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A city frozen in time

Uzbekistan day two


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View of Khiva from the Ark

‘Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way.’

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The old town of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is a city frozen in time. The sun-baked clay of its walls encircles a wealth of ancient buildings which, more than any other destination in Uzbekistan, preserve intact the images of the Silk Road.

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Khiva street scene

The city is truly ancient; an historic resting point for caravans since biblical times – there are stories of visits by Shem, son of Noah, and by Mohammed. One legend tells how the latter gave the city its name, when he drank from the well here and exclaimed ‘khiva’, meaning sweet water.

Khiva rose to prominence in the region during the 16th century and for several hundred years was seen as a place of lawlessness where brigands, slave traders, and later spies operated within the seclusion offered by the surrounding desert. One story I loved was that of Robert Jefferson, an eccentric Englishman (why is there always an eccentric Englishman?!) who in the late 19th century rode his bicycle from Catford in South London to Khiva, surviving en route an encounter with Kazakh witches and creating terror among local tribes who viewed his means of transport with horror and suspicion.

For me Khiva proved to be a wonderful place to start our exploration of the Silk Road as it enabled me to get a strong sense of its history and visualise its past. The downside though is that this very intactness, and the thoroughness of the restoration work, meant that it did feel more like a museum or film-set than a living city, lacking the ‘realness’ of Bukhara or Samarkand.

One plus for us was that at that time at least (summer of 2007) it was much less visited than either of these, and in the intense heat of July we found only a small group of French tourists and a few Uzbek family groups exploring the city at the same time as ourselves. It was easy therefore to find myself for a moment or two at least the only person in a sun-baked lane, and to visualise myself back in those days of caravans and sultans.

Getting to Khiva

Khiva is rather a long way from anywhere else on the tourist route in Uzbekistan – a full and dusty day’s drive from Bukhara, for instance. Most tourists do as we did, flying to Urgench from Tashkent and then driving the 35 kilometres to Khiva by bus or taxi.

Our flight on Uzbekistan Airlines left Tashkent’s domestic terminal at 7.00 AM, meaning an early start for the 6.00 AM check-in (no joke when we’d only arrived in the country just over 24 hours earlier and had only 3 hours sleep the previous night!) The one hour flight was in a Tupolev 154 plane, which was very noisy and smelled disconcertingly of petrol. Carry-on luggage was stowed in overhead racks rather than lockers (i.e. without any doors), but somewhat to my amazement stayed in place throughout the flight, including take-off and landing. A small breakfast was served (roll with cheese and apricot jam, a soft drink and pack of salted nuts). There were views of the desert from both sides of the plane but no spectacular scenery that would make one side better than another as far as I could see. The landing was smooth and we were quite impressed with our flight despite the plane’s appearance – until, that is, we got off and saw the fire-truck frantically spraying water into the under-carriage to prevent the overheated tyres from catching fire!

At the airport it was a relatively short drive by bus to Khiva, where we arrived still quite early in the morning – time to check into our hotel, dump our bags, and set out on a walking tour of the city. But first, a few words about our hotel as it was certainly the most interesting of those we stayed in on this trip. And I use the word ‘interesting’ advisedly!

Hotel Khiva Madrassah

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Entrance portal, Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah

I start my comments on our hotel with a disclaimer: we stayed here as I have said in 2007 and I have two friends who have stayed here more recently, one of whom had a great experience and the other who, while not enthusing about the hotel, found only minor shortcomings.

Somewhat controversially, the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (built by Mohammed Amin Khan in the 1850s), just inside the west gate of the old city, has been converted during its restoration into a hotel, and this is where we stayed.

The controversy concerns whether this use of an ancient Madrassah as a hotel is appropriate. UNESCO say no, and that it should be restored to its original purity, but to be honest I can’t see that happening. Everywhere you go in Uzbekistan the madrassahs are in use for different purposes – museums, bazaars etc. Only a very few are still used as religious seminaries, their original role. For me, this use seems no less appropriate than others, and maybe closer to the spirit of the original than some others. After all, these hajiras, or cells, were designed to be slept in, and the restoration hasn’t resulted in major re-design or destruction of character.

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Our hajira

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The rather basic bathroom

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As for our stay here, I found plusses and minuses to this hotel. One obvious plus is the location, just inside the old city walls. There is a stunning entrance gate (see photo above) which, coupled with the adjoining Kalta Minor, makes this a dramatic and a romantic pace to stay. The thick walls of the cells mean they stay relatively cool in the baking heat of summer, without the need for air-conditioning. The downsides back in 2007, however, included rather primitive plumbing, chipped and grubby-looking tiles in the bathroom, and an erratic water supply: we could get almost nothing from our hot tap, though others in our group did better. This latter however was a downside I can live with in temperatures of almost 50 degrees! More of a concern for me was that the beds felt damp, possibly a natural side-effect of those same thick walls, or possibly simply due to poor airing after laundering.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah - architectural details

Anyway, check-in completed it was time for that tour. This was sensibly divided into two segments, with a break during the hottest part of the day for lunch and a siesta – or at least that was the plan!

Kalta Minor

We started our walk right by the hotel, as the Kalta Minor is attached to the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah. The name means ‘short minaret’ but it was not intended to be a short minaret at all, quite the opposite. It is said that it was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to be the tallest in the Islamic world, but that when he found out that the architect had secretly agreed to build an even taller one for the emir of Bukhara, the khan had him killed by being thrown off the minaret and it was never finished.

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The Kalta Minor

Whatever the truth of this legend, the reality is that this is 26 metres of stunning architecture. Its walls are totally covered with amazing tilework in a shade of rich jade typical of the Khivan style but seen much less in other parts of the country, and with bands of other shades that serve merely to make the jade look even more vibrant. As the sun moved around during the day I noticed that the colours shifted, and at night it was wonderfully illuminated.

Khiva’s city walls

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The Western Gate

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Khiva's walls

From the Kalta Minor we headed back to the entrance to the city through which we had come on our arrival an hour or so beforehand, the West Gate or Father Gate, Ota Darvoza. The old city of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is surrounded by ochre-coloured walls of sun-baked clay which form an effective barrier between the present-day world outside and the magical recreation of the past within. These walls change in appearance with the light at different times of day, and look at their best in the early morning or evening, when the clay glows warmly. At times they reminded me of the classic seaside sandcastle!

The walls are 2.2 kilometres in length (so you can see that this old city is not very large), strengthened along that length by forty bastions. They are truly ancient, dating in places from the 5th century. There are four gates, one in the centre of each side; the western gate, Ota Darvoza (meaning Father Gate); the northern, Bakcha Darvoza; the eastern, Palvan Darvoza; and the southern Tash Darvoza (Stone Gate). The first of these, the Ota Darvoza, is where most tourists enter the city, and is the most heavily restored, having been more or less completely rebuilt forty years ago (after having previous been pulled down to allow motor traffic to enter the city, something not now permitted except in a small area to the south of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah).

I found it interesting to go outside this gate – it jolted me back into the modern world from the film set that is Ichan Kala, and reminded me what real life looks like! Outside the walls was also a good place from which to get a sense of their solidity and structure, although I was to get an even better view shortly from the Kukhna Ark (the photo alongside).

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Outside the walls

Near the gate is a huge statue of Al-Khorezmi. If you’ve always hated algebra, here’s the man to blame! Mukhammad ibn Musa Al-Khorezmi lived about 780-850 AD and was the chief mathematician in an academy of sciences in Baghdad, though he came originally from Khorezm province. He is credited with introducing a decimal-based numbering system in the Arab world, and his name, corrupted by western attempts at pronunciation, gave rise to our word ‘algorithm’. He also wrote what is thought to be possibly the first book introducing the notion of algebra, which he called ‘al-jabr’, an Arabic word which I have found variously translated as ‘filling in’, ‘restoration’ or ‘calculation’. He also excelled in astronomy, producing tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time, and geography, reworking Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography and correcting several major miscalculations such as the length of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Statue of Al-Khorezmi

Kukhna Ark

Back inside the gates and a short walk along the main street, Polvon Qori, we came to the impressive Kukhna (also spelled variously as Kunya or Kuhna) Ark or fortress. This was the original residence of the khan, first built on this site in the 12th century by one Ok Shaykh Bobo. It was rebuilt and expanded by Arang Khan in the 17th century, and at the end of the 18th century, Kunya Ark became a ‘city within a city’, separated from Ichan Kala by a high wall. It was restored in the early 19th century.

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Entrance gate, Kukhna Ark

Entering through the old gate with its intricately carved wooden door and twin towers decorated with turquoise tilework, we found ourselves in the main courtyard, with the khan’s summer mosque, and the old mint, now a museum.

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The summer mosque

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Exhibit in the mint, showing how coins were minted

Beyond the first courtyard is another with the beautiful blue iwan of the Kurinish Khana or Throne Room.

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The iwan
- right-hand photo taken by my friend Sue

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Iwan detail

Here the khan would hold his royal audience – on the iwan itself during the summer, and in a yurt set up in the centre of the courtyard in the winter. The decoration of this small space is wonderful, with delicate tilework and ganch (carving in alabaster). Behind the iwan is the room that would originally have housed the throne itself – the one in place today is a replica, as the original is now on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

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The replica throne

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The steep steps

In the north western corner of the Kurinish Khana is the entrance to the Ark’s watch tower. For a small additional fee you can climb its 33 steps for a view of the fortress and the city beyond. My photo at the top of this page was taken here, as was the one Chris took of me with a group of Uzbek tourists which I included on my Uzbekistan introduction page.

Be warned though – these are ‘Khivan’ steps, i.e. very tall and steep, and they are very badly lit, so this isn’t a climb for the infirm or nervous. It is worth doing however, though when we went up in the morning the sun was shining from the wrong direction to get the very best views of the city. We planned to return later, but unfortunately the heat got the better of us before we got around to it, and a rest in our hotel room seemed the better option for our remaining free time this afternoon.

Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

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Window, Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

Opposite the Kukhna Ark we visited the history museum in this large madrassah. Although I found some of the exhibits tired and frankly dull, it was worth a look for the old photos of Khiva and the camera with which they were taken, and some interesting traditional musical instruments. There are also items of pottery, armour and clothing.

Also on this large square is the city’s jail, or Zindan, with a gruesome display of instruments of torture which is supplemented by graphic images showing them in use. The excellent guidebook I read as background to this trip, ‘Uzbekistan: the Golden Road to Samarkand’ (written by Calum MacLeod & Bradley Mayhew, published by Odyssey) describes some of most unpleasant Khivan forms of justice in some detail, quoting from Arminius Vambery’s ‘Travels in Central Asia’ (1864):

‘To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjin according as religion directs. The man is hung and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.’

Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

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Zoroastrian symbol

Walking back along Polvon Qori we turned south roughly halfway along its length and found ourselves on a smaller and less frequented street which lead us past several madrassahs, a number of which were in use as workshops.

We spotted a number of unusually shaped tiles set in the wall of one madrassah, just by the entrance. Our guide pointed out that this is a Zoroastrian symbol; we saw several such reminders of this ancient religion on our travels and were told that its beliefs have had a strong influence on Uzbek architecture.

We were disappointed not to be able to visit the silk- weaving one, which by the time we arrived had closed for lunch, but we were luckier at the Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah, where a wood-carving school operates. The young boys here were using their school holidays to learn a craft and were mainly engaged in carving the traditional wooden Koran stands that you find in all the tourist souvenir shops here. It would be a good place to buy one of these if you’re looking for one, but we focused instead on getting some photos of the boys as they worked, all of whom were very happy to pose.

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Young woodcarvers, Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

Lunch break

After visiting the wood-carving school we were free for a few hours to seek some lunch and a break in the shade. Along with some others from our group we headed to the Chaikhana Zarafshan, in a small madrassah near the Museum of Applied Arts, choosing it because it had been recommended by our guide as having good food and air-conditioning; in the July heat even the shade in Khiva had become too much to bear by midday and we needed to cool down somewhere. We weren’t disappointed – we found an attractive large room, friendly service, tasty food and very reasonable prices. We drank a cold beer each in addition to the green tea, shared a couple of salads, some non (bread) and a single shashlik.

After lunch it was officially siesta time – our tour would resume in a couple of hours when it would be a little less hot. The sensible thing to do would have been to retire to the relative cool of our hajira back at the Hotel Khiva Madrassah, or to remain in this cool spot with another beer. But our time in Khiva was so limited that Chris and I decided to brave the burning sun to have a bit of a look around on our own.

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On Polvan Qori, the main street

It proved to be a hot but rewarding hour. As we wandered through the sun-baked streets and lanes, I enjoyed picking out all the details to add variety and atmosphere to my photos. A carved door, an especially beautiful piece of tile work, a small window letting in a shaft of light – all these helped to paint a vivid picture of this gem of a city. And the tranquillity of the side streets in particular made it seem as if nothing has changed here for centuries.

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Sun-baked street in Khiva

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Carved door

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Hats for sale

Even more so did my images of the people add to the story I hoped my photos would tell. As was the case everywhere we went in Uzbekistan, most were very happy to have their pictures taken – friendly shopkeepers, smiling children and Uzbek families visiting the sights.

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Shop-keeper

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Young tourists happy to pose

In several spots in the old town we saw these ‘photo opportunities’, where tourists could dress up in traditional costume and pose in elaborate settings. It was far too hot though for us to want to put on layers of heavy clothing or thick furry hats, even if we’d wanted to pay for the privilege of looking a bit silly! There was also a place where you could be photographed with a camel (who was called Misha according to my guidebook) but I’m fond of camels and it didn’t seem to me that he was very happy with his lot so I kept away in order not to encourage this practice.

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Khivan photo opportunity (by Chris)

The Juma Mosque

We knew we were going to be visiting Khiva’s old Friday mosque later when our walking tour recommenced, but we had been told by our guide that if we wanted to, we could also visit alone this afternoon, and that if we gave her name at the entrance we could avoid paying an entrance fee as those looking after the mosque would know that our fee has been paid already. This proved to be the case, and I was very grateful for her advice, as it meant that we could soak up the special atmosphere of this unique building when it was almost empty (there was just one other visitor here) before later returning with the group to benefit from the guide’s expert knowledge and interpretation of what we were seeing.

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In the Juma Mosque

I found this a magical space, unlike any other building I saw in Uzbekistan (or have seen anywhere, though others in the group who’d travelled in Turkey said they’d visited similar mosques there). It is almost completely unadorned, apart from the small mihrab (niche) and central pool, but derives its special atmosphere from the forest of wooden pillars that support its roof. I use the word ‘forest’ with care, for that is exactly the sensation I had – of being in a small forest or wood, the light diffused and filtered by the trees, and the possibility of magic just around the corner. What must it have been like to have worshipped here in the days when it was the main Friday mosque of the city? And in fact there are trees, two of them, growing up through the building almost organically, as if it is slowly returning to the nature that provided the wood for all those other stately columns.

Leaving the mosque we went to see if the silk carpet weaving workshop had reopened but it hadn’t although we were able to get some photos in the courtyard outside.

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In the courtyard outside the carpet workshop

At this point the heat defeated us, and we returned to the hotel for a much-needed rest and cold drink.

Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum

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The Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

When our tour resumed later in the afternoon, our first stop was here, the holiest spot in all of Khiva, the tomb of its patron saint known variously as Palvan Pir the wrestler saint, Pirar Vali the Persian poet, Mahmoud the furrier. This hero of local folklore died in 1325, and a small mausoleum was built on the site of his furrier shop which later grew to become the imposing and beautiful structure we can see here today.

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Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum: entrance to the mosque

We entered through a gate on the south side to find ourselves in a smallish courtyard with the main mosque on the far side. We were surrounded by colour – an intense blue that mimics the Khivan sky. We took off our shoes to enter the mosque – unlike many of the decommissioned mosques we visited on our travels in Uzbekistan, this is a holy place. There were several sarcophagi in the first room we came to but the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud is in a separate room, beautifully decorated and protected by a screen.

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The tomb

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In the Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

Another room on the west side of the courtyard was intended to hold the tomb of one of the khans, Isfandyer, but he was assassinated outside the city walls so by local law couldn’t be buried within them. His son suffered a similar fate, so only his mother lies here out of the three for whom it was originally constructed. The room was in a poor state of repair, so we couldn’t enter, but peering in gave me a sense of what the restorers of Khiva (and elsewhere in the country) had rescued for us to appreciate today. I wonder if this room too has since been restored?

From outside the complex, especially from the street that skirts its eastern edge, we could see the large number of small tombs scattered around it. People believed that to be buried close to a holy man was to buried closer to heaven, so many holy sites are surrounded in this way (the Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, which we were to visit a few days later, is another good example).

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The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, surrounded by other tombs

Islam Khodja Minaret & Madrassah

Almost everywhere we went in Khiva we could see the tall slim Islam Khodja minaret, its more subtle bands of colour and elegant shape the perfect foil for the squat and spectacularly coloured Kalta Minor. At nearly 45 metres, and dating from 1910, this is by far the youngest, as well as the tallest, of the city’s three minarets, and affords a wonderful view for those who have the stamina to climb it. I regret to say that, in 45 degrees of heat, I was not among them!

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The Islam Khodja Minaret

The madrassah that bears the same name was home then (it has since moved I believe) to the Museum of Applied Arts, which I found to be the most interesting by far of Khiva’s small museums. The route led us from one small hajira to the next to see a diverse collection of costume (some of them with really stunning embroidery work), ceramics, wood carving etc.

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Mosaics in the Applied Arts Museum

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Colourful shop near the Applied Arts Museum

Juma Mosque: group visit

As expected, our tour took in the Juma Mosque which we had already visited earlier in the afternoon, but I was happy to have the chance to return to this magical space and learn more about it.

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In the Juma Mosque

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Column details

We were told that while the mosque was built in the late 18th century (rebuilding the 10th century one which stood on this site), some of its 213 columns are truly ancient. The four oldest were taken from an earlier building in Kath (the one-time capital of Khorezm) in the 10th century, and another seventeen are only 100 years younger. On the other hand, a few are very new, replacing older ones during the restoration process in the latter half of the 20th century. And in accordance with Islamic beliefs, the carving on each is different – only God should be allowed the perfection of symmetry.

Tash Hauli Palace

Towards the eastern end of the old town lies the Tash Hauli, or Stone, Palace, the final stop on our walk through the past. We entered through the imposing stone gatehouse to visit the impressive reception courtyard, the Ishrat Hauli, its walls covered with beautiful blue and white tile work, and a raised platform at its centre for the yurt that would have sheltered the khan and his royal guests in winter months. This courtyard is apparently now used for occasional musical performances and we saw some of the performers relaxing there and posing for photos.

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In the Ishrat Hauli

To see the even more impressive harem courtyard it was necessary to leave the palace and re-enter on the far side as the secret corridor linking it to the main complex (to be used only by the khan) was currently closed off. This harem court, lying somnolent in the hot sun, is redolent of past intrigue and a very different world. Standing at its centre I tried to imagine what life must have been like for these women: sheltered totally from the world, given all the basic necessities of life apart from one – the freedom to leave. And of course, there only to ‘serve’ the khan. In the oppressive heat of a July afternoon it was easy to feel as they must have done, enclosed and stifled.

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The harem court

The rooms to our right as we entered the courtyard (on its the northern side) are those that would have been occupied by these women (or more likely girls), while the more luxurious ones on the left were for the khan’s four legal wives. There would also have been a couple of servants here to look after the girls: an old woman and a eunuch. We climbed the short flight of stairs to the balcony of the girls’ quarter to get a closer look at the beautifully decorated ceilings of the rooms and a bird’s eye view of the courtyard.

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Colourful ceiling

This was as I said our last visit of the afternoon, and after it we walked back to the hotel to cool off over a soft drink in the courtyard with some others from our group, before getting ready for dinner.

