Travel in San Miguel

We left Tampa airport, transferring in Houston after a 2 1/4 hour flight for a 2 hour flight to Leon/Guanajuato airport in the mountains of central Mexico.  We had arranged for a pick-up by private car fro the 1 1/3 hour drive to San Miguel.  San Miguel, a city of about 90,000 people—20 percent of whom are ex-pats form the US and Canada—lies 6400 feet above sea-level surrounded by semi-arid shrub land and low lying mountains.  Nothing particularly striking catches our attention during our drive to the city.  Once in the city, in particular the historic center, however, I can see that it will be every bit as quaint and attractive as Diane has said—she having been here a couple of years ago for a photography class.

We are in San Miguel to celebrate the Day of the Dead, Dia de Muerto, which has a reputation for being one of the finest celebrations in all of Mexico and was designated in 2003 as an intangible World Heritage by UNESCO.  The celebration, whose purpose is to mock death and commemorate the deceased, runs from October 31st through November 2nd.  Our hotel, Casa Mia, is only 3 blocks from the center of town where the Plaza Principal is located and most of the activity will occur.  Our room, actually an apartment, has a kitchen/living room arrangement with one bedroom and is decorated in a Mexican style.  The unit, one of about 12, is on a rectangular courtyard with a fountain and flower garden which the other units encircle.

Early mornings are chilly in San Miguel but the weather tends to become more pleasant by 10:00AM or so.  San Miguel’s streets, cobblestoned, steep, uneven and treacherous,  require attention to walk.  When wet, as they often are in the morning when some residents have washed them or when water runs off rooftops and along adjoining pavements, you quickly learn how slippery they are.  One morning I had to assist a woman who, walking her Halloween-costumed child to school in haste, slipped rather hard on the pavement.  She recovered nicely after being raised from the pavement but walked away moaning and limping.

Calle Correa, the street outside our window, leads directly downhill to the town center.  We will spend the next 5 days walking uphill and downhill on the street of San Miguel and will learn to walk in the street when we can to avoid the wet pavements.  I will also learn that these steep hills can strain your gluteus maximus (was he not the Roman Emperor after Marcus Aurelius).  In any case I will learn what a real pain in the ass is.

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Upon entering the central plaza, Plaza Principal, one immediately notices the most significant monument in San Miguel, the Parroquia of San Miguel, originally built in the 18th century.  It sits at one end of the plaza raised some six or seven steps above the plaza, gothic spires jutting into the air at each side of the church, a bell tower in the center with about six bells secured in its open arches and a small plaza with benches and trees making an inviting resting spot in front of the entrance to the church.  In the morning before the sun has risen, the church’s colored pink and grey façade is clearly distinguishable.  As the sun rises, the façade turns increasingly pinkish, transforming at the height of the day into an undulating mass of pink hue, an image that an impressionist painter like Monet would delight in.  In the evening the spires are outlined in white lights installed in the arches of the spires, which maintains the church as the focal point and stanchion of the plaza.

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The Church of San Miguel may stand as the doyen of the plaza, it, however, does not completely dominant the plaza.  Below it and encompassing the majority of the plaza is the Jardin Allende, a rectangular shaped area with a pavillon in the center, a fountain in each of its four quarters surrounded by shrubbery and flowers, particularly orange marigolds this time of year, and inviting intricately shaped cast-iron benches located throughout it along the pathways in the garden.  Tress line the outside and inside of the area, shaped into rounded flat-toped forms, and provide many shaded spots to relax and enjoy the day.  A low concrete wall encloses the entire garden.  When sitting on the outside benches facing the church, the church becomes the dominant feature of the plaza; however, when sitting on the inside benches, the setting becomes much more intimate, protected from the influence of the church by the closely cropped trees.  On two sides of the square a arcade covers the pavement where restaurants have placed their tables and stores have opened their doors.  The third side has a hotel overlooking the plaza.  The entire area is free of traffic so that people can walk inside, outside and around without interference from automobiles.

The Jardin Allende is one of the more pleasant spots I have experienced in my travels, a perfect combination of calm repose for reflection and interesting activity for people watching, not unlike Greenwich Village Square on a smaller and less hyper scale.  It is a meeting and gathering place for locals including many of the expats living in and around the city.  On one corner of the plaza is a Starbucks which is also a meeting place for the expats as Diane and I learn over our morning coffee.  English is the language of choice in the store.  Over the course of our stay we meet two female expats in the garden.  One woman who is 88 years old has been living in the city for 13 years and professes to love her adopted home.  Another woman, perhaps in her late 50s. has been living in the city for 25 years.  The plaza will become the central point for the Dia de Muertos festivities.

