skull ‘n’ crossbones sticker appeared on our table. I was as nervous as a teenager on a first date. Could this be the moment I had been waiting for? I put a taste on my fork and licked it off. A tense moment passed, and then a small fire started on the tip of my tongue. The juices that formed in my mouth were as sensuous as my first French kiss! I thought I heard angels singing. My heart beat and breathing sped up. It was delicious!

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

I had a pleasant conversation with Mariano after we had eaten. He told me he was from a town near Mar del Plata, Argentina, where his mother lives. He now lives here in Torrevieja where his father’s family originates. As we were preparing to go, I asked if the picante sauce served with lunch could be purchased. ‘Le gusta?’ he asked, pleasantly surprised. (You like it?) Then he told me his grandmother makes it for the restaurant, and yes, I could have some.

Mariano brought a generous container of the heavenly elixir from the kitchen. I asked him how much. He handed it to me and said, ‘Esto es un regalo para usted.’ (This is a gift for you.) Mariano had given me a gift of liquid gold which I now call Salsa de la Abuela, grandmother’s salsa. I had hit the jackpot! Muchas gracias mi amigo.

Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.

Starting Anew in Torrevieja, Spain

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja.  This beach is two blocks from our apartment.

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja. This beach is two blocks from our apartment. Pedestrians can walk the entire waterfront with shops and restaurants lining the walkway.

We have walked the city streets, learned the bus routes, visited the central shopping mall, checked out the main cathedral and located the nearest supermarkets and the public library.  Now that we have our feet on the ground we are free to check out the interesting sights of the city.

The 'coralista monument' is a tribute to music and musicians.  It references the Habaneras singing style brought to Torrevieja by sailors who brought Cuban-style song and dance back from the Caribbean in the 18th century.

The ‘coralista monument’ is a tribute to music and musicians. It references the Habaneras music adopted from Cuba via shipping trade dating back to the 1700’s.

Torrevieja, or old tower, is a city of 100,000 people with double that number when you count the surrounding suburbs.  The original tower that gave the city its name was built as an overlook facing the sea.  The tower no longer exists except for some foundation stones that mark its origin.  The city has since erected a stone tower representing the city’s namesake.

The Torrevieja area had proximity to sub-sea level lowlands just a half-mile inland from the coast.  Some early settlers dug a ditch from the sea to these lowlands and flooded two areas to form shallow lakes that were used as dehydration ponds to make salt.  These two salt ponds are huge, combining to cover over 9,000 acres.  Salt production still takes place and now exceeds 800,000 tons/year exported mostly to Western European markets.  The shoreline areas of the salt lakes are protected parklands serving as habitat for birds and wildlife.  Wading birds are common as they prey upon fish in the shallow lagoons.

Torrevieja's main church viewed from Plaza Constitución.

The city’s central church was rebuilt in 1844 using stone blocks from the old tower that was left in ruins from this earthquake.

The city does not have a natural port, so the area was overlooked until the 17th century as far as a hub of commercial activity.  Early settlers were mostly fishermen from Genoa and Naples looking for less competitive fishing areas.  To this day Italian surnames are common among the local population.   Modern day Torrevieja features a water-break seawall that extends nearly a mile around the city’s main marina which moors over 300 boats.  People can stroll the entire length of the seawall on a beautiful boardwalk and get an outstanding view of the city waterfront from offshore. 

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The main church in Torrevieja, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, was originally built in 1798.  A severe earthquake in 1829, which would have registered a 6.6 using the Richter scale, had its epicenter close to Torrevieja and devastated the city.  Surrounding towns were also nearly destroyed.  There was little history of seismic activity along the Mediterranean coast, so the local populations were caught completely by surprise. 

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

The current city of Torrevieja is a tourist and expat destination.  Nearly half of the population is made up of British expats who own a home or apartment somewhere around the city.  English is spoken in most shops, restaurants and businesses.  There is an English language weekly newspaper, an English cinema, and innumerable groups and clubs including golfing, cycling, acting, hiking and jogging.  Runners were drawn to the 31st annual Torrevieja Half-Marathon, which took place on February 23rd and draws over 2,000 runners. 

