Transitioning to Spain

Spain's Royal Family no longer lives in Madrid's Palace.  When not in use for ceremonies, it is open to the public.

Spain’s Royal Family no longer lives in Madrid’s Palace. When not in use for ceremonies, it is open to the public.

We have evolved from our initial goal of living in a different country for awhile to being The 6 Monthers, our current lifestyle of moving to a different country every six months.  Our objective is loaded with challenges as far as observing the tourist and visa laws of the various countries in which we wish to live.  We are in a race against time to obtain dual citizenship with Italy which will solve the Schengen Visa issue throughout most of the European Union. 

Standing on the Plaza de Independencia is the Puerta de Alcalá.

Standing on the Plaza de Independencia is the Puerta de Alcalá.

The hardest part of being a traveler in the manner we have chosen is the transition between countries.  Our travels are best done when we start from a base in the country of our choosing.  From there we take single-day and multi-day trips to surrounding areas to learn what we can about the culture and the beauty of the country.  When it comes time to move, we must pack everything we own into our luggage and cart it with us which is burdensome on multiple levels.  Primarily, it is draining to live out of suitcases for any length of time.

Is it a palace or a cathedral?  No that is the Palacio de Comunicaciones, otherwise known as the Madrid Post Office.

Is it a palace or a cathedral? No, it is the Palacio de Comunicaciones, also known as the Madrid Post Office.

We gave ourselves seventeen days for our latest transition from Croatia to Spain which allowed for stops in Rome, Barcelona and Madrid.  These are three world class cities with great history, food, art and culture.  They are cities I had only learned about in school and through my reading over the years.  For me, seeing them for the first time was a thrill I eagerly anticipated.  We got a tiny stateroom on the overnight Blue Line ferry from Split, Croatia, to Ancona, Italy, then caught the train to Rome.  For the 20 hour crossing from Italy to Barcelona, we also got a stateroom on the Grimaldi Line ferry.  In each case we were grateful to have avoided checking bags and paying the fees we would have incurred at airports.  We even got a little sleep along the way.

An evening on the town with my two favorite women in Spain

An evening out with my two favorite women in Spain

Rome was glorious, no question.  For me, our visit to The Vatican was the greatest highlight.  I will always think of Rome as a must-see place, one that made me say “Wow!” with almost every turn.  Among Barcelona’s most interesting sights is Antoni Gaudí’s architecture, and the highlight for any visitor to Barcelona is without question La Sagrada Familia.  For a number of reasons, Madrid was my favorite stop.  Perhaps it was the reunion with our new friend, Ana, whom we met during our Discover Croatia Tour.  Spending time with friends is always a treat, especially while living in a country far from home.  Madrid is unique and beautiful, and there was way more to see and do than we could fit in during three days.

Sometimes called the 'Superman Building' the Metropolis Insurance Company placed their name on the building when they purchased it.

Referred to by some as the ‘Superman Building’ the Metropolis Insurance Company placed their name on the building when they purchased it.

Overall, I am glad we visited these places in the off-season.  We avoided major crowds in each city as well as the summer days which can be insufferably hot.  That part was good.  I did lose my wallet to a pickpocket on the subway in Rome.  That experience made me much more conscious of my surroundings and much less trusting of people on the street.  And like any crime against a person, I felt violated, which impacted me psychologically.  It took me a few days to almost get over blaming my naiveté and blaming other, less scrupulous people for being assholes. 

This apartment building across from our hotel is typical of the fine architecture throughout the city.

This apartment building across from our hotel is typical of the fine architecture throughout the city.

Ultimately, traveling for over two weeks with daypacks and suitcases is too much.  We need closets and a washing machine and a kitchen of our own so we do not have to eat restaurant food every day.  That does not diminish the wonder and beauty of the places we visited during our transition.  It does, however, diminish our ability to maintain our energy and to fully appreciate what we are seeing.  Such is the learning curve of The 6 Monthers.  We are not on vacation – this is our life.  I believe we will get better at it as we go along.      

All photos: © by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

The Ultimate Barcelona Experience

One of Gaudí's earlier projects, La Pedrera incorporated innovations like a self-supported façade and underground parking.  Under renovation during our visit, this photo is from Wikicommons.

One of Gaudí’s earlier projects, La Pedrera incorporated innovations like a self-supported façade and underground parking. Under renovation during our visit, this photo is from Wikicommons.

My first surprise about Barcelona, a metropolitan area of five million people, is that the city is only about 150 years old.  The roots of the city go back to Roman times, but the city as we see it now has few remnants older than the mid-19th century. 

Gaudí loved color.  He did not much like square corners. Photo credit: Wikicommons

Gaudí loved color. He did not much like square corners.
Photo credit: Wikicommons

Barcelona underwent major changes in the 1800’s.  In a controversial move, the powers of that time decided to tear down the medieval wall that contained the city.  Along with the wall, many medieval era buildings were also demolished.  A master plan was developed which included plazas, parks and tree-lined streets that were over 100 feet wide with wide sidewalks.  Although some property owners fought these zoning restrictions, today Barcelona has lots of wide boulevards, plazas with beautiful artwork, and public parks providing spectacular vistas of the city.  The result today is a feeling of wide open spaces with lots of light, nice breezes and lots of green space throughout the city.  Further improvements were made in preparation for hosting the 1992 Olympic Summer Games, including new beaches and modern construction.

