The Home of Currywurst

Berlin is not an easy city to visit on a Baltic cruise.  Viking chartered a train to carry 850 people on the 2.5 hour trip from the port to Berlin.  The train was met by buses that gave us a brief tour of the city and then dropped us off to explore on our own.  The process was reversed in the afternoon, and it all went very smoothly.  It was almost a twelve hour trip beginning at 6 AM, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Interestingly, almost all of our time was spent in East Berlin.  Rick Steves also says that is where the best sights are located.  The city reminded us of being in China with construction cranes everywhere.  They are also expanding the subway system, so many of the streets were torn up. The Communists were not big on maintenance, so it is common to see a lot of construction and refurbishment in former Communist countries.

The  Brandenburg gate was built in 1790 as one of the gates to the walled city of Berlin.  When Berlin was divided after WW II, it became part of the Berlin Wall.  It was here that Ronald Reagan implored Mr. Gorbachev to “Tear down that wall!”.  It is now a symbol of unity in Germany.  The first picture is with our friends and frequent travel companions, Jean and Ron from Minnesota.The Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, is located one block from Brandenburg Gate on the western side of the wall.  It was abandoned during the Cold War when the capital of West Germany was moved to Bonn.  It has been restored and a modern glass dome has been added to the roof.The US Embassy is located immediately adjacent to Brandenburg gate on the eastern side.  It is the least protected US Embassy I have seen.  Germany wanted the area near the Gate to be open, so additional protections were built into the building.There are memorials scattered all over Berlin.  This one located at the entrance to the Reichstag has a piece of slate for each member of Parliament killed in the Cold War. This is the Holocaust memorial officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The use of the word “murdered” in the name was a big deal as it officially acknowledged the nature of the crime.  The site contains 2711 gravestone like pillars of various heights.  There is no significance to the number.  The pillars are located in a rolling, sunken area so that the exits always appear to be at a higher elevation.  Interpretation of the memorial is left to the visitor.One of many beautiful plazas.  You can see that the day changed from grey and gloomy to a beautiful blue sky day.You see these blue pipes above ground all over the city.  The water table lies only ten feet below the surface, so you have to pump water out of all the construction sites.And finally the subject of the post, currywurst.  This is a German fast food dish that originated in Berlin.  None of us had heard of it before this trip and we had all been in Germany previously, so I have to think it is most popular in Berlin.  There were currywurst stands everywhere.  By tradition, each mayorial candidate has their picture taken next to a currywurst stand.  It is a bratwurst with curry added, covered with a curry cartsup, and then sprinkled with curry.   I must note here that I was the only one brave enough to try it.  I definitely pronounce it delicious, but I do like curry.  I accompanied mine with sauerkraut, but french fries are more traditional.  No, I did not suffer from indigestion that night.

The World’s Happiest People

In recent times, Denmark has consistently ranked near the top as “happiest country”.  It would seem that you would have to love your government to be a Happy Dane.  They pay income taxes of 40 to 60 percent.  What money they have left to spend goes partly to a value added tax (which is 28 percent if I remember correctly what our Danish table mates on the last transatlantic cruise told us).  These taxes bring them free healthcare and education.  Not only is college free, but the students are paid $1000 per month for attending college.  If you are a member of the Lutheran church, you pay a one percent tax which covers your baptism, all you marriages, and your funeral.  You can end this tax at any time by dropping out of the church, but most people choose to remain a member even if they rarely attend services.  All I can say is that we were very happy when we were in Denmark because the weather was beautiful after several dreary days of dreary weather in Norway.  I understand this nice weather is not the norm.

Our first stop in Denmark was Alborg where Viking Cruises had arranged for us to meet some real Vikings.  One of the central plazas with some of the half timber buildings that are common in town.There were also modern buildings such as this house that the architect of the Sydney Opera House designed for himself.

Our other port in Denmark was Copenhagen, the home of the Little Mermaid.  She is in fact “little” and is also the victim of frequent vandalism.  She has been decapitated twice and in the last month had been painted twice – once red and once blue.  You can see some traces of the red paint at the bottom of the stone.The Scandinavian countries are all very green.  This is a power plant that is fueled by garbage.  The only problem is that it’s capacity exceeds the garbage collected in Copenhagen, so they have to buy garbage from other cities to operate the plant at full capacity.  And why does the building have that long slope toward the left?  It’s a ski slope in winter!The other iconic stop in Copenhagen is Tivoli Gardens.  While it is primarily an amusement park with modern rides and several entertainment venues, it also includes some beautiful gardens.Copenhagen is filled with parks, gardens, squares, historic buildings, and modern buildings.  One of the prettiest views is this Nyhavn area. The harbor area had many lines of wind turbines such as this one.

