Oaxaca Christmas

Poinsettias at Market

Poinsettias at Market

Oaxaca is justly famous for its Noches de Rabanes, “Night of the Radishes,” which occurs just before December 25. Radishes—yes, radishes—are carved into crèches and other tableaus. Mind you, these are not typical radishes but an unusual variety that grows longer and narrower.

Zocalo and Band

Zocalo and Band



But take almost any night in the weeks leading up to Christmas in Oaxaca, and one would be likely to find a calenda (parade), Guelaguetza (folkloric dances), or posada (a procession of people seeking shelter—party–associated with “finding room at the inn”). On a single evening, a marching band fronted a group of children in costume with one representing Mary on a burro; another band with stilt walkers led the way to the cacao exhibition and tasting; and still another opened the December expo stalls on Calle M. Alcala. These Band drummer childrenNativity marching bands are in addition to the music on the Zocalo (town square), where almost every night about 6:00 pm, music is on the venue. On Wednesday nights, Danzon, a Cuban fusion dance that is a mix of box step and cha-cha-cha brings out old and young light—many in high fashion—to demonstrate their talents. December 18—and the two days priors—features the Virgen de la Soledad, Oaxaca’s patron saint.

Another fascinating aspect of the abundance of music is the wealth of children and young people performing. Several bands featured these young artists. The Casa Cultural of Oaxaca offechildren dancered folkloric dances on a Sunday morning with charming, colorfully dressed youngsters. This venue had free concerts almost daily. We moved from there to the San Pablo Cultural Center to listen to a brass band, while having brunch at the SP Café on its open-air second floor. By the way, the Textile Museum nearby is worth a visit.

However the Rufino Taymao Museum was our favorite, a stellar collection of pre-Columbian artifacts chosen with an eye for their aesthetic appeal and an ethic of protecting them from export or illegal trade. Each room is color-coded and offers written guides in English—unusual for most museums in the city.


Monte Alban




Ethnobotanical Garden

The cultural museum located in the historic cloister at the Santa Domingo Church provides artifacts re-located from the famous Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.


ZapotecFigureBoth it and Mitla are worth the trip out of town. An accessible archaeological account is Michael Lind’s Ancient Zapotec Religion (2015), which has an excellent chapter on Mitla and its fascinating architecture. The ethnobotanical garden is adjacent to the Santa Domingo Church.

For shoppers, Oaxaca offers enormous opportunity although finding high-end interpretations of ethnic clothing is more difficult. (Somehow that colorful embroidered shirt just doesn’t look the same in Oklahoma as it did in Oaxaca. Perhaps that is why there are so many ethnic clothing items on sale at e-bay.) The historic markets at 20 November and Benito Juarez as well as the Artisan Market nearby are well worth a visit. The textiles for tablecloths and “matrimonial” covers (bed spreads) are particularly appealing. Likewise, the wool rugs that come from Teotilan del Valle can be lovely.

Rug Dyes

Rug Dyes at Teotitlan

Prices vary according to whether one purchases from a vendor in the street (literally in the pedestrian street of Alcala after 10 pm when license police have turned in) to the tourist stores. State-run stores like ARIPO (809 Garcia Vigil) or Casa Artesanias (on Matamoros a block from Alcala) offer an overview of crafts. The women’s cooperative on Cinco de Mayo 209 also features a procession of rooms, each with a different craft. High end stores such as Voces de Copal on Alcala are also high end on prices, but the displays are much more attractive with the painted figures cunningly displayed—as opposed to being crowded by the hundreds at other locales.

Oaxaca is about music, festivals, and color, but it’s also very much about food, particularly moles, ranging from Mole Negro to Mole Verde. Tlaycudas offer a mega-quesadilla, and standard quesadillas aremarketsquash blossom also in evidence. It’s possible to spend several hours of a day in a cooking class like those offered at Casa Crespo or at the home of famed cookbook author Susanna Trilling, author of Seasons of My Heart. Our cooking class at the former began by making tortillas from scratch—the corn, which had soaked overnight, was taken to the local grinder, and the pail of dougmarket organich that was returned was formed into regular tortillas and also varieties stuffed with plantain or squash blossom flowers. A trip to the market to acquire local ingredients is generally part of the class.


The Amante Book Store on Alcala is a good source of finding reading material although, as usual, I had stocked up prior to departure from the USA. My plane reading included Oliver Sacks charming Oaxaca Journal (2002), purportedly his report on a botanical trip he took to study ferns, but much more than that, including his observations on Oaxacan life. Oaxaca is both city and state. It’s a quick and enjoyable read.

Because I’m an English professor, I also picked up D. H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927), his musings about living in Oaxaca while completing his novel The Plumed Serpent (1926). Not that it’s possible to tell it’s Oaxaca from the text, which has no real details about where it is set. Lawrence wanders out on walks in the countryside, offering his opinion on their houseboy, who is torn between city and his home village. It’s an atmospheric read but not one that will appeal to many, and that includes me.

