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Phoenix, city in the desert

Until a few weeks ago, I knew as much about Phoenix as I did about Murmansk, that is, very little. It wasn't exactly on our list of top-100 places to visit but with the bottom falling out of our Christmas holiday plans, we unexpectedly found ourselves heading to this unknown city in Arizona. It was time to do some reading up and find out about places of interest nearby, such as the Grand Canyon. Our trip to Arizona turned out to be a real eye-opener, with stunning desert landscapes.



We flew into Phoenix at night so all we saw was a vast tablecloth of twinkling lights covering the Valley of the Sun, as it is known. It actually looked a lot like Mexico City, an unending expanse of urban development, spread over an area almost the same size but with a fraction of Mexico City's population. It wasn't until the next morning that we had a chance to see what Phoenix was really like in daylight. We drove to the Downtown area, easily identifiable from any spot by the tall shiny skyscrapers clustering together in the middle of an immense bungalow-height landscape. It was squeaky clean, new and orderly, but something was missing. Where were all the people? Where were the shops and cafés and the dynamic hub and buzz of urban life? Maybe it was because Christmas was just two days away but it looked like a modern-day ghost town. Little traffic, even fewer pedestrians, almost lifeless at that time. One sleek metro-train whizzed past us, and we saw a lonesome man strumming a guitar at the interesection of two grand boulevards while a second man, Ed the Hotdogger, was selling Italian or Polish sausages at his stand next to some traffic lights. To who, I don't know. At last, we found a small café which was relatively "crowded" and a little while later about 30 people turned up for the inauguration of the city's outdoor ice-rink where you could "go ice-skating in the desert". A stark contrast to the bustling crowds and noise and smell of street cooking in Mexico City, so alive and full of life.

Phoenix buildings

Phoenix downtown area

Modern buildings

Ed the Hotdogger at his stand

Warm jumpers and hats are needed in the morning when it's cold - a lady wearing a fun woolly hat!

Outdoor ice-skating rink

Cactus Christmas street lights

Christmas tree in the centre with moon

Phoenix is a HUGE sprawling city in the middle of the Arizona desert, which goes on and on forever. It took us almost one hour just to drive our way out of the vast metropolitan area when we headed north towards the Grand Canyon a couple of days later. It looked like a kind of urban patchwork quilt, built on a grid-like system, where each square is one mile long and has a similar pattern but with a few differences. The broad, airy avenues had lanes so wide you probably couldn't shake hands with the person in the next car even if you opened the door and stepped out. In Mexico City, we have severe problems just trying to avoid hitting each others' side mirror as we drive along. Orderly tracts of small, one-or two-storey houses with shady verandas crouched down low together, overlooked by palm trees and guarded by gigantic cactus plants. Each patchwork square seemed to have its own shopping centre, complete with a drive-thru bank, drive-thru fast food restaurants, some shops and services, plus a gas station and a church or two. Dentists or chiropractors rubbed shoulders with nail parlours and Denny's and Wendy's fast food restaurants, Bug and Weed stores chatted up burger bars, and supermarkets were squashed in between animal clinics and insurance offices. While we were there, the skies were deep, desert blue and the air so pure you could pump it up the oxygen tubes in a hospital. There was no sign of any litter on the roads which are populated by chunky pick-ups and well-behaved traffic doing an honest 35 mph in the town and 65 mph on the freeways.

View of Phoenix from the plane when we left

Blue skies

Spacious roads

River Salado at sunset

Empty freeways

Phoenix is definitely an "automobile city". Without a car or pick-up or some kind of private vehicle, you will not get very far. It is so vast and spread out that walking is hardly an option. On several occasions, we played a game. "Let's count how many people we see walking!" For the most part, we didn't get past 3, and our all-time high was 11. Unheard-of in Europe or Mexico. Taking a taxi anywhere would cost you a fortune. It cost $2.10 a mile and that was with the "Discount Taxis". Public transport was nice-looking but few and far-between. Thank goodness we had a car. Not the Jeep we had hoped for, but rather a massive black Dodge resembling a tank. Just to find a welcoming place to eat or somewhere to have a coffee, let alone any of the places of interest in the city, entailed a major expedition along mile after mile of boulevards with names like Camelback, Indian School, Baseline and Rural Road, all of which looked suspiciously the same. We felt we were in a labyrinth, going round and round in squares. Our conversations took on a confused monotony. "That's where we stopped yesterday!" "No, it isn't. There was a U.S. Egg on the corner, not a Whataburger." "I'm sure there was a Starbucks here yesterday!" I admit that as fleeting visitors, we obviously lacked inside know-how and were at the mercy of our rather hit-and-miss strategy.

