Guanajuato – Una Ciudad Muy Hermosa

Charming Guanajuato, (pronounced gwah-nah-hwah-toe), officially the most beautiful city in Mexico, is as you can see also one of the most colourful. The city is built on very hilly ground, so virtually every point in the city in on a slant.

With subterranean tunnels leading into the city, brightly coloured houses, winding cobbled streets, callajoneadas or narrow alleyways, quaint cafés, and hundreds of bakeries, Guanajuato is known for its traditional Mexican markets, the towering El Pípila statue, which offers and bird’s eye view over the city, and the unusual attraction of the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato.

A big silver vein was discover in Guanajuato in the mid-1500s and that eventually lead to a larger settlement. In it’s hay day the area produced nearly a third of all silver in the world. Mining brought wealth to the town that spread to its architecture and lifestyle. Some mines are still active.

Our lovely B&B was about a 10-minute walk through these narrow streets to the central historic region. I counted 13 churches in and around the city center, (apparently there are a total of 23), one of the first was the pink Templo de San Francisco built by the Franciscans in the 17th century.

It is beautiful illuminated at night and a central place for the locals to hang out.

Our landmark during our first couple of nights was the Plaza del Quixote, created to honour the 400th anniversary of the first edition of Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Don Quixote with his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza…and Bob.
A charming alley just beyond Don Quixote

Next up was the Teatro Juarez, situated across from the Jardine de la Union, with it’s very impressive exterior and is another spot to do some serious people watching.

Beside the theatre there is a church that is a popular spot in the evening for student performances and across the street, at the Jardin, Mariachi bands stroll around the several restaurants lining the plaza creating a vibrant fun-filled atmosphere.

Nightly performance in front of Iglesias de San Diego.

Click on the video below.

Behind the theatre is a funicular that takes you up to the El Pipila monument on San Miguel hill. This monument honours a local miner for his act of heroism at the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. The area provides an excellent birds-eye view of the city. We took the funicular up and made our way back into the centre while exploring several alleyways. Walking was a bit tricky at times with the steep incline.

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This 20 meter statue was constructed in 1953 out of pink sandstone. The viewpoint is in front of the statue.
View of El Pipila & one of the many tunnels from the city centre
The area is just as busy during the day with various vendors touting their wares.

Continuing on the tour, the next stop is the Basilica de Nuestra Señora with its vibrant yellow facade and red domed roof – the inside is just as impressive to say the least. The Basilica is in the heart of the city and dedicated to Our Lady of Guanajuato who is the patron saint and protector of the city.

The Basilica is positioned on a slight hill in the Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace) making it look higher than the surrounding buildings.

A little bit further down this street is the famous El Callejon del Besa or Alley of the Kiss. Guanajuato has so many little alleys or callejons, leading every which way from the centre, however this particular one has a tragic love story attached to it. The alley itself is very short and up some steep steps with houses on both sides, the uppermost balconies almost touching and windows looking into each other.

As the story goes, two young lovers from very different backgrounds, the girl came from a rich family and the boy from a poor miners family, fell in love. The boy rented a small room which faced a rear balcony of the girl house. Each night they would sneak out for romantic encounters, hence the nickname Alley of the Kiss. The girl’s father found out about these nocturnal encounters, was furious and eventually one night caught the young lovers. Fearing for his safety the young miner jumped from the girls balcony back to his but fell to the steps below dying instantly. The father’s rage was also directed at his daughter; he grabbed a piece of wood and bludgeoned her to death. The father felt instant grief for his actions but it was too late, the lovers were both dead on the steps below the balcony.

Folkore has it the ghosts of the two lovers haunt the steps where they died but bless couples with a life of happiness if they kiss on the third step, the location of the miner’s death.

To guarantee 15-years of happiness in their relationship a couple must kiss on only the 3rd step, a kiss on any other step will bring 7-years of sadness & heartache to the couple.

