Mexico 2019-20 Part 4 (revised Feb 6)


Continuing in San Miguel de Allende:

A visit to the Botanical Garden, situated right at the edge of town is highly recommended.  It covers 88 hectares and is also a wildlife and bird sanctuary.  We took the English language guided tour, given by their ornithologist.  It was obvious where his real passion lay as the appearance of any bird made him much more excited than the vast selection of cacti and native plants.  The garden was truly drought tolerant but, in summer, after the rains, the ferns and mosses all green up and there are wildflowers everywhere.  We did see colour and flowers on the cacti and succulents in the Conservatory of Mexican Plants.

Each Sunday there is a House and Garden Tour, organized as a fundraiser for the Library.  We have found these fascinating as they provide such an insight into the range of accommodation available here.  Our first house two weekends  ago was in a huge, gated subdivision right at the edge of town.  The Americans who owned it seemed to have indulged their fantasies.  There were umpteen bathrooms and a man cave, featuring a bar, a huge flat screen TV and a magnificent sound system.  The wife, a dancer, had greatly admired the hippo in Fantasia.  Consequently there were hippos everywhere in all shapes and sizes.  Chacun a son gout!  The second house was such a contrast, owned by a collector of artefacts from around the world.  This eclectic selection had been curated and beautifully displayed with such attention to detail.  He had even floated Gerbera flowers on the surface of his pool.

The tour we went on last weekend was of two town houses side  by side on one of the most historic streets called Canal.  They certainly did not have kerb appeal as there were huge stone walls with access by massive wooden doors.  Inside was like another world with Casa Abejas, definitely the nicer of the two, divided in two parts round a magnificent swimming pool.  Although it certainly had all mod cons and was very luxurious,  the interior could not have been described as cosy.  What both properties had was magnificent upper terraces with spectacular views of the city with the churches on the skyline.
We also had the opportunity to visit Beatriz and Dan, whose casita Liz and Ken rented.   They retired here from LA six years ago and built a home right downtown on a derelict pecan orchard.  We were impressed by how right it seemed for the setting.

Another fundraiser for the Library is the two hour historic walking tour, given by a retired American, possibly drama, teacher.  She was an excellent guide, obviously passionate about her subject but very entertaining too.  We took the tour on a national holiday with a parade featuring school groups, marching brass bands and gauchos on horseback.  That meant street closures and lots of noise.  Our guide was able to adapt the tour and provided a wealth of historical information.  She informed us that the courtyard settings of the fancy restaurants that I thought resembled the ones in Marrakesh were, in fact, the stables and the planters were horse troughs!

The library also organizes tours to areas of interest outside town so we decided to visit Guanajuato, the state capital, an hour’s drive away.  It took us much longer as our driver routed  us through the mountains so that we could visit a ceramics workshop and a women’s cooperative, providing funds for families whose breadwinner had gone to find work in the States and never returned.  Guanajuato is also a very wealthy place due to the silver mines close by.  Although this was a huge source of revenue  in Spanish colonial times, the deposits are so rich that now the silver is being mined for the electronics industry.  It is a fascinating city with a totally pedestrianized core – the traffic being diverted through underground tunnels which originally were built to divert the river.  It is also a university town with the best law school in Mexico.  Our first stop was the Mummy Museum, a macabre place featuring corpses that had died during a cholera epidemic.  There were too many to bury individually, but the minerals in the soil naturally desiccated  the bodies and clothing and body hair were still evident almost 200 years later.  A visit to the Opera House was an example of town’s wealth as was the tour of the many churches .  Our last stop was Diego Rivera’s house, now an art gallery, featuring the evolution of his painting style throughout his lifetime starting at the age of 11.  Our guide recommended lunch in a very swanky restaurant on the main square.  Their specialty was tweaking traditional Mexican fare and we had tacos, the filling contained  within shaved jicama – delicious!


The tour we took yesterday, again through the Library, to Cañada de la Virgen, was really quite disappointing.  We are very interested in this area’s early history and have made a point of visiting ruins in Mexico and Guatemala.  We were a group of three and had our own guide, only to find that there was an “English” speaking guide provided by the site. His explanations were incomprehensible and he did not understand our attempts to achieve some clarity.  Too bad!  The site had been discovered in 1982 and parts of it are still being excavated.