Pick-ups are very popular

Taxis are not cheap! $2.10 per mile

The city's public transport system

Historically, Arizona has been influenced by a number of different cultures, including the Native American Indians and the Spanish. It was also part of Mexico until 1848 when the US bought a huge chunk the size of Western Europe of what was then northern Mexico for a mere $2 million, hence the widespread presence of Mexican tacos, burritos, and salsas picantes and restaurants with names like El Pollo Loco and Chipotle. In fact, in some areas you are as likely to hear Spanish spoken as English and many Mexican families have made their residence there. In its early days, all East-West streets were named after Presidents while all North-South streets had Indian names. It's hard to imagine but the city of Phoenix grew up as a typical far west town, with dusty streets lined with wooden buildings, wide enough to allow the horse-drawn wagons to turn around. In fact, in the late 1880s when it was founded, everything was within a walking distance of 2 miles. Then as the electric streetcar made its appearance, people began moving out as fast as they moved in, especially the wealthy residents. There were no limits on space. No wonder. The Arizona desert is immense and flat here. The town began to grow in size, adding new housing developments which followed a symmetrical, grid pattern, lined with trees to give shade in the high summer temperatures. Nowadays, modern-day Phoenix, which started life out as Pumpkinville in honour of the large pumpkins growing along the canals, continues to attract people, especially those in search of warm winters, heaps of sunshine, golf courses and cactus plants, and has become one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US. It is truly enormous.

Spanish-style building

One of the many Mexican restaurants

A bit of both cultures - American and Mexican food

Hot and spicy sauces

Although we wanted to experience the American way of life, I have to admit that we longed for some good strong Espresso coffee. Instead we had to make do with tall, frothy Starbucks cappuccinos or mochas. We drank our coffees American-style, taking them with us in the car and sipping the scalding beverage over the following hour or so. Finding somewhere to eat proved to be a game of hide-and-seek, unless you want to eat burgers with fries three times a day. Where were all the real restaurants? You know, the type that serve up real food at a table with a tablecloth and wine in glasses. Unfortunately, as we were in Phoenix over the Christmas holiday, we discovered that most places were well and truly closed. Trying to find somewhere special to eat on Christmas Eve took us on a bewildering, frustrating hour's drive through the city until we found the Saddle Ranch Restaurant in Scottsdale and had a mighty steak, worthy of a hungry cowboy, with Californinan wine drunk from rather scratched wine glasses at a lamp-lit table. It did have a Far West feel to it though which made up for the lack of finesse. Over the other side of the huge wooden buiding, was a mechanical bull you could ride on after your meal. Maybe if you lasted a certain number of seconds on its back before being thrown off onto the sawdusted floor, you got your meal free. We watched several clients having a go. No-one lasted long.

Where to eat in Phoenix???

The Saddle Ranch in Scottsdale

The mechanical bull

Cowboy steak

A delicious dessert of double fudge Brownie with ice-cream and berries...

Scottsdale saved the day. Once standing on its own, it has now been swallowed up in the larger Phoenix metropolitan area, but still maintains its small town character in the centre. You could be forgiven for thinking you're in a Far West theme park. As you wander around the Old Town, the single or double-storey wooden buildings with verandas and porches are now colonised by shops selling Native American arts and crafts, leather cowboy boots and belts, gemstones and pottery, or eating places.

Scottsdale Old Town

Old wooden buildings

Horse statues around a fountain

You can go for a horse and carriage ride

Chillies hanging up

Christmas decorations

Shop selling Native American Indian crafts

Indian rugs

Far West style seats

Wind chimes

Two other places redeemed Phoenix for us: the Heard Museum, a delightful exhibition and information centre about Native American Indian culture, history and art, and Scottsdale Fashion Square, just one of the city's enormous shopping malls, which had Cristina buzzing around in an adrenaline rush, gawking at the teenage clothing shops and spending all her Christmas money. It's probably where our feet did the most walking, bar Scottsdale centre. Apparently, in the sweltering heat of summer, the immense air-conditioned malls are the place to hang out. These are the modern centres of American community life where you can shop, chat over a coffee or ice-cream, eat burgers or tacos, experience the Hurrican Simulator or Jet flights down the Grand Canyon, watch movies, eat popcorn, and wear out your shoes. I can't imagine what Phoenix must be like in the summer. Temperatures soar to 49 °C, on a par with Baghdad or Riyadh. Their record LOW temperature in summer is an incredible 36 °C, registered one July night in 2003. I sure wouldn't like to be around when that happens.

