Posts Tagged With: tourists

Cozumel

I am (like many people) a fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons, and one of the many that have stuck in my mind is from decades ago. It depicts a man and a local Hispanic guide, overlooking a village from a viewpoint on some generic Central American hillside. The guide is saying, “This town has no history, señor. It was built 20 years ago entirely for the tourist trade.” Which brings us to Cozumel, Mexico.

It’s a little unfair to say that Cozumel has no history, but it doesn’t have a lot. A small arrowhead-shaped island less than 20 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, it hummed along for a few millennia, hosting a population of about 10,000 Maya, until the Spanish showed up in 1520 with the gift of smallpox, plus a predilection for destroying Mayan idols and replacing them with Virgin Mary statues . You’ve read this story before; fifty years later the population was less than 300. About the only other event of historical interest was Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt in 1861 to buy the island from Mexico as a home for freed slaves.

The island is very flat — it’s highest point is less than 50 ft above the surrounding Caribbean — and covered mostly with scrubby tropical vegetation. But it has beautiful beaches (when they are not clogged by sargassum seaweed, about which more shortly) and is one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. The main attractions for us, however, are our good friends and occasional travel companions Laura and David, who retired here in August 2018. So here we are.

Our friends live in a large and beautiful apartment overlooking the Caribbean to the west. From their balcony, just on the horizon, you can see the resort of Playa del Carmen across the channel on the Yucatan. You can also the comings and goings of a steady stream of enormous cruise ships; Cozumel is one of the major stops on the Caribbean cruise circuit. The largest of these that we’ve seen is the largest that you can see, the Allure of the Seas, which until 2015 was the largest cruise ship in the world and is now a close second. The Allure towers above everything around here including the buildings, with 16 passenger decks reaching the height of a 24-story building (far higher than any of the actual buildings on the island). It’s as long as four football fields and including crew carries eight thousand people. They could have called it the Behemoth of the Seas.

Because Cozumel is so small (a little under 30 x 10 miles), flat, and close to the coast, it does not enjoy the full climate-moderating effects of the surrounding ocean. It is pleasantly breezy, but hot and humid and subject to the occasional buildup of brief but intense tropical downpours in the afternoons. (The “breeze” is frequently a strong steady wind; I have not yet been able to fly my drone.) Here’s a photo from our first evening, when we were treated to a simultaneous sunset and rainstorm.

The main population center of the island is the town of San Miguel, home to about 3/4 of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions — no museums or art galleries — but has plenty of cruise ship port-side bars, souvenir stores, and restaurants, the some of the latter sporting debauchery-friendly names like “Mar Y Juana”.  The restaurant and bar competition is intense: if your walk down the street brings you within 30 feet of a restaurant — and it will — then you will be accosted by an excessively friendly person carrying a menu and latching onto you like a remora in an attempt to get you into “his” restaurant/bar.  And if you are looking for a particular restaurant and ask about it — “I’m trying to find Luigi’s” — you will be assured that yep, this is it, regardless of the relationship between that statement and verifiable reality. In short, it’s really all about the cruise ships here, and their hordes of hopefully-free-spending passengers.

But there are some very good restaurants to be found if you know what you are doing, which in our case means having friends who live here. Among our food destinations so far was La Perlita, a little open-air back street place whose specialty is lionfish, which you have probably never had, and which you can see here (not my photo).

Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s the good news. The bad news is that those dorsal spines are venomous as hell — stings can kill children and the elderly — and to add to the fun they are extremely invasive, not native to these waters. People have figured out that they are delicious, however, and so one way to control their population is to eat them. Which we did most enjoyably, doing our part for the environment.

That environment is a beautiful one if you know where to look, which in the case of Cozumel often means underwater. I mentioned that it is famous for its scuba diving, and rightfully so: I went diving yesterday on the well-known Palancar Reef off the southwest coast of the island, and enjoyed one of the best dives I have ever had. At a depth of ~62 ft (19 m) the water visibility was at least 100 ft (30 m) and the variety of sea life stunning: sting rays, sea turtles, moray eels, huge jacks, groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, blennies… it was like a National Geographic episode, and a half day very well spent. (No photos, alas: my small underwater camera would only survive to about half the depth I was at.)