Just out in late 2015 is a fascinating graphic novel by Peter Kuper, Ruins. It follows the Ruinstravails of George and Samantha, a New York couple taking sabbatical leave. They happen to land in Oaxaca coinciding with the infamous teacher strike of 2006, which effectively closed the city to tourists for some months and resulted in deaths of strikers and one American journalist. The couple’s story is paired with the flight of a Monarch butterfly making the journey from the USA back to the breeding grounds of Oaxaca; these scenes offer social and cultural critique that proves a picture is worth a thousand words. Kuper, a well known writer and illustrator, first published a nonfiction version of his family’s time in Oaxaca, Diario de Oaxaca. It is also worth rePerfectRedading.

“Mexican gold” is the term given to the legendary red dye derived from the cochineal, and A Perfect Red is the fine history written by Amy Butler Greenfield that describes how Europeans sought out this import from the 16th century. It is to Mexicans what tulips were to the Dutch.

The Old Gringo (1985) by Carlos Fuentes is a terrific novel about Ambrose Bierce’s last days in Mexico, when he gets entangled with the Revolution, Pancho Villa, and General Tomas Arroyo. Bierce is the author of such acerbic works as The Devil’s Dictionary and the short story that every high school student must surely read, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” (Bierce has been appropriated as a detective in a series of mystery novels by Oakley Hall set in San Francisco at the BenitoJuarezturn of the 20th century.) Oaxaca features the childhood home of Benito Juarez, the only indigenous president of the nation. Find it on Garcia Vigil near the Carmen Convent. And then have a mescal cocktail on the rooftop terrace of Mezquite nearby and watch the sun set.

Noted author Richard Ford set his The Ultimate Good Luck (1987) in Oaxaca, the story of a Vietnam veteran who travels to the city to get his girlfriend’s brother out of jail. The reviews term this “a guys’ book,” and one character is called a “suavely sadistic drug dealer.” Frankly, cocaine is not the subject of a relaxing vacation read, so I gave this one a pass.

Oaxacan author Daniel Sada (1953-2011) penned Almost Never (2008) about a lonely agrarian accountant who seeks sex in a brothel and then love and marriage with a virginal girl he meets by chance at a wedding. Set in 1945, it has disconcerting notes about Hiroshima and the atom bomb. Although critically praised, it is sexually explicit and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.posada-del-cacao

One other book we must recommend: Viva Oaxaca (2012) by Robert Adler and Jo Ann Wexler. This guidebook provided excellent advice on what to see, where to eat, and where to shop. Likewise, the Oaxaca calendar website, overseen by Margie Barclay, delivered excellent information on events, museums and gallery, and restaurants. Unfortunately, she has given hot chocolatenotice that she will quit early in 2016. One hopes a successor will take on this overwhelming job; otherwise, travelers may be reduced to studying the numerous posters along the streets to find out what’s on when. But then, what a good excuse for early walks around town after a breakfast that includes the city’s stunning hot chocolate.


Biking, Walking, and Reading Vancouver (British Columbia)

Stanley Park in Vancouver is a delight, a joyride for a bicyclist. I rented a bike from a nearby shop and took off on a counter clockwise path that traces the seawall. The 9 km ride was so much fun that I did it a second time. The trail goes by several landmarks, including a 1972 sculpture that is Vancouver’s version of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid: Girl in a Wetsuit. The path passes by Brockton Point Lighthouse, gives a glorious view of Lions Gate Bridge high overhead, and reveals Siwash Rock around a bend. The Nine O’Clock Gun occurs early in the path, a cannon placed in the 1890s, and shot at nine pm each night so that ships could set their chronometers.

Nine O’Clock Gun is also the title of two novels, the first written by Roland Wild (1952) and a more recent gumshoe detective novel by Jim Christy (2008). 9oclockGun

The book by Wild begins with 80-year-old Neil McKay, a Scottish immigrant, reflecting on his life in Vancouver from the late 1880s to post-World War II. In so doing, he traces the history of the city from its start as Gastown (created by “Gassy” Jack), then to Granville, and finally to Vancouver. Ever wonder why Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island? Blame the owners of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. When they pushed the transcontinental railroad through, the government of British Columbia acceded to their wishes to rename the city for Captain George Vancouver, much to the dismay of the inhabitants of Vancouver Island, already named for the 18th century explorer.

Wild’s novel begins on Howe Street; as it happened, I stayed in a hotel located on the same avenue. Recognition of places within a narrative is one of the real treats of reading literature set in the locales where one travels. The statue of Gassy Jack and the Steam-Powered Clock in Gastown mean more after reading pleasurable titles set in the area.

Granville’s name resides now on an island, where a fabulous public market offers local food, arts, and crafts. Another Granville is the main character in The Silk Train Murder (Klondike Era Mystery Series, 2007) by Sharon Rowse. Set in 1899, it features a little known historical factoid, that the silk imported from China to make its way to the eastern seaboard was more valuable than gold and required special train cars for transport—trains that needed protection, and thereby hangs the tale.

For a more contemporary look at Vancouver, read Stanley Park (2001) by Timothy Taylor, that follows the trials of chef Jeremy Papier, whose new restaurant Monkey’s Paw Bistro is on the brink of financial ruin. Surely Kiwi Frederique, a bleeding-edge restaurant critic who appears late in the narrative, is one of the best creations by a novelist. Taylor’s satiric and often comic critique of contemporary cuisine is biting and fun. A subplot involves Jeremy’s anthropologist father, who is living in Stanley Park to study the homeless. Yet another subplot focuses on the unsolved murder of two children whose bodies were uncovered in the park.