Indian exhibits in the Heard Museum

Scottsdale Fashion Square mall

Inside another huge mall

Two girls experiencing a hurricane inside a Hurricane Simulator

Shopping centre

To be fair to Phoenix, it does have a wonderful winter climate, stunningly clear blue skies and amazing desert landscapes nearby, decent drivers and loads of beautiful art and crafts. We have never seen anywhere so full of horse-themed items (we're horse-lovers) which meant we were spoilt for choice. As it was, the city was really our base for doing excursions to the Grand Canyon, the Apache Trail, and Sedona and not the focus of our holiday. And let's give credit where credit is due. It says a lot for the American pioneering spirit that a city that size has proliferated in the desert, where once a tiny mining town and trading outpost struggled to survive in the midst of the hostile elements. Little wonder they changed the name from Pumpkinville to Phoenix, symbol of rebirth, renewal, immortality... It more aptly describes a city arising from the ruins of a former civilisation, the Hohokam, in the middle of the desert which today is one of the fastest growing cities in the US.

Amazing Arizona sign

Posted by margaretm 05:23 Archived in USA Tagged city Comments (0)

The earth quakes in Mexico City

Sign seen in the streets telling people to prepare for earthquakes


Last Saturday evening, just before 8 pm, the city shook as an earthquake, 6.5 on the Richter scale, struck. Apparently, it was one of the strongest earthquakes since the devastating one that hit Mexico City on 19th September 1985, killing thousands.

It was definitely the strongest one I have felt since living here in Mexico. Strong enough to send the lampshade swinging wildly. The French windows buckled, the floor shook and the table rattled and moved several inches from the wall. It lasted just over 40 seconds. Actually, I thought it was strong wind at first. Just a few minutes earlier, I had brought in two star-shaped piñatas from the back porch because they were blowing chaotically in the wind. Ozzy was disturbed by them and the hummingbirds weren't happy about coming to the nearby feeders because of the noise and movement. So my immediate thought was that I had left the French doors open slightly and that was why the light in front of them was swinging so much and the windows moving. Of course, that didn't explain why the table was rattling or that it had moved out from against the wall. But when I checked the French doors, I realised not only were they well shut, but they were locked. It couldn't have been the wind. My second thought was, "Wow! That must have been a huge truck going past to do that!" My third attempt at an explanation was that it had been an earth tremor. Josep has felt quite a few strong ones as his office is in a vulnerable area in the centre, but I had only experienced some small shudderings here. I quickly went into the front room where he was busy wrestling with the innards of a portable radiator, brandishing a screwdriver.

"What was THAT?!" I said. "What was what?" he asked, looking up for a moment. "Everthing was moving!" By then, I was almost certain it must have been an earthquake. Marc rang a few minutes later from a friend's house. "Did you feel the earthquake?" They had all rushed downstairs and out into the street. And then when we tried to contact Cristina, on her way to a Christmas supper, all the lines were down. She told us later that her friend's father had rang them while they were in the car. "Are you alright?" he asked worriedly. They were surprised by his tone. "Yes, why?" They hadn't felt anything. Her friend's flat, on the 16th floor, had done a good bit of swaying and things had fallen off the shelves. No wonder her Dad was concerned.

In many places, there are instructions on how to act in the event of an earthquake alongside those for fires

Green circles on the pavement indicate assembly points in the event of an earthquake or fire

So that was it. I didn't feel scared. It happened too quickly to even register the fact that it was an earthquake until it was over. Just an uncomfortable touch of motion-sickness, believe it or not. We decided to go out for a pizza as planned. The waiters stood around the TV screens, solemly watching the news. It was a 6.5 earthquake with its epicentre in Guerrero, near Acapulco, and had been felt strongly in nine states, including Mexico City. It's hard for us to appreciate, but here in the city, there is a kind of collective fear of earthquakes ever since the devastating one that occured 26 years ago. Although the earth regularly trembles here, sending people into panic and spilling them out on the streets, this was a strong tremor which shook people up and transported them back to that tragedy. In fact, the experts have been predicting that it is very likely that another very strong terremoto will hit the city in the not-so-distant future so residents have that in the back of their mind.

We heard that three people died in the state of Guerrero as a result, but fortunately here in Mexico City, little damage was done. Electricity went off in 30 colonias, a few cracks appeared, there were some water pipes broken but no loss of life.