Stylish architecture is what catches my eye in Barcelona, and none is more striking than the inescapable designs of Antoni Gaudí.  I was prepared to be amazed by the unusual shapes and bright ceramic touches of Casa Batlló, Park Güell and other famous Gaudí works.  I was hardly prepared for the spectacle that is La Sagrada Familia, the Catholic Basilica of The Sacred Family.  As we walked from the nearby Paseo de Sant Joan, my heart began beating faster as the glory of spires towering more than 500 feet over my head came into view.  Everything about La Sagrada Familia demands that I look up. 

The spires of La Sagrada Familia pierce the sky over 500 feet above street level.

The spires of La Sagrada Familia pierce the sky over 500 feet above street level.

I can hardly get my head around what I am seeing.  Is this art?  Is it architecture?  Is it the creation of a crazy man or a genius?  What sort of mind is able to bring such a remarkable vision to reality?  These thoughts go through my mind as I gaze upward in amazement and awe.  Interior pillars start out five feet in diameter at their base.  As my eyes follow their upward taper, they seem to grow sixteen evenly space ridges.  These ridges split in two as I follow the lines upward.  The vertical lines then dissolve until further up the column is perfectly round.  Suddenly, the column splits into multiple branches that taper and disappear into the ceiling they support.  The effect of the multiple pillars is like a forest of giant trees supporting an elaborate ceiling 200 feet overhead.

The West entrance to Sagrada Familia is also the oldest.  It depicts the Nativity in sculptures high over the portico.

The West entrance to Sagrada Familia is also the oldest. It depicts the Nativity in sculptures high over the portico.

La Sagrada Familia was not completed in Gaudí’s lifetime.   In fact, the construction that began over 130 years ago continues to this day.  This was not a commissioned project.  Gaudí utilized only money that was donated in order to carry out the construction.  To this day only donations from entry fees and benefactors are used to pay for the construction.  It is estimated that 2.8 million persons annually visit La Sagrada Familia.  The base admission is about $27/person without a personal guide or audio guide and exclusive of a trip up one of the towers.  The two newest towers are equipped with ultra-modern elevators.

The interior of Sagrada Familia is light and open.  Color is added with the extensive use of stained glass windows.

The interior of Sagrada Familia is light and open. Color is added with the extensive use of stained glass windows.

Gaudí believed that all great efforts required sacrifice.  He felt paying the ongoing costs of constructing La Sagrada Familia was exactly the sort of sacrifice that was required to achieve success.  It is estimated the project could take ten or more years to complete.  I do not think Gaudí would mind. 

In 1926, Antoni Gaudí was struck by a tram on his way to his local church.  He was knocked unconscious and taken in a coma to the hospital.  No one recognized him at the time.  During the night he awoke and asked to have last rites administered.  He died later that night.  He is now buried in the crypt below the main altar of La Sagrada Familia.  Catholic masses are conducted there daily.

Interior columns evoke images of a forest with branches high overhead.

Interior columns evoke images of a forest with branches high overhead.

The elaborate ceiling is braced by the many-branched columns soaring 200 feet overhead.

The elaborate ceiling is braced by the many-branched columns soaring 200 feet overhead.

The colors and details throughout the cathedral dazzle the eyes/

The colors and details throughout the cathedral dazzle the eyes.

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.

The Top 10 Best Things About Croatia

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

Counting down, these items make my list of the ten best things I discovered about Croatia.

10. Fresh fruits and vegetables

There is a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

The fresh markets offer a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

Everything grows fresh in Croatia.  We were fortunate to be living in Croatia during harvest season.  There were melons, pomegranates, figs, plums, grapes and apples.  And there was citrus.  Almost the entire Neretva River Delta is planted with citrus – mandarins, lemons and several varieties of oranges and they are quite affordable.  Other fruits like bananas and tropical fruits are imported.  The variety seems endless and prices are quite good. 

9.   Coffee

Every place we have visited has a coffee bar (or two or three) on every block, or so it seems.  I am not saying that the coffee is as good as what we could purchase at every market in Panama or Costa Rica where it was grown and picked and roasted within walking distance of our house.  But every café, bar and coffee shop in Croatia has an espresso machine, and it is a custom in Croatia to ‘take coffee’ for almost any occasion.

8.   Olive oil and wine

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

I think everyone in Croatia either has their own olive trees or is related to someone who does.  The same goes for vineyards.  They make a lot of olive oil in Croatia, and they also make a lot of wine.  Production numbers seem small compared to wine growing regions in other parts of the world, but Croatia’s population is only about 4.5 million, and they consume most of what they produce.  However, wine lovers who get a taste of the finer Croatian wines will likely wish to add some bottles to their collections.

7.   Cheese

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia.  Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia. Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

I confess I love cheese.  And I have come to learn that not every country has great cheeses.  Croatia got it right!  There is probably as much cheese-making tradition in Croatia as there is making olive oil and wine.  Lucky for me!

6.   Bakery breads and other goodies

You should not expect to find a bread aisle in the supermarket.  All breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are made fresh daily in a bakery.  There are in-store bakeries and independent bakery shops on nearly every block in the commercial areas.  Many Croatians still bake their own items if they have time.

5.   Natural beauty

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

Where do I begin?  The Dalmatian Coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Skradinski Falls in Krka National Park, the Neretva River Delta, Lake Vrana, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the natural springs.  Croatia is so diverse that the list of scenic spots seems never ending. 

4.   Clean air

To me there are two key items that define ‘quality of life.’  Being able to breathe clean air is one of those things, and it is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia, especially on the Dalmatian Coast with its steady breezes.

3.   Clean water

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

This is the second key ‘quality of life’ item, and Croatia has abundant resources of clear, clean water.  Many of their rivers are spring-fed at their sources.  You can dip your cup or water bottle into most streams and expect to get pure water better than the bottled water for sale at the market.  Wherever I travel I compare the water with what I experienced in my youth hiking past creeks and streams in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  Clean water is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia.

