Enjoying Cajun Hospitality in New Iberia, Louisiana

 

New Orleans has the well-known reputation of party town central and an amazing assortment of fine dining establishments all wrapped up in a boisterous and lively bundle… think Mardi Gras festivities as standard fare concluding with gusto on the weekend.

But there really is a lot more to experience in Louisiana other than the repercussions of over indulging.

Going from Creole to Cajun in less than Two Hours

After four nights in New Orleans (Creole) we continued on to New Iberia (Cajun) to visit a family member and immerse ourselves in Cajun culture and cuisine as well as take in some of the unique experiences found only in “Cajun Country” and find the meaning of “Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll!”

 First Stop is a Creole Plantation House

Our roll time to New Iberia was less than two hours so we exited onto the Great Mississippi River Road which is the home to dozens of beautifully restored antebellum plantations.  We selected the Laura Plantation (https://www.lauraplantation.com/).

The complex is significant due to the raised Creole plantation “big house” and its rare collection of outbuildings, including six slave quarters.

laura-plantation-550x253Raised Creole Plantation House

 Our Destination City – New Iberia

IMG_0213Bridge over the Bayou Teche

This small town with a big history is situated on the banks of the Bayou Teche which also provides the undercurrent for the history and pulse of New Iberia.

The Bayou was the route that the Spanish followed in the late 1700s when they came ashore and established themselves in the Spanish Lake area.  At around the same time the French Acadians were being driven out of Nova Scotia by the British for fighting alongside the French Troops.

The displaced Acadians eventually settled in Southern Louisiana blending with the French-Creoles, Spanish, Germans, Anglo-Americans and Native-Americans… they became known as Cajuns.

The fusion of these diverse ethnicities through the generations contributed to the uniqueness of their lifestyle, food, music, and attitudes to life… Laissez les bons temps rouler! 

During the Civil War the Bayou Teche and New Iberia were once again drawn into the spotlight as being an important gateway for the Union Army’s attack of the South… but that is a long story in itself for a future article.

A Visit to Avery Island is a Must

On the Green Side… Pepper Sauce Production

The claim-to-fame of this 2,200 acre island is that of being the birthplace of TABASCO® brand pepper sauce and being owned by the Marsh, Avery, and McIlhenny families for almost 200 years.

In addition to touring the factory, the beautifully maintained and picturesque grounds are the home of the Jungle Gardens / Bird City wildlife refuge… as well as the ever present alligators.

Four Production Lines can make over 700,000 2-oz. bottles per day

IMG_0423One of the Pepper Sauce Curing Warehouses

Underneath the Green Side… Salt Production

A little known point of interest is that the island sits atop a solid rock salt dome noted to be one of the largest salt mines in the world… it has been estimated to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high. 

s05_24042462Avery Island Salt Mine (not open to the public but it is there all the same)

 A Unique Swamp Tour Adventure

Our local expert scoped out the best swamp tour group, Cajun Country Swamp Tours (http://cajuncountryswamptours.com/).  Owned and operated by a father and son team, native to the area and educated in Zoology and Botany, they provided an eco-friendly, educational and enjoyable swamp tour into the swamplands of Acadiana known as Cypress Island/Lake Martin Swamp.

Shawn was our entertaining guide for the two hour adventure through ancient cypress trees covered with Spanish moss and waters that were teaming with wildlife… yes there were a lot of alligators too.

DSC_2327Open tour boat going into the swamp

IMG_0293Mangroves in Lake Martin Swamp

DSC_2338Getting a little sun and waiting for a snack

DSC_2354Spanish moss laced cypress trees

A New Iberia Native and Famous Author – James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of detective stories and mysteries and is best known for his Detective Dave Robicheaux series of which two were portrayed on screen and filmed in New Iberia… first with Alec Baldwin (Heaven’s Prisoners) and then Tommy Lee Jones (In the Electric Mist).

 

IMG_0205“Dave Robicheaux Eats Here” at the landmarkVictor’s Cafeteria

IMG_0518Annual Celebration in Honor of James Lee Burke

A New Iberia Native and Famous Artist – George Rodrigue

Rodrigue’s Blue Dog paintings, based on a Cajun legend called loup-garou, catapulted him to worldwide fame.

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(Side Note: The Loup Garou is a Cajun legend about a creature with a human body and the head of a dog or wolf, and is said to prowl the swamps around Acadiana… something like a werewolf.)

The Bayou Teche Museum http://bayoutechemuseum.org/ proudly displays the art of George Rodrigue who is revered as a “true son of Louisiana… his art was inspired and enhanced by the landscape and people of Acadiana.”