Nothing like that day 26 years ago when a 8.1-magnitude earthquake, lasting 2 minutes, followed by a second 7.3-magnitude one the following day, destroyed a large part of the city centre and buried thousands. The forces producing the earth movement caused buildings to move 15º from their vertical axis and some turned 20-25º in a SW direction. The government of that time imposed a news blackout, rejected international help at first and later put the official number of deaths at between 5,000 and 10,000. According to other institutions, it was more likely to have been 40,000. To this day, the exact number of deaths is still a mystery. Due to the government's slow response, it was the citizens themselves who dug people out with their own hands and took care of them. Some 30,000 buildings were totally destroyed, and 68,000 partially damaged. Very illustrative is the fact that, while old buildings like the Cathedral and National Palace suffered little damage, many new ones totally collapsed. Corruption was cited as the reason for poor materials and structures. Unfortunately, 13 of the city's hospitals were seriously damaged, causing much loss of life. Yet there were stories of hope. I read that three newborn babies, known as the Miracle Babies, were rescued 7 days after the earthquake. True milagros.

The Torre Latino withstood the 1985 earthquake unlike many other buildings around it

One of the collapsed buildings in Mexico City in 1985

Today, on the site where the Hotel Regis collapsed killing all its occupants, there is a monument in the Plaza de la Solidaridad in memory of those who died in the 1985 tragedy. I found it one day in the Alameda Park while cycling and discovered the story behind it. Today too, a new Alert System has been set up and all schools, like the one Cristina and Marc go to, have regular earthquake simulacros or drills. And of course, every 19th September, the whole of the city has a mega-simulacro de sismo, remembering that tragic day 26 years ago.

A photo of the Hotel Regis before and after the 1985 earthquake

Monument in the Plaza de la Solidaridad in memory of those who died in the 1985 earthquake

The plaque at the moment

No wonder many people in DF panic and run out into the streets when they feel the earth move strongly underneath them. They lived through the 1985 terremoto and are the survivors of that day.

Posted by margaretm 08:19 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city earthquakes Comments (0)

'Tis the season for driving madness

'Tis the season.....


Just about everywhere, December is known as the season of goodwill and brings generous quantities of Christmas spirit.... except, it seems, to the roads of Mexico City. Here it marks the beginning of a time of increased road misery which multiplies drastically as shopping centres and markets fill up with glittering wares to lure consumers out, local authorities decide to undertake major road works, and millions of travellers battle to get through chaotic bottlenecks and traffic jams on their way to and from work, school, home or the shops. Driving, an all-out fight to survive at the best of times, becomes twice as hazardous at this time of year and is guaranteed to fray the nerves of even the most seasoned driver. I say "driving" but sometimes I wonder if this really is the correct word. "Bulldozing" is probably a better one. Other words that readily come to my mind are "slicing", "steamrolling", "shoving", "squeezing", "pursuing" and a host more. Not much peace and goodwill at all.

Huge bottleneck on the way down from Santa Fe

Going nowhere very fast

Two cars collide

Result of dangerous driving

Actually, having lived in DF for over two years, I think I've finally cracked one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. I mean, let's be honest... are there any Rules of the Road in Mexico City? Does the Highway Code exist in this teeming metropolis? If so, where do you find out about it? If not, how do you know how to drive?

These questions and many more like them have been bothering me ever since I arrived in Mexico. I can now say that, after driving more than 20,000 kms in the city and covering many more as a passenger in other vehicles, I think I've finally cleared up this mystery. If there is a Highway Code, no-one has seen it. So in the absence of any written rules, I've decided to enlighten road users on the subject of good Mexican driving practices. According to my observations and experience, these seem to be the main rules:



1. To become a legal driver, you need to buy a driving licence for 605 pesos, which you do by showing some ID and having a photo taken. Don't worry, no test is necessary and no questions will be asked as to whether you know how to drive.

2. The Rules of the Road can be summed up in four small words: DO WHAT YOU WANT.

Chaos - everyone going where they want

3. In the interests of your own safety, you should ALWAYS, without fail, give way to BIGGER vehicles and PUSHIER drivers. These include, especially, PESEROS (small green and white buses falling apart and driven like bumper cars), MICROBUSES, school buses, trucks and shiny black cars with tinted windows driven by guardaespaldas or bodyguards. It doesn't matter who is in the right. This is absolutely essential for your survival.

Two peseros competing for road space

A school bus gets a bit too close for comfort

Keep away from big trucks

4. Traffic lights and other signals are useful recommendations. If you need to get somewhere quickly or keep the flow of traffic going, ignore them. Red lights should only be obeyed when there is absolutely no possibility of doing anything else.

Go or stop??

Road sign saying you have to come to a complete halt when the light is red!

5. You should avoid using indicators if at all possible. Signalling your intention to other drivers will result in them trying to take advantage of you or preventing you from carrying out your desired manoeuvre. If you really want to use them, do as the bus drivers do and confuse other road users by putting the left indicator on when turning right or coming to a standstill.

6. Emergency hazard lights (all four indicators flashing at the same time) are for those occasions when you want to stop dead in the middle of fast-moving traffic (follow the clear example of taxi drivers) or wish to park for an indefinite period of time in rather busy lanes.

