Van Gogh Immersive Experience

Early evening on the first Sunday in November, we headed to Upper Darby’s historic Tower Theater. The purpose of our visit was to go to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. We had booked tickets in the Spring hoping we would feel confident enough to attend an indoor event safely. We took the chance and crossed our fingers because Van Gogh is our 16 year old’s favourite artist and the Experience was coming to the Philly area around the time of his birthday.

2021-11-07 17.49.36

The first half of the Experience was engaging and interesting. There were three-dimensional objects on which projected images were moving, replicas of Van Gogh’s works, and well-curated information boards. I actually learned a couple of things about Van Gogh that I had not previously known – that he was very possibly colour blind and that the reds in his paintings have disappeared over time because of the degrading of the particular pigment he used. Had this section been the sum total of the Experience, however, I would have been disappointed. It was an attractive and appealing way to present information but would not have justified the ticket price.

2021-11-07 18.00.33
2021-11-07 18.06.39

The second half of the Experience, however, was utterly mesmerizing. A large room had images being projected on all four walls and on the floor. The changing images told the story of Van Gogh’s life as an artist, conveyed something of his emotional and mental state, and showcased the imagery of his paintings. I thought the almond blossom section was especially aesthetically pleasing while the crows in the wheatfield were emotionally stirring and the Starry Night was evocative.

2021-11-07 18.08.00
2021-11-07 18.26.12
2021-11-07 18.32.34

My husband and two youngest sons plonked themselves in deckchairs and enjoyed the entire show from that vantage point. Our 16 year old loves the movie ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ so he popped in his earbuds and listened to the soundtrack of that film throughout his visit – though there was a lovely soundtrack accompanying the imagery. He was definitely into the “immersive” aspect of our time there. He most certainly did not appreciate me breaking into his bubble to take his photo or talk to him. Meanwhile I chose to wander around and see what things looked like from different perspectives in the room. I also enjoyed looking around the room and seeing the sunflowers and crabs and branches being projected onto the floor flitting across all of the other visitors.

2021-11-07 18.33.28
2021-11-07 18.31.35
2021-11-07 18.34.38

There was an option to extend the “immersion” by doing a virtual reality activity. There was an extra cost involved but it was not too steep. The boys were not keen enough on the idea, however, to want to queue up for a turn plus we were all getting hungry so we did not opt into that. We really enjoyed the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. This type of event was a first for me and I would certainly be keen to visit others with a similar approach. It’s just a different way of engaging in a subject.

Season of Masks and Mellow Fruitfulness

Apologies to Keats for the lame pun.  Maybe it is not the best idea – during a deadly pandemic –  to reference a text in which the poet uses Autumn to reflect on his own imminent mortality but I couldn’t resist.  It has been some time since I last hit “post” on this blog because, for obvious reasons, I don’t have much to report but I thought I could write something about what we have been up to this Autumn.

We started October with a birthday: our second oldest son turned 15.  He is my movie geek so normally his celebration would involve a cinema trip and a restaurant dinner with us and some of his friends.  While that was not possible this year, his birthday still revolved around movies, especially some of his favourites.  Our 13 year old, for instance, drew his brother’s favourite Director – Martin Scorsese – as a gift and the decorations for his cake were all cinema inspired.

2020-10-03 09.11.55-1

2020-10-03 20.22.32-1

My 15 year old’s favourite movie of recent years is ‘The Lighthouse’ and his favourite actor is Willem Dafoe.  It was, therefore, not a surprise when he chose to dress up as Dafoe’s character in ‘The Lighthouse’ for Halloween.  Our youngest son went trick or treating as a cat. Our neighbourhood did a safe, socially-distanced trick or treat event.  Candy had to be bagged up in advance and left down by the sidewalk so that nobody had to approach houses and everyone had to walk in the direction of traffic to avoid passing.  It worked really well as a zero contact event and I was glad we could do something approaching “normal” for the youngest members of the community.  Honestly, I rather hope this becomes the new tradition.  It was much easier and the kids were able to gather so much more candy in a shorter period of time because they were not having to leave the sidewalks or wait for people to answer the door.  I am adding that to the list of things I hope don’t return to normal after the pandemic.