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

While we are not beach people per se, we enjoy strolling along the waterfront on a warm sunny day and feeling the cool breeze.  And now that we have our bearings, we look forward to getting to better know our new home town.

Our Tour of The Vatican

Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel.  This photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Nothing quite prepares you for viewing The Vatican.  Vatican City looks small on the map, and compared to the rest of Rome it is fairly small.  However, it takes four hours just to walk through the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, so it is not small.

Although everyone has seen a photo of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which was painted by Michelangelo 500 years ago, a photo cannot begin to do justice to the experience of seeing the ceiling through one’s own eyes.  The photos do not provide any indication of the scope or scale of the artwork.  Also, the appearance of three-dimensional columns on the ceiling is an illusion.  The arched ceiling has a smooth surface.

Even though the Sistine Chapel is no bigger than a high school gymnasium, there is so much to take in visually that we took a bench along the side of the chapel and we sat for half an hour just looking at the artwork.  Our necks hurt from looking up constantly, so we took in the murals along the side walls as well, which are the work of other Renaissance masters.

So much history has taken place within these walls.  This is the chapel where the Congress of Cardinals votes to select a new pope.  This is where, after over a four year span, Michelangelo stepped out of his primary artistic role as a sculptor to paint over 5,000 square feet of frescoes on the ceiling and high walls of the chapel.  Unlike the portrayal of Michelangelo played by Charlton Heston in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, he did not lay on his back to paint the entire ceiling.  The artist did spend a great deal of time bending over backwards, however, and that had to be agony.

Michelangelo had many helpers who most likely mixed paint and made the many trips up and down the scaffolds which reached over sixty feet above the floor.  Assistants also probably did the messy job of mixing fresh plaster since Michelangelo took on the difficult task of painting frescoes by applying paint while the plaster was still drying, thus creating the strongest possible bond between paint and plaster.  Even if some talented assistants had been tasked with painting a bit of sky or scenery, Michelangelo gets the credit for designing and painting the masterpiece that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He hired and fired so many assistants that no one else could take credit for any significant contribution to the finished work.

Twenty-five years after the completion of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was approached on behalf of the pope with the commission to paint the vast wall behind the altar which now holds his other chapel masterpiece, The Last Judgment.  He was hesitant to take the job thinking it was a test that would taint his reputation if he failed to live up to the standard he had set with the chapel ceiling. 

Photo credit:  Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment was the largest fresco ever painted up to that time, and it was a controversial piece given the amount of nudity that was depicted.  When the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biaggio di Cesena, proclaimed the painting was more suitable to a public bath or tavern than a holy place, Michelangelo painted a likeness of Cesena on the body of Minos, Judge of the Underworld, with donkey ears to symbolize foolishness and with a snake coiled around his middle to cover his genitalia.  (bottom right corner)  Cesena complained to the pope, who is said to have joked that his judgment did not extend to hell, so the painting remained unchanged.

During the ecumenical Council of Trent, nudity in religious art was condemned.  In 1564, after Michelangelo’s death, the genitalia referred to as ‘objectionable’ in The Last Judgment were painted over with drapery, which is how the painting has been viewed to this day.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel involves strolling through extensive galleries and museums.  You will begin to appreciate the vast treasures of The Vatican when you join our walk in this short video.

Time to Split, Croatia

A view of Split, Croatia's harbor and the Old City

A view of Split, Croatia’s harbor and the Old City

Diocletian, Emperor of Rome 284-305 AD, lived in this palace until he died in 311.  He addressed his subjects from this balcony.

Diocletian, Emperor of Rome 284-305 AD, lived in this palace until he died in 311 AD. He addressed his subjects from this balcony.