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The 'bar' in the Hotel Khiva Madrassah

Mizorboshi B&B restaurant

There aren’t (or at least weren’t back then) a lot of restaurants in Khiva, but it was possible by booking in advance to arrange to have dinner at one of the several homes in the old city which provided bed & breakfast. Most of our group adopted our guide Marat’s suggestion to do this at the Mizorboshi B&B and we had a very pleasant evening here.

We ate in the courtyard of this old house, still a little hot even at 7.00 pm but generally a relaxing place to sit, and were well served by the son and daughter of the family. We started with non and a good variety of salads – as well as the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber, and eggplant, there were slices of fried courgette and a juicy beetroot dish. These were followed by a plate of mixed stuffed vegetables – cabbage, courgette and green pepper, each filled with the standard mutton and onion mix (though the one vegetarian in our group was catered for with a suitable alternative). As one of our number had a birthday that day, the family provided a cake, complete with candles, for our dessert.

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Table set for dinner

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Stuffed vegetables

We had a rather nice encounter after the meal too. The teenage son who’d served us at dinner came running after us when we left. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home!

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The Kalta Minor at night

We then continued our walk back to the hotel, finding that strolling the streets after dark in an atmosphere so redolent of past wonders was a special pleasure, making our overnight stay here far more rewarding than visiting on a day trip from nearby Urgench, even if it did mean sleeping on slight damp mattresses!

But before that we needed a night-cap, and found one in the 'bar' in the courtyard of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah / hotel which was totally in keeping with the special night-time atmosphere here. There was no menu; instead the choice of drinks was set out on a low wall (soft drinks, beer, wine or vodka - see photo above taken earlier in the day) and were retrieved from the cool of the room below by a willing ‘bar tender’. We sat then in the cool of this pretty courtyard, surrounded by the old stones and cells of the madrassah, with the stars overhead and little in the way of noise or bustle to disturb our tranquillity.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:09 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque restaurant history hotel fort flight palace city museum crafts uzbekistan khiva street_photography Comments (8)

Staying in Silver

New Mexico day one


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Having collected our hire car from the Hertz office at El Paso Airport we drove north along I10 towards the border with New Mexico. And talking of borders, from the road we had a clear view of the one between the USA and Mexico proper off to our left, with a lot of high fences, the Rio Grande beyond, and beyond that the houses of Ciudad Juarez.

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Entering New Mexico

Crossing into New Mexico we swung west past Las Cruces, which we planned to visit on our return to the airport at the end of our trip, still on I10. We stopped briefly in Deming for a coffee and to pick up picnic supplies. I photographed a shiny Harley Davidson bike parked outside the coffee shop – such photos were to become a recurring motif on this trip.

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In a Deming coffee shop, and Harley parked outside

City of Rocks State Park

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City of Rocks panorama

Our first proper stop was at this small but fascinating state park some miles north of Deming. If you like unusual landscapes and photogenic rock formations, this is the place for you. A group of bizarrely-shaped rocks rises from an otherwise fairly featureless plain as if they had been placed here by ancient man, but this is a completely natural construction. The outcrop was formed of volcanic ash 35 million years ago and sculpted by wind and water into these rows and groups of monolithic blocks, which are said to resemble streets of skyscrapers (hence the name, City of Rocks). Apparently the rock formations at the park are so unique that they are only known to exist in six other places in the world – but I haven’t been able to find out what those six places might be.

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At the City of Rocks [our picnic spot on the right]

This was a great place in which to enjoy the food we had bought in Deming, with lots of tables dotted among the rocks. A helpful ranger spotted us setting up for our picnic and recommended that we try a different area on the other side of the formations where the views and light would be better – they were.

Lunch finished we spent some time exploring between the rows of rocks and taking lots of photos. It’s hard to do this place justice, but I hope my panorama gives an idea of the scale.

We also went into the visitor centre where you can see a short video about how the rocks were formed. We thought about doing the nature trail through the cactus garden too, but an approaching storm made us think twice, as we weren’t sure this would be a good place to be if the fork lightening came any closer. Our new friend the helpful ranger pointed out how the rain wasn’t actually hitting the ground – rising heat from the plains turns it to steam before it can do so. This phenomenon is known as virga.

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Storm approaching

Silver City

From the City of Rocks we continued north to Silver City which was to be our base for the night. We had pre-booked accommodation at a B&B, the Inn on Broadway, which seems now to be operating under new owners as Serenity House. It looks as if it would be just as good a place to stay now as we found it to be back then, and it certainly gave us a very well-located base for enjoying all that Silver, as locals call it, had to offer.

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The Inn on Broadway

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The Hummingbird Room

Silver City was formed in the 1870s, after the discovery of silver in and around the town. It quickly became a boom town, and like many in New Mexico can lay claim to an association with the outlaw Billy the Kid. He lived here as in his teens (some accounts say he was born here, but most that he came with his family from New York), had his first job here, committed his first crime here, and reportedly killed his first man here. He was arrested and briefly imprisoned, before moving on to wreak his havoc elsewhere, most notoriously in Lincoln County.

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Colourful street in Silver

Meanwhile the silver boom faded, and with its demise Silver (as the locals call it) faded too. But in recent years the town has undergone a revival. And unlike some carefully ‘restored’ old towns it seems unafraid to mix old and new. It has become common to use cheerful paint colours to restore and revive the old buildings, perhaps influenced by the many artists and hippies who have settled here.

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Cast iron building on W Broadway

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Another splash of colour

Shops on the main street, Bullard, are an idiosyncratic mix of appealing galleries and small-town ‘not really changed since the 1950s’ shops. Residents too seem to be a mix of ageing hippies, relaxed artists working in all genres, university students and lecturers, and assorted drop-outs. We liked Silver a lot!

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Harley Davidson detail

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Bikers outside the Palace Hotel, and another Harley

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Ice cream at Alotta Gelato

When we set off to explore Silver our host at the Inn on Broadway had mentioned that the best ice cream could be had at Alotta Gelato (also now sadly closed down) towards the north end of Bullard. So when we arrived at that end of town we decided to pop in for our first ice cream treat of the holiday. And it was a treat! This unprepossessing place served only ice cream made on the premises and the guy who served us, whom I suspected was also the owner, was very helpful and knowledgeable in describing the flavours and how they are made. It was pretty difficult to choose even though the mid-size cups we selected held enough for three flavours. In the end I opted for lemon sorbet, butter pecan and sour cherry – all were good, but the lemon sorbet in particular was a belter! Chris chose mango, blueberry and chocolate – I had a taste of the latter and it was dark, rich-flavoured and totally excellent.

Refreshed we continued our wander, heading one block east to see Silver’s most idiosyncratic ‘attraction’, a ditch. Yes, really – but not just any ditch! This is the Big Ditch. Until the end of the 19th century it was Silver City’s Main Street. But around that time there was a series of floods, and one result of these was that on the night of July 21st 1895, Main Street collapsed into a muddy chasm. Businesses on its west side ‘turned their backs’ on it and started to use their rear entrances on Bullard Street, which therefore gradually became a replacement main street without ever changing its name accordingly, and the original street was never restored.

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The Big Ditch

Nowadays the chasm has been turned into a pleasant park that runs the length of downtown and provides shade on a hot day. About halfway along, on the west side of the park, you can see Warren House which is the only one still standing intact from the pre-flood days.

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Warren House

Back near the B&B we passed the town’s museum, which is in a nice old Victorian house and is apparently worth a quick visit to see the old photos of the town (especially before the floods that created the Big Ditch). Unfortunately though we spent too long taking photos in the town, and enjoying our ice cream, with the result that we got here just after the rather early 4.30 pm closing time. So we didn’t get to climb up the cupola, which our Moon Handbook said was worth doing, and didn’t get to check out the old maps (I love maps!) and a room furnished in Victorian style.

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The museum

An evening in Silver

For dinner that evening we went to the nearby Jalisco Café at the bottom end of Bullard. Unlike our B&B and the ice cream parlour, this is still in operation it seems. It occupies a row of three or four old shops and looked welcoming with an appealing New Mexican menu. It also seemed very popular with local families and was pretty busy – both good signs, we thought, although as it turned out this was to be a somewhat mixed experience.

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Chris in the Jalisco Café

On entering we found ourselves in the first ‘shop’ in the row, now just an entrance lobby with seating for waiting customers. We were welcomed and shown to a table in the middle section, where most other tables were already occupied. Our server was friendly and explained a couple of dishes on the menu, as well as recommending a good Mexican beer (Dos Equis, which became a staple on our trip).

Our meal started with complimentary chips and salsa. We had barely started on these though when our main courses arrived. Chris had chosen the chicken enchiladas with red chilli sauce – hot and tasty. I’d gone for a slightly riskier choice but it paid off – I really loved the crab tostadas and they would be worthy of a more up-market and pricier restaurant than this. Two crispy shells spread with a thin layer of guacamole and piled high with plenty of crab meat, chopped mango, red onion etc, all drizzled with red chilli sauce – delicious!

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My delicious crab tostadas

But while we were still enjoying these dishes our waitress came over to ask if we wanted dessert. We explained that we wouldn’t know until we had finished our mains, which she accepted, but she was back again the moment we put down our cutlery. Although full, we decided that as it was our first night in New Mexico, and we’d heard so much about sopapillas, we should try one. She willingly brought us one to sample – a large puffy bread with honey to drizzle inside. But she also brought the bill, and it seemed pretty clear to us that we were being encouraged to leave, especially when the now-empty tables around us were cleared and the chairs upturned on some of them.

Please don’t think we were eating late – this was at 8.10 pm (the restaurant apparently closes at 8.30 p m which seems ridiculously early by European standards but is fairly normal in small-town America). So we got the message, paid our bill and left, assuming ourselves to be one of the last to go. Imagine our surprise when we walked past the far section of the restaurant, which had been hidden to our sight inside, to see it with tables full and meals still coming out. We couldn’t help nursing a suspicion that our young waitress had a date that evening and was super-keen to get away early! Well, never mind – we had enjoyed our meal and as the night was young we headed to the nearby Buffalo Bar ...

