Sunday, 22 December 2013

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Well it's been a very wet few days and more to come apparently.  In fact I don't think I've seen such rain since, well since San Cristóbal de las Casas.

It all started off so well.

Lovely hotel. This is the sight that greets you after check in. An old colonial house around a courtyard now converted into a hotel.

Alas it was not to last. It was the tail end of the rainy season and we'd been very luck so far with the weather. The first strange thing we noticed about St Cristobal was the very deep curbs. The pavements were a good 10 inches or more above the roads.

The reason for this soon became clear- the heavens opened and the roads flooded in a downpour of tropical proportions. Within minutes every bit of that depth was needed as the streets became a river....

....fortunately the rain soon eased off and the floods disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

 San Cristóbal is the cultural capital of Chiapas and is very Spanish in it's layout and ambiance. It also has a very nice street market. They are obviously used to the rain. For me it was a chance to try out the waterproof "raincoat" I'd bought for the camera.

Despite the Spanish influence, there is still a lot of the original culture left - this is a common way for the local women to carry things.

There were some surprises though. This church, well out of town and up a long flight of steps had a neon altar piece. Never seen anything like it!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Right on the doorstep

The days are short now and the weather was poor so we thought we'd stay fairly local.

Only lived in this area now for 10 years but still never quite got around to visiting our local piece of woodland. To be honest I only found out about it  a few months ago and then by a chance conversation. To be fair it wasn't given a great write up so I wasn't expecting much and it wasn't a great priority.

However today seemed a good chance to go and see it...

Well it was bigger than I'd expected and I'd no idea it was actually a hillfort. And right on the doorstep too... rather embarrassing really but never mind.

It's a small one  just a single circuit of ramparts for enclosure and defence but is still a  Scheduled Ancient Monument despite being damaged by quarrying and mining.

A small stream runs between it and Stephan's Vale. I don't think this bridge is the original structure though somehow...

The waterfall in Stephan's Vale was a lovely surprise too. The path down to it was wet and muddy and looked steep and slippery so that is saved for another day.

It is apparently carpeted in bluebells and other woodland flowers in the spring.

And to round off a day or surprises, a rather out of season thorn. I guess it is a little confused by the mild weather we've been having.

Well it may have taken me 10 years to find the place but I think a return visit in the spring will be essential to enjoy the bluebells and other woodland flower. I certainly won't be waiting a decade to go back!

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Devilish Fun

A nice day for a short walk. It's been too  long since we went to Wales so that was my criteria for the day. Well I can't have been
paying much attention when I agreed or I'd have realised that whilst I would indeed be going into Wales- I'd be coming almost straight back out again!

Today's objective was the Devil's Pulpit in the Wye valley. What I'd failed to appreciate was that we'd be on the wrong side of the Wye....

An easy and mostly level walk from the car park, the views from the top are just stunning.  Looking across into Wales that is Tintern Abbey on the banks of the Wye

The Pulpit itself. The legend has it that the Devil sat here and tried to tempt the monks away from their duties in the Abbey. Whether he was successful or not who can tell. it certainly commands a perfect view of the Abbey.

On the opposite side of the path were a few steps leading down to this ancient yew. The area has been extensively quarried for it's limestone but for some reason they decided to let this yew be.

The roots are completely  entwined through a pillar of rock. Quite amazing and a very venerable old yew this is.

There were plenty of other yews around as well and it was lovely to see these huge old trees left to stand. They were joined by oak, beech and hazel trees, so unlike the cheerless ranks of the Forestry Commission's  telegraph pole plantations.

Can you see the dragon's head?

We opted to walk a little further along Offa's Dyke to enjoy the views before circling back to the car park and down into Brockweir for lunch ( excellent pub there  - can definitely recommend!)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Visiting the Zapotecs again

After the visit to Monte Alban which was the "capital" of the Zapotechs, it was time to visit Mitla which was the chief religious site. Mitla means "place of the dead" was built around 100 B.C. and occupied until 1521 when the Spaniards arrived.

Mitla is best known for the stunning geometric patterns made out of mosaic. I can certainly understand how the weaver we met is inspired to recreate them on his loom.