Split, the second largest city on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, is our point of departure by ferry to Italy later this week.  In English ‘split’ means to leave.  Although we are less than eager to leave Croatia because of the bonds of friendship we have forged here, as The 6 Monthers we must answer the call to make another country our home for the next six months.  The excitement of moving someplace new is building within us as we complete our second year of living in a new country every six months.* 

Outside The Golden Gate of Diocletian's Palace stands this statue of medieval bishop, Gregory of Nin by Ivan Meštrović, Croatia's most famous artist.

Outside The Golden Gate of Diocletian’s Palace stands this statue of medieval bishop, Gregory of Nin by Ivan Meštrović, Croatia’s most famous artist.

We have twenty days between our departure from Croatia and our scheduled arrival in Alicante, Spain.  Thus, we will use surface transportation to travel first to Italy.  I have seen Naples, Florence, Pisa, and Sicily, but I have not yet visited Rome.  Florence informs me one needs at least a week to see and appreciate Rome.  So we will do just that.  We will then take another ferry, which is more of a cruise ship, to Barcelona and divide our remaining time between Barcelona and Madrid.  In each city we plan to reunite with Spanish friends we have made during our travels.  How great is that, to have locals help us discover the wonders of their home country!

Rubbing the toe of Gregory of Nin's statue is supposed to bring good luck.

Rubbing the toe of Gregory of Nin’s statue is supposed to bring good luck.

Why Spain?  One reason is that Spanish is my only other language.  In fact, after living in Latin America for over a year I developed this habit.  Whenever someone speaks to me in a foreign language, I automatically answer in Spanish.  It seems I now have the ability to confuse others in two languages.  At least I understand the language of laughter.  Since I have learned a few words in Croatian, my pronunciation has also elicited some laughs and smiles.  Fortunately, most Croatians speak English, and many quite fluently.

Ivan Meštrović lived in what is now a museum a few block's from Split's harbor.

Ivan Meštrović lived in what is now a museum a few block’s from Split’s harbor.

If I were to attend school in Spain, my Spanish might be good enough to get me into the third grade, which is to say I have plenty of room for improvement, and I look forward to that.  The history of Spain also intrigues me.  The Iberian Peninsula played a strategic role in the expansion and development of modern civilization, and Spain ultimately served as the base of one of history’s most dominant and influential empires. 

Republic Square near Diocletian's Palace bears striking resemblance to St. Mark's Square in Venice.  Our guide says Croatia's painted it pink as a poke at the Venetians, who once ruled here.

Republic Square near Diocletian’s Palace bears striking resemblance to St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Our guide says Croatian’s painted it pink as a poke at the Venetians, who once ruled here.

Now we get to learn about this beautiful land and culture firsthand.  So many names of Spanish cities evoke thoughts of something exotic and unique – Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Valencia (the only Spanish city I have visited).  I want to visit them all and more:  Basque Country, El Camino de Santiago, and of course, the Spanish Riviera which we plan to call home for the next six months.  I expect to have many stories to share from Spain. 

If you have traveled to Spain, what was your finest memory?  If you have not visited Spain, what would you most want to see?  I would love for you to share your thoughts. 

*Note:  We created a list of countries in which we would like to live that spans the next ten years.  Link here for our list and more about The 6 Monthers.  Do you think we overlooked a country?  Tell us which country and why.  We are open to suggestions.

The 6 Monthers Prepare to Move Again

Looking back on our time in Šibenik, we will remember living near the iconic Cathedral of St. James.

Looking back on our time in Šibenik, we will remember living near the iconic Cathedral of St. James.

My wife and I are The 6 Monthers because we choose to live in a new country every six months.  We chose the six month time span because we now have time to visit more places and see more of the sights each country has to offer.  We also choose to live like the locals.  We rent an apartment to use as our base.  We shop where locals shop and we eat like locals eat.  Six months may seem like a long time in which to stay in a country, but it goes fast because here we are preparing to move once again.

The 6 Monthers overlooking Sarajevo, Bosnia.