7. You must learn the SUDDEN LANE SWITCH manoeuvre as soon as you can since it will be extremely useful and is one of the most frequently used turns. This consists of waiting till the last minute and then without any warning or indication, changing lanes using a very quick, diagonal move. If you can do this across three or four lanes, the effect is much more spectacular.

8. Roundabouts are key components of traffic jams. In general, you should go around them in an anti-clockwise direction although there are some special ones which allow you to go either way around. The general idea is to take up your position and contribute to a total interlocking system whereby no-one can move. When circumstances require, or where there is very heavy traffic, just drive the wrong way around to get to your turn-off more quickly. If you are not sure how this manoeuvre works, observe police cars carefully and follow suit.

Total chaos at a roundabout - the fountain is in the middle!

9. When joining a major road from the side, pull out directly into the oncoming traffic, preferably without looking. Other road users will make the appropriate adjustments to accommodate your joining.

10. Any empty space at junctions should be filled. Move into the space as quickly as you can, even if it means blocking the way for others, and stay there until the light turns green again for you. Ignore horns or glares.

No moving for anyone!

Blocking the way

11. Waiting in line patiently is for drivers who have lots of time. If you are in a hurry or don't want to wait, you can jump the queue and butt in. This helps keep the traffic moving. If you have to drive the wrong way down a one-way street or down the opposite side of the road, do it quickly.

The yellow bus and car are going down the wrong side of the road to jump the queue

12. Never engage eye contact with other drivers since they may be rather annoyed at you pushing in front of them or blocking their way.

13. Look ahead at all times. Avoid getting distracted by looking behind or to the side.

14. When everything else fails to help you advance or jump the queue, just open your window and stick your hand out and wave it up and down energetically. This should work because if someone injures you, they will have to pay for the hospital fees.

15. Police cars have a cruising speed of 20 kmph at normal times and always have their lights flashing. If you see them behind you with flashing lights, it does not mean they have caught you doing something wrong. They just want to be seen and cause nearby drivers to have epileptic fits, especially in a traffic jam. If there is an emergency, or sometimes just to get through solid traffic, they will use their sirens.

Police car with flashing lights cruising along at 20 kmph.

16. If you are stopped by a policeman, make sure you have two surnames as it will make things much quicker. If not, they have to decide what to put in the second space on the traffic fine and that can take a while to work out.

17. Park at your own risk. The city's gruas or tow-trucks will remove you from anywhere within seconds, even if you are in the right. It will then take you many hours and a hefty fine to reunite you with your car. Police cars, however, can park anywhere they want without any unpleasant consequences, especially if they need to have breakfast or consult their cell phones.

Parking close to stop the tow-truck taking them away?

18. Lanes are often very narrow. You should learn as soon as possible to drive quickly using a weaving movement to avoid hitting other cars' mirrors or other parts of large vehicles. The faster you go, the more exciting it is. The primary role of side mirrors is to make sure other vehicles keep a certain distance and do not scratch your car. Secondary uses include putting on make-up, plucking eyebrows, and checking hair.

A tight squeeze along Reforma

Close encounters

A motorbike trying to squeeze between a bus and a car

Completely hemmed in by buses and trucks

19. When there are three or more lanes going in the same direction, you should stay in the middle lane, regardless of your speed, where you will feel safer. Overtaking can take place on either side.

20. When driving in dark conditions, it isn't compulsory to put on your headlights, even though they are in working order. You will save your battery and other road users will not be able to anticipate what you are going to do.

21. Vehicles should be kept reasonably well-maintained from a mechanical point of view. Try not to drive with items falling off or dragging along the ground since this may attract the attention of the police. Ensure that cracked windscreens and broken windscreen wipers do not totally impair your view of the road ahead.

A VW Beetle missing a few bits and pieces

22. Using cell phones while driving is prohibited but since everyone does it, you should make sure your calls are not too long. Texting while driving requires more practice.

23. Drivers should be attentive to any modifications to the surface, layout or work being carried out on the roads. Gaping holes, missing manhole covers, broken drains, road works and unscheduled changes in the use of specific roads may not be duly signalled so you have been warned.

A couple of mops to warn motorists


At least they put a tyre there!

A taxi with a wheel wedged down an unmarked gaping manhole!

24. Speed bumps (also known as "sleeping policemen") have been placed on most roads to promote road safety by slowing vehicles down. Some are marked and others are camouflaged. If you want your car suspension to last for at least 4 months, it is recommended that you learn where they are.