On October 31st, the first day of the festival, groups of people arrive around the walls of the garden during the morning hours.  Pick-up trucks loaded with marigolds can also be seen waiting in the plaza, and a farmer and his son lead a mule, marigolds tied to its back, across the plaza.  Each group will build a Dia de Muertos mosaic, some dedicated to an individual whose photo will be displayed, others without an identifiable individual.  Each mosaic will be constructed with rice, salt, various colored beans, corn and popcorn kernels, colored sands, marigolds petals and marigold flowers, predominantly orange in color, sometimes white.  Devotional candles will surround the exhibit as well as be placed inside the exhibit to be lit in the evening to help lead the soul to his or her destination.  Water and Tequila bottles will also be placed inside the exhibit along with various kinds of food to nourish the soul.  The mosaic design will often be a head of a skeleton, sometimes with an Aztec style headpiece; others are non-representational designs.  Roads leading to a cemetery were a common feature.  The exhibits varied in size but were usually about 8 to 10 feet wide by 12 to 14 feet in length.  For this feast a recently deceased female folksinger of long standing fame, called Tehua, who spent her youth in San Miguel was featured in several exhibits.

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In the evening a stage, which was constructed yesterday, has folk dancers dressed in Indian and skeleton-type garb enacting a story between the living and the dead with traditional dance to Indian style music, much of it played on a flute.  The plaza is teeming with people, some dressed in costumes; a handful are catrinas, skeleton-garbed individuals of various types walking on stilts.  Other people are with their children, trick or treating around the plaza.  The restaurants are crowded as diners watch the milling crowds.  Costumed people eagerly pose for cameras shots; the most desired of which are the catrinas.

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With the crowds, the catrinas, the little trick-or-treaters, the music emanating from the stage, and the illuminated church in the background, the air is festive with Dia de Muerto activity.  the following morning, All Soul’s Day, some of the exhibitors return to remove faded flower petals from their mosaics and replace them with fresh petals.  the evening is a repeat of the previous nigh stripped of the stage performances.  The crowd is just as large, and in place of the stage performance a strolling mariachi band provides entertainment. Joe SM (1 of 1)-13

Tonight, we again dine at an Argentinian restaurant, La Garufa, near the plaza, dining on barbequed sausage and beef; however, we have learned that two appetizers are sufficient as more than that number provided much too much food for us on a previous night.  The wine is also quite good, and the restaurant’s own label, a blend of merlot, cab, and Malbec from Argentina, proves to be a real find.  Activities begin to recede on November 2nd as the departed souls return to the afterlife. Living relatives bring flowers, mainly marigolds, to the gravesites of their ancestors.

As we walk the area around the Jardin, we reach the Church of the Immaculate Conception which is only a few street from the plaza.  The church has a small crypt room which is located by the main altar.  Inside, traditional style headstones are layered atop each other on the wall where the remains of the deceased are located.  An elderly couple, holding hands, are quietly talking to an elderly priest and people are entering the crypt carrying flowers to lay by the headstones of their relatives.  The Church of the Immaculate Conception is not lavishly adorned but is modestly attractive.  The altar is triple-tiered; the bottom and middle tier have three small niches surrounded by four similarly sized columns trimmed in gold, each niche containing a statute of the Virgin.  The top tier has one niche with a statute of Christ the King.  Joe SM (1 of 1)-2

Unlike the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the interior of the Church of San Miguel is moderately expansive in a gothic style, vaulted ceilings with a central aisle and two smaller aisles where additional altars and statutes are placed; the main altar is adorned with layers of gold trimming done in a rather baroque style.  Particularly striking to me is the tiled floor which has as its main motif large orange marigolds in the center of each tile piece.  The tiles seem to correspond to the marigolds being displayed in the exhibits.

After our stay in San Miguel we hire a private car to drive us to Guanajuato, about 1 1/4 hours away, the capital of the similarly named province.  The Spanish conquistadors took a keen interest in the city when they noticed the natives adorned with silver jewelry, and they soon discovered that the silver came from ore mined from the surrounding mountains.  Silver mining produced the wealth that allowed the city to prosper.  Silver mining continues  to be important to Guanajuato.  Joe SM (1 of 1)-7

Guanajuato is a much larger city than San Miguel, is a UNESCO world heritage site, and has a city center of some interest.  The focal point is the Plaza de la Union, a small, triangular-shaped park with delineated green gardens, cast-iron benches lining the circumference and surrounding the pavilion in the center of the park.  Restaurants surround the plaza, each with outside tables on the plaza.  The plaza is crowded each day with loungers, students from the nearby University of Guanajuato, and kiosks selling snacks, single cigarettes and other small items.  In the evening, activity and noise levels rise as more people enter the area and as one, sometimes two, mariachi bands stroll the plaza serenading diners.  On one corner of the plaza is the Teatro Juarez, a nice looking neo-classical structure, on whose steps students congregate, sometimes with what looks like their instructor.  On one day they were constructing signs for a demonstration that was to take place the following day concerning 43 students who had been abducted from another city.  The demonstration later took on national significance when it reached the government in Mexico City.