2020-10-31 16.54.00-1

2020-10-31 17.50.59-1

2020-10-31 18.55.14

My own personal Halloween horror story was surviving without a fridge-freezer for almost the whole of October.  In addition to being an unexpected expense, we had a whole lot of stress trying to problem-solve a replacement.  When we bought our house, it had not been remotely updated since it was built in 1968 with the exception of the kitchen which dates from about 1990.  It was not, therefore, wholly surprising when the fridge-freezer went kaput.  Unfortunately, dimensions of appliances have changed over the past 30 years and we could not find a replacement fridge-freezer that would fit into the space.  Aside from the fact that we cannot afford to replace the entire kitchen right now, the units are actually in excellent condition.  The only solution we could come up with that maintained the integrity of the surrounding cabinets was to remove the doors from the cabinets above the fridge-freezer space, cut down the interior box, and create an open shelving situation.  It is not ideal but it will do for now and until we do renovate the entire kitchen.  The plumbing for the fridge-freezer was not in line with current code so that was another hiccup along the way.  Needless to say, after a month without a functioning fridge-freezer, I am so happy and grateful to have a new one.

2020-10-10 08.45.00

2020-11-04 17.51.43-1

My birthday fell in election week so the election and the stressful wait for the results dominated the week.  It did, however, make for a very memorable birthday.  I cannot imagine I will ever forget it.  My husband’s birthday fell just two days after we went into lockdown in the Spring and I have the last birthday of the year in our household so we have all had this weird birthday experience now.

2020-10-20 12.17.33_edited

2020-11-05 19.11.15

My birthday tradition is to have a trip somewhere that everyone has to agree to and not complain (too much) about.  A lot of things are off limits right now and then there are things we assess as being too high risk.  Luckily, however, one of my favourite pastimes is visiting cemeteries and that is a safe thing to do in the current context.  We, therefore, took a trip to Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

2020-11-08 12.40.28

It is always useful to have a focus to our cemetery visits so I went armed with research into some graves we could try to locate.  Mr Pict actually has some distant relatives buried in the cemetery but we had no success in finding them.  Our focus, therefore, was on famous graves.

2020-11-08 12.15.29

2020-11-08 12.10.00

The first grave I really wanted to find was that of Mary Grew.  She was an abolitionist and suffragist and, given 2020 is the centenary of women being enfranchised in America and Americans have just elected the nation’s first female VP, it seemed apt to go visit her grave.

2020-11-08 11.59.13

2020-11-08 12.08.50

Just a hop, skip, and a jump away, we located the grave of the artist Thomas Eakins.  I confess I had not heard of Eakins until we emigrated and settled in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  One of Eakins’ most famous paintings is The Gross Clinic and the subject of that painting, Dr Samuel Gross, is buried elsewhere in the cemetery.  One of my nerdy interests – an offshoot of my fascination with disease and pandemics – is the history of medicine and the painting of Gross provides some insight into the practices in surgical theatres at that time – not a lot of hygiene, for instance.  That same interest is what drew me to find the resting place of John Conrad Otto.  He identified the pattern of hereditary that caused the transmission of hemophilia.

2020-11-08 12.13.47

2020-11-08 12.37.07

2020-11-08 12.48.32

As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so we, of course, had to visit at least a couple of the graves of notable Civil War veterans: Naval Commodore William David Porter and David Bell Birney.

2020-11-08 12.35.12-1

2020-11-08 12.30.05

2020-11-08 12.20.18

2020-11-08 12.21.46

2020-11-08 12.35.56-1

2020-11-08 12.50.45-1

2020-11-08 12.52.38-1

My kids have remained 100% virtual for education but, just last week, those students who wished to were able to return to brick and mortar schools on a hybrid model.  By the end of the week, the county public health department ordered that all schools had to pivot back to 100% online for all students for a period of two weeks.  Apart from the fact I returned to work, we have continued to live in a “lockdown” mode so nothing much alters for us.  It may, however, indicate that a strict lockdown is on the horizon.  Apart from not wishing to be furloughed again, we are prepared for it.  We will just continue to watch movies, play board games, and bake.  

2020-10-27 20.03.32-1

 

National Museum of American Jewish History and Ghost Ship

Today is my birthday.  Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone.  Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip.  I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city.  It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands.  We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture.  I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting.  My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon.  He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged.  At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel.  My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land.  Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War.  For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum.  I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased.  I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.

DSC_0019

DSC_0071

DSC_0081

DSC_0098

DSC_0103

DSC_0109

After the museum, we headed off in search of food.  Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in.  Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US.  We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store.  Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets.  My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful.  My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates.  He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form.  I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves.  There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.

2019-11-02 17.59.05

2019-11-02 18.01.48

Dinner was in a British themed pub.  We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available.  Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home.  There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those.  They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint.  I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys.  I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be.  It was scrumptious.

