Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Europe Lite - And Five Other Reasons To Like Guanajuato

Since the beginning of May we have been living in one of our favorite cities -- Guanajuato, Mexico (roughly pronounced: whahn-ah-whah-toe). Our first visit to Guanajuato was a  week-long act of tourism in January 2012.  We came back in August and September 2013 to beat the heat of coastal Mexico and study Spanish. 

And here we are again. 

So, before we take off this Friday to head back to the EEUU we thought we'd tell you a little about what we like about Guanajuato - hopefully without repeating ourselves (because we all know what that means . . . .):

#1 Reason We Like Guanajuato -- It's Europe Lite

When we wrote about last year's trip to eastern Canada we talked about how some places in eastern Canada struck us as Europe Lite. Well, eastern Canada is not the only location where Americans can experience the charms of The Continent while avoiding a negative currency exchange hit. Guanajuato is very Europe Lite. 

And it's not just us that thinks so! 

Guanajuato is a small city (170,000 people +/-) and by this hemisphere's standards it's old (founded 1546 by decree of a Spanish viceroy). It's nestled high (2,000 meters / 6,600 feet) in a mountain valley, surrounded by spectacular hills.

Guanajuato Hillside

La Bufa In The Morning

The hills are covered with colorful houses lining narrow, winding, cobblestone streets and alleys (callejons).

Houses + Hill

Part of Our Walk (Down) To Town

Walking in Guanajuato feels a more like winding through the alleys of the Alfama in Lisbon than strolling along the grid-patterned streets of a Spanish colonial city in Mexico -- but at a much higher altitude. The #1 tourist activity is "getting lost", so it's best to just relax and enjoy it.

To add to the sense of European-ness, there are at least two places in Guanajuato where one must look to the right - British style - before stepping off the "kerb". This town has some extremely eccentric traffic patterns. [Guanajuato Travel Tip: Look right before crossing Sostenes Rocha as it passes Compañero and before crossing Sangre de Cristo at the end of Jardin Embajadoras.]

As with most European cities, driving in Guanajuato is a major challenge. And it's not just because there are roundabouts. [Travel Tip: Here we will incorporate our advice to first-time visitors to San Francisco: Save yourselves. Don't rent a car. Walk and spend your transportation dollars on taxis when you need to. It will be easier on both your credit card and your blood pressure. Plus - you'll see more if you walk!]

Many of the primary roadways in Guanajuato are actually tunnels. Background: Like many other 16th Century cities, Guanajuato was located along the banks of a river. Over the city's next three centuries the local inhabitants came to realize that the damned river was probably not going to stop flooding unless something drastic was done. So during the latter part of the 19th Century some incredibly clever engineers began a mammoth project to divert the river to water storage areas outside of town and to use the abandoned riverbed as a road.  

Dams, reservoirs and tunnels were constructed from stone, endowing Guanajuato with a legacy of (at least for newly arrived drivers) obscure and frighteningly narrow underground roadways. Think: Paris -- without focusing too much on the Pont d'Alma tunnel where Princess Diana met her end.

A Main Road Through Town

A Tunnel Picture Taken By Someone
With A Better Camera Lighting System Than Ours

Architecture peeping in Guanajuato also offers a Euro Lite experience. Some of the buildings are really old, some are pretend old and others are new . . . and charming as well.

Really Old - A Corner Near The Jardin Union

Sort of Old: Teatro Juarez -- 1903
A Jewel of the Porfiriato 
Not Really Very Old: The University's Main Building - 
Built in the 1940's 

The city's modern, student vibe is evident even in the multi-tasking performed by the University's famous stairs. During some of the city's many film festivals they are used as (slightly uncomfortable) seating for an outdoor theater.

Probably New - But Charming

No Idea About Age, But 
We Really Want To Look Inside

And, of course, there are churches . . . lots of churches . . . 

Templo de San Diego - a Detail

Templo de San Diego - Rooftops

Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato

The Chapel on Callejon Temezquitate

This neighborhood chapel also multi-tasks - as the meeting place for the neighborhood watch committee.

Guanajuato also has the requisite (for a Euro Lite experience) outdoor cafes  . . . 

Santo Cafe

and several very good coffee houses (Cafe TalCafe Conquistador and Cafe Atrio are our favorites) where students and professors stare at laptop screens for hours. 

There's even Euro culture. The University of Guanajuato (an 18th Century Jesuit school that gained university status in 1945) sponsors international movies almost every week (Warning: Spanish subtitles, which make it difficult to follow the latest Swedish flick if your Spanish language skills are, like Molly's, lacking). 

The Jardin Union Is The Place To Find Out
About What's Going On In Town

And, as we've mentioned in prior posts, the University is the sponsor of a very well rounded, professional symphony. This season we've enjoyed Russian (Shostakovich and Rimsky-Korsakov), Italian (Verdi), German (Strauss) and French (Debussy, Sibelius and Chausson) compositions. And, to divert a bit from the Euro Lite theme, we've also heard some new-to-us Mexican (Revueltas, Mora and Compean) and Argentine (Ginastera) composers. 

Teatro Principal - 
Venue for the GTO Symphony

To conclude our Euro Lite theme: Guanajuato has racing waiters! Okay, in France (and San Francisco) they run with wine bottles and here they run with plastic cups of refrescos (sodas) - but these guys can really move!