Sitting on the plaza, our hotel, Boutique 1850, puts us in the middle of the activity without being too exposed to the sometimes excessive noise of the plaza–the mariachi bands tending to spend a large portion of their time on the other side of the plaza playing in front of the more numerous restaurants located there.  The hotel is a real find; we have an attractive modern-decorated room with a good sized bathroom and great water pressure in the shower.  The staff was very accommodative, especially the concierge, even giving us a sandwich for our trip on departure.  The one minor drawback was the lack of a restaurant but that was quickly removed when we were given coupons to use at the very nice restaurant next door where we could sit on the plaza at breakfast.  We spent a very enjoyable dinner at an outside table one evening serenaded by a mariachi band for about 20 minutes that the table of four guys having a grand old time beside us had called over.  Mariachi is an infectiously lively music that encourages a good feeling, unlike the hotly sensual earthly music of Spanish flamenco and the sad darkly-driving music of Portuguese fado.

Several streets lead away from the plaza, one of which takes us by the even smaller Plaza de la Paz.  Along the way restaurants and shops line the street.  It leads to the Mercado Hildago, s never completed railway station that now houses a food bizarre.  Former President Porfirio Diaz wanted the station for the railway line that was meant to pass through Guanajuato; however, the line was never finished because a revolution deposed Diaz and stalled forever the completion of the line.  Narrow streets lead off this one which takes a person uphill to smaller neighborhood plazas and the University.  Overlooking the Plaza de la Union and the city rests La Pipila, a statute dedicated to Jose de los Reyes Marinez, a mine worker who joined the revolution in 1810 when it reached Guanajuato.  From atop the hill, which can be accessed by a tram on one side of the Teatro, one gets a wonderful view of the city with the Basilica and University looming large in the foreground and a panorama of colorfully painted houses that undulate over the next hill.

One unique feature of Guanajuato is the underground tunnel system that surrounds the city center.  Originally constructed to divert the river overflow that often flooded the area, the tunnels were no longer needed after  dam was later built to hold back the river.  Eventually, the tunnels were converted into streets and parking areas which today provides the pleasant and unusual freedom from automobile traffic in much of the city center.


Travel in Prague

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We arrive at our hotel, the Aria, which is located in the Mala Strana section of Prague on the castle side of the Vltava River.  We are eager to see and compare the city to our last visit in 1990 soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe.  On that visit we were able not only to see the first President, Vaclav Havel, of then Czechoslovakia–since separated into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia–leaving the Presidential Palace in the Castle, but also had the good fortune to see Pope John Paul II touring the city in his Popemobile, waving at the people enthusiastically lining the streets to see him.  Later that day, the pope’s celebration of mass was broadcasted on loud-speakers located throughout the city center.  It was a joyous occasion for the residents of the city and one of the highpoints of our trip.

Our hotel is located near the Charles Bridge and places us between the Castle on the hill overlooking the river and the core city center where the majority of activities take place.  The Aria is a small deluxe hotel with a music theme in each room, ranging from classical to jazz.  Our suite, the Kansas City, is decorated in a modern style with music-motif artwork on the walls and soft jazz playing on our Apple TV as we enter the room.  The hotel has a rooftop restaurant with a pleasant view of the dome of St. Nicholas Church two streets away and the spires that dominate the skyline of the city.  Prague is often called the City of Spires.  Unfortunately, we were only able to use the rooftop once for pre-dinner, the weather always seeming to be on the brink of rain.  Fortunately, the restaurant inside the hotel, the Coda, was superb, service splendid and food quite exceptional, particularly the roasted duck entrée we had on our last evening accompanied by a layered white chocolate, cream and raspberry dessert, the thin chocolate slices embossed with music clefs, that was as delicious as it was elegant.

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Arriving in the morning and not wanting to waste any time, we walk over the vehicle-free cobblestoned Charles Bridge overflowing with tourists, especially students.  The bridge is one of the focal points of the city despite having other bridges nearby that span the river.  The railing on each side of the bridge is lined with statutes of historic religious figures, one in particular, St. John of Nepomuk, has a miniature image of him being thrown into the river wiped clean of its decades of grime to its golden color by the tourists rubbing it for good luck.  Artists, caricaturists sitting on their chairs ready to draw your face in charcoal and more traditional types aside their work ready to make a sale are joined on the bridge by several musical groups; all giving a festive air to your jaunt across the bridge.  One beggar stands out for me; he sits on the bridge with his soulful-looking dog lying still in his arms, making an especially quiet, heart-rending appeal.