 

On our way to, believe it or not one of Guanajuato’s main sights, El Museo De Las Momias or the Mummy Museum, (more on that in a bit), we pass by the Mercado Hildalgo, a classic iron structure with a beautiful facade. This structure was originally constructed to be a major train station, and the project so grand Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was enticed to work on it. But the envisioned economic boom to Guanajuato never happened. Once this grand project was dropped it was transformed into a market.

Bob taking a rest across the street from the market.

Inside the market, view from the second floor.

Given all the hype of the Mummy Museum and with mildly morbid curiosity, we took the local bus up the steep hills to view this horrific, disturbing sight. This is probably one of the more bizarre things we have seen in our travels and despite the fact it is isn’t what we would call a ‘family oriented’ attraction, we saw several young children being guided along by their parents. For a mere 20 pesos each, (senior rate), we were treated to yet another interesting story.

Three rooms contain over 100 mummies, most a little over 100 years old. The majority were adults, there were also some babies and young children. They were lined up in their climate controlled crypts, with a description or name of each mummy attached.

The mummies originate from two sources – during a major disease outbreak mass graves were dug and the bodies thrown in without the burial salts to help with decomposition. When the bodies were exhumed, perhaps to be put into proper graves, the gravediggers were shocked to find the bodies mummified. The other source of the mummies were a by-product of a tax. The families of the deceased had to pay a rental fee of the grave for four years. If the relatives were unable to pay the tax the body was exhumed and cremated. Some of the bodies exhumed were found to be mummified, and since they were considered property of the government they were stored in what is now the museum.

Pretty creepy, RIGHT?

This gentleman’s cloths are quite intact.
The undead & dead!

Back in the land of the living we headed to the Universidad De Guanajuato. The university was originally built by the Jesuits in the 18th century for the people of Guanajuato, however the original building fell into disrepair and was abandoned for many years when the Jesuits were expelled by the Spaniards.

The main campus building, built in 1940 on the original site, boasts 133 steps leading up to the entrance. It now houses the dean’s office, administration and a couple of undergraduate departments. The building is also incorporated with the Templo de las Hospitales, a 16th century church built by the Jesuits.

University of Guanajuato
Templo de las Compania Guanajuato, the religious centre for the Jesuit order

Diego Rivera’s birthplace and now a museum couldn’t be passed up, especially since we visited his significant other’s in Mexico City.  Rivera was born in Guanajuato and spent his first 6-years here. The ground floor of the house has been remodelled to recreate the house as it was at the time of his birth. Several early works are displayed throughout the house, (no photos allowed), and show his wide selection of artistic styles and stages. 

Diego Rivera bronze statue just around the corner from the museum.

Bob & famous Mexican idol Jorge Negrete aka the Charro Cantor

This beautiful fresco inside a building caught my eye as we passed by.

Lots of benches to rest on or people watch.

So many little plazas with cafes.

Walking one of many tunnels.

Colourful houses line the hills and streets.

Beautiful pottery from the area can be found in all the stores. So hard to resist purchasing a few pieces, but it is too early in the game to haul around. 

It seems there is always a festival of sorts happening somewhere in the various towns and cities, this one was just outside our B&B.

We feel we did this city justice and really enjoyed its vibe, despite the fact I was out of commission for a day and a half.  It seems the delicious enchiladas mineras, a local dish we had for dinner one evening, and I didn’t see eye to eye and had to part company. Oh well, always good for waist line!

Next stop is San Miguel de Allende, a couple of hours to the west.

Rajasthan, The Love Affair Continues

 

View of Brahmen from the fort
View of Brahmphuri  from the fort

Our Haveli in the old city was literally at the base of a huge mountain topped by the massive Mehrangarh Fort, the largest in Rajasthan, overlooking the city below. Founded in 1459 AD by Rao Joah, the city was built as the new capital of Marwar. It is also know as the “Blue City”, an apt name since most of the houses in the old city are painted various shades of blue. The Brahmin caste of the Hindu society have historically painted their houses blue but the use has now spread to, well anyone wanting to paint their home blue. This is particularly prevalent in the north part of the town called Brahmphuri, for the many Brahmins living there.

