Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Postcard From India - 9 Cochin, people at work.

Cochin was the final stop on my recent tour of India. It had a different pace and feel to the huge cities further, less crowded and more relaxed. But there was at least one similarity and that was the warm hearted welcome of the people in the street, in the cafes and at their place of work.

In Cochin I met people from many different backgrounds. I met fishermen whose families have worked here for generations, people working in the Dhobi Khana in Fort Cochin, women working in weaving and pappadum co-operatives and merchants selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables in the bazaar at Ernakulam. And of course, there were chance encounters with people in the street. As elsewhere in India, people were happy to stop, talk, offer tea and to be photographed.

Husband and wife ironing team, Dhobi Khana
Washerman, Dhobi Khana
Mumbai's Dhobi Ghats (laundries) are well known and attract many visitors from around the world. Less well known, but just as interesting is Cochin's Dhobi Khana. This is where hotels, hospitals and private homes can send their laundry to be dealt with in the traditional way. The current site was established in 1976 by the Greater Cochin Development Authority but the laundry dates from the colonial period when the British brought Tamil villagers here to work as washermen.

The Khana has separate sections for washing, drying and ironing. Items are first soaked in water and a light detergent before being beaten on stones, rinsed, dried and ironed. There are 40 "pens" in which the washing takes place, each pen being allocated to a separate family. The washing is normally done by men whilst both men and women iron and women look after the drying. Some of the charcoal irons used were originally brought from Sri Lanka, several decades ago, their continued use a testament to their durability. Drying takes about five hours and the items are hung without the aid of pegs, instead they are tucked between the ropes so that the wind cannot carry them away. Rice water is used for items that require starching.

Despite the work being hard, several older people are still employed here. This may in part be because the younger generation are drifting away from this type of work and finding employment elsewhere. The laundry also competes with technology as more and more hotels, hostels and hospitals have their own automated facilities. The people I met were friendly and used to visitors coming to see their pace of work. When asked if they would mind being photographed, some of them assumed quite formal poses. There were of course exceptions - including the wife of the serious looking man in the blue shirt. She found it all amusing!

Babu!
One of the most rewarding things about traveling are chance encounters with people in the street. After visiting St. George's Orthodox Church in Mattanchery, I noticed a single storey house painted in pastel colours, with a split "saloon style" door, what appeared to be a drop down counter and the remnant of two posters. I took a couple of pictures and a face appeared at the open upper part of the door. A young man waved, called hello and indicated that he would like to be photographed. I went across to him, managed to exchange a few words and then took the picture above. He told me his name is Babu. He was very pleased to be photographed. 

Similarly, when walking in Synagogue Lane, I noticed an elderly man dressed in a crisp white t-shirt and brightly coloured lungi. This was Hamid, aged 82 and still working as a cycle rickshaw driver. His rickshaw was parked outside one of the restaurants on the Lane whilst he sheltered from the afternoon heat and waited for his next customer. I learned that he has a family that take care of him but that he wants to continue working and to maintain some independence. He was clearly proud of his elegant and very well kept rickshaw.

It is not unusual to meet people who work into their old age in India. Many continue to work in family businesses whilst others work independently in order to maintain themselves. I saw several older women working in the streets selling lottery tickets including the lady dressed in purple pictured below.

Hamid, cycle rickshaw driver
Lottery ticket saleswoman
Many of the people I met earn a living from selling food in the street or in cafes and restaurants. The bazaar at Enrkulam is full of colour, aromas and noise. Here you can find brightly coloured spices, home made pickles, countless types of garlic and onions, every kind of fruit and vegetable you could think of and lots more. There are also different kinds of banana for sale . I spotted a store room door left open and was fascinated by the shapes of the bunches of green bananas pointing outwards and the contrast with the red walls of the shop. Whilst photographing this, the merchant asked me to wait a moment, retreated to the rear of the shop and then came back with a huge bunch of bananas that he proudly held up for another picture. The merchants here and at other markets in India were very proud of their fresh produce and several would hold up their best stock to show me and to pose for a picture.

