The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

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Last week, while Canadians were celebrating Canada Day weekend, the Romans were celebrating the feast of Saints Peter and Paul which is on June 29th.

St Peter and St. Paul

The feast is of ancient origin and there are accounts dating back to AD 258 of the feasts of Peter and Paul being celebrated on the same day. Both were martyred during the time of the emperor Nero. St Peter was crucified in AD 64, upside down according to his wishes as he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified in the same way as Christ. St. Peter’s Basilica, was built over his burial ground. St. Paul had his head cut off by a sword in AD 67 and his remains are in the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls. Burials within the walls were not allowed in those days.

The feast day is a public holiday and when it falls on a Thursday, as it did this year, those who can, make a ‘ponte’ (bridge) which is to say that they take Friday off as well to give a long weekend. Traditionally, flower ‘pictures’ are arranged in the Piazza just in front of St. Peter’s Square. Made out of flower petals and natural materials including rice, lentils and wood shavings, people work late into the previous night to have the pictures ready for the feast and yet not dried out by the sun. I got there before noon so probably saw them at their best as the sun is pretty fierce now during the day.

Though I live close to St. Peter’s and cross the square frequently, I rarely brave the crowds to get into the Basilica. However, on Sunday I went to Mass there to listen to the Corpus Christi Choir from Oxford. Eric, the assistant leader of the choir that I sing with here, is an English organ scholar and he was singing with them. Visitors cannot access the altar area of the Basilica unless attending a service which is a good thing as the Basilica has become more of a museum than a place of worship. I had my pick of seats when I got past the barrier and plenty of time to admire the altar at close quarters. The singing was, dare I say, heavenly and staring at the glorious altar made me feel in another world. Bernini incorporated what is reputed to be the chair St. Peter sat on while giving his teachings, into a gilded bronze throne on the altar. It is rather grand but I couldn’t quite figure out what might have been the original chair as I’m sure St. Peter wasn’t sitting on anything like what you see in the picture. There is supposedly a skeleton of acacia wood buried in there somewhere which is apparently the oldest piece.

Since I’m on the subject of St. Peter, there is a beautiful statue of him on the right hand side just before you come to the Baldachino and main altar. To me, it is one of the few statues in the Basilica that has a human scale (the other is Michaelangelo’s Pieta). Sculpted in bronze by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th cent. he is seated on an ivory throne. Behind it, is what appears to be a brocade screen but is actually mosaic. Greatly venerated, the right foot has been worn smooth by pilgrims touching or kissing it.  On June 29th, it is dressed with a red and gold Papal cape and a gold Papal hat but these had been removed by the time I got there on Sunday. As always when I visit St. Peter’s, I feel that  I should go more often as it is so vast and overwhelming that one would need binoculars and several visits to take in the details.

 

 

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Summer Solstice at the Pantheon

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Pantheon, Summer Solstice 2017

Last week on the day of the summer solstice, June 21st, I decided to go to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is one of the most amazing buildings of all time. Built by the Emperor Hadrian around AD 125, it consists of a cylinder topped by a dome. The diameter is exactly the same as its height (43 metres) and could enclose a sphere. What’s amazing about it is that the domed part does not have any steel bars or screws which had not been invented at that time. Instead, it is made up of different types of aggregate. The widest part of travertine  the middle with more terracotta and the top with a lighter  tufa and pumice so that the dome supports its own weight.  It is still the largest dome in the world made of non-reinforced concrete. At the very top is an oculus or opening, about 9 metres in diameter which is the sole source of light apart from the entrance.

So now you can guess why I wanted to go to the Pantheon on June 21st. On this date, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer so it is the one day of the year when the sun shines down through the oculus and hits the floor not exactly directly down onto the centre but in front of the entrance. This astrological event coincided with a time of day of 1 pm in Rome. I got there at about 12.30 and it was already amazing to see a circle of light on the floor. As you can imagine, people had been pouring in and out constantly as the Pantheon is one of the most visited sights in Rome and this is the peak of the tourist season. At 1 pm, the circle of light had moved directly in front of the door and all the lights were switched off. It seemed that automatically, people formed a ring around this 9 metre circle of light and actually stood silent for about a minute. We were all awestruck by the Pantheon in darkness except for the rays of the sun shining down through the oculus forming this circle of bright light on the floor. It was one of the most mystical sights I’ve seen outside of being in a natural landscape.