2.   History and Culture

The medieval fortress near Samobar reminds of the civilization that existed here long ago.

The medieval fortress near Samobor reminds us of the civilization that existed here long ago.

Croatia may have finally appeared as a country on geography maps in the last twenty years.  However, as a region with a distinct culture, Croatia has a history of its own dating back over 1,500 years.  Many of the traditional foods, dress, music and dances are still common today.  They have their own language, their own art, their great legends and their heroes.  All of these traditions are woven into the fabric of everyday life.  One of the great things about traveling in Croatia is the people are eager to tell their stories and share their culture.

1.   The people

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most lasting memories.

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most treasured memories.

I have said this before and it bears repeating.  The people of Croatia have been among the most welcoming, most hospitable and most caring of any we have met in any country we have visited.  They care how you feel about their country and about them.  They want you to appreciate the beauty, the history and culture, the food, the wine, and their hospitality.  And I do!

One more thing, the women in Croatia are quite style-conscious.  In the cities and towns women seldom go out in public without putting on makeup and nice clothes.  At first I thought there was simply a high percentage of striking-looking women.  Then I realized that women of all ages take great care to look their best in public.  The men, not so much.  They may be ruggedly handsome, but they do not dress up unless they are hoping to impress the women.  That however, is a whole new story.

 

The Šibenik Regatta

Three dozen sailboats moored along the seawall waiting for the start of the 14th Annual Šibenik Regatta.

Three dozen sailboats moored along the seawall waiting for the start of the 14th Annual Šibenik Regatta.

Saturday morning arrived and we met Nina and her husband, Marjan, along the seawall about a block from our apartment.  Marjan’s friends met up with us and designated me as the fourth crewmember on their sailboat.  I had done little to prepare for the day because the whole episode was put together as I was going to bed the night before.  And that was okay with me because sometimes the most interesting experiences are those that are least planned and most unexpected.

St. Nicholas walked among the crowd handing out candy to children.

St. Nicholas walked among the crowd handing out candy to children.

Florence , who is not a big boating fan and has no prior sailing experience, opted to join Nina on the tourist boat that the City of Šibenik provided for family members of regatta teams as well as dignitaries and special guests.  She waved at us from the observation deck as we lined up on the course for the starting gun. 

Thirty-five boats hit the starting line as the clock counts down to zero.

Thirty-five boats hit the starting line as the clock counts down to zero.

Let me share an observation I have made about sailing.  There is not a lot to do on a sailboat during a race.  The skipper picks your course and you stick with it.  That does not mean you do not need to pay attention because wind direction changes and tacking require quick reflexes and teamwork to change course efficiently in a race without losing boat speed.  I would guess about ninety percent of the time is spent sitting and just watching things which makes for long periods of stillness punctuated by brief moments of pandemonium.

The waterfront of the beautiful medieval town of Šibenik, our Croatian hometown.

The waterfront of the beautiful medieval town of Šibenik, our Croatian hometown.

Some people would say the still times make sailing boring.  Although I would not take issue with that statement, I would add that boredom is a condition that is undervalued and underappreciated.  After working for forty plus years, I used to long for the days when I could regale myself in sustained periods of boredom.  You may, if you wish, think of me as an ‘aficionado of boredom’.  Thus, I had no difficulty adapting to my day aboard the Champagne, our regatta entry.

Mike and Captain Vlado and our sailboat regatta entry, Champagne.

Mike and Captain Vlado and our sailboat regatta entry, Champagne.

During the longer legs of the course there was time for a beer or two and there were prosciutto and cheese sandwiches for when we got hungry.  We also found a couple of things worthy of a toast which called for shots of scotch all around.  Let’s see – we toasted the sunshine because it was a beautiful day.  We toasted each other, and we toasted the end of the race.  I think we came in third in our class, but I cannot say for sure because I was pretty much toasted by then.  What a great day.  Here’s to you, Šibenik!

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.

Something is Happening in Medjugorje

This post is dedicated to the many Catholics in my wife’s family and to any of the religious faithful who may find meaning in this story.*

The Church in Medjugorje is a humble site.  The influx of tourist dollars has made possible the complete reconstruction of the Church of St. James.

The Church in Medjugorje is a relatively humble site. The influx of pilgrimage donations has made possible the complete reconstruction of the Church of St. James, patron saint of pilgrims.

Our visit to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Medjugorje (made zhu GORE yeh) was something special and emotional for my wife, Florence.  I found the place to be interesting.  Mostly, I was moved by how spiritual it seemed, like an aura you can feel more than you can see.  And that is how I would best describe my beliefs – spiritual but not religious.  I always have felt closer to God in the wilderness than in a building, no matter how spectacular the architecture.  Perhaps that is because the wilderness reminds me of what God created and a church or cathedral makes me think of what man has created.

The altar outside the church has seating for 7,000 people and large screen televisions to carry the worship service from inside.

The altar outside the church has seating for 7,000 people and large screen televisions to carry the worship service from inside.

Medjugorje, a remote, humble village in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the home of the six visionaries who, as children in 1981, threw the village into turmoil as they recounted their encounter with the apparition of the Virgin Mary.  The children are grown now, and they each still receive regular messages from the Holy Mother.  To understand more of the story, I purchased a book written by Sister Emmanuel entitled Medjugorje, Triumph of the Heart, an updated edition of her first book, Medjugorje of the 90’s.  The book is a collection of experiences of some of the people who made the pilgrimage to Medjugorje during the 90’s.  The Catholic Church has made no official statement about the site.  At this time they do not endorse pilgrimages led by priests.  Unofficial pilgrimages, which may include ordained priests, are permitted.  To this day over a million people each year travel from around the world to Medjugorje. 