IMG_0511Tour with a charming and  knowledgeable docent… Tanya Scott

Break Out the Tabasco – Sample Some Cajun Cuisine

You just cannot go to Cajun Country without getting your fix of Gumbo, Etouffee, Oysters (raw, fried or chargrilled), Crawfish (boiled or fried), and Shrimp (fried, boiled, or stuffed with crabmeat).

We wanted fresh, simple, flavorful dining and opted for one of the local favorites, Jane’s (on Jane Street, of course) offering casual dining without the frou-frou things like table cloths or linen napkins. (http://janesseafood.com/)

So before you wrinkle your nose, bear in mind that the long waiting lines on a typical day run about one hour.  People in this town know great food for a reasonable price.

Fresh Raw Gulf Oysters on Half Shell ($13 per dozen)
Chargrilled Gulf Oysters ($9.50 per half dozen)
Grilled Fresh Gulf Shrimp ($15 per dozen with sides)
Half/Half ($14.95)1/2 etouffee and 1/2 fried crawfish with a side salad, fries, hushpuppy, fried banana 

Victor’s Cafeteria is as down-home as you can get and judging from the crowds this restaurant is another local favorite… we ate our breakfast there every day of our visit.
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Special Breakfast for a Yankee Visitor  

Beau Soleil Café is a little more upscale and the menu offers amazing regional selections.  We opted for one of the more unusual appetizers… it was excellent! 

IMG_0404Legnon’s Boudin Egg Roll Appetizer

 A Special Place to Stay6

We selected the Gouguenheim located in the historic downtown district. It offers the amenities of a larger hotel but the intimacy of an upscale bed & breakfast inn/apartment.  (http://www.gouguenheim.com/index.php)

The wrap around balconies add a nice touch and the complimentary breakfast coupons for the popular Victor’s Cafeteria, which is right next store, is a great way to start your day.

 

Summary

Think about warm Southern hospitality with a Cajun twist and a shot of Tabasco, that   pretty much sums up our excursion into this corner of Louisiana.

In less than a two hour drive you are far away from the cacophony of the “Big Easy” and slowly drift into the Cajun rhythms as you experience a different way of life.

They may, just may, have something in their local expression of … Let the good times roll!

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired… get out there and experience life.

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits: Bob and Janice Kollar, pinstopin.com, Gouguenheim.com, nolahomes.net, pinimg.com

 

 

 

 

 

A Mystical Journey on a River in a Cave on the Yucatan Peninsula

 

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During a recent visit to Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, we became fascinated by the Mayan Culture and their spiritual history.  In addition to the dozens of ancient pyramid-temple ruins that are spread throughout the area, there are also numerous revered underworld caves to explore.

The Rio Secreto (www.riosecreto.com) is a highly recommended tour company that specializes in a naturalist’s approach to exploring these sacred caves as well as their religious significance, and interlaced with the excitement and adventure of swimming in an underground river and hiking through caves and caverns that are millions of years old.

Rio Secreto…. The Underground River in a Cave

We had an open, unplanned day and pondered a zip-line over the jungle canopy, an ATV driving experience through the jungle or an eco-tour in a cave.  Being out voted 2 to 1 we went with the “less strenuous” option and booked the cave excursion.

Arriving at the Base Camp

We arrived at the reception office located on the edge of the jungle reserve and boarded a van for a bumpy twenty minute ride further into the jungle to the base camp center where an orientation lecture took place.

We were briefed on the pristine nature of the environment we were about to enter and the importance that these caves and their freshwater played on the survival of the Maya people.

We immediately got the impression that we were about to embark on an interesting adventure with the potential of being something extraordinary.

After the orientation we reluctantly placed all of our valuables (watches, cameras, jewelry, wallets and IDs) into the lockers that are provided.  Next we all had a “cleansing” shower in our bathing suits (thank goodness) to rid us of all sprays, perfumes, and oils… that pristine thing again.

Time to dress for the occasion with a form flattering (maybe or maybe not) short sleeves, short legs wetsuit, booties, life jacket and a hard hat with a miner’s light… we are all getting a little more anxious but before you can chicken-out we are off to the actual cave’s entrance.

On the way we stopped for a Mayan blessing ceremony… all smoke no mirrors.

a_rs_2-013Mayan blessing before entering the sacred cave

Into the Cave and the Sacred River Chambers

Along the way our guide, Pablo, explained the objective of our journey… there are 13 “Good States” and 9 “Bad” and we were about to go through a “Re-Birth” underground to come up out of the cave into the Good State.  Is anybody following this?

Down the spiral staircase we go into the underworld of darkness with our hard hat lights on and our enthusiastic guide rattling on and on about the spiritual experiences we were going through.

We arrived at a flat spot and discussed the next phase… Can everybody swim?  Can everybody fit through a four square foot hole?  Is anyone claustrophobic?

OK…. Point of no return and you start to question exactly what the heck are you doing in a cave, in a jungle, in Mexico, with a stranger telling you how wonderful it will be!  This part was not in the promotional brochure!

