The hidden beauty of La Paz

You don’t have to look too far to appreciate the initial appeal of La Paz – mountain backdrop, sweeping crescent bay and hillside streets climbing up from the beachside malecon.

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Walking the malecon is the best way to orient yourself to La Paz. It runs the length of the historic centre and is lined with benches and palm trees. Amazingly, it is utterly free of touts pestering you about timeshares or boat rides. In fact, since the main road divides the malecon from the shops and restaurants, a stroll along the water lives up to the city’s name – Peace.  People-watching is what it’s all about.

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Maritime-themed sculptures dot the boardwalk – dolphins, mermaids and whales. We had fun watching the little boy to the right in this photo. We walked along with him as he took great joy in running away from his mother, grandmother and auntie – all of them calling him back with zero success.

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The northern part of the malecon is home to a great number of fishing boats – some of them still in use, others obviously retired.

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The southern end of the malecon has tour operators taking boats out to Espiritu Santo – part of a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising hundreds of islands. Snorkelling, diving and kayaking are all part of the tours and swimming with whale sharks is a huge draw.  Our timing was off – on the calm days we were doing other sightseeing and a number of days were simply too windy for the boats to go out safely.  We will try our luck when we stop here on our way back north.

Jacques Cousteau holds his rightful place on the malecon, casting his gaze over the Sea of Cortez, which he called “the world’s aquarium.”

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Even though the temperatures have not been that warm (18-22 degrees),  the sun is still very intense. I’ve given up on vanity  and we’re never without hats and water bottles.

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Most Mexican towns of any size have a cathedral and a plaza that form the centre of town. We parked in front of La Catedral de La Paz and returned to find pilons around our truck; they were attempting to clear space for a wedding. We wanted to watch for a glimpse of the bride, but needed to move out of there.

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We checked out the Saturday market, but were a bit disappointed. We were hoping for a great sprawling Mexican market with chickens and vegetables piled high and electronics and used clothing, but this one was quite small and catering to the gringo market. Vegan pesto, heirloom tomatoes, beach glass jewellery and artisan baking.

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All was not lost – this Italian woman and her son were grilling up sausages, but the real draw for us was the porchetta – a tender pork shoulder we had eaten before in Italy that could make you weep. A toasted bun, tomatoes, red onion, parsley pesto and as you can see from the photo, she didn’t skimp on the porchetta – whoa, so good.

When I commented to her about the number of Italians living in Mexico and why she moved from her home country, her answer was this, “Simple calculus. Italy has a negative birth rate and I wanted a future for myself and my children. My son was four when we moved (he is now mid-20s).” Although the economic advantage of moving to Mexico (for work) isn’t immediately apparent, it seems Italy and Mexico have a lot in common – the importance of family, appreciation for good food, proximity to the sea, rich agriculture and sun. It makes sense.

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Food in La Paz is very good; there is a thriving restaurant scene here. Admittedly, many of the restaurants and cafes are geared to the gringos, but this cafe had a good mix of clientele.

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This cafe, Doce Cuarenta, is a tourist hub. Very good coffee, baking and lunch items.

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We popped into this taco shop, which was mainly populated by Mexicans – usually a good sign. Communal tables, open kitchen, slightly gummy Tupperware containers of salsa, onion, cabbage and pots of salsa of varying degrees of heat.

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And the food – so fresh, so delicious. We had smoked marlin tacos, a “burro” with smoked marlin stuffed into a poblano pepper and topped with cheese, and my favourite – shrimp ceviche on tostado.

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We visited the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History, a small but well-presented history of Baja from prehistory to the 1910 revolution and beyond. All the signs were in Spanish, so we were able to get the gist, but missed the nuance of what we were reading.

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One section was photography devoted to cowboys, and the Mexican’s love of their horses.

I loved these two photos; they each capture essential elements of that life.

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La Paz is far more than the malecon, the restaurants and the tourist attractions. The hidden beauty of La Paz lies in discovering the little treasures that can be found by wandering the streets just back from the beachfront.

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A tile store and adjacent home.

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A sculpture outside a hotel

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Simple and perfect – white walls, red door, elegant sign, wrought iron, potted plants.

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Less perfect, but still interesting – more typically Mexican.  Great colours.

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The elegant Teatro Juarez

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A street view to the sea

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The travelling minstrels. Sooner or later, you will be serenaded by a singer with guitar, a mariachi band, or three old fellows who have played together for years. Levels of talent vary greatly and often they are largely ignored, but it’s fun and there are always extra pesos to drop in the hat.