Bill Reid Sculpture at MOA

Vancouver offers much to see and do: take the charming ferries on False Creek from the city to the market on Granville Island; visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia to view the grand totems and Bill Reid’s wonderful centerpiece sculpture of Raven creating the world; follow up with a visit of Reid’s Art Gallery downtown (readers can see his illustrations in Raven’s Cry, a novel by Christie Harris about the Haida of Queen Charlotte’s Island); dine at one of the many restaurants in Yaletown. yaletown

Two used bookstores deserve mention: MacLeod’s and the Paper UmbrellaShopHound, both with helpful staff, and both located on Pender Street. The street is also home to the charming Umbrella Shop (with two other locations, one on Granville Island). In business since 1935 in a city where people own multiple umbrellas, The Umbrella Shop is a delightful stopWeeds. And then there is Weeds, a chain store devoted to the bud.


Walking the streets of Vancouver or biking its 28 km seawall are enhanced by reading these novels to get a sense of its past and present. For more great reads set in Vancouver, check out this article, “Top Ten Books about Vancouver,” by George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun, April 8, 2011: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/books+about+Vancouver/4524537/story.html. Next up on my reading list: Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson, a free e-book that recounts Squamish legends in the prose of the time (1911).



Victoria, British Columbia: Illuminating Emily Carr


The Fairmont Empress Hotel


Water Taxi

A tour guide quipped that Victoria, British Columbia is home to newlyweds, the nearly dead, and flower beds. Honeymooners, retired folks, and gardeners—as well as many others—will find much to like in this lovely city with its Inner Harbor dominated by the stately Fairmont Empress Hotel. Floatplanes take off and land at the rate of thousands per year. It’s even possible to fly into the cove near world-famous Butchart Gardens to check out the recovered limestone quarries that display formal and informal landscaping. Checker Taxis of the water kind dart about the harbor carrying passengers.

ForestLoverMy favorite way to enter a new landscape is through books. Victoria did not disappoint. Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, a fictional account of painter Emily Carr, provides history and art simultaneously. Who was Emily Carr? Often paired with Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo, Carr (1871-1945) is considered a truly Canadian artist who depicted First Nations people and their culture with sensitivity and emotion. The youngest of five sisters, only one of whom married, she was a rebel who defied family to study art. Her family, and, in fact, Victoria and Vancouver society at large, could not understand her fascination with “Indian things.” She did not carry with her the prejudices that permeated her social class.

Living on next to nothing, in spite of a trust that was gripped in the iron hand of elder sisters, Carr traveled—a woman alone—to remote native villages to capture in water colors the totem poles and other figures that were rapidly being sold or taken to museums and collectors.

“My mind was made up [after seeing what had been done as a tourist site at Sitka]. I was going to picture the totem poles in their village settings, as complete a collection of them as I could.”

Canadian government outlawed totem poles for nearly 70 years (1884-1951). The painful history of subjugating First Nations culture surfaced in Truth and Reconciliation talks in June, 2015, particularly the horrific treatment of children in residential schools, leading government officials to apologize for past offenses.

Carr painted initially in watercolor as oil was prohibited for women. Eventually, she studied in Paris with post-Impressionists, who influenced her later work. The “Group of Seven,” artists who had been accepted by the Canadian Establishment touted her work.


Emily Carr Childhood Home & Museum

Vreeland traces her history from outcast to highly regarded artist representing Western Canada and British Columbia. She fails to note, however, that Carr, unsuccessful as a painter, made her name first as a writer. (And, Vreeland takes some license with facts in this novel.) A visit to the Emily Carr Family Home in Victoria reveals that Carr penned multiple books, some featuring the hapless tenants of her boarding house and others focusing on her own life: Klee Wyck, The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), and (published posthumously) Growing Pains (1946), Pause, The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and Hundreds and Thousands (1966). The cats in residence continue her legacy through a blog! Her work is to be found in her childhood home, the Victoria Art Gallery, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria also has a good collection, but it may not be on view. Carr’s work can fetch as much as $1.5 million in the current art market.

In addition to the work about and by Carr, several book titles illuminate Victoria’s past and present.

  • The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by Jack Valliant (award winning nonfiction)
  • Read an excellent essay in The New Yorker about how Hollywood star John Barrymore stole a Totem Pole (which eventually wound up in Vincent Price’s backyard) to understand how native peoples so often lost their heritage. (This particular totem pole was from southeastern Alaska, but the same story is played out time and time again at coastal villages.)   Source: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/the-tallest-trophy.
  • Before I Wake, Robert J Wiersema, 2006 (seems to be about a tragic accident involving a child but then turns supernatural)
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. This is a classic book about a terminally ill priest who goes to live in a First Nations Village. Admittedly, I have some difficulty with the disastrous consequences of Christianity imposed on native peoples, but this is a beautifully written story about one man coming to terms with his own death. A film was made near Tofino in 1972.
  • Stanley Evans writes “Touchwood Mysteries” series, featuring Silas Seaweed, a Coast Salish cop, and these are set in Victoria. Seaweed on Ice (2010) focuses on the recovery of Nazi-stolen works of art.
  • Rebecca Godfrey writes realistic, young adult novels such as The Torn Skirt (2008). Victoria is not all manicured flowerbeds.
  • Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride Ships by Peter Johnson, the story of women from England, who in 1862, sailed into Victoria as potential brides.
  • Carol Anne Shaw writes mystery/supernatural books for young readers: Hannah and the Spindle Whorl and Hannah and the Salish Sea.
  • Innocent Cities, by Jack Hodgins (set in 19th century)
  • Vancouver Island Scoundrels, Eccentrics, and Originals: Tales from the Library Vault, by Stephen Ruttan (2013)