As its name indicates, Hadrian wanted the Pantheon to encompass the worship of all Gods although this was not usual in his time with temples almost always dedicated to a specific god. Today, it is the catholic church of Santa Maria and the Martyrs but on days like the summer solstice, it still maintains its character of being a universal place of wonder and worship.

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Old and New Sights in Paris

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I know Paris fairly well having lived there for six months many years ago. However, I hadn’t been there for years so when two good friends who live there both persuaded me to visit, I decided that I should go.

My first evening was spent celebrating my friend Jill’s birthday at a restaurant on the Quay Montebello just across from Notre Dame cathedral, a delightful way to start my trip. What struck me apart from the restaurant’s good food was the absence of tourists in the area. I put this down to the fact that there had been an attack on a policeman in Notre Dame the day before but my impression was fortified over the week as, compared with Rome, there were much fewer tourists and no line-ups to get into the Louvre or other museums.Very pleasant for me but sad that that tourism has declined in France likely due to the fear of terrorism. I have always liked I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the entrance and this time, I was able to get an unobstructed view both from above and below. Usually, ‘below’ is always full of people.

La Grande Halle de La Vilette (The Great Hall of Cattle)

Jill lives near the canal St. Martin and one morning I walked it’s entire (visible) length all the way to Park La Villette a huge space which was once home to abbatoirs and a national wholesale meat market. In 1974, the meat market was relocated and in 1984 Bernard Tschumi, in an urban re-development project, redesigned it as a park and a space for cultural enjoyment.

La Philarmonie

A science museum has been there for years and now a various exhibition and performance spaces have been added. The latest addition is the Philarmonie, a very grand and modern concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel. Again there was hardly anyone around and I had the place to myself which was a bit disconcerting as I imagine the park was designed with the concept of people milling around which I’m sure is the case at weekends.

Fondation Louis Vuitton

My friend Nuala lives on the opposite side of the city and here in the Bois de Bologne is another new architectural masterpiece, the Fondation Louis Vuitton designed by Frank Geary. In true Geary style, it is a feat of engineering and serves as an exhibition space and auditorium. It must be amazing to attend a performance in the auditorium as it seems as if it is suspended over water.

The day we went, there was an exhibition of works by contemporary African artists. I was thrilled to see the stencils that William Kentridge had used for his grand project ‘Triumphs and Lamentations’ on the Tiber which I saw a few weeks while walking along the river here in Rome.

Stencil for William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments

There were numerous exhibitions showing in Paris but one of the ones which particularly attracted me was called Picasso Primitif and featured the influence of African masks and sculptures on his art. A strong influence on much of his work when you see his paintings and sculptures side by side with the African ones. There were photographs showing his many studios over his lifetime all with various African masks and sculptures.

Musei di Quay Branly – Jacques Chirac

Also interesting for me was the museum in which the exhibition was held, the Musee du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. Appaently, Jacques Chirac had a strong interest in non-European art and artefacts and his memorial to the city of Paris, if you could call it that, was this museum. Built by Jean Nouvel in a very different style from the Philarmonie, it was built as a collaborative project with the landscape architct Gilles Clement. Greenery, including a lot of non-native plants, surrounds the building with a wall of plants on the side facing the Quay and gives a sense of being in an exotic wild location. When you’re in the garden, it’s hard to imagine that just over the wall is the city of Paris.

Picasso and Ernest Anscher

 

 

 

Back to Picasso, I must say he must have had a good sense of humour. I was amused by this photo of him and his friend Ernest Ascher on vacation in the south of France. Needless to say, we know who must have done the body painting. After all the wine and delicious meals I had in Paris, my stomach is in danger of reaching similar proportions. In case you’re wondering, I will not be regaling you with a body painting of it in a future post……….

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Amalfi Coast Adventure

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Amalfi Town

When my friends Wayne and Peter from Toronto came to visit and proposed that I join them on a trip to the Amalfi Coast, I was delighted to do so as I had not seen much of that part of the coast. The Amalfi coast is part of the Sorrentine peninsula, that little finger of land that juts out into the Mediterranean sea below Naples.