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In the Buffalo Bar

Our Moon Handbook on New Mexico told us that, ‘Just about everyone in town mixes at the Buffalo Bar’, so we decided to do the same. This is an unpretentious-looking (and unpretentious) bar on the main drag, Bullard, towards its southern end, and still in operation today as far as I can see.

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Beer in the Buffalo Bar

When we first went in and took seats at the bar it was fairly quiet, and it never got exactly busy, but it did liven up and we had a really nice evening here. On the bar maid’s recommendation we drank, and enjoyed, a few bottles of Sierra Blanca from Carrizozo in the middle of the state – a pleasant lager which unfortunately we never saw again on our trip. Some locals came in and started a game of pool, as well as putting some coins into the juke-box – and this was just the right setting in which to enjoy their chosen Tom Petty tracks. When we went over to pay for a few tunes ourselves, as seemed only fair, another local came over and insisted on paying, while asking us what we would like – very friendly. We ended up staying well over an hour, despite being a little tired from our first day’s driving (and being still on English time). Do drop into the Buffalo Bar for a drink if you’re in Silver – I’m sure you’ll get a warm welcome too.

But despite the welcoming atmosphere in the bar, a fairly early night was required as we still had a touch of jet lag, so we walked back to the Inn on Broadway pretty pleased with our first day in New Mexico.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:33 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes streets beer road_trip restaurant history weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (12)

‘Fanta Se’

New Mexico day seven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Adobe house, Santa Fe

We slept well in our cosy casita in Santa Fe and woke eager to explore a town we had read so much about. For Chris today was also an opportunity to take a break from driving, as we left the car parked in our allocated spot and walked everywhere for the day – our choice of a central location was really paying off.

We could (at an extra cost, naturally) have arranged to have breakfast at the B&B owned by the same people as our casita, but chose not to, and we also didn’t want to self-cater, despite having a very serviceable kitchen. Instead we preferred to sample a variety of breakfast places in the vicinity of our little home. On this first morning we tried one that came highly recommended in our Moon Handbook, Café Pasqual’s.

It was very busy and we were fortunate to be able to get a good table straightaway – we observed that others who weren’t so lucky were quite happy to wait some time, such is the reputation of the place. It seemed to be popular not only with tourists but also locals – girl-friends meeting for breakfast, and a couple of local businessmen. I loved the colourful décor, with bright murals and Mexican tiles, and our table on a raised area at one end of the small room gave us a great view of this and of all the activity.

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Blintzes and granola at Café Pasqual’s

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Proper espresso!

We found the breakfast menu to be quite extensive, as befits somewhere famous for its breakfasts. I decided to try something different, the ‘Three House-made Blintzes, Golden from the Skillet, Topped with Strawberry Jam and Sour Cream’. These were good but very filling, with a bit too much cream for that time of day (regular cream, which I left to one side, as well as the sour cream promised by the menu). Chris chose what he expected to be a healthy option, the nutty granola, with yoghurt and berries, but the portion was so huge that it probably wasn’t that healthy after all! He also had a cappuccino and I had a double espresso, really appreciating the availability of strong coffee to kick-start my day.

All this didn’t come cheap however. The cappuccino alone was $5 which was more than we were used to paying in pricey London, and our total bill (with two grapefruit juices as well) was $50 – more than we had paid for the previous night’s dinner! So although we liked the breakfast, and loved the atmosphere, we went elsewhere on the subsequent mornings.

Santa Fe

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Adobe architecture in Santa Fe

Santa Fe has sometimes been nicknamed ‘Fanta Se’, and it’s not hard to see why. The city lives for its art. And I am not referring only to the thousands of people here who are engaged in the arts in some way or another – running a gallery, creating paintings or photos or sculptures, writing or performing etc. No – the city itself seems to have a sense of itself as a work of art. Local regulations control very strictly control the appearance of all buildings in the downtown area, around the Plaza – if it isn’t adobe, it had better at least pretend to be!

But if that sounds critical, it isn’t really intended to be. We had a lovely few days here, enjoying the history, architecture, galleries and surrounding countryside.

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Adobe in Santa Fe

Today our focus was on the historic centre. When we arrived at our accommodation in Santa Fe the owner of the Chapelle Street Casitas had said ‘And yes, there is a law that everything has to be brown!’ The downtown area here preserves a number of old adobe buildings from Spanish colonial times, but at first glance you might be fooled into thinking that all the buildings were old, and all of them adobe. And that’s just what the city planners want you to think. For decades now, all new building in this part of the city has had to conform to the same overall style, although many of the apparently ‘adobe’ buildings that you will see are in fact plaster and stucco, built in the early 20th Century to satisfy this collective vision of what the city ought to look like to appeal to tourists. A city ordinance exists to enforce the on-going homogenisation of the downtown district, requiring that all new buildings, additions and restorations conform to one of two traditional styles:
~ ‘Pueblo Revival’ – a mix of styles based on Native American mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches
~ ‘Territorial’ – a style based on early Anglo modifications of adobe buildings, with additions like wood trim around windows and door openings and decorative friezes on the parapets

Opinion is divided as to the success of this approach to town planning, and I couldn’t make up my own mind either. When we first arrived I was rather struck by the appearance of the streets around the Plaza, with their uniform colour and (mostly) low heights giving them a very characteristic look. But after a while the uniformity can start to look more dull than distinctive. The secret to appreciating these buildings, I realised as we explored, is to stop seeing them as a homogenous whole and look for the details that make certain among them stand out.

San Francisco Cathedral

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San Francisco Cathedral

We started our explorations in the area to the east of the Plaza, at Santa Fe’s cathedral. In the homogenous adobe world of Santa Fe’s downtown area, the Cathedral of San Francisco seemed somewhat incongruous. How did such a European-looking place of worship come to be here? Well, it was, unsurprisingly, due to one particular European, a French priest – Jean Baptiste Lamy. Apparently when he first arrived here in 1851 he was shocked at some of the religious practices, including the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and also horrified by the church buildings, finding it impossible to believe that anyone could reach heaven while praying on a dirt floor inside a building made of mud! So he commissioned this new cathedral for Santa Fe, and all of the old church was demolished, apart from one small side chapel. But it seems that he ran out of money, and the two spires that should have topped the towers either side of the front porch were never added – hence their rather odd stumpy appearance.

Inside it is light and rather lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the ancient adobe would have held more atmosphere and sense of the spiritual? I got some hint of that in the one remaining adobe chapel, on the left of the altar. This houses a small statue, La Conquistadora, brought to Santa Fe from Mexico in 1625. She was carried away by the retreating Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt, but reinstated in 1693, and has been honoured ever since for inspiring the Spanish to stick with their colonising project, and for what was regarded (possibly mistakenly?) her peaceful acceptance by the natives . Whether such colonial ‘smirking’ is appropriate in a church I was not so sure, but the little statue is a marvel indeed.

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La Conquistadora, and dreamcatcher bell

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Crucifix with saints in native clothing

Elsewhere in the cathedral though, the native influence was more apparent, for instance in the clothing of some of the saints portrayed and in the dreamcatcher-like bell that hangs above the lectern. This and many other elements of the decoration and ornamentation are quite modern, such as the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to the right of the altar, the altar screen and the great bronze doors. All of these were added in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. I very much liked these modern touches, which added to the sensation of lightness and airiness.

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The altar screen

In front of the cathedral are a couple of interesting statues. One is naturally of the patron saint, St Francis. The other is more unusual and depicts Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. She was a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquian woman, who converted to Christianity at an early age.

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Statue of St Francis with Contemporary Art Museum behind

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Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha

There is also a statue of Bishop Lamy, but I was perhaps feeling a little irritated by this rather sanctimonious French cleric at this point, as I omitted to photograph him!

Cathedral Park

Next we investigated the small park next to the cathedral. This was established in 1998 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first European, i.e. Spanish, colonisation of New Mexico. There are some lovely trees there and it seemed a quiet, restful spot away from the bustle of the streets. In the centre we came across a monument commemorating the anniversary. The inscription on it reads:

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Monument to the settlers, Cathedral Park

‘The year 1998 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival in New Mexico of about 560 valiant men, women and children to establish one of the earliest permanent European settlements in the United States. Their leader and first governor, Don Juan de Oñate, led this intrepid band north over hundreds of desolate, dangerous miles to the green valleys of northern New Mexico. It was there the colonists established themselves by introducing European crops and the first horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and poultry – thereby establishing European culture and technology in the United States, where they had not previously existed.

With the settlers came the Franciscan priests and brothers who ministered to the colonists and to the native inhabitants of the region. It was this unswerving devotion to their faith and to their families that consoled and inspired those settlers and their descendants to endure and prevail over 400 years of isolation, abandonment, hardship and cultural challenges. It is to those heroic precursors that our community joins in raising this monument to our forefathers’ continuing contributions to the history, culture and values of today’s America. May they serve as an inspiration to all who pass this way.’

The monument includes sculptures of different types of settler – Franciscan monk, a colonial settler family (man, woman and two children), and a Spanish soldier. They surround a column which is topped by a statue of Mary La Conquistadora. At its base are many of the fruits, vegetables, tools, music instruments etc. brought to New Mexico by these colonialists, and it is supported by a cow, a pig, a sheep and a donkey.

The Loretto Chapel

Our next visit was to the much smaller Loretto Chapel. Not content with rebuilding the Cathedral in an architectural style which, he believed, was more fitting for worship, Bishop Lamy also commissioned the small Loretto Chapel a little to the south of it – the first Gothic structure to be built west of the Mississippi. Outside the chapel we saw a tree hung with rosaries, which is interesting in the light of the fact that the chapel was desanctified in 1971 and sold to a private family.

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Rosaries hanging outside the Loretto Chapel

This family have preserved it well, hiring it out for weddings and opening it to the public each day. There is an admission charge of $3 (September 2011 prices) and I though it was well worth paying this small fee for a glimpse inside. The chapel is richly decorated with stained glass windows from France and Stations of the Cross from Italy, but what makes it special is the so-called miraculous spiral staircase that leads to the choir loft. Fashioned beautifully from an apparently extinct species of wood, it twists elegantly upwards with no central pole to support it, resting solely on its base and against the loft, and making over two complete 360-degree turns as it climbs. It is 20 feet high and was constructed without glue or nails, using only square wooden pegs to hold the parts together.