Now we have only three days left under the blue skies and sunshine, having escaped what seems to have been such a sodden, stormy time in Victoria.  Mostly the weather has been sunny and warm although in San Miguel it felt pretty chilly after 4pm and before 10 am and we were glad of the gas fires in our accommodation.  There were a couple of days in the last week when Victoria was 3° warmer than here in the morning!  We have certainly enjoyed the contrasts between our three destination and were quite unprepared for the charm, beauty and affluence of San Miguel.  We can quite understand why so many people, particularly artists, have made it their winter home.  The Library, with its fundraising activities for the education of girls and women, provided a meeting place for the gringo community, who, for the most part, made us seem quite young and sprightly!  All in all, having visited the majority of the coastal resorts, we found this holiday offered so much more in terms of interest and culture and thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to sample so many new experiences.


In our last couple of days we visited one art gallery in town and a couple of places about a 20 minute drive out of SMA (120 peso by taxi each way or $8).  The art gallery was in the old nunnery and is called Bellas Artes with many exhibits and including some striking murals.  Out of town we visited the town of Atotonilco where there was a hot pool/spa complex rated highly by the Lonely Planet.  Maybe it was off season and too cold, but it looked rather run down and unappealing to us.  we had lunch but didn’t venture into the pools.  Nearby was the Sanctuario Atotonilco the ceiling of which has been described as the Sistine chapel of Mexico.  Not much competition with  the real thing!


Mexico 2019-20 Part 3

When we arrived back at the Casa Gonzales in Mexico City we were given the same room and, again met a most interesting group of guests at breakfast, a true League of Nations.  What we had not reckoned on is that all the museums in Mexico City close on Mondays.  On Tuesday we made up for that by taking the Metro to the historic district, first visiting the enormous Metropolitan  Cathedral and then the  ruins of the Templo Mayor, which are right in the heart of the city.  They could be easily seen from the sidewalk and some excavation was still being done.  Then came the high spot of the day, a visit to the Ministry of Education building, which has huge murals on almost every available surface painted by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. They were magnificent and depicted both the way of life and the history of the area.  Next morning we boarded the deluxe double-decker bus, reclining seats, foot rests and video screens for the four hour trip to San Miguel.  It certainly was not a scenic journey as there was so much urban sprawl, lots of factories and very little green space.


In San Miguel de Allende we have an Air B&B, which is self contained on the second floor of a house, whose owners are out of town.  Again Robin has come up trumps as it has an outdoor seating area with a barbecue, a heater and lots of plants.  We were met by the housekeeper, who comes in once a week to clean and do our laundry.  It has a very well equipped kitchen and everything we need.  We are very intrigued by the brickwork on the ceilings and Robin has spent lots of time trying to figure out how it’s done.


We had heard so much about San Miguel de Allende (SMA) over the years and have to say it’s the most charming of the colonial towns we have visited.  It is about 4 hours by bus NW of Mexico City and is quite high at  about 6,000 feet so the mornings and evenings tend to be cool and we are very glad of the gas heating in the house!  It’s easy to see why SMA has become an artists’ Mecca.  Originally it was the staging post between the silver mines and Mexico City and had very wealthy inhabitants.  Historically it is important as it was the first municipality declared independent of Spanish rule during the Mexican War of Independence.  The streets are cobblestones and are kept immaculate by women out scrubbing them each morning.  The skyline is dominated by beautiful churches, the most ornate one being the Parroquia, which looks rather like a Disney fairy tale castle at night.

There is a very large expat community of mostly Americans whose centre is the Bibliotecha.  This large compound houses an extensive library, a school for women and girls, a language centre and the venue for all sorts of activities like bridge, mahjong, lectures and poetry readings. Last Sunday we joined their weekly House and Garden tour, which was very interesting.  The first house was owned by a realtor from Phoenix, very blonde and flamboyant.  Her house definitely reflected her personality being quite over the top and so staged you couldn’t imagine actually living there.  The second, Tres Cervezas, was absolutely gorgeous, having been extensively renovated over five years by owners with exquisite taste and deep pockets.  The best feature was the rooftop terrace with a pool and panoramic views of the town.