Proud of the produce, Ernakulam bazaar
Weighing bananas, Ernakulam bazaar
Lime seller, Ernakulam bazaar
It was towards the end of the day when I arrived at the bazaar and some of the merchants were beginning to wind down and relax after a long day of selling. I noticed three men sitting in the shade, baskets of limes at their feet. The wall behind them was plastered with posters announcing a political conference, some of which featured pictures of Stalin who could also be seen in a framed painting at the top of the wall beside portraits of Lenin, Marx and other Communist luminaries. Private enterprise meets socialism in the market place. I especially wanted to photograph these men because of the backdrop, the way the light fell across their crisp white clothing and the gentle face of the man beneath the Stalin poster.

Under the posters, Ernakulam bazaar
The Sree Venkateshwara tea shop in Parur was one of my favourite places in Kerala. As well as tea, the shop sells tasty hot snacks and treats, all of them prepared on the premises using local produce. I visited on a Saturday morning and the shop was full with local people enjoying the tea, snacks and the chance to catch up on news with friends and family. One of the staff asked me where I was from and how I liked the tea before inviting me to look around behind the scenes where I saw chapatis being made, vegetables being peeled and curries being prepared for the hungry customers. I was also given free rein to take as many pictures as I liked. Some of the staff found this very amusing, especially when their friends were being photographed but all were interested in seeing themselves on the camera and I was able to arrange for them to receive copies of the pictures later on. Perhaps the star of the show was the man making the tea who pulled an impossibly long flow of liquid between the pot and a jug

Pouring the tea, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop Parur
In the kitchen, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop, Parur
Keeping an eye on things, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop, Parur
Sree Mahila Thejas Pappad
There are several co-operatives in Kerala, organisations where people work together for mutual social, economic and cultural benefit. The co-operatives are mutually owned and democratically organised. I visited two such organisations in Cochin, both of them run by and for women. Sree Mahila Thejas Pappad produces many different types of papad, also known as pappadums, the thin, disc shaped food usually made from black garam flour, fried or cooked with dry heat. Fans of Indian food will have enjoyed them with pickles whilst waiting for their man courses to come to the table.  This co-operative produces, packs and distributes thousands of papad every day, including deep red ones, filled with chilli and sweeter banana chips. I left the co-operative with several purchases to enjoy on my return to London.

I visited a second women's co-operative, one where many women are employed in weaving. The co-operative trains local women to use traditional hand-operated looms to produce garments and household goods in order to be able to make a living.

Weaving co-operative
Weaving co-operative
Chinese nets fishermen
Frying fish straight from the waterside
Kerala is famous for its cuisine which includes many dishes made from locally caught fresh fish. The Chinese fishing nets of Cochin are one of the area's special attractions. The nets are attached to fixed land installations set up on bamboo and teak poles held horizontally by large mechanisms that lower them into the sea. The nets are left in the water for a short time before being lifted out by the fishermen pulling on ropes. Legend has it that the nets were introduced to the area by an explorer, one Zheng He,  who came from the court of Kublai Khan. For a small fee, the fishermen will show tourists how the nets work as well as giving them the chance to help pull the ropes. There are also independent fishermen who work with less sophisticated but still traditional methods, standing in the sea and casting nets by hand.

Every evening, the fishermen come to a small jetty in Cochin where the daily catch is auctioned. A crowd quickly gathers and the sale proceeds apace. It is not unusual for the purchased fish to be taken directly to one of the street food stalls adjacent to the water and then cooked immediately. You can't get any fresher than that.


You might also like A Postcard from India - 6, Calcutta - the people in the street or A Postcard from India - 8, Jewish Kerala

You can see more pictures from India here.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

A Postcard from India 8 - Jewish Kerala

There have been Jews in Kerala for a very long time. Evidence places Jewish merchants here during the reign of King Solomon and it is believed that Kerala sandalwood was used in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is known that Jews came here from Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Evidence of these communities includes diaries and letters from travellers over various centuries and 72 rights set out on copperplates given by Hindu ruler Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020) and given to Joseph Rabban, leader of the Cochin Jews. Further evidence is the existence, for several centuries, of  AnchuVanam, a prosperous, virtually independent Jewish principality in Cranganore under the protection of Hindu royalty. The principality ended when the community was attacked by Arab settlers allied to a neighbouring ruler. Most of the Jews fled to nearby Cochin and the protection of the Hindu Raja.