A geographic note: Victoria is on Vancouver Island; however, Vancouver is not. It is on the mainland. Victoria can be reached only by sea or air and has no connecting roads or bridges–which is how the city wishes it to remain.

Tuff City Books: Tofino, British Columbia

IMG_3133Tofino, British Columbia is literally the end of the road—Highway 4—on Vancouver Island, but until 1961, no road existed. All transportation was by boat. Now, the village of 2000 has been discovered, featured in travel magazines for the best surfing in North America, demonstrated by Surf Sister, an outfit that specializes in getting more women on boards.


IMG_3142The Pacific Rim National Park provides short (1-2K) hikes, but these are eclipsed by the dramatic, privately developed (by Oyster Jim) Wild Pacific Trail that starts near the “other” town on this western coast: Ucluelet. Stunning old growth cedars and rockIMG_3143y headlands look out onto the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The lighthouse, celebrating its centenary, was erected the year after a four-masted steel boat sank within sight of shore in 1905.



Revolution Market

Fresh seafood can be found in the fish & chip joints (e.g, Wildside Grill) and the upscale restaurants (e.g, Wolf in the Fog, Shelter)—even gooseneck barnacles. The hippie holdover culture is also evident in such places as Revolution.

Whale and bear watching trips are common on board charter boats, and up to 100 people a day may take the boat ride to Hot Springs Cove for a 2K boardwalk hike followed by a mellowing dip and then lunch at the seasonal Copper Rose docked at the government wharf.

By the way, almost all hikes are on boardwalks. The Wild Pacific Trail is an exception as is the Tonquin Trail near Tofino.

It’s only natural in such a watery environment that boat books triumph. A lusty, funny memoir by Andrew Struthers, The Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan (2004), integrates his own story with lore from Torino and the surrounding towns and villages. It’s a great way to learn about Tofino, its surfing devotees, and the characters who populate the place. Why is there a metal truss around the Elk Cedar near Jamie’s Whaling Station? Struthers reveals the back-story on this and many more insider facts. He is also the award-winning author of The Green Shadow, which recounts the tussle between environmentalists and business interests in the 1990s. His latest book, Around the World on Minimum Wage, includes some Tofino stories.

Chasing Clayoquot (2004) is a transcendental meditation by David Pitt-Brooke on the Clayoquot Sound on a monthly basis, twelve essays for the year. We kayaked on the Sound, finding osprey, juvenile Bald Eagles, stars, bull kelp, and burrowing cucumbers—as well as industrial barges.

IMG_3100Typically, my travel books are e-editions, easier to pack and carry, but for this trip, I could not resist supporting Mermaid Tales Bookshop. With an excellent selection of local books, it also has a fine stock of books overall as well as whimsical kites.

Tofino attracts interesting individuals, and many of them seem to have finally written the books inside them. Several that follow are self-published. It’s grand that people can get their work out to audiences, but sometimes the lack of professional editing does show.

Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History, by Margaret Horsfield and Ian Kenn

Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino, 1899-1929 by Margaret Horsfield

Road’s End: Tales of Tofino


Salt in Our Blood

Clamming Up (Kate O’Malley Series Book) by Lee-Anne Stack


The Wild Edge

Women of the West Coast

Silent Inlet

Murder in Parksville; Confusion in Tofino by Jennifer Lafortune

The Sobo Cookbook (from the restaurant of the same name)

Children’s Books:

May Leads the Way: Trouble Near Tofino (featuring the dog, May the K9 Spy, Book 3), by KC Frantzen and TW Vanya

The Oyster that Looked at the Sky by Darcy Dobell

It’s no wonder that Tofino with its dramatic shoreline, thick forests, and beautiful Sound—coupled with the culture of First Nations and a working community—increasingly is becoming a  vacation destination.

IMG_3140 IMG_3126



Arty Books for Amsterdam

I’ve often said that I like my history as fiction, and after a visit to Amsterdam and The Hague, I’m going to add art to the list. Art abounds in The Netherlands, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Mauritshuis in The Hague have recently reopened after renovation.



Seeing the Mauritshuis work in a traveling show at the Frick in NYC over Thanksgiving, 2013, while restorations were taking place back in The Netherlands, whetted my appetite to visit the site. It is an elegant gem, home to stellar works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other masters.


The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt

GoldfinchIts “Goldfinch” became increasingly popular with Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel.

The work that became meaningful for me, though, on this trip was Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp,” said to be the painting that made Rembrandt’s name; it’s the first work that he signed “Rembrandt,” rather than RHL.