Our island explorations yesterday bought us to Punta Sur (“South Point”), the southernmost point of the island and also home to one of its most beautiful beaches. Such beaches are unfortunately a sort of monetized commodity here: although there are very attractive venues where you can simply go to the beach, large stretches of the most  beach-worthy coastline have been turned into a string of commercial beach parks with admission charges. They offer amenities that include huge inflatable climbing toys (e.g., a Mayan pyramid) anchored a few feet offshore from the sugary sand. I’m not crazy about this; it is apparently deemed insufficient to simply enjoy the view and the water.

The water is on fine display at Punta Sur (at a US$16 admission charge), along with a number of other points of interest, notably a crocodile-filled inland lagoon and a lighthouse that offers a commanding view of the coast.

Cozumel Playa Sur-6211

Cozumel Playa Sur-6186

Cozumel Playa Sur-6210

Cozumel Playa Sur-6220

Notice the spectacular color — more accurately colors, plural — of the water. It is responsible for much of the overall beauty of the island, the vegetation itself being largely unimpressive and the animal life restricted to coatis, raccoons, and peccaries. (Those are the mammals; beyond those are copious iguanas and geckos.) But in the photo with the direction signs, notice also the thin line of orange brown stuff where the surf meets the sand. That is the infamous sargassum, mats of stringy algal seaweed. At this location on the island it is a noticeable problem; you can see a line of it along the beach in the panorama photo. When flying from the Yucatan mainland across the channel from Cancun, you can see football field-sized mats of it floating below.

But on the eastern side of the island, it is a crisis. Exposed to the winds from the Caribbean, vast tangles of it are blown ashore in the surf, covering every square inch of beach in thick, tangled, rotting mounds up to a few feet deep. No amount of trucking or shoveling can make a serious dent in it; there is little to do but wait it out and hope that as water conditions change throughout the year the environment will becomes less hospitable to it and less will be formed. We drove down the eastern side, encountering any number of scenes that would have been classically tropically beautiful had they not been overwhelmed with this stuff. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it.

We made our way down the eastern coast all the way to Punta Sur, then rounded the point and headed back into town to pick up some groceries. Once you leave the tourist area at the waterfront, San Miguel is a typical Central American town: wide dusty streets, lots of storefront mom-and-pop businesses, painted in primary colors and with roll-down aluminum shutters, a sultry slow-moving gestalt. Laura and David are learning the ins and outs of where to go: the best restaurants that only the locals know about; which gas stations to avoid (they don’t reset the counters on the pump when you drive up); which supermarket has the particular items they need.

Today was our 22nd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with an experiment: our friends wanted to try a recently-opened upscale Japanese restaurant called Shii Fu. I am happy to report that it was excellent.

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Categories: Central America, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Digital Klimt in Paris

Want to know how to vacation cheaply in Paris? It’s easy! Just spend ten days in Iceland first! Iceland is outrageously expensive: we estimated that everything there cost twice as much as it does in the Washington DC area, with the exception of gas, which costs three times as much. (These are actual, non-exaggerated numbers, in case you’re wondering.) So Paris looks like a bargain by comparison; prices are maybe 20% higher than at home.

We arrived in Paris yesterday (Sunday) afternoon and were temporarily stymied in getting to our AirBnb apartment, because central Paris is closed to automobile traffic on Sunday afternoons. This was a major headache for our taxi driver, who had to drive a badly clogged and circuitous route to get us here. I gave him a big tip.

We are in a tiny but well-equipped third floor walk-up in the Montregueil district, a lively area full of clothing stores, restaurants, and sleazy sex shops and peep shows. The sex shops and peep shows are all a block or two away from the Rue Montregueil itself, happily, which is mostly closed off to auto traffic. Here’s a view down our street from last night.

Paris 2018-007-Edit

So it’s a fun place to be. It also holds some happy memories for us, since it was 20 years ago that we rented an apartment here for a delightful week with our then-teenage sons. They enthusiastically discovered crepes and escargot at the time, and have become experienced world travelers in the two decades since. The neighborhood has not changed much.

Our first destination this morning was a bakery a few doors down from our flat, where we had some breakfast consisting mostly of some to-die-for chocolate croissants that cost about two bucks each. This is how we knew that we were back in Paris. Then we headed off by Metro to our first “sight” of the day, the Atelier des Lumières (“Studio of Lights”), also known as the Digital Art Museum. You have in all likelihood not heard of it, and indeed we had not either until our friend Elaine posted a link about it on Facebook. So, thanks Elaine! It was amazing!