Day 1, was spent living & breathing Rajasthani history. Moving through the old living quarters vivid images of the past & present came alive as our imaginations swirled wandering the Fort & numerous palatial rooms –

huge doors with spikes stop enemies elephants crashing into the enclosed palaces, cannonball imprints on the thick walls leave lasting reminders of long past battles, opium fuelled soldiers heading to battle, women in purdah see the world through the carved stone lattice windows, widow’s freshly hennaed hands leave the last imprint before courageously walking through the Fort gates one last time to self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre, sitting bravely & quietly committing sati (suicide), mirrors & mirrored walls reflect light, richly woven tapestry canopies, the delicious aroma of jasmine soaked silk blinds move gently in the breeze, colourful stained glass adorn rooms used for bedrooms & dancing for the maharajah & his harem, men with brightly coloured turbans, curled moustaches & pointy curled shoes standing guard, dazzling bangles on brown arms, beautiful silk saris, gold jewelled maharanis, veils of yellow, orange, red, pink covering the women’s faces…

Last handprints of widows on Fort wall

Day 2, navigating deeper into Brahmphuri we discovered alleys off the typical tourist beaten path & found ourselves at the back of the palace, alone. The locals directed us by pointing the way, so hospitable & friendly, yet curious we would venture the area without a guide. Bobby, a brave young woman in her early 30’s, invited us into her humble shop showing us tapestries & other crafts sewn by tribal women & widows. Getting ‘permission’ from her husband to run a business, she assists these women by selling their crafts, providing an income to support themselves. It was here that I finally succumbed to getting a henna arm design while listening to her stories of disenfranchised Indian women, including herself, forced arranged marriages & the quality of life these women lead. Despite her lot in life she is very upbeat & was most interested in discussing Western women’s lifestyle, work & education. When it was time for a picture she grabbed my sunglasses pretending to be a Bollywood star, we all had a good laugh.

Wandering further Bob had yet another superb hair cut, followed by Indian head & neck massage, masala tea for us both, for the huge cost of 110 rupees ($2.25).

Time for a trim
Time for a trim
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Clock Tower in Sardar Market

You can find your heart’s desire around the bustling Sardar Market, located by the clocktower in the centre town. We enjoyed more masala tea as shopkeepers tantalized our senses with various spices & teas. Rajasthani people are so hospitable & eager to please.

Another train ride found us heading further west, to the final frontier, Jaisilmer, aka “The Golden City”, a mere 120K from the Pakistan border. Everything here is made of sandstone – intricately carved buildings, Havelis, temples & of course the Jasilmer Fort all casting their golden glow regardless of the time of day. The Jasilmer Fort, a massive sandcastle rising above the desert, is a “living Fort” with a palace, many shops, restaurants, hotels, temples, twisting lanes & home to about 3,000 inhabitants.

The long awaited “camel safari” was going to be the high point here. Who hasn’t dreamed of being a camel jockey for a day, okay not everyone, we get it! 🐪 Arriving the night prior, we had a chance to get a quick glimpse of the town. We headed into the desert the next day for our 24-hour sojourn.

“Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed”… this song by Maria Muldaur has always been a favourite of mine. Introduced to this songstress back in the day as a young nursing student in Ottawa, who would know then that I would be doing likewise with a small group of young 20-somethings (my age at the time) in the Thar Desert with the stars shining brightly above – Karma perhaps? We had a blast riding our respective camels, such funny, arrogant looking creatures & didn’t suffer any major after affects from straddling the saddle for a few hours. Camels are tall creatures & while getting on was pretty easy, getting off was another story! Camels have to kneel, one leg at a time & then lay on their legs; a bit a bit scary the first time & could catch you off guard (no instructions provided). Pitching forward Bobbalo, my camel, quickly collapsed all his legs sinking to the ground, thus sparing me the embarrassment of rappelling forward & doing a face plant in the sand, bonus!

We rode the camels for a few hours, headed back to the main camp where we were entertained by desert gypsies, danced, enjoyed dinner & then headed back into the desert for the night. Sleeping in the desert was a great experience with the moon & star shining brightly above, amazing.