Aron Hakodesh, former synagogue at Chennamangalam
These early arrivals spoke Judeo-Malayalam and became known as the  Malabaris, sometimes referred to as the "black Jews". Later arrivals began coming from Europe in the 16th century, some of them fleeing the Inquisition. This community became known as the Paradesis and also as "the white Jews". The Portuguese occupation of Cochin brought problems for Kerala's Jews in the form of the Inquisition and more generalised persecution. The situation improved significantly in 1660 when the Dutch displaced the Portuguese and instituted a more tolerant regime. 

The departure of the Portuguese was not to be the end of the Kerala Jews' troubles. The Paradesi community refused for many years to accept the Malabaris as authentically Jewish, preventing them from entering the Paradesi synagogue and forbidding inter-marriage. This was despite rulings from various rabbis and is completely at odds with Jewish law. Concessions were painstakingly won over time but the discrimination faced by the Malabaris, caused lasting damage to relations between the two communities and in part contributed to the final decline of a Jewish presence in Kerala. When the State of Israel was re-established in 1948, many Kerala Jews decide to emigrate and within a few years, the community had declined significantly. Some of those that remained later chose to follow their fellow Jews to Israel identifying a lack of marriage partners and poor economic opportunities as the reasons why. These matters have been written about at length, but perhaps the best account which examines the position of both communities is that of Edna Fernandes in her book The Last Jews of Kerala.

Today there are few Jews in Kerala and only one working synagogue although others are now converted to museums. During my recent time in India I was able to visit several of these synagogues and to meet two of the remaining members of these small communities.

Paradesi synagogue, Mattancherry
The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, Cochin dates back to 1568 and is located in the appropriately named Synagogue Lane in the area known as Jew Town. It is the last of Kerala's synagogues to hold services although it is rare for there to be a minyan of ten adult Jewish men - the minimum required for certain religious obligations. There is no Rabbi here, but during the main Jewish holidays, rabbis are brought in from elsewhere in India or from overseas to lead the prayers and maintain traditions.

The simple white painted exterior complements the other buildings in Jew Town. At first glance the interior is relatively austere. There are two unfixed wooden benches placed in the centre of the floor, facing those arranged around the periphery. This arrangement, with seats facing each other is a feature of Indian synagogues and different from the front facing rows that I am more familiar with. The women's gallery was roped off when I visited but men and women are still pray separately in the synagogue.  


Nn two tiles in the Paradesi synagogue are identical
Detail, Paradesi synagogue
Detail, Paradesi synagogue
The decorative highlight of the interior may well be the Chinese willow pattern floor tiles.  Not original they are believed to have been  acquired by one Ezehiel Rahabi in the 1760's. No two tiles are identical. There are different theories about their origin. One is that they were imported from the Netherlands but I prefer an alternative story, that they were originally manufactured for one of the local Rajas who upon learning that animal products had been used in their manufacture declined to use them and sold them on to Cochin's Jews for their synagogue. Whatever their origin, they are beautiful and a major feature of this house of prayer.

The bright red, blue, green and clear glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling are a local feature found in both religious and secular buildings in Kerala. Some of them were manufactured in Europe, others more locally. Other items suspended from the ceiling include objects made from brass, pewter, silver and bronze, again reflecting local tradition. Most importantly in the heat of Cochin, a number of ceiling fans are used to cool the interior.


I visited the Paradesi synagogue twice during my stay, once to attend part of the Rosh Hashanah service and later to spend time looking at the craftsmanship involved in its design and to see ten stylised canvases illustrating the history of the Paradesi Jews. They are the work of Hindu artist S.S. Krishna and were commissioned by the community in the 1960's. 

Sarah Cohen
Former Jewish owned building, Mattancherry
Following my second visit I was able to meet Sarah Cohen. Sarah lives on Synagogue Lane, just a few steps from the synagogue. At 93, she is the oldest of the remaining five Paradesi Jews. During the day she sits by her window, reading the Torah, singing religious songs and talking to visitors who drop in on their way to and from the synagogue. We chatted for a while in both English and Hebrew. When I left she asked me to visit her again and to bring her a Hebrew book, "so that we can learn something together". Sarah is an accomplished craftswoman and her sewing can be purchased from a small shop, the proceeds of which help to pay for her care. It was interesting to meet her, and not a little sad to think that this once illustrious community is now nearing its end in India.

Until the 1950's there were many Jewish owned businesses in Synagogue Lane. Now there are none and the shops have been taken over to a large extent by Kashmiri traders. However, it is possible to see many signs of the former community as several buildings bear a Magen David whilst on one building the Jewish star is accompanied by the Sassoon family name and the year of construction - 1849. 