The 6 Monthers overlooking Sarajevo, Bosnia.

This current six month interval was divided into two three month periods for a couple of reasons.  First, we were invited to visit Croatia in September as photo and blog journalists by Dhar Media for a Touristar production called Discover Croatia.  Our intensive 24 day series of excursions opened our eyes to the beauty and historic wonders of Croatia, and we knew we would love to return.  Second, we found our move to Scotland forced us to live at the extent of our budget because there were hidden costs to living there.  Perhaps ‘undisclosed’ is a more accurate term.  Florence wrote a story with details for anyone who is interested. 

Outside the walls of the medieval city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Outside the walls of the medieval city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

We have a month left before we depart.  We will celebrate our sixth anniversary the weekend before Christmas by throwing a party at a waterfront restaurant for all of our friends here in Croatia.  We will also celebrate Christmas and New Years here in Šibenik.  We have been the grateful beneficiaries of much kindness and caring on the part of our Croatian hosts, and celebrating with them is an appropriate way to express our appreciation.

Picturesque Mlini, just south of Dubrovnik

Picturesque Mlini, just south of Dubrovnik

We have completed most of our research for our next move.  We leave January 3rd to catch the overnight ferry from Split, Croatia, to Ancona, Italy.  I have not yet seen Rome, so we will spend a week there to take in the many sights that must be seen.  We will also submit our papers for dual citizenship with Italy while in Rome.  The application process has been time-consuming.  We are hopeful the final approval will be forthcoming in the next few months.  Traveling in Europe on Italian passports will solve a lot of issues when visiting Schengen Alliance countries.

Vela Spila cave, an archeological site on the island of Korčula with human remains 20,000 years old.

Vela Spila cave, an archeological site on the island of Korčula with human remains 20,000 years old.

After Rome we will fly to Barcelona, Spain, where we will spend at least four days seeing the sights.  I look forward to strolling past the shops along La Rambla and visiting La Boqueria Market, sampling tapas, and viewing Gaudi architecture.  Maybe we will even get inside La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s crowning achievement that has yet to be completed.  Tourists line up for hours to view the cathedral during the high season.  We simply cannot overlook this landmark on our ABC Tour.*

Vineyard and olive country on the island of Pag

Vineyard and olive country on the island of Pag

We will visit Madrid for a few days before settling in Alicante, Spain, for the next six months.  I look forward to improving my Spanish during our stay.  We will soon be sharing our stories from Spain on our next adventure, life on the Costa Blanca.  There are so many places to visit with romantic and familiar names:  Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Malaga, Bilbao, and more. 

If you have a favorite memory of Spain or a destination you wish to see some day, please share your comments.  I would love to know.

*Note:  ‘ABC’ stands for Another Blessed Cathedral, a reference made numerous times on this blog.

Surprise – We Are Going to Croatia!

Pozadina

All photo credits: Discover Croatia Tours, Touristar TV

The Six Monthers exist due to a lot of behind-the-scenes work. While I busy myself writing this blog and sharing our travel adventures, Florence is busy on numerous social media sites promoting our brand and seeking opportunities that complement our travel plans. These efforts recently paid off when the staff at Touristar TV in Croatia invited us to join their team to promote their Discover Croatia Tour in September, which will be filmed for television.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dubrovnik is one of the world's finest examples of a medieval walled city.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dubrovnik is one of the world’s finest examples of a medieval walled city.

We will be representing the United States on an international team of travelers and journalists from Brazil, Finland, Spain and host Ashley Colburn along with our Croatian hosts TouristarTV and the Croatian agency, Dhar Media.  I will be sharing more about our fellow travelers in the weeks ahead. Currently, I am announcing our travel plans and sharing a few photos from Croatia provided by our hosts.

Croatia's freshwater richness is evident in the Neretva region.

Croatia’s freshwater richness is evident in the Neretva region.