The Atelier des Lumières is a former foundry that has been converted to a digital art space, in which spectacular animated digital “collages” are projected onto the warehouse-like walls and floor. Each display lasts from about 5 to 20 minutes and has a theme, and the two centerpieces of today’s displays were the Viennese artists Friedensreich Hundertwasser (whom I confess we had never heard of) and Gustav Klimt (whom of course we had). Here are a couple of still of the display, taken from a mezzanine above.

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..and here is one taken at floor level, featuring Alice and her cell phone.

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The display is dynamic and very immersive, accompanied by music that ranges from Philip Glass to Puccini. No still photo does it justice, so here’s a 3-minute video clip that I made from the mezzanine to give you an idea. Watch it with your sound on.

We left the Atelier and headed to one of our favorite spots in Paris, Sacre Coeur Cathedral and the Montmartre. I  have come to believe that it is not possible to take an original photo of Sacre Coeur, so I took the standard postcard shot.

Paris 2018-026

As you can see, it was a clear, sunny day. What you cannot see is that it was hot: about 82F / 27C. So the area was thronged with tourists enjoying the unseasonable summer weather. Of course, it is pretty much always thronged with tourists. Making a living off them are of course block after block of restaurants, cheesy souvenir stores, and street denizens. The most common species of the latter these days seem to be shell-game players, rapidly moving the ball around among three overturned cups. They were everywhere: on one short street there were two that were literally within about an arm’s length of each other.

Incredibly, there is still an adequate supply of tourists naive enough to play the game. Alice asked me what fraction of the players I thought won, and I unhesitatingly replied, “Zero.” They don’t call it the old shell game for nothing. But on further reflection, I realized that this cannot be true; you need to have an occasional — and highly visible — winner in order to keep the crowds coming. And indeed, we saw some wins…. immediately followed by a double-or-nothing offer. Guess what happens then.

We ate lunch in Montmartre and wandered the area; the main square is a core of restaurants surrounded by a ring of artists, a few of whom are not at all bad. (Alice bought a piece here about ten years ago; the same artists is still there.) Here is the scene, with Alice in the midst of things:

Paris 2018-032-Edit

One entire side of the square is occupied by portrait artists and caricaturists. Tons of them also wander the street, sketch pad in hand, inveigling tourists into some real-time portraiture. But here’s one of the sit-down portraitists at work.

Paris 2018-041

Our final stop was the Dali Museum, which is always high on both our lists. We both enjoy his work tremendously, but it resonates especially strongly with Alice because Dali’s muse was his wife Gala, who Alice pointedly observes was ten years older than him. (Alice is seven years older than me. I do not dare hypothesize aloud the implication that she is only 70% as inspirational, since that is clearly untrue. At least, if I know what is good for me.)

As we walked back to the Metro after leaving the Dali Museum we encountered in an abandoned lot yet another example that everything in Paris is a work of art.

Paris 2018-043

The phrase in the middle — “Regarder C’est Inventer” — means “observing is inventing”. It was one of Dali’s mottos. You generally do not see quotes from surrealist artists spray painted on abandoned buildings in the US.

I think that tonight we will ride the famous bateaux mouches, the Seine tour boats, to see the lights of the city at night. It’s one of those touristy things that you have to do no matter how often you visit Paris. And so we will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Europe, France | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reykjavik: In Search of Icelanders

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 AM local time this morning, some 14 hours ago. Since we have attacked the city with our usual touristic compulsion, accompanied by our equally immoderate traveling companions Janet and Tim, I am more or less exhausted and so will for the most part let some photos do the talking. So let’s start with a panorama of Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the tallest point in the city: the spire of Hallsgrimkirkja (which I will explain in a moment):

The city looks more or less to the north across the harbor, and a couple of things stand out as you view it from either street level or from above: (1) the city has a very clean, orderly feel; and (2) the predominant architectural style is Primary Colored Boxes, a very Scandinavian look that might have resulted from the Norse gods having purchased the city in its entirety from Ikea. (It would have had some typical Ikea name like Whølecitii and the assembly instructions would have been 163,000 pages long.) It has a very walkable and compact downtown area; most of the major landmarks and attractions fall within an area about a mile on a side. The dramatic clouds that you see in the photo are pretty typical.

The Hallsgrimkirkja is probably the single most publicized and photographed building in Iceland, a 75 m (244 ft) church named after  Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman. It shows up in every tourist ad and every postcard. You have very likely seen a photo of it at some point. Here it is:

The statue in the front is Leif Erickson, presented to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Dating from AD 930, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary body in the world, originally presided over by Strom Thurmond. (That last phrase is actually a pretty good joke that only Americans over the age of about 55 will understand. Everyone else, just move on.)

As I mentioned, you have probably seen this picture before…. except that when you saw it, the building looked very white. For some reason, the Icelandic tourism authorities feel compelled to present this church as being heavenly white in color, and that is how it appears in most “official” photos after suitable lighting adjustments and resorting to Photoshop. But it isn’t white: it’s gray, just as you see here. Maybe on a sunny day it would like more iconic.

The interior of the Hallsgrimkirkja is every bit as striking and stark as the exterior. Here is the main sanctuary:

It is white, or nearly so, and very imposing, albeit in a spartan Mormon-Temple-Also-Bought-From-Ikea sort of way. At the back of the hall is a glorious and impressive 5700-pipe organ.

Before moving on I would first like to confirm two of the predictions that I made in my pre-trip blog post about a week ago. First, Reykjavik appears not to contain any actual Icelanders outside of store and restaurant employees. (And not even all of them: the rental agent who gave us our car was Lithuanian.) Pretty much everyone on the street is a tourist, Americans seemingly the most numerous.

Second, the locals love hot dogs, in case you thought I was kidding last time. We counted 5 hot dog stands in a two block stretch downtown. The most famous of all — supposedly the lines can be an hour long in the summer — is an unprepossessing kiosk dating from 1937, called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. (No, I do not know what the translation is.) And by “unprepossessing”, here is what I mean:

That’s it. Happily there was almost no line. The menu consists of exactly two items: hot dogs, and Coca Cola. There are five possible things you can get on your hot dog: mayo, mustard, ketchup, raw onion, or fried onions. Oh, and the Coke can be diet. That’s it. So we did our touristy duty and each had a hot dog and a Coke because really, what else was there to do. Here are Janet and Tim, snapping under the pressure.

In all fairness, I will grant that they were pretty good hot dogs. They were reasonably priced, and a lot less exotic (or at least thought-provoking) then some of the other local restaurant fare. We were looking for places for dinner later in the day and came across a well-reviewed steak restaurant near our flat. It seemed pretty straightforward: the name of the place was “The Steak Restaurant”. Reading the menu in the front window, an entree called “Surf and Turf” caught my eye. Reading one line further down revealed that the “surf” was minke whale and the “turf” was horse. We went elsewhere and got fish and chips for dinner. The fish was cod. All the fish here is cod, except for the halibut and Arctic char. (And whale, which isn’t a fish.)

Anyway, having fueled up on hot dogs to counteract our jet lag, we were ready to tackle some of the major city attractions. Besides the Hallsgrimkirkja, the next most prominent structure in the city is the much more contemporary performing arts house, the Harpa, which is essential the local equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It is an exceptionally striking edifice, all prismatic glass that creates stunning interior and exterior views, e.g.:

(The bottom image is on the inside, looking upwards and outwards from the atrium.)

The Harpa sits right at the water’s edge, which prompted Janet to relate an anecdote that she had read in a book about how Icelanders view tourism. The complaint from at least one of the locals was, “Why do tourists keep building stupid piles of rocks?” we weren’t sure what that mean until we noticed the beach next to the Harpa, which looks like this:

Apparently these were erected by tourists rather than trolls. (Icelanders love trolls. You see stuffed trolls, troll toys, and books about trolls in pretty much every store. These are apparently not the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats. Nor do they build pointless piles of rocks.)

A few hundred meters up the road from the Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s signature landmarks: the Sun Voyager sculpture:

It dates from 1990, created by the Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is 18 m (60′) long and about half that in height. If you are like every human being on Earth other than Jón Gunnar Árnason (who is now dead and thus not on Earth in the usual sense) you take one look at this thing and say “Viking ship.” I mean, it’s pretty obviously a Viking ship, right? But apparently not. According to Wikipedia:

“It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

You will note from a careful reading, however, this is all third-party interpretation: it appears that no one ever thought to ask Jón Gunnar whether it was a Viking ship and get “no” for an answer. So I’m sticking with Viking ship.

So jet lag and fatigue withstanding, that was our first day in Iceland. Tomorrow we are driving to Gulffoss Falls and doing our insanely cold snorkeling trip in the Silfra volcanic fissure.

 

 

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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