The three of us in our group just looked at each other and came to an agreement that the trek back up was harder than going forward… let’s go for it!

Total Immersion Physically and Mentally

We were immediately rewarded for that decision when we saw the absolutely amazing mineral formations, chambers of crystals, stalactites and stalagmites, all of which took millions of years to create, and the view was enhanced by the crystal clear water of the Rio Secreto itself.

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It was onward and downward and the water was getting deeper… ankle to knee to chest to then floating in your life jacket in an underground river.

rio-secreto-011The water temperature was pleasant and the flow rate made the swim easier

 During the one and a half hour tour we wound up squeezing through a four square foot archway, walking and climbing through a series of caverns and swimming through clear blue pools (cenotes) propelled by the river itself.

The Underground Natural Cathedral Experience

The group glided along with our guides and a photographer until we settled in a shallow lagoon area and sat on the sandy edge… then it was “lights out” for about 5 minutes to “feel the spirit and tranquility of this sanctuary”.

Pitch black, with the faint sound of an occasional solitary water droplet off in the distance the senses of sight, smell, sound, and touch were all suspended in the darkness.

You really do get the spiritual effects of the moment.

We were instructed to turn our lights back on and look up at the ceiling.  We were sitting in what appeared to be a Cathedral of natural formations.

 5ea7b6f9-0f75-4072-87b2-096744ac81edSitting below a natural Cathedral Ceiling Millions of Years old

 Exiting the Underground and Our Rebirth

 The group moved in muted silence… climbing a gentle slope out of the underworld having our senses return, however slowly, as we were “reborn” into the real world… the smell of the damp and musty earth… the feeling of the humidity on our skin… the brightness of the colors and sunshine, and finally the sounds of the jungle.

The feeling of coming out of an absolutely foreign environment and into our “normal” world… was intense.

img117The path from the underworld back into the jungle area from whence we came

 Everyone was silent at first and then we all became very animated and excited about the visit to the Rio Secreto.

 A Poem by One of our Fellow Travelers Kathy Baus

 EL RIO SECRETO

alluring with / her many charms / she held mystery / in a sunless / sea of promises / as she slips / deep / into the crystallized / world below / carved and curving / she’s dark  / delicious / daring / divine / and dangerous / etched / with time / and water

Summary

The “least strenuous” tour option proved to be an absolutely amazing adventure for the spirit and the visual imagery of the mind.

WOW sums up our feelings!

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

©Kathy Baus, El Rio Secreto, October 26, 2016

© 2017 Picture Credits:

Please note that we were not allowed to use our cameras.

Images courtesy of the following:

Rio Secreto Web Page (www.riosecreto.com), blog.gessato.com, larsenoutdoors.com,

Elephantcarhire.net, imgesmx.olympustours1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Painted Stone” : Celestún on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

 

 

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 On a recent visit to Merida, the capital city of the Yucatan State, we opted for a side trip to the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun (Celestun Biosphere Reserve).

This protected, coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge encompasses over 147,000 acres and showcases their hugh flocks of vibrant pink Caribbean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber).

The flamingo nesting area was one thing, but pink was not the only spectacular color on parade.

We were pleasantly surprised by the wide spectrum of other colors that Mother Nature has on display… more than justifying the name Celestun which means “painted stone” in the Yucatec Maya language.

The Drive to Celestun from Merida

The drive out of Merida was through small, congested villages with multiple speed bumps and the occasional “traffic” jam created by the residents and their assorted modes of transportation and a livestock trailer or two.

img_2614Pedal Powerimg_2461Pass with caution

Once you get out of the city traffic and head southwest to the coastline you are driving on Route 281 which is a well-maintained two lane road that goes for 56 miles straight through the jungle… straight as an arrow… straight as a bowling alley with no intersections, or landmarks… just a hypnotic drive through millions of trees.

The ingenious people living along this strip of asphalt mark their homes/driveway by hanging painted tires from a tree to announce their location… such as… turn into the first driveway past the two red tires.

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Arriving at the Celestun Biosphere Reserve

There are numerous options for touring Celestun and the famous flamingos.  You can take an organized all day tour from Merida with transportation and lunch included, or drive yourself and make your own arrangements… dependence versus independence… as usual we opted for the latter.

The official reception area is well marked and set up for tour buses and car parking.  We purchased our “cuota de recuperacion por servicios” (admission tickets) at the office and arranged for a boat.  (This was about 175 pesos or less than $20 USD at the time.)

img_2576Tour Boat dock area

There was another couple scheduled for our tour but they did not show up so after five minutes we left the dock with our now private tour guide Francesco and a pleasant, smooth ride out into the vast lagoons and mangroves.

img_2510Francesco, our friendly and knowledgeable guide

The flamingos were the main attraction but to our amazement the reserve proved to be an outstanding excursion into nature on dramatically colorful and calm waters throughout the shallow lagoons.

img_2496The tour boats keep a respectful distance from the birds img_2492More mature birds with deeper pink tints  img_2529A small group of young birds with various shades of white and pink colors

 As a flamingos go… you-are-what and where-you-eat. 