The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River.  When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible.  Alas, it was not.  We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution.  Oh dear.  The crowd was restless.  Some people were loudly complaining.  We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed.  After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home.  I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes.  I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark.  Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water.  It was impressive and I was glad to see it.  Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children?  The verdict is still out.

DSC_0165

DSC_0234

Straight Outta Scranton

Our third son turned 12 on Monday so the preceding weekend was filled with celebrations for him.  Our oldest son turns 16 on Saturday so our week is bookended with birthday festivities.  We have a tradition that the person with the birthday gets to choose the activity for the closest weekend.  My middle two sons are obsessed with the TV show ‘The Office’ so the decision was that we would go to Scranton and tour sites associated with that show and its cast of characters.  I have only seen the odd episode of the show so I had to do a lot of research and pick the brains of my 13 year old.  I may know next to nothing about ‘The Office’ but I am always happy to support, encourage, and facilitate someone else’s nerdy interests.

DSC_0033

We parked up at the Steamtown Mall.  We had been watching that mall gradually deteriorate into something out of a dystopia during our previous visits to Scranton.  I was anticipating it being even more moribund and empty so was pleasantly surprised to see that real inroads have been made to turning around its fortunes.  What they seem to be doing is letting spaces to small, independent retailers – possibly for a peppercorn rent – which meant there were far fewer empty store spaces and much greater footfall.  An aquarium has also moved in which is presumably a way of pulling people into the mall.  My boys – including Mr Pict – liked a store dedicated to vintage video games.  It was the type of niche business that would never be able to afford a retail spot normally but it had a large space within the Steamtown Mall.  I was most impressed by the makeover of what had been the food court area.  It had been very sad and stale when we last visited – ghastly enough that I would never have thought to eat there – but it had been totally redesigned to provide compact spaces for eateries and artisans.  But I digress….

We started off outside Boscov’s, a department store founded in Pennsylvania.  Apparently this was where the characters Pam and Phyllis bought the same outfit.  Right next to Boscov’s was an Auntie Anne’s pretzel store.  Aside from the fact that a character named Kelly is fond of this brand of pretzel, it is nigh impossible for my kids to travel anywhere within Pennsylvania without snacking on a pretzel so we had to buy pretzel for elevenses.  Birthday boy had a pizza pretzel, the 13 year old had a jalapeno pretzel, and our youngest son had a pretzel dog which is, yes, a hot dog sausage wrapped in pretzel dough.  Our final Office item in the Mall was the “Welcome to Scranton” sign that features in the shows opening credits.  It used to be outside on the roadside but has been moved inside to become a tourist attraction.  My wee nerds were delighted to be able to pose beside it.

DSC_0006

DSC_0014

DSC_0029

We exited the Mall and headed towards Courthouse Square.  From there, we could see the electrified sign atop the Trade building.  I have yet to see this lit up, which I imagine would be very impressive, but I love the design even without the illumination.  Scranton is named the Electric City because it was the home of the first electrified trolley (tram) system which operated from 1886.  However, the reason my boys were keen to see the historic sign was because the sign and the lyric “electric city” feature in a rap performed by the characters Michael and Dwight on ‘The Office’ – the same rap that gave me the title for this blog post.  There is also an Electric City mural on a wall alongside a busy road so, of course, we had to go and see that too.  While that mural functions as a welcome to Scranton, I actually preferred a colourful mural tucked away in an alley just off of Courthouse Square.  I had to go and see that on my own, however, since it was “off theme” and superfluous to our tour.

DSC_0067

DSC_0053

DSC_0070

2019-04-06 13.00.29

DSC_0106

DSC_0115

After the Electric City sign, we walked along to the Pennsylvania Paper and Supply company.  En route, we had a detour into a comic book store because apparently it is OK to go “off theme” if you are a child but not if you are an adult.  For those not in the know, ‘The Office’ is about the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a fictional paper company.  The building in which the real paper company is housed features in the opening credits and they have embraced the connection to the show by placing “Dunder Mifflin” on one side of the building’s tower.  As we stood on the street taking photos, a car drove past playing the theme music for us.  We laughed and waved.  It seems some Scrantonians are very welcoming towards nerdy TV tourists.