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The miraculous staircase

One story starts with the suggestion that the Sisters of Loretto had been given the funds by Lamy to build their chapel, but that the money ran out before they could build a stair to reach their choir loft. Another version says that the small size of the chapel meant that no carpenter could identify a way to fit a staircase into the space. Both versions go on to tell how the Sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a mysterious carpenter appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. He worked at the staircase for six months, never saying a word, and then left, without taking any payment. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers. Certainly the carpenter was never heard from again, although some historians claim to have tracked him down to Las Cruces, where he met his end in a bar fight. Whatever its origins, the staircase is beautiful, and even the later addition of balustrades and handrails (for safety reasons) cannot detract from the simple grace of its upwards sweep.

San Miguel Mission

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San Miguel Mission

Next we walked a little south of the centre to this adobe mission chapel, which claims to be the oldest church in the United States, having been built between around 1610 to 1626. Whether that claim is true or not, this old building certainly has plenty of character and again I thought it well worth the $1 we were charged for admission. Slightly oddly, you enter through the gift shop, so that it feels rather like a shop with a church tacked on to the back. But once inside you find a little gem. The beautiful wooden altar screen or reredos dates from 1798 and is the oldest of its type in the state. The statue in its centre is of the chapel’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel and was brought here from Mexico in 1709.

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The altar screen

In front of the altar, glass panes in the floor allowed us to peer down at the original foundations of the church and of the Native American structure formerly on this site. At the other end of the little chapel, near the door, is a large bell. This once hung in the bell tower and has an inscription dedicated to San Jose and dating it to 1356.

There are several picturesque old houses in the area immediately around the chapel, one of which the oldest house in the city and also claims to be the oldest in the US, supposedly built around 1646 (a claim I was unsure whether or not to believe). Near this is another house with stunning turquoise wooden window frames and shutters.

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The oldest house in the US?

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A vision in turquoise!

By now it was lunch time so we wandered back towards the centre in search of refreshment.

The Shed

A friend who lived in the Santa Fe area for a while had recommended this restaurant, so although we usually choose somewhere more casual for lunch we decided to give it a try for our first lunch in the city – what a great decision! We loved it here – food, setting and ambience.

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At lunch in the Shed

The restaurant is located in an old hacienda (dating back to 1692) and spread over nine rooms, as well as a small courtyard at the front. The décor is bright and cheerful, with lots of interesting paintings and other traditional crafts.

They don’t appear to take reservations for lunch and when we arrived we were told there would be a 15 minute wait. We were given a pager and took a seat in the courtyard to wait but in fact were called to a table inside after about 10 minutes (we would have waited longer if we’d wanted an outside one I think). As we were looking for something light, we were pleased to find plenty of choices. I had the gazpacho which was refreshing and tasty, and Chris chose a ‘small’ salad (that is, smaller than the ‘big’ version of the same!) of chicken, blue cheese, walnuts and salad leaves.

While we were eating our lunch a lady stopped by our table to look more closely at the painting behind it and we got talking. She explained that she was from Guatemala (where we had been just last year) and recognised the style of the painting as Guatemalan, so was trying to make out the artist’s signature – sadly neither she nor we could do so.

On leaving we asked about reservations for dinner the next day but could only get a table at 8.30 pm (or 5.30pm, but that was rather too early for us). Although we normally eat a bit earlier that that we accepted, as we were very keen to return and sample more from their extensive menu. And we were very pleased that we had – but that’s a story for a future entry!

The Plaza

We had already passed through the Plaza earlier in the day, on our way to the cathedral, but after lunch we returned for a better look around. The Plaza originally marked the end of El Camino Real (the Spanish Royal Road from Mexico City) and the Santa Fe Trail, an important trade route. In those days it would have been surrounded by a large defensive wall that enclosed residences, barracks, a chapel, a prison and the Governor's Palace. Of these just the Governor’s Palace, on the north side, remains, and where there were once barracks and defences today you find restaurants and shops.

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In the Plaza

In the centre of the Plaza is the Indian War Memorial, which was dedicated in 1867 to those who died in ‘battles with…Indians in the territory of New Mexico’. As this inscription suggests, the monument was erected during times of conflict between colonists and natives, and the space between ‘with’ and ‘Indians’ originally carried the word ‘savage’. This has been removed in these more enlightened times, although the monument itself still seems something of an anachronism.

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The Indian War Memorial, with local and his dog

The Plaza is nicely laid out with lawns, trees and plenty of benches where you can relax and watch the world go by – an activity which locals seem to enjoy here as much as do visitors.

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Native jewellery seller

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Artist selling his paintings

Palace of the Governors

The Palace of the Governors, lies on the north side of the Plaza – a single-storey adobe building running the full length of the block. It was built in 1610 as Santa Fe’s original capitol building, and claims to be the oldest U.S. public building still in continuous use. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure in 1999.

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The Palace of the Governors

Inside is a museum which tells the story of Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Collections cover the Spanish colonial (1540-1821), Mexican (1821-1846), U.S. Territorial (1846-1912) and statehood (1912-present) periods of history. We only had limited time to look round (doing our usual trick of trying to pack too much into one day, while also wanting to chill and enjoy our surroundings!) But even with limited time it was worth making the effort to go in – for me, not so much for the collections, good though they are, but for the chance to see inside this old building. I also liked seeing the period rooms which offer a glimpse of how life would have been in the past for residents of Santa Fe.

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The lady who made and
sold me my necklace

Along the portico of the Palace of the Governors, and on the north side of the Plaza opposite, Native Americans take up their places each day to sell jewellery and other traditional crafts. This is an eighty year old tradition, nowadays operated through the ‘Native American Artisans Program of the Palace of the Governors’. There are around 1,000 vendors who are licensed to sell here after going through a strict application process to assess the quality of their work. The goods displayed and sold by participants in the scheme must be made by the seller or by their household members. Every morning the 63 spots available, each 12 bricks wide, are allocated by lottery, so you can never be sure who you will find here or what they will be selling. But it’s a great opportunity to buy directly from the creator and as they all seem happy to talk about their work you will also find out a bit about the piece you are buying.

I looked at a number of items. One man was selling silver necklaces with representations of the different sacred animals, such as Bear and Wolf, and explained the meaning of each to me. But in the end I opted for turquoise, choosing a pretty silver necklace threaded with small stones which the seller told me came from Arizona, where she and her sister lived and made the jewellery. Sadly that necklace was one of the items taken when we were burgled a couple of years ago, so I'm glad I at least have this photo of the seller by which to remember my purchase.

Andrew Smith Gallery

We visited quite a few galleries during our stay in Santa Fe (most of them on our final day here), although only a fraction of the total number – I read that ‘Art galleries’ take up five pages in the local Yellow Pages directory, and ‘Artists’ have their own separate heading, with subheadings for painters, sculptors, etc. Perhaps our favourite gallery of all was the one we visited first, the Andrew Smith Gallery, which specialises in ‘Masterpieces of Photography’. It was a real thrill to see some of their wonderful images by such famous photographers as Ansel Adams, Annie Liebowitz, Edward Weston, Alfred Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson and more, as well as to discover some that we didn’t know.

Although this is a commercial gallery and all the photos are for sale, we didn’t feel pressurised into buying and I got the impression that they are as happy to welcome enthusiastic sightseers as serious collectors.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

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Outside the O'Keeffe Museum

We had passed what is probably the best known of Santa Fe’s many galleries, large and small, earlier in the day, as it was just round the corner from our little casita in Chapelle Street. We didn’t know a lot about O’Keeffe before coming to Santa Fe, but we were keen to find out more. We had been warned by our Moon Handbook that the museum had perhaps fewer of her works than might have been expected in one dedicated entirely to this single artist – unfortunately by the time it opened in the late 1990s many of her pieces were already in collections elsewhere. But as the guidebook explained, this had been partly rectified in 2005 when the museum received the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, so lovers of her work, or the curious such as ourselves, should at least find it worth a visit.

The gallery is modern and light, with six of its rooms now given over to the O’Keeffe collection. Of these I liked best the large flower pictures, such as white jimson weed, for which she is perhaps best known, and the landscapes painted in the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe, evocative of her love for this red sandstone country. I also liked the way the exhibition was curated, with some fascinating quotes from O’Keeffe painted on the walls alongside the paintings.

No photography was allowed inside, but I note from the website that this policy has now been changed and photos are actively encouraged – a sign, no doubt, of the increasing importance of social media in spreading the word about places to visit:
‘The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum allows non-flash photography in most areas. Feel free to photograph friends and family and your favorite works of art. Please note that photography is allowed only for personal, noncommercial use, with the following restrictions: no tripods, no flash photography, no selfie sticks, no drones. Some artworks have a no photography sign, we ask that you please honor this.’

The remaining rooms are devoted to temporary exhibitions featuring O’Keeffe’s contemporaries or artists influenced by her. At the time of our visit this meant a travelling exhibition called ‘From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri & Ireland’. I didn’t previously know the work of Robert Henri, and sadly after seeing this exhibition I was not inspired to do so! Apparently he is regarded as ‘the leader of the urban realists group known as the Ashcan School,’ but the portraits of (mainly) Irish children were not really my thing I’m afraid. Nevertheless I was really pleased to have seen the works by O’Keeffe and that was, after all, the purpose of our visit.

On our way out we visited the inevitable gift shop, which was in fact one of the better examples of a museum shop that I have seen – relatively compact with high quality (and consequently expensive) items. I was tempted by some rather pricey silk scarves screen-printed with O’Keeffe’s flowers but managed to resist. We did however buy ourselves a small print – not one of her works but a good reproduction of an Ansel Adams photo of aspens which reminded us of our drives around the state. It now hangs in our lounge, a permanent reminder of this fantastic road trip.

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Chris on our front porch

We spent the last part of the afternoon relaxing on the small terrace of our casita, enjoying our little ‘home’ in the city.

