Berkshire Beauty

Recently, I visited one of my favorite places, The Berkshires, with two of my favorite people, my parents, Bev and Tom. My sister, Joanna, and her wonderful family also joined in on the fun. If you have not visited the Berkshires, it is well worth a trip.  Rolling green hills, hydrangeas in bloom everywhere, stately homes, lots of ladies wearing linen. How can one go wrong?

The reason for our trip was to hear John Williams conduct his music at Tanglewood. Founded in 1940, Tanglewood is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer time home and a place where talented young performers come to study with the best.  It’s also a fabulous concert venue with an incredible season. Only at Tanglewood can you get your honky-tonk on with Dolly Parton and then sit in awe as Yuja Wang plays Rapsody in Blue.

Oh yes, and then there’s Wheatleigh…

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Welcome to Wheatleigh…where all your dreams come true.

Henry H. Cook built Wheatleigh in 1893 as a wedding present for his daughter, Georgie, who married a Spanish Count (in Girl World that’s called winning). Inspired by a 16th century Florentine palazzo most of Wheatleigh’s materials and many of the craftsmen came from Italy.  The verdant exteriors of Wheatleigh were designed by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted. Georgie and her Spanish Count spent six weeks a year there, living in luxury, cared for by a staff of forty.

Today, a royal pedigree is not required to visit Wheatleigh.  Even commoners can enjoy Wheatleigh’s fabulous restaurant, spectacular hotel, and gorgeous grounds (in The CCC’s world that’s called winning).

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Wheatleigh awaits you.

I first discovered Wheatleigh over a decade ago with my good friend, Kiki. I have many happy memories there.  I was thrilled to create some new ones with Bev and Tom and my niece, Claire. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at The Library.  If you don’t have a lot of time lunch at The Library is a perfect way to enjoy the property and pretend you are a lady of the Gilded Age.

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A girl never forgets her first cheese plate. Claire enjoys a triple-cream.

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All God’s creatures love Wheatleigh.
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The CCC schooling Claire in the finer things… (Photo by Bev)

After lunch it was time to head back to the real world and dinner! We met up with Joanna, her husband, Drew, and my nephew, Jason at Bistro Zinc. This is a lovely French bistro with true “Berkshire buzz”.  You never who you’ll meet at Bistro Zinc: artists, musicians, singers, ladies in linen???

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Jason and Claire enjoying the buzz at Bistro Zinc.
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The Black Swan Inn on Laurel Lake. Our home away from home.

After dinner we headed to our hotel, The Black Swan Inn.  The Inn, located in Lee, is five minutes away from Tanglewood and downtown Lenox. It’s a very comfortable hotel with super nice staff.  Joanna, Drew, and Jason stayed a bit down the road at the adorable LakeHouse Inn. Both hotels are perfect places to rest up before you get your Tanglewood groove on.

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Drew, Joanna, Bev, & Tom (l to r) enjoying our picnic supplied by Tanglewood and Guido’s Fresh Marketplace – an incredible grocery store well worth a stop. (You can rent chairs at Tanglewood if you need to.)

While you can purchase tickets for seats inside the concert hall, picnicking on the lawn pre-concert is a perfect way to enjoy the Berkshire beauty and each other.

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A proud auntie with her wonderful nephew, Jason.  How did I get so lucky to have such delightful nephews and nieces?
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The grounds at Tanglewood are never so crowded one can’t enjoy a game of catch.
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Shhhh….it’s time for the music (and magic) to begin.

The CCC’s San Francisco Favorites #7: Chilly Summer Days

Recently, I was complaining to my friend, Brian Yee, about the (always) unseasonably cold San Francisco summers. Brian, my wise and kind friend of almost 30 years, replied, “you do realize that rest of the country is in the middle of a horrible heat wave. I mean the entire country is sweltering.”

“So, I should stop complaining about my breezy, 60-degree days?”

“Yes.”

Since pity parties really aren’t the CCC’s style, I put on my current favorite cashmere sweater, grabbed the Nikon, and headed out to embrace the wind and fog.

SF Chilly Summer Perk #1: Cashmere is always appropriate.

6 Sutro Cliffs

There’s no better place to experience the SF summer chill than Ocean Beach. It’s always 5-10 degrees cooler than the rest of the city and the sun is generally occluded by the champagne air a.k.a the fog (champagne always makes everything better). On this day, I decided to explore the ruins of Sutro Baths and Land’s End, the western most part of the city.

But first, breakfast.

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SF Chilly Summer Perk #2: Hot Chocolate.

I like Louis’. Get there early and grab a seat the counter. Order Bill’s Special (scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon on an English muffin) and a cup of hot chocolate and whipped cream*. The breakfast of champions.

*Even for the CCC, 9am is too early for a cocktail.

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The ruins of Sutro Baths.

Adolph Sutro, one of SF’s original entrepreneurs, believed he could build a better salt water swimming experience than the ocean itself. In 1896, Sutro Baths opened for all to enjoy. The entrance fee was kept purposely low so that folks of all income levels could enjoy the 7 pools, ice skating rink, museum, and amphitheater.  Everyone wore the same itchy wool bathing suits so there would be no distinction between wealthy and less well-off guests (a man after my own lefty heart!). People would spend entire days at the baths swimming, relaxing, eating, and enjoying each other’s company. Eventually, and several owners later, the baths closed in 1966 – too expensive to maintain.  During the baths’ demolition a “mysterious” (read: arson) fire burned the last of this magnificent structure to the ground.

Now, the baths’ ruins are a perfect way to spend a day, climbing around, hiking up the cliffs, taking in the view.

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The ruins are a perfect place for an amature photographer to get artsy.

To see a wonderful slide show of what the baths looked like in their heyday visit: The Cliff House Project.

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There’s even a spooky tunnel to explore.
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On Sutro Cliffs.  SF Chilly Summer Perk #3 – No unnecessary sun exposure.
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The Land’s End Trail.  Perfect isolation.

