October 2009

Agua Azul vendor

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We bid goodbye to Europe (for now) and headed to Mexico. That we’re in Mexico might come as a surprise to some, since we had been talking for a year about returning to southern Spain to live in the village of Ojen for fall term. Unfortunately, in July, we heard about the Schengen Agreement. The treaty covers most of Europe and requires all signatories to drop their border restrictions within the treaty area, but beef up their border checks with any countries not in the Schengen area. It means that you can get on a train in one country and travel through several others without once showing your passport. But instead of having 90 days in each country (this seems to be the most common time limit for travel without a work or student visa) travellers have 90 days (out of any six month period) in the whole area.

We had spent too much time in the Schengen zone to stay there this fall, so we considered our possibilities. Should we head to Africa? Maybe the Balkans, which isn’t yet in the Schengen zone? Do we take the Siberian Express to Asia and spend a term in Thailand? In the end, Mexico seemed like a good choice because it would let us continue to work on our Spanish while seeing someplace new, and we’d just be that much closer to the States when we head home for the holidays.

We wanted to end up in Guanajuato, so we checked flights to Mexico City (about 4 hours away by bus) and on to Leon/Guanajuato airport but there was always a problem with the arrival time, the layover, the price, or something. We then noticed Guadalajara was just as close to Guanajuato as Mexico City, the prices were just a little better, and the arrival times not too bad. So, after about 20 minutes consideration we bought ticket to Guadalajara, Mexico.

We knew almost nothing about Guadalajara until we got there. It has a population of over a million people, and it turned out to be a great city. We planned to spend three days there, then extended that by four days, and probably would have stayed even longer had we found a good, inexpensive private room somewhere (the only downside of Guadalajara for us was accommodation).

What’s so great about Guadalajara? The food there was outstanding. We’ve since moved on from Guadalajara, and when we mention the food there, people always say it has the reputation for having the best food in Mexico. That’s easy to believe. At Karne Garibaldi, for example, I found myself making yummy noises every second bite. Seriously, I couldn’t stop doing it. If I described the food at most of the restaurants, it would sound pretty much like the Mexican food people are used to in the U.S. because it’s primarily a meat, some beans, and a salsa or pico de gallo, all wrapped in a tortilla (which is almost always a corn tortilla down here, unlike in America where flour is much more common). But it’s just different, trust me. And unlike places in America which always have the same large selection of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, etc., some places here only serve one or two things. This is why Karne Garibaldi has the world record (something like 13 seconds) for getting a meal on the table after it’s ordered (the order pretty much consisting of the size plate you want).

It really seems Guadalajara is a very forward-thinking city, too. For several hours on Sundays, many of the main streets are shut down to automobile traffic so people can walk or ride bikes all over town. Because cars are still allowed on the cross-streets, every intersection has one or two people there to hold traffic until there is a break in the pedestrian and bike traffic. I don’t know if the traffic controllers were volunteers or paid, but either way it’s a massive undertaking. The parks department even has free bikes for people to check out if they need them. Many people headed toward the center of the city, which was also shut down to cars, and people filled the streets and shopped at the stalls of hundreds of vendors.

Actually, I could list so many other wonderful qualities about Guadalajara that this posting would fill a couple of pages. For a choice made entirely for its convenience, Guadalajara couldn’t have been a better jumping off point for our time in Mexico. We’ve already discussed that when we come back to Mexico (and we will) we’ll be sure to check on flights to Guadalajara first.


Our last stop in Europe was Cork, where we’d first arrived 22 months earlier.  We were going back to sort through a few things we’d left there, deciding what to ship home and what to take with us.  We also wanted to get some more travel shots, since we were headed to Mexico next.  But the real reason for the trip, the reason we spent a week there instead of a day or two, was to see old friends.

In that, the trip was a success.  Every night but the last we spent seeing friends, and it was great craic.  We visited some of our favourite restaurants, and saw all the new stores that have opened in city centre.  We’d only been gone a little over three months but it had changed quite a bit.