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We stumbled upon this little park, tucked in off the street, with shady spots for picnics and a beautiful sculpture fountain. La Paz has a number of intriguing tiny parks – you just need to keep your eyes peeled.

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We talked to this family from Tijuana who were playing chess together. They told us they had driven straight from the border in 20 hours – obviously ignoring the often-repeated driving-in-Mexico mantra – “never drive at night.” Dad appeared to be winning.

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We drove out to Tecolote Beach, about a half hour outside La Paz, to see if the beach would be suitable for our trailer. Beach camping in Baja is incredible and in many cases is free, but not all beaches are accessible if you’re hauling a trailer or driving a big RV.

As it turned out, Tecolote Beach is completely appropriate, but can be quite windy. Since the weather for the next few days is calling for high winds, we will give it a try on our way back.

There is no water nor sani dump at Tecolote, but there are a couple of restaurants there, and a tour boat that goes out to Espiritu Santo. We drove out and took note of a couple of soft, sandy areas to avoid, but definitely will try and make it back. Very mellow, gorgeous swimming and snorkelling and nothing but starry nights and the sound of waves.

The backdrop to the beach at Tecolote:

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The beach:

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We’ve driven over some isolated mountain roads, some impressive potholes and topes, and endured that epic Hwy. 5 misadventure. So far, so good, but it is a common sight to see cars pulled off to one side, the hood up and a jack in place. Mexico has provided for highway mishaps in the form of angels – the Green Angels. This band of roadside saviours patrol Mexico’s highways and secondary roads to provide aid to motorists who have popped a tire, run out of gas, or otherwise broken down. Their services are free. We saw them a lot when we drove through mainland Mexico, but until now, never in Baja.  This off-duty Angel was at Tecolote Beach, enjoying the view.

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With such desirable beach camping and endless boondocking opportunities, you will see every imaginable form of RV in Baja – from rooftop tents to this beast. We arrived back at our campground a couple of days ago to discover this staggering vehicle, imported from Germany and clearly, the king of the road. We were not the only ones taking photos.

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It is far more likely you will encounter a varation of this old RV – a gentle version of transport that might have been right at home in what seems to be Baja’s heyday – the 70s.

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We’re spending a quiet New Year’s Eve, safely off the road and tucked into our campground for the night.

Tomorrow we will be in Todos Santos, about an hour away on the Pacific side, where we’ll hang out for a few days.

We wish you all nothing but good things for 2019 – good health, comfort, love, friendship and if it is at all possible – La Paz – peace.

Following the hippie trail to Hampi

For many visitors to India, the road from Goa to Hampi is a well-trodden path, a rite of passage for the seekers and pilgrims who flock to this “unearthly landscape that has captivated travellers for centuries.” (Lonely Planet).

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Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses the ruins of one of India’s largest 14th century empires with kilometres of giant boulders, softened by emerald green rice paddies and banana plantations. In addition to being a holy site, Hampi is also the bouldering capital of India. Throw in yoga classes, ayurvedic treatments, and cheap guesthouses and the throngs of young tourists with their hennaed hands, baggy harem pants and bindi dots will follow.  We saw the odd grey head wandering about, but we were older than most of our fellow travellers by at least 30 years. So far, no henna, but I have succumbed to purchasing a pair of harem pants. Photo to  follow at some point.

The path to Hampi is not a straight one. All trains and buses arrive in Hospet – a dusty town about 15 km. from Hampi. This was our first glimpse of real India – and yes, those stories about cows (or in this case, water buffalos) holding up traffic are true.

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Our tuk-tuk dropped us at the “ferry” – a small boat that transports passengers back and forth to the main guesthouse area in Hampi.

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We had to remove our shoes to walk through five inches of water to board the boat and then again on the other side. The boat is filled to well beyond capacity; we loved that there was a single life jacket hung over the railing. Up the hill we trudged, past women washing laundry – a captivating first impression.

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We then walked about a kilometre down the road until we arrived at our guesthouse – a less captivating experience. Our guesthouse had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, as did all the guesthouses  – people like us are not their target market. There are areas in India where finding reasonable mid-range accommodation is challenging, and Hampi is one of them. Our room was dirty, we had no hot water, wifi disappeared after our first day, never to return – and no-one cared. We heard highly entertaining excuses for everything, with no solutions. Since the rest of our fellow travellers seemed unfazed, we tried to go with the flow, but my vivid imagination would not let go of the images of those who had slept before us on the stained sheets stretched over our hard, lumpy mattresses.  Still, our guesthouse was in a gorgeous setting overlooking rice fields and this was the sunset on the first night.