I have chosen one story from Sister Emmanuel’s book to share.  When I first read this story it touched me with its simplicity.  I hope you enjoy it.

It’s Me – Paul!

(This story as related by a French priest at St. Jacques Church, is meant to illustrate ‘prayer with the heart’, to pray as children often do – simply, without much formal training.)

Paul spent most of his time out in the open, so he really appreciated the porch of St. Jacques Church, where he used to beg.  His most constant companion was a bottle of wine.  Among his many illnesses, he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, another faithful companion.  You could tell by the color of his face.  People in the neighborhood expected him to disappear sooner or later.  However, nobody showed much interest in him.

Confessions are offered in five languages by the priests at Medjugorje.

Confessions are offered in five languages by the priests at Medjugorje.

One good-hearted lady of the parish, Mrs. N., had initiated some dialogue with him, and in so doing she was saddened by the terrible loneliness she discovered in this man.  She had also noticed that, in the morning when no one else was around, he would leave his spot at the entry to the church and go inside, sit on a front row pew, and face the altar.  He would just sit there and do nothing.

One day Mrs. N remarked to him, “Paul, I have seen you walk into the church many times.  But what do you do while sitting there?  You have no rosary, no prayer book, and you even doze a little.  What do you do?  Do you pray?”

Paul replied, “How could I possibly pray!?  I can’t even remember a word of the prayers I was taught in Sunday school when I was a kid!  I have forgotten everything!  What do I do?  It is simple.  I go to the altar where Jesus is all alone in his little box and I tell him, ‘Jesus!  It’s me, Paul!  I have come to see you.’  And then I just sit there for awhile to show I am around.”

Candles are lit at an outside grotto with Christ on the cross and a fountain below.

Candles are lit at an outside grotto with Christ on the cross and a fountain below.

The days came and went as usual.  Mrs. N. never forgot what Paul had told her.  One day, as was bound to happen, Paul had disappeared.  Was he sick?  Had he died?  Mrs. N. decided to find out.  When she finally located Paul in a local hospital he looked terrible.  Poor Paul was covered with surgical tubing.  His complexion was gray and pasty.  He looked like he was ready to die, and the medical prognosis was not optimistic.

The next day she returned expecting to hear bad news.  But no!  There was Paul sitting bolt upright in his bed, clean-shaven, looking fresh and completely changed.  He wore an expression of immeasurable joy emanating from his face.  He looked radiant.

Mrs. N. rubbed her eyes.  She could not believe what she was seeing.  Without a doubt she was looking at Paul.  She exclaimed, “Paul, this is unbelievable!  You are not the same person anymore.  What happened to you?”

“Well, it all happened this morning.  I wasn’t too well, you know.  Suddenly, I saw someone enter my room.  He came in and stood at the foot of my bed. He was handsome… so handsome you cannot even imagine!  He smiled and me and said, ‘Paul!  It is I, Jesus!  I’ve come to see you!’”

A statue of St. Mary stands in a courtyard outside the Church of St. James.

A statue of St. Mary stands in a courtyard outside the Church of St. James.

*Note:  You do not need an appointment to visit Saint Mary.  Nor do you need to travel to Medjugorje.  She has given the message that she will make her presence known every 24 hours.  Anyone who wishes to seek communion with her should know that she presents herself daily at 6:40 p.m. local time in Medjugorje.  That is 9:40 a.m. Pacific Time, 12:40 p.m. Eastern Time in the U.S.  There is daylight savings time in Bosnia, so these times are correct when the time zones mutually experience daylight savings time.  People around the world are invited to join with her at this time, and tens of thousands do so every day.

Do you have a special story or comment to share?  Don’t be shy.  I want to know what you have to say.

100 Stories and We Have Only Just Begun

Entering Plitvička Lakes National Park, Croatia

On our September, 2013 trip near the entrance to Plitvička Lakes National Park, Croatia

This is my 100th post in the year plus since I started this blog.  Out of curiosity I went back over all of my previous stories to see which were the most popular.  I discovered the top five most-viewed posts dealt with some aspect of how we travel, how we budget, how we decide where to live and how we adapt to our living arrangements. 

Touring the islands of Lake Nicaragua - Granada, Nicaragua

Touring the islands of Lake Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua

As much as I would love to think readers wish to see our pretty pictures and learn about different places in various countries, it turns out what is most popular is to learn about the process of traveling.  This realization made me think perhaps I should use fewer words discussing ‘what’ and dedicate more effort discussing ‘how.’  I will keep that in mind.

If there is one thing I have learned, it is that there are thousands, if not millions, of travel blogs.  I am a relative newcomer to the world of travel and the blog scene.  While I would dearly love to do distinguish myself in that realm, I have barely scratched the surface.  I feel fortunate to have several things in my favor.

Altar of the feathered serpent Xochicalco, Mexico

Altar of the feathered serpent
Xochicalco, Mexico

First, The 6 Monthers concept is fairly unique.  There are other travelers who choose a variety of destinations and stay for extended lengths of time.  However, I have not discovered anyone else taking our six-months-at-a-time approach, which is why we purchased the web domain.  Our challenge now is to increase our visibility beyond the few thousand people that have heard of us. 