25. Signs informing motorists about the speed limit are non-existent since drivers pay no attention to them anyway.


I hope these rules will be of use to anyone planning on getting behind a steering wheel in Mexico City. In the unlikely case that an official Highway Code or Reglamento de Circulación does exist, it must be buried deep under a towering mound of bureaucracy, waiting to be discovered like ancient Aztec treasure. Given that there are still about three weeks until Christmas, the DF authorities could consider organising an archival dig to unearth it and a copy could be wrapped up and given to every household as a Christmas present. A case of spreading some goodwill, good sense and good driving practices.

An assortment of road users

Sign seen on a truck sums the attitude up well - "May God go with me, and if I don't return, I've gone to be with Him!"

Posted by margaretm 05:31 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico driving roads city transport Comments (2)


Girona, the capital of our province, lies a tantalising 35 kms away. Yesterday, I accompanied my niece, Seza, there and while she gave her English class, my intention was to do some food shopping to stock up the house. In fact, I ended up doing nothing of the sort.

Having left Seza to her subjunctives and phrasal verbs, I sauntered down to the river in search of the new Nespresso shop for some coffee capsules. I cannot function properly until I've had my shot of caffeine in the morning. As I stood on the Pont de Pedra, the bridge crossing the River Onyar, the beautiful white cathedral standing head and shoulders above the old town on the other side of the river beckoned me to come over. No, not today. I have to do some shopping, I murmured to myself. The houses overhanging the river below had been renovated and painted since last summer. They looked more cheerful. I continued down the pedestrianised street on the other side, my nose trying to detect the coffee shop. Slightly waylaid, I diverted my steps past the Museu del Cinema and gazed up at the tall palms in front of the nearby church, their crowns shaking in the breeze. Returning to shop-lined Carrer Santa Clara, my attention was drawn to the red Eiffel Bridge spanning the river a little further down. I climbed up the steps. There was the cathedral, peeking through the red structure, begging me to come over. I haven't got time. Another day, I said. The river looked so clean today and white and grey gulls flapped their wings and glided under the bridge.

Looking towards the Old Town across the River Onyar

The Eiffel Bridge

Girona Cathedral from the Eiffel Bridge

The Cathedral peeking through

My nose led me to the shop, I purchased my coffee capsules and de-scaler for the coffee machine and decided to take a quick look at the Plaça de la Independencia now that I was down here. The renovation work had been completed and I was frankly pleased with the result. The arcades were filled with chairs and tables and the clinking of glasses and cutlery bounced off the walls. The boldly black and white tiled flooring absorbed the intense sunlight slicing through the arches, dissipating it. It was lovely and cool. I strolled down to the riverside again and now I was right opposite the Cathedral, which looked down from its vantage point on the other river bank. It was very insistent. OK, I'll just nip across to the other side but I must hurry up and do my shopping. I'll come back and see you properly soon.

Plaça de la Independencia


Colourful houses

Façade of house along the River Onyar

I crossed over, ducked under the archway and followed the cobbles down the narrow street into the Old Quarter. It was all delightfully familiar coming back here. Cool and dark, out of the harsh one o'clock sun. As I passed the flight of stone steps leading to El Call, one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in Europe, I decided to make a slight detour. Just a few steps along Carrer de la Força to see that very narrow rabbit-warren like alleyway, almost totally hidden from sight, I said to myself. A small group of tourists from a Central European country were being fed the fascinating history of this place. I squeezed past them and went up. But the Cathedral had a magnetic pull and I actually took a few steps more than I had anticipated until there I was, standing at the bottom of the flight of 90 stone steps, gazing up at its incredible façade far above me. At that point, I reasoned that it would be silly to come all this way and just look up at it. I really should just spend a few more minutes and make my way to the top. How could I miss taking in the view from up there? So that's what I did. The Cathedral seemed so pleased to see me again. As if it had been waiting a year for me to come back again. I took photos of the statues all up its façade and looked out over Sant Feliu, one of the few churches in Spain with a spire, albeit a broken one. The upper part collapsed in the 17th Century and was never replaced. Some say it was a lightning bolt.