The back-story, found in the novel of the same name by Nina Siegal (2014), is fascinating. The points of view of Aris Kindt (the body), his girlfriend, Dr. Tulp, the corpse finder and preparator, the painter, and others involved offer a fuller picture of why this is such an important painting. It also gives readers insights into 17th century Dutch culture, where one public dissection was allowed annually. Difficult to imagine, but the event was a popular social event—with a lavish banquet afterward. Tulp was not the physician’s real name; it was changed from Claes Pieterszoon when he adopted the tulip as his heraldic symbol. The tulip was so popular that when people saw the good doctor in his carriage with its tulip emblem, they naturally began calling him Dr. Tulp. He did not demure.


Curio Room at Rembrandt’s House


Rembrandt’s house and its fascinating curio room is a good locale for getting to canalpicknow this important painter. His penchant for collecting the weird and wonderful is a theme in the novel. Follow the wonderful cobble-stoned streets along canals to climb the narrow stairs of his home.


Bulbs for sale at the flower market

The history of the tulip and its economic stardom plays out in the last novel Alexandre Dumas wrote: Black Tulip (1850). A competition with a significant winner’s fee is set for the first person to produce a black tulip. In the Rijksmuseum, I happened upon a grotesque painting of two statesmen–brothers Johan and Cornelius de Witt—crucified and disemboweled. It was unsettling, but in that wonderful synchronicity that occurs when reading for travel, I found that their execution opens Dumas’ novel.

Tulip Mania occurred some 30 years prior to the black tulip contest. Think of it as the dot.com bubble of the 17th century. Tulip Fever (1999), a novel by Deborah Moggach, who also authored The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, focuses on a love triangle in which the painter hired to portray the wife of businessman falls in love with her, and they enter the risky speculative tulips market.

Tom Stoppard wrote the TulipFeverscreenplay for Tulip Fever, which premieres in 2015. By the way, Moggach wrote the TV adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, most likely the #1 read for anyone visiting Amsterdam and the heartbreaking attic rooms where the family lived until being arrested during World War II.

PearlEarringVermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring is the subject of the admired novel (Tracy Chevalier, 1999) and film of the same name. Susan Vreeland also enters Vermeer country with her Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999). While not a novel, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is historian Timothy Brook’s argument that globalization began in the 17th century with explorations taken on by the Dutch and Portuguese in particular.

Other books that may appeal to travelers to Amsterdam and The Netherlands: Chris Ewan’s comic whodunit series, which begins with The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam (2007), and the satiric The UnDutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (2013). The latter may help understand a culture where the Red Light District is marked on the map, and shop stock ranges from condoms to ducks, while “coffee shops” post signs “No Tobacco Allowed,” but quite obviously from the aroma, other smoking is.


Chef ducks, doctor ducks, Elvis ducks, . . .


"Coffee" Shop

“Coffee” Shop

Coda: The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey (2005), although not related to The Netherlands, is yet another excellent read about an artist: Gustav Klimt. It’s particularly timely with the film Woman in Gold (2015).

Barcelona Books

4Catssign 4Cats IMG_2982Hemingway and Picasso hung out at Quatre Gats (4 Cats) on atmospheric Mont Sio, one of the narrow pedestrian streets that defines the Gothic quarter in Barcelona. Picasso’s drawing for the menu of the restaurant is unrecognizable from those who know his avant-garde work. His first exhibition took place in February, 1900 at the 4 Cats. Early works depicting his intereBoteroGatost in the human figure and portraiture is on display at the excellent Picasso Museum.

Yet another cat to seek: Botero’s oversize Gato.

londonBarA popular hangout for the literary crowd—Hemingway, Orwell–was the London Bar at Carrer Nou de la Rambla, just across the street from an early Gaudi work, the Palau Güell (1886–88). Where didn’t Hemingway imbibe?

Barcelona is a paradise for architecture. Gaudi is rightly famous for his fantastical, nature inspired buildings, including the still-being-built Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera (1906–1910), and, my personal favorite, the Casa Batlló.


La Pedrera


Sagrada Familia and its Stained Glass




Another not-to-be-missed architect is Lluís Domènech i Montaner, whose Hospital de Sant Pau and Palau de la Música Catalana are both stunning. The former is accessible by walking the lovely Gaudi Avenue from the Sagrada Familia. The latter is somewhat hidden near the Gothic Quarter but worth finding; even better, attend a performance in the enchanting hall, filled with light from its stained glass ceiling.






All of these buildings have features that look like the late 19th-early 20th century architects could have been high on speed. Colored broken tiles decorate rooftop vents and sculptures, such as the lizard at Park Guell.ParkGuell



MiespavilonFor an entirely different architectural experience, visit the Barcelona Pavilion by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—one of the most influential buildings of the last century. Designed for the 1929 International Exhibition and then rebuilt in the 1980s, its simple lines are enticing after the whirl and swirl of Gaudi. Or, check out the Roman columns of an ancient forum found by venturing into a lovely courtyard. RomanColumns

What to read in a city filled with such extraordinary sights? The UK’s The Guardian provides a good starting point with its “Top Ten Books Set in Barcelona”: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/jun/08/top-10-books-barcelona-burgess. I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s marvelous The Shadow of the Wind (2001) some years ago. Quatre Gats is one setting featured in the novel. Who can resist the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” in this literary thriller? From this list, I picked out a detective novel, The Angst-Ridden Executive. I’m not sure I’ll read the other 21 titles in the series, but José “Pepe” Carvalho, not only a detective but also a gourmet chef, provides walkers of Barcelona’s streets with familiar signposts such as La Rambla, a popular, tourist-filled boulevard.