Land’s End is a wonderful place to go when you want to be by yourself but don’t want to be alone. Pairs and groups of friends, families, and tourists keep you company along the way. It’s heartening to hear the snippets of others’ conversations as I walk.

“I told her not to call him back.”

“I think I am going to train for a sprint triathlon.” “That’s great!”

“Let’s take a selfie! Let’s take a selfie!”

Human beings enjoying a beautiful place together. Lovely.

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Little boy with Labyrinth. Could there be a more quintessentially SF moment?
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I love the view from Land’s End. All at once, I feel connected with the universe’s past, present, and future.

The Golden Gate is one of the most seismically active areas in the world. Formed over the course of 200 million years, the rugged coastline is the result of the North American and Pacific Plates rubbing against each other pushing the serpentine and sandstone rocks from deep within the sea floor to the ocean’s surface. These two plates, part of the San Andreas Fault Zone, are always active moving approximately 1 inch per year (earthquakes anyone?).

Land’s End is a fantastic place to appreciate the geologic drama of the Golden Gate.

(To learn more, check out this great paper and guided tour.)

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I LOVE Cypress Trees!  Some day I will take a photo that expresses what these trees mean to me.  Until then, you will have to suffer through my drafts.

What a wonderful day!  Who needs sun and 80 degree temperatures, when you can have champagne air and hot chocolate?

Cuba y Dos Chicos – Parte 2

Fusterlandia

No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to Fusterlandia or “Fuster” as the locals say. Fusterlandia is the dream realized of Jose Fuster. Located in the Jaimanitas neighborhood of Havana, Fusterlandia is a Cuban mash-up of Gaudi, Picasso, and Brancusi with dose of magical realism thrown in for good measure. It’s completely crazy, completely beautiful, and completely wonderful.

Fuster moved to Jaimanitas 30 years ago.  His house, at the time, was a tiny wood-framed structure he transformed into an experiential fantasy via ceramic tiles and some very clever construction. Slowly over three decades he incorporated his neighbors’ houses and the surrounding streets into his fantasy. Today, Fusterlandia is a place where one could never tire of living as there is always something to new see and to feel.

Fuster has, like the song says, a true alma libre. (Hint: press play.)

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The courtyard of Fuster’s home. When he’s not working on his art, Fuster stays in shape doing laps in his endless pool.
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Matt and EM in front of one of Fuster’s many guajiros or peasants. As a teenager Fuster worked as a literacy volunteer helping educate many rural folk who prior to Castro’s revolution had little access to formal education. Today Cuba boasts a 97% literacy rate.
Havana Fusterlandia Castro and Che by Andy
Castro and Che on the yacht, Granma.

While Fuster’s depiction of the revolutionaries on the Granma is tranquil, the actual 1956 voyage from Mexico was not. Led by Castro, 82 men intending to overthrow the Batista regime crammed on a vessel built for 12.  The journey did not go as planned. A mile off the Cuban shore, stuck on a sandbar, the fighters abandoned the Granma and headed for the hills. Sixty men were killed by Batista forces while Castro and Che Guevara hid in the mountains.  Not about to be forgotten, Castro used the media to his advantage by arranging an interview with NYT reporter, Herbert Matthews. The rag-tag army presented itself to Matthews as a lean, mean fighting machine and Castro its fearless leader. The ruse worked. Matthews wrote a flattering profile of the revolutionary hero and his effort. Cuba and the US (well, some in the US) fell in love with Castro.

Once again, I find myself in the tourist’s conundrum of Cuba: fun and profound.

NOTE – Getting to Fusterlandia:  Make sure you say, “Jaimanitas” and “Fuster” (not Fusterlandia) to your taxi driver. Cubans don’t call it Fusterlandia.  It is about 25 minutes from central Havana and taxis in Jaimanitas are not easy to come by.  If possible, arrange to have the same driver collect you.

We did not do this and had hard time getting a taxi back. We jumped in the first taxi we saw, without agreeing FIRST on a price back to the city center and ended paying quite a bit more than we should have.

NOTE – Taxis: Make sure you have small bills as Cuban taxi drivers do not make change for touristas. If you agree on a fare that is 8 CUC and you only have 10 CUC, guess what? The driver will not have 2 CUC to give you. SO, if you are stickler about that kind of thing have plenty of 1 and 2 CUC notes, otherwise be prepared to round up!

Trinidad

Because we only had a week, I used Frommer’s recommended 7-day itinerary to organize our trip. Trinidad was our next stop about 3 hours by car from Havana. Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage site known for its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. While I believe I took some of my best photos ever in Trinidad, I found the place underwhelming.  Maybe because it was SO HOT and full of tourists, like us, wandering around asking themselves, “why did we come here?”.

NOTE – The Cuban Sun: Bring a small umbrella or parasol to shield you from the sun. It’s too hot to wear a hat and an umbrella provides most welcome solar protection (all the Cubanas use them).

NOTE – Guide Books: Lonely Planet Cuba is the best. Frommer’s is a good back-up though.

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La Plaza Mayor en Trinidad.
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Taberna la Botija. Some of the better food we had in Cuba. They serve a selection of “representative varietals of pork” (it’s hard to be a vegetarian in Cuba).  Interesting decor as well.

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If I were to return here, I would focus on the natural beauty of the area. Trinidad, located at the foot of the Escambray Mountains, has some great day hikes leading to cooling waterfalls and swimming holes. We did the hike to Javira Waterfall in Parque el Cubano.  It was the perfect antidote to the penetrating Cuban sun.

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Matt looking graceful jumping from a 30-foot ledge.

I have not jumped into a body of water off anything higher than a pool ledge since I was teenager. Nice to know I can still do it!

 

Of course, Andy and Matt make it look easy. Ahhh…the joys of being twenty-something.