Prague can sometimes project an appearance of gloom.  Not unlike New York, the city has an unabashed edgy side that produces an exciting feeling that only a few cities can match.  The ever-present Castle, always looming overhead on the hill, can look eerie, foreboding and evoke an existential anxiety under a grey sky, awakening feeling of Kafka’s eponymous book.  Both “The Castle” and “The Trial”, perhaps the first writings expressing 20th century angst, were written here.  The Golem, a man-made clay figure brought to life and often expressing uncontrollable violent behavior was first created by Rabbi Loew in the Jewish quarter in the 16th century.  Cobblestoned streets and pavements throughout the city center evoke remembrances of 1940s movies with Boris Karloff as a grave robber driving his wagon over similar streets in the middle of the night accompanied by the sound of wheels clanking over cobblestones.  Yet, the city shines and exudes with music, available in many churches and private venues throughout the city.  Mozart first performed “Don Giovanni” here to enthralled crowds, and he always had a warm spot in his heart for Prague as large as the devotion shown to him by the city’s residents.  Street musicians in Old Town Square and outside restaurants by the bridge enhance the light-hearted feeling you are likely to experience on any given day.


As we walk across the Charles Bridge into city center, which we do every day, tourist boats, full with enthusiastic visitors, motor in the Vltava like an Armata, with smaller boats around them floating like amoebas on a microscope slide.  We lunch at Teracy-Certovka, a restaurant by the bridge and next to a small inlet off the river; the sun is shining and the house wine is decent enough to enjoy with my goulash and dumplings, dumplings unlike what I am used to, shaped and textured somewhat like bread.

Once across the bridge, you are confronted with one of the truly most architecturally fascinating cities in Europe, the 5th most visited city on the continent.  Prague has often been called the Paris of the East, a mélange of Baroque, Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical structures and narrow cobblestoned streets and original facades because Prague was one of the few large cities that emerged from World War II without being ravaged by either side.  As you arrive at Old Town Square, the large unofficial center of the city, surrounded by stores, churches and restaurants, a statute of Jan Hus, a 14th century Protestant reformer in the center, large crowds fill the space nearly to elbow room, especially at mid-day and make for a rather unpleasant experience.  The famous Astronomical Clock with its renowned mechanical statutes is off to one side of the square, better to enjoy in the early morning like we did, the square nearly empty, stores and restaurants only beginning to open, the vigor of the city just emerging from its nightly sleep.

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In 1990 we could walk the bridge and streets without encountering the crowds that are here today, filling all of the major venues with tour groups following little colored umbrellas of the tour leaders extending over the heads of the crowd like submarine periscopes in an ocean of people.  Only morning and evening visits will give one the room to savor the sights, to linger and internalize the experience.  Upscale international stores, unavailable in 1990, are here today, displaying the same marketing expertise that you will notice elsewhere.  Although having the same economic problems common to other countries in Europe, Prague displays a vigor that was not here in 1990, an entrepreneurial vigor that is augmented by the obvious large tourist trade.

From our hotel the climb to the Castle is a slow, arduous excursion (only later do we learn that the number 22 tram goes to the castle from the square near our hotel) through narrow streets lined with stores.  We pass the Italian Embassy with its beautiful doors, a large sculptured eagle  on each side whose head is contorted in a threatening, aggressive manner.  Around the last curve, breathing deeply and elated to have finally reached our destination, we enter the square to be immediately faced with———– a Starbucks.

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The view from the courtyard over the city and river is inspiring, church domes and spires rising between the mismatch of homes, bridges spanning the Vltava; all under a dark, cloudy sky that covers the city is hues of grey.  The Castle is the generic name for a number of venues within the extensive wall surrounding the area, of which St. Vitus Cathedral and the Presidential Palace are the two most important.  The Castle is a courtyard within a courtyard within a courtyard.  Today, the Armed Services are putting  on a display of armament in the first courtyard, inviting people to have their pictures taken aboard their vehicles.

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Entering the second courtyard to visit St. Vitus Cathedral, we can see the colored “periscopes” maneuvering around the area.  Entering St. Vitus, I am instantly taken by its beauty, an extremely high vaulted ceiling, perhaps as high as the nave is long, oversees the very narrow nave, two side aisles and three apses on each side of the entrance halfway along the aisles.  Most striking and wonderfully beautiful are the large stained glass windows over each aisle and crowning the main altar.  On the exterior, four tall spires are dominated by the fifth, taller entrance spire.  Constructed with interruptions over 600 hundred years, a combination of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, it is, perhaps, the most beautiful cathedral I have seen.  This is the church where the former kings of the country were crowned, a fitting venue for a king.