Prahu & me

A couple of interesting things have happened while in India. I have had my palm read twice & surprisingly the info conveyed was very consistent, no spoiler alert here though!
The other was while walking through the Jasilmer Fort a young Indian women asked if I had my henna done in Jodhpur by Bobby. She looked vaguely  familiar & as it turned out it she is the sister of Bobby who we had met a couple of days before in Jodhper! We took her picture with my sunglasses on & will share it with both sisters….karma at work again?

Unfortunately Bob came down with Dehli Belly & was out for the count for a couple of days. While he was recuperating I headed out on my own to browse the bazaars, do a little retail therapy & visit some Havelis. I wandered for hours along the narrow cobbled alleyways in where little has changed over the centuries. Traders sit cross-legged on the floor at the entrances to Lilliputian shops. Chewing betel nut, a popular stimulant in southern Asia, they spit streams of brick red saliva on walls long stained with splashes of crimson. Their merchandise ranges from shawls & silk carpets to hand-painted miniatures & camel bone opium canisters.

Once again, being in the right place at the right time made possible the opportunity to watch & participate in the first night of Holi. Holi or the “Festival of Colours” is an ancient Hindu religious festival that celebrates spring. Renowned for its fun & rowdiness, everyone gets into the action throwing brightly coloured powder & water at each other. Heading for dinner on the last evening I found myself smack-dab in the middle of the merry-makers.  Managing to avoid too much powder, (good thing I was wearing pink), I was taken under the wing of ‘Lalo’, a very kind man, who first thought I needed a little colour then escorted me safely to my destination. On this particular night all the men were heading to the maharajah’s home to “play Holi”. This festival continues for the next several days so Bob will no doubt get a chance to join in at our next stop, Rishikesh.

 

 

 

 

The Magnificent Taj Mahal

Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal
Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal

Arriving in Agra by overnight train, well before sunrise, we took the opportunity to head to the Taj Mahal to witness this magnificent monument greet yet another day. This is apparently the best time to view the Taj & our very first glimpse is breathtaking. We were awestruck with its absolute beauty & symmetry, casting a pinkish glow in the early morning light. Definitely worth giving up a bit of sleep & avoiding the crowds.

This famed mausoleum complex, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River & is one of the most outstanding examples of Mughal architecture which combines Indian, Persian & Islamic influences. We marvelled at this architecture in Delhi, but the Taj is the icing on the cake & agree it is the most beautiful building ever created. Taking 20-years to build, it is the lasting testament of love for Shah Jahan’s favourite wife (3rd of 3), Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.

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Looking back at the red sandstone entry arches

Entering through a red sandstone gateway, you first see the translucent marble structure, elevated on a marble platform. The only backdrop is the sky, further emphasizing the grandeur. A reflecting pool leading up to the Taj is flanked by gardens, laid out with avenues of trees & fountains. As you get closer two identical looking red sandstone buildings, one a mosque & the other, thought to be a guest house, provide further symmetry to the grounds. There are several additional mausoleums on the grounds, including those of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and a larger tomb for Mumtaz’s favourite servant.

Mosque
Mosque
Mosque interior archways
Mosque  interior archways
Koran inscribed archway
Koran inscribed archway
Light filters through cut marble
Light filters through cut marble

A  little bit of architectural trivia is always warranted in this blog, so here goes. The beautiful white marble walls are inlaid with semi-precious stones (jade, crystal, lapis, amethyst & turquoise) forming intricate designs in a technique known as “pietra dura”. The central dome or “onion” is 240 feet (73 meters) high, is surrounded by four smaller minarets & four towers on each corner. Light filters into the central dome through beautiful perforated, finely cut marble screens.

Pietra dura & exterior carved marble wall

In accordance with Islamic tradition, verses from the Koran are inscribed on the arched entrances to the mausoleum, as well as numerous other sections of the complex. It is directly below the main dome that the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, an elaborate false tomb, lays with the Shah’s cenotaph to the side. The less elaborate main tombs (Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves) are locked in the basement inaccessible to tourists.