Sassoon building, Mattancherry, built in 1849
Magen David incorporated into building facade, Mattacnherry
The cemetery of the Paradesi Jews is a short distance from the synagogue. It is well kept but special arrangements have to be made to visit it.  Another Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry has been lost due to several houses having been built on the site. Some of the tombstones were removed by local people and used for other purposes but one tomb, that of Rabbi Nehemia Mota has been preserved.

In addition to being a rabbi, Mota was a kabbalist and a composer of songs. Thought to have been born in Aden, he settled in Cochin in the later part of the 16th century and married a Malabari Jewish woman. He spent the rest of his life in India and died at the lighting of the first Chanukah candle in 1615. After his death he achieved saintly status and the anniversary of his passing is marked by special prayers amongst the Malabari community.  His tomb is in a small lane between the houses and is cared for by some of the women who live close by. It is considered a place of pilgrimage by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. I met some of the women who care for the tomb and they told me its presence has brought them fortune and that caring for it is an honour. None of these women are Jewish.   

Tombstone of Rabbi Nehemia Mota
Some of the women who care for Rabbi Mota's tombstone
Erankulam is about 15 kilometres from Mattancherry and was once home to a substantial community of Malabari Jews. It is believed that they came here from Cranganore in the 12th century, fleeing conflict with Arab settlers over the spice trade, whilst others came seeking the protection of the Hindu Rajah after problems with the Portuguese. 

Ernakulam's Kadavumbagam Synagogue was built in around 1200 but the current building is believed to date from the late 16th or early 17th century. It can be found on Jews Street between Market Road and Broadway, in the heart of the town's busy bazaar and in the former Jewish quarter. As well as serving the religious needs of the community, the synagogue housed a Jewish school at the upper level. 

In Ernakulam, I was fortunate to visit the Kadavumbagam and to meet Elias "Babu" Josephai, the guardian of the synagogue. He told me much about the history of the community including that it decreased significantly in the 1950's and 1960's due to emigration to Israel. Despite this, services continued until 1972 when the synagogue finally closed. The Torah Scrolls were removed and taken to Moshav Nevatim in Israel where there is now a Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre.  In 1975 a major storm resulted damage to the foundations of the building which required the entire structure to be hydraulically lifted whilst in 1977 several items were lost in a burglary.

Elias "Babu" Josephai
Interior, former Kadavumbagam synagogue, Ernakulam
Babu took on the role of guardian in 1979. The building remained vacant until 1985 when he established an ornamental fish and plant shop in the front part of the ground floor. Since then he has worked extremely hard to carry out renovation work, including raising the funds to make this possible. He kindly showed me the interior of the synagogue, pointing out the restored tiled floor, the original ceiling detail and the red glass lanterns above the ground floor bimah. Uniquely, Keralan synagogues have a second bimah in the women's gallery to which the Rabbi would ascend during the Jewish holidays, and read the prayers from there. 

Babu's achievements should not be underestimated. As well as securing funding, he has had to act as works manager, continue running his business and in some cases do the renovation work himself. He is a man of many talents, originally training as a shochet - a kosher butcher. He told me that there are less than 30 Jews living in Ernakulam today but that there are also several hundred people claiming Jewish heritage who are hoping to convert and eventually make aliyah to Israel. A few minutes walk from the Kadavumbagam is another former synagogue. The Tekkumbagam synagogue has not been a working house of prayer for some decades although it has seen occasional use for community events. It is not currently possible to visit.

Former Chennamangalam synagogue
Interior, former Chennamangalam synagogue
I also visited two former synagogues that have been painstakingly restored and converted to museums. Most of the Jews of Chennamangalam left for Israel in the 1950's and 60's and although a tiny community remained until the 1990's their beautiful synagogue was little used and fell into disrepair. The roof and floors collapsed, vegetation engulfed the building and the windows and doors were sealed in order to provide protection from the climate and potential vandalism. Eventually the Indian Department of Archaeology assumed responsible for the building and in 2004 a skilled and sensitive restoration commenced. This in itself was an achievement since the building had deteriorated so badly that at first there was no certainty that it could be saved. A dedicated team of local craftsmen were so devoted to their task that on occasion they even slept in the building, preparing their meals on site. The synagogue museum opened in 2006 and now welcomes visitors throughout the year.