Later in the evening, we attend a Mozart opera dinner that we had previously booked.  It is held in the Boccaccio ballroom of the Grand Hotel Bohemia.  It is a three course dinner with various Mozart opera pieces sung between courses by a soprano and baritone to the music of an accompanying ensemble, all in period costumes.  The ballroom is a small room, refurbished to its 1927 elegance of artificial marble, a gold and crystal glass in 1993 after its long neglect under the communist regimes.  With a bottle of nice wine and good food, we have an enjoyable evening of fine music surrounded by the golden glitter of the ballroom, mirrors and paintings attached to the walls, bas-reliefs of little cupids, arrows and musical instruments in the ceiling.

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On our last evening after dinner at the Coda, we walk to the bridge so that Diane can take pictures of the bridge and Castle bathed in floodlights.  The low-lying rectangular figure of the Castle with the taller St. Vitus looming over it like a doyen receiving her bowing subject puts a fitting conclusion to our Prague visit as the darkening sky eases into nightfall.


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Turmoil in the Renaissance

Joe's blog (2 of 3)Posted here will be excerpts from my novel, Turmoil in the Renaissance – A Historical Fiction of Ludovico Sforza – Duke of Milan

Available for purchase from, and Barnes and


Ludovico Sforza, called “Il Moro” because of his swarthy appearance, was born the second son of the Duke of Milan, Francisco Sforza, a condottiere who usurped the realm from the recently formed Ambrosian republic in 1450 and established the Sforza dynasty. Francesco was instrumental in forming the Peace of Lodi in 1454 between Milan and Venice, which kept the peace for 40 years between them and the other major powers on the Italian Peninsular, the Kingdom of Naples, the Papal States,  and the Republic of Florence. They and the smaller states formed the Italian League to defend one another in case of attack from foreign powers invading the Italian Peninsular.

After Francesco’s death, Ludovico’s older brother, Galeazzo Maria, inherited the domain. In the service of his brother, Ludovico learned the duties of a ruler, and performed them admirably, always, however, harboring the thought that it would take an extraordinary event for him to inherit the throne from Galeazzo’s young son, Gian Galeazzo. Like his father, Galeazzo started a vast building program, always with the idea to keep the populace at bay. New public buildings were built in the style of the high renaissance, new piazzas were constructed that encouraged new neighborhoods, artists were invited to the city. Ludovico enjoyed overseeing some of these construction projects, the details involved in them, the people who sought his favor, the praise upon their completion.

The moon hid behind clouds on the night of his brother’s assassination, darkening the narrow, cobblestoned streets like a dark cover concealing an unwanted, marred object. Yes, the people resented the imposition of high taxes to support Galeazzo’s lavish and dissolute lifestyle; his cruel behavior was widespread, particularly to the nobles and their females who were the main recipients of it. They harbored a deep, long-lasting resentment to his reign. They, together with subversives who hoped to reestablish the republic that had been usurped by Galeazzo’s father, plotted his murder on this dark cloud-covered Saint Stephen’s Day of December 26, 1476. Three men hid in the dark shadows of Saint Stephen’s Church as Galeazzo Maria knelt in church. The attack was vicious and quick. One of the men approached him, bending over as if to address him and with a quick hard thrust dug a knife into his chest. The other two assailants then added their daggers to the attack. Galeazzo fell gasping for breath, his blood ebbing onto the tiles of the nave. Two assailants were captured as they ran from the church and killed immediately. The remaining assailant scurried into the street, unsure where he was headed, turned a corner, pursued by the Galeazzo’s guards, finally cornered and dragged away from the narrow, unlit street. Later, nearly all his bones were broken, and he was flayed alive but not before he died with one of the most memorable last sentences. “Death is bitter, but fame is everlasting.” Above them the moon revealed itself from behind a cloud; Ludovico’s beaming smile hid behind palace walls when he heard the news.

Upon Galeazzo’s death, his seven-year-old son, Gian Galeazzo, became Duke with his mother, Bona of Savoy, acting as Regent. At 24 years of age, Ludovico yearned for leadership, feeling that the time he spent in his brothers’ employ, had prepared him to be the successor to his brother’s title. His vigor, he believed, was essential for safeguarding the realm and advancing its interests, interests that were always in danger from the city-states and republics surrounding Milan. For a time, he was conscientious in avoiding any conflicts with Bona, feigning sincerity as best he could while gathering support from trusted conspirators. He made no changes in lifestyle, living as evenly as he could, and complacent in his behavior and interactions with Bona. He walked the same paths he always walked, met the same people he always met, drank with the same people with whom he always drank. He was aware, however, that Bona was probably spying on him for fear of just what he might be contemplating.