These majestic, social birds live in groups consisting of a few pairs to thousands and they forage in these shallow lagoons for algae and small crustaceans, such as shrimp, which provide their vibrant colors.

img_2488You are what you eat has a new meaning  img_2506

img_2505Edge of a shallow feeding shelf

 Cruising through a Bird Sanctuary

There are over 300 different migratory and resident bird species nesting here; the largest mangrove area in the Gulf of Mexico.

Celestun biosphere reserve is also “home’’ to other critters such as jaguars, ocelot, crocodiles, iguanas, boa constrictors, and four different species of sea turtles… Hawksbill, Green, Loggerhead, and Leatherback, as well as assorted land turtles, to name a few.

Yes it IS a jungle out there!

  img_2518 Bird watchers paradiseimg_2525

  The Painted Stone’s Water Features

Throughout the boat ride you are continually going from one color hue to another. The blending of saltwater and freshwater with the algae along the mangroves produces amazing pigments throughout the reserve.

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img_2538  img_2532

 Fresh Water from Underwater Aquifers

The water becomes crystal clear inside the mangroves and our tour boat captain skillfully worked our way through assorted tree tunnels and passageways up to a boardwalk area inside the canopy.

We were invited to jump in and swim in this tranquil natural pool setting but remembering the part about crocodiles during the over view and we opted to just take some pictures.

img_2556
A stunningly beautiful tunnel in the Mangroves

img_2566Shimmering clear fresh water giving off a “Monet” effect

img_2564Deceptively deep crystal clear water

 After the two hour tour we headed to the beach for a few cold beers and lunch…. It was tough saying “wow, look at that!” andisn’t that beautiful!” andwhat colors!” for almost two hours.

The Beach Dining Options

 We drove to the beach area and the recommended “La Palapa Restaurant”.  The Yucatecan Cuisine menu was a seafood lover’s delight with all local and fresh ingredients such as shrimp, lobster, fish, blue claw crabs, stone crabs, conch, octopus, and crab cakes.

La Palapa Restaurant on the beach in Celestun

 Quesadillas De Camaron (tortillas stuffed with cheese and shrimp)

Mojo De Ajo (fish fillets and grilled octopus in butter and garlic sauce) 

The eventful day was topped off by a delicious and memorable meal which made the drive back to Merida more pleasurable…. still boring and hypnotic… but tolerable.

Summary

The Painted Stone provided us with vivid memories and we were awestruck by this abundant and beautiful environment which awaits the adventurous that step out of the tourist comfort zone and into exploring nature in its purest state.

 

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

 

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© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Los Dos Cooking School in Merida, Mexico; Remembering Chef David Sterling

In pursuit of the holy grail of Yucatecan Mexican cuisine we selected the renowned “Los Dos” cooking school, created by the famous chef David Sterling, which is located in Merida, the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula… we were not disappointed.

Merida Orientation

In the course of booking the class we developed a rapport with David and he proved to be a remarkable source of information about his beloved Merida.

He answered our multiple email questions with points of interest, places to stay and provided a list of his favorite restaurants and surprisingly there are many in this small but bustling city.

We chose one of the oldest hotels in the city, Casa Del Balam (The House of the Jaguar) for its charm, authenticity and central location which is in the heart of the “old town” area and it turned out to be a very good choice.

The Los Dos Cooking School

Credentials

David Sterling founded the “Slow Food Chapter of Yucatan” in 2009 and in 2014 he authored “Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition” which won the James Beard Foundation Best Cookbook of the Year Award in 2015…a huge accolade, indeed.

His school was the first to specialize in the cuisine of Yucatan and has been featured in several magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler, Gourmet, and Travel & Leisure, as well as television exposure with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Rick Bayless, and Martha Stewart.

We asked ourselves, “What are we getting involved in?  Is it over our skill set?  This is some serious stuff… can we hold a spatula to it?”

 The Experience Begins

After a light breakfast we hailed a taxi to Calle 68 No. 517, Colonia Centro and arrived in front of a non-descript doorway on a street of colorful but similar facades.

 merida_general5

We hesitantly knocked on the door which opened onto an oasis garden courtyard within the walls of a magnificent colonial mansion dating back to the mid-1800s.