While this love story is quite enchanting, there is a darker, less well know side. Some people are just doomed; the Shah’s third son (by Mumtaz) overthrew his ailing father for power placing him under house arrest in a tower at the Agra Fort. The Fort itself is very grand & while originally built as a military compound, it was later upgraded to a palace. Imprisoned & heartbroken, the Shah spent his remaining days with only a distant view of the majestic resting place he had constructed for his wife; when he died he was buried next to her in the mausoleum at the Taj Mahal.

Exiting the Taj
Exiting the Taj

Back to reality, Agra itself is a dirty, dusty town. Other than the Taj & the Agra Fort it has little else going for it, such is a shame really. Once you’ve seen these two tourist attractions, it’s time to get the heck outta Dodge!

Agra town
Agra town
Entrance to Agra Fort
Entrance to Agra Fort
Agra Fort with Taj in the distance
Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal in the distance, perhaps the Shah’s view
Camel taxi to the Taj
Camel taxi to the Taj

Our next stop was Ranthanbore for a jeep safari. The claim to fame here is a National Wildlife & Tiger Reserve. Well, the only tigers we saw were painted on the walls at the train station! So we decided to cut our stay short & head to Rajasthan, first stop Jaipur.

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Alive & well at the Taj Mahal

Intriguing Varanasi: Gateway to Nirvana

One of the oldest, holiest cities in the world, Varanasi dates back to 1200 BC. Life & death collide head-on here with pilgrims coming to the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins or to cremate a loved one. Regarded by the Hindus & Jains as one of the 7 holy cities; elderly people make the trek to Varanasi when closer to death in order to achieve nirvana/salvation. These ghats were originally built by Hindu kings wanting to spend their final days along the sacred Ganges. Many of the remaining lofty old palaces bordering the ghats are now hotels with rooftop restaurants offering magnificent views.

We stayed in the old city with its narrow, winding labyrinth of alleys filled with people, cows, dogs, goats, motorcycles, bicycles, restaurants, hotels-everything animate & inanimate. So very easy to get disoriented & lost, but all alleys eventually lead to the ghats on the Ganges. Businesses thrive here, people live in cubby holes, excrement & garbage is everywhere, but despite all this it is one of the more interesting places we have visited. We were spellbound!

First view of the ghats & Ganges from our hotel rooftop

Colourful shamans/ priests & touts are everywhere offering blessings, drugs or massages for a cost with the reward of good Karma, of course. But it is the activity along the 84 ghats (steps leading down to the river) bordering the Mother Ganga, where the more interesting activity occurs. At any time during the day you can see people bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes, dishes or cows, selling trinkets, doing yoga, playing cricket, or making offerings & ‘puga’ on the murky river’s edge.image

Evening entertainment
Alleyway
Alleyway
Outside our hotel

Cremation occurs at a few of these ghats 24/7 with up to 300 bodies burned in a 24-hour period. Huge piles of wood are stacked along the riverbanks & walkways. This is quite the ritual & as morbid as it sounds, is quite fascinating. Corpses covered in saffron & gold cloth are carried on bamboo stretchers through the narrow alleys to the burning ghat by the ‘untouchables’ also know as Doms. This is so routine, crowds in the alleys barely move aside as the corpse is transported down to the riverbank.

Upon reaching the river, the body is doused in the Ganges before cremation for ‘spiritual cleansing’. A wood pyre is prepared, often on top of previous burnings, with each piece of wood weighed on giant scales to determine the cost of cremation & to ensure complete incineration of the corpse, apparently an art. The family of the deceased stay until the cremation is complete, about 3-hours. During this time the raging fire is tended by a Dom who ensures any body parts are tossed back into the fire for complete cremation. The final ritual occurs when a clay pot, filled with water from the Ganges, is ceremoniously thrown & broken on the remaining embers, by the family elder, signifying a break from this world & release of the deceased’s spirit. In the early morning you can see men scouring the cinders looking for any remnants of gold jewellery or fillings from the corpses.