Our days are filled with port visits, lectures on history and other topics, entertainment, and eating.  The food so far has been outstanding!  It definitely rivals both Oceania and Paul Gauguin for quality of food.  As a result of all these activities, I am lagging behind on the blog.  We have finished our day in Berlin and are visiting Gadansk, Poland today.  We are looking forward to a relaxing sea day tomorrow.  Berlin to follow.

From Cod to Oil, From Poverty to Wealth

Until the 1970’s, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe.  Their economy was based primarily on fishing and timber.  On December 23, 1969, Phillips Petroleum discovered oil in Norwegian waters.  Phillips had drilled experimental wells in the area previously without success and was going to give up on finding oil in Norway if this final attempt came up dry.  Instead it changed the history of Norway and turned it into the wealthiest country per capita in the world ( per our guide).

While the people enjoy the prosperity that oil created, they also worry about the environmental impact.   Norway is a green country.  Nearly all their power is generated by hydro electric plants.   Since their electricity is so cheap, they are leaders in electric cars and claim to own more Teslas per capita than any other country.  As a result, they export almost all the oil they produce.

The government uses some of the money it makes from oil to fund research on how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and permanently store it.  Some of it is used to fund the welfare state with free education and health care.  The remainder is invested in carefully chosen stocks and bonds from around the world.  For instance, they will not invest in Walmart because of social issues, Boeing because they make weapons, or in tobacco companies.  The fund amounts to $165,000 for each of the five million residents of Norway!  Only four per cent of this money can be spent each year for infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately, the price of oil has dropped dramatically and the discovery of new reserves has fallen at the same time.  Norway has only one percent of the known reserves in the world, so the question for the country is: What next?  

 Stavanger, Norway has an oil Museum with exhibits on the history of oil discovery, oil production, the finances of oil, and the environmental consequences of oil.  This is a model of an oil drilling platform.Different drill bits are used based on the type of rock being drilled.Stavanger also has a historic section of wooden houses.You might notice this “gossip mirror” on the upper window of the first house on the left of the previous picture.  With this mirror you can sit in your house and see what is happening on the street in either direction.  This seems to be a common feature in older houses.We were relieved to find that even in Norway we are never far from a source of Fidget Spinners!  We are now headed for Denmark.

A Typical Day in Bergen

According to our guide, Bergen has rain on two of every three days.  We arrived in Bergen in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, after three uneventful plane rides to get here.  We quickly got settled into our room on the ship and headed out for Rick Steves walking tour.  While the skies were cloudy and threatening, we had no rain.  Sunday was a more typical day with an off and on rain all day.  We spent the morning on a panoramic bus tour of the city and the afternoon visiting the art museum which featured many works by Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist.The iconic site in Bergen is this row of former wooden warehouses that line one side of the harbor.  These buildings were once part of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds originating in Germany in the 1100’s.  At the time, countries as we know them today did not exist and the League was formed as a way to trade goods in different areas of Europe.  Eleven of the buildings in Bergen were built in the early 1700’s and they lean every which way. The other six houses were built in the same style in the 1980’s to hide a modern hotel that was marring the view from the water. There are narrow alleys between the buildings and there are about five businesses behind each building.In Bergen, cod was the primary commodity.  The dried cod had a shelf life of ten years!   The cod trade was driven by the Catholic church’s prohibition on eating meat on Fridays.  The reformation and the rise of the Lutheran church helped lead to the decline of the Hanseatic League in Bergen as meat could now be eaten throughout the week in much of Europe.

Most of the buildings in Bergen are wood including this McDonalds.  On the inside, it looks like any other McDonalds.The large number of wooden buildings built side by side is responsible for city fires where the fire will jump rapidly from one building to another.One of the most popular spots in Bergen is the fish market where they will prepare the seafood to eat in the market.  Norway and Japan are supposedly the only two countries in the world where you can eat whale.   We tried a sample of Minke whale which was similar in texture and taste to beef.  We also tried a sample of a marinated salmon which was delicious!  They also sold whale, reindeer, and moose sausage – all of which tasted remarkably like pepperoni.One of the plazas in Bergen.  We have left Bergen for the Norwegian Fijords.  In a major disappointment, wind conditions kept the ship from docking, so we were unable to take our trip on the Flam railroad.  So instead of riding the railroad, I am writing this blog; and the Flam remains on my bucket list.  We are headed for our next destination a day early and hoping for better weather there.