Mike: 'What's that sound?' Florence: 'My teeth chattering.' Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Mike: ‘What’s that sound?’
Florence: ‘My teeth chattering.’
Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Second, I retired a couple of years ago and I now have time to pursue with a passion both travel and writing.  With Florence’s social media and photography expertise, we leveraged our skills to earn an invitation to travel for three-and-a-half weeks in Croatia as the guests of Dhar Media and Touristar.tv to help promote tourism in their country.  That was cool!  Our ambition now is to carry our experience forward to other countries to help bolster their tourism industry while saving on expenses.  Sharing those kinds of experiences would dovetail nicely with writing more about the ‘How to’ of travel.

On the main island of Antigua - Leeward Islands, Caribbean Sea

On the main island of Antigua
Leeward Islands, Caribbean Sea

Finally, I want to someday point back to something meaningful to say, “I created that.”  Perhaps it will be a book.  We have published one children’s book, and we have a dozen more waiting in the wings.  We would love to score a publishing deal so we could get our books illustrated for young readers.  We would love to teach children about the people and animals and cultures from around the world.  And we would love to build our name, The 6 Monthers, which might one day be worthwhile to the next generation of travelers.

We have our work cut out for us.  Every great idea that amounted to something required perseverance, creativity, and passion, things we think we have.  We now look ahead as we pursue our journey and continue our travels down as yet unexplored roads.  As always, I hope you will accept my invitation to join us and share your thoughts along the way.

Taxco, Mexico – City of Silver

Taxco is reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy.

Taxco is reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy.

Taxis whizzing through the streets are like a Disneyland ride.

Taxis whiz around like a Disneyland ride. Mosaics of white stone are inlaid in the cobblestone streets

As our bus approaches the town of Taxco on the winding mountain highway, I find the view reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy. The most striking feature is that almost every structure is painted white. The obvious exception is the stunning Cathedral of Santa Prisca. Built over a 15 year period starting in 1758, the twin bell towers of the cathedral were the tallest structures in Mexico at the time. Silver baron, José de la Borda, nearly went bankrupt funding the elaborate Baroque-style construction of the church.

The main altar portrays the Immaculate Conception.

The main altar portrays the Immaculate Conception in exquisite detail.

The taxi ride from the bus station to the Museum of Viceregal Art is incredibly similar to a Disneyland ride as we whirl through a maze of steep inclines and turns between three-story buildings until we arrive at the museum. All the taxis are white VW Bugs with a seating capacity for two passengers only as all the front passenger seats have been removed.

We are told the taxi is free, which I wondered about. When I saw the museum proprietor give each driver several pesos, I realized why the ride was free. The “museum” made a nice profit on our free tour based on the three hundred pesos ($25) we spent on gifts made of silver. Admittedly, it is difficult to not purchase these beautifully crafted items. An elegant silver chain necklace cost under $10.

This shop modeled itself after the rich silver mines that made Taxco famous.

This shop modeled itself after the rich silver mines that made Taxco famous.

Since pre-Columbian times Taxco has been renowned for its silver mines. Even though the last silver mine in the area closed just a few years ago, Taxco remains a focal point for handcrafted silver goods and jewelry. Tourism is now the number one industry of Taxco, and the shopkeepers and street vendors are eager to please to the point of ushering people into their shops whenever possible. Hotels and restaurants also provide many options. We had lunch at a rooftop restaurant near the cathedral with a view of the whole town.

Taxco is a shopper’s paradise. The town is strategically located on the principal route from Mexico City to Acapulco. To those for whom shopping is a not a priority, Taxco is essentially a tourist trap. While there are many options for dining and sightseeing, a visit to the Cathedral of Santa Prisca is enough to make a stop in Taxco worth the effort.

living in Mexico

The Cathedral or Santa Prisca is worth stopping to see.

The Cathedral of Santa Prisca is worth stopping to see.

A Brief History of Mexico – Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

History portrays Hernán Cortes as a brutal conquistador responsible for wiping out a once proud and highly-evolved indigenous society in Mexico. It turns out he had a lot of help.

The Aztecs worship gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs worshipped gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs did not start out as a powerful tribe. In fact, they did not have a homeland for many generations. They subsisted in what is now Central Mexico as mercenary soldiers. They were fierce warriors, and they were seldom defeated. On the other hand, they had no loyalty. Their warriors always fought for those who paid the most. They would even turn against their hosts if their enemies outbid them for their services.

Over a period of centuries the Aztecs had alienated every tribe in the region. The tribes of the central valley banished the Aztecs to a marshy island in the middle of the lake that once covered much of the valley where Mexico City now sits. Over time, the Aztecs built their strength and influence to the point that they threatened to attack any neighboring tribe that did not pay tribute to them. And indeed, those who resisted were wiped out. Over time the Aztecs dominated all of what is now Central Mexico.

An artist's portrayal of Tenochititlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

An artist’s portrayal of Tenochtitlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

Then, in 1519, Cortes showed up on the Caribbean shore. When he learned of the great nation of the Aztecs, Cortes set out with 500 men, 15 horses, and a dozen cannons to meet the Aztecs for himself. Cortes discovered the Aztec Nation numbered about six million people and held dominion over another 12 million. The cultivation skills alone needed to produce food for this many people were unprecedented. Cortes was going to need help. It turns out he had no difficulty finding it. Every indigenous tribe readily joined forces with Cortes when they learned his objective was to conquer the Aztecs. It took only two years for Cortes’ army to conquer the entire Aztec Nation. It turned out smallpox was the biggest killer. Over 90% of the indigenous population died from diseases brought from Europe to the New World.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

Cortes made his home in a village called Cuauhnáhuac, a native term meaning ‘near the forest.’ The closest word in Spanish was Cuernavaca, or cow horn, a term which bears no relevance to the place. Cortes had a palace built. It stands today as a huge museum bordering the central plaza in Cuernavaca. The Government Palace and the main cathedral are also located near the plaza.