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After much deliberating, we decided to rent a scooter the next day to see some of the sites that were close by. I was the one doing the deliberating because of a) the condition of the roads and b) my memory of the fatal accident last year in Laos. Stephen was raring to go, so we hopped on a  scooter and took off with the rest of the helmet-less hordes.

Apparently I am a bad passenger, as I squirm around too much, so I was under strict orders to hang on and not move. Unlike the blasé Indian ladies riding sidesaddle and talking on their phones, I never entirely lost my nerves.

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Still, it is the best way to get around and see the countryside. Stephen’s biggest challenge was dodging crater-like potholes and avoiding marauding trucks, so it wasn’t relaxing for him either. Along the way, we stopped a number of times for photos.  I couldn’t resist this sweet little baby water buffalo.

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Stephen couldn’t resist taking a brief video of me waving at a truckload of kids.


Our first stop was Hanuman Temple. We were met at the bottom by this crew of kids, who swarmed us for photos. This is very common in India – everyone wants a selfie with you and we have obliged dozens of times already.

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Climbing the 575 steps up to Hanuman Temple is a pilgrimage for some; most devotees climbed the entire way in their bare feet.

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We kept our shoes on until we reached the summit, and then removed them to walk around the outer perimeters. There are a number of monkeys up there and as long as you don’t feed them, they keep their distance. I’m not entirely comfortable around monkeys, so I was content to take photos from several feet away.

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This view is the reward – a simply stunning panorama.

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We were intrigued by this purified water stand, especially since our water bottle was almost empty. The Indians lined up to drink clean water, and they all drank from a single stainless steel cup! We shied away from this petri dish of communicable diseases.

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The climb down was much easier, and we were treated to the sight of this woman arranging scarves and colourful clothes on nearby rocks. There were surprisingly few vendors and the ones we saw were quiet and respectful.

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As we drove along, we noticed a young man on his motorbike who had stopped to take a photo and we pulled in behind him. There was a woman in the field tending to three cows, and as I noted to this young man, the image was like “something out of National Geographic”.  Coincidently, he used to be a photographer for Nat Geo and has now been living in Bangalore for the past three years, working as a freelancer. He travels India looking for shots like this. I would love to see how his photos turned out.

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We drove by women working in the rice fields, planting rice to be harvested in a few months.

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We were so struck by how hard so many Indians work, and for so little. Collecting and moving materials about – firewood, rice plants and hay.

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Many children don’t go to school. We passed by this sad-eyed young boy, hauling his load of snacks and drinks on a heavy cart.

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We arrived back to our guesthouse to see the resident Doberman in an absolute froth over the monkeys who were perched up on the rooftop, taunting him.

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The next day we met up with Raghu, who took us out for a full day tour of the ruins on his tuk-tuk. Raghu was charming, knowledgeable and spoke perfect English, so we had a memorable time.

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He is from Hampi and began by giving us an interesting overview of the town, before launching into the history of both the geology and the 14th century ruins. The ruins cover 26 square km. and it would take three more blog postings to cover it, so I’ll spare us all and just treat you to some photos.

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More monkeys. Cute baby being cradled by a very protective mama.

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We were the only ones visiting this temple and came across this woman who was camped out in the cool shade with her basket and some food and drink. She didn’t pay us any attention, but we were curious as to why she was there.

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The military were out in full force, right up to ranked officers. They were happy to have their photos taken.

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Three women heading into the fields in front of The Elephant Stable.

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There were a number of women working the fields, turning the soil and pulling out dead grass with pickaxes. The stables in front of them used to house elephants.

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The Stone Chariot used to actually move – hard to imagine that now, and even harder to grab a pic without crowds of people in front. The elephants had been piled with kids all morning; this was a rare child-free moment.

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I got almost as excited seeing this parrot as I did seeing the ruins.

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A school trip was in full swing just in front of me and as I was watching the parrot, I was being watched by young Indian boys, who demanded a photo.

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The next thing I knew, their classmates had joined them.

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Hampi is a magical, mystical place. I felt the beginning of a sense of India’s deep spirituality and symbolism there.

Now we’re in Mysore and will be back again in a few days.

Sailboats, lobster rolls and wild roses: Summer on the South Shore

We lived in Halifax for five years, and returning here after a 10-year absence was one of the most anticipated parts of our trip across Canada. Driving into Nova Scotia from New Brunswick demands that you pay attention. You are given advance warning, but you have just one chance. The road splits right and left; if you miss the turn, you are heading for Cape Breton. We turned right.

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With great excitement, we drove into Dartmouth (across the harbour from Halifax) to stay with our friends Harriette and Mike. We are here for another eight days and there is much to tell about Halifax and our past and present.  But we’ll begin our Nova Scotia stories with a trip to one of our favourite parts of the province – the South Shore. In one day we visited Peggy’s Cove, Chester, Mahone Bay and Lunenburg.