We took the train from Rome to Naples and spent two days in this chaotic, crumbling but still beautiful city. We stayed in an apartment in Spaccanapoli, right in the middle of the historic centre and within walking distance of the major sights. An interesting area in which to wander about with its narrow streets, washing hanging from the windows and glimpses into peoples living spaces. I had been to Naples before and enjoyed re-visiting the main sights but this time, I discovered that there is a vast underground world of caverns, catacombs and aqueducts. The rock under Naples is not really rock but a softer volcanic material called tufo. Earthquakes created large fissures allowing water in and thus creating underground streams which once supplied Naples with its water supply. I took an underground tour lasting an hour and a half and only saw a tiny fraction of the ancient water system. Currently, there are moves to use the space for plant cultivation using artificial lighting and I saw basil being grown for use in some of the restaurants above.

Toledo Subway Station

Despite the fact that we could walk everywhere, we took the Metro especially to see the Toledo subway station. Reputed to be the most beautiful subway station in Europe, I wanted to check it out and I was not disappointed. The walls alongside the escalators going up to ground level are lined with deep blue glass mosaic giving the impression of being underwater. As the escalator reaches the middle, a sort of narrow ‘tower’ lit in blue opens up above with daylight coming in through a small opening at the top giving the effect of suddenly seeing the sun or moon. Hard to describe the effect but it was so amazing and beautiful that we spent a lot of time just going up and down the escalator looking up into this space. Strange to be writing about a subway station when we saw magnificent works of art including exquisite mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii which are now in the Archaelogical Museum of Naples but this could be classified as a modern work of art.

Amalfi’s Duomo

From Naples, we took the train to Salerno and then a ferry to Amalfi. A beautiful stretch of coast with towering cliffs, villages clinging to the  hillsides, lemon groves tucked into little fissures in the mountains and churches perched on top of sheer rock. We landed in Amalfi, which is quaint but busy and  full of tourists, many of them daytrippers.

We were lucky in that we had rented an apartment in Atrani, a small peaceful village about 15 minutes walk from Amalfi. We lucked out with this as the apartment had a huge terrace filled with plants including masses of jasmine in flower and a spectacular view. Wayne works for a publishing company and had an array of guidebooks. Imagine our delight when we realized that the view from our terrace was almost exactly the same as that featured on the cover of the National Geographic guide book on the Amalfi Coast.

Villa Rufolo, Ravello

We did a lot of walking up and down the hills since there is hardly any flat ground. Wayne and Peter, armed with their Fit Bits, gave me a running commentary about how many steps we were doing and every day, the number exceeded 20,000. A good thing as we dined very well on delicious seafood dishes every including eating at a Michelin starred restaurant at the Palazzo Arvino  in chic Ravello up in the mountains above Amalfi. Famous for its gardens, Ravello is charming with stunning views of the landscape down to the sea. The road up to it, in fact all the roads,  are very narrow and full of hairpin bends. There is a whole system of horn blasts from bus drivers to warn motorists coming in the opposite direction and there were times when we were just inches away from vehicles on the opposite side as there is no room to pull over and  reversing is not an option.

Positano

I was very glad that we hadn’t rented a car but instead took boats and buses to neighbouring towns like Positano. A much more relaxed way to travel and coming into the towns by boat is guaranteed to be a picture-perfect sight. There are several long walking trails along the cliffs which we did not have time to do but I’m saving that for my next visit.

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The Tiber River, Il Tevere

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Summer has arrived. In the last few days, daytime temperatures have been close to 30C. The Romans have shed their coats and boots and donned their sandals. There is also a fashion for funky sneakers with glittery and decorated tops and some with a built-up heel for extra height. No marathons will be run with these shoes I don’t think!

Anyhow, last Sunday, I decided to take a walk along the Tevere. Interestingly, the river does not dominate the city as do the rivers in other cities like Paris, London or Dublin. One of the reasons for this might be because it is about 20 – 30 metres below street level with sturdy embankments on either side such that the only points of access are flights of steps at the bridges. The embankments were built in 1876 to prevent flooding in adjacent areas which until that time was a regular occurrence. Part of the reason being that the mouth of the river at Ostia would get silted up and the flow would be impeded. In fact the mouth of the river was originally at Ostia Antica which was a major port for the city of Rome in Roman times but because of silting, it is now 3 km inland.