The Bibliotecha publishes its own newspaper, Que Pasa, outlining the slew of activities each day.  If that weren’t enough, SMA is a great place to walk as the streets are so pretty and the variety of doorways is a feature.  There are lots of very interesting shops with leatherwork, handicrafts and housewares.  We have been doing much of our own catering, shopping at the Mercado at prices that will make me weep when I return to Thriftys  but the meals we have had out have been so interesting and inventive.  At many of the restaurants you can dine in the courtyards which are quite magical, with flowering shrubs and fountains, very reminiscent of our experience in Marrakesh.

Needless to say, we are revelling in the blue skies, sunshine and warmth and feel very fortunate we have two more weeks to sample the wealth of experiences SMA has to offer.



Mexico 2019-20 part 2

The following gallery should have been in the last blog as we talked about the carpet factory in it.

The radish festival on December 23rd is a huge deal here, attracting hundreds of people to the Zocalo.  We decided to go early but, even then, it was mobbed with a long (2-hour) line up.  Someone took pity on us and directed us to a special entrance for the aged and infirm!  Swallowing our pride, off we went and got instant access and prime viewing.  Originally it began with farmers decorating their vegetable stalls to attract customers but now it has morphed into a competition with money prizes.  The radishes are different from our diminutive ones and all competitors had to source them from the government.  It was a one day event and the radishes had to be misted all the time to keep them looking white and fresh.

December 24th marks the Christmas celebration here and we were fortunate to be invited to Nora’s parents’ B&B for the festivities.  At six, a group of about thirty, guests, family and neighbours, gathered in the courtyard and, as darkness fell, were given lanterns and candles.  Half the group went out into the street to represent Mary and Joseph, while the inside group were the inn keepers.  We all had song sheets and sang alternate verses (in Spanish).  The seventh verse was sung in unison, celebrating Mary and Joseph having found room at the inn and the two groups were reunited inside.  We then all sang carols together.  After that, it was piñata time and first the kids and then some adults destroyed two piñatas and everyone gathered up the candy and money that spilled out.  Nora’s mom provided mulled wine , a buffet supper and a good time was had by all.  I really wished I had more fluent Spanish to express our appreciation for the generous hospitality.

On the 28th was my cooking class with Nora and I was totally impressed with its professionalism.  There were nine of us, a family of four and a gay male couple from Colorado, two young women, one from Dublin, the other from Belgium and me.    We started off with an explanation of the cuisine and how it had been a major factor in Oaxaca being made a UNESCO World heritage site.  Then we went to the Mercado, where R and I had been doing our shopping, without any real understanding of the range of produce available.  We found out about the wide range of peppers, the special cheeses, the organic vegetables and the herbs.  Then it was back to Nora’s kitchen where we all donned aprons as it was very hands on.  We produced guacamole on cactus leaves, chicken soup, tamales and chocolate dessert.  Everyone was happy to pitch in, chopping, grilling, stirring.  We individually assembled the tamales from the chicken mole we made as a group.  Then we all sat around the beautifully appointed dining room table to sample the results of our labours.  Robin got to eat with us.

Another highlight was our visit to the Oaxacan Museum of Culture, which houses just about all the treasures found in the major tomb at Monte Alban.   It was discovered in the 1930s by an American archeologist and the find was on a par with Tutankhamen, with gold, silver, jade and thousands of intricate beads, which the team had painstakingly restrung.

Another high spot was a visit to a very special garden, recommended by a volunteer at the library.  It was a thirty minute cab ride away and even the cab driver didn’t know where he was headed.  It was owned by the designer of the botanical garden and was a real secret garden hidden away behind high bamboo screens.  It was a true Mexican garden full of cacti and succulents, looking stunning under the hot sun.  The garden art ranged from tiny dragon flies perched on plants to huge sculptures – quirky but just right.  There was a water feature full of fish that was large enough to accommodate a dugout canoe full of succulents.

Now we are back in Mexico City for a couple of nights before departing by bus to San Miguel.

Mexico 2019-20 Part I

Our winter holiday this year is almost 2 months in Mexico, but, for the first time, not on the beach.  Our itinerary is 4 days in Mexico City, 3 weeks in Oaxaca in the southern mountains, a couple of days back in Mexico City and the final 3 weeks in the more northern mountains at San Miguel d’Allende.  We have now been away for just over two weeks and the experiment is proving even more successful than we had hoped.  It is a totally different experience from being in the coastal resorts as there is so much more to see and do.