Looking up a street in the Old Town

Steps and houses

Sign post

Narrow alleyway in the Jewish Quarter

Steps leading up to the Cathedral

Statues on Cathedral façade

Sant Feliu Church in the background

I thought back to the first time I came to Girona, 21 years ago. A few days after landing in this beautiful corner of the world, someone told me I really had to visit the city of Girona. It was a cold February morning when I summoned up all the Spanish I knew and took a train in the right direction. As we approached the city, there was a smell of rotten eggs as we passed Sarrià de Ter and I saw a paper factory belching out fumes which hung over Girona, impregnating the city with a distinctive odour. Getting off the train, I made my way down to the Old Town, trying to warm up in the anaemic wintry sunlight. Crossing the river, I found myself in a city with history deeply embedded in its stones... its cobblestones, stone steps, narrow streets lined by stone buildings with balconies which blocked out the sunlight, and capping it all was the Cathedral. I was awe-struck, dwarfed by Girona's history and by its architecture. But there was one thing that puzzled me. Where was everyone? I seemed to be the only person here. Just me wandering around shivering in the cold, dark streets where the sunlight hardly penetrated except up at the top, on the esplanade near the Cathedral. Gothic churches, arches, ancient Medieval walls, Arab baths, the tangle of the hidden Jewish Quarter... no-one else was enjoying this unique place. Looking for somewhere to eat or at least to have a warming cup of coffee, I noticed another thing. Everything was closed. In the end, I bought a sandwich in the new part of town and headed back home. My friends explained the mystery. "Todo está cerrado los lunes por la mañana". That's when I discovered that shops and restaurants are closed on Monday mornings in this part of the world.

Now here I was, 21 years later, and thinking how much Girona had changed during that time. The paper factory no longer belched out fumes, there was no hint of rotten eggs, the Old Town had seen many of its buildings renovated and was now a lively place, full of restaurants and shops. And tourists who once bypassed this exceptional city, making a bee-line for the Costa Brava beaches to roast themselves for 2 weeks, are now stopping off to take in a bit of culture. And are pleasantly surprised.

I suddenly realised it was almost 1.30pm. There was no more time to walk along the walls and enjoy the panoramic views over the city or explore its Arab baths or museums. I had to hurry back to meet up again with my niece. The food shopping would have to wait till later on this afternoon. I quickened my steps and after crossing over to the other side, I looked back at the Cathedral. I'll be back, I promised. And a promise is a promise.

Catalan flag

Catalan stickers

Posted by margaretm 14:57 Archived in Spain Tagged city cathedral jewish quarter girona Comments (1)

The day my car vanished


Driving in Mexico City is, more often than not, a harrowing experience. When you're not being chopped up like minced meat by aggressive drivers, you find yourself glued to the neighbouring cars as the thick traffic solidifies around you like cooling lava. And if you do manage to get to your destination in one piece and you're still sane, there's still one more hurdle to get over. You have to find somewhere to park.

No parking. Your car will be towed away.

Solid traffic

There are millions of vehicles in DF and sometimes it seems as if they all got the parking spaces before you. Parking in this city is a matter of timing more than anything else. Depending on the time of day and, of course, the area you happen to be in, your chances of finding somewhere to estacionar your vehicle can vary from easy to downright impossible. More than once, I've made my way to the supermarket, sat in the queue waiting to get into the supermarket car park (which is synonymous for blocking the road) for 15 minutes and then decided to go home empty-handed or try somewhere else.

However, there are a number of parking options available to you, some of them a bit unusual:

1. If you go to a modern shopping centre, there is usually a modern car park alongside, as in Europe, often with European prices. The only difference is that you can get your car washed by the boys there while you're away. It will cost about 40 pesos. A case of killing two birds with one stone.

2. Small parking lots abound in many places on empty building sites, some of them terribly scruffy looking, with a small hut at the entrance next to a gate and usually a hand-painted notice proclaiming Pension 24-horas or 22 pesos 1 hora. Some of them look like the last sort of place you'd ever want to leave your car but they are usually OK. You can park there for a fee and have your car taken care of, washed, cleaned inside etc.

A small car park with delusions of grandeur

Waving a red flag to catch your attention

3. If you go to some shops, they may have a few parking spaces controlled by a "waver and whistler". He'll help you find the space (there are usually less than 10 spaces so it isn't actually very difficult), watches over your car while you're in the shop and then whistles you out. A few pesos will bring a smile to his face and a cheerful "Que tenga una excelente tarde, señorita" which more or less translates as "Have a wonderful afternoon, miss!"

4. You may find a street taken over by franaleros or car watchers. Although stationed on a public way, they act as if they own that particular stretch of street, putting buckets or other items in the road to prevent anyone stopping there by mistake. They then stand in the road and flag you down and offer you a parking space. You are expected to give them a tip for watching your car and making sure nothing happens to it. Some can be aggressive and you may find that if you omit the tip or don't pay enough, they will do something to your car. I sometimes make use of a franalero's service if I just need to pop in to the bread shop to get a couple of baguettes. He watches over my car while it's double parked and keeps the tow truck away for a few minutes.