 

After day of hiking, swimming, and sweating, we were ready for a cocktail and some internet access.  Unlike the rest of the world, Wifi connectivity in Cuba is not ubiquitous.  The WWW can only be entered via a “tarjeta de navegacion” or nauta card.  A nauta card costs 2 CUC for 1 hour of internet time and you must be near a Wifi hotspot. As a tourist most hotels allow you to purchase nauta cards and use their Wifi. If you are a Cuban then you must find a Wifi hotspot to use your card. Whenever you see large groups of people standing together, mesmerized by their screens, you have encountered a Cuban Wifi hotspot. (Remember, Cuba did not have cellular phones until 2008. Another modernization on the part of Raul Castro.)

If you are a tourist not seeking an authentic Cuban Wifi experience, then the place to go in Trinidad is the Iberostar Grand Hotel. Beautifully appointed in a Moorish-Spanish style with a splash of continental flare, Matt asked as we entered the lobby of the Iberostar, “why couldn’t we have stayed here?” My thoughts exactly. Like auntie, like nephew.

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The Iberostar Grand Hotel Bar – a refuge from the heat. Great mojitos, lovely live music, not too terrible food and all the internet access a young gent could want. Photo by Andy.
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Matt takes a break from the Internet. Andy remains focused.

Although Trinidad was not the colonial gem we had hoped, it did have a nightclub in a cave. For the most part, I have aged-out of nightclubs (too late, too loud, too young) but I could not pass up the opportunity to dance to Cuban reggeaton in a cave.

Disco Ayala did not disappoint. And dance I did.

The Beach (finally):

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Our private beach at the Melia Buenavista. Photo by Matt.

After 5 days of fun and profundity, it was time for relaxation on Cayo Santa Maria, one of Cuba’s world famous beaches. I read that Cuban beaches are some of the most beautiful and I can happily confirm that is true. The water is so pure! I did not wear sunscreen when I went swimming because I did not want to be the first American tourista to cloud Cuba’s blue topaz seas.  I took a long walk on the beach. There was no trash! Fantastic snorkeling was a short swim away.

Our hotel, the Melia Buenavista, was fabulous. Brand new. 105 rooms. Adults only.  And it was “todo inclusivo” meaning all our food and beverages were included in the cost. Our perfect beach retreat was also reasonably priced. 🙂

NOTE – Cash Only Cuba: Cash is the only way Americans can travel in Cuba as US debit and credit cards are not accepted.  Change US currency into euros or pounds before you go. We did not and there is a 10% service charge for exchanging USD not applied to euros or pounds. Contrary to a pervasive and popular myth, Cubans don’t love USD. If you want to use dollars to pay for your accommodations your host or hotel will add the 10% fee to your bill. If you do bring USD make sure it’s in small bills ($20s, $10s, $5). We only brought $100s and this made paying in dollars (when we wanted to) difficult.  Finally, budget carefully and bring more money that you think you will need.  It’s stressful to worry about running out of cash. Who needs that while drinking daiquiris on the beach!

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Sunset over Cayo Santa Maria. Heaven.
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Selfies on the beach.  So lucky to have Matt in my life!

After 7 days of Cuban adventure, Andy, Matt, and I boarded the 6am flight from Havana to Mexico City. While I was sad to say good-bye to my twenty-something travel buddies, I was elated to have taken one of my dream trips with them. Thank you for a wonderful time, Matt and Andy. It’s nice to know there’s a little twenty-something still left in me.

Cuba y Dos Chicos – Parte 1

For many years, my wonderful nephew, Matt, and I wanted to visit Cuba. (And yes, we wanted to see it “before the change”) With President Obama, the House of Chanel, and Carnival Cruises all making their way to the jewel in the Caribbean crown, we decided there was no time like the present. It was a fantastic trip, made all the better by our delightful traveling companion and Matt’s good friend, Andy.  In addition to drinking a lot rum or “ron” as the Cubanos say, we saw much of the unblemished Cuban countryside, swam in the Caribbean’s most pristine waters, and had a lot of laughs.  As much as it was fun (how could traveling with two adorable, twenty-something gents not be fun?), our trip was also profound. Cuba’s storied relationship with colonialism, capitalism, and communism was always in the background  and “the change” seemed both right now and very far away.

Let’s get back to the fun. Press play to begin. 

La Habana

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El Malecon, La Habana

We arrived in Havana on a sunny Saturday afternoon via Mexico City. Traveling to and from Cuba was surprisingly stress-free. I even had my passport stamped!  I recommend traveling with AreoMexico. AeroMexico was highly organized and had decently-priced tickets. Perfect for the American Turista.

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A view from our casa particular, Casa Xiomy in Habana Vieja.

For most of our time in Cuba, we stayed in casas particulares.  These are Cubans’ private homes and apartments. They are inexpensive and for $3-$5 more a day provide breakfast (generally the best meal going in Cuba). They also offer the tourist a tiny view into the life of the average Cuban. We arranged our casas via ReservasCubas, a booking agency run by Katia Ferrer. Katia was excellent – helpful and reliable. The apartments we stayed in were clean with private bathrooms, air conditioning, and (mostly) comfortable beds.

NOTE: When you book with Katia, be sure to ask for the nicest accommodations and private apartments otherwise you might end up staying folks you don’t know and, even worse, sharing a bathroom with them – something the CCC cannot abide by on vacation!

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The view from Casa Xiomy.
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A street in Habana Vieja

For first-time tourists, Old Havana or Habana Vieja is the place to stay. The neighborhood is centrally located and it’s easy to get everywhere on foot (a good way to experience Havana). It’s also a neighborhood in transition.  Old Havana’s long neglected architectural beauties are slowly but surely being restored and revitalized.  This revitalization is the brain child of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian of Havana.

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Plaza de San Francisco de Asis en Habana Vieja – A Habaguanex Redux

In 1994, Spengler founded Habaguanex as a private holding company to earn hard currency through tourism and re-invest those funds in historical preservation and urban regeneration efforts. Habaguanex took advantage of the Cuban government’s renewed interest in tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union and during the “Special Period in Time of Peace” – a period that was neither special nor peaceful for the Cuban people. Today, Habaguanex’s annual income, from its 20 tourist hotels and 30 museums, is approximately US$160 million. The company divides these funds between social projects, like schools, and continued restoration efforts, like Habana Vieja.