Although one has to make a bit of an effort to get down to the river bank, once down there, it is quiet and peaceful. A complete contrast to the two roads called the Lungotevere (along the Tevere) which run along either side of it and which are major traffic arteries for the city. The river is not obvious from the road as the Lungotevere is lined with plane trees and if you’re driving, the only sign that there is a river below are the bridges. Down by the river, it’s a different world. Apart from a few cyclists, joggers and occasional kayakers, it is pretty much deserted especially on weekdays. I once saw somebody fishing but I can’t imagine that there are fish in the Tevere and he didn’t seem to have caught anything so maybe he was practising casting. Nevertheless, it was surprising to come upon this sight in the middle of the city.

‘Triumphs and Laments’ by William Kentridge

It hasn’t always been a pleasant space and was once apparently filled with junk. However, in the past few years, an international organization called Tevereterno Onlus have put money into trying to revive, protect and encourage maintenance of the river. Consequently, every summer, there are temporary marquees put up along a small stretch of it sporting cafes, shops and restaurants. Two years ago, the South African contemporary artist William Kentridge was commissioned to create a mural along the section near Trastevere between the Ponte Sisto and the Ponte Mazzinni, a half km distance. He entitled the work ‘Triumphs and Laments’ and it alludes to Rome’s history and mythology. Completed about a year ago, the piece was created by reverse stencils and are about 9 metres tall. I did not see them close up last year as my leg was in a cast last spring and there was no way I could make it down to the river. However, they were clearly visible from the bridge above. Sadly, now they seem more faded  but are fascinating to see close up. Reverse stencilling involves cleaning the area behind the stencil which obviously gets dirty over time and the artist predicts a life of 4 to 5 years. You get a sense of the scale of the mural if you compare the size of the people alongside. You can just about see the red shirt of the cyclist in the picture on the right. The entire length of the work was surprisingly free of graffiti but I was just lucky as I found out later that the artist had complained  about the graffiti and it had been cleaned up by the city just a week before I saw  it. I had read a little about the piece before I went and even though I couldn’t always decipher what aspect of Rome’s history or mythology the images represented, I knew what it was about. I felt pleased with myself being able to explain what the work was in Italian to two passers by who didn’t know what it was.

 

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Roman Spring

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View From Terrace of Villa D’Este

Where has the time gone? I seem to have slowed down even more than usual so it feels like the days go by faster. Any how, apologies to my readers for being so out of date with my posts.

I’m now back in Rome where spring is at its peak. It is sunny and warm during the day, with temperatures of 20 – 25C, and the air is filled with the fragrance of jasmine and orange blossom as the flowers are now in full bloom. The orange trees look very pretty as the oranges from last season are still on them as well as the new blooms.

No dinner on the balcony yet though, as it cools down quite a bit in the evenings. The Romans are used to these significant changes of temperature and have not yet shed their coats and boots, myself included, while the tourists are walking around in shorts and sandals. I’m sure they get chilled after the sun sets.

 

Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

My return to Rome was more enjoyable than usual as there was a friend staying in my apartment so I came back to a fridge well stocked with food and a hot dinner. My first round of guests arrived from Dublin a couple of days later and we spent a week enjoying the city’s offerings. The highlight for Gerry was a scooter tour organized by Rent Scooter Roma. He lucked out as he was the only one on the tour and he had two young ladies leading him to the sights, 3 hours for Eur 100 which wasn’t bad. I was very nervous about him going on this tour as the traffic in Rome is a bit of a free-for-all but the girls looked after him well and he came back in one piece delighted with himself. No, that’s not him in the picture on the left but all the scooter rental companies seem to have the picture at their locations.