Note to first-time visitors – go much slower and see a lot more. But we’ve been here before and we’re trying to pack in as much as possible.  When we see cottages like this, memories of summers in Nova Scotia come flooding back.

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This frequently-photographed home is right on the bend coming into Chester – a pretty and polished little town which looks very much like Cape Cod and for good reason. It was settled by colonists from Massachusetts in 1759 and is one of the South Shore’s primo sailing and yachting resorts. Just around the corner is the marina.

We used to call these roses “Gaspe roses” – but in fact they grow everywhere down east – tough, hardy and more fragrant than peonies.

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Even in tony Chester, boys are still up to the same foolishness. It was deja vu all over again as we watched a younger version of our sons hitching a ride on his skateboard.

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I would have to do a lot of research to identify the many maritime styles of houses. Architecture buffs will recognize the small porches, pitched roofs, elaborate mouldings, shake shingles and be able to differentiate specific styles. For me, houses are like wine. I don’t know much, but I know what I like.

Another Chester waterview home:

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And this one:

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We headed further south to Mahone Bay, next in the series of painterly seaside towns. Mahone Bay curves around a large crescent cove, and is famous for the “three churches” that line the shore – United, Lutheran and Anglican.

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We visited Mahone Bay a lot when we lived in Halifax; our Toronto friends Don and Anne had a summer cottage here, high on a cliff overlooking the sea. The town has not changed much since our last visit; in fact that is true of most of the South Shore. Shops and restaurants change hands, but the beauty and heritage of this area has remained intact.

One of the newer restaurants in town is Oh My Cod! I had a pound of mussels that I could barely finish, served in a beautiful broth soaked up with grilled ciabatta.  “We got them from Pete”  – a local fisherman  who brings them in fresh every day. Stephen had fish and chips – a menu staple that can be the ultimate in food mediocrity. Oh no – a large serving of plump white haddock caught near Lunenburg, very lightly battered, served with a basket of thin, crisp hand-cut fries and a red cabbage slaw.

What we want to know is this – why is fresh, still-swimming fish and seafood considered basic food here (in availability and cost) when it is more of a luxury item out west?

IMG_0080 Next, a stroll around town for more house-gawking. This bed and breakfast is for sale…

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My grandparents had a root cellar which was fascinating and a bit scary as a child – you would open the door and climb down a few steep steps into darkness. I always imagined the door would slam shut and I’d be trapped, never to be seen again. To this day, the root cellar door still feels a bit creepy to me.

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A captain’s home, high on the hill, overlooking the ocean.

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On down we went to Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was founded in 1753 by German and Swiss settlers. They made their fortunes from timber and deep-sea fishing fleets and built a fantastically candy-coloured town on steep streets climbing up from the harbour.

Bluenose II was in town and we arrived just in time to watch her take off for a two-hour tour. Bluenose II is a replica of the famous original (immortalized on our 10 cent coin),who was the fastest vessel of her kind in the ’20s, until she sank off the coast of Haiti in 1946.

Bluenose II (built in the ’60s) is one of Nova Scotia’s iconic tourist attractions; based in Lunenburg, but frequently sailing throughout the summer to Halifax, Pictou and any of the Tall Ships events.

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Lunenburg is still very much a fishing town – the busy harbour is filled with fishing vessels and trawlers.

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The boardwalk along the harbour has mementoes of its seafaring days – old wooden fishing vessels and this – a 17-foot jawbone of a whale.

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To walk around Lunenburg is to trip over history – ideally you should have a guide so as not to miss the many points of interest. The Lunenburg Academy used to be the area school – it is now a centre for a variety of businesses and is reputed to be haunted.

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The Lennox Tavern was built in 1791, and had various incarnations as a temperance house and boarding house. Restored in 1991, it is the Canada’s oldest operating inn.

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Across the street, two women were catching up on gossip across the fence; seemingly oblivious to the nosy hordes who peer in their windows and squint at the plaques by their front doors. What must it be like to be part of a living museum?

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The joy of Lunenburg is its devotion to maintaining its priceless heritage. When St. John’s Anglican church burned down in 2001, it was painstakingly rebuilt four years later in all its Gothic splendour.

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This private home is one of Lunenburg’s oldest buildings, still intact. The sign below is typical of signs adorning many of the homes and buildings. They identify the original owner by their name and trade and year of construction.