The Guardian also provides a helpful list of “literary haunts”: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/jun/08/top-10-literary-haunts-barcelona.

I find it helpful when seeking RoadWorks to browse the shelves of the shops at landmark sites. The store at Gaudi’s La Pedrera offered these titles: The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones; Victus: The Fall of Barcelona by Albert Sanchez Pinoi; The Time in Between by Maria Duenas; The Angel’s Game, also by Zafon. Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones, reminiscent of Pillars of the Earth, describes the building of the Santa Maria del Mar Church, not far from the Picasso Museum.

The most enjoyable novel I read while in Barcelona was not on any of these lists: Love in Small Letters by Francesc Miralles. Those familiar with The Rosie Project may see similarities in this charming novel about an academic—a professor of German language and literature—who fears that he will be found dead in his apartment some years after the fact as he leads a lonely existence. The “Butterfly Effect” changes his life on New Year’s Day when a cat scratches at his door, and he succumbs to giving it a saucer of milk. How one small incident can lead to a transformation in an individual’s life is the plot of this funny and charming book. Follow Samuel through the streets of Barcelona, If you’ve been to Museum of Modernism (Art Nouveau), Balmes Avenue will be immediately recognizable. Miralles’ book provides a light and airy alternative to the more typical darker literature of the city.

BarcelonaCathedralgothicbridgeWalking in the same streets as authors and characters is always fun, recognizing places from the narrative, like a medieval bridge joining two buildings near the Cathedral. In Barcelona particularly, good places to eat are also easy to find, like a lovely cheese shop that offers a delightful cheese tasting for lunch: Formatgeria La Seu. Onofre Wine Shop and Deli is yet another delectable option. IMG_2960

Delicious reads. Delicious sights. Delicious eats. Barcelona truly is a spectacular city.


Sintra, Portugal: Medieval Gem


Palace Kitchen

SintraPena palaceclockSintrapalaceSintra, Portugal, a short drive or train ride from Lisbon, is a hidden gem. The medieval hillside town served as the summer residence of royalty, and not surprisingly, several palaces are in evidence and can be visited. But surprisingly, one of the royal retreats, Pena Palace, is a fantastical place, like something out of Disneyland with its bright turrets and mountaintop location, surrounded by lush gardens and park. It overlooks the more historic Moorish Castle.

Other palaces to visit: Monserrate Palace, Seteais Palace, Quintada Regaleira and the Sintra National Palace. Gardens and parks welcome walkers and picnickers. Although the roads are narrow, it’s a very walkable town, and tourists can divert into parks if traffic gets a bit hairy.

What to read while staying in such a magical place? Eça de Queiroz was one of the sintrabookcoverleading writers of the late 19th century, admired by French writer Emile Zola. His Mystery of the Sintra Road is available as a free ebook, and it was also made into a film in 2007. A romantic whodunit, the novel is also satirical of society of the time. I found it reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ novels, such as Woman in White.

Visitors to Sintra will find many establishments named after Lord Byron, who greatly admired the town, so much so that he described it as “glorio41UKiT2dUSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_us Eden” in his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Sintra is well worth a multiple-day visit. Avoid being a day-tripper and take in the delights of the town with its stunning vistas, horticultural havens, and healthy walks.


Navigating the World – Portugal Explorers

One of my favorite historical novels is Anya Seton’s Katherine, the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt and eventually his third wife. John is the father of Henry Bolingbroke, who took over the throne from the ineffectual Richard II, as Shakespeare so beautifully demonstrated. 220px-Filipa_lencastre

Phillipa tomb

Tomb of Queen Philippa and King Joan in an unusual affectionate pose.

Another child of John of Gaunt, Phillipa, became in her own right one of the most influential monarchs in history when she married Joan III (John) of Portugal. Thought to be too old a bride at 27, Phillipa of Lancaster actually turned a political Anglo-Portuguese alliance into a love match. The king gave up his mistress and devoted himself to his family. Phillipa was well educated herself and ensured that her offspring were similarly schooled. Four sons had significant impact on the history of Portugal, but none more than Infante Henry.

Henry’s 14th-century childhood is illustrated in the lovely children’s book, The Miracle Dogs of Portugal, about the canines famous for their prowess in helping fishermen. They actually herd fish into nets! (The book also mentions that a Portuguese Water Dog lives at the White House, the photogenic “Bo.”)

The Infante Henry grew up believing in the importance of intellectual inquiry in all areas, but particularly in science and navigation.


AlbuQuerque, explorer

IMG_2743Could it be possible to establish a trade route to the Orient? What lay beyond the western shores of Europe? Henry’s work led to the important voyages of Christopher Columbus, who was from Santos, the Portuguese island close by Madeira; Vasco da Gama, who established a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and Asia; Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition circumnavigated the globe. There is also Afonso de Albuquerque, whose name eventually “landed” in New Mexico. No wonder Henry’s 19th century biographers dubbed him “The Navigator.”