DSC_0079

DSC_0082

DSC_0083

Next up was Cooper’s Seafood.  According to my 13 year old, this was the location where Michael and Holly argued about Meredith’s ethics.  I have no idea but I was quite keen on the idea of dining there.   Unfortunately, our arrival there did not coincide with anyone feeling hungry (thanks, pretzels!) so instead we just had to take in the building with our eyes and not with our stomachs.  There is a striped faux lighthouse surrounded by pirates and a gigantic octopus on the roof.  It looked like a lot of fun.  It was definitely the place for purchasing ‘Office’ merchandise.  My 12 year old could have gone bankrupt in there.  They even had things like staff badges for each character and paper with the Dunder Mifflin letterhead.  In the end, he chose to buy a poster for the movie-within-a-show ‘Threat Level Midnight’ and was chuffed to bits with his purchase.

DSC_0090

DSC_0094

We then drove to an industrial estate on the fringes of Scranton.  First stop there was a bowling alley in which there is sited a bar called Poor Richard’s Pub.  It’s a favourite hang out spot for the characters.  I couldn’t take the kids into the bar so we just dipped into the building to claim it and snap some photos of the outside.  Nearby is a pizza restaurant called ‘Alfredo’s Pizza Cafe’.  Apparently there is a joke in the show that involves confusion between this pizza place and one called ‘Pizza by Alfredo’s’ that serves “hot circles of garbage”.  The smells wafting out of the restaurant were deeply appealing and had me drooling but we took a vote and again the kids declared that they were not hungry enough.  Gah!  So frustrating.  I love pizza.  We will need to try it out next time we find ourselves in Scranton.  I spotted a Rite Aid at the corner so we quickly nipped there for another photo op because, again, it is tied into the show since characters purchase a cologne from there called “Night Swept”.  Rite Aid is also part of Scranton’s economic history since it was founded there in the early 1960s.

DSC_0129

DSC_0133

DSC_0135

Having done all the major ‘Office’ themed stops within Scranton’s limits, the boys then decided we should go see Lake Wallenpaupack.  This lake features in an episode called “Booze Cruise”.  While it uses the name of the real lake, it was actually filmed in California but the kids were up for the idea of a lake visit regardless.  Unfortunately, at least from the direction we approached Lake Wallenpaupack, we could not find a public access route down towards the water or even a place to park up and walk down.  The lake is vast – Pennsylvania’s third largest indeed – so we decided to give up on the plan instead of wasting time circuiting the lake.  We turned around and gradually started working our way along very windy rural back roads towards major roads that would take us home.  That route took us past an abandoned motel so, of course, I had to quickly brake, pull the car over, and leap out to take photos.  I was way “off theme” again so everybody else refused to get out of the car.

By this time, it was very late in the afternoon, we still had a long drive home, and everyone was famished with hunger.  Having not eaten at either Cooper’s or Alfredo’s, we had one last attempt at eating “on theme” by opting for a Chilli’s, a chain restaurant that is the favourite of Michael’s, the main protagonist of ‘The Office’.  The boys even ordered the Awesome Blossom – Michael Scott’s favourite dish – though they were disappointed it was only petals and not a full onion blossom.  The service was excellent and the food so plentiful that we took home several boxes.  The birthday boy was well-fed, happy, and delighted with his ‘Office’ day out.

2019-04-06 17.29.19-1

2019-04-06 17.08.18

Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

DSC_0038

DSC_0042

As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

DSC_0044

DSC_0048

DSC_0051

DSC_0059

DSC_0060

DSC_0081

DSC_0083

DSC_0090

DSC_0096

DSC_0115

DSC_0101

We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

DSC_0150

DSC_0153

DSC_0155

After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

DSC_0173

DSC_0191

DSC_0185

DSC_0208

DSC_0211

DSC_0207

DSC_0198

DSC_0218

The Liberty Bell

We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday.  Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history.  I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall.  That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.

The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it.  We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace.  We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell.  There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored.  The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.

The bell is, of course, famous for its crack.  This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia.  Poor workmanship it seems.  It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century.  It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant.  Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement.  Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.

DSC_0013

DSC_0012

After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall.  However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone.  Completely bad planning on our part.  Tsk tsk.  We will have to return another time.  We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall.  Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC.  We had a quick gander and then we moved on.

DSC_0014

2017-11-04 14.10.37

DSC_0029

Sticking with the theme of America’s founding, our next pit stop was to see the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  There was a charge, however, to enter Christ Church Burial Ground.  Despite the modest fee, we decided not to pay so I had to content myself with a glimpse through the railings.  Oh dear.  Our planning for the day was really not going too well at all.  Happily none of this was the main event for my birthday day out.

DSC_0038

Yucatan Birthday Celebration #5 – Tulum

Another day; another Mayan archaeological site.  This time – for the last full day of our vacation – we did not drive too far from Cancun, just a little down the coast to Tulum.