There, we were welcomed by our gracious host, David, and our cooking journey begins with a smile and a handshake.

img_2875Entrance to the courtyard

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Poolside garden area

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Now THIS is a kitchen

 Welcome to Los Dos Cooking School

img_2865David greeting his guests and serving a light breakfast

We were escorted into the home and introduced to 8 other students who were mingling around a breakfast buffet of homemade pastries and fruit.

David began the session with a very knowledgeable as well as entertaining history of Yucatan and Yucatecan cooking.

A Brief History

The Yucatan Peninsula is located on the cusp of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and as such the land mass became a magnet for early traders seeking access to Mexico.

The cultural tapestry of the Yucatan is based on the foundation of the ancient Maya tribes and a blending of the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Lebanese and Caribbean merchants that visited over the centuries.

 We learned about the unique cooking techniques, a wide range of spices, marinades, adobos, pastes diluted with sour orange juice, sauces from nuts, and of course, the infamous Habanero chile, one of the hottest in the world.

The knowledge transfer was reinforced by actually smelling and tasting some of these new ingredients as they were passed around the room in assorted containers during David’s discussion.

Class Field Trip to the Marketplace

The first stop was a sampling of traditional street food.

We enjoyed tacos al pastor which is slices of meat (usually pork) from a spit-grilled rack known as a shawarma (introduced by Lebanese immigrants) onto a corn tortilla topped with a slice of pineapple.

Tacos with pineapple slices

Getting Provisions for the Class

Chef David led us on a market tour in search of today’s ingredients.

The blocks-long Central Mercado is in the heart of the city, filled with everything from fresh produce, spices, raw and cooked meats, bread, pastries, and even household items, clothing and toys… a rural form of Costco.

A person could spend hours exploring and relishing the colors, the sounds, the aromas, and vibrancy.  But we had a mission…

Ingredients for the Pollo Pibil

Tomatoes, banana leaves, habanero chile peppers,  and Sour Oranges (Naranja Agria)

 

Special corn kernels… ground to masa… pressed and sold by weight

 

 Back to the Casa and the Actual Cooking Class Begins

 img_3025Armed with our new aprons and cookbooks, we begin our lesson

Making tortillas starting with a ball of masa and a great instructor

Panuchos Y Salbutes

Bean filled tortillas with lettuce, tomato, shredded chicken and pickled onions

Out of the Garden and Into the Kitchen

img_2965Group therapy…


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Charing chile peppers

More Hands–On Fun and No Gloves Allowed

Preparing marinated chicken breasts for the Pibil
Hands-On with achiote paste and naranja agria marinade


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The assembly process; watch closely as you are doing this next

img_2981Wrapped and ready to go

    The Grand Finale… ¡Buen Provecho!

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The Menu
Crema De Cilantro (Leek and Potato Soup with cilantro)
Pit-Smoked Pollo Pibil wrapped in banana leaves
Chicken in Achiote Sauce with traditional pickled onions on the side
Flan De Chocolate Con Kahlua (David made this in advance)

img_3018Our class picture

Promotional Video

By coincidence, our class participated in the filming of a promotional marketing video which was captured by a professional crew.

http://www.los-dos.com/media/vid2.html

 

Summary

Our class prepared an amazing, totally hands-on meal from “scratch” under the ever present and encouraging David.

The outcome was a testament to his teaching skills and talents.

We walked back to our hotel with the knowledge that we done good… hold that spatula high.

 

Epilogue

And as a shock to us, recently from the Los Dos website:

It is with tremendous sadness that we report that the founder of Los Dos Cooking School, David Sterling, passed away in November. His Yucatecan cuisine cooking classes were adored by everyone who participated in them over the years, not only for the wealth of culinary knowledge he shared, but for the hands-on cooking experience accompanied by David’s dry wit and original personality. 

fotodavid

But Los Dos Cooking School lives on!

No one can replace David, he was truly one-of-a-kind!  However, Los Dos continues forward under the direction of David’s faithful right-hand-man, Chef Mario Canul.

 

 

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired… get out there and enjoy life

 

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Tradition of Sending a Postcard

 

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Once upon a time, maybe only ten years ago, sending a postcard from Italy (for example) was a well thought out undertaking designed to share your experiences and to mischievously remind your friends and family that you were “here” and they were “there”.

It was a time tested ritual that has unfortunately gone out of fashion due to the advances in technology.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

In the “Old Days” the postcard process went something like this…..

Imagine you are strolling through a piazza in Rome and the scene before you triggers a desire to send a postcard of this view to your best friend back home in the States.

Inspired, you wander around searching for a cartoleria (paper goods store) and find one soon enough.

italy-venice-postcards-a3w26n

You twirl the stand and ultimately select a rather commercial card, but it illustrates the image of your piazza.  You make your purchase and set out looking for a nice café to sit and write a few lines.

You order a Campari and Soda with its complimentary bowl of nuts or potato chips.

