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Our First Vacation: To Mérida!

Saturday, January 4, 2020

My kids have pointed out to me that, while I've done a fair bit of travel, it's always been for work. There's always something I have to do, some duty to discharge, no matter where I go. There are talks to give, field trips to lead, shows to hang. If I go to an awesome destination, there are a dozen or more people with me, and I've got to make sure they have a great time. I'm always working.
It's wonderful work, but it's still work. 

Phoebe started leaning on me and Bill to come visit her in the Canary Islands pretty much right after she got there in 2018. She told us we'd love it there. Bill had made plans to go, in fact, to tack the trip onto a Reader Rendezvous to Spain in late winter 2018. He got sick in December, and he never made it. It was time for me to go, to take Liam with me and spend our first Christmas as a family without their dad OR their grandmother Elsa, traveling and enjoying each other's company in a completely different place, where the only memories that could haunt us were the ones in our heads. Many of our friends told us that was the only thing to do. They were right. 

So Liam and I took off from Columbus at 7:30 in the evening on his first international flight. Phoebe took off from La Gomera, headed for Madrid, and there we met! Waiting for our rental car, after comparison shopping between counters. They were all outrageous, but Sixt came through as least outrageous. Liam and I haven't slept in awhile. It didn't matter. We were with Phoebs!!! We hadn't seen her since she took off in late August. Oh, how we had missed her!

We headed from cold, gray, rainy Madrid to Mérida,  two hours south. It was also cold, gray and rainy.

We grabbed a late lunch. Liam and I ordered Sopa de Mariscos, which I hoped would be a soothing bisque. It was anything but soothing, and anything but a bisque. It was chockity, clankity full of hard, inedible objects with eyeballs.

Liam named it Mystery Clink Stew. Which still makes me giggle. I ate whatever wouldn't break my teeth, which was the broth and some tiny clams and mussels. I was completely mystified as to how one eats a tablespoon-sized crab. I busted it open to find green gloop and gills. Nope nope nope nopity nope. Rock-hard fish vertebrae; clam and mussel shells. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a pile of gravel at the bottom of my bowl. 

We weren't going to waste any time, so we found our Air BnB and set about seeing the sights of Merida the next morning. First stop was the incredible Roman aqueduct that still graces the city's center.

It's a complex structure, made of the most fascinating amalgam of cement, brick and stone. It's incredibly beautiful, from afar and up close.

Atop it are the nests of European white storks, the storks of fairy tales. Gosh they are BEAUTIFUL birds. Here, I'm pointing to the nests. I can hardly believe what we're seeing. 

Though I had spotted three greatly out-of-range white storks at Strandfontein, Cape Region in South Africa in October, seeing these enormous birds busily adding sticks to their nests and hearing them clap their bills at each other is whole 'nother thing.

It was like being in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Every time a new bird flew to its nest, it was accompanied by a salvo of beak clattering, which I found charming. It sounded like they were applauding its arrival. Clackityclackclackclackclackclack!

Meanwhile, flitting around the massive aqueduct structure was a tiny black redstart

who took the aqueduct for a rocky cliff, as its home. 

On this trip, I was to become well acquainted with the sight and sound of chiffchaffs, which look and act almost exactly like our palm warblers back in the States. They even dip their tails the same way. Their name is a good rendition of their song, if you repeat it a few times.

We walked the streets of beautiful Mérida, full of curiosity. The city was founded  in 25 BC by Emperor Augustus, as a place for discharged soldiers from the Cantabrian Wars to settle. I thought back to Marietta, Ohio, my hometown, which was established as a place for soldiers and officers from the Revolutionary War to settle. There is a slight difference in antiquity here, a major recalibration in one's definition of "old" warranted.

 People were preparing for Christmas everywhere we looked. We saw a little angel headed to a school play with his mama. 

Everywhere, there were hams with hooves.  Oog. Never seen a ham with a hoof on it. They were from Spain's famous Iberian hogs, smallish, leggy, black, and packed with flavor, since they are free-ranging and feed on grass and the acorns of cork oaks. The ham is delicious when sliced thin and combined with cheeses and bread. I won't's gamy and oily to my American palate. I'm sure Spaniards would find the ham I like dopey, insipid and dry. To each his own.

Already starved for produce from our plane trip, I longed to cook up some of this gorgeous Romanesco, a type of cole crop like cauliflower, but much more delicately geometric. And look at those grapes will ya??

