Monday, April 20, 2009

Curiousity Capers

I've always been the kind of person that isn't satisfied with the 'official tour'. When I was a kid my parents took us to Hearst Castle in San Simeon. I was thrilled with the tales of Hollywood big wigs and the massively overdone architecture. I longed to jump into the Neptune Pool or climb the tower but was herded back by the sharp eyed tour hostess. By the time I reached college I had honed my skill at gaining admittance "behind the ropes" and my insatiable lust for exploring forbidden properties increased ten fold. I knew I was truly hooked when one fateful afternoon a boyfriend of mine was arrested for trespassing when he attempted to climb into what I had thought was an abandoned Victorian mansion in Portland's west hills. Although the house was uninhabited, it WAS filled with valuable antiques and a security system. I had encouraged him to help me find access to yet another historical venue and yet I walked away scot free. As the patrol car drove slowly away bearing my latest suitor, I waved sadly but considered this episode just a small detour in my chosen hobby. The years passed and along the way I finagled my way into an assortment of fascinating 'off limits' structures always accompanied by some poor soul who had been blindsided into reluctant participation. My husband is now my, albeit somewhat bemused, partner in crime and has helped me explore such places as The Empress Hotel in Victoria, the attic of one of the Great Western Lodges in the US and a rambling 14th century Chateau outside Toulouse, France. So when we began to visit Zihuatanejo it was only a matter of time before I noticed the grand structure up on the hill above Playa La Ropa, known locally as "The Parthenon". I was determined to gain admittance.
A little history about The Parthenon of Zih: It was built by Durazo Moreno, the former infamous police chief of Mexico City. He was appointed Chief by the former President of Mexico, Jose Lopez Portillo a childhood friend of Durazo. Moreno soon took advantage of his new position to greatly enhance his wealth and power. As detailed in the wildly popular Mexican bestseller, "Lo Negro del Negro Durazo" written by Durazo's body guard, Jose Gonzolez, Durazo, played the system to promote corruption and drug trafficking, resulting in the ability to live a lavish and decadent lifestyle. At times, using his own police officers as laborers, he constructed several palatial homes throughout Mexico. One of these was The Parthenon in the hills above Zihuatanejo. The authorities turned a blind eye to his Dionysian extravaganzas. At times hundreds of guests would be flown in to attend one of his many parties. When asked how he managed to live in such a manner on his modest salary of about 65.00 US, Durazo is said to have answered, "My wife is very thrifty." Well, all good things must come to an end and when he found out he was under indictment in the US for drug trafficking he fled to Costa Rica. Eventfully he was extradited to Mexico, convicted and jailed for a few years before being released. He is said to have lived out the rest of his life in Acapulco dying in August of 2000 at age 80.

So..back in Zih and how we came to be inside this place..

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pretty pretty Patz...

I'm lying on the bed in the Grand Sala Suite at Casa Encantada in Patzcuaro, Mexico. It is late afternoon and somewhere off in the direction of the dining room someone is playing a difficult piece by Chopin. The low sun creates a dusty halo of light around the edge of the giant shutters and casts a muted yellow glow across the old Terra Cotta floor tiles. I sigh, close my eyes again and pretend I am Dona Cynthia in Colonial Mexico. Gerry pads through the room, smiles as I dig deeper into the feather bed and motions toward a bottle of red wine. I nod - time to light the fire and dress for dinner.