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Streets are so full of beautiful homes that it becomes impossible to choose one – if you had to. We began the game of  “which house would you pick to live in”, and came up with a few. If we went back tomorrow, we would choose several more.

This would be perfect for me – big enough, but not too big. A pretty view and a small garden. I love the big homes in all their glory, but all I can think of is the maintenance – the endless scraping and painting and landscaping and required adherence to heritage details.

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We wonder if these owners have thrown up their hands – they painted one side and then stopped. You can hardly blame them.

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You’ve seen a few houses. Next post will be about the Atlantic and how it has shaped the people who live here – Laurencetown Beach, with its international surfing buzz, Peggy’s cove and the Swissair disaster.

Ancient Town Hoi An in photos

This blog posting will be less tell, more show.

First a quick intro: Hoi An was a major shipping port in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Dutch, Japanese and Chinese traders passing by these very walls. It would have become a much bigger city, but in the 19th century, the river silted up and big ships were no longer able to pass through. The town  languished until its 1999 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site turned it into one of SE Asia’s most popular tourist destinations.

IMG_0043The tourists are here in huge numbers, and that is the one critique I have of this town. Ancient Town is a madhouse and as a tourist myself, I am adding to the mayhem, so my criticism is hardly fair. If it is uncrowded streets and mellow moments you are looking for, get here really early in the morning.

IMG_9752Since Hoi An’s tourist life revolves around the river, we will begin there. Boats are for hire, for short cruises at sunset or for longer tours.

IMG_9991While Ancient Town runs back from the river on both sides for several streets, the riverfront promenade provides a natural gathering place and events are held most nights. A Food Festival was on one night, with two intense and sweating chefs  stirring the pot.

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Further down the promenade, we watched two girls wade into the river, which is really filthy.  Here, they’re gathering around to show off their catch – big black snails.

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As the late afternoon turns into early evening, the light and atmosphere on the waterfront is magical. The heat and sun has been replaced with a welcome light breeze.

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There are outdoor art displays, buskers, food vendors and good old-fashioned people-watching.

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These kids were having a great time pushing each other around on this little bike.

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I watched this beautiful woman for a minute or two – she never moved. Deep in thought or just enjoying a quiet spot away from the tourist throngs.

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Many Vietnamese carry parasols – an excellent idea now when the sun is so hot.

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I was caught by the expression on this mother’s face. She was showing something to her little children and had their full attention.

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There are so many twisty little alleyways – it would take days to explore them all.

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Great boughs of bougainvillea and flowing shrubs hang over doorways – bright bursts of colour against the ocher walls.
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Hoi An has a number of art galleries, with striking contemporary art by young artists.

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This young man was painting on the sidewalk, and took a moment for a smoke break.

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To enter Ancient Town in Hoi An, you must buy a pass (about $8) that entitles you to the entrance of five old shophouses, or assembly halls or museums. That money goes to a foundation to help preserve the old structures.  I took this photo from the second floor of a Chinese merchant hall. The railings and staircase felt a little fragile, and the walls are dark, but we got a good sense of how the town must have felt in its trading heyday.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge is another example of the carved wood and rolled roof design of the structures in Hoi An.

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Tailor shops and  textile handiwork is huge business  in Hoi An. In this room, a number of young women were at work embroidering fabric. They spoke no English, so I was unable to ask them about their work, but I suspect they put in long hours. If you look carefully, you can see two women sleeping on the floor.

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There are hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An, but only a few of them are well-regarded. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.  Many turn out identical garments in 24 hours or less and they can be of poor quality. Having a suit or dress made here requires careful  research and word of mouth recommendations.

We wondered who the target market is for these bouncy and confident suits.

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I stopped to take a photo of the catchy sewing machine display – an homage to one of the town’s big industries. But then, the model caught my eye. Where did they find this Caucasian mannequin with mussy bedhead and a slightly regretful expression in her eyes?

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The food in Hoi An is fantastic, and the range of restaurants is staggering. Everything from ladies selling sweet potato cakes on the street to reservation-only hot spots with American prices. We ate so well, and darned if I did not take one photo of food. I just kept forgetting – the food would arrive, we’d start to eat and make a mess of our plates and then, I’d remember.  You’ll have to take our word for it.  This was our view from a favourite restaurant.

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And now, a sunset and evening tour of Hoi An:

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Lanterns are a big deal in Hoi An. The streets are strung with them, people buy small floating lanterns with candles to launch on the river, and they are for sale everywhere. This display proved to be an irresistible backdrop for a holiday photo.

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The bridge over the river is adorned with two graceful signs –
especially beautiful when lit at night.

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Good-bye Hoi An. Thank you for giving us such a relaxing and elegant vacation.