This room, called the Hall of Columns, leads through a narrow passageway to the interior of the building which was, according to indigenous sources, the residence of the powerful oracle-priest, called “The Great Seer”

 Inside the heart of the complex four rooms lead off. These are richly decorated with complex and beautifully worked mosaics. Such skill was used that they line up perfectly, no fudging at the corners needed.
Inside the residential areas there are remains of paintings along the top of the walls in a complex frieze. Although little remains, what does has been decoded to show that it is an astronomical record of what happened both in the skies and to the population.

Closer view.

The range of patterns in stone were incredible and nowhere else in Mexico has them.

One of the main squares leading up to the Hall of Columns. The walls are believed to have originally been covered in red stucco so some of this has been reinstated to give an impression of just how bright and colourful the complex must have been.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Of Markets and weaving and other crafts

One of the pleasures in touring with Exodus  is that you also get to experience some of the local culture as well as visiting the  archaeological sites.

One morning on our way to Mitla we stopped to sample a local market

This is a daily event here. The villagers have a tradition of just shopping for what they need that day and it's all over by lunchtime.

Very much a social event as well as the chance to buy just about anything you could really want from fresh vegetables and meat to nail varnish and deep fried grasshoppers.

The traditional dress is still very much the normal thing to wear. This is not for the benefit of the tourists though - it is their way of life.

We bought bread and cakes to try and some grasshoppers to bring home.

Our next stop was at a local weavers - yes obviously the idea was that we bought something but we were invited into the family home and given a traditional welcome in their altar room.  Like most of their neighbours they were staunch Catholics and we were ritually greeted and blessed. I did try not to smile when we learned that the youngest daughter was  named Ixchel ( the Mayan Goddess of the moon and patroness of weaving)

The daughter in law of the  house made wax candles for the church. Traditionally these are bought by the bridegroom for this bride. Despite costing the best part of a year's income they are lit at the wedding.

The detail is quite amazing. You can certainly see why they cost so much.

The main reason for our visit though was to see the old Mayan style of dyeing and weaving. 

The colours used are all natural dyes found and prepared locally. Some were familiar to me like lichens and marigold but others were new.

OF particular interest was the red - cochineal from the cochineal scale insect (Dactylopius coccus) The family farm them on cactus and once they have completed the life cycle they are collected. The dye is carminic acid and it is released by crushing. 

The intensity of the colour produced  from the dried grey insects was quite amazing.

Our host was a very skilled weaver indeed.

He is producing carpets and rugs of his own design and also based on some of the ancient Mayan artwork from Mitla which is close by.

The area also has a wealth of cave paintings which predate the Mayan empire. This rug is a  woven reproduction of a typical design.

I'd have happily bought any number of rugs if there had been anyway of transporting them home. At present they are sent to a wholesaler and sold that way. I suspect for a very great deal more than the weaver was asking for. I had to content myself with a bag.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Inside Stonehenge

I know I've been here before. OK and more than once maybe as well!

But this is different. I've never been able to go inside the circle before but last Monday English Heritage had a special members only event which allowed us early morning access to the stones themselves. This was a chance I wasn't going to miss so even I was prepared to get up early for once for the hour or so drive.

It is a bit surreal there now. They are in the process of closing the old road to the stones so we had to pass a manned roadblock  by the new visitors centre ( not yet open) and display a laminated permit giving us permission to drive down to the old car park and visitor centre.

Although we were there on time it seemed ages until we were allowed down to the stones with two guides and a couple of security men.

It was strange also to see Stonehenge empty except for our party. normally of course it is surrounded by visitors, all being kept a respectful distance from the stones themselves of course.

First close up view into the circle from just outside. We were told we could wander around but not to touch the stones themselves. They are covered with rare lichens which they want to protect. How they survive the crowds at the summer solstice then, goodness only knows.

However we were good....

It was well past dawn by now but it's getting late in the year and the sun is still low in the sky.

Once inside the circle you become aware of just how massive these stones are. They are huge. You don't get anything like the effect of them from the path.

I was very amused to see the jackdaws living in the gaps on top of the uprights. Even more so when they started to steal the twigs from each other that they'd collected!