My reverie is the result of our decision to explore the
Patzcuaro area for a few days during our annual trip to Zihuatanejo. Although we spend just a short time, the visit left us aching for more. After our initial week in Zih, we took off on the Autopista Siglo XXI, the highway to Morelia-Patzcuaro. Immediately we have a lesson in driving two lane toll roads in Mexico. The Siglo XXI winds through the mountains and although it boasts HUGE shoulders, it is never wider than two lanes. Of course this doesn't stop the ever resourceful Mexicans from passing. In fact not only do they pass on this winding scenic track but the traffic engineers apparently encourage it. Signs are everywhere admonishing slower drivers to use the parking strips so that others can pass. In fact, on one stretch of road another stripe has been painted down the middle of the lane indicating, if you don't have the cojones to pass on a curve, you should keep to the right . So here we are, driving on the parking strip, me frantically imploring, "Don't PASS.. for God's sake don't pass, Gerry!". Cars, trucks and buses zoom around us ignoring the no passing signs and double lines. My rattled husband finally has enough, giving me a 'RELAX or ELSE' look and starts taking a few chances. As yet another bus crawls up our bumper I steel myself to the ordeal and keep my mouth shut as Gerry gingerly joins the dart and go game. About half way there we come upon what I had already envisioned in my mind for the last 100 miles - a horrible head-on accident. We wait while the ambulances pick up the injured and cover the dead. Some impatient drivers ahead of us honk persistently and we shake our heads at this bizarre reaction to the carnage. Surprisingly, we discover later that accidents of this nature aren't all that common on this Autopista but by the time we move through the debris I am ready to walk the rest of the way to Patzcuaro.
At last, Patzcuaro! I consult the very specific directions we were given by Casa Encantada. It seems easy enough.. go here.. turn left.. go straight.. look for a Sherwin Williams sign on the corner. Let's go! So we drive.. and drive..while all while the buildings start looking very much the same. White walls - halfway down a swath of red - above are red roofs - and finally miles of red or wood doors. In fact, all the lettering is the same elaborate script and in RED. The town looks old, charming.. historic even.. but EVERY frickin business looks the same!! I see no friendly blue Sherwin Williams little earth logo with paint dripping all over it...Ask Sherwin Williams? I can't even FIND the little twit. Gerry starts grinding his teeth and the car crawls down the increasingly narrow lanes. At the end of the street is a flimsy plastic tarp barricade where beyond lie the dark alleys of the Mercado. No where to go! Horns honk behind us. Desperately, Gerry takes off at the first right and we come out onto a large plaza. I make several attempts to ask directions from friendly passersby with no success. One very dapper, elderly Caballero finally admits, after a lengthy, rambling discussion, that he is from Morelia but would have LIKED to help us. Finally I jump out of the car and with false bravado instruct an incredulous Gerry and Daniel, "STAY HERE - I will find it!". Within seconds I persuade a man to leave his post at his ice cream cart. He wanders down the cobble stoned streets, chuckling about tourists, with me in tow. Each door looks identical but he takes me directly to the one red door that I need. A small ceramic sign announces it is indeed Casa Encantada. As I wander into the foyer and ring the bell I see predictably that the courtyard belies the plainness of the outside - flowers, fountains, elaborate ancient wood doors and shuttered windows. I run back to the boys to tell them excitedly about our new home for the next few days. All is forgiven! Eventually we settle in, drink a glass of the complimentary red wine and get ready to explore the town.
The next few days we take in the European and Colonial flavor of Patzcuaro and read about it's interesting history. The Spanish settled Patzcuaro, literally 'City of Stones' in the mid 1500s while the local indigenous peoples, the Purepecha, settled in a couple of hundred years earlier. It is the descendants of these (nyah nyah - got here first!) people who have made the wonderful items available in the town's shops and surrounding country side. I spend hours browsing for copper goodies...rebozos (shawls).. fine pottery and textiles. I get away with a few rebozos, a pot or two and.. well.. a wonderful copper sink (???) emblazoned with frogs. I blame the altitude, 7000 feet above sea level, for my newfound interest in copper plumbing fixtures. Gerry just frets about how to get the damned thing back home. Although I spend hours finding new ways to spend pesos, we also become adept at sitting idly near one of the many plazas - sipping coffees and wine for um.. hours. People watching is mandatory and we marvel at the the town's daily goings on. There are the nattily dressed elderly gentlemen who, after a few days, we begin to recognize as they arrive for their morning ritual of coffee and conversation. An afternoon funeral procession prompts a moment of silence amongst the cacaphony of the cafe as an infant's tiny coffin is carried by a grieving father. A group of giggling school girls allow me to snap their photo one evening. To my surprise, I see them sneak curious peeks at me during our frequent and subsequent visits to Cafe Surtidora. The days pass. I decide my pescado rebozo makes me look decidedly Spanish (exotic even!) and it becomes part of my permanent wardrobe. I take up ordering elaborate coffee drinks and consider, for the first time in years, sampling some of the luscious display of local pastries. Wow. I love this town.. I adore the place.. Im intoxicated by the smell of the pines in the daytime and each night can't wait to sip wine by our ancient looking old fireplace. I like the lack of tourists. I love the church bells of the Basilica. I love the sexy looking plump strawberries bursting out of their baskets in the Mercado. I like everything about Patzcuaro!! And just as we begin to linger a little too long over the real estate ads and start becoming a little TOO possessive about our sidewalk table at Cafe Surtidora it is....sigh... time to return to Zihuatanejo. We grit our collective teeth and load up the car for our return down the highway from hell and eventually to the Guerrero coastline.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Catching up...