Cuernavaca is now a metropolitan city of nearly one million people with numerous gardens, parks, museums and commercial areas. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet, the climate remains pleasant throughout the year. All of which goes to explain why we made this our home, for now.

Note: This article touches lightly on the history and events spanning the centuries leading up to the Spanish Conquest. I have detailed nothing of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies which evolved simultaneously with post-Christian European societies. Any slight to the sophistication of these cultures is unintentional.
living in Panama

Traveling and Living Abroad Cheaply

Even the automobiles are preserved in historic Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay.

Even the automobiles are preserved in historic Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay.

My experiences traveling and living outside the United States over the past two years have provided me with some insights which I will share here. Please add ideas from your own experiences so that those who follow in our footsteps might benefit. I am not addressing traditional vacationers who travel on a larger budget and stay in more upscale resorts or who prefer cruises.

This article addresses two distinct groups:

  1. those who wish to travel abroad cheaply, and
  2. those who wish to live abroad cheaply.
We learn how easy it is to make new friends at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile.

We learn how easy it is to make new friends at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile.

The former group consists of those whose objective is to see some of the world on a tight budget. These folks typically backpack, camp, couch surf, utilize hostels, and travel mostly by bus. They will discover places they love and perhaps one day they will return to live for awhile.

I enjoy traveling with this group. Hostels are great places to meet travelers and there is a constant turnover of people. The hostel is a communal environment, and everyone has a story to tell. Also, hostels provide the use of a community kitchen where we can prepare food ourselves rather than eating every meal at a restaurant. Think twice about hostelling if you like to go to bed early because hostel folks are generally better at partying than us older people.

An incredible variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, etc. is sold at the Central Market in Valencia, Spain.

An incredible variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, etc. is sold at the Central Market in Valencia, Spain.

Most people decide to live abroad because it is less expensive. They have a source of income, and most often they are retired. I am a member of this group. I have spent time in a dozen countries. In each locale I ask myself the question, “Would I want to live here?” Here are some sample criteria, all of which pertain to quality of life:

  1. Is living here affordable?
  2. Would I feel comfortable going for a walk or bike ride here?
  3. Is the air clean?
  4. Are there interesting things to see and do?
  5. Is the climate agreeable?

Once you find a place where you would like to live, here are some basic tips:

It takes two Walk lights to cross the Av. 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It takes two cycles of the WALK light to cross the Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, the world’s widest boulevard.

  1. Rent, do not buy. Anything can happen to change your mind about where you wish to live. Do not get tied down until you have lived someplace for an entire year. If you decide to buy a home, make sure you fully understand the laws governing property ownership. And yes, you will probably need to consult with a local attorney, so ask around for a good one.
  2. Determine if you will need a car. Is the local transportation system reliable? You can save a lot of money doing without a car, and you can always rent a car for special outings.
  3. Learn the language. Even if you only know a few words in a foreign language, use them. And keep studying to improve. The more you learn the more you will enjoy the local culture.
  4. People typically over-pack. Go light where you can, especially with books. (Invest in an eReader.)
  5. Make sure you have a good internet connection. This is how you will stay in touch with the folks back home.
  6. Be flexible in your plans. You may discover something better than what you planned once you hit the road.
  7. Start researching now for the lifestyle you wish to pursue later. Get excited!

My blog is all about the places we have seen and the places where we have lived. We do not plan to stay in one location for more than a year, so we will not be buying a house. We are already thinking about the next place we wish to live. Until then I will be sharing my stories from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Sicily, I Haven’t Forgotten You

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

I have focused so much on our travels and life abroad in Latin America that I have completely overlooked our recent trip to Sicily. This story is all about family. My father-in-law’s family emigrated from Sicily. We are talking about a BIG, Italian-size family. There are still over a hundred of their relatives living in and around Santa Maria in the north mountain country of Sicily.

Every biblical scene is done in mosaic detail.

Every biblical scene is done in minute mosaic detail.

My wife has visited Sicily on five previous occasions. This time, however, was the first time she visited with a husband. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what the local customs were for greeting a new member of the family. I can now tell you there is a lot of hugging and kissing involved. I finally got the hang of the alternating-cheek air kiss. The hugs vary depending on the family relationship – longer hugs with grandparents than with second or third cousins. The children give big hugs as soon as their parents announce, “He is your cousin.” Then they want to play.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

Leading up to the family reunion is a twelve day private motorcoach tour of Sicily with family from the States. There is so much history here and so many sights to see. Every civilization that ever amounted to anything left its footprint in Sicily, and with good reason. Sicily served as the breadbasket to every empire that spread through the Old World. Geographically, Sicily is situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea. To this day there are more preserved Greek ruins in Sicily than there are in Greece. And the Romans picked up where the Greeks left off. There is also Spanish blood and Anglo blood in the Sicilian pedigree, which is evident when you notice the many Sicilians with light hair color and blue or hazel eyes.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

We arrived by cruise ship in the Port of Catania after stops in Naples, Florence, and Pisa, Italy, Villefranche, France, Valencia, Spain, the Spanish Isle of Ibiza, and Tunis, Tunisia. My in-laws meet us in Catania. They had to rush home to the States for a family funeral the last time they were in Sicily. This may be their last opportunity to see family. Plus, Dad speaks beautiful Sicilian, and that is a huge benefit for the giant reunion that awaits.