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You rummage through your backpack to find a pen that works and your little address book and write a brief note… “Having a wonderful time!  Wish you were here!”  Add your friend’s address and you are ready for the next step…. mailing the card.

After finishing your Campari, you set off to find the nearest Post Office or a Tabacchino (a small convenience store that sells candy, cigarettes and stamps).  You ask the clerk for “francoboli per la cartolina al Stati Uniti” (postage stamps for a postcard being sent to the United States) and fish out the correct coins.

After this brief exchange, you lick the stamps, find the nearest post box and say goodbye to your postcard, hoping it gets to your friend before you get back home.

Back Home… On the receiving end:

Imagine walking out to your home mailbox and there amongst all those bills and junk mail lies a hand written, hand stamped postcard!  It’s from your best friend who is in Italy!  How far it has traveled?  A treasure to behold… hmmm, looks like a stain from Campari on the back.

How cool is that?

 

Postcard Apps Changed the Process

Along with the explosion of “Smartphone” usage came applications for pretty much everything imaginable…. even postcard creating and sending apps from companies such as Postgram, Postino, Postcardly and Touchnote.  Just like the buggy whip, the old fashion postcard of yore is on its way out of fashion.

This scenario goes something like this…

Imagine you are strolling through a piazza in Rome and the scene before you triggers a desire to send a postcard of this view to your best friend back home in the States.

You take out your smartphone and snap a photo of the sight or maybe even a selfie!  You find a nice place (with Wi-Fi) to sit down and order a Compari and Soda and a small bowl of potato chips.  You fire up your smart phone and find your favorite “Postcard” application.

After several frustrating attempts at your correct password, you finally get onto the site.  You can use the photo you just took or use one from your camera roll.  Click and follow the prompts… type your message and pick the address that hopefully you have already entered on their contact list.

Click “send” and your postcard will be printed, stamped and sent from the U.S. arriving in your friend’s mailbox in a couple of days.

Back Home… On the receiving end:

Imagine walking out to your home mailbox and there amongst all those bills and junk mail lays a type written, stamped postcard!  It’s from your best friend who is in Italy… but the postmark is from the states.

How did she do that?

How cool is that?

 

Me and My Selfie

Today the “postcard” process goes something like this…merlin_selfie_stick_1

Imagine you are strolling through a piazza in Rome and the scene before you triggers a desire to send a postcard of this view to your best friend back home in the States.

But that is too much trouble and takes too long… Just snap a quick photo… a selfie for sure and post it on Facebook… you can’t wait to count how many “LIKES” you get!

How cool is that?

Back Home… On the receiving end:

“Oh, another Facebook post from what’s-her-name… she must be in Italy again… ho hum… guess I better give her an obligatory LIKE”… and on to the next post.

 Summary

In a few short years we have come so far.

The simple but elegant gift of a handwritten postcard has given way to see it, click  it, send it.

Are we going too fast?

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired… write a postcard

 

© 2016 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2016 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar, http://www.alamy.com, http://www.itsorcestudio.com

 

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Visiting Another Side of Mexico: the Yucatan Peninsula

There is Mexico and there is the Mexican state of Yucatan. The former gets a lot of negative (and often unfair) press and the latter hardly gets mentioned (unlike the resorts of next-door state Quintana Roo, Cancun and the Riviera Maya).  Being inquisitive slow-travelers who prefer the “unusual,” we did a lot of research and discovered the essence of a fascinating destination.

 Why the Yucatan Peninsula?

 The Mayan Culture

The Yucatan Peninsula has a mystical vibe due to the ancient Mayan civilization that was founded here about 2600 BC.  These ingenious people developed astronomy, calendrical systems, hieroglyphic writing and built magnificent ceremonial architecture.

The Mexican State of Yucatan promotes dozens of well-maintained Mayan temples/pyramids with palaces surrounded by intact ancient villages that have been carved out of the dense jungles… picturesque and dramatic vistas in every direction.

The Gastronomical Oasis

As slow-travelers always searching for culinary adventures we learned that this part of Mexico has a unique epicurean history… it is not “Mexican” it is “Yucatan” (yucateco) cooking.
We uncovered a hands-on cooking class being offered by the renowned chef David Sterling. His “Los Dos” school, which is located in Merida, tilted the scales in favor of taking this journey.

Getting to Merida

We flew into the modern Cancun airport and were greeted by the normal hoard of sales types promoting “free” timeshares, hotel and villa rentals as we walked through the “welcoming area”.  As we stepped out of the terminal area we were rewarded by a warm, lush, tropical atmosphere fragrant with flowers and palm trees.

We booked the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas and Spa and arranged beforehand for their transportation service.  Our good fortune was to be met by Rafael who proved to be a perfect “Ambassador of Goodwill” with his welcoming personality, charm, national pride and simply being an endearing person.