Plastic bottles guarding the parking space

5. Valet-parking is an upscale luxury in Europe but in Mexico, nearly every establishment of a certain size or importance offers this service. You may see a small stand outside the shop, restaurant or office with an umbrella over it accompanied by a group of boys or men, some of them smartly-dressed. First-time visitors to Mexico City usually hyperventilate when they have to hand over their car and the keys to some stranger for the first time and watch them drive their vehicle out of sight down the road. Will they ever see it again, is the thought that hammers away worryingly in their brain for the next hour or so as they have their meal, go shopping or do some other errand. It seems incongruous that, in a city where an average of 62 cars are stolen every day, you can willingly hand over one of your most expensive possessions to a man you know absolutely nothing about and hope to ever see it again. It certainly isn't in keeping with all the stories of corruption, violence, armed robbery or kidnapping. And yet Valet-parking is a safe option... or at least we have always been given our car back. The men either take your car away and park it for you, or they may even drive around looking for a space along the crowded streets and then swap it for an outgoing car. It saves you time and energy although you may have to wait quite a while for them to reappear with it. I sometimes wonder if they forgot where they parked it, like I do.

Valet parking

Taking care of the cars

6. Some restaurants and offices in well-sought after areas with reduced parking facilities have come up with a novel idea. They use a system of double-decker parking racks. You leave your car and keys with them and they park and un-park the guests' cars as and when they need them, shuffling them around, and moving them up and down.

Double-decker parking

Which one is your car?

7. Of course, there is always the possibility that you may actually find a space to park along a street. Just make sure there is no E sign crossed out (E = Estacionar) and that you are allowed to park there or you may come back and find you have a flat tyre or your car has disappeared without the slightest trace. Like I did. Or depending on the area you are in, there may be clear evidence when you return that someone tried to nick your wheel trims. Like they did to mine. Or even that they have tried to force their way in and your key no longer works. This has happened to me. The electronic key has never worked since.

No parking. Flat tyres free of charge!

One piece of advice: I have learnt in the almost two years I've been living here not to underestimate the grua or the tow-truck. It is not a pleasant experience to have your car towed away.

Someone's lost their car to the grua....

Immobilised car

The first time it happened to me (unfortunately 3 times to date), I had accidentally left my debit card in a cashpoint machine. I drove round the block, remembered, and returned to the bank. Parking along the side of the road like all the other car drivers, I nipped into the cashpoint. To my dismay, the card had disappeared and hadn't been returned to the bank. I checked my car outside and then went in the bank to report and cancel the card. Surprisingly, just 10 minutes later, I emerged triumphantly with a totally new card (it takes a week back in Spain) feeling in awe of the banking system which had just zoomed up a few notches in my consideration. My feeling of amazement immediately turned to horror. My car, along with the ice-cream, butter, yoghurts and the rest of the weekly shopping, had vanished into thin air.

I checked the pavement to see if there was any sticker left by the tow truck saying where they had taken it to. Nothing. My heart began to beat faster as I then realised it must have been stolen. Obviously one of the 62 cars that day. And I'd only had it a couple of months. A man was standing by a car nearby so I decided to approach him. Had he seen what had happened to a small black car parked here? Sí, señorita, la grua se lo llevó", he said. "It was towed away". But why only my car? What about all the other cars? He proceeded to point out a beefy-looking bouncer standing on the other side of the street. "Tiene que darle pesos. Sino, llama la grua." If I didn't grease his palm, he was in collusion with the tow truck people and called them. I was learning the hard way. The man added, "That's why I'm standing here by the car while I wait for someone in that office. Otherwise they would tow it away."

I was unsure as to what to do next. Where do you find a towed-away car in the middle of Mexico City? After consulting a fair number of people, it seemed most likely that it would have been taken to one of two corrales. Josep was incomunicado in a meeting, and I rang Cristina and Marc at home to let them know why I was taking so long. "Mum, say it again. What have you lost? Your card or your car?" "Both!", I managed to blurt out before the cell phone died on me. A policeman told me where to go but said I should take a taxi. It was too far to walk. I'm glad I listened to him. He hailed one for me, explained my dilemma and off we went. The taxi driver said he would wait outside the corral until I was sure my car was there. It wasn't a nice area for me to be left stranded in. He went on to give me a grisly account of the 9 times he had been atracado, asaltado, herido (assaulted with injuries). He showed me the scar left on his head from one of the incidents. A gun had been put to his head twice and his taxi stolen twice. I was getting more nervous by his stories than by the thought of never finding my car again.

Three and a half hours later, after I'd had to call Joseo to get papers I hadn't even known existed and paid the fine, I peeled off numerous sticky white papers from the doors and petrol tank cover and drove my car home. The ice-cream had melted in the hot midday sun, the youghurts had curdled and the butter was dripping all over the contents of the shopping bag. But I had my car back.

Posted by margaretm 11:05 Archived in Mexico Tagged traffic parking mexico city trucks tow Comments (0)

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