While Chichen Itza had impressed for its scale and Coba was fantastic because of its position in the jungle, the thing that made Tulum special was its siting on the rugged cliffs of the Mayan Riviera and above the second longest coral reef in the world.  Unlike the sprawl of the other two ancient cities, Tulum was confined within a fortified outer wall.  That made it must easier to wander around in the blazing heat but also meant that we were a bit sardine-like with all the coach loads of other visitors.  What Tulum had that was entirely lacking at Coba was plentiful information boards so that we could interpret what we were seeing.

There was a palace in centre of the site and it was surrounded by other buildings.  Finally we were given the explanation that the flat platforms in evidence at Tulum and which we had seen elsewhere were the foundation for buildings made from perishable materials.   A few of the buildings had carvings of a descending god on them.  I rather liked his bizarre upside down nature.

 

DSC_0443

 

DSC_0444

 

DSC_0447

 

DSC_0466

 

DSC_0496

 

DSC_0503

 

DSC_0530
On the promontory, we read about the first contact between the Mayans and the Spanish who, from their ship, thought Tulum looked a lot like Seville.  I could not help but wonder what the Mayans, watching the ship from the cliffs, thought of the European interlopers.  I liked it up on the cliffs because of the cooling sea breeze.  I stopped there to take lots of lizard portraits.  There were lots of iguanas around, wandering with their wide slung cowboy legs.  They were not skittish at all and some even seemed to be posing for my camera but they certainly didn’t want me touching them. I tried though.

 

DSC_0513

 

DSC_0477

 

DSC_0522

 

DSC_0524
We were disappointed by the actual town of Tulum.  We had high expectations as people had told us that we would love it.  I expected quaint, picturesque streets, interesting architecture, perhaps whitewashed buildings or houses painted in vivid colours.  What we found was just a street of shops selling the same souvenirs and crafts that we had seen all over the place.  There looked to be some intriguing eateries but we were not remotely hungry having had another of our breakfast feasts at the hotel.  The roads running adjacent and parallel to this main road were back to being ramshackle and run down, not much worth exploring, so we headed down the road to the coastline.   We found ourselves on a narrow road lined with cabanas ranging from “hippy” retreats offering sweat lodges, yoga and reiki healing to very swish and swanky looking boutique hotels.  The buildings all blocked any view of the shore line and prevented access to the beach but we had to forge on to its end in order to turn around.

We journeyed back back to hotel to swim.  I did lots of relaxing floating around again.  We finished with a dip in the large jacuzzi again as it was getting chilly and we could warm up that way.  I sat beside a jet so as to get the benefit of the lobster pot hot water.  The jets were so powerful that they kept pushing me off  the seat ledge and I had visions of floating into the centre like a star fish stuck in a spin cycle.   Thankfully my vision was not realised.
We dined in the Argentinian restaurant again.   This time I had caprese salad followed by a dish of chicken coated in some sort of piquant salsa and Mr Pict had a wedge salad followed by another steak.
The following morning at breakfast, the final day of our trip, I kept finding the waiter was taking my buffet plate from me and taking it to the table.  I thought it was because I was right under his nose at the waiter station but they had a surprise in store for me: I was presented with a cake complete with a candle and happy birthday written in chocolate on the plate. It was a very sweet and thoughtful gesture and, as Mr Pict and I ate chocolate cake for breakfast, it felt like a fitting conclusion to our vacation.

 

2015-11-19 08.54.38

 

2015-11-19 13.02.45

 

 

Yucatan Birthday Celebration #4 – Coba

Our next excursion was to Coba, a Mayan settlement shrouded in dense jungle.  Coba is much older than Chichen Itza, dating from  around 50 BC.  The drive there was entirely uneventful.  It was busy around Playa del Carmen but by the time we turned away from the coast and towards the interior there were hardly any other cars on the road.  We noticed wooden platforms lining the side of the road at points.  These were where people put their bin bags, presumably to keep them up above ground level and away from scavenging animals.

Coba was totally different from Chichen Itza.  I could tell that even from the restrooms: I was handed three squares of toilet roll as I entered and there were no seats on the toilets. I was then handed one paper towel after washing my hands.  The facilities were very basic but the entry tickets also cost a fraction of what they did at Chichen Itza.  Also unlike Chichen Itza, there was no clearing around the ruins; the jungle was right on top of everything.  Our excursion became a walk through the jungle that occasionally led us to some ruins.  We really enjoyed it for just that reason.  We encountered frogs, lizards, grackle, a hummingbird, lots of ants, mosquitoes, yellow butterflies, and huge blue butterflies.   It was very humid and steamy. As we walked 4 square kilometres to see ruins scattered all over the place, my Scottish head became a glowing beacon.