Artemisia, Goddess of Fertility

We went to Tivoli on a day trip to visit the Villa d’Este. The villa is a UNESCO World Heritage site presumably for its gardens which have extensive water features. It was built by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este,  the son of Lucretia Borgia, in the 16th century. Having failed a bid for the papacy, he was made Governor of Tivoli instead and being an extremely rich Cardinal, he proceeded to renovate his villa and build a magnificient terraced  garden filled with fountains and grottoes.  Tivoli was popular among the Romans and the Roman emperor Hadrian had built a summer villa in Tivoli during the 2nd cent. Ippolito proceeded to strip all the marble and statues of Hadrians Villa and transport them to Villa d’Este so the statues adorning the fountains are magnificent. I don’t believe the one on the left is one of these but it is spectacular. That the Cardinal would pick a goddess of fertility for his garden is surprising but he was apparently full of surprises. The gardens  were green and beautiful and of course all the water features were at their best since the natural water supply has not yet diminished as it will once the weather gets hotter.

Herbs on my Balcony

My guests have left and I’m now catching up with my household tasks some of which involve transferring documents from Loris’ name to mine. Sounds simple but nothing is simple here in Italy and everything involves numerous emails and visits to the appropriate office. To make matters worse, its all in legalese and since I can just about function in everyday Italian, I’m never sure that I’m interpreting things correctly. I’m lucky to have Loris’ brother and my friends helping me because I would have given up otherwise. In between these bureaucratic forays, I’m enjoying going for walks, breathing in the fragrant air, shopping in the market and planting my window boxes which Maggie urged me to do when she was here. Stepping out to pick fresh herbs for cooking is a daily pleasure. A few mint leaves in either hot or cold water makes a refreshing drink and reminds me of Morocco.  I could also make Mojitos to bring back memories of Cuba!

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A Persian Wedding

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Sofreye Aghd

I’ve been back in Toronto for a few weeks where the weather has been dismal and hard to take after Cuba and Rome. However, the gloom was brightened by an exciting event in our family. My nephew Mike married Nikou who is Iranian and they had a traditional Persian Zoroastrian wedding ceremony.

Mobaarak Bad (blessings) in Farsi

The ceremony took place in front of an elaborately decorated spread on the floor called a Sofreye Agdh. It looked gorgeous as you can see above. A beautiful embroidered  tablecloth, handed down from the bride’s grandmother, was set in the centre of a large, lacy fabric placed on the floor. Across from the bride and groom was a mirror with a candelabra on each side representing light and fire which are two important elements in Zoroastrian culture. On the tablecloth were dishes of sweets, nuts and fruit all representing something specific. A basket of decorated eggs to symbolize fertility, pomegranate for a joyous future, a bowl of honey to sweeten life, flat breads rolled into the shape of flowers representing prosperity for the couple’s life, a bowl of rose water to perfume the air during the ceremony. A book of special significance to the couple. A tray made up of multi-coloured herbs and spices including poppy seeds (to break spells and withcraft), black tea, wild rice, angelica and salt (to blind the evil eye), spelled out the Farsi word for blessings ‘Mobaarak Bad’.

Esfand

When the guests were all seated, Mike took his place across from the Sofreye Aghd. The bridesmaids came down next.  Then two of Nikou’s cousins walked down the centre aisle with the a brazier in which they were sprinkling a special type of incense called ‘esfand’  to ward off the evil eye and bring health.  Finally Nikou and her father followed, at which point all the Iranian guests started kelling (the leh-leh-leh sound people from the middle east make) clapping and whistling, creating an atmosphere of great joyousness and gaiety. Nikou sat down beside Mike and the ceremony began by a canopy being unfurled above their heads signifying  that they are now under the same roof. The ceremony started by Mike dipping his little finger into the bowl of honey and feeding it to Nikou and she did the same for him as a symbol that they will feed each other sweetness and sustenance throughout their lives. Very sweet!

 

As the ceremony proceeded, various married family members took turns grinding two sugar cones together on the canopy symbolizing showering the couple in sweetness. When Mike was asked by the officiant  if he would take Nikou as his wife, he immediately said ‘Yes’. However, when Nikou was asked, there was a pause and suddenly someone at the back of the room said something about her having to deal with the flowers. We were all taken aback and I thought the woman had burst in not knowing that the ceremony had already begun. Nikou was asked a second time and again somebody at the back interrupted. By this point, we realized that this was part of the ritual.  The third time, Nikou consented (with the permission of her mother and father as is the customary response in Persian tradition), rings were exchanged and serious kelling burst forth. This marked the end of the ceremony and everybody lined up to congratulate the couple with close relatives of the bride giving her presents of jewellery. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Then the party began with Persian dancing where everybody got up to dance including the elderly relatives. Dancing plays a big part in social occasions as it does on our side of the family so we all joined in with gusto. There was singing, laughter and lots of delicious food and drink. Truly a wedding to remember.