We were greeted at the Westin by an efficient and pleasant desk staff and were soon settled into our spacious room overlooking the immaculately maintained grounds, bordered by a bright, white sandy beach that fades into multiple shades of azure ocean water…

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Our day at the beach left an indelible memory.  Envision warm sugar granules of beige and white sand that traces each squeaky footstep as you walk into the 80+ degree opaque, electric blue water…tranquility.

Dinner Recommendations

Now ready for a good meal, we headed to the front desk for dining suggestions. The concierge produced a few tourist menus that offered Americanized Mexican” fare just like we can get back home.

We had something different in mind and asked for the local favorites and where she would take her family or friends… a new set of menus appeared offering real Yucatan dining and we selected the “La Habichuela Sunset” restaurant for our first night in Cancun.

The weather was perfect and we were seated at an outdoor, secluded and candle lit table overlooking the lagoon … the cuisine was exceptional with tastes that we never had before.  A great way to get introduced to the Yucatan food scene.

img_1962Soft-shell crab taco appetizer

img_1971Seafood empanxonostle – fish fillet, shrimp and sea scallops prepared with aromatic herbs and vegetables

img_1981Xtabentun (made of fermented honey from the flowers of the Xtabentun plant)

 

Cancun to Merida Decision Time – Fly…. Bus.… Rental Car

 What is the best way to get there?

 Option A – The flight from Cancun to the regional airport in Merida was less than an hour but cost considerably more than the flight from Los Angeles to Cancun.

Option B – There is a bus system with a decent schedule offering local and express travel with different classes of service.

Option C – Rent a car from Hertz… a jeep would be appropriate in case we had to go off-road for any reason.

We made our decision and with a bit of trepidation, mixed with a sense of adventure and a strong desire to explore this unique part of our world, we booked the car.

The Drive to Merida

The drive was 196 miles and took about 3 hours with a rest stop at the toll booth at the halfway point.  The facilities were immaculate and they offered a food service with fresh, reasonably priced options and plenty of variety.

The toll was 355 pesos (about $30 USD) and we were glad we had pesos since credit cards were not accepted.

img_2088Toll booth at the midway point

img_2082Nothing in front of us

img_2083Nothing in back of us 

bluebutterflyBanditos….we don’t see any stinking banditos… only butterflies.

After all the negative hype about the “bad guys”, the only attack that we experienced was from a swarm of beautiful blue butterflies that cropped up a few times during our pleasant drive…. so much for media drama.

Arrival in Merida

Casa del Balam (The House of the Jaguar)

We selected a small, old world hotel that was once a colonial mansion and is situated in the historic town center.  The management maintained the charm and have kept some the original furnishings in the rooms and the open lobby area.

Such a welcoming oasis after the drive.

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The long day was topped off with a delicious meal of local favorites.

img_2123Guacamole with fresh made chips

img_2125Sopa de Lima (lime soup)

img_2131Yucatan sample platter:  Cochinita Pibil, Tamales Colados, Flan

Tomorrow we will explore the city and uncover the hidden gems that await the adventurous traveler. 

Summary

Our first impressions of the Yucatan have been excellent and reassuring.  All of the negative hype proved to just that…hype.  The people are amazing and the beauty of this region is remarkable.

We are looking forward to exploring Merida and the surrounding area…. But most of all the Los Dos cooking school which is why we are here in the first place.

Please follow our journey into the wonderful world the Yucatan Peninsula.

 

 

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired.

 

© 2016 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2016 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar, Mark S. Cox

 

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Two Ways to Explore Walled Medieval Lucca in Tuscany, Italy

 Lucca is a captivating medieval walled city located in Tuscany, one of Italy’s most visited regions.  The selection of a destination city can be either measured in hours or in days… day tripper versus slow traveler.

We encourage the latter whenever possible… so stop and smell the pizza!

The Day Tripper’s View of Lucca

With a relatively tight timeframe, the challenge is to see as many highlights” as possible during a brisk march through town and checking off the must-see sites within the city’s walls such as…

puccini-n-houseStatue of Puccini and his home/museum  

img_8308Church of San Michele in Foro

img_8335Cathedral of St. Martin

amfatherPiazza dell’Anfiteatro (Roman Amphitheater)

89331264Torre delle Ore (Clock Tower)

flickr_3142234250_4985a2195fTorre Guinigi (Tower)

OK… you have just “seen” Lucca!

If time permits the day trippers may add a brief walk (up one ramp and down the next) on the tree lined pedestrian promenade known as the city walls… yep, been there done that…check the box and take a few pictures with your cell phone.

You can see them all in a one day visit… but have you?

 The Slow Traveler’s View of Lucca

Lucca is a fascinating city with a history dating back into the Etruscan and Ancient Roman times.