Ive been traveling a bit these last few months so it is time to come up to speed. Early in September Gerry and I along with friends Brian and Kate (honorary trekkers) took a three day weekend and stayed at one of the most unique private lodgings I have ever experienced. The Pilot House is a luxury 1700 sq foot, three bedroom apartment located on the pier in Astoria, Oregon. Originally built as a private home by the owners of one of the shipping companies in the area it was later remodeled by the Pilot's Association. The result of their efforts is an elegant four star setting with a front row seat to the river traffic at the mouth of the Columbia. It also features four fireplaces, three bathrooms, complete gourmet kitchen, and fine wood crafting details that make you feel as though you are staying on an old sailing vessel rather than simply a gorgeous waterfront home. The pricing, albeit a tad steep, is well worth the splurge for a special occasion or romantic weekend. During our stay in Astoria we also had some great dinners at the local eateries. One standout is the Columbian Cafe. It is small, chaotic but somehow draws you in and makes you want to return. Be brave and try the 'Chef's Choice' where the chef decides what he thinks you should eat! The results are sometimes quite surprising...After dinner enjoy a drink next door at the Voodoo Lounge. This bar is a little oasis of New Orlean's set in the seemingly in congruent setting of Scandinavian influenced old Astoria. Trust me.. it works. (photo by Kate Johnstone)


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Oregon my Oregon

So the other weekend our friend Daniel (the third component of Trek Trio) escaped from Iowa and came out to see us. We decided on a 'close to home' trek. We loaded up the gas guzzling SUV and headed to the Oregon coast to spend some time at a few of our favorite haunts and hoping to make a few new Trek Trio discoveries. Beginning in Manzanita, about an hour and a half drive from Portland, we drove north to Cannon Beach and stopped for lunch at the comfortable and charming Warren House Pub. Warren House features a full compliment of house brewed beers with appropriately Oregon-ish names like "Duck Dive Ale" and "Clear Cut Lager" and a great menu of delectable sandwiches . Try my perennial fav, the Oyster burger. No fries but they provide a darned fine pea salad (or chips if you prefer) on the side. The bar is dark and cozy and the staff always seems to have the eclectic music selection tuned just to my liking. An added bonus for visitors - no need to leave your your canine friend in the car as the pub features an inviting, dog friendly beer garden out back.

Next stop was the old fishing town of Astoria, Oregon where we checked into the historic Hotel Elliot in the center of the quaint downtown. The Elliot may not be for everyone as it simply drips old hotel ambiance: musty building smells, creaky elevator, frosted glass panels over dark wooden room doors. I half expected an old sea captain to appear with a floozy on his arm. Of course I loved it. The rooms themselves are decorated in period appropriate decor and, though small, were very pleasant. The bathrooms had (wow!) heated tile floors that would be fabulous on a typical chilly Oregon coast weekend. (it was 80 when we were there) I would advise asking for a room above floor 2. Ours had a lovely view of the ventilation system. Our friend Daniel, however, had a very nice room just down the hall which looked out to the hills and the Astoria Column. Location Location ...

Before dinner we popped into The Schooner just across from the hotel. We immediately made friends with the charismatic and interesting bartender, Rob, who managed to design the ultimate Cosmo while keeping us mesmerized with a fast paced monologue that ran the gamut from surfing to parenting. He had a cool tattoo of the NY Yankees logo too...we ran into him later at the Baked Alaska. (ok.. I was a little smitten)

We dined at the popular Italian restaurant, Fulio's, just around the corner from Hotel Elliot where we experienced the wonders of grilled romaine lettuce salads. (you will just have to trust me on this one) After dinner we wandered down to the Shipyard Inn for an energetic night of 70's rock and dancing. They have an impressively large hall located in the back of the bar that could easily seat 500 people. When we were there the crowd was significantly less than 'full house' (you could have safely done cartwheels across the width of the floor) but we enjoyed the Jimi Hendrix sound alike guitarist and the Astoria crowd who were totally into it.