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Cuban Farming and Crops

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Farm in Vinales Valley

One of the things which struck me as we drove through the Cuban countryside was the amount of land lying fallow, 2.5 million arable acres sitting idle, I was told.  Given that Cuba imports 70 to 80% of its food, it seemed to me that much of this land could be used for cultivation of crops.

Acacia Tree (El Marabu)

One of the many problems is that much of the land has been taken over by an invasive acacia tree (called El Marabu in Cuba) which was brought to the Caribbean from Africa as an ornamental tree in the 1800s. Quite beautiful as an ornamental tree, the flowers are a valuable source of honey and the seeds are edible. However,  one doesn’t see many of these as mature trees. The young plants grow so fast that they densely infest large tracts of land, choking the growth of endemic species and not attaining maturity themselves.

Vinales Valley Farmers with Acacia in the Background

Farmers have to burn down the trees to stop them spreading and then dig the roots out before they can till the soil which makes for difficult farming. The wood burns slowly and more recently, moves are underway to use the wood as a biomass for a power plant. Also for producing charcoal which can be exported. Thus more land would be cleared for farming.

Vinales Valley

 

 

There was a distinct change in the landscape as we drove west through the Pinar del Rio province and the Valle de Vinales, a beautiful valley of fertile, cultivated fields surrounded by karst limestone mountains. Here in the valley, we saw a lot more farms and tilled fields though much of it appeared to be from a previous century  with ploughs pulled by oxen and work carried out manually.

 

One of the largest crops is tobacco, grown by groups of small farmers in co-operatives.

The leaves are picked by hand with the best and largest kept for cigars, the next best for cigarillos and the remainder for cigarettes.

The leaves are hung on poles to dry in thatched barns and cigars are rolled by hand.

The whole process is labour intensive and not well suited to mechanization. Some of our group bought cigars at a farm we visited, at around $4/cigar which is cheap considering the labour that goes into producing them.

We also saw  small coffee farms but the yield is low and Cuba now imports coffee from Vietnam.  A sad state of affairs since we were told that Vietnam called in Cuban experts to teach them how to grow and produce coffee.

Sugarcane for Home Use at a Small Farm

Sugarcane was once a major crop with huge exports of sugar going at first to the US and after the revolution to the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, demand for sugar fell and prices dropped to below production costs making the government shut down most refineries.  Since the early 2000s, sugar production has dropped considerably and Cuba now imports sugar from Brazil. We saw some small plantations and sugar mills near Trinidad which used to be a sugar-producing area but certainly not the vast fields one would expect from a country that once had a thriving economy based on sugar. Undoubtedly, sugar production could be increased if it was done more efficiently if only to avoid importing it.

Socialism has brought many benefits to Cuba like literacy and better health for the majority of the population. However, between the difficulty of importing machinery due to the US embargo and antiquated State systems, Cuba has not kept up with advancing technology. Some say that the high subsidies once received from the Soviet Union, damaged the Cuban ability to modernize and optimize their economy. The old guard of Fidel Castro’s contemporaries are now all in their 70s and 80s and politically, nobody knows what is going to happen next. There will have to be major changes in how the country operates in order to become more efficient and productive. It will be very interesting to see how the future unfolds in Cuba over the next few years.

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Cuba: Nature’s Delights

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Torch Ginger Lily

The majority of tourists to Cuba spend the best part of their time at a beach resort and so did I, many years ago. One of the reasons I went on this trip was because there was an opportunity to explore Cuba’s wilderness.

Alturas de Banao Reserva Ecologica

From Havana, we made our way south through Cienfuegos and Trinidad by coach. Our guide Onelio had been specially requested by our Canadian contact and I could see why. He had a broad knowledge of Cuba’s history, economy, and politics and he held forth on all our journeys, educating us along the way in a most entertaining manner.  Many of our days were spent trekking along forest paths looking for endemic Cuban birds, and examining the Cuban flora with guides local to the area. Our evenings were spent back on the beach when possible, swimming and quenching our thirst!

