Memphis, Tennessee: Population = 653,450 (Metro area = 1,317,314), elevation = 337 feet, average January low temp = 41.2º (43 nights below freezing), Average July high temp = 82.7º (64 days over 90º), annual snowfall = 3.9”, annual rainfall = 53.68”
Memphis is renowned for its music. The music has evolved from early gospel, soul, country, rock, and blues. Musicians who got their start here include a Who’s Who of American legends: Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Otis Redding, and many others. And, of course, The King, Elvis Presley.
Elvis and his family moved to Memphis when he was 13. When he was 19 he recorded his first music at Sun Records. Just two years later, in 1956, “Heartbreak Hotel” was released and went to number one on the charts. The same year, he starred in a movie, “Love Me Tender”. By 1957 he was apparently very successful, since he gave his parents $100,000 to find a new home with some farmland. They bought what was to become known as Graceland.
We visiting Graceland was an all day project. Besides the tour of the mansion and grounds, across Elvis Presley Blvd lies a whole campus of museums. We skipped the tour of the airplanes, but we did see a lot. Here are some photos:
Elvis is just one of the musical giants to get started in Memphis. More on them next week. And on the other thing Memphis is famous for: barbecue. Best ribs in the USA?
Shreveport, Louisiana: Population = 199,311 (Metro area = 441,000), elevation = 144 feet, average January low temp = 36.2º (35 days below freezing), Average July high temp = 93.4º (91 days over 90º), percent sunny days = 63, annual snowfall = 1.4”, annual rainfall = 51.38”
Our plan for the Spring is to gradually work our way back North so that we can spend some quality Summer time in Minnesota. From Houston our road took us to Shreveport. It will probably be a while before we see Louisiana again so we want to savor some more good Cajun food. As it turned out, we hit the jackpot on our first day there. There are only three breweries in Shreveport and the closest one was Great Raft Brewing. Loved the barrel-aged Old Mad Joy, a dark lager that weighs in at 10% ABV. We also loved that the next day was Crawfish Boil day, a fundraiser for the YWCA. Nuthin sez Cajun like a mess of mudbugs!
After our Mexican adventure, we were due for a few new clothing items. Shreveport has a nice big, sprawling shopping area on the North side of the river. Looming over the lesser shops, we found a Bass Pro Shop. If you have never seen one of these, they are worth a look even if you are not shopping. They are outfitters for sportsmen; hunters, campers, and fishermen. The store is huge and decorated with taxidermy displays of game animals, a room sized aquarium of large fish, and various odds and ends of rural-looking stuff.
The Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport is a big round building with a wealth of historical displays. The dioramas are incredibly detailed and reflect centuries of Louisiana history. There are also many Civil War artifacts and documents. My favorite display was the 1921 Bour Davis Touring Car that was built in Shreveport.
The big draw to Shreveport are the casinos. I am not really a gambler and I hate the stink of cigarettes, so we did not visit any casinos. We did visit the R.W. Norton Art Museum. They have a nice collection of bronze sculptures and oil paintings by Fredrick Remington and many other artists, Civil War firearms collections, WWII enlistment posters, and lots of other interesting items. Sorry, no photos allowed. We also visited the “Once In A Millennium Moon” mural downtown. This is 14 stories tall and covers two sides of the building.
From Shreveport, we traveled on to Little Rock, Arkansas. This was going to be just a two day stopover on the way to Memphis. The plan was to see the state capitol and Little Rock has a beauty. It is based on the building in Washington DC.
Little Rock is also home to the Clinton Presidential Library. Exploring the Library is like stepping back in time, to the events of those days. Looking back, we are reminded of all of the great things Clinton and his Congress did for us back then.
Little Rock surprised us. There is a lot more to see and do, to eat and drink, than we thought there would be. Maybe next time around.
Even after staying here a month, there are lots of places that we did not get to. We saw our fair share of restaurants and enjoyed some very fine Mexican cuisine. We saw lots of galleries with beautiful paintings, ceramics, carvings, fabric arts, and so on. Sorry, Artists don’t like it when you take photos. We enjoyed just walking around and seeing the odd little details like the door knockers and statues on homes, market streets with kitschy booths.
Around the outskirts of the city, the streets are a bit wider and there are actual sidewalks. The cobblestones are replaced with smooth asphalt, but every 100 feet or so, there are massive speed bumps to slow things down. Big box stores and businesses start to appear, with parking lots attached. Keep going until you reach the top of the canyon and there are huge tracts of desert between the mountain ridges.
At the top of one of these canyons is the Jardin Botanica. Mexico has more cacti than any other country in the world, and most varieties are represented here. Most are native to the area, but many have been carefully transplanted and nurtured. Follow the trails past the many stands of cacti and trees with their neat labels. Tour the lush greenhouse with a little gurgling brook that flows between the displays. Hike the trails around the reservoir and across the face of the edge of the gorge below that used to house a water wheel. The day is hot and still and the shady benches are much appreciated by the old Gringos.