Our four days in Mexico City were quite overwhelming due to its  sheer size and the layout.  It seemed to take forever to access the various points of interest even though public transport was clean, accessible, efficient and very, very cheap.  There was a very visible police presence but we felt safe.  After Oak Bay we were so aware of the amount of young people, especially after dark.  We also managed to be there on December 12th, when literally millions of pilgrims, on foot, bicycles and in trucks pour in to visit the church dedicated the the black virgin of Guadeloupe.  Our hotel was charming, situated in the Embassy district and we met lots of interesting guests at breakfast.  

The high spot was our visit to the world class Museum of Anthropology, which gave us an appreciation and understanding of the ancient civilizations, which had inhabited Mexico since  500BC.  How Eurocentric our education has been and how history has been distorted by the Spanish depiction of a heathen society, which had to be converted to Christianity and the very lurid Hollywood versions.  We could have spent days there as there was also a floor dedicated to the dress, crafts and customs of each area of the country and Oaxaca was featured prominently.

We also took a day to visit the ruins of Teotihuacan, a huge site covering more than 20sq km, with two pyramids, one dedicated to the sun, the other the moon.  The scale was massive, with a wide, central avenue between.  It must have been an impressive sight back in the day as many of the high walls were plastered and decorated with huge, very colourful murals.

We flew here to Oaxaca just over a week ago and the town, although larger than we had anticipated, is a much more manageable size.  the City is a World Heritage site.  Again, our accommodation is quite charming with an upper terrasse sitting area surrounded by bougainvillea and pots of succulents.  The owners, Nora, local, and William, from the States, who live right beside us, also own a couple of large B&Bs quite near.  Nora is a real entrepreneur, has a tour company and has a cooking school in her home.  Their guests provide much of the clientele for her tours and classes.

As we are self catering we have visited the local mercado several times and cannot get over the prices.  You could eat avocado toast at every meal for next to nothing!  As you can imagine the meat counters are very daunting but there is an excellent fish shop and the bakery is very tempting.  We have enjoyed several good lunches out but so far have not found the perfect place for dinner. 

We feel we have crammed a lot into our first days here principally as we had the opportunity to join tours, which Nora had already arranged for her American B&B guests.  Friday was our first group tour to villages south of Oaxaca, the highlight of which was a visit to a wood carving collective.  We saw the entire process, beginning with the branches from a special tree, so a renewable resource, which were first roughly hewn, then were gradually refined and sanded to a very smooth finish.  These carvers were artists who took inspiration from the natural shape of the wood so no two carvings were the same.  The  pieces were then dried so they would endure and not crack.

Next they were painted with natural dyes and we had a demonstration of how they were achieved – very counter intuitive and all from plants like pomegranate, mixed with lime and lemon juice.  The finished products were highly glazed, and that came from honey.  At the showroom there was lots to buy but no sales pressure.  The pieces were true works of art and were priced accordingly

Our second tour was to villages to the east, the highlight of which was a visit to a carpet weaving company, which had been in the same family for ten generations.  Again we had a very comprehensive demo starting with the materials they use – alpaca, cashmere, angora and wool which has to be carded and spun, before being dyed with the same natural dyes.  Then the carpets were hand woven on huge looms.  The designs varied from Aztec to geometric to Art Deco in a range of gorgeous colours.  Even though there was no hard sell many of the group wanted to buy so the many family members were coopted into displaying the range of carpets available.  Again we are talking about serious money but if I had had a bare floor I would have been seriously tempted! 

On each excursion we ate as a group in the market and Nora selected a variety of local dishes for us to sample.  Our second trip ended up at a small family run mescal factory, where the whole process looked like something from the Middle Ages.  The spirit was made from an agave that I grow, but on sampling the finished product, R is going to stick to wine making.

Our third tour was a visit west , to the ruins at Monte Alban, named the white mountain after the abundance of Ipomea trees.  We had a personal tour given by one of Nora’s guides, who was absolutely excellent.  He certainly knew his stuff but tailored the information according to our prior knowledge and welcomed questions and comments.

There is still so much to see and do that three weeks may not do the area justice.

The following photos are approximately chronological, but there seems to be a glitch in WordPress that does not allow me to reorder the photos once loaded to the site.