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On my next trip to Havana, I am planning to stay in one Habaguanex’s beautiful hotels, like the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. So much for the casas particulares 😉

Havana Old and New

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Classic Cars near Parque Central. Photo by Andy.

Yes. You must take a ride in one of Cuba’s ubiquitous vintage American asphalt boats. It’s kitschy tourist fun but also profound as you, once again, collide into Cuba’s past and present.  After Castro’s communist revolution in 1959 the US initiated an embargo against Cuba. El Bloqueo as it is known in Cuba is the longest running trade embargo in modern history. If one owned a car pre-Bloqueo, one could keep it. Otherwise no new cars for Cuba. Owning a car in Cuba is critical as public transportation is inadequate nationwide. When used as a taxi, one’s 1951 Chevrolet provides an important source of income and access to the peso convertible or CUC – the currency used by all tourists and pegged to the US dollar.

Cubans employed by the government, like physicians and nurses, are paid in the peso cubano or CUP and earn about $30/month. The CUP is worth much less than the CUC (1 CUC=25 CUP; 1CUP=0.40USD). There are stores that sell goods using the CUP but many consumer goods like computers are priced at the CUC making them inaccessible to most Cubans.  That’s life in a two-tiered economy where a taxi driver can make more money than a doctor.

There is a light at the end of this two-tiered tunnel, as Raul Castro, who assumed power from his brother in 2008, slowly and steadily modernizes the Cuban economy.  In 2010, Cubans were allowed to own private businesses like taxis, casas particulares, and paladares. In 2013, Cubans were allowed to purchase foreign cars. Additionally, Raul Castro is working towards doing away with the CUP.

And you thought you were just going for a silly ride in a kitschy car. It’s the two-tiered tourist experience of Cuba: fun and profound.

Havana City Tour in A chevy

In Alejandro’s Chevy along el Malecon.

We found our vintage kitsch and most charming driver, Alejandro, at the Plaza de San Francisco.  We negotiated a price of 20CUC for a 45 minute ride.  When I mentioned something about Jose Marti (it helps to speak a little Spanish and to know who Jose Marti is), a 45-minute tourist jaunt turned into a 90-minute personalized tour of Alejandro’s Havana. 

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Alejandro also let us drink Bucaneros (Cuba’s answer to malt liquor) in his precious automobile.  Cuba, may you never discover open-container laws.

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Entering La Fabrica. Cuba’s newest cultural institution.

While vintage cars are a direct link to Cuba’s past, La Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a pathway to its future. Founded by X Alfonso in a former cooking oil factory, La Fabrica is a massive space where Cuba’s artistic and youth cultures coalesce and where the American tourist can marvel at it all.  My recommendation is you go the first week-end of your trip (it’s open Thursday through Sunday), get there early (it opens at 8pm), and stay late (it closes at 3am). It’s a cultural party you don’t want to miss.

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Cuba. Open for Business.
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The CCC making friends and enjoying the art.

Havana Eating, Drinking, and Smoking (well, really just drinking and smoking)

We heard it’s getting better but the food in Havana and Cuba in general is not so good. However, it is fun to eat at a paladar and witness Cuban enterprise, industry, and creativity at work. One of our favorite spots was Cafe Laurent, a beautiful penthouse transformed into a restaurant. Located in Vedado, a tony neighborhood where American gangsters once lived and played (among other things), Cafe Laurent served up pretty good albondigas, even better mojitos, and a knock-out view.

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The view from Cafe Laurent. One of my favorites from our trip. Miami-style high rises, Soviet concrete blocks, and box-like apartment buildings crumbling together.
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The real food groups of Cuba: Rum, Coffee, and Tobacco.

I am not just saying this because I am the California Cocktail Camper but the best way to experience Cuba is through its rum, coffee, and tobacco with lots of live music thrown in. One of our favorite places was the Hotel Conde de Villanueva (where I want to stay on my next visit). The hotel is home to the one of the world’s most famous cigar shops, La Casa del Habano. It’s a perfect place to sit, drink, smoke, talk, drink, smoke, talk, sit. They also had very decent ladies room.

NOTE: Public restrooms in Cuba. Hmmm…Not always the cleanest, you have to pay to use them (usually just a peso), and they are often short on the amenities like toilet paper.  The CCC’s recommendation: always carry kleenex, small change, and hand sanitizer in your bag.

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Matt and Andy.  Cigar smoking is serious.
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At La Casa del Habano. Where I rekindled my affection for espresso.
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Matt and his adoring auntie enjoying some aged Havana Club ron at The Havana Club. The Havana Club band was fantastic and it’s rumored that the CCC did some salsa dancing.

An excellent book on the history of Cuban ron is Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten.  Recommended by Andy, Gjelten tells Cuba’s history by way of the Bacardi family and its rum empire. It’s great preparation for your trip to Cuba and you will certainly learn who Jose Marti is!

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At La Lluvia del Oro – the CCC’s quintessential happy place: a bar, an afternoon cocktail, fabulous company, live music, warm weather, and a Cuban cigarette. (Shhh…don’t tell her doctor.)

Fancy Lady Road Trip!

Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting my delightful niece, Claire, during her winter break. Claire is one of my favorite travel buddies so it seemed only fitting we take a Fancy Lady Road Trip.  The trip was also part of my clandestine effort to convince Claire to come to CA for college. (Go West, Young Woman!)

On a sunny Sunday morning we left SF for points southward. Our first stop: Santa Barbara then heading north on Route 1 to San Luis Obispo and San Simeon – some of the most golden parts of our golden state. Thanks to the much needed rain, Highway 101 was verdant with all kinds of green we have not seen in a long while.