Coyote Rooftop Cantina

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Sunset over Santa Fe

The Coyote Café is one of the more upmarket places to eat in Santa Fe, and looked rather more formal than we usually opt for when on holiday – the sort of place you’d celebrate a birthday or anniversary maybe, but not for casual ‘any night of the week’ dining. But adjacent to it, and under the same management, is a rooftop bar and more informal eatery, the Rooftop Cantina, which looked more like what we had in mind for this evening.

We didn’t have a reservation but it wasn’t too busy so we decided to start by having just a drink while seated at the area put aside for drinking only, the table around the edge of the terrace. Perched here you have a great view of the street below, and, if you time it right (we did), of the sun setting at the end of the road. But my attention was regularly diverted away from the sun’s orange glow by the possibly lovelier glow emanating from my excellent margarita, which proved to be possibly the best of the entire trip – the ‘Norteño Margarita’, which they make with a tequila infused with green chilli. Fantastic!

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Margarita at sunset

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Fire-grilled salmon

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Wall decoration

We then moved to one of the lower tables more suited for dining. I decided to have a change from the tortilla-based dishes I’d been eating, so chose the salmon served with polenta and hot chilli sauce: ‘Fire Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Crunchy Fried Polenta, Bird Chile Sambal Sauce, Organic Lettuces & Pepinos’. Chris had the Kobe burger: ‘American Snake River Kobe Beef Burger with Manchego Cheese, Crispy Fried Vidalia Onion, Greens, House made Beer Pickles, Tomato & Cilantro Mayonnaise, Sweet Habanero Tomato Ketchup & Boardwalk Fries’. Both dishes went down very well indeed, although mine was a little on the small side – I compensated by pinching a few of the French fries that came with Chris’s burger! We shared a dessert, a ‘trio of sorbets’, and although the bill was higher than we paid elsewhere on this trip, it did include our pre-dinner drinks, including that wonderful margarita! We felt the quality justified the slightly higher prices, and with more time in Santa Fe we would definitely have come back here again.

After dinner we went back to the El Paseo Bar where we had drunk last night. This time there was no live music, and we enjoyed it rather more. The bartender poured a generous Jack Daniels, the non-live music was much more to our taste than the live had been, and there was a friendly, buzzy atmosphere without it being too busy.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:18 Archived in USA Tagged churches art buildings architecture road_trip monument history statue square restaurants houses museum cathedral new_mexico street_photography Comments (7)

Big sky country

New Mexico day thirteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Farewell to Cimarron

Breakfast at the St James Hotel was disappointing after the previous evening’s good dinner – a buffet with weak coffee, over-chilled fruit salad, over-cooked eggs, but partly relieved by good crispy bacon and hot salsa. But on the whole we had loved our stay here and were pleased we’d come a little off the beaten path to include it on our itinerary.

Having been defeated by the rain the previous afternoon, which made it hard to take photos, we took some time this morning to do a little more exploration of old Cimarron. We had a short stroll down the lane opposite the hotel which took us past the Colfax County Courthouse, which dates back to 1872 when Cimarron became the county seat (taking over that role from already declining Elizabethtown). The town only retained that role for ten years, so this building too has seen a number of uses – drafting office, school, residence and now Masonic Lodge, although interestingly the relatively new sign on its wall would indicate that some trials are still held here.

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Old Grist Mill, and courthouse parking sign

Carrying on along the lane we came to the old mill, known as the Aztec Grist Mill although our walking tour leaflet gave no explanation for that name. It was built in 1860 to provide wheat and corn flour for local residents and soldiers. In 1861, 1500 members of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes were moved on to reservation land here and the Indian Agency previously located in Taos moved to Cimarron. The mill was put into service dispensing blankets, meat, flour, grain and other rations to Indians and local citizens. By 1864 it was producing 44 barrels of flour a day. The leaflet went on to explain:

‘However, the 1867 gold rush on Baldy led to a large influx of people and the treatment of Indians suffered. Maxwell's sale of the Grant to an English company in 1870 further aggravated the problem. Troubles came to a head in 1875 when a small skirmish occurred between the Indian Agent and a band of rowdy Indians. Shots were exchanged as agency employees quickly ducked inside the Mill. The Indian Agent and several Indians were wounded and the one Indian arrested was later killed in a scuffle in the town jail. Government troops quickly defused the situation but in 1876 the Cimarron agency was closed and the Indians moved onto reservations in northwestern New Mexico and Colorado.’

You can visit the mill to see inside and learn about its workings – but only from May to September, so we were just too late in the year to be able to do so.

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The Immaculate Conception Church

Further down the lane is the Immaculate Conception Church, which was built in 1864 as a gift to the community from Lucien and Luz Maxwell in memory of their deceased children. It was enlarged in 1909 and a new bell and bell tower added the following year. We didn’t go into the church however, as by this time the morning was wearing on and we had a long drive planned for that day. It was time to leave Cimarron ...

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On Highway 64

One of the things I love most about the US Southwest are the wide open spaces and the huge blue (mostly) skies that arch above them. The landscape to the east of Cimarron epitomises this kind of landscape and was a joy to drive through. When we headed north-east from town on the morning after our stay we drove for miles on Highway 64, rarely passing another car. To some this landscape might appear flat and featureless, but we love it, and we had to stop a couple of times just to take it all in, and to take the inevitable photos. A few wispy clouds added interest to our images, as did the distant mountains to the south and east. If you too love ‘Big Sky Country’, this north-east corner of New Mexico makes for a great contrast to the rest of the state and is well worth the detour to get here, especially as relatively few other travellers make the effort to do so.

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Big sky country

We reach I25 a few miles south of Raton. And south was our intended ultimate direction of travel for today, but first we had a detour to make, so instead we turned north on the Interstate and then east again on Highway 87. We had a volcano to visit.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

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Distant view of Capulin

North eastern New Mexico is relatively flat compared with much of the rest of the state – indeed, here you are on the edge of the Great Plains. So the scattering of volcanic mountains across the landscape here is all the more striking. If you approach Capulin from the south west, as we did, you will have descended from the New Mexican Rockies onto this flat plain, thinking maybe that you have left mountain grandeur behind you. Then on the horizon a number of hazy conical shapes appear, of which the most classically volcanic in outline is Capulin itself.

Capulin is an extinct cinder cone volcano, and if you were asked to draw a volcano, this is the exact shape you would probably draw – a perfect cone with an indentation at the top. It rises abruptly from the surrounding grasslands to a height of 8,182 feet above sea level. The rim of the crater is about a mile in circumference and the crater itself about 400 feet deep. Scattered over the plain at its feet are the signs of its past activity, with the dark scars of its lava flows interrupting the soft greens of the grassy plains.

There is a two mile road up to the top. The National Parks Service leaflet which we were given on paying our entrance fee warned about the challenging nature of the drive to the summit, and our Moon Handbook said that this was ‘only for steely drivers’. Well, maybe this has something to do with the different nature of driving on the largely straight, open roads of the US, in contrast to the winding country lanes that English drivers often have to negotiate, but we just didn’t get that ‘steely drivers’ thing! OK, you have to be a bit careful – stick to the posted speed limit, don’t stop other than in designated pull-outs, and of course keep your eyes on the road (Chris as driver had to wait until we reached the top before admiring the scenery!). But it’s all pretty much common sense, it would be a shame if the warnings put anyone off driving up and missing out on these fantastic views.

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View from parking lot at the top of the drive

Relatively few visitors to the state come here it seems; there were only two other cars in the parking lot at the top and we met only a handful of other people on the rim trail. But they should! I found this a scenic counter-balance to the busier parts of the state which gave us a strong sense of the wide open spaces that still occupy vast swathes of the United States. On a clear day (and there are plenty of those in New Mexico) you can apparently see about 8,000 square miles of volcanic field from here, and beyond to the west lie the Rockies. Today, with a little haze, we couldn’t see quite as far but it was still an amazing view!

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Views from Capulin Volcano Rim Trai

There are a number of trails of varying difficulty that you can do at Capulin. We chose the Rim Trail, described as moderately difficult due to its steep climbs and descents. This is approximately a mile long and as the name suggests follows the rim of the crater itself. It is paved, but does indeed climb and dip quite a bit, including a few steps in places, so it isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs, and you need to be fairly able-bodied. The altitude also makes it a little harder going perhaps, but anyone of reasonable fitness will cope fine with this walk, and the views amply repay any effort required.

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The crater's rim

Along the path a series of information boards explain the geology of the surrounding Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, as well as some of the wildlife (flora and fauna) that can be found here. Unfortunately a couple of these signs were a little worn so we couldn’t take in all the facts, but we learned a fair bit from them nevertheless.

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The lava field at the foot of the volcano

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On the Rim Trail

Returning to I25 we headed south, on one of the longest legs of this road trip, and also the longest stretch of interstate driving that we had planned. Our usual preference is for the slower roads, with more stopping opportunities, but this was not only the only logical route through this part of the state but also enabled us to cover a bit more ground to reach our destination for the night. But we nevertheless took the chance to stop off at one sight en route.

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Driving south on I25

Fort Union

Fort Union lies about twenty miles north of the town where we were to spend the night, Las Vegas (the New Mexico town of that name, not the more famous one in Nevada!), and was closely linked to the development and prosperity of the town. Built to protect travellers on the Santa Fe Trail from Indian raids, it also served as a major supply depot for Union troops during the Civil War.

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Fort Union

The first fort here was built in 1851 from wood, and a second ten years later – a massive earth fortification. The present ruins are of the third fort, built in 1862 of adobe brick on top of stone foundations. It would have been an impressive structure that greeted travellers on the Santa Fe Trail, but when the Trail was replaced by the coming of the railroad, trade declined and the need for the fort with it. Fort Union closed in 1891 and was abandoned. The buildings gradually fell into ruin, until it was established as a National Monument in 1956 and efforts started to preserve what remained.