The weekend finished up with a night out in Portland. Because we live there I generally avoid mentioning any of my experiences as, strictly speaking, my Portland life isn't travel oriented. But
this particular night I went on a 'trip' of sorts. I tried absinthe for the first time. Just that week I had read the 'real thing' (Yes, the Absinthe of decadent Paris and Tolouse Latrec!) had become legal and Oregon bars were beginning to serve it. So while we lounged at the Blue Hour bar I noticed a beautifully decorated bottle sitting on the shelf - Absinthe. I knew immediately I had to ..well.. experience it. (Am I detecting a Jimi Hendrix theme to this post??) Blue Hour spared nothing in the whole ritual of the Absinthe 'setup'. The silver slotted decorative spoon.. fire lit sugar..the beautiful little crystal glass of water on the side. The cube drops.. the water swirls.. the blue turns to a milky green. Without going into too much detail, I will just say I am one of those susceptible to the 'green fairies'. The night whirled to a finish with my husband (and my cat) having forbidden me to go near the stuff again.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Body Surfing.. The Sequel

After a couple of months trying to convince himself and everyone else that he was FINE DAMMIT, Gerry finally relented and saw a physician about his shoulder. With the help of such wonderful diagnostic machines as the MRI (guaranteed to cause "get me the hell outta here" claustrophobia in even the most stable of folks) my aspiring surfer husband found his body surfing adventure had resulted in three severely torn rotary cuff tendons. This revelation was followed by surgery, a week of excruciating pain and all you can eat oxycontin. On the up side he got to pretend he was a recovering NFL player when we rented the cool psuedo- sporty Game Ready Ice and Compression Machine. He was finally able to hire a lawn service! And he was put on the injury list for dish washing duty for a couple of months. He has been a pretty good sport though as you can see from the photo. The other night at the San Dune Pub in Manzanita, Oregon I whined about us not getting to dance. He came back with a defensive "oh yeah??" and pulled me out onto the dance floor. After the song, the band leader remarked wryly, " C'mon folks.. if a ONE armed guy can dance...EVERYone get out there!" Shrug. Maybe the singer mistakenly thought the massive black sling was some kind of prosthetic device. So just remember gang, when the waves are too big, the break too short and your logic goes out the window you TOO can have this kind of summer fun - it lasts and lasts...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rants, Raves and Lessons on Staying in the Present

It has been roughly a month since we returned from Zihuatanejo. After having a few weeks to regroup, there are a few things that still warrant mentioning. Always top of the list are the restaurants. I have to admit I'm getting a bit tired of eatery posts. More often than not these days there is a trend among trip reports in which the primary focus is eating. A typical report goes something like this: "Monday we went out to eat at Restaurant X and ordered grilled Y with Z sauce. It was excellent and cost only (fill in the blank) dollars/pesos/euros/yen! The waiter was blasted slow and we about died of hunger but the place was packed so we understood. Tuesday we went to... " And on and on for about nine long paragraphs. Sigh. Why don't they just stay home and go out to dinner every night?! It would save them a lot of time and money. With that said here are a FEW Zih restaurants that we tried for the first time this year that are noteworthy...

Worth a Repeat Restaurant - Cafe Mandarino: This cozy cafe is located across from the church on Calle Cinco De Mayo. Their culinary niche is a varied offering of yummy filled crepes. The dinner crepes are quite large and filled generously with your choice of everything from Mexican to French fillings. In fact, the only regret about this place is that we were so full we weren't able to work our way through the dessert crepes. Crepes may not be traditionally Mexican but it was a nice change.

Cleanest Restaurant - Neuva Zealanda: We only ate breakfast here but their sparkling floors, tidy cafe counter and pristine bathrooms inspired confidence in their food. Even their menus were unsmudged! Fairly priced meals, standard Mexican menu and decent portions.
Calle Cuauhtemoc #23

Craziest Restaurant with Great Food - Angelos Pizza:
Whew! This place is something out of a Fellini film.