Our next blog will start with the incredible Radish Festival ……….


Continue reading “Mexico 2019-20 Part I”

50th Anniversary Hornby Peter Pans Stag.

For 50 years a group of engineers employed by the Provincial Government (Water Investigations Branch and other names in several ministries over the years) have enjoyed visits to Jack Eby’s home on Hornby Island.  We are all now retired, but the event has continued on a more or less annual basis  over the years.  There has always been a core group but with many others, such as myself, who attended only the occasional retreat.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary, it was decided to invite any previous attendee who could be contacted.  This resulted in a group of 13  assembling at Jack’s from 27 to 29 May 2019.  Everyone contributed to the success of the event, but particular mention must be made of Eric Bonham who masterminded the occasion, Peter Woods who provided a memorable 20-minute montage of the history of the stags and Norm Guild who acted as the quartermaster.  Of course, none of this would have happened if Jack had not been the always hospitable host!

The following picture gallery attempts to catch the highlights of the weekend:

Australia 2018 – Part II

All good things must come to an end and, although this trip was not what we originally anticipated 6 months ago, it has proved very successful and enabled us to see so many different places. Tasmania seemed to have become so much more prosperous since our last visit and we were told that it was now about the only affordable pleasant venue for young couples to buy property.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Hobart and were interested in its long hisory.  We found the Botanic Garden very interesting, especially the Antarctic House, featuring plants from McQuarrie Island.  Runnymede House, a National Trust property, was very reminiscent of Pointe Ellice House in Victoria and we had a chance to meet some of the garden volunteers, busy trying to maintain the extensive grounds and orchard.  The high spot of our time there was a trip to Bruny Island, where we took a 3-hour boat tour along the spectacular, rugged coast.  No whales, penguins nor porpoises but gannets, fur seals and albatross.

Then it was on to Canberra and the primary purpose of the entire trip, to spend Christmas with family.  Our niece, Kirsty, was very clever and gave birth to Isobel Margaret Cameron the day before we arrived and we were able to visit them in hospital.  She is a dear little girl, a very good baby, who just sleeps, eats and doesn’t mind being passed around like a parcel.  Big brother, Ned, was quite overwhelmed but rose to the occasion.  That week was a hectic one with Meg doing most of the childcare, Don doing yeoman service in the kitchen and Kirsty entertaining her many friends, who were all so excited for her.  We filled in where we could but were very happy to have our quiet AirB&B down the road.  There was not much opportunity to do much sightseeing – and it was SO hot – but the adults booked the Antarctic Virtual Reality Show at the Australian National Museum.  This was somewhat frustrating in its superficiallity but, while we were there, we had a little time to visit the Aboriginal section, which was fascinating and had so many parallels to our First Nations history, art and artifacts.  All in all it was a great family time and we were wined, dined and spoiled rotten.

Then it was off to Perth, WA where we revelled in the proximity to the sea and the freshness.  The night of our arrival, we stayed downtown and, in the morning, visited the Botanic Garden.  We were totally blown away as it made   Vancouver’s Stanley Park look quite ordinary.  There are stunning views of the harbour and, even if you had no interest in plants, lottery funds had been used to provide all sorts of interesting hardscape.  It was one of the high spots of the entire trip.  We drove south along the coast to Bunbury, where we had another excellent AirB&B overlooking the water.  Although this town does not have the cachet of nearby Busselton and Dunsborough we have been so impressed by the Oceanside walkway and all the facilities.  It’s pleasantly busy but not heaving with humanity like the more popular venues.  We have spent our time here exploring, visiting Cape Naturaliste Park  and generally just enjoying being by the sea in such beautiful surroundings.  We did have the opportunity of having lunch with Julie’s sister, Lynne, whom we last met here 20 years ago.  For our grand finale, we visited Mammoth Cave, near Margaret River.  We went there twenty years ago and were just as impressed second time around.  The subtle lighting was perfect for the stalagmites, stalactites and an enormous variety of formations.  We had lunch at Watershed Wines on their deck, overlooking the extensive vineyards – a fitting end to this part of our trip.