Our last day, though, reminded us why it was time to move on.  It was lashing rain, 1.5 inches that day, and those last minute tasks such as shipping things home, which would have taken less than 2 hours to do in Corvallis, took more than 7 in Cork.

Still, we’ll be back.  Shortly after leaving Ireland in June we began to miss our friends there, and we decided to put Europe back into our future travel plans.  It will be a few years from now, but we will return for a year or two.  Maybe someplace drier, though.

The Eiffel Tower

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Paris was a delight. Contrary to any stereotypes Americans may have about the French in general or Parisians in particular, everyone we met was kind and understanding, despite our lack of any French language skills beyond bonjour and merci.

We had contacted a woman through Craigslist and arranged to rent what we thought was a room in her flat for our eight-day stay. When we arrived though, she gave us some instructions, asked if we had questions, handed us the key and left with her boyfriend. For far less then we would have paid for the most basic hotel room in Paris, we had our own private flat. It was small, very small, but it was in a great non-touristy neighbourhood and we loved it.

I won’t list all the sights, because you know what they are. I will say that the Louvre was not crowded because we went on Friday night, one of two nights it stays open late, and so avoided the daytime rush of tourists. We were able to walk right up to the main entrance and to buy tickets. We even got to within about two or three rows of gawkers beyond the velvet rope around the Mona Lisa, which is about as good as it gets, I think.

It’s fun to stay in a beautiful city like Paris long enough to have the chance to see some of the things many tourists do not. We walked through Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Des Buttes Chaumont, and the Bastille market, and we met up twice with a friend we’d first met in Montenegro. It is a wonderful city simply to exist in. A year or so ago we saw a movie called Paris, j’taime, or Paris, I love you. Now we understand it.


Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Between finishing our time in Europe and heading to Mexico, we haven’t posted much recently. So, this is the first of three posts describing our last city visits in Europe (Venice, Paris, and a last goodbye to friends in Cork).

As we mapped out the ever-changing itinerary of our final weeks in Europe, Venice was the big question mark. On the one hand, it is a unique city of incredible beauty. On the other, it’s terribly expensive and overrun with tourists, even more so than other parts of Italy. Amy recently read a blog about a couple who had visited Venice and experienced a bit of shock when they got their bill for coffee at St. Mark’s square, most of it just for the privilege of sitting. Also, we had just read an article in National Geographic which explained that the tourist numbers keep increasing and the local population keeps dwindling, and the negative effects all that was having on the city.

In the end we couldn’t pass up the chance to go so we decided on a quick two-day visit. We arrived early on a Sunday morning, dropped our bags at our hotel, and wandered through the streets of the city, heading in the direction of St. Mark’s square, one of the main attractions of Venice. Because it was still so early and it was Sunday the square was pretty empty when we got there. It was a rare treat to be in such a place without fighting the crowds.

That entire first day was good. Venice is, of course, like no other city in the world, yet it’s all so familiar because of countless movies and TV shows. Amy described it as being on a big movie set, a feeling we had at times in London. I don’t need to describe what it’s like because even if you haven’t been there, you know already.

The second day we experienced all the things we had disliked about Italy the first time around, and a few extras to boot. It was Monday, so all the tourists were still there but the locals were also out in force heading to work, turning the charming narrow streets into claustrophobia-inducing torture chambers (and that’s from someone who loves caving). Nothing was as good as the day before, including our lunch, which was small, mediocre and expensive.

Worst of all, we made the decision to leave our bags at the train station (we were headed out to Paris that night) rather than at the hotel to save us time later. Unfortunately it meant spending €13 on a 15-minute vaporetto ride, basically the Venice equivalent of a bus ride. Then we stood in line for 45 minutes to leave three bags that would later cost us around €20 to reclaim. Every decision we seemed to make that day led to increased costs, long waits and crowds.

As we boarded the train to Paris, we were so glad to have seen Venice and to have experienced it, but we were pretty happy to leave, too.