Through the alleyway to the burning ghat
Through the alleyway to the burning ghat

We witnessed up to 7-cremations occurring simultaneously at the main burning ghat. The fires were hot, smoke burned our eyes & touts milled around offering to explain the process for a donation for those who couldn’t afford wood. All this action occurs in an almost a circus like atmosphere, with kids playing, cows, dogs & people milling around right beside the burning area & the many river boats drifting in for a better look. Oy vey!

Despite all this, we did have time to take in a cooking class while in Varanasi learning to make samosas in the small home-based kitchen setting provided by Titu & Rashmi. Bob  was the photographer & scribe, recording the recipe & each step of the process. Titu was entertaining & very knowledgeable, but it was Rashmi who guided me, such a great teacher, ensuring the potatoe/pea based filling was appropriately spiced & patiently teaching the technique to ensure the stuffed dough stayed intact during cooking. Very time consuming, easier than it looks, similar to making pirogies, & certainly gave us a new appreciation of the prep that goes into these tasty morsels found on all the food carts.

Next stop Agra & the crown jewel, the Taj Mahal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy in Hampi

Welcome to pre-historic Hampi!

Hampi! This ramshackle village, divided by a river is surrounded with heaps of precariously sitting giant boulders, ancient ruins & is a backpackers haven. Our daughter likened it to the Flintstone era & very Jurassic Park, she is spot on!

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The area is really divided into two sites, the Hampi Bazaar, closer to the ruins & has many hostels, restaurants & shops. Virupapur Gaddi, is across the river & accessible by short boat ride from the bazaar area.

Hampi Bazaar River edge
Hampi Bazaar River edge

In full Laura Croft & Indian Jones mode we scampered across & through the various Hindu temples & ruins, marvelling at the intricate carvings & arcitecture, given that most date back to the 13th century.

imageThe ruins are spread over 36 sq kilometres & divided into two areas, the Sacred Center & the Royal Center. Our rickshaw drivers ‘Michael Jackson’ & ‘King’ (go figure) were not only knowledgeable but also very entertaining. We came to meet this pair as we stepped off the train on arrival in Hospate, about 15K from Hampi. Hospate is nothing to write home about & is dirty, dusty town with little to offer, except being a transportation transit point. They zeroed onto us & were unrelenting until we finally agreed to let them take us to our hotel for 20 rupees (~40 cents). After chatting with them for bit we figured they were reasonable guys so agreed to hire them for the next day to do the grand tour.

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We started off at the Vittal Temple in the Sacred Center, the undisputed highlight of the Hampi ruins. We were surprised at the lack of crowds & thus had great photo opportunities without hoards obstructing our views. There were however many school field trips visiting the area & the kids always wanted to shake our hands, take pictures, ask our names & enquire where we were from. We really enjoyed chatting with these polite, eager young folks.

Another temple photo op
Another temple photo op

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We won’t bore you with too many temple details, but suffice to say they are truly amazing & in really good condition, despite exposure to the elements.

Ugra Narasimha (aka scary bug eyed guy)
Ugra Narasimha (aka scary bug eyed guy)
Some interesting temple carvings
Some interesting temple carvings
No this isn’t Bob! 😅 A Sadhu (holy man)

The area is also a farming community. Lush green paddy fields, Palm, banana & sugarcane plantations dot the landscape. Our rickshaw dodged the many oxen-drawn carts of freshly harvested sugarcane, while shepherds herded their goats & cows lazily wandered the same roads.

Ladies in red
Ladies in red

Hampi is a definitely a recommended stop for those visiting southern India. Some come for a few days but end up staying much longer. We however are on the move again heading to Mysore. Our only option for transportation is by sleeper bus. We first experienced this means of transportation in Vietnam & swore we would never travel this way again. However, with a national holiday (who knew) & tardiness in booking (again) we will discover if Indian sleeper buses are any improvement over our previous experience.  Hey, who needs sleep anyway! 😴