I read somewhere that Australians are just “Canadians with a tan” and have been thinking lots about that.  Certainly we have been struck by so many similarities – First Nations issues, refugees and immigration and concern about pollution, climate change and the environment.  In fact Aussies seem to be ahead of us in the latter.  Another puzzle is why such independent, free wheeling people still celebrate Christmas in the traditional English way – carols, Santas in full regalia and roast turkey with all the trimmings and Christmas pud!  It boggles the mind!  Although we have seen lots of friends on the trip,  they are pretty cosmopolitan and well travelled, so have been unable to assess whether Aussies in general are really similar to us.

Australia 2018 – Part 1

After 2 enjoyable weeks in New Zealand, we flew to Sydney where we started off our Australian  visit by reconnecting with old friends, both in the Sydney area and in Orange.  Our first stop was in Woonona with Ron and Julie – a couple we met in Vancouver in the mid 70s and with whom we’ve kept  in touch over the years.   They were in great form and it was so interesting to hear how the second and third generations, most of whom we have met, are faring.  We had a lovely few days enjoying the warmth and the wonderful beaches of the area.

Our next stop was inland in Orange, the other side of the Blue Mountains from Sydney where Meg’s cousin Jan and her husband Dave live.  Although we have met Dave and Jan several times (including in Victoria), this was our first visit to this beautiful part of the country.  It is quite high so doesn’t get too hot and is home to agriculture of all kinds.  It is also the birthplace of Banjo Patterson, author of  Waltzing Matilda and all the streets in the area had names alluding to Oz’s unofficial anthem. Our hosts had also invited Liz Caldwell, Julie’s sister-in-law and another old friend.  Her family had lived in the area for three generations and owned a huge vineyard, which we visited.  The weather was perfect and we enjoyed exploring the area, meeting their friends and attending their local farmer’s market.  Our final visit was with David and Dawn Lane – another couple we’ve known since our Vancouver days – who live just north of Sydney in Mona Vale.  They now live in a condo, having moved from their family home less than a year ago.  Their daughter, Penny Lane – can you guess how old she is – dropped in to see us with her son, Finn, who  is the same age as our Jack.  Again it was intriguing to note the similarities and differences between our family and theirs.  All told, everyone’s concern seemed to be climate change and the treatment of refugees.

We flew from Sydney to Launceston (less than 2 hours) in Tasmania where we picked up another car and drove out to the north coast – again new territory for us although this our 3rd visit to Tasmania.  We had a very modern, well equipped VRBO just outside Ulverstone which was right on the waterfront looking north across the Bass Straight.  We spent the first 2 day’s exploring the coast along to Stanley – a real mix of rocky and sandy beaches and with a surprising (to us) amount of industry such as fertilizer, lumber and fishing.  We never imagined we would be driving through fields of opium poppies and learned that Tasmania is one of the leading suppliers to the pharmaceutical industry!  We also went inland to Leven Canyon, stopping on the way at a Tasmanian wildlife farm where we met a large assortment of animals including the famous Tasmanian Devils.  For $50 we could have had a photo op holding those carrion feeding carnivores.  Our next stop was a large garden specializing in cool-weather plants such as hellebores and trilliums.

We are now in Hobart in an Airbnb which is the Sunday School building of an old church – the owner lives in the original church.  It has been renovated very tastefully, paticularly the large kitchen and the bathroom which could be advertisements for IKEA.  The main area which houses the living area and bedroom (separated by a room divider) is about 30′ wide by 20′ deep!  We took the ferry to visit MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) which is a privately owned museum mostly of modern art, full of sexual images, but also containing some ancient Egyptian artefacts.  We were somewhat bemused by the whole experience but really enjoyed the trip up the harbour to get to and from the museum.

We are not sending Christmas cards this year, so this brings our best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.

New Zealand, November 2018

We left Victoria on November 14th, getting a direct flight from Vancouver to Auckland which was done in just under 13 hours.  It was a very easy flight and passed quickly decanting us into the airport at 5am!  We rented a car and drove about 110 km north to a tiny village called Pakiri – really just an intersection! – where we found the place where we are home-exchanging for two weeks.  Our hosts were just finishing a late breakfast when we arrived and were most hospitable.  Right off the bat they suggested a shared dinner the following evening and, during our stay, could not have been more helpful and accommodating.

Prior to coming we had not made any real plans,  just  looking forward to leaving our November weather and anticipating that the nearby Pakiri Beach would be a feature.  We have been thrilled that our time here has come together in such an interesting way.