 

DSC_0374

 

DSC_0383

 

DSC_0385

 

DSC_0422

 

It was evident that Coba was not as protected as Chichen Itza.  We could climb on the ruins up to certain height when they got roped off probably more out of concern for the safety of visitors than for the preservation of the ruins.  Mr Pict was even brave enough to climb the great pyramid.  He found the ascent and descent quite nerve-wracking but decided it was worth it for the fabulous views over the surrounding jungle.  I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself having a panic attack so I spectated from the “weenie creche” benches below.  There were two ball courts at Coba and they had much lower rings than at Chichen Itza but I still had no idea how players scored goals off their hips.
2015-11-17 12.50.45

 

DSC_0414

 

2015-11-17 12.56.07

 

DSC_0394
We felt like a pair of hog roasts when we emerged from the jungle so we decided to go back to our hotel and make use of the facilities.   We quickly got into our swimsuits and headed down to the seaside pool. Mr Pict went swimming in the ocean first, diving around in the large waves and strong current, and then we headed into the pool.  The water was a lovely temperature.  I spent most of my time swimming lazy circles on my back, staring at the clouds, birds overhead looking like pterodactyls, watching the sky melt from blue into pink, the early evening sun slipping below the building line, ears underwater to enjoy the quiet.  It was the most peaceful and restful I have felt in a very long time.  I also got to experience my first wet bar as we sipped margaritas as we sat in the water.  That was definitely luxurious and a big birthday treat.  We ended our swimming trip with a dip in the toasty warm jacuzzi as the waves crashed on the shore behind us.
Feeling lazy again and drawn to the thriftiness of a substantial discount, we dined in a hotel restaurant again.  This time it was an Argentinian Steakhouse, not a promising prospect for someone who doesn’t eat red meat.  However, I wound up so stuffed I couldn’t finish my entree which was a wild mushroom risotto.  Mr Pict had a steak that was so perfect he could slice through it like butter.  The waiting staff were so vigilant and on the ball that I ended up feeling super lazy since I never once had to even pour my own water.  I was actually a little uncomfortable with the degree to which I was being waited upon, as if I had servants.  I was definitely being spoiled rotten on my big birthday trip.

 

Yucatan Birthday Celebration #3 – Valladolid

On our return journey from Chichen Itza to Cancun, we decided to go via Valladolid.  The drive did not take too long and took us through a few small towns.  We noted that each village had a little police building at each end, almost like a border control – though several of the police officers we passed were looking at their smartphones.  The housing was very basic in that area, the dwellings little more than shacks, the windows having wooden sticks for slats rather than glass.  There were also lots of feral dogs and lots of those peculiar bicycles with the baskets.   We also drove past a prison where a stall outside was selling brightly colored hammocks made by the prisoners. It felt peculiar and not all that comfortable visiting an area with such obvious poverty from a base at a luxury hotel.

I wanted to visit the former convent and current church of  San Bernardino de Siena.  The guide book and Google both indicated that the church would be closed to visitors by the time we reached there so Mr Pict parked up and I got out of the car to walk the perimeter of the building and take photos.  As I wandered, however, I spotted that it was actually open so Mr Pict joined me and we took ourselves on a self-guided tour.

Valladolid was founded as a colonial town in 1543 by the nephew of the famous Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo.  The church was built soon afterwards, in the 1550s making it one of the oldest churches in the Yucatan peninsula, maybe even the oldest.  The exterior facade was unassuming veering towards ugly.  Its surface reminded me of a wall when the tiles have been ripped off but some of the adhesive remains.

 

DSC_0366

 

DSC_0292

 

The interior was very simple and worn in places, suggesting that perhaps it has not been updated architecturally much since it first opened its doors.  The cloister’s arches were even covered with moss and algae.  It was a very interesting place because of that, however.  The walls reverberated with its centuries of history.

 

DSC_0312

 

DSC_0308

 

The actual church contained some fascinating ecclesiastical artwork.  There were some sculptures that I found a bit creepy, I must admit, as they looked like dead-eyed dolls.  There was also a Christ who looked like a marionette.  There were some frescoes on either side of the alter, the colours still surprisingly rich against the plaster.  The proportions of the figures gave me a wee bit of a chuckle as the cherubim had skew wiff bum cracks.  Peurile humour, I know.  The most dominant feature of the church, however, was the imposing altarpiece.  Carved out of wood, it contained niches for various biblical figures.  On an artistic level, it was not my taste but I certainly found it interesting to look at.  The upper level of the building was full of corridors leading off into little rooms.  The walls were a lovely shade of candy pink and the elevation gave us great views down into the church below.