All road trips mandate that junk food is to be eaten.  I love Claire for many reasons and a new one was our mutual love of animal crackers and sour cream and onion Pringles – a perfect blend of salt, sugar, and crunch.

1 on the road

The background of this photo is a part of a mosaic along the beach in Santa Barbara documenting the life and history of the Chumash people. Tens of thousands of Chumash or First Peoples lived in relationship with the land and the sea on 7000 square miles from Malibu to Paso Robles.  A sophisticated and egalitarian people, Chumash women could occupy positions of leadership as well as the men. We all know how the story of the Chumash ends: European colonization, religion, and bacteria were not kind to the Chumash. In the 1700-1800s the community was all but destroyed. Today, happily, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians is revitalizing itself and the surrounding area through the very successful Chumash Casino Resort. (We did not visit the resort.) Wherever I travel in California, it’s important to me to acknowledge that my California Cocktailing lifestyle did not come for free.

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Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful places in California.  Rugged mountains to the east, a sapphire sea to west. It’s a place where just walking outside puts you in a good mood – how perfect for tourists!  Claire and I stayed at the Mason Beach Inn, literally one block away from the beach and very close to State Street, the main shopping and tourist drag.  (HINT: Ask for a room on the second floor – cathedral ceilings and no foot traffic above.)  We started each morning with breakfast al fresco at Rebar.  I rediscovered my love of cappuccinos and the breakfast sandwich. Rebar’s egg, cheese, bacon, and avocado on a freshly baked roll is not to be missed.

3 Inspiration Point

No SoCal experience is complete without a hike in the mountains.  It’s such a strange experience to be in “the mountains” while being so close to urbanity. In this instance the mountains were the Santa Ynez, located within the Los Padres National Forest.  We did the popular 3.5-mile hike to Inspiration Point.  A nicely marked trail with a gradual incline takes you to, well, Inspiration Point – where, at 1800 feet you feel like the queen of all you survey.   I lost my mind (a little bit) over how green everything was.  (HINT: Come early. Parking is on the street and very limited.)

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The wildflowers along the trail filled us with joy.
5 Casa Blanca
Dinner at Casa Blanca was delish but being with my beautiful niece was the best part of this day.

A day of hiking and shopping merits a pig out, Mexican-style. Casa Blanca on State Street fit the bill. Very good Mexican and even better Margaritas.  For shopping, State Street has it all – high and low end.  Check out Barbara’s Consignment Concierge. I found a gorgeous Thomas Wylde silk scarf that I will wear for the rest of my life.

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Views of Beautiful SB. What a wonderful place to ponder what life will bring next.

We said good-bye to “The Place Where Nothing Bad Ever Happens” aka Santa Barbara heading northwards on Route 1. Next Stop: Hearst Castle at San Simeon. As with hiking, the quintessential SoCal visit also includes a drive along the PCH. Running from San Diego to Mendocino County, Route 1 is a classic California beauty. I love thinking, “Wow! I am at the edge of America.” Awe-inspiring.

7 Hearst Castle
The grounds of Hearst Castle are an amateur photographer’s dream. Everywhere you look there is something to point your lens at!

Hearst Castle is also a must-do. La Cuesta Encantada was the architectural love-child of newspaper man, William Randolph Hearst, and architect, Julia Morgan.  Together, they created a fantasy castle of 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens and two over-the-top swimming pools.  One interesting fact about Hearst Castle was that Julia Morgan designed all the buildings to be seismically sound – a woman ahead of her time.

8 Madonna Inn
…and, speaking of fantasy castles, ladies and gentlemen – The Madonna Inn

 

The Swiss Chalet-Baroque-Gone-Bad-Christmas 365-Rock Cave stylings of The Madonna Inn will surely please even the fanciest of fancy lady road trippers. Where else can you wash your hands in your own personal stream (press play on the video above)? Where else will you find a room made of boulders and decorated with daisies? Where else can you a enjoy a prime rib dinner (it was delicious and no 2AM indigestion) in a hot pink leather banquette? No where but The Madonna Inn. It’s worth a visit. Truly, the cherry on top moment of our road trip!

10 EM and Claire
A selfie on the beach: Claire, with her deliriously proud auntie, The CCC.

Thank you for a most wonderful Fancy Lady Road Trip, Claire! I can’t wait for our next West Coast Adventure! Next stop, UC Santa Barbara??? 😉

The CCC’s San Francisco Favorites #6: The Winter Weather

Or, should I say the lack of it.  In February, when much of the nation is entrenched is sub-zero temperatures, ice-covered side walks, and multiple layers of foul-weather gear, SF-Bay Area folks head to the beach.  One of our favorites is Pescadero State Beach in Half Moon Bay. Thirty miles south of SF, Half Moon Bay is the quintessential sleepy NorCal coastal town.  A lovely drive down Route 1 with the grand Pacific beside you, Half Moon Bay is a perfect day trip for locals, tourists, and of course, our furry friends.

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Miles the Dog on his way to Half Moon Bay.  A dog is never happier than when his head is hanging out a car window.
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A walk along the wild (flower) side.  Thanks to El Nino, the wildflowers are gorgeous this year. These are evening primrose growing like crazy in a field of brussle sprouts.
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The cliffs at Pescadero are made from sandstone that is more than 20 million years old.
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Waves crashing. At low tide, you can explore the many tide pools.
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The CCC in her rightful place: enjoying a picnic and Prosecco.  We had the most delicious goat cheese covered in truffles: Il Caprino del Piemonte. Turns any trip to the beach into a special occasion.
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Not my best cocktail photo but this Nino Franco prosecco merits attention.  Lots of green apple and honey while still being crisp and dry.
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A happy pup. Dogs must be on a lease at all times at Pescadero.
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The view from the bluff.  Another delightful winter day in the SF-Bay!

Universal Fun!