Our accommodation is a converted 100 year old barn – very quirky but comfortable – with a very productive organic vegetable garden adjacent.  Our hosts live in the main house and the entire property is more than seven acres.   They plan to visit Canada in September and Robin is helping them plan their itinerary.

As luck would have it our time here has provided us with some amazing experiences .  Quite fortuitously each weekend there has been a charity fundraiser garden tour within striking distance and we have had a lovely time exploring almost 40 gardens, talking to the owners and seeing more of the countryside.  The first weekend was within commuting distance, but the second was in Whangarei – over an hour north of here so we decided to stay at a B&B overnight.  This tour was organized by Quarry Gardens which had been inspired by Butchart Gardens to utilize a disused quarry to make a show garden.  We had been there about 10 years previously when the project was in its infancy and were amazed at the amount they had achieved in that time.  We saw all sorts of gardens from vast oceanside estates to relatively humble back yards.  While in Whangerei we got in contact with home exchangers from 10 years ago who treated us to a memorable dinner, bed and breakfast.

There are also two NZ “Gardens of Distinction” nearby which we have visited.  At The Paddocks we met the owner, Penny, who, with her husband, Rowan,  had worked for ten years at Ayrlies, NZ’s most famous garden and had met all the world’s most famous garden personalities.  She gave us a personal tour and we loved her garden.

Then, earlier this week, we had a surprise visit from Fiona, Alimay’s sister Maida’s sister in law, and husband John, who were just at the end of a three week holiday, which had involved a tramp, scaling a mountain peak and three days kayaking in Abel Tasman Park as well as other strenuous activities.  They were driving a camper that was just one degree better than tent camping.  We had a great evening with them, delighted that from Canada and Scotland we should connect here.

We are soon off to Australia for another six weeks or so and will blog further from there.






Open Garden May 12-13 2018

We were honoured to be asked again to open our garden for the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s fundraiser this year.  Tickets are sold allowing participants to visit 10 gardens in greater Victoria over a 2-day period.  We ended up with a total of 1295 people visiting our garden.  It was a very rewarding experience and well worth the sweat toil and tears involved in getting it ready 12 days after we came back from Morocco!

The following gallery shows some views of what our garden looked like – the photos were actually taken the day after the hoards had left!

Morocco 3 – from Marrakesh back to Casablanca

Again, photos are in a separate post.  Photos apply to Morocco 2 and Morocco 3.

We had two full days to explore Marrakesh, but even at that, we didn’t see everything and became quite frustrated at the pace at which simple lunches were produced and the amount of “shopping” stops that were called for.  We visited the Koutoubia Mosque, which dominates the skyline being the highest building, and the beautifully restored Bahia Palace, former home of the Grand Vizier, his wives and harem.  There is also a historic Jewish quarter, which housed an affluent and welcomed community up until the creation of Israel.

We visited the famous Majorelle Gardens, formerly owned by Jacques Majorelle, a French orientalist painter, who commissioned his architect to build him a studio in Art Deco style.  Its walls were painted  Majorelle blue, a particularly vivid hue found all over the garden.  This is accented by bright yellow pottery containers.  Around it, he designed a garden, a living work of art, composed of exotic plants, rare specimens from around the world  and water features.  After his death the garden fell in disrepair until Yves St. Laurent and his partner bought it  and restored the gardens to their exotic former glory.

Adjacent to the gardens was the very modern YSL museum, which featured examples from all his collections in chronological order, quotations from his commentary and explanations of how Morocco had influenced his work.  Projected on the walls were videos of spring and fall collections as well as display cases of costume jewelry and accessories. Absolutely fabulous!

Our hotel was only 2 minutes walk from Le Jardin Secret, situated in the largest and most ancient riad of the medina. A  riad is a traditional manor house in the centre of which is always a garden, an oasis of peace, surrounded by high windowless walls.  This garden is a classic Islamic garden, divided into four quadrants, conceived as an earthly reflection of Paradise as described in the Koran.  Water is a fundamental element in Arab-Muslim gardens and the fountains in the centre of the riads are the beating heart of the house.  Water from the Atlas Mountains flows into the city through a network of underground channels.  Gravity fed water systems provide all the fountains and water features throughout the garden.  The garden had belonged to one of the area’s most influential families but by 1932 their power had waned and everything fell into such disrepair and neglect that, by 2000, it was almost impossible to see any signs of its former splendour.  Fortunately there were still plans of the original garden and in 2007 an extensive renovation was undertaken and, with expert garden advice, it was restored to its former glory.