The exterior is painted white as are the internal walls but the ceiling, Aron Hakodesh and woodwork details are a riot of colour with floral decorative features in bright reds, greens and yellows. The ceiling is particularly impressive with brightly coloured lotus flower medallions. As with the Kadavumbagam synagogue in Ernakulam the Chennamangalam building was once home to a school at the upper level. It also has a second bimah in the women's gallery whilst the main bimah on the ground floor has a tiered railing. Outside the synagogue there is a tombstone dated 1268  dedicated to a Jewish woman called Sarah. It bears the oldest known Hebrew text in Kerala and is further evidence of the area's long Jewish history. Tradition has it that the stone was brought here from nearby Kottapuram.

Keeper of the former Chennamangalam synagogue 
Detail of the Aron HaKodesh, former Chennamangalam synagogue 
The Paravur synagogue is a short drive from Chennamangalam. It too has been restored and has a beautiful wooden interior and an interactive exhibition at the upper level. I received a warm welcome at all of Kerala's synagogues and at the Paravur, I met an official guide working for the state tourism board. He had recently completed his training and was keen to tell me about the history of the building. It is very encouraging that investment is being made in training young people to promote and explain this important part of Kerala's heritage.

The efforts made to preserve and promote Kerala's Jewish history are impressive and compare well with those in other parts of the world. However, there is still work to be done, an example of which is the former Kadavumbagam synagogue in Mattancherry. Long abandoned, the building is in poor condition, the only clue to its provenance being a plaque with Hebrew script above the entrance proclaiming it to be "the gate of the righteous". Urgent action is needed if this building is to be saved and help from interested communities and organisations would be most welcome.

Former Kadavumbagam synagogue, Mattancherry
I spent just four days in Kerala. In this short time I was able to see much of what remains of a once large and successful Jewish community. I was especially privileged to meet Babu in Ernakulam and Sarah Cohen in Mattancherry. For all of this I must thank my extremely knowledgeable guide, B. Thomas and  my excellent driver, Rejeesh. Without them it would not have been possible to achieve so much in such a short time. Mr Thomas is both an historian and a tour guide working for Incredible India.

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You can see more pictures from Kerala here.

This excellent website gives much more detail about Kerala's synagogues -  The Synagogues of Kerala, India

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Memories of Mexico

Mexico is one of my favourite countries. I have visited three times and on each occasion have found different things to surprise and delight. It is a country of great contrasts. Mexico City, the huge, teeming metropolis is very different to the smaller provincial cities but each have their own charm and attraction. Everywhere it is possible to see beautiful colonial style architecture, magnificent murals, indigenous culture and extremely friendly and welcoming people. There is a strong contrast between the ancient and the modern and it is not unusual to find outstanding contemporary architecture adjacent to archaeological sites dating from pre-Colombian times. These two elements are combined every November on Dia de los Muertos  (Day of the Dead) where people maintain the centuries old tradition of visiting the graves of departed relatives and decorating shrines in their homes and public places as well as participating in the huge modern parade in the city centre.

Dia de los Muertos, Mexico City
Detail of a shrine for Dia de los Muertos
Many visitors only spend a few days in Mexico City, but there is much to keep even the most experienced traveller interested and busy for a week or more in this huge capital that has some of the finest art galleries and museums in the world. These include the Museo Nacional de Antropologia,  Case Azul (the Frida Kahlo House), the Museo de Arte Popular and the fabulous Fernando Romero designed ultra-modern Museo Soumaya. But art lovers do not need to visit galleries or museums in this city in order to appreciate the works of great artists. The murals of  Diego Rivera, Jose Clement Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and many other great artists can be seen in many public buildings and spaces. The Palacio de Bellas Artes in the city centre is the major venue for ballet, folk dance performance and classical concerts as well as displaying the work of most of Mexico's important 20th century artists. The building itself has a wonderful art deco interior, inside an imposing belle époque facade.

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Museo Soumaya, Mexico City 
Detail of mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City 
The city is huge and in addition to the attractions of the Centro Historico, it has many fascinating neighbourhoods. One of my favourites is La Condesa which has a large collection of art deco and modernist architecture dating from the 1930's including a couple of early examples of the work of the Luis Barragan. His work was extremely influential and Barragan is considered to be one of Latin America's most important architects. It is possible to visit his former home - Case Barragan - and to enjoy a guided tour as part of the price of entry. Condesa also has many cafes and restaurants and is a great place for strolling, admiring the art deco and stopping off for coffee, cake and other treats.