It Must Be Time to Leave Again

April and May were beautiful months in Pawleys Island with comfortable temperatures and clear blue skies.  June has brought us a lot of rain; and as July approaches, the temperature and humidity are rising and the crowds are arriving.  This can mean only one thing:  it is time to head to Europe.

This summer we will only be gone for six weeks, but we are packing them with some diverse activities.  The first two weeks will be on a Viking Ocean cruise on the Baltic Sea from Bergen, Norway to Stockholm, Sweden.  You can see the full itinerary here.  We will have wifi on the ship, so hopefully it will be fast enough for the occasional blog.

The cruise will be followed by a one week car trip in Provence.  We are renting an apartment in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue for the week and plan to visit a different town in Provence each day.  We are hoping to catch the lavender in bloom in at least some of the places we visit there.  If so, I can check another item off my bucket list.

Next up is a one week cruise on the Canal du Midi.  We will be cruising with our friends, Lavonne and Daryll from Pawleys Island   They have lived on a boat for several years, so one of them will be the captain of the boat.  There are a number of locks on the canal, so Susan and I will be the “lock hands”.  For a general idea of the itinerary we are following, click here.  This will be a totally new experience for us.

We end the trip with two weeks of apartment living in the heart of Vienna, Austria.  We may also make a day trip to Salzburg.  This should be the most relaxing part of the summer.

We leave for Bergen on Friday.  As always, we are happy that you are coming along for the fun.  We love to hear your comments!

Enjoying dinner on the Marshwalk in Murrels Inlet, SC.

We Will Miss San Miguel

When we stayed at the Red Tree House in Mexico City, we talked with many people about the relative merits of Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and San Miguel.  For us it is no contest.  We would choose San Miguel in a heartbeat.  Following in no particular order are some of the things that we are going to miss when we leave for home on Thursday.

The jacaranda trees.  They have been in full bloom since we arrived on 1/Mar and they are still in full bloom.  This is just one of over ten I can see from our roof top terrace.  And roof top terraces and courtyards are other things we are going to miss!
The burrows.  These two burrows are tied up just down the block from our house.  Perhaps the owner had ducked into the nearby gym for a little exercise.  Mostly you see burrows in town as part of a wedding procession.
The fountains.  This fountain outside of San Francisco church had been decorated for a wedding.  The water in the fountain is covered with white petals.  Fountains with floating red rose petals are very popular around town.
The churros and hot chocolate.  A churro is similar to a long, sugared donut.  We live only a few blocks from the favorite churro restaurant in town.  This is the lineup to get into the restaurant on a recent holiday weekend.  It is so popular that we have yet to get in this month.
The garbage collection system.  Three times a week a man comes down our street ringing a gong to announce that the garbage truck will soon be here.  People bring their garbage down to the street and chat until the truck arrives.  They then hand the garbage up to a man in the truck and he passes it on to the sorters in the truck who divide it up into recyclables and garbage.  There are at least four people riding in the truck.  This picture was taken from our roof terrace.The entertainment.  There seems to be non stop entertainment in town.  There is first class chamber music most weekends in winter.  We have heard live folk, jazz, new age, country, and popular music.  We have seen a one man play.  We have seen a program of ten plays of ten minutes each.  We have attended lectures and movies.  This event is the garden party held at a private house at the end of the chamber music season.  The performers were a brass quintet from Western Carolina University.The parades and fiestas.  This was a parade we had no idea was going to occur.  It went down the street next to ours and appears to be another Saint Joseph’s Day Parade about a week late.  You may recognize the person in the front of the picture.  He is also a very popular subject for piñatas.  I would guess that ten to twenty percent of the expats in town are wearing anti Trump buttons.The margaritas and mojitos.  Susan needed two hands to lift this margarita at another wonderful restaurant we discovered.  This one is family run in a beautiful house away from the tourist area.  There are so many good restaurants that we are not going to be able to get to all the ones we wanted to visit despite being here four weeks and only eating dinner home four times.You have to love a city that lets a tree limb come through the brick wall instead of cutting it off.