On a Sunday afternoon, in a rolling desert valley far out into the mountains, we find a party. This is the Zandunga Hacienda. Get your tickets early because they do sell out. Low stone walls support shiny corrugated metal roofs and snapping canvass sun screens. By 1:30 the stream of retired Gringos is steadily filling up the tables. Waiters scamper between tables with trays laden with drinks. The buffet opens up and the line forms. Facing the prospect of all-you-can-eat goodies, the Gringos stack up the plates. After a little while, the music starts; some Spanish guitar, smooth and sweet, a little mariachi. Then the Band takes the stage and, after considerable tuning and other foreplay, launch into some pretty tight Gringo rock. The music is USA 70s, 80s, 90s. Given the age group attending, the music is perfect and much dancing is attempted. The final encore of “La Bamba” seals the deal and the crowd trails slowly out to the waiting cars and taxis.
Our stay in Mexico is about over. Soon we will be headed back to the USA, back to Houston to get our car, back to our wandering ways. We met a lot of people in SMA who fell in love with it and moved right in. Many others return year after year. Would we? Marylu would, but I don’t think so. For me, winter in SMA is much too dry and dusty. Constant parched nose and throat. Too hilly. Anywhere you go is a climb. This is a mountain village with a small, hilly downtown, surrounded by steep hills peppered with close-set homes, built on cheese grater ski slope roads. And finally, there is a feel about the city that makes me a little claustrophobic. All of the buildings are little concrete fortresses, barred up, sealed off, hidden away from the rest of the world. I crave picture windows, double wide glass doors, spaces between buildings, level sidewalks, yards with grass and flowers and no walls sealing them in.
Close to SMA there is a little town called Atotonilco that has a World Heritage Site, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco. The first stone of this church complex was laid in 1740 by a Father Neri. It was dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth and constructed so that the altar faced Jerusalem to the West. Several chapels are attached to the main church in the other three directions. What makes this church really unique are the murals painted over most of the interior. The artist, Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, spent somewhere between 30 and 35 years painting them, according to various accounts. Between some of the murals are hand lettered squares containing passages from the Bible that Father Neri is said to have painted himself.
The murals are highly detailed and generally depict scenes from biblical stories about the life of Christ. I zoomed in on a couple for more details, but there is so much to see that it would be beyond this little blog to cover everything, even though, on the day we were there, most of the chapels were closed. See the Wikipedia article about “Sanctuary of Atotonilco” for detailed explanations of several of the main panels and more history.
One of the entryway murals:
One of the main nave murals shows scenes from the crucifixion.
Various other murals:
The statuary in here is also interesting. The main altarpiece is a statue of Jesus from 1820 that is dressing in a fabric tunic. On the South side of the nave, the Virgin of Sorrows occupies an elaborate chapel. A bloody statue, the Señor de la Columna, depicts Jesus being flogged. Since 1812, this statue has been taken to San Miguel de Allende on the Saturday prior to Holy Week and paraded around the town to confer its blessings.
Another interesting thing about the Sanctuary, is that is was founded as both a place of worship and a site for penance. Following the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, Father Neri led his people in flagellation and fasting. The pilgrims still come to this day, many wearing crowns of thorns, to perform penance, with an estimated 5,000 attending during Holy Week. A complete cycle of penance, prayers, and meditation lasts eight days.
Right alongside the venerable old, we find the quirky and contemporary new. SMA is a hotspot for artists and galleries are sprinkled throughout the city. The Institute Allende teaches visual artists and displays their work in galleries. The Institutio Nacional de Bellas Artes has exhibits, classrooms, and practice spaces for artists, musicians, and dancers. These buildings and many others are decorated with wonderfully expressive murals.
There is also a wide variety of music in SMA. Walk into a restaurant or cantina and you can never tell what kind of music will be playing, some recorded, some live, some Mexican, some American. Then there are a few theaters that feature concerts. So far, we have seen Spanish guitar, Jazz, and Blues concerts. The theaters are small and intimate and the crowds appear to be mostly older Gringos for the shows we saw. By Gringo I mean either USA citizens vacationing or Expats who have settled here. I hope that does not offend anyone.
Part of the fun of visiting a foreign city is seeing how they deal with routine things. One thing we found unusual here is the garbage collection. There is a small fleet of trucks that drive through the city on collection days, usually 7:30 to 8:00 AM. A kid runs ahead of the truck and bangs metal blocks or a triangle together to warn that the truck is coming. Run outside to hand the bags to the men in the truck. Don’t leave bags on the curb overnight or the dogs will ravage them. Don’t leave plastic bins outside overnight or they may get stolen. You can install a hook outside your door so bags are off the street and away from the dogs, if you can’t get up early enough. Don’t worry about separating recyclables. According to the local paper, the trashmen are only paid 148 pesos a day, so they sort the trash and pick out valuables to keep and sell for themselves. During our stay, we also spotted door to door propane gas and ice cream sales, both from trucks playing loud music to attract attention to their wares.
One more thing about SMA that Gringos may find odd about the city is the complete lack of traffic control. There are no stop signs or lights anywhere. The only signs you see are on the sides of buildings, with street name and arrows denoting one way or two. Traffic control is strictly by guts. You merge into moving streams or pass where and when you can get away with it. Toss this mix with motorcyclists threading the needle between cars, and you get streets that are not for the timid. But, to this Gringo, the strangest thing is how seldom you will hear a horn. Unless somebody does something VERY stupid, the streets are mostly quiet. Somehow, traffic is a chaos with mutually agreed upon rules and courtesies.
The historic downtown in SMA is very well preserved. The buildings are stone and adobe, so they have not suffered the many fires most old European cities have. Some of the oldest and most well-preserved buildings in SMA are the churches. And there are a lot of churches. We visited some of the oldest and most ornately decorated.
Templo del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, built in 1712.
Templo de Nuestra Señora de La Salud, built in the 18th century.
Templo de San Francisco, began construction in 1778
Templo de la Purisima Concepción, built between 1755 and 1842
Another historic old building is right next to the Jardin; the Museo Histórico de San Miguel de Allende. This building dates from 1759 and was once the home of Ignacio Allende, the Mexican Revolutionary War hero. The lower level has displays about the period surrounding the war; the homes, customs, and politics. The upper level is where the Allendes lived and is outfitted with authentic furnishings.
I had a lot more to put into this post, but I am fighting slow internet and keep getting errors when I try to download more photos. I’ll try for more later.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in this area, in the early 16th century, there was a small village. A Spanish priest, Juan de San Miguel, built a chapel near the village and dedicated it to the archangel Michael. The mission was to colonize and convert the natives. The natives did not like that very much, so the Spanish relocated nearby and, in 1555, founded a village named San Miguel. During the Mexican war of Independence, local heroes, including Ignacio Allende, raised an insurgent army and fought off the Spanish, making San Miguel the first Mexican town freed from Spanish rule. In 1826 the town was declared the city of San Miguel de Allende in his honor. The city dwindled and prospered over time until 1926, when it was declared a “Historic and Protected Town”. The city was then “discovered” by artists and writers, who established schools, which attracted students and tourists.
Our exploration of the city starts in the historic city center, the Jardin Allende. This is the town square, set between the two pillars of life in the city, the Church and the State. The Municipal Palace on the North side has been all but destroyed several times over the centuries and little remains except for drab little offices. The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel is the town’s parish church. It was built in the 17th century and towers over the South side of the square. Its unique neo-gothic towers can be seen from the all over the city. Next to it is the Santa Escuela Church, which was founded in 1742 and was the first church in the city.
The Jardin is where the people of the city come together to stroll, to people watch, to eat ice cream, to sit in the sidewalk cafes and linger over a glass of wine or beer. Festivals occur here. Mariachis play to the crowds at dusk. A wedding procession gathers in front of the Cathedral then parades around the block, following large Bride and Groom figures and a boisterous mariachi band. Vendors ply treats and balloons and toys for the kids. The manicured laurel trees provide shade to the many wrought iron benches throughout the square.
The best place for a tourista or expat to get information about the city is at the library, the Biblioteca Publica. They have meeting rooms where movies, lectures, classes, and concerts are given. A very pleasant courtyard has a restaurant and often features free classical guitar music during lunch. Tickets are on sale for the city’s many theaters, museums, and tours. A bilingual newspaper has calendars, ads, editorials, and feature articles about the city.
Exploring San Miguel de Allende can be a bit challenging, especially for a wobbly-kneed senior citizen who has still not adjusted to the altitude. The streets are very narrow, hilly, and lumpy, but the sidewalks are even worse. Most are only wide enough for two people, shoulder to shoulder, and steps, windows, and other obstacles intrude into the walking room enough so that extreme caution is needed to navigate them. A person yields to oncoming pedestrians, but not into the street, because you may get smacked by a passing rear view mirror.
Roaming the streets around the historic downtown is a never-ending surprise package. Looking down a block, you see mostly concrete and plaster, painted in earth tones. Here and there are large decorative doors and windows barred with wrought iron. Small, shabby-looking, hand painted signs outside advertise what turn out to be fine restaurants and cantinas inside.
People often remark about Mexico, “don’t drink the water”. As it turns out, that is both true and false. The water here flows out of mountain springs uphill from the city. Even in the driest spell, there is water trickling down the streets toward the reservoir and fields downhill from the town. A lot of this water gurgles out of the many fountains in the city. The city takes the water from the springs, filters and purifies it, then sends it out to the public. The trouble is, most buildings, homes and businesses, have rooftop cisterns where the water is stored. The quality of the water for any building depends on how well and how often the cistern is cleaned. Newer homes and better restaurants add filters for the water. To be prudent, never buy food from a street vendor. When buying fresh fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, be sure to soak them in a water and antibiotic mix before using them. Otherwise, enjoy the food and drink the water. Or better yet, drink the beer and margaritas.