Ludovico sat in his apartment enjoying a glass of wine several weeks after his brother’s murder, looking at a painting on the wall above the cadenza, fine silver candelabra and ceramic vases beneath it spread out in a neat arrangement. Flames from logs burning brightly in the fireplace flashed on the walls, highlighting the painting. It was one of his favorites. It depicted the myth of Zeus disguising himself as a white bull to seduce the beautiful Europa, painted in the bright colors and technique recently introduced in Florence with the use of oil paints. The myth tells the tale of Zeus coming across the beautiful Europa in a meadow, turning himself into a bull after his rejection to whisk her away to the island of Crete. Ludovico’s wine had grown warm in his hand. His thoughts wandered to the best way to move on his desire to fill his brother’s position. Was force the way to proceed, either deadly or otherwise, or was subtlety and flattery, coupled perhaps with seduction the way to proceed?

As he sat there pouring another glass of wine, his thoughts turned to his father, Francesco. He had lived a life of adventure, led men in war and commanded attention from all around him including his enemies and had turned Milan into one of the most powerful states on the peninsular. He wrested the Duchy from the Ambrosian republicans, who briefly captured the city after the death of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and was successful in maintaining the balance of power in the region, often with the support of the Medici in Florence. Ludovico not only admired his father but, even as a child, had an intense desire to emulate him, to succeed where he had not. He remembered his father confiding in him his desire to protect the Duchy and to expand it as a means to defend it. Francisco Sforza always felt that expansion would protect his lands by providing a buffer for the city and would make available more men to enlarge his already substantial army. Just as necessary, he emphasized the importance of defending the city with new weapons and innovative defenses. “Always be vigilant in seeking creative ways to protect the city,” he remembers his father saying as they walked the gardens together. Francisco inculcated his dreams to his young son among the eucalyptus and cypress trees, the flowering hyacinths and geraniums. Ludovico took to heart all of his father’s lessons and carried them with him for the rest of his life, never doubting their relevance to his own future.

Ludovico believed the populous would be less accepting of the Mother Regent than they were of his brother and, therefore, it provided an opening for him. She would have to prove herself. Although she inherited the same counselors that advised her husband, all generally good men in their fields, Ludovico had noticed in private that she was petulant and overbearing. Would her behavior bring disfavor on her from these counselors? Then again, would one have to secure the favor of all the advisors? Is one more important than the others? The cinders in the hearth were crackling, their grey and red glow easing into flaky grey, dissolving into the already fallen ash.


Travel in Costa Verde Spain

Our vacation starts in the middle of Basque country in San Sebastian, a 19th century aristocratic resort made famous by Queen Maria Cristina of Hapsburg.  We will travel the Costa Verde, a verdant, lush, rugged area along the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, through the provinces of Cantabrico, Asturias and Galicia.  It is one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago, a 1000-year-old pilgrimage to the Cathedral de Santiago de Campostela.  Rather than walking, however, we will be taking the El Transcantabrico, a train equipped with dinning cars and sleeping cabins for about 28 passengers accompanied by 10 attendants.  We will be dining both on the train and in the cities through which we pass.  We will finish our journey by renting an auto and driving through the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain.

San Sebastian sits on the Atlantic Ocean about 30 miles south of the French border.  The focal point of the city is the wide horseshoe-shaped beach anchored at each end by a small elevated hill; the eastern end has a statute of Christ looking down over the city and a public park containing a fortress; the western end hosts an amusement park.  Running alongside the beach is a promenade of about one-mile in length, a white cast-iron railing accompanying the promenade, Victorian street lamps providing light in the evening at intervals along the promenade.  Luxury high-rise apartments on the western end look out onto the beach and the Atlantic with Queen Maria Cristina’s Palacio de Miramar resting amongst the taller buildings.  As you walk toward the eastern side, you pass our hotel, the Londres, reaching a small park where a carousel is spinning, children joyfully riding the wooden horses attached to it.  By the carousel a vendor and smiling children float soap bubbles into the air.  As you reach the end of the promenade, an aquarium meets you.  This is where you can enter the old quarter of the city.

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Paris-like San Sebastian is a delight, with wide boulevards in the new quarter reminiscent of Paris, narrow streets in the old quarter lined with restaurants and tapas bars, doors wide open to show the mélange of tapas sitting on the bar, crowds flowing into the street, people savoring their wine and food with friends.  Our concierge recommends a restaurant in the old quarter, the Gandarios, which turns out to be quite good. On the first evening I have a flounder with an excellent lemony Albarino wine, rounding out our stay on the second night with a filet accompanied by a good red Rioja.  Our train trip is to begin on the following day.