Our first excursion was to the Ecological Reserve at Alturas de Banao in the south.  A beautiful area of mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. This area has a variety of plant species and the birders amongst us also got their fill of endemic Cuban birds.

Cuban Trogon
Image: Larry Monczka

 

 

 

 

 

Emerald Hummingbird
Image: Bernie Solymar

 

 

I got an appreciation of how difficult it is to photograph birds.By the time I even spotted them, they would be flying away never mind being able to zoom in and actually photograph them. Now I understand the truth to the saying “the bird has flown” as you have to concentrate, be watchful and quick. Luckily, there were a number of excellent photographers on the trip so thanks to them for the more difficult pictures.

On another excursion, we took former Russian army trucks to Topes de Collantes in the Escambray mountains where the slopes are covered with ancient tree ferns, bamboo and eucalyptus.

 

 

 

Tree Ferns and Bamboo, Topes de Collantes

I had never seen such magnificent tree ferns ever before never mind hundreds of bromeliads hanging off the trees, exotic flowers, and  trees of medicinal, cosmetic or culinary value.

 

 

Annato Fruit

 

 

 

The ‘lipstick’ tree or achiote (Bixa Orellana) produces a prickly fruit filled with little red seeds like pomegranate seeds.

Make-up for Mary

The colour from the seeds is used as a natural lipstick and to produce the spice annatto which is slightly peppery and also used to impart colour to food including cheese, butter, and snack foods. Interestingly, the FDA considers the colour derived from it to be exempt of certification so it has high commercial value in the U.S.

Bay of Pigs, Ibis in Mangrove Swamp

 

Still in the south, we travelled west to the Zapata Peninsula and the Bay of Pigs, a swampy area of mangrove trees. Apparently, the  inhospitable flat terrain was one of the many reasons that the US invasion failed in 1961 since it provided no cover for the invading troops. The area we saw, Las Salinas, is filled with ibis, heron, flamingos and egrets as well as other birds, a birder’s paradise.

Cuban Crocodiles

 

The Cuban crocodile inhabits this area but is a critically endangered species and we only saw it on a breeding farm. The crocodiles,  though not very large, have long tails and can jump high distances making them dangerous to humans as they tend to be very aggressive. Hard to believe as the ones we saw on the farm were lying basking and lazing in the sun with their mouths open hoping that the keeper would throw them a fish.

Jutia

We also saw a rat-like animal endemic to the Caribbean Islands called a Jutia (Capromys pilorides). I was told that they are hunted for food in Cuba and cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.

 

 

Thankfully, we weren’t given this delicacy to try out. Instead, while walking back to the lodge for lunch on one of the reserves, we came upon a pig being roasted outdoors on an open fire.

 

 

 

 

You can guess what we had for lunch and it was super delicious served with rice and beans. Thank goodness there were no vegetarians among us as they would have had a hard time. Although our choices for meals in general, were pork, chicken, fish or beef which I’m sure are not easily available for the locals, there wasn’t a wide variety of vegetables. Onelio actually gave a sigh of relief when he found out that none of us was vegetarian. In my next post, I will talk more about crops and farming but for now and in conclusion, I’m going to confess to you about my moment of shame!

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad

 

In between our nature excursions, there was very little time to visit Trinidad which is a beautiful town. Onelio left us at the Plaza Mayor with instructions that we should meet at a specific spot about 45 minutes later.

 

 

I had been in Trinidad with Loris many years previously and I guess I was a bit distracted seeing the town looking so prosperous and unlike what I remembered and of course I thought of being there with Loris and must have been preoccupied. Anyhow, well before the appointed time, I made my way to the meeting spot to find neither the bus nor anyone from our group there. Obviously, I had gotten confused as to the meeting point.