As the days grow shorter, chillier, and wetter (rain please come to CA!), I love reminiscing about my recent trip to Florida, where, even when it’s cold, it’s hot. My sister, Lee, and I took our charming and hilarious nephew, Jason, to Universal Studios Orlando for his 13th birthday.  It was a week-end full of laughs, screams, and eating lots and lots of junk food.

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In front of the Universal Globe – A must have pic for any visitor.
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A fire-breathing dragon greets you as you enter Diagon Alley, part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Perhaps the most popular part of Universal is “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter”.  Harry’s world is divided into two parts: Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.  There are two fantastic 3-D rollercoaster rides: Harry Potter and The Escape from Gringotts (in Diagon Alley) and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (in Hogsmeade).  The wait times for both of these rides get LONG (90 minutes). Neither ride honors the Express Pass, which means you cannot buy your way into a faster line. If you arrive as the park opens, then your wait time is about 20 minutes.  I also recommend you stay in the park.  All park guests can enter the park an hour before general admission.  We like the Hard Rock Hotel. The rooms are nice and the park is a quick broomstick ride away (a little Wizard humor).

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With imagination and style, The Hogwarts Express brings you back and forth between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
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Jason and Lee waiting with anticipation to board the express train to fun!

In addition to Harry Potter, there are many other attractions for Muggles to enjoy.  We particularly liked The Simpsons Ride.   Fabulously animated, this 3-D rollercoaster will make you scream and laugh as Homer’s special brand of humor is at its finest.

5 Tressa, Lee, and Jason
We were thrilled to have our cousin, Tressa, join us for a day. Tressa lives in Sunny FLA year round.

The Simpsons Ride, as do most other rides at the park, honors the Express Pass. If you are willing to spend $40 you can purchase an Express Pass that allows you to move quickly through the long, long, long, long ride lines.  It’s money well spent.

6 Transformers
Transformers was one of my favorite rides. Together with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee I saved the human race from the nefarious Megatron and his evil Decepticon colleagues. I never felt so productive.
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The ubiquitous Blue Man Group. Yes, you should.
8 Universal Pigs
Yay! Delicious Junk Food (no, that is not a contradiction in terms). The CCC enjoys a burger at Mel’s Drive-In. Lee enjoys an American take on the Bento box at Cowfish. Jason enjoys his 8th Butterbeer.
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The Big Pink. Being an auntie means never having to tell your nephew, “no, you can’t have have a Big Pink for breakfast.”
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Jason knows how to make his aunties happy. He treated us to dinner at Bubba Gump.  Probably the best restaurant in the park.
11 Shenanigans
Indeed.

I am feeling warmer already! Thank you Jason and Lee for the best shenanigans ever. Jason, what shall we do for Birthday Number 14?

Paseando por la ciudad

A visit to Mexico City involves packing too many activities into too few days (but isn’t that the way with all urban travel?).  Lee and I quickly realized that we could not do everything we wanted to do without reaching the brink of exhaustion (and what fun is that?).  So on days when we felt a bit peaked, we slowed down our tourista pace and took a stroll.  Lee and I are great walking buddies (ask her about us trying to find the Sanduny Baths in Moscow!) and one of the best ways to see Mexico City is on foot. You can experience el DF’s dual nature of the ancient and the cosmopolitan close up and at your own pace.  We were grateful to Alejandro, one of the wonderful hosts at The Red Tree House, for recommending several beautiful walks.

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The art market at San Angel.

San Angel, a lovely colonial-era neighborhood, has a great open air art market.  It is also near the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico which lends the area a college-town feel.  After strolling around the art market and having some of the best flautas we have ever eaten at Chucho el Roto we headed east down Avenida La Paz toward Coyoacan. (NOTE: It was NOT the waitresses’ pleasure to serve us or anyone else at Chucho but that made the experience that much more fun!)

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One of the best things about this walk from San Angel to Coyoacan was oohhing and aahhing at the fabulous doors.  We were sure the homes behind them were equally as fabulous.
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Our new address?  Avenida La Paz became Francisco Sosa which took us into the main square of Coyoacan.
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Lee and los coches. The only time we ever felt unsafe was when we were trying to the cross the street especially at busy intersections.  How can a people as lovely and civilized as DF denizens become such maniacs behind the wheel of car?  We always tried to cross with other people and wave at oncoming drivers to make sure they saw us.  As a pedestrian in DF, you DO NOT have the right of way!

In Coyoacan, a primary tourist destination is Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum.  This was where Frida Kahlo was born and where she died. For a time, she and Diego Rivera lived there together.  It is an interesting place to learn more about how Frida developed as an artist but also to appreciate the brand that is “Frida”.  Like Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo is still one the world’s most iconic women.  We enjoyed our visit to Casa Azul but … we LOVED our visit to Museo Casa Leon Trotsky, just a few blocks away.

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Leon Trotsky’s house.  The windows and doors were bricked in after a failed assination attempt on Trotsky’s life in March 1940.

Trotsky was a radical thinker and an organizational genious but lacked political skill. He was no match for Stalin who exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929.  In 1937, Frida and Diego invited Trotsky and his wife, Natalia, to come live with them at Casa Azul. A few years and one affair with Frida later, Trotsky and Natalia moved into their home on Calle Viena.

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Trotsky’s study where he was murdered by the Spanish Stalinist, Ramon Mercader, in August 1940. Ramon stabbed Trotsky in the back with an ice pick.
6 Day 3 Trotsky's House Lee and Raul
Trotsky’s house was so special because of our superlative guide, Raul Zertuche. Raul was knowledgeable and charming.  He shared with us that he plans to start his own high-end travel company. Sounds right up our alley, Raul! When do we leave?
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The quintessential CCC photo: bubbles and a smile.