I will share stories about the people, the culture, the sights, the food and the history of Croatia. I am no expert about Croatia, so I will be learning and writing about it as I go.  I have met only a few Croatians in my life, and they all have one thing in common. They are proud of their country’s beauty and heritage.

Our route will take us from the interior capital of Zagreb through scenic national parks past mountains and lakes to the coast. It is the desire of our team to create an irresistible image of Croatia as a travel destination.  Until such time as we assemble as a group on September 3rd, our hosts at Touristar TV passed along some images from Croatia to share with you.  I will post updates as I am able until I begin sharing stories and photos from Croatia.

Plitvice National Park features a string of alpine lakes connected by waterfalls.

Plitvice National Park features a string of spring fed lakes connected by waterfalls.

I am excited about seeing a part of the world I have only read about or heard about from others. One thing is clear. Now that Croatia has become a member of the European Union, they want to raise their profile and let the world know who they are and what their beautiful country has to offer. I can hardly wait to share my discoveries.

How to Travel Europe, or Who is This Schengen Guy?

Overlooking the entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii

Overlooking the entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii

When Florence and I developed our Six Monther plan of living in a different country every six months, we listed all the countries in which we were interested in living.

The Ponte de Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

The Ponte de Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

We came up with a list of twenty countries, and we achieved a couple of general objectives. First, we would set foot on every continent. Second, we would be seeing much of the world before we are too old to be as active as we would like in our travels. (I am 63, Florence is 53.)

Our bucket list of countries includes a number of European Union member countries. As we researched the visa requirements for these EU countries, we came across a law unique for travelers to the EU called the Schengen Visa.

View of Vulcano from the Aeolian Island of Lipari

View from the Aeolian Island of Lipari

The Schengen Visa is an entry permit issued by an embassy or consulate of any member country.  To facilitate a more convenient immigration procedure, the Schengen states have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders.  This single visa is now all that is required to enter any member country.

Here is where it gets confusing, because there are twenty-six Schengen states and twenty-seven EU member countries (with Croatia slated to join in July, 2013). Two EU members are not Schengen, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Norway and Iceland are not part of the European Union, but are part of the Schengen area.
Note: Do not try to remember all of this because membership in both the EU and the Schengen Alliance keeps changing.

Horse sculpture near Agrigento, Sicily

Horse sculpture near Agrigento, Sicily

The point of this is that a tourist visa in the UK is good for 180 days, which works great for our Six Monther plan. However, Schengen Visas are valid for only 90 days. Also, we cannot use a strategy of leaving the EU for a few days on some side trip and then return to a Schengen country and start a new 90 day clock. The Schengen Visa only permits travel for 90 days within any 180 day period. Thus, after 90 days we would have to exit for at least 90 more days before a new 180 day clock would start.

The Dual Citizenship Option

Church in Taormina, Sicily

St. Rosalia Church below Tindiri, Sicily

This leads to our strategy of obtaining dual citizenship with Italy for which we are eligible due to Florence’s Sicilian roots. This is a detailed process with a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. It is precisely this bureaucratic process that may force us to revise our travel schedule as we await approval.

If you are considering international travel beyond a vacation getaway, you should investigate your eligibility for dual citizenship. There are many benefits. First, you gain access to the same set of opportunities in two different countries including voting rights, purchasing property, and access to education and social services.

Florence in Pisa

Florence in Pisa

You will also have two valid passports which, in some cases, will provide ease of travel and lower reciprocity fees for entry into foreign countries. In addition, once you obtain dual citizenship, it stays in your family. You can pass it along to your children, a gift for which they will no doubt thank you someday.

Dual citizenship eligibility can be obtained through birth right, marriage, and naturalization. If you know your parents’ or grandparents’ ethnic history, it may be to your benefit to investigate the citizenship laws of their country of origin. Who knows what doors it may open for you?

living in Mexico

Emiliano Zapata – The Mexican People’s Hero

Remains of Hacienda Coahuixtla - Ayala, Morelos, Mexico

Land owners exploited peasant farmers. Zapata demanded the return of land illegally seized from the farmers. The ruins of Hacienda Coahuixtla in Ayala, Morelos stand as testament to the fate of the haciendas.