My wife’s favorite spot in Sicily is Taormina, perched precariously on top of a small mountain. The Greek Amphitheater overlooking the sea is beyond compare. My favorite spot was the Aeolian Island of Lipari. The crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and the views from the cliff road make this island paradise idyllic.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

You cannot mention Sicily without mentioning the spectacular cathedrals. The 21,000 square feet of mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale overlooking the capital city of Palermo are among the finest in Italy, if not the world. And in Tindiri, there is the Cathedral of the Black Madonna with its amazing folklore to go along with the architecture. There are other churches of note. However, the final stop on the ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) is the one in Santa Maria with the family name carved in stone along with the date, 1598.

I have not even touched on the food. I started out thinking the national dish of Sicily is eggplant because I could not get away from it. I eventually found alternatives. The world can take lessons from Italy on how to make dessert. The gelato is the best to be found anywhere and the cannolis are to die for!

A genuine Italian cannoli - whipped ricotta cheese and honey filling and rolled in crushed pistachios.

A genuine Italian cannoli is filled with whipped ricotta cheese and honey and then rolled in crushed pistachios.



living in Panama

What’s Wrong With Boquete?

Boquete is known for its lush and beautiful gardens.

Boquete is known for its lush and beautiful gardens.

My wife and I have enjoyed our six months in Boquete. We have lived inexpensively allowing us to travel out of the country three times and take two trips in-country. Boquete is a lush, beautiful garden spot. Tourists have discovered it and flock here. Panamanians from the big city also visit Boquete, and many of the more prosperous families have lovely vacation homes here. Which leads to the question we have been asked many times: “If living in Boquete is so nice, why are you leaving?”

In the middle of planning to bring friends to the area we had a business issue with a Panamanian colleague. It could have been resolved with a simple apology for an abusive verbal exchange with my wife, but that did not happen. One of the basic rules of a happy existence is simply this: don’t piss off the Italian woman. Since this colleague was also our landlord, we no longer felt welcome, so we planned our departure.

Boquete's Central Park is a great meeting spot.

Boquete’s Central Park is a great meeting spot.

We could have made other living arrangements. There is no shortage of rental property in Boquete, which leads me back to the original question, what’s wrong with Boquete? Why wouldn’t we stay? (This is the part the over-eager real estate people will not tell you.)

1. This is no place for children. There are no playgrounds, no theaters, and no safe place to ride a bicycle.
2. Shopping is limited to the supermarket, the hardware store, and a small department store. The nearest mall is 25 miles away.
3. The Panamanian people are friendly, but they are not your friends. Even if you are fluent in Spanish, they are only interested in a relationship if there is money to be made. This is understandable when you consider the average monthly wage for a Panamanian is maybe $600.
4. All outsiders are gringos, and it is assumed gringos have lots of money even if you don’t. The gringos have driven up property values such that the locals can no longer afford to live in the town in which they grew up. There is some resentment about that, although Panamanians are generally tolerant by nature.
5. The weather is temperate year-round. What you are not told is that the area also gets over 100 inches of rain per year, and during the dry season the winds are nearly constant.
6. The humidity is high, which means mold and mildew are common. There is lots of pollen from the lush vegetation. Anyone with allergies could suffer in this environment.
7. There is crime in Panama. Almost every house in Panama has a high fence around it and iron bars on the doors and windows. Whenever you have a privileged class of people living in close proximity to a much poorer population, crimes of opportunity are not uncommon. Violent crimes are much less common, but not unheard of.
8. Power outages occur on a regular basis. Fortunately, they seldom last more than 30 minutes, but it does make you wonder who is playing with the switches.

The village of Boquete is nestled in a beautiful subalpine rainforest.

The village of Boquete is nestled in a beautiful subalpine rainforest.

I am not bitter about my experience here. There is much to like about Panama, and I am by no means seeking to turn people away. By the same token, I am sharing honest impressions without much sugar-coating. If you find any of this information is helpful, that is good. If you wish to share your own insights and experiences, I welcome your comments. I will be writing from a new venue next week. Adios from Panama.

living in Panama

Costa Rica for the Weekend

The world's largest oxcart is on display in Sarchi, Alajuela, Costa Rica.

The world’s largest oxcart is on display in Sarchi, Alajuela, Costa Rica.

The clouds parted long enough to reveal the lagoon in the crater below.

The clouds parted to reveal the lagoon in the crater below.

After a two week cruise of the Caribbean and a week playing in New Orleans, we included a stopover in Costa Rica on the final leg of our return to Panama. There was insufficient time for cultural immersion and exploration, so we did all the touristy stuff. First was a tour to Volcán Poás National Park in the mountains north of the capital city of San Jose. We arrived so abruptly at 8,000 feet elevation that we didn’t even notice the rarified air. We were completely immersed in the clouds of this alpine jungle. Fortunately, our patience paid off. A sudden break in the clouds revealed the mile wide crater directly below us with its aqua blue lagoon nestled deep within.

The coffee plantation is decorated with immaculate gardens.

The coffee plantation is decorated with immaculate gardens.

On the return drive we stopped at the Doka Coffee Plantation for lunch and a tour. The weather was perfect, the gardens were spectacular, and the coffee was world class, so naturally we bought some. Our tour took us through Grecia, a beautiful town on the eastern edge of the central valley, and home of the Iglesia Metálica, The Metal Church. Anywhere inside or outside the church, if you rap your knuckles against the church wall, it reverberates just like the sound of an iron-hulled ship. The church was shipped in red-painted prefabricated steel sheets from Belgium and assembled in Grecia piece by piece in the 1890’s. The doors and windows were custom-made in Italy.