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Our bus is to drive us to Bilboa to meet our train and partake in our first evening meal, taken in a refurbished 1930s art deco style dining car, walls covered with stained-glass pictures, floors covered in carpeting, and tables set with linen tablecloths and utensils.  Service is excellent and the four course dinner is served with a red Rioja and a particularly good white wine.  We also realize that we will have to adjust to the Spanish dinning habits, lunch at 2:00 PM and dinner at 9:00 PM, that becomes less of an inconvenience as we travel on.  I suppose that with all the wine we imbibe we hardly notice the time.

After our first, of what will become our daily breakfast on board, we are to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, a Frank Gehry designed building, a multi-sided titanium-covered, modern building resembling a giant multi-winged bird flapping its wings in flight.  Entering the interior, one is overwhelmed by a cavernous atrium with different shapes–cones, cubes and cylinders–extending into and seemingly hanging in the huge, open space.  Featured in the museum at the time are the works of Jeff Koons, an artist whose multi-layered ideas seem to be an advanced concept of pop art, using commonly found material to construct his figures.  One does not have to agree with his ideas to enjoy the creativity and beauty of his enchanting figures.

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Monday finds us coaching through the mountain gorges of Pecos de Europa in Cantabrico  province to the Monastery of St. Toribio de Liebana , a 9th century Cistercian monastery of Romanesque design resting in a green valley surrounded by low lying mountains, altered and restored over the years to its present form but essentially completed in the 12th century.  The simple, small stone church has attracted pilgrims for centuries, often diverting them from the Camino de Santiago, to pay homage to the small piece of the crucifixion cross that was brought to the monastery.  The relic now rests encased on a gold-covered cross.


The church entrance is particularly attractive, consisting of three arches protruding from the door that they frame, each projecting farther our from the arch below it and culminating in a pillar sitting on a high base.  The interior is simple but pleasant, having one small altar with two side naves, vaulted ceilings and a capacity of perhaps 100 people.  The small adjoining cloister has a loggia circling it, rooms opening onto a walkway and a fountain in the center of the garden.  Rose and hydrangea bushes are planted alongside the paths through the garden.  The church, cloister and the landscape in which they reside impart a very noticeable sense of quiet calm to onlookers, especially on a day of clear, blue skies like we encountered.

The journey continues to Altimira the next day, hosting the 1879 discovery of cave paintings dating from 20,000 BC.  The original cave is closed to the public, but an exact replica has been built nearby.  Inside the museum, paintings of bison, deer, and especially goats cover the walls and ceiling.  The artist(s) first scratched an outline onto the surface, sometimes using the natural bulges in the rock to impart a sense of movement to the figure, then outlines the figure in charcoal, and finally paints the figure with natural pigments of ochre, red and brown mixed with animal fat.

A few miles away is the small town of Santillana del Mar ((St. Juliana), also a pilgrimage city, which holds the relics of St. Juliana.  Santillana’s well-preserved cobblestoned streets retain their medieval flavor.  Houses with original 14th, 15th and 16th century facades and attractive second floor wrought-iron and wooden balcony railings, pleasing features that we will notice in subsequent cities, border the streets that lead to the Colegiata, the 13th century Romanesque style St. Juliana Church, exterior and interior plain in appearance except for the gold-plated triptych altarpiece holding pictures of the life of St. Juliana.  A small cloister adjacent to the church had a loggia encircling the perimeter of a garden, pretty columns with artistic capitals expressing alternating images of intricate Arabic designs and ordinary and religious Christian life of what was at one time a place of quiet contemplation.

The Pecos de Europa, in the interior of Asturias province, apart from being a very pleasant and unexpected surprise, reminds one of a little Switzerland, impressive grey, jagged, steep and treeless mountaintops, rising to as much as 8,200 feet, evergreens on the lower portion and lush valleys at the base interchanging their prominence as you motor pass them.  Scattered throughout the mountains, small houses, surrounded by fenced-in areas for livestock, lie in the valleys, useable only during the warm months because snow would isolate the owners during winter.  We stop at a small lake amongst the mountains to taste a local cider that our guide recommends–it tastes awful–but the site is gorgeous, the valley unfolded before us like a green blanket, offering a perfectly bucolic and serene image, only enhanced by the random jingling of cowbells that can be heard over a low rise and complemented by the cloudless blue sky.  When the cows finally appear, they head for the lake.  In the distance we can hear more cowbells, first glimpsing the cows at the crest of a rise, then losing sight of them as they dip below it, only to reappear.

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In the afternoon we lunch at the one star Michelin restaurant, El Corral del Indiana, in Arriondas, Asturias, featuring a roasted and glazed lamb terrine for the entrée with lots of local Spanish white and red wine.