Emiliano Zapata grew to be a legendary hero in the State of Morelos, Mexico, where I now live. Morelos is one of the smallest of the 31 states of Mexico, but also one of the most important due to its plentiful water, fertile farm lands and year round growing season.

General Zapata and his staff during the Mexican Revolution.  Photo credit: Wikipedia

General Zapata (center) and his staff during the Mexican Revolution. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Zapata was raised in the humble, rural town of Anenecuilco where his family owned land. At the turn of the century, the surrounding fertile valley of Morelos began producing sugar cane on a global scale surpassed only by Hawaii and Puerto Rico. While slavery had been abolished in the New World, indentured servitude on the great haciendas of central Mexico was akin to feudal farms during the middle ages in Europe. The peons had little control over their living and working conditions, a throwback to when the conquistadors enslaved the natives to work their fields and mines.

Zapata's headquarters was near the fertile land he loved.

Zapata’s headquarters was near the fertile land he loved.  Sugarcane fields are still seen in the distance.

Although Zapata did not have a university education, he was well-educated. He learned not only to read and write, but also the proud history of the indigenous people. Records also indicate Zapata was fluent in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of his region. In 1909, Zapata was elected president of the local town council at the age of 30, an honor almost unheard of since town councils were typically made up of town elders. He had grown to understand the terrible exploitation of the peasant farmers, and with the full confidence of the people, he dedicated his life to looking out for their right to own the land they worked.

The gate is all that remains of the wall at Hacienda San Juan in Chinameca, where Zapata was ambushed. The bullet holes are still visible behind the statue of Zapata on horseback.

The gate is all that remains of the wall at Hacienda San Juan in Chinameca, where Zapata was ambushed. The bullet holes are still visible behind the statue of Zapata on horseback.

Zapata supported Francisco Madero’s successful campaign for President of Mexico. However, Madero was not prepared to institute significant land reforms for the benefit of the peasant farmers. In 1911, Madero appointed a regional governor in Morelos who supported the hacienda owners, and the relationship between Madero and Zapata deteriorated. Soon thereafter, Zapata and others drafted the Plan of Ayala, a land reform plan that called for all lands stolen under earlier administrations to be immediately returned to the farmers.

This 20 foot statue of Zapata stands at his burial site in Cuautl, Morelos.

This 20 foot statue of Zapata stands at his burial site in Cuautl, Morelos.

Inevitably, Zapata placed himself in mortal danger by defying the president. In 1919, Zapata was tricked into believing one of the Federal Army’s commanders was prepared to defect to Zapata’s side. Zapata believed this would be the final step in achieving the victory for his people. Instead, he was ambushed and murdered.

While the Plan of Ayala influenced the revised Constitution of Mexico, not all of the reforms envisioned by Zapata were ever fully realized. Nevertheless, Zapata is revered by the people of Mexico and there are streets, parks, highways and landmarks throughout the country named in his honor.

Note: According to most accounts, Zapata had 13 children, most if not all by different mothers. Zapata never forced his desires on women. It is considered a tribute to Zapata that the women who bore his children came to him out of love and devotion.

living
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Food & Drink

Back Home in Panama

We are on the turbo-prop commuter flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, and through the clouds I recognize the Pacific coastline of Panama coming into view. We’ve been traveling for over three weeks, and the now familiar landscape surrounding the city of Davíd below us evokes a visceral sense of contentment that comes with knowing we are almost home.

It seems remarkable to experience this sense of pleasure when I reflect on the fact that we lived in Panama for only three months prior to this trip. I compare living here to falling in love. Panama is like an attractive woman with a personality and charm that is irresistible. When you are with her you are immersed in a sensation of heightened pleasure. Food tastes better. Colors seem brighter. We have all experienced something like that. Likewise, when you are apart you can’t wait to see her again. It’s like that. And so I am comforted to be back in Panama.