Such wonders, so beautifully arranged. Imagine going to your grocery store and seeing produce of this quality in an arch over your head, outside the entrance. Doesn't happen, ever. Whole Foods does some beautiful arranging, but I'd never seen anything like this. It was food art.


Phoebe had worked out an itinerary for us, with must-see spots in each city, so we darted from one to the next, always looking for birds and plants and other points of interest as we went.

Scattered throughout Merida are Roman ruins, of mansions and theaters and municipal buildings. It's so, so amazing to see them rise above the more modern structures in this city.

Our destination was the Roman Amphitheatre. There, we'd have our minds properly blown. This huge structure, which seated 15,000, was inaugurated in the year 8 BC. EIGHT BC. And still it stands. And there we stood, and I still can't believe it.

We wandered all through it, having the place completely to ourselves, as it was in the 50's and rainy and windy like to knock us down, but this was the day we were given, so we had a grand time anyway. It helped to be alone, to envision what went on here with gladiators, trained to fight to the death. IMAGINE.

Oh, how he imagined. Here, Liam's in a chamber beneath the stands, where the gladiators waited until they were called out to battle. Imagine.

He's feeling lucky right now, that he wasn't born to battle for the amusement of emperors. Phoebe and I watched his mind go on overload, his heart nearly burst from the delight of being in such a completely different space and time for the first time in his short life.

And right in his pocket, the means to record and remember and revisit it all. How lucky can you get?

The rockwork alone blew my mind. Built by slaves? Artists? Who could say? It stands to this day.

To walk the passageways built so very long ago, to imagine ourselves cracked us open.

In a courtyard, I found a dwarf pomegranate, just like the ones I grow at home. Always looking for the familiar, always delighted to find it. I was glad to see these looking a bit peaked, as they should in winter. Mine have dropped all their leaves and gone dormant, wisely...this winter is a shroud of drear.

I don't know what these are, but they reminded me a wee bit of magnolia--tribe Ranales? Fide Betty Grindrod: Pittosporum Tobira (Japanese Cheesewood). Woot!

and these smelled of vanilla, heavenly! Both were small trees. Again, I'm clueless. It's good to be clueless sometimes. It's humbling. To have to look up all the birds, to wonder at their vocalizations; to not know the plants or the language; to finally feel a world so much bigger, so much more august and antiquated, than it feels at home.

Loquat flowers! Thanks, Betty!

We moved on from the Coliseum to the adjacent Theatre, where we imagined ourselves performers, orators, dancers on its immense stage. If you click on the photo you can see Phoebe in her purple jacket in the left front of the stage.

It was all so incredibly cool. Words fail me. I'm accustomed to describing living things, not structures that pre-date Jesus Christ. The variety and ingenuity of the rockwork; the beauty of their soaring  columns...well, I'd never seen anything like this in my life, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to experience all this with my kids. We were only getting started--there was more Extremadura to see.

I'll leave you with some more storks, calmly perched atop the aqueduct.

Preening on this gray windy day, on rockwork built before Christ, as if it ain't no big thing.


Oh that was enjoyable to see! What a wonderful memory for the three of you. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by Mary Warren January 4, 2020 at 11:38 AM

Phoebe the "old soul," as usual, was absolutely right when she said you needed a vacation that was just that. Wonderful photos and commentary; please keep it all coming!

Am so enjoying the trip through your eyes and hearts. Thank YOU!

Posted by Candace Donovan January 4, 2020 at 12:00 PM

I love live bird nestcams and some of my very favorites are storks atop European homes. Magnificent creatures. Just noticed this listing of over 100 stork webcams!, but not sure how many are currently active or have night vision:

If anyone is not familiar with nestcams, my other favorites are hummingbirds and Barn Owls, but they’re available for many, many other species… warning: they can be addictive!

I love your comment, "... a major recalibration in one's definition of "old" ...". Europe does that for us constantly. It wasn't until I realized that 2000 years old was 20 centuries old. Where we encounter Roman ruins (and that has been everywhere from Croatia in the east, to Portugal in the west, to the UK in the north) that we realized what an incredible civilization they were.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Always enjoy reading of your discoveries.


What a glorious Christmas journey to be able to take! Thank you so much for sharing this personal excursion with us :-) Being homebound, I *so* appreciate being able to 'travel' thru the window of my iPad and the gift of others' words and images.

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