After touring San Angel and Coyoacan, we were a bit peckish. We headed to Paseo de la Reforma for lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel.  Yes, we know … a rather homogenized American experience but we needed a little Fancy Lady Lunch and the Four Seasons never dissapoints.  The hotel was also very close to our next stop, Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

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The bag stands were ubiquitous and wonderful.  No putting your things on the floor. U.S. restaurants, get these please!
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Located in the gorgeous Bosque de Chapultepec, el Museo Nacional de Antropologica possesses the history and the mystery of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past.  NOTE: Do not go on a Sunday! The museo is free to all Mexican citizens and the lines are muy, muy largas!
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After a lovely day in el Bosque we ambled back to The Red Tree House and even had a little energy to explore the colonia Roma. Ecobici is el DF’s city bike share program. We were not brave enough to try it.
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Oh The Donald! Who will we laugh at when you are gone?
Day 4 EM at Cabrera 7
All that strolling makes a girl hungry. Enjoying pozole verde at Cabrera 7.

Located on the peaceful Plaza Luis Cabrera in Roma Norte, Cabrera 7 is not to be missed: traditional Mexico food served in a contemporary and sophisticated way.  The perfect end to a relaxing day paseando por la ciudad.

Indeed, strolling through Mexico City is perfect on any day!

(Please feel free to contact me for more information about visiting Mexico City. Lee and I can’t recommend it highly enough and we can’t wait to go back!)

Xochimilco

No trip to Mexico City is complete without a visit to Xochimilco (so-CHEE-milko). Xochimilco is one of the last vestiges of what the Valley of Mexico was like during the pre-Hispanic era. The original town was built on the shores of Lake Xochimilco. As its denizens built chinampas or floating islands on which to live, the lake slowly filled in and became a series of canals. In fact much of the Valley of Mexico was a series of lakes that were ultimately filled in or drained to create the Mexico City of today. (Humans have been living the Valley for 12,000 years and it has been one of the world’s most densely populated areas for 2000 years – incredible!)  Today, in Xochimilco you can experience, albeit remotely and with your imagination, what life was like during the reign of the Mexica. It’s also a great place to party which is what many local families and friends do every week-end.

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Trajineras await you. Boats can be rented by the hour with a two-hour minimum.

You can only see Xochimilco by trajinera, a type of flat bottom barge. Unless your Spanish is very good, it is helpful to have a guide handle the details. The Red Tree House was very helpful arranging a guide for us.

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On the boat, ready to enjoy some fun DF-style! You can see a family getting ready for a party on the trajinera behind us.
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Lee with our wonderful guide, Mario.
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A floatilla of trajineras.  On the week-ends, the canals are packed with revellers.
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Dolores Olmedo Patino with one her Xoloitzcuintle (hairless) dogs greets you as you enter the grounds of her beautiful home, Hacienda La Noria.

Our next stop was Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino also in Xochimilco. A complicated and controversial woman, Dolores declared that she was, “a woman who did whatever she felt like doing, and luckily succeeded at it.”   Making her fortune in real estate and marrying well, Dolores met Diego Rivera as a young girl when he asked her to pose for him. Over the course of her life she developed a significant collection of Rivera’s paintings and some of Frida Kahlo’s most important works. The purchase of Frida’s works was done at the request of Diego, as there was no love lost between the two women.

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The grounds of La Noria are lovely. Doroles also amassed a large collection of pre-Columbian art that is displayed throughout the beautiful grounds.
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Museo Anahuacalli. Designed by Diego Rivero to house his 50,000 piece collection of pre-Hispanic art was inspired by a pre-Hispanic pyramid.

Why is the the Museo Anahuacalli not a top 10 ten place to visit in el DF??? Anahuacalli, or the house surrounded by water, or The Temple of Diego Rivera (as the CCC likes to call it) has three levels to signify the dead (the first level), the humans (the middle level), and the gods (the highest level).  Each floor contains artifacts from different periods and cultures of the pre-Hispanic period in spectacular rooms made from volcanic rock. On the floors and ceilings are mosaic representations of different symbols from Mesoamerican religion: the hare, the snake, the moon.

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At Anahuacalli, you feel as if you are in a sacred space, because you are. Diego Rivera’s passion for his people, his genious, and his obessions are all on display in his temple.  My only regret was that we did not have more time to spend there.

HELPFUL TOURIST NOTE: Your ticket to Anahuacalli also serves as your ticket Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum. Buying your ticket at Anahuacalli will save you from standing in very long ticket lines at Casa Azul.

After Anahuacalli what else was there to do? Why drink mezcal, of course! Or should I say, TRY to drink Mezcal. As the CCC, I am no one to shy away from an alcoholic beverage but mezcal put me through my paces. Fortunately, we had a fabulous table at el Corazon de Maguey – the only place to drink Mezcal in the city.

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El Corazon is right on the square in Coyoacan. On Friday night there is no other place to be. Families, friends, dogs gather together to celebrate the start of the week-end. Walking together, talking and laughing, eating helado. Lee and I loved “the how-the-real-people-live” culture. It was better than any guided tour.

The food at El Corazon was Mexican hipster. Artesanal comfort food that I could eat everyday. We loved the cochinita pibil. We did not love the Mezcal.

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As much as our sweet waiter tried to educate us on the finer points of mezcal, it all tasted and smelled strongly of turpentine to us. The gringas did not represent that day.
Day 2 Selfie at Corazon de Maguey
The gringas did, however, have a most fabulous day.  Mexico City what will you give us next?

 

 

El Distrito Federal – Dia 1

Recently I had the good fortune to take one of my dream trips – Mexico City, aka el DF – with one of my favorite travel buddies, my sister, Lee. We had a fabulous time, even better than I anticipated. I cannot recommend a trip to this most fantastic of cities highly enough! I hope these blog posts will motivate you to go and help you plan your trip to el DF.

Day 1 on the plane
On the plane. Excited for our adventure.

Mexico City is an easy four-hour flight from San Francisco. We went on a Thursday through Tuesday.  Our next trip will be Wednesday through Sunday as on Mondays most of the city’s hundreds of museums and galleries are closed.  The cultural and artistic life of the city is so varied and rich, you will need every possible moment to soak it all in!