Around the Jardin Union

Tazas de Refrescos

Race #2 - Coming Down The Stretch

Waiter #8 - Awaiting The Decision

So, yes, Guanajuato is Europe Lite. But even travelers who aren't seeking a European substitute will find a lot to like about Guanajuato:

#2 Reason We Like Guanajuato -- Live Music Is Everywhere

We've enjoyed the symphony, but we've also enjoyed live music at a number of other venues:
  • A charming local "hotelito" - Casa Dionisio - which has an in-house harpsichord. We haven't stayed in this pretty hotel but we've really enjoyed two of their monthly concerts (one, early and renaissance music, and the other baroque music).  
  • The Casa Museo Gene Byron, an ex-hacienda originally restored by a Canadian Artist - Ms. Gene Byron - hosts live music, usually jazz or classical music, every Sunday afternoon. The ex-hacienda is a beautiful venue, located only a short cab ride from el Centro, in the town of Marfil. 
  • Teatro Juarez - a fabulous over-the-top turn of the last century theater hosts music almost every weekend. We will miss a classical guitar concert next week, but last weekend we enjoyed an homenaje (homage) to the jazz composer Jorge Martinez Zapata by the Quinteto de Jazz de Raul Aranda. These guys rock (hmmm -- is that the right thing to say about jazz musicians?).

And this list doesn't include the various acts at restaurants and bars throughout town.

Here is a short video of a tango we heard played by In-Fortunio, a tango duo (guitarist Cesar Lara and accordionist Javier Noyola Zarazua), at the Case Museo Gene Byron:

We'll pause here to mention once again how affordable the Guanajuato music experiences are, and to clarify -- in case you consider us crass or cheap -- that we mention this because it means we are able to listen to good and interesting music often. In California we would spend an entire month's entertainment budget for one night attending an okay symphony (when it's functioning). Here, we have attended four symphony performances, two performances at the Casa Museo, two at Casa Dionisio and a jazz concert at the Teatro Juarez for a total of about 800 pesos each ($55 U.S.). 

#3 Reason We Like Guanajuato -- It Is A Great Place To Study Spanish
In 2013 we studied Spanish at Plateros Spanish School for a couple of months. This year we returned because we learned a lot then and we hoped we would do the same this year. And we did. 

Plateros translates in English as "silversmith" or "one who creates or repairs silver items", so the school's name is in part a reference to the silver mining beginnings of Guanajuato. But we occasionally envision the Plateros teachers patiently tap-tap-tapping on our brains with their silver hammers . . . trying to hammer out some bright and shiny knowledge of the Spanish language. And sometimes, they do! 

Manuel - A True Guanajuatense
and Paulo Who Also Teaches At The University

Rojelio - Who Can Smile Through The
Most Atrocious Conjugation Mistakes!

Román - Teacher and Go-To Guy For Information 
About Spanish Language Music And Movies

We also think that Guanajuato itself is a great place to study Spanish. The city is very tourist-friendly, but the bulk of its tourists are Mexican nationals and other Spanish-speaking visitors (including American students enrolled in the University's Spanish program on an exchange basis). Unlike residents of the English-saturated beach towns of Mexico, Guanajuatenses (the people of Guanajuato) assume that their conversations with extranjeros (foreigners) will be conducted in Spanish. Even if they are capable of switching to English . . . and many are . . . they usually won't unless it becomes necessary (as when Molly was doing a yoga pose left-to-right rather than right-to-left and about to whack a fellow yogi . . . ). We truly appreciate their willingness to let us mumble along in Spanish!

[An aside: Bryce recently enjoyed being able to act as an English translator for a worker at an auto detailing shop in nearby Leon. One of the workers asked if Bryce could read English (Bryce was thrilled - until he began to wonder if the guy was asking him if he could read . . . not whether he spoke English . . . ). Bryce assured the guy that he could read English, so the worker left and returned with a friend in tow. The friend had an English-language tattoo on his arm. It said "Only God Can Judge Me." Bryce translated the tattoo into Spanish with only a little help to remember the verb juzgar (to judge) -- and managed to keep a straight face when the tattooed worker turned to his friend and said, in Spanish: "See, I told you that's what it said!"]

#4 Reason We Like Guanajuato -- We Don't Need A Gym Membership Here

Those charming, winding cobble stoned streets can also be quite a workout. We live above the Panoramica - the winding road that circumnavigates the Guanajuato valley. Our location is often referred to as being a "ten minute walk to el Centro". 

[Guanajuato Travel Tip: Connecting words are important. A description of how long it will take to walk "to el Centro" says nothing about how long it will take to drag your butt UP from el Centro. In Guanajuato everything is either up or down and for those of us who are not part mountain goat, UP is usually measured in DOWN times a factor of 3. 

Molly - Going Down

#7 Privada Plateros

Apartment #6 - Top Right
(Yes, 3 Flights Up - After The Climb UP From Town!)

But, hey - it saves on gym fees.

#5 Reason We Like Guanajuato -- It's Youthful Vibe

Many of the expatriated Americans and Canadians (to expand on Mr. Buffett's phrase) in Mexico are what advertisers love to call "active retirees", a term we think refers to individuals freed from the necessity to work for a living and therefore able to pursue a variety of interests - physical, intellectual, cultural, charitable and/or social. We're quite happy to consider ourselves among this group. We've long known that working for a living, even at work that is interesting, doesn't necessarily make the worker interesting.

That said, we do sometimes long for contact with younger people. No matter how active an "active retiree" is, it's not the same level of energy - physical or intellectual - exuded by a university student or a 20/30-something engaged in finding or expanding a career or vocation. And there's something quite romantic about watching young lovers hold hands or snuggle in the park. Guanajuato is full of young people of all nationalities - University students, Spanish language students, young business owners and families of travelers. We love their energy. 

The pleasure we take in this youthful vibe seems to be shared by many of the "active retiree" expatriates here in Guanajuato. It's often cited as a reason they love Guanajuato.

And, finally, one of the most important reasons why we like Guanajuato is:

#6 Reason We Like Guanajuato -- It Is Very Mexico

Ah, yes - Guanajuato may be, in many ways, Euro Lite. But even better - it's Full On Mexico. And that's our next blog post!

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