From The Big Apple to The Big Easy

I’m cruisin’, Mon!

We flew to New York City October 20th from Tocumen Airport in Panama City to board the Norwegian Star for a repositioning cruise that ended in New Orleans two weeks later, our objective being to complete the International Guide Academy’s Certified Tour Manager Training. The seven days at sea were our classroom days. There were twenty-two of us in the class from five countries. Many had no prior group-leading experience. Ultimately, we learned a great deal and we all passed the course.

We were just a couple days ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which impacted a number of the guests on the cruise who didn’t know for several days if they had intact homes to return to back in The Big Apple. Nevertheless, spirits were high and we lucked out with great weather the entire cruise.

Our cruise ended in New Orleans. This was my first visit to The Big Easy, and it is like no other city I have ever visited. Total strangers walked up to us tourists (the camera hung from the neck is an obvious tell) to ask where we were from and if we needed help finding anything. The beignets were so good in the morning that I went back for more at lunchtime. Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River evoked recollections of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. Incredible music wafted from every direction. If ever there were a city I would want to revisit it would be New Orleans.

Florence brings a gift to Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen.

We had one last duty to perform before our departure. It so happens that my wife, Florence, had visited the grave of Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen, back in 2005 before we met, and wished for a husband. As this wish was obviously granted, Florence was obligated to return to Marie Laveau’s gravesite with a thank-you offering (because you don’t mess with voodoo). Florence had picked out a ring of beads to honor her pact, which she dutifully placed on the tomb with a blessing of thanks. We were immediately engaged in a conversation with a local visitor to this famous site, after which we turned our attention back to the tomb. The ring had disappeared. It had not fallen to the ground, and no one else had approached the site during this brief encounter. We are at a loss to explain this event other than to say that perhaps The Voodoo Queen recognized the gift as genuine and took it with her to wherever she now resides.

Now we can head for home.

The Chocolate Ordeal – a Real Life Quest

The trail starts here.

(Note: This is a follow-up story to a previous post – Panama from the Caribbean Side)

This variety of cacao is ripe when the pod turns yellow. The beans must dry for a week before they are ready for roasting.

It rained all morning on the water taxi ride back to the mainland from Bocas Town. We are met at the dock by a taxi driver who takes us about five miles out of Almirante to a remote valley in the jungle. The guide and interpreter, our hosts for the morning, are residents of this Ngobe village hidden deep in the rain forest (emphasis on ‘rain’). Our trek starts with a slog along a mostly submerged trail through an amazingly diverse habitat which provides most of what the locals need to live. Bananas, plantains, oranges, mangos, dachin (a delicious tuber) – everything grows here in abundance. As we walk along we suddenly find ourselves in a clearing where they have built a school for 200 students, grades 1 through 10. We occasionally spot a house in a clearing, one with a smiling little boy who waves back at me. Our guide proudly informs me that the boy is his three-year-old grandson.

The guides describe with pride the diverse, fertile environment that is their forest home. We are surprised to learn that there are eighty families living in the valley because we can’t see anything but forest growth. Each family is responsible for plot of land that grows about 70 cacao trees per hectare (about 2 ½ acres). Everything cultivated is totally organic making their chocolate among the best quality available in the world. The Belgians and the Swiss buy almost all the chocolate beans being produced here, although the world market for chocolate is currently is down over 30% from its peak before the recession. The low price has hurt the farmers, and the tour we are on is one way they are trying to make up for lost income.