Another highlight of our stay was two amazing dinners, both in riads with beautiful tiles and lovely, scented gardens.  The first establishment belonged to Moha, a celebrated local chef who is the host of their Master Chef programme.  We had an array of tapas like starters, for me the highlight of the meal.  The main course was quail or Cornish game hen followed by a dessert of phyllo pastry with strawberries.  Oddly enough,  most of us preferred the second dinner which started with harira soup – spicy tomato served with dates – often the choice in Ramadan to break the fast – followed by lamb which had been cooked in a special jar – a lot like our lamb shanks – with crepes for dessert.  The immense city square is a UNESCO site and is filled with musicians, snake charmers, performing monkeys, fortune tellers and an amazing array of pop-up restaurants – all totally exotic!

We could have spent much more time there but had to push on to our next stop of Essaouira, right on the Atlantic coast.  Long ago it was the main port for trade with Timbuktu and more recently Morocco’s major port before the container ships became so large that a new port facility was built in Casablanca.  Nowadays it has a huge fishing fleet to catch shellfish, crabs, lobsters and bream.  It is also a UNESCO heritage site and listed as one of the thousand places to see before you die.  Its fortifications are reminiscent of St. Malo but it also has a hippy vibe as it is a kite surfing Mecca – indeed something for everyone as the medina  is full of interesting shops.

Our first stop en route was to photograph goats perched in the Argan trees – Coombs paled in comparison.  Eating the Argan nuts gives their milk and cheese a lovely nutty flavour.  Next we stopped for a wine tasting at the Val d’Argan vineyard, owned by a French couple from the Chateau Neuf du Pape area in the Rhone area of France.  That was a totally unexpected treat as we could easily have been in France, Australia or the Okanagan as we tasted excellent wine under a tree beside a villa and nibbled on tapas.  Then there was a tour of the Women’s Cooperative for the production of Argan oil.  The process is very labour intensive as everything is done by hand but has the advantage of allowing many of the women to work from home.  After seeing the women wearing traditional clothing shelling the nuts by hitting them with small rocks we went straight into the ultra modern sales facility to hear a sales pitch promoting the efficacy of the oil as a beauty product, rejuvenating in every way and you can even dress a salad with it!   I think the women must be making an absolute fortune as the prices were so steep.  No way was I going to buy a bucketful as my hairdresser had suggested!
All this happened before lunch, which we had some time after 3 at a very primitive cafe right beside the harbour.  Everything was cooked on a barbecue – shrimp, prawns, crayfish, squid, bream and crab – delicious!  We were on our own to find dinner which proved a challenge as all we wanted was a little something washed down with some wine.  The most interesting Lonely Planet suggestions all said no booze!  We eventually found a French place that served paté, cheese and wine.  Our full day there was spent having a half day tour conducted by a local guide.  We began in the harbour area and then walked through the medina, which was totally different from the ones we had seen previously.  It had been planned, had wide streets but still housed evidence of the ancient caravanserai, for housing the Arab traders and their camels.  The high spot was a visit to the workshop of craftsmen in wood, who produced beautiful marquetry work, tables, trays, bowls and boxes.  In the evening we went to dinner in a very interesting French fusion restaurant.  We started with sushi and tapenade, followed by cream cheese in phyllo or fish cakes, then lamb chops, chicken curry or fish, then sticky toffee pudding!

Now we were heading back to Casablanca along the little used coast road to admire the scenery and see the evidence of Morocco’s thriving phosphate industry, not quite so scenic.  The only major stop was at El Jadida, a UNESCO site, a port fortified by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  There was an ancient cistern with beautiful arches and reflections.  When we arrived back at our starting point it seemed as if we had been away for such a long time.  When it was announced that our farewell dinner was going to be traditional and alcohol free there was mutiny in the ranks.  We went to the restaurant in the hotel and had a beautiful meal (with wine) and belly dancing for entertainment.  Peace was restored and the next day we all scattered to our various destinations, having had a truly memorable trip.