Day 1 Red Tree HouseOur home away from home, The Red Tree House located in the Condesa neighborhood.  There is a reason why The Red Tree House is consistently rated as a “Traveler’s Choice” by TripAdvisor.  It is a homey and stylish B&B, where the owner, Victor, greets you like you are a movie star (The CCC LOVED that!) and every morning you start your day with the most delicious Mexican breakfast. Think: churros and enchiladas Suizas.

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The interior of La Rama.

The Red Tree House has two buildings, the main one and La Rama, a smaller building across the street. I recommend staying in La Rama as it is away from the hustle and bustle of the main house and you are guaranteed privacy and quiet – very important after a busy day touring in a city of 20 million people.

Our first day in Mexico City started with walk through the neighborhoods or colonias of Hippodromo and Condensa.  What struck us was how verdant the city is. We “ooohed” and “aaahed” at the lush landscaping and all the people enjoying the many parks – we strolled through three parks all within a mile of each other.

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Albert Einstein in el DF. “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” True in both Spanish and English!
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Mexico City is home to some of the world’s greatest civiliations and many over-privileged canines.
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El DF’s architecture is a mixed bag of mysterious ancient, shiny modern, and mid-century crumbly.  El dentista will fix your tooth in his tooth. I don’t how I feel about a dentist with a sense of humor.
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A pyramid dedicated to Ehecatl, the Aztec god of wind in the Metro Pino Suarez.

I fell in love with this pyramid in a metro stop! The quintessential example of mysterious ancient with mid-century crumbly. Built in the pre-Hispanic period, the pyramid was uncovered in 1967 when the city was building the Pino Suarez metro stop – one of the busiest stations in the system. Ehecatl, with his breath, is credited with creating the sun and moon, the earth, and humans.

A note about the metro: Take it!  Traffic in el DF is terrible and so are many of its drivers (pedestrians do not have the right way of way). The metro is fast, efficient, clean, safe, and CHEAP (0.25 per ride!). We took it everywhere at all times of day, including rush hour (when tourists are told it is absolutely prohibido). If you can ride the NYC subway, you can ride the metro in el DF.

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Lee with Pope John Paul II at the Catedral Metropolitana.

After spending the morning taking in the sights and sounds of Hippodromo and Condesa, we took the metro to Zocalo, el DF’s central square and the heart of the city.  Since the 1300s, when Mexico City was Tenochtitlan, the mighty capital of the Mexica (meh-SHEE-ka) empire, the Zocalo has been an important site for ritual, celebration, and commerce. In the Zocalo, you can experience Mexico City’s multi-layered history from the pre-Columbian Templo Mayor to the European colonial Palacio Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitana.

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The CCC at the side entrance to the Catedral Metropolitana.

The Catedral Metropolitana is the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas. Hernan Cortez had the cathedral built in 1524 to replace the Mexica’s Templo Mayor and as a symbol of European colonial domination.

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Some El Grito flair. If only the flowers spun.

Unfortunately, the Palacio Nacional which houses Diego Rivera’s famous mural, “Epic of the Mexican People in Their Struggle for Freedom and Indpendence” was closed the day of our visit.  The night before was “El Grito”. El Grito celebrates Padre Miguel Hidalgo’s call for Mexico’s independence from its European colonizers on September 16, 1810.  Eleven years later, Mexico claimed its independence from Spain.  What is El Grito?  “Viva Mexico!”

Day 1 Zocalo
Avenida Francisco Madero connects the Zocalo to the Alameda Central.

Mexico City is a walkable city.  For tourists, there are very few places you can’t get to on foot and via the metro (yes, I loved the metro!).  You do need sturdy shoes that are preferrably black as the sidewalks can be dirty and irregular. After spending time in the Zocalo and having a rest and a beer at the bar at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico (a bit down in the heels but worth it to see the massive Tiffany Glass ceiling in the lobby. Nice bathrooms too.)  We headed towards the Alameda Central.

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Our first stop: The Torre Latinoamericana. Built in 1956, the Torre is a feat of engineering and architecture. It was the first skyscaper built on seismically active land. It withstood the 1985 earthquake. It’s also a great place to view the city especially the beautiful Alameda Central and the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
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The CCC in La Torre with expansive DF in the background.  You can buy a ticket in the lobby and take the elevator to the 44th floor. Not for those with a fear of heights.
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Lee in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  The mark of a well-traveled person is to have a photo taken in front of El Palacio de Bellas Artes.

After taking in La Torre’s vistas, we came down to earth.  Time to visit one of the world’s most beautiful buildings: El Palacio de Bellas Artes. Completed in 1934 el Palacio is a cathedral in its own right inspired by the traditions of Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco.  The interior houses murals by Diego RiveraDavid Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo. It is also home to the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.

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More architectural mixing: Greek Revival meets Shiny Modern.  In the foreground, Bellerophon rides Pegagus on their way to kill the beast, Chimera (thank goodness!). In the background, La Torre stands as a testment to humans’  ingeniuty and constant need for attention.
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The grand stairway of El Palacio Postal.

Though not on our guidebook’s top things to see in el DF, El Palacio Postal should be. In continuous operation since its opening in 1907, Palacio Postal is a mix of design influences including Baroque, Gothic, Art Nouveau and Neoclassicism, just to name a few.  The result is both soothing and engaging. When has a post office ever made you want to go to a post office?

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All that walking makes the ladies tired.  Thank goodness for Alameda Central. The oldest public park in the Americas, Alameda Central is the perfect place to rest one’s weary legs and take in the local flavor.

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We ended our day with dinner at Cafe de Tacuba. In the style of Ole Mexico, Cafe de Tacuba has been serving traditional Mexican fare for over 100 years. It was tasty too!  The enchiladas con mole poblano were perfect: rich and smoky with just a hint of chocolate.  Cafe de Tacuba is appreciated by tourists and locales alike. At the end of our meal, the question Lee and I asked ourselves: what was better the food or the waitresses’ uniforms?  Whatever the answer, El Distrito Federal – Dia 1 was un gran exito!