At this point the trek takes a nasty turn. We are all struggling to maintain traction as the trail winds up the slope when my wife slips and lands on her hands

Cacao beans are roasted until they “pop”. They are done in about 8 minutes.

and knees in the mud. I swear, I did not laugh, although to her credit, she did. Fortunately, we are nearing a covered shelter where two women, members of our guide’s family, are preparing us a treat. We see how cacao beans are harvested and prepared for roasting, then ground into powder the ancient way by hand with a stone. The powder is blended with a small amount of sugar and milk and we taste the freshest chocolate ever, and it is delicious! The worst is not over. We have to hike back down to our last stop on the tour, the gift shop and dining hall. Florence takes three more spills on the slippery track, one of them a tumble that could have been disastrous. At this point our guides are feeling terrible about her discomfort, not to mention her being now covered in mud. There is a faucet outside the gift shop where she is able to clean off the big chunks. Three children are gathered at the door watching as my wife is bent over the running water, and I can hear them snickering about her muddy behind. They quiet quickly when I glance their way, and I can’t help but chuckle at the situation. When they see I am humored by the scene, they all break out laughing until their mama hustles them back to the kitchen.

When cacao is ground into powder it is now cocoa. This stone ground technique is the ancient way.

We sit down to a specially prepared hot lunch of roasted chicken, cooked greens and dachin, all locally grown, which we both devour. After picking out gifts of chocolate and handicrafts we head down the hill to the waiting taxi. The driver takes one look at my mud-soaked wife and he quickly grabs a couple of scraps of cardboard for her to sit on so she doesn’t get mud all over the upholstery. Fortunately, our car is parked near a restroom where she can change into clean clothes for the drive back across the mountains that divide Panama between Caribbean and Pacific. The experience has been unforgettable to say the least.

It took a few days for the soreness to wear off, but my wife says she would go back if she had long spikes on her shoes. To her credit she is able to laugh at the experience. We loved the tour. However, we would certainly recommend adequate clothing and footwear to anyone thinking of going there. I mean, admit it – you salivated at the thought of tasting freshly prepared chocolate!

Being soaked and muddy has its compensation when served fresh chocolate – mmm!


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Have a cigar!

Today I learned more about cigars than I ever thought mattered. Apparently it did matter because, even though neither my wife nor I smoke, we both bought cigars to try. Talking with the owner of Panama Caribbean Tobacco, David Reynaga, we learned how tobacco is grown, dried, prepped, sorted, rolled, shaped, finished, labeled, packaged, and ultimately marketed and sold. We were told the gift cigars we bought for $4.00 would retail in Panama City for at least $7.00, and in the U. S. they could sell for $15 or more.

The pipe-shaped cigar in the pipe-shaped box is a quality cigar and a novelty.

There were a few surprises in store, like cigars in shapes like a pipe, a hockey stick, and pencil-thin miniature cigars. There was even a monster cigar, and no serious cigar lover would attempt to light up such a manly smoke without a couple hours to kick back and contemplate life’s simple pleasures.

I was told you don’t inhale cigar smoke. The pleasure is in tobacco’s earthy aroma and the fragrances released in the smoke, not unlike incense. A major difference between cigars and other forms of tobacco like cigarettes is that you don’t light a cigar unless you have 30-60 minutes to relax and enjoy the experience. Cigar smoking is a social activity; like drinking fine wine, it is seldom done alone. Another difference is that cigars are not habit forming. When I asked about nicotine cravings, I was told nicotine isn’t what gets you hooked on cigarettes. It’s the other chemicals, the ones the tobacco industry won’t talk about, that make you chemically dependent on cigarettes.

Owner, David Reynaga (on right), loves sharing his knowledge. His company produces the only 100% Panamanian cigar, a great choice for the connoisseur.

Whether or not you have the urge to light up a cigar, the tour of Panama Caribbean Tobacco in Concepción, Chiriqui, Panama, is well worth the trip. Entry is free of charge. To find the place, leave the Pan American Highway in Concepción on the road to Volcán, about 19 km. west of David. The turn is well-marked driving west. Drive 3-5 minutes and look for the green building next door to and just before the Terpel Gas Station on your left. Say “hi” to David for me.

This monster cigar is the largest custom made cigar I have ever seen.

Cigars made petite and mild are designed for women. Florence hasn’t tried one yet.


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