On our first visit to a destination, in addition to the normal research, one of our go-to options is to arrange for a private orientation tour.

We were fortunate to find Wanda Martinelli (www.luccatours.com) who met us on our first day and set our tourist compass for the rest of our visit.

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We enjoyed a four hour walking history lesson which was enhanced by this talented storyteller who loves her work and is very proud of her ancestral roots.

Through Wanda, we were immersed in the real vibe of this area and were now armed with a list of the best restaurants, shopping, museums, concerts, must-see churches (there are nearly 100!), and sources for survival provisions such as wine, bread, pasta, cheese, and deli.

Views along the Walls of Lucca

Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation inside and on the walls and, fortunately for us, our apartment rental included two bicycles.

We rode numerous times on the 2 ½ miles long, flat, garden-like pedestrian promenade situated on top of the ancient defensive walls that were actually designed by…. Leonardo di Vinci no less!

Run, walk, ride or simply stroll along this elevated structure with amazing views of the entire city below… very much worth the time and effort… and a little exercise doesn’t hurt. 

img_8787 Pedestrian Promenade on the City Walls

path-traffic-peopleWalk – Peddle – Ride along the Walls

parklikkebikesOur “Wheels” and One of Many Playground Areas

path-with-towerPrivate Gardens along the city wall promenade

priv-gardenPalatial Residences All along the Path

refreshmentsRefreshments after a “strenuous” Bike Ride  

 A Few Colorful Local Scenes Along the Way

 carosaulA Carousel in the park for all ages to enjoy

funghi-girlsThe Local Porcini Funghi Sales Team 

local-colorWhat is a town without — The Dude

A Surprise Find….An Exceptional Photography Exhibit

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Sculpture Installations Displayed Throughout the City – created by Rabarama 

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 Pizzas We Have Known and Loved

As a slow traveler you can simply…. stop and smell the pizza!

chickpea-pizzaPizza da Felice – specializing in chickpea crusts

pro-pizza-feliceThe Perfect Prosciutto Pizza
img_8539Artichokes and Porcini Mushrooms Pizza

tunna-onionsOnion and Tuna Pizza

A Few of the Amazing Meals

The Gli Orti di  Vialisa is a renowned sidewalk café and has been a staple of Lucca for over three generations…

img_8579Bruschetta Lucchese

img_8576Polpette di Nonna Bianco (traditional fried meat balls)

img_8577Sformatino  di  Verdue con salsa di Fegatini (vegetables pudding/chicken liver sauce). 

Lunch at Ristorante Giglio

giglioapptomatoTortino ai Funghi in crosta su vellutato di cecci

 (ricotta cheese and mushrooms in a pastry crust with chickpea sauce)

octopus-appPolpo Croccante sedano  il Olive Nere (grilled octopus with celery and black olives)

 

risotto-musselsRisotto Zafferano e Cozze (saffron risotto with mussels)

porcini-parpaMaccheroni Lucchesi ai Funghi Porcini (squares of fresh pasta with porcini mushrooms)

Lucca’s Favorite Native Son – Giacomo Puccini

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Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in Lucca on December 22, 1858 into a very well-established musical dynasty dating back to his great-great grandfather.

He grew up in Lucca and developed into what has been noted to be “the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi”… and that is saying a lot!

His birth home has been restored and turned into a small museum, but more importantly, his musical legacy is presented throughout the area in venues ranging from the Annual Summer Opera Festival to daily recital concerts held in various locations in the city.

We were fortunate to enjoy an intimate recital of “Madame Butterfly” in the Church of San Giovanni which was also the church where he was baptized.  The setting was stunning and the acoustics were perfect.

The performances are varied from day-to-day and best of all the tickets are reasonably priced and readily available.

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The Cathedral of Saint Martin

The legend goes something like this… in the 14th century the powers-to-be held a “contest” among a group of well-known artists tasking each of them to sculpt a support pillar for this Romanesque cathedral with its elaborate marble exterior.

When they were finished  no winner was  declared and no one was even paid for their efforts…and the powers-to-be got away with it, too.

img_8583Cathedral of St. Martin (note the different pillar designs)

img_8584Breathtakingly Beautiful Workmanship

The Cathedral also contains the most precious relic in Lucca…Volto Santo di Lucca is a wood crucifix with the image of Christ and was carved by Nicodemus, a disciple of Christ.


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Volto Santo di Lucca (Holy Face of Lucca)

 

Summary

The medieval walled city of Lucca can be seen in one quick day but the essence and warmth of Lucca requires the investment of days rather than hours. Think of it like consuming a special meal or a good bottle of wine… savoring rather than gulping makes the difference between a memory and a digital image.

 After all, what is the hurry… be inspired.

© 2016 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2016 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar, tourisminitaly.info, armchairtravelogue, tripomatic.com, lucca-italy.org