 

DSC_0321

 

DSC_0355

 

DSC_0360

 

DSC_0364

 

In the garden area of the church, we wandered through a botanical garden filled with exotic plants including bananas.  Most interesting, however, was the stone structure built above a cenote which had housed a water wheel dating from the early 1600s.  Unfortunately the wheel was not present but we could look down into the well that it once spun around in.  As we learned from a small museum exhibition, investigations into this well and the cenote that fed it had revealed lots of weapons.  These dated from the Caste War which was an episode in history I had never heard of before.  It was a conflict that arose between the indigenous Mayan population and the descendants of the European colonists in the second half of the 19th Century.  It made me realise again how little I knew about Mexican history.

Valladolid itself was a bit of an odd town.  It was a warren of streets seemingly all named just “Calle” and a number, a not quite grid system.   We found ourselves a little lost in the maze when trying to exit the centre but that gave us the opportunity to see more of the town than we would otherwise have done.  Some of the streets were really run down with ramshackle houses while others looked beautiful and were very well maintained.  It was quaint but battered.  That was its charm.

Darkness fell quickly as we were driving back towards Cancun with literally no source of light, neither electrical road lighting or light from the moon since the dense foliage was obscuring it. With even less to look at than the morning’s journey to Chichen Itza, it felt like an even longer journey.  We were exhausted after the long return trip so we ate in a Thai restaurant that forms part of the hotel complex and where we received a considerable discount.   I had Tum Tang, a salad of marinated cucumber carpaccio, radish, ground peanuts, edible flowers, and tamarind sauce followed by green curry chicken.   Mr Pict had Nua Dad Diew, strips of fried beef, to start followed by some sort of pork rice stir fry.

 

 

 

 

Yucatan Birthday Celebration #2 – Chichen Itza

On each morning of our vacation, we breakfasted in our hotel.  It was included in the room price but also made sense in terms of logistics in time, allowing us to just munch and go.  Hotel breakfasts can often be a bit limp, especially for me given that I don’t eat red meat, but this breakfast was incredible.  It was a buffet of Mexican and European foods, patisserie, an omelette station, a wide variety of fresh fruits and even some Japanese food.  When I am often stuck just eating scrambled egg on toast, there was a cornucopia of vegetarian food for me to sample and devour.  Even the scrambled eggs were superb, creamy and light.  The refried beans were the best I have ever had.  Mr Pict was also delighted to discover that the sausages being served were just like British bangers.  The waiter service was always superb.  Indeed the waiters were like ninjas, bringing glasses of fresh orange juice before I even knew I needed another, replacing clean cutlery in the blink of an eye.  On a practical rather than gastronomic level, the benefit of having feasted on such a wonderful breakfast was that we never needed to eat again – not even a snack – until late evening and that meant we never had to factor in meal times when we went out on excursions.

 

The destination for our first full day in Yucatan was Chichen Itza.  We hopped in the car, headed onto the toll road, and in no time at all we had left buildings behind and were flanked by lush, verdant jungle on both sides of the road.  With nothing but foliage to view over such a long distance, I cannot say it was the most exciting journey I have ever undertaken.  There was very little to see between Cancun and Chichen Itza.  Indeed signs warned that there was over a hundred kilometres to the next petrol station and exits were few and far between.  One thing we did note were dozens of men scattered along the road who were pedalling bikes with large baskets on the front, somewhat reminiscent of butcher’s boys.  We could not figure out where they were coming from or going to and many of them were even cycling in the wrong direction on the road.  We did spot a serried row of riderless bicycles at one point, their baskets filled with wood.  We assumed, therefore, that the men were pedalling hither and yon in order to gather the wood and that the collected piles of woods were then awaiting collection  by motorised vehicle.

 

I am not sure how many UNESCO World Heritage sites I have been to (certainly not enough!) but I was very excited to be adding to my “collection” by visiting Chichen Itza.  Mr Pict had been a quarter of a century before and found the place transformed, with the ruins now much more protected from the thousands of daily visitors and with much improved facilities.  Chichen Itza is the area’s most famous and perhaps even Mexico’s most famous Mayan archaeological site.  It dates from 600-1200 AD so is quite late as prehispanic settlements go.  Indeed, people were still living there when the Spanish arrived.  It was also apparently a culturally diverse city which accounts for its range of architectural styles.