Roof terrace, Casa Barragan, Mexico City
Art deco doorway, La Condesa, Mexico City
The Coyoacan neighbourhood is different again and has a distinctly village-like feel to it. As well as being home to Casa Azul there is a handicraft market and dancing in the main square at weekends but my favourite activity here is to stroll along the quieter lanes away from the main square, visiting the old churches and independent shops and making the occasional stop for coffee (and quesadillas!). Regular readers know of my passion for coffee and cake. In Mexico City I prefer churros and hot chocolate at the wonderful El Moro, which has provided a 24 hours service ever since opening in 1935. Fantastic. 

Museum of the Baroque, Puebla
View across the city, Puebla
Art Deco building, Puebla
Puebla is Mexico's fourth largest city with a population of almost three million. It is easily reached by car from the capital and  you can see the highlights of the Centro Historico in a day but to get the most from the city a stay of one or two nights is preferable. As well as enjoying the Centro Historico with its Cathedral, baroque churches, hidden courtyards, cafes and artisans' shops, staying overnight will allow plenty of time to visit the new Museum of the Baroque. Just outside the city, it opened last year and houses an amazing collection of baroque items bringing home just how important the style has been to the history of Mexican design. The building is spectacular. Designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, its brilliant white exterior contrasts with the deep blue Mexican sky and the greenery of the surrounding park land.

Puebla is the major centre for the manufacture of Talavera ceramics. The Uriarte Gallery, just a short walk from the main square is the best place to see and buy Talavera items as well as to see the manufacturing process. Of course, it is not cheap to buy things there and if you can only afford to look and still want some Puebla ceramics to take home there are many smaller shops selling good but cheaper items in bright colours and a range of designs. Puebla also has a few interesting art deco buildings and great churros at the Antigua Churreria de Catedral. What's not to like?

Quiet courtyard, Puebla
Cafe La California, Puebla
Monte Alban, Oaxaca
Oaxaca City is a short flight from Mexico City but can also be reached by car with an overnight stop at Puebla or another town en route. It has a more relaxed atmosphere than the two cities already mentioned and is full of brightly coloured colonial buildings. The city has several markets including Mercado Benito Juarez which offers flowers, fruit, handicrafts and household goods as well as unusual snacks including flying ants, grasshoppers and red worms! Oaxaca is famous for its huge range of different coloured mezcal - a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave. There is also a large craft market, the Mercado de Artesanias which sells clothes for adults and children, household items and locally produced textiles.

Monte Alban, a major pre-Colombian architectural site is located just 9 kilometres away from the city. It is believed to have been founded in 500 BCE by the Zapotec people. The site included several temples, elite residences and ball courts. Evidence of all of these can be seen today whilst there are also spectacular views from the site due to its mountain top location. The Zapotec are believed to have had a calendar in addition to their own writing system. Monte Alban includes a museum with models of the structures and many precious artefacts recovered during excavations.

Back in the city, the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman and the accompanying monasteries were built over 200 years commencing in 1575. It houses a superb museum of Oaxacan culture with great views of the surrounding mountains. The church overlooks a large plaza where artisans sell their work and where there are occasional musical performances. There are many good restaurants, cafes and chocolaterias including Casa Oaxaca, one of my favourite hotels which also has a superb courtyard restaurant with a kitchen under the direction of TV chef Alejandro Ruiz.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman, Oaxaca
Calle Alcalá, Oaxaca
Mexico is full of surprises. It has a long and fascinating history and there is evidence of this everywhere. It is one of the world's most colourful countries with a long tradition of producing amazing works of art in a unique style.  I have been fortunate to travel extensively in different parts of the world but Mexico has given me some of my most memorable times and experiences. I have been assisted in visiting the cities mentioned here and also many other places in Mexico by my good friend, Alex Ramirez Cruz. Alex is also a superb travel guide. He is very experienced, extremely knowledgeable, speaks perfect English and has enhanced each of my visits to Mexico with help and suggestions for places to visit, sleep and eat. He can be contacted by emailing alextourguide@hotmail.com