After breakfast the following day we travel to Aviles to view the ultra-modern Oscar Niemeyer designed cultural center which lies alone by the river and is credited with bringing a new sense of life to the city.  Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia, Brazil has created a starkly modernistic white conference building and a separate restaurant, both sitting on a vast, open, white-blocked pavement.  The center is a curvilinear design contrasting with the two story conical restaurant located some distance from it.  The starkness of the site is eerily disconcerting  to me, evoking a sense of unease and loneliness.  As I stand viewing the site, a lone roller-skater passes me suddenly into the vacant open space and fades just as suddenly into the distance, leaving the space silent and empty again.  I think of the 1962 movie, “L’Eclisse,” an Antonioni film of two modern Romans unable to connect emotionally and, hence, a metaphor for the broader modern world.  One scene has the male protagonist standing alone for some time on a suburban street corner surrounded by buildings, all of white facade, the street devoid of any activity and eerily silent when suddenly a bicyclist enters the scene and slowly exits without any notice of the protagonist, leaving the scene empty and silent again.  The following morning we travel to Ribadeo and visit Cathedrals beach, an attractive rocky outcrop, lunching on board the train.

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We finally arrive in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia province and termination point of the camino after visiting several other cities.  Our hotel, the Paradore Reyes Catolicos, is a beautifully appointed luxury hotel, a main feature of which is the individual courtyards within the building.  The original hospital was founded by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1499.  The Cathedral is adjacent to the hotel and dates from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.  It is an impressive building in size, anchoring one side of an equally impressive plaza.  To me, however, it lacks any visual appeal.  It is certainly not simple in design; it is an overwhelming conglomeration of columns and pilasters, a tall spire anchoring each side of an almost equally large front entrance facade, balconies placed below the spires.  Statutes appear to be everywhere, sitting atop many of the columns and arches scattered across the facade and on the railings of the balconies, giving the building a very unbecoming appearance of an overstuffed Victorian room gone awry.  The interior is equally overwhelming and outlandish.  The large gilded altar is covered by a gigantic gilded baldachin, a statute of St. James beneath which pilgrims can touch and kiss by mounting the stairs behind the altar.  St. James’ relics can be viewed in a crypt lying beneath the altar.

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One wonders at the appropriateness of completing a camino, a journey that is for most pilgrims a simple, spiritual experience , only to be greeted by a cathedral that is so large, extravagant and out of proportion to the quiet emotions likely to be engendered by the journey.  Would not a simple but elegantly beautiful church better enhance those emotions? Is a prayer said in a small village church, for example, worth any less to the Almighty than a prayer said in this huge cathedral?

The following day we leave Santiago in a rented car headed south about 60 or 70 miles to an area along the Rias de Viga, one of a series of large bay-like inlets that meets the Atlantic ocean in the southern part of Galicia.  Our hotel is the Paradore de Baiona in the small town of Baiona, ensconced along the rock-strewn Atlantic coast near the Portuguese border.  This is a major fishing area of Spain.

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Our hotel sits atop a hill overlooking the city on the Montreal peninsular and our suite looks out onto the Atlantic, where waves are crashing over a boulder-strewn beach, spraying a white watery mist into the windy air.  Seagulls are floating on the wind, some bobbing up and down like a cork in water, others sitting momentarily on the wind like a statute.  As one looks farther along the horseshoe curved shore, it curves around to the next beach.  The hotel is a converted manor house, surrounded by a 1.8 mile wall below which is a 1.2 mile walk circling the hill, affording excellent views over the ocean.

City center has a marina where a replica of Columbus’ Pinta, which entered this harbor on its return trip from the Americas, is moored, available as a tourist attraction and quite interesting to visit.  In the evening we dine on monk fish and salmon in a white sauce, white asparagus and Galician tomato soup, similar to Tuscan bean soup, accompanied by a white albarino wine.  This area, Rias Baixas, is where the albarino grape grows to produce a medium bodied, lemony, fruity wine, a fact which we take advantage of.

Driving south along the coast toward the Portuguese border provides a scenic 25 mile trip to the city of Guardia, the shore boulder-strewn its entire length, waves stirred up by a very active wind, creating a foaming spray as it confronts the boulders, the sky an intermittent gray and off-white, the roads desolate of vehicles.  Along the way we stop at the little town of Oia to visit a former Cistercian monastery,  the living quarters apparently abandoned, located on the beach with a church seemingly still in use, a single bell tower over the front entrance.  The smell of fish and seaweed scents the air as we linger by the church; some men, probably fishermen, are lounging across the way by fishing boats.  Back at the hotel, after losing our way on the return and taking a circuitous and unexpected route over the mountains, we take a leisurely walk along the path by the water below the fortress wall in the breezy but now sunlit day.

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The following day we drive to Monforte in the mountains of Galicia to the Paradore de Montforte, a converted Benedictine monastery located on a hill overlooking the city and  surrounding countryside for miles.  This is the end of our journey.