The tallest upright with the altar stone in the foreground.

and finally - not quite from the inside but the approach up the avenue now looks quite different since they removed that section of road and grassed it over.  Our hour was up by now so we had to leave before the general public arrived and it didn't take long for it to be business as usual.

It was a fabulous experience to be able to go into the circle. I have  sympathy for the Free Stonehenge movement which is campaigning for open access but with close on 1m visitors last year, there is no realistic way that number can be accommodated in the circle without them being damaged.

Now to book to do it again!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Monte Albán

One thing we discovered about Mexico was that each site seemed even better than the last and this feeling persisted throughout the trip. If we thought Cholula was impressive, Monte Albán outclassed it. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtec it has been extensively excavated.

It started off rather low key; these are the remains of some of the housing of the non elite.  So far interesting but not that impressive.

Many tombs have been discovered here - it was also common practice to bury the deceased under the floor of the houses above. This was taken in pitch dark with the flash and bent double so isn't very straight!
Then we got into the main plaza and some very big constructions indeed.

The monumental centre of Monte Albán is the Main Plaza, which measures approximately 300 metres by 200. A series of platforms housed the main ceremonial, civic and high status housing.

Neatly arranged along the wall we found a series of carved stone monuments in the Olmec style.

Originally they were considered to be Danzantes or "dancers" but this is now discredited. These are reproductions with the originals being safely preserved in the on-site museum.

Here's one of them. The latest interpretation is that they are in fact early medical textbooks intended to record and teach. Some of the tablets show the process of birth and even an early cesarean section - whether the mother would have survived the process seems remote.

This was taken looking down on to the plaza from the highest platform. You also get a sense of how high up in the hills the whole site is.

The importance of some of the residents here was underlined by this private altar; normally these would have been in public areas but at Monte Alban there were both.
Looking at the site everything looks very neat and tidy ( there were workman manicuring the grass as we visited) but a few of the platforms have not had the same restoration - this one gives a good idea of what they would have looked like before being cleared and cleaned up.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cholula with Grasshoppers for lunch

I wasn't sorry to leave Mexico City. The traffic was beyond belief.

 The teachers were on strike and the main square was closed off so we were unable to see the Palace or the Museum of Fine Arts. and I really don't see myself going again. Mexico - yes definitely but I can happily pass on the capital.

So it was on to Cholula and the largest pyramid in the world ( by volume at least). It was a reasonably long drive but the scenery was amazing.

 This is  Iztaccíhuatl   - or the White the four peaks form the impression of a sleeping woman. Not that much snow on it at this time of the year.

The legend goes that she was a princess who fell in love with one of her father's warriors, Popocatépetl.  The emperor sent Popocatépetl to war in Oaxaca   promising him her as his wife when he returned.  Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Iztaccíhuatl was told he had been killed in battle and died of grief.  Popocatépetl returns safely to find her dead. He carries her body to a place near Tenochtitlan where the gods covered them in snow and transformed them both into mountains.

In his anger and grief Popocatépetl became a volcano spewing out fire on the earth .

So on to Cholula itself.

The site is approached through a tunnel dug through the pyramid itself. Not old at all but made by the archaeologists so they could see what was inside ( not a lot. It's a solid fill). It's a nice way though to leave the town behind and go back in time.
The temple-pyramid complex was built in four stages, starting from the 3rd century BCE  through the 9th century CE, and was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. It has a base of 1,480 by 1,480 ft  and a height of 217 ft). This gives it a volume larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza although it is not as high.

The invading Spaniards sought to re-purpose the pry amid and the church on top is dedicated to  "Our Lady of Remedies"

One of the altars. These were normally outside the temple so that the people could participate. Only nobility and priests were allowed in the temple buildings on top of the giant pyramids. 

Unlike the Egyptians who built a new edifice for each pharaoh , the common practice amongst the meso-americans was to simply build over the existing pyramid to make to broader and taller. This would be repeated many times and has meant that a lot of the older archaeology has been preserved.

This is some of the earlier building now uncovered.

and the grasshoppers?

 A local delicacy. Here being sold by a street vendor on the site. These were seasoned with chili. Yes I did try one but I had to close my eyes to do it. Crunchy on the outside but rather soft and squishy in the middle. An acquired taste I think.

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