The Metal Church in Grecia is spectacular inside and out.

The Metal Church in Grecia is spectacular inside and out.

One last stop was an artisan shop in nearby Sarchi. The wood carvings and paintings on display were beautiful. However, nothing surpassed the intricate craftsmanship of the traditional hand-painted oxcarts or carretas. The oxcart tradition dates back to the 19th century. The carts were the only means available to transport coffee from the fields to the shipping ports. Such pride was taken in their construction that only the finest woods were used and the painted designs were ever more elaborate. The spokeless wheels, modeled after the Aztec-style, were designed to keep the wheels from getting bogged down in mud. The Costa Rican government in 1988 declared the carreta the National Symbol of Work. The tradition is kept alive today and celebrated with an annual oxcart parade and a public display of the world’s largest oxcart at the central park in Sarchi.

Local artists create beautiful hand painted oxcarts.

Local artists create beautiful hand painted oxcarts.

I will say the coffee of Costa Rica is every bit as good as that of Panama. I know saying this sounds a little like rooting for the visiting team, but why not? The two countries are similar enough that whatever grows in Panama will grow equally well in Costa Rica. Now I have to make a confession. Upon entering Panama when the bags of Costa Rican coffee were revealed during our luggage inspection, I told the Panama customs officer that we still preferred the coffee of Panama. The thing is I may have overstated that a little.

living in Panama

Uruguay – South America’s Well Kept Secret

Montevideo's Plaza Independencia features a mixed of architectural styles.

Montevideo’s Plaza de Independencia features an interesting mix of architectural styles.

If you know little about Uruguay, that is understandable. Uruguay seems to fly under just about everyone’s radar. The country is largely agricultural with an emphasis on farming, renewable forestry, and grazing land. Little manufacturing takes place in Uruguay, perhaps because her larger neighbors are so dominant at producing and shipping goods. Uruguay seems comfortable wedged between Brazil and Argentina. With over 400 miles of Atlantic coastline and situated at a temperate latitude, Uruguay is perfectly situated to serve as the playground for its wealthier neighbors. Its 68,000 square miles of rolling, fertile countryside, about the size of Missouri, serves as a relaxed getaway for all who come to enjoy the highlights.

Having arrived at the Montevideo airport around midnight, we glimpse silhouettes of palm trees on the drive to our hotel. September is still winter in Uruguay. We wake up the next morning and venture out in the brisk air to gather our first impressions, and we see Montevideo is peaceful, clean, and welcoming. A day tour takes us by train to Juanico to visit the Don Pascual Winery about 20 miles north of the capital, and the award-winning wines we sampled were every bit as good as the fine wines from Argentina and Chile.

Punta del Este's world famous sculpture, El Mano

Punta del Este’s world famous sculpture, El Mano

We choose public transportation to tour the countryside, first to the coast resort cities of Piriopolis, Maldonado, and Punta del Este. Almost everything is closed until the holidays when Argentineans with their families pour across the border by the thousands to summer homes in fancy neighborhoods. Punta del Este actually has a suburb appropriately named Beverly Hills, and it rivals its namesake with its stately mansions and its luxurious estates.

The hot springs near Salto have been turned into a great water park.

The hot springs near Salto have been turned into a great water park.

Our next stop is Cabo Polonia National Park on the Atlantic Coast. This isolated seaside village, accessible only by safari truck, is home to a large herd of seals and features scattered quaint summer cabins, a Coast Guard lighthouse, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of hotels, one of which opens just for us thanks to advance reservations. There are perhaps ten other people in the village, and five of them are in the Coast Guard. Blanca, the hotel housekeeper, prepares us a room and opens the kitchen at dinnertime, providing us with our choice of fried fish or baked fish, with or without mayonnaise. She fires up the hotel generator for an hour or so of light before bedtime. The portable propane heater supplements the wool blankets to keep us warm. The highlight for me is when Blanca shuts down the generator and I step outside into total darkness to see the Southern Cross and strangely new constellations for the first time. It is literally like being on another planet.

The central park in Fray Bentos is scenic and inviting.

The central park in Fray Bentos is scenic and inviting.

Our travel route takes us clear across the country to the western cities of Mercedes, Fray Bentos, Salto, and eventually back to Colonia de Sacramento. Each of these towns has a unique and special appeal. Mercedes has a beautiful riverfront park and spectacular cathedrals and plazas. Fray Bentos is the quaintest of these towns. It features one of the few factories in Uruguay, a paper fiber plant that produces cardboard boxes, mostly for shipping customers in Buenos Aires. Argentina is just across the bridge over the Uruguay River. Salto has an historic playhouse that oozes charm, and there is a nearby hot spring park that we enjoyed on an uncrowded day.

The Street of Sighs retains its appearance from Portuguese colonial times.

The Street of Sighs retains its appearance from Portuguese colonial times.

Colonia de Sacramento was an appropriate location to end our three week tour of Uruguay. The oldest of Uruguay’s cities, it was settled by the Portuguese in 1680. The Spanish and Portuguese fought over this strategic port during colonial times for 150 years. The city changed hands a dozen times between Spain, Portugal and Brazil before it became part of the independent Republic of Uruguay in 1828. One highlight in the historic center of Colonia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the Street of Sighs. Some say this historic street derived its name from the prostitutes who served the desires of sailors visiting the port. Regardless of the story, it remains much the same as it was in colonial times with its cobblestone streets and low stucco houses that now serve as shops to the many tourists. Buenos Aires is 45 minutes away by ferry, and that’s where our travels take us next on our Vacation of a Lifetime.

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