When we visited the place was almost deserted and perhaps no wonder – there was a cold wind blowing across the plains and it was spitting with rain. Determined to see at least a bit of what had brought us here we paid the $3 per person entry and had a look around the displays in the Visitor Centre. These include displays on what life was life for soldiers and civilians stationed at the fort, and a number of artefacts from when it was at the height of its activity.

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Replica covered wagon

Outside you can do a 1.6 mile self-guided interpretive trail or a shorter .5 mile one. We set off on the latter but in the end opted for just a quick look at a few things that especially caught our eye and were in the immediate vicinity – a replica covered wagon, the ruined hospital looking stark against the threatening sky, the traces of the old wagon ruts still visible in the grassland.

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Hospital ruins, and replica tents

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Wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail

One thing the bleak weather did give us was a strong appreciation of how life must have been for those stationed here. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving – extremes of temperature (which according to the park website can vary within 50 degrees Fahrenheit within a 24-hour period), summer storms and winter blizzards.

Las Vegas

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Bridge Street, Las Vegas

Leaving the chill of Fort Union behind us we continued to Las Vegas. When I first planned our route through New Mexico a friend who had lived in the area (the one who recommended the excellent Shed restaurant in Santa Fe) had questioned my inclusion of this town, which is nothing like its more famous namesake in Nevada. In her view it had no real sights to offer and was rather too seedy and run-down to be worth a visit. I ignored her however, and was right to do so!

Unlike its glitzy namesake this Las Vegas is an appealing mix of slightly down-at-heel with trying-hard-to-revive. We loved the photogenic old buildings of the Historic Bridge Street District, and the sleepy Plaza.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas

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The Plaza Hotel

But our first action on arriving was to check into our pre-booked accommodation in the grand old Plaza Hotel. If like us you prefer to stay near the centre of any town you visit, able to walk to the restaurants and bars, there is really only one choice in Las Vegas NM, and that is the historic Plaza Hotel. It dominates the north-west corner of the town’s large plaza, and its sensitively restored Victorian public spaces and rooms are a delight to visit – the more so because the less fashionable nature of Las Vegas as a destination makes them very affordable when compared to pricey Santa Fe or Taos.

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In the hotel lobby

The main hotel building was built and opened in 1882. For a while it was the place to stay, but soon after it was built the focus of the town moved a mile to the west, away from the original Spanish colonial plaza to the area around the new railway station. Eventually the hotel declined, as did the large store next door, Charles Ilfield’s ‘Great Emporium’, which at one point was the biggest department store in the Southwest,. The hotel was restored in 1882, and in 2009 the owners bought up the neighbouring emporium and converted it too into part of the hotel, linked internally. Our room was in this part, but the sympathetic conversion made it hard to see the difference apart from the change in floor levels of the corridor as you move between one part and the other.

But we didn’t linger in the room, keen to get out and see a bit of the town in what remained of the afternoon, starting in the Plaza.

Exploring Las Vegas

After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation, but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.

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Adobe building on the Plaza

The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here, and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores, or even totally demolished and shops built in their place. The area became the lively hub of the city, and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States (sorry, no photo – I didn’t take one when we first set out on our explorations, and it was raining too hard by the time we came back to the park after our walk and a coffee!)

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Another view of the Plaza Hotel

When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater, but still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. But when the main railroad line was diverted south of here both parts of the city suffered, and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.

In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence, and here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. But there are several other buildings of note around the perimeter, with a few still retaining the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.

From the Plaza we walked east along Bridge Street. When the ‘new’ East Las Vegas, triggered by the coming of the railroad, sprung up a mile to the east of the Plaza, it and West Las Vegas remained two separate towns until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them, now filled by Bridge Street and its offshoots, was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.

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Italianate building on Bridge Street

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On Bridge Street

The whole area has now been declared an Historic District by the city council, and over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886) and the ‘World’s Fair Classic’ style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show – a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.

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Street photography on Bridge Street

But we looked in vain for a good cup of coffee on Bridge Street – a woman in the only café that was open told us that their espresso machine was broken. So we were very happy on returning to the Plaza to find that Tapetes de Luna, a weaving and textile arts co-operative on its north-east corner, had a coffee bar where we got an excellent mocha, and also enjoyed browsing the crafts on sale and seeing the old looms in use there.

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Tapetes de Lana

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Coffee table, Tapetes de Lana

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Loom in Tapetes de Luna

Unfortunately this establishment seems to have since closed down, although the Travellers’ Café which has replaced it looks equally welcoming.
Reflecting the city’s sudden boom many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in the preservation of these unique historic buildings as there were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.

After our coffee we had a quick look inside a couple of the other places on the Plaza. On its north side we especially enjoyed the works on display at Zocalo Gallery (212 Plaza), another co-operative but this time featuring painters, potters, jewellery makers and more – and this one appears still to be in the same spot and thriving (see http://elzocalogallery.com/).

By now though the rain we had first encountered at Fort Union had returned, so we went back to the hotel to relax in our cosy room and take advantage of the free wifi there.

Landmark Grill at the Plaza

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Chris with his chicken enchiladas
(red chilli)

We had planned to try one of the local Mexican restaurants in downtown Las Vegas that were recommended in our Moon Handbook, but that evening there was heavy rain and we decided to eat in the Plaza Hotel’s Landmark Grill instead (nowadays known as the Range Café). From the name we feared it might be a bit posh and expensive, but it proved to be excellent value and very welcoming. We were glad to have ended up eating there. And from the snatches of conversation overheard at other tables, and the mix of customers (young couples, local families, older travellers), it was clear that for lots of people the Landmark Grill was a favourite place to eat in Las Vegas.

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My chicken enchiladas
(green chilli)

Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of complimentary bread with oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping, which I always love. Although clearly inexperienced and young (so young that he was not allowed to serve us our beers but had to ask the senior waitress to take our drinks order instead!), he made a real effort to ensure we enjoyed our meal.

From the varied menu we both chose chicken enchiladas – I with green chilli and Chris with red. We also shared a house salad, which had a nice mix of leaves and a good blue cheese dressing.

Byron T's Saloon

After our tasty meal in the Landmark Grill we decided to check out the bar across the lobby, Byron T’s Saloon. This is named after a former owner of the hotel, and former town mayor, Byron T Mills, who it is claimed still haunts the hotel – or rather, one of its rooms, 301.

We were quite surprised to find that this is much more of a local bar than we would expect a hotel one to be, and all the better for it. Whereas in our hotel in Grants we had found ourselves to be the only drinkers in the bar (!), here we found a buzzing lively atmosphere that was much more to our liking.

We secured seats at one end of the bar, and ordered our drinks – a very good margarita for me, and a bottle of Dos Equis for Chris. The drinkers around us were clearly locals, and were enjoying ribbing the barmaid, who was giving as good as she got. We got talking to the guy sitting next to us at the bar, who then introduced us to a couple of his drinking companions, including his son who was (unusually for an American) a big rugby fan. We spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting to them, and naturally ordered a second round of drinks. I think the barmaid’s hand slipped while mixing my margarita as it was even stronger than the first, and I have to confess to a bit of a hangover the next morning – but well worth it for such a fun evening! Unfortunately though, the friendly conversation, or possibly the alcohol, seem to have diverted me from my usual habit of taking photos of absolutely everything for Virtual Tourist, so I have none of the bar at all!

Posted by ToonSarah 09:31 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture road_trip restaurant volcanoes history hotel weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (6)

Viva Cuenca!

Ecuador day eight


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cuenca

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The "new" cathedral

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has it all – lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, and some of the best restaurants in the country. The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderón, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching.

We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. The city was in party mood and the various celebrations added to our enjoyment of it.

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Taking off from Quito

We came to Cuenca by air (with Ecuadorean airline TAME) from Quito where we had been spending the first part of our Ecuador trip. The flight left pretty early in the morning so we had to be at the airport by around 6.15 but already it was really busy, with a long queue at the TAME desk for the several flights leaving that morning. I was even a bit concerned that we could miss ours, as they were not prioritising those with the earliest flights, but I soon saw that the staff were really efficient and the queue moving quickly.

The flight was also quick at just forty minutes, and was mainly full of local businessmen, who must commute regularly between the two cities and many of whom seemed to know each other as lots of friendly greetings were thrown around on boarding. Flying south from Quito the route at first follows the line of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and great views are to be had on either side. I was lucky enough to be on the left-hand side from where Cotopaxi could be seen, although unfortunately didn’t have a window seat. The man next to me however kindly let me lean over to take some photos of the majestic volcano poking up through the clouds. He even offered to swap seats (presumably he makes the journey very regularly) but I declined the offer as it was such a short flight and I didn’t like to put him to the bother. Besides, I had already seen the views and taken my photos, thanks to his obliging nature.

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Cotopaxi from the air

We were soon landing in Cuenca, where the weather was bright and warmer than Quito, being a little lower at 2,500 metres above sea level. Our pre-booked transfer meant that we were soon being driven through the city to our hotel on the edge of the colonial area. Our eagerly anticipated visit to Cuenca could begin!

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Hotel Victoria

When we arrived at the Hotel Victoria it was only 9.00 am, so we weren’t able to check in but could only register and leave our bags. Our first impressions were favourable – the lobby was attractive and the hotel well located on the southern edge of the colonial part of the city. We went off to explore confident that we had made a good choice.

The Coffee Tree

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Our first priority though was breakfast, and in particular, coffee. The first likely place we saw was this European-style café on a street corner just a few metres from our hotel. It was a bright sunny morning, warmer than we had been having in Quito, and the pavement tables and chairs looked very inviting. We managed to secure one of these spots and were soon checking the menu for breakfast options.

Chris decided to try a local dish that our transfer driver, Claudia, had mentioned – bolon. This is a ball of mashed plantain shaped around a cheesy filling and fried, here served with a cappuccino as a breakfast. I stuck to the more conventional muesli, which in fact was granola served with fresh fruit (pineapple, strawberry, kiwi and melon), yoghurt and honey (a very large portion and delicious) and also had a much-needed double espresso.

La Merced

Once we had enjoyed a good breakfast we were ready to start our sightseeing in Cuenca. Right next door to the café was the church of La Merced, so this was as good a place to start as any!

The church is an attractive one, set back a little from the road on a small semi-circular plaza. An inscription above the door reads “Ave Maria, Redemptrix Captivorum” – Hail Mary, saviour of captives. The door itself is beautifully carved – I loved the slightly grumpy lion on one panel in particular.

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La Merced

This church was built here in response to a request by the people of Cuenca, following the construction of the church of the same name in Quito. I was surprised when we entered to find that photography was allowed as in Quito the first sight that greeted us on entering many of the churches was one forbidding the use of any camera. So I was happy to be able to take some photos (without flash, naturally) as we looked around. I was especially taken by some excellent examples of the local tendency towards the gory in any representations of biblical events, which is often attributed to indigenous artists finding in their art an opportunity to draw attention to the blood spilt in the Spanish conquest of their lands.

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In La Merced

I read only after our visit of the painting here of the Sleeping Virgin, a representation of a miracle said to have occurred near Baños where it is believed her image appeared carved in a rock, so we didn’t seek that out. I also read too late that it holds the tomb of Julio Matovelle, local poet and priest, who founded the Congregación de Padres Oblatos and is best known for promoting the construction of the Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito, which we had visited a few days before with friends Betty and Marcello.

After our visit to the church we made our way through some of the streets of the old colonial town towards the plaza that lies at its heart, the Parque Calderón. The colonial heart of the city is of course only a small part of the whole, but it is where we, like most tourists, spent the majority of our time. It has retained much of its character and sense of history, arguably more so even than Quito, although like the country’s capital it is very much a working city rather than museum piece. Many streets are cobbled, adding to the sense of the past as you explore. A few ugly 20th century buildings mar the whole, but for the most part you both sense and see the history around you.

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Colourful doors, a Cuenca trademark

The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and its population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era, reaching the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence when it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the emerging republic, alongside Guayaquil and Quito. But its history goes back much further. It was originally settled by the indigenous Cañari around 500 AD and was called by them Guapondeleg – the “land as big as heaven.” It had been conquered by the Incas less than half a century before the Spanish conquistadors landed, and renamed Tomebamba (the name still held by its river). Soon after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a new grand city to be known as Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma”. The magnificence of this new city was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived however, there remained only ruins, although the indigenous people told stories of golden temples and other such wonders. To this day, it is unclear what happened to the fabled splendour and riches of the second Inca capital.

Parque Calderón

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Parque Calderón

At the heart of Cuenca, as with all Spanish colonial towns and cities, is its grand plaza, here called Parque Calderón after Abdón Calderón whose statue stands in the centre. Calderón was born in Cuenca in 1804 and became a hero of Ecuador’s fight for independence when only young. His death in the Battle of Pichincha at age just 18 ensured his conversion from hero to legend. According to accounts of the battle he stood immovable in the line of fire even after receiving 14 bullet wounds, and ensured that his battalion held firm. He died of his wounds and of dysentery five days later in Quito. His story is still told to young children in Ecuador and his statue here, which depicts the wounded hero holding firm to the flag of independence, was a focus for the city’s celebrations of its own independence day on the weekend of our visit.

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Monument to Abdón Calderón

Around the square are several of Cuenca’s most notable buildings including the cathedral, and the old cathedral which stand respectively in its south west and south east corners. Other less eminent but equally historic buildings add to the overall impression. The square is a focus for both tourists and locals and has plenty of benches and shady corners where you can relax and take a break from sightseeing which indulging in some quality people-watching.

Viva Cuenca!

As we were here on a holiday weekend the Parque Calderón was especially lively, with a variety of entertainments laid on for the local families who had flocked here to join the celebrations – stilt walkers, musicians, photographers with props (you could have your photo taken as a cowboy sitting on a model pony, for instance) and people selling all sorts of food and drink as well as cheap toys.

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Stilt walker and musician

But why the celebrations? On 2nd November each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, celebrates the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), and a day later on the 3rd it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The two events form one merged celebration, Viva Cuenca!, and when, as in 2012, they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood. We arrived here on Thursday 1st to find the Parque Calderón full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history, but when we picked up a leaflet called “Viva Cuenca!” later in the day, all became clear.

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Floats in the parade

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Locals watching the parade

We hadn’t planned it, but we were lucky to be in the city at this special time and to be able to join in some of the fun. Later in the weekend we were to come across other elements of the celebrations – traditional dancing, live music – all adding to our impressions of a colourful and welcoming city.

Raymipampa

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Light fitting

By now we were in need of more refreshment and luckily help was close at hand! We were slightly wary that a restaurant situated in this prime location on the west side of Parque Calderón, right next to the cathedral, might be a tourist rip-off, but Raymipampa was anything but! We found it busy and bustling with a really mixed clientele – local families enjoying a meal together while attending the holiday weekend festivities, young women in town on a shopping spree, tourists of all ages, and even a group of young men and women in army uniform who had I think been taking part in the parade.

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In Raymipampa

The décor here is eclectic and in places eye-catching – in how many restaurants are pieces of old cutlery and broken crockery used to make light-fittings?! More conventionally, there are some interesting historic photos of Cuenca on the walls, and the building itself is old and full of character.

On this occasion (we were to visit again later in the weekend) we were just looking for a cold drink, having been standing in the sun watching a procession wind its way round the Parque Calderón. There were lots of fruit juices to choose from, and I opted for pineapple while Chris had passionfruit – both really refreshing. We had been given a table by the window so could watch the holiday crowds outside as we drank, and despite the fact that it was very busy and we weren’t eating a meal, we didn’t feel hurried but could relax and enjoy our drinks.

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

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Refreshed, we continued our sightseeing. The west side of the Parque Calderón is dominated by the city’s “new” cathedral. This was built when the older cathedral (which still stands opposite but is no longer consecrated) became too small to hold the city’s entire population. Its distinctive blue domes have become a symbol of the city. You see them everywhere – on tourist publicity leaflets, on restaurant menus, on hotel websites and more. Ironically, you don’t see them very well when in front of the cathedral itself, as they are set back a little – the best views are from nearby Plaza San Francisco from where my photo on the right was taken.

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Main facade facing the Parque Calderón

This is the largest structure in the colonial part of Cuenca. The domes are almost 50 metres high and its towers should have been even taller than they are had the architect not made an error in his calculations and failed to dig foundations strong and deep enough to support the planned weight. But even with its truncated towers it is still an impressive sight. Started in 1885, its construction continued over the next century, and the result is a blend of neo-gothic and Romanesque. The imposing west front that faces the Parque Calderón is alabaster and local red marble, while pink marble imported from Carrara in Italy covers the floor. The domes owe their sky-blue hue to tiles from Czechoslovakia.

The inside is equally imposing in size, having been designed to hold the city’s then population of 10,000. It is somewhat austere but has some striking stained glass windows and an imposing marble altar decorated with gold leaf, a copy of one in St Peter’s in Rome. This interior was only completed in 1967, more than 80 years after the first foundations were laid.

I wasn’t sure whether photos were allowed inside so I only took one quick one of one of the windows that I especially liked. It is a great example of how local artists blended traditional biblical imagery with motifs from their own surroundings. See how the people who kneel at the feet of Jesus are dressed, not in the costume of first century Palestine, but in that of the Andes region.

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Stained glass in the cathedral

Plazoleta del Carmen

From here we started to turn our steps back towards the hotel, but there was a lot to see on the way. Although actually, we didn’t see a lot of the diminutive Plazoleta del Carmen, or Plaza des Flores as it is often called, as it was packed with the stalls of the daily flower market. As well as being a pretty and interesting sight in its own right, the market forms a colourful foreground for photos of the new cathedral on its north side and of the church right here on the plaza, the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion. It’s also a good spot for people watching as there’s lots of activity among not only the flower shoppers but also those coming to pray at the church. Be respectful, naturally, and keep a low profile if you want to take people shots.

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Flower market

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Cathedral from the flower market

Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion

Finding the church open we popped inside for a look. The monastery here dates back to 1682 but the church that stands next to it is more recent, having been built in the 18th century, around 1730. The white marble facade features a carved image of the Virgin and the shield of the order of the Assumption. Inside, the Baroque interior has a stunning altar piece, again with an image of the Virgin of the Assumption, surrounded by angels, a very ornate pulpit, several other ornate altars and a ceiling beautifully painted in rather surprisingly delicate colours. Photography is allowed (without flash) and admission is free, but I have read that it is rarely open to the public so we must have struck lucky – maybe it was open for the holiday weekend?

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Main altar, pulpit and side altar

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We walked back in the direction of the hotel, along Padre Aguirre, which runs down the west side of the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion past the Plaza San Francisco and the church of the same name. Here there were a number of stalls set out, all selling more or less the same things. The following day was, as I mentioned earlier, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps.

Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. The stalls here were selling the typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.

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Día de los Muertos decorations

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As with all my street / people photos, these were taken with a long zoom and I hope respectfully, but certainly anyone who saw my camera made no objections to my photography, for which I was grateful.

As in other parts of the country, many of the women were wearing traditional dress and again, as at Otavalo, we could see how this varies from place to place. One of these differences is in how the women here wear their hair – in two plaits instead of the single thick one of Quito or the unplaited pony tail of Otavalo. Hats here are made of straw, rather than felt, and skirts are not the sombre black of Otavalo but brightly coloured, often in velvet, and edged with colourful, even sparkling embroidery using sequins and metallic threads. We saw some of these skirts for sale in the shops – their shape is simple, just a tube of fabric, with several rows of gathers at the top and a ribbon to tie them on. They are also shorter than we saw elsewhere, being mostly worn knee length.

Many were in the traditional straw hat and double plait, but otherwise in quite modern clothing, but (perhaps because of the festivities) others were in the full traditional dress, as were the little girls we had seen at the parade in the Parque Calderón (above).

By now it was well past midday and we could go back to the hotel to check in. But I’m conscious that this entry is getting rather long, so let’s save that and our afternoon explorations for the next …

Posted by ToonSarah 19:23 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches people market cathedral cotopaxi customs cuenca street_photography Comments (6)

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