 

Tickets purchased, we stepped through the turnstile, took a few steps along the path and I was instantly wowed: my first view was of the massive 98 feet high El Castillo pyramid which actually dominates just about every view in Chichen Itza.  Mr Pict had climbed the pyramid – back in the day when preservation was apparently less of a concern – and I was rather glad that ascending and descending the steep steps was no longer permitted not only from a conservation perspective but also because I would have had a panic attack part way up.  Even standing at the bottom of the steps and looking upwards made me feel a little wobbly.  Those Mayans must have been hardy folk to not have suffered jelly knees.  The temple being dedicated to the plumed serpent god Kukulkan, the steep stairs had pairs of feathered snakes at their bases.  Apparently when the sun hits the stairs at certain angles, the serpentine effect becomes emphatic.  Maybe those served as a warning that danger awaited anyone who even thought about rushing up and down those stairs.

 

DSC_0193

 

DSC_0188

 

DSC_0201

 

We started with the ball court which was one of my absolute highlights of the day.  It is one of at least a dozen ball courts on the site but is by far the best preserved and is indeed the largest Mayan ball court in existence.  Before seeing it for myself, I had not appreciated the vast scale of the Chichen Itza ball court nor how high the goal rings are.  An interpretive board explained that it was unlikely that the tradition goal scoring rules of hitting the ball with the hip were followed at Chichen Itza because of the height of the rings but I have no idea how they managed since they struck me as being even rather high for basketball style hoop shooting.  There are temples at either end of the huge ball court but it was the court walls that were the most fascinating and engaging.  The carvings were hugely impressive, retaining such crisp detail after millennia exposed to the elements.  There were friezes depicting male figures, their costumes and expressions vivid in the stone, and a border of a scaled snakes body concluding in a large head.  My favourite carving depicted a ball player being decapitated, the spurting blood transformed into undulating snakes.  It was the winners who were sacrificed, it being some sort of honour to be chosen to appease the gods.  Since I was always very rubbish at sport, at least I would have been safer as a Mayan.  Chubby and unhealthy maybe but a least with my head attached.

 

2015-11-16 11.59.52

 

DSC_0073

 

DSC_0075

 

DSC_0084

 

DSC_0097

 

DSC_0106

 

DSC_0108

 

I was also rather taken with a stone platform that had edges carved in row upon row of skulls – sometimes referred to as a tzompantli.  There was some speculation that it might have been connected to human sacrifice – I overheard one guide saying that it was probable and another saying that it was highly unlikely – but given the carvings in the ball court I think it was rather more likely that the former was true and that human heads were displayed on the platform.  There was also a smaller pyramid or temple that had carvings of pumas on its four sides.  I found those carvings to be rather delightful as there was something of the pose of a domestic cat in the angle of the shoulders and the tilt of the head of the large cat.  Of course, this moggy was munching on a human heart which most pets don’t do.

 

DSC_0121

 

DSC_0125

 

Apart from the ball court, my favourite buildings in Chichen Itza were the group known as La Iglesia – the church – and Las Monjas – or nunnery.  They were off the beaten track a bit and were, therefore, more closely surrounded by trees and plants.  What made them especially spectacular, however, were the amazing carvings: hieroglyphs, geometric shapes, long-nosed gargoyles, and gods.  I also liked the El Caracol, known as the observatory.  It contains a spiral staircase, which gives it its name, and is topped by a dome at the top that did indeed make it very reminiscent of modern observatories.  Annoyingly the path that leads out to old Chichen was blocked off to visitors on the day of our visit.  That was a pity since the names of the buildings – involving as they did phalluses, turtles and monkeys – made that site a very intriguing prospect.

 

DSC_0252

 

DSC_0257

 

DSC_0274

 

DSC_0247

 

The paths that circled the central “plaza” at Chichen Itza were lined with local people selling crafts and souvenirs.  On the walk out to the Sacred Cenote – where the community had made sacrifices during droughts – we were able to see quite a few of the men sitting carving the wood and women sitting in the shade of trees sewing fine stitches into fabric.  So omnipresent were the stalls, however, that the soundtrack to our visit to Chichen Itza became the promotional cries of the stallholders and the ever present growl of puma ocarinas they were selling all layered on top of the weird laser noise of tour guides relentlessly clapping to demonstrate the site’s weird acoustics.

 

DSC_0212

 

DSC_0162

 

We absolutely loved our visit to Chichen Itza.  It was an incredible place full of fascinating archaeology and architecture, wonderful carvings, and intriguing details, and the visit left me itching to learn more about the ancient Mayans and what everyday life was like for them.