The Cast:
  • A screaming, raging, pan-banging Italian chef
  • A dreamy sweet faced waiter serenely taking orders and trying to retain calm
  • A sea of impatient customers unwittingly adding to the tension by their constant neck craning in the direction of the kitchen.
  • Us.. as.. well.. ourselves!
The scene: waiters fired..waiters re-hired..a fire juggler tossing torches just inches from the tables... Wine corks popping.. pasta slurping...too many customers.. not enough staff... loud background music ...Exciting Pandemonium!

When we visited we were seated promptly and after ordering, sipped on excellent and inexpensive wine. Eventually it was impossible to ignore the barrage of outraged screams coming from the kitchen. Coupled with this cacophony was a seemingly endless parade of the chef's friends who wandered by calling out enthusiastic greetings in Italian. (who knew there were so many Italians in Zih?) The shouts, agonized cries and pot banging continued from behind the counter. We fidgeted and wondered if coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake. At last, from this real life 'Hells Kitchen' chaos, our pasta dishes emerged. Within seconds we knew! They were ALL delicious. Forks stabbed ferociously back and forth as we struggled to try a morsel of each other's dinner. At last satiated, we sipped our wine, sat back and enjoyed the atmosphere. Apparently the evening hadn't been exciting enough for him, because Gerry took advantage of our pasta induced reveries (and subsequent inattention) to interject himself into this mad house. The chef had been doling out a scathing, long and LOUD critique to our serene and unflappable waiter. The monologue seemed to revolve around the pros and cons of firing him.

At this point my husband entered the fray. God help you if you are in a discussion with my Irish 'Persuader'. He can go all ten rounds - talking at you.. over you.. twisting what you say.. bringing up random bits of evidence to support his case...Yes, Gerry can go on for hours. So as the debate raged, both men's voices became louder, faces turned redder, customers interrupted their homage to pasta and exchanged looks of alarm. As I was preparing to give Gerry a kick in the shins (my long standing marital signal for 'knock it off, blockhead!') a silence fell over the establishment. The chef nodded in resignation and as he slumped weakly into a chair he agreed to keep our saintly waiter on staff. I strolled over and briefly interviewed this mercurial restaurant owner. Found out he was from the south of Italy.. had been chef at many interesting establishments.. just your typical, amazingly talented, wild Italian chef! As we prepared to leave, the waiter glided by our table and baring his peaceful Buddah-like smile, he breathed a soft "Thank you..". For this quick tempered Gringa he was a walking sutra lesson.

So, although Angelos is not for everyone, this place served up an unforgettable evening of high drama, some unexpected inspiration and outstanding food! We will be back. At Pedro Ascencio and Agustin Ramirez

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Zihua Videos

Well, the quality isnt all that great, but I recently uploaded some videos to You Tube from our trip to Zihuatanejo. Here is my You Tube Page.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Other Brigadoon

For the last several decades I've been fortunate enough to enjoy our family beach house near Manzanita, Oregon. The house my parents built lies in the lee of the legendary Neahkahnie Mountain which, according to Oregon coastal Tribal traditions, is said to possess mystical powers and be home of the Great Spirit. Many mornings we have watched the mists and fog, like some witches brew, spill over the top of this oceanside peak and trickle down the slopes to meet the sea. Those that live in the mountain's shadow talk of feeling a sense of being in a hidden, otherworldly place of peace and contentment. Once, while sharing a glass of wine with a local resident of the area, Kate Johnstone, we discussed this phenomena. She nodded in agreement and remarked wistfully "This IS Brigadoon...". Now I believe I have found yet another Brigadoon; Zihuatanejo. In my own mind It certainly fits the definition - a place where time seems to stop, each visit feels as though you haven't aged a day and a sense of being removed and protected from stresses of the world. Oh, I know, my perception is perhaps the result of too much sun, cervesas and late night viewing of old Gene Kelly musicals but I truly feel I am somewhere 'else' when I am there. As I return from my most recent visit to Zih I am haunted by this altered sense of reality and joy that I experienced for a few short weeks.