The doors and windows.  This door is outlined with real flowers. We suspect it was done as part of a wedding reception.The wedding processions.  San Miguel is home to 500 to 600 destination weddings each year.  Since most of these are on the weekend, it means you don’t have to wait long to see one if you go to the Jardin on the weekend.  Most involve a burrow, giant bride and groom dancing puppets and a mariachi band.The colorful Spanish Colonial streets.The buildings.  If we do ultimately buy a house here, we are going to paint it this blue color.Old and New Friends.  This has to be the best place in the world to make friends.  We met Susan and Peter from Ottawa, Canada through playing bridge.  The picture was taken with my iPod and I am still learning to hold it so my fat finger doesn’t get over the lens.  Sorry Peter!

Thanks to all of you for following our adventures this winter.  And a special thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment.  Our quest for new experiences will resume this summer with a Baltic cruise, a week in Provence that we hope will coincide with the lavender bloom, a self piloted boat trip on the Canal du Midi in France with friends from Pawleys Island, and time in Vienna.  We hope you will join us.

What Lies Behind that Door?

The streets of the centro area of San Miguel all have stucco walls separated from the street by the narrowest of sidewalks.  These walls have many doors plus a few windows and during the day when the stores are open you see restaurants, galleries, tiendas, and small shops of all descriptions through the open doors.  But what about the closed doors with no signs?  What lies behind that door?  Saturday we learned what was behind three of these doors when we took a walking tour of the mansions of San Miguel organized by the Biblioteca.  It was the first time they had done this tour and we considered it to be a resounding success.

The first door we entered is the last door to the right of the picture.  There is nothing noteworthy about the door or the wall.  But the house behind that door belongs to an attorney who was described as one of the most powerful men in the state of Guanajuato where SMA is located.  It is one city block long and has at least four courtyards.  I think if one person had to water all the pots there, the first pot would need more water by the time the last pot was watered.This is one of the courtyards.  I particularly liked the two columns of plants by the door.The first room of the library.  There is a second room with a spiral staircase to reach the top shelves.The dining room.The largest courtyard was between the house and the law offices.

The second house was once a bank.  It still had the vault- a great place to keep your valuables – and men’s and women’s restrooms.As is typical, the house was centered around a courtyard.The family had cages for lots of birds on the second floor.  I particularly liked the built in bird cage on the left with a curtain you can draw at night.  Both of these cages had birds.The living room of the house featured several elaborate mirrors.

The third house also featured a beautiful courtyard.  The owner of this house lives in another house in the country.  He uses one room as his office when he is in town, and all the other rooms are used to store his large collection of paintings by San Miguel artists.  

We had a bonus stop at the San Francisco convent adjacent to the church of the same name.  The convent also featured several courtyards.

After careful consideration, we decided all three houses on the tour were outside of our price range.

Any Excuse for a Parade

Sunday, March 19, was St. Joseph’s Day honoring Joseph, the husband of Mary.  And in San Miguel, they are always ready to celebrate.  Shortly after noon, we thought we heard a band in the distance.  We looked out our door and saw a parade going down the nearest cross street.  We grabbed our things and headed out the door in hot pursuit.  We caught up with the end of the parade, but there were too many spectators to reach the front.  We decided to head to the Jardin since almost every parade ends there.  Fortunately, our instincts were good and the parade was soon passing by our spot on the wall. A large caterpillar followed the band at the beginning of the parade.Next came a collection of the large, dancing puppets known as mojigangas.  The puppet costumes were worn by both adults and young children.There was a group in indigenous costumes resembling American Indians, but the most interesting group was at the end of the parade following a sound truck and dancing in bizarre costumes.  Everyone was in a good mood and were happy to pose for pictures and dance with onlookers.  Many participants also threw candy to the spectators.You may ask what does this have to do with the observance of Saint Joseph’s Day?  I haven’t a clue.  However, we talked to several Mexican onlookers and they all said it was a Saint Joseph’s Day parade.  You may recall pictures last year of Susan dancing on our street with some people dressed similarly.  We were told that dance party was to observe Saint Joseph’s Day even though it was several days later.  For a one minute video of the parade, click here.

We stayed in the central area of town and headed back home late in the afternoon and what did we encounter?  Yet another parade.  This one had some religious statues at the beginning.But they were followed by the sound truck and people dressed in costume including some of the same people we saw in the earlier parade.  It wasn’t this guy, but we saw one of the men that Susan had danced with last year.

It is always hard to find out when a parade is going to occur and where it is going to go.  We have been looking forward to the Children’s Parade to celebrate the beginning of spring.  The children are all dressed as animals or flowers.  Again, you may remember the pictures from last year.  We had been told twice by the tourist office that the parade would be at 10 AM on Wednesday, the first day of spring.  We arrived right on time to watch but could see no sign of an upcoming parade.  We stopped at the tourist office again and were told that it was now going to be on Thursday.  However, there was a class in the Jardin in costume and holding signs about protecting the environment.  We had to settle for that as our Wednesday parade.