Henry “the Navigator”

Lisbon’s Marine Museum documents this glorious history well. Henry’s statue graces the entry. It is backed by an important map of the world illustrating the Pope’s division of the world into two parts: Spain would have ownership of all lands west of a certain latitude in theIMG_2741 Atlantic; Portugal was given lands east. Only Brazil extended into Portugal’s legitimate territory, explaining why it is the only South American country that speaks Portuguese. The Museum of Fine Arts includes works from the countries explored (and exploited). For instance, Japanese screens depict Portugese visitors in fancy European garb.

Road Works that illuminate this important history of Portugal include the comprehensive Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life by Peter Russell (2001), Portugal’s Golden Years: The Life and Times of Prince Henry “The Navigator” (2006) by Carlos B. Carreiro, and The Last Crusade (2011), Nigel Cliff’s award-winning account of da Gama’s discoveries.


Tower of Bellem, set mid-river, which was a beacon for sailors leaving and returning.

The monument of discovery, a site close by the popular Tower of Bellem (Bethlehem), includes sculpted depictions of Portuguese explorers.


Philippa on the Discovery Monument

Only one woman is included in this group of men: Phillipa of Lancaster. She is deserving of a fine biography. It’s a book I’d certainly put on my Road Works list.

Life on the Douro River



Dam, lock, and Viking River Cruise Vessel


Bridge Over the Douro at Night

Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens’ pseudonym, refers to two fathoms—safe waters—for steamboats to travel the Mississippi. Navigating Portugal’s “River of Gold,” the Douro, takes careful navigating, not only for its captains plying the increasingly popular tourist route but also for readers. Cruises begin in Porto, which gave its name to harbors as well as to the famous fortified wine. The nearly 600-mile river narrows precipitously in parts, and the highest lock in Europe at 108 feet lifts and lowers specially built riverboats. The steep riverbanks are lined with quintas, massive wine estates. Sandeman, known by its trademark of a mysIMG_2915terious, caped figIMG_2832ured is an easily recognized one. Douro Valley: Journeys and Stories provides a guidebook to the region.IMG_2834


Two mysteries help guests wile away the hours on the sundeck of the river cruisers. The first, Death on the Douro by Roger Aspler (1997), begins with the dramatic death of the “Baron,” Joseph James Forester, a British gentleman who crusaded for higher port standards and who famously mapped the dramatic landscape of the Douro Valley. He drowned in a cataract known as the Devil’s Cauldron when his boat overturned, his body never found. The narrative flashes forward to a more contemporary time with Canadian wine journalist and amateur detective, Eric Brant, called in by a quinta owner to investigate mysterious happenings at the estate near Pinhao. Notable for its excellent details about port and its production, Death on the Douro is less effective as fiction. The protagonist, an aging and out-of-shape connoisseur of wine, somehow finds beautiful women attracted to him. The author commits the crime of “bringing a gun on stage and not having it go off.” Subplots that don’t go anywhere couple with grammatical errors. A nasty dangling modifier early on is confusing. As I’ve said before, where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? Or perhaps the self-professed “Comma Queen” of The New Yorker could be brought on board.


Bookshop in Porto

A much better written novel is The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Italian author Antonio Tabucchi. Although it doesn’t stray from the main setting of Porto, it delivers local color. A young tabloid journalist, Firmino, is sent from Lisbon to Porto (also called Oporto) to investigate a gruesome murder. He has a prejudice about Porto but purchases a guidebook—perhaps from the famous Lello & Firmao bookshop—to learn more about the city. (The art nouveau bookstore, called one of the most beautiful in the world, was a favorite haunt of J. K. Rowling, when she taught English as a second language in Porto.)

Interior staircase at bookshop.

Interior staircase at bookshop.



Tripe at market

Defying expectations, this thriller is also a terrific place to learn about the food of Portugal. Firmino is not fond of Porto’s favored dish: tripe. Truly, Portugal eats the pig from tip to tail. (I passed on pickled pig’s ears.) Rojoes a la mode de Minho is a favorite of the narrator, the slow-cooked pork and potatoes that we ate at the Alpendurada Monastery turned hotel-restaurant, still cooked in the traditional way in wood-fired ovens. Slow-cured hams and local olives offer tasty bites before a meal. The novel’s emphasis on food is carried along by a philosophizing lawyer and gourmand who has a strong resemblance to Charles Laughton.


IMG_2893To check out enticing recipes, seek out cookbooks that feature updates on traditional recipes, such as The New Portuguese Table by David Leite, which includes recipes like a fresh fava bean and fennel salad. Traveling along the Douro will work up an appetite as tours visit not only wineries but also UNESCO-certified heritage bakeries like the ones in Favaios, famous for “Four Corner” bread that takes its shape from ancient Roman recipes.IMG_2909

The town of 1,000 produces eight times its population daily to supply this popular staple to other towns. It’s also the home of muscatel. A wine cooperative produces 30 million bottles of the sweet beverage annually, but the number is misleading as most of the containers are small—just large enough to be added to a glass of beer, an unusual but popular pairing. Tour guides wear shirts labeled “Follow Me. I know where the wine is.”IMG_2916






Slicing cured ham in Salamanca.

River cruises end at the border of Spain, and day trips by bus take in the golden city of Salamanca, home to the fourth oldest university in Europe. Read the 12th entry in Bernard Cornwall’s popular series—Sharpe’s Sword—to find a novel set in this university town during the Napoleonic Wars.


Plaza Mayor in Salamanca




For a fun read, try the nonfiction Cork Boat (2004) which details John Pollack’s funky dream to build a boat out of wine corks (165,000+) and rubber bands (15,000) in Washington, DC, where he was a speech writer for President Clinton, and have it shipped to Portugal, where he sailed up and back down the Douro River! The home of cork loved this adventure and celebrated his successful return to Porto. The memoir also demonstrates Pollack’s alacrity with language; he won the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Offs. If only we’d known. Our collection of corks saved for some eventual project—cork wreath, cork bulletin boards—is about to overwhelm. Check out a YouTube video of the final product. It takes about 50% of the book to arrive on the Douro River, but then there are terrific details about the area.


In the lock.


The lock entrance, where a gate will descend and enclose the boat for lifting.

The trip back down the Douro River includes five locks to be maneuvered. Although dams have tamed the Devil’s Cauldron, the often narrow river channel requires a savvy captain to find safe waters.IMG_2844

Finding Fernando in Portugal

“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

 Finding authors in country is always a challenge unless they’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature as Jose Saramago of Portugal did in 1998. He has many titles from which to choose. I selected the historical novel, Baltasar and Blimunda (1998), as it is set during the Inquisition.

Pessoa as painted by NegreirosThe real find, though, in my mind, is Fernando Pessoa, enigmatic author who has been adopted as an icon. The plane we traveled on TAP (Portugal’s airline) was branded with his name. His image appears everywhere, striding confidently forward in fedora, bowtie, and long coat. A famous painting by Almada Negreiros shows him writing at a café (1934). By the way, Negreios is part of the modernist movement in which Pessoa is also a figure; the former’s Manifesto Anti-Dantes (1915) still has legs—even being adopted by a Taberna.

Pessoa authored poems such as the lines that appear above—a portion of a longer work; novels; and even a guide to Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See.

What the Tourist Should See

What the Tourist Should See

Who is Fernando Pessoa?

Born in 1888 in Lisbon, his family moved to South Africa when he was a child, so that he was fluent in both Portuguese and English. He was intensely patriotic; it’s said that he was disgusted that his schoolmates did not realize that the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown were named by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. He returned to Lisbon as an adult and set about rectifying the country’s reputation as it was no longer carried the status it once did as the home of Explorers who had changed the world by discovering trade routes and making the globe somewhat smaller. The sadness and nostalgia for an earlier time is termed saudade, and its most eloquent embodiment is heard in Fado music.

One of the reasons Pessoa is a man of mystery is due to the fact that he published his work under many names. Influenced by Walt Whitman—“I contain multitudes”—he used heteronyms–multiple pseudonyms. Some of have called him “the four greatest Portuguese poets of the twentieth century.” His 35 Sonnets is available for free download as an e-book.

IMG_2813He’s also the author of The Book of Disquiet, a novel that’s been called one of the greatest works of the twentieth century. Why isn’t Pessoa better known? In addition to the difficulty of uncovering Pessoa within so many noms de plume, there’s also the problem that much of his work was discovered in a trunk after his death in 1935. An international team of scholars set about organizing the 27,000 documents that had not yet been published, The Book of Disquiet and What the Tourist Should See among them.IMG_2728


Brasileria Cafe

Although the guide was written in 1925, it remains amazingly readable, relevant, interesting, and popular. To visit Pessoa’s haunts, go to the Largo Chiado (largo is a public square) and its art nouveau Brasileira Café, where you’ll be able to take a selfie with the sculpted PesIMG_2754soa. Take in the tile-fronted buildings, enjoy a coffee, and read some of Pessoa’s words such as this delightful verse, part of a longer work.


Cat, you tumble down the street

As if it were our bed.

I think such luck’s a treat,

Like feeding without being fed.

 Coda: Other authors to note include the “Bard of Portugal,” Camoes, who authored the epic poem The Lusiads to memorialize Vasco da Gama’s tremendous accomplishment in 1498 of finding a trade route to India and China. It is mandatory reading for Portuguese school children. FYI: the Romans called Portugal Lusitania, the origin of Lusiads title. Tombs for both Camoes and da Gama are in the significant landmark, St. Geronimo’s Monastery in Lisbon, near the Tower of Bellem, another prized tourist site.

St. Geronimo's Monastery

St. Geronimo’s Monastery

Chiado and Carmo are two other well known poets. Eca de Querios (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; The Mystery of the Sintra Road) is a late 19th century novelist.

Although not Portuguese, one other “classic” author who addresses Portuguese is English novelist, Henry Fielding, famous for Tom Jones, and less well known for his memoir, The Journal of a Voyage to Portugal, where he was sent to regain his health. Even though he died shortly after arrival, the narrative from the mid-eighteenth century demonstrates his keen eye and biting social commentary.

Another snippet from Pessoa, in parting:

The poet is a feigner

Who’s so good at his act

He even feigns the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.