Trinidad

To cut a long story short, I hurried and then actually ran around the streets trying to find the bus. Stupidly, I had left my backpack containing the sheet of paper with Onelio’s mobile number on the bus.  After 40 minutes or so of frenetic searching, I realized that my efforts were futile. Finally, I went into the upscale Hotel La Ronda and asked the receptionist to call the hotel we were staying in and get them to locate Onelio which they couldn’t do as they didn’t have his number. We told them where we were calling from. Luckily, Onelio did call the hotel, got the message and found me just as I was preparing to take a cab back. He had never ever ‘lost’ a member of his group and was as relieved to see me as I was to see him. There were strong hugs all around including the staff of La Ronda.  My poor fellow travellers welcomed me back on the bus without a word of complaint even though I had ruined their evening.  The plan was to return to Trinidad after dinner and take in an evening of music for which there was no longer enough time. I must say that during all my running around in the streets, I never felt nervous about being robbed or meeting with any violence. It seems to me that Cuba is still a safe place unlike many other Caribbean islands.  Anyhow, I’m using this opportunity to thank everyone in our group for their tolerance and good humour. The Prosecco is on me when we have a reunion!

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Cuba Tour: A Glimpse of Havana

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Cuba’s Flag (adopted 1849)

Several months ago, my sister suggested that I might like to join a Nature Tour of Cuba organized by the Norfolk Naturalists of Southern Ontario. No not the ones who walk around naked (those are Naturists!), but a group of people interested in bird watching and nature. I know nothing about birds other than that they have feathers and wings but I thought it would be a good opportunity to get a glimpse of Cuba before it becomes transformed, as it will, following the death of Fidel Castro and the lifting of the US embargo.

Fincita Cocktail (rum with honey, lemon juice and ginger root)

The trip started in Havana and continued through central Cuba to Cienfuegos and Trinidade close to the Escambray Mountains. From there we made our way east to the Vimales Valley. There were 19 of us in all and needless to say, the bulk of time was spent in birdwatching and nature walks. Oh yes, and drinking rum cocktails sometimes even before lunch!

Havana is a beautiful city spread out along the seafront.  A long boulevard , the Malecon, hugs the shoreline encompassing architecture from Baroque to Art Deco to Modern.  American cars from the 50s, now mostly rented by tourists, whizz along the Malecon, conjuring an air of American gangsters and the high life which is what Havana was like before the revolution in 1959.

 

 

 

 

View from our room in Hotel Riviera

Before the revolution, Batista had cut a deal with the American Mafia giving them free rein in Cuba in exchange for a cut of their gambling profits. We stayed at the Riviera Hotel, once the kingdom of Meyer Lansky, known at that time as the ‘Mob Accountant’.  This is the Vedado area, the more modern part of Havana with high rise buildings, restaurants and night life. The hotel is virtually unchanged since before the revolution and the bar is identical to what it was in Lansky’s time.

Plaza Vieja

Old Havana, further west, is charming. A beautification program has begun and many buildings have been repainted in preparation for an influx of tourists. Presently, there are supposedly about half a million tourists annually and the government is preparing for a million. The thought of giant cruise ships lining the Malecon is not appealing.

Calle Obispo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plaza de la Catedral

 

Chic cafes and quaint shops line some of the streets and the architecture reflects the Spanish colonial heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The socialist structure still holds fast, however, and there is no private enterprise. The bulk of all profits goes to the government.  Cubans are paid in Cuban Pesos while tourists have to pay in Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) worth about twenty five times more than the Peso. Needless to say the locals try hard to get CUCs as tips in restaurants, for playing music, and for selling souvenirs etc.

While tourists can live well and enjoy good food and fine accomodation at a price, life is not so easy for the locals. The majority of people do not have luxuries like cars and food is not always plentiful. I passed this Pharmacy and didn’t know what it was at first, as it just had a minimal amount of drugs in paper packages on its shelves. The good thing is that medical care and available drugs are accessible to all. There just isn’t any choice as to what can be had, and what is required is not always available. Supermarkets are not overflowing with food items and even the essentials are not guaranteed. Cuba only produces sugar, rum, tobacco and a small amount of coffee. Everything else has to be imported and the American embargo has taken its toll.

Lack of material goods not withstanding, since the revolution, a major focus has been on education so the literacy rate is high for both men as well as women. We did not see homeless people or beggars or people starving as one sees in many countries based on capitalism.  On the other hand, people are cut off from technological advances and global trade. It was difficult to get WiFi even in high end hotels. I would have liked to have spent more time in Havana getting a better insight into how people live and seeing some of the poorer neighbourhoods but we had to leave for the countryside on our nature tour. More about that in my next post…………

 

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