Fortunately, we came across the Children’s Parade on the way to bridge on Thursday.   While the parade was much smaller than last year, the children were as cute as ever.Some of the children were honored by wearing crowns and getting to ride in trucks.The children are encircled with a rope held by adults to keep everyone going in the right direction.  The people of San Miguel know how to enjoy life!

Welcoming Spring

The El Charco Botanical Gardens is located in the hills above San Miguel.  The gardens contain a canyon with a natural amphitheater.  One of the traditions here is to have a concert in this amphitheater on the Saturday before the equinox to welcome spring.  The festivities begin at 4 PM with an indigenous celebration to bless the seeds for the new crops.  We arrived early and joined the celebration.  The only problem was that no one there looked to be indigenous and few of the people even looked Mexican.  We were given a sheet in Spanish and English explaining the celebration. 

Per the handout:  “For approximately the last 5000 years, human consciousness has been centered in the development of personal will, authority, manipulation, and the incorrect use of power.  Humanity is currently in the process of making a dimensional shift, ascending from a power-based consciousness to love-centered awareness that focuses on the heart and allows us to feel our interconnectedness and equality with each other and all creation. … This is a time for us to align ourselves with who we know ourselves to be, deep within our heart of hearts, and make our life choices in accordance with this way of being.” It goes on, but you get the idea.  I am not sure I sense this change they are talking about.  Maybe we need more government participation in equinox ceremonies.We gathered in a circle around the leaders.  There was a lot of drumming and playing of a conch shell.  We all got some seeds to bless and take home to plant in our garden.  We began by reading the handout together and then we paid our respects to the four points of the compass.  The seeds we received were mostly rice which I was pretty sure was not going to thrive behind our condo even though our county was once the rice growing center of the world. The conch shell was not an easy instrument to play.People sat wherever they could find a spot on the rocks for the late afternoon concert of Mexican Baroque music.  There is no electricity in the canyon, so the music and singing was entirely acoustic.  The band is on a wood platform in the center left of the picture.The band stage.A beautiful sunset was a fitting conclusion to the concert.

Bellas Artes

San Miguel is well known as an artist colony and one of the best known art schools in town is El Centro Culturál Ignacio Ramírez “El Nigromante” – Bellas Artes.  Fortunately, it is known universally as Bellas Artes.  The building was built in 1755 – 1765 as the cloister area of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception.  The building was converted to a fine arts school in 1938 and soon became very popular with former GI’s studying art under the GI Bill.  Today it has classes in drawing, painting, ceramics, weaving, music, photography, printmaking, and dance.  The building also houses an auditorium and several exhibition halls.  Considering the initial use of the building, it is ironic that the Ignacio Ramírez in the present name of the building was one of the most prominent atheists in Mexico.  The church associated with the cloister still exists next to the art school.This statue of a bull outside of Bellas Artes is a well known landmark and meeting point in town.The courtyard of the school is heavily planted.  The Church of the Immaculate Conception towers in the background.The courtyard is also a beautiful venue for musical performances.The murals in the exterior hallways were painted by early students at the school.There are long hallways surrounding the courtyard.  The building is a quiet oasis only a block from the hectic Jardin.  As I was walking the corridors, I could hear beautiful, soft guitar music throughout the courtyard.It turns out the music was not from a student, but from this man who performs every Wednesday night at the Biblioteca.  He told me that he finds this to be a peaceful place to practice.  His practice certainly added to the atmosphere.  When we chatted a little, he guessed right away that I was an engineer.  Geez, is it that obvious???One of the galleries had a series of paintings depicting man’s effects on the environment.  This painting addresses the effect of us disposing of plastics in the ocean.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception.The church features a boveda ceiling, which is an arched brick ceiling common in San Miguel which can be made without any support from below during the construction.  I would like to see one being constructed sometime.

The elaborately carved entry door.

Time is flying by here.  We think we have seen more cultural events in the two plus weeks we have been here than we saw in the last three months we were at home.  It is also unbelievable how easy it is to meet people and make friends here.  As an example, we met a Canadian couple in the Jardin this morning, we went to a cafe for coffee, and now we are going to dinner with them on Tuesday.  Less than two weeks left and so much more we want to do.

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce