Sunset at Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence
We began our travels by staying overnight in Madrid for a layover between Ecuador and Italy. After studying Spanish for 3 years in Cuenca, I figured I would be able to communicate in Madrid. Well... yes and no... Every time I said anything in Spanish, they looked at me completely blankly. I then repeated it in English, and every single person understood me fine, and responded back in English! I also noticed listening to the locals talking among themselves that I did not understand a word they said. I finally asked a waiter about it, and he said (in perfect English), "you have a strange accent that we cannot understand." Oh well, so much for learning all that Spanish in Ecuador...English is pretty universal so far.
And then, there are the prices! At home in Ecuador, we have gotten accustomed to having a decent lunch for $3, maybe $6 if we splurge. Our first lunch here was $45 for the two of us. Yikes! Since then, we have discovered that $20 to $35 per person for lunch is the norm. I turned to Evelyn and said "Toto, we are not in Ecuador any more..."
Next, we arrived in Florence, where we stayed for 3 nights. The first thing we could not help notice was the huge number of tourists, and it is only April! The area around the Duomo was absolutely packed (upper left). The Duomo itself is a fascinating architectural delight, but the crowds in front meant the only shot really available was looking up (upper right).
Walking around town, we came across some very talented street chalk artists (2nd row left) and very upscale shopping (3rd row right). As the sun began to lower, lovers on the bridge created interesting silhouettes (2nd row right), and a later visit to the merry go round (lower left 2 images) was mandatory. Evelyn's sister (Pauline in lower right) joined us a couple days later, when we came across a fascinating tailor that made custom business cards by embroidering the customer's name in a matter of seconds.
Our first night in Florence, we walked to the Ponte Vecchio bridge to photograph sunset. Almost no clouds resulted in a bland sky, but amplified the blue hour after the sun went down. We were rather happy with our first sunset shots in Italy.
The next morning we got up early for a "food tour" of Florence, which included touring San Lorenzo market. We made six stops between the first cappuccino (Italian coffee has the consistency and strength of espresso) to the final gelato (a gelato per day is almost an Italian law!). Very enjoyable way to start our Italian experience.
There are two popular places to photograph the sunset in Florence, where we had to compete to get space for our tripods. Having gone the first night to the bridge, we explored the Michelangelo Plaza at a higher elevation on the second night. Again, we were astounded by the crowds (upper left). A few more clouds gave the sky more interest tonight. My tripod got bumped on one shot (lower left), and I think the resulting blur was actually one of the more intriguing images from that night...
After sunset, we went to a steak restaurant that had been recommended by the food tour guide this morning. We had a monster T-Bone steak (3 pounds, about 3 inches thick!). They showed us a photograph of the type of cow the steak comes from, and I thought they were pulling my leg -- it dwarfed the man standing next to, and was easily 8 feet tall. I was assured by multiple people that was an honest photo though, and the size of the cow is why the T-Bones are so huge.
Florentine steaks are only cooked one way. That is, essentially not cooked at all... That 3" thick steak gets 5 minutes per side, and then put on the platter. No spices to speak of, and the steak is essentially raw. To ask for an actual cooked steak is considered an affront to the chef, and our waiter insisted he would refuse such a request -- I never was quite sure if he was joking or not. We have been told repeatedly that was one of the best steaks in town, however not for us. ☹
Our third day in Florence was an endurance test. "See all of Florence in one glorious day" touted the advertisement. 3 tours (morning, afternoon, and evening) did let us cover the important museums (the Uffizi and Accademia) and architectural highlights, but it also left our feet worn out after 17,800 steps. The last tour was to see David, the famous sculpture by Michelangelo. It is certainly possible to just walk up and see the art on your own, but having an art historian along provided memorable stories and details, helping the chunk of stone come to life.
We learned why there are seven unfinished statues in the hall leading to David (middle, left two) -- they were commissioned by a pope for his mausoleum, but he died before they were done and the next pope said the prior guy did not deserve such grandeur in death, so stopped the work. Many critics observed that David's proportions seemed a bit off, as his hands and feet appeared too large. However, he was originally designed to rest near the top of the Duomo, and the perspective would have been correct. However, the city leaders decided the quality of the statue was too good to be seen from so far away, so moved David to a location as a sentry at ground level for a number of years, until moved to the museum, where it has remained for the past 4 centuries. We also learned why parts are so worn (middle right) -- because of centuries of people reaching up and touching the only part they could reach (the toes). We had an hard time understanding our guide at first, who kept saying "my client" was so great that he even designed the fold in the sling shot holder located on the back of David, even though it was intended to be placed where none of that could be seen. "My client" was actually "Michelangelo", once we understood our guide's accent.
Michelangelo learned his craft from a stone cutting master. Stone statues abound in the city, at almost every turn.
Art is prevalent everywhere in Florence. When you look at the details of the homes as you walk around town, you discover art even in the form of door knockers and address markers.
More than 400 guests attended opening night for Mujeres en el Arte (Women in the Arts), a collective art exhibition sponsored by the Mayor of Cuenca and the Ministry of Culture, Education and Sports. 65 women artists with 77 sculptures and paintings were presented in this month-long exhibit. The quality of the art, the variety of styles and presentation of the art was incredible, and it was the first time that we’ve seen so many families with young children attending an art reception.
“Ternura" (Tenderness) by Evelyn Johnson (top)
"Vieja Kichwa" by Ali Spence (bottom left)
"Siete Hermanas" by Janda Grove (bottom right)
This was Evelyn’s first show as a juried artist, which meant that it was a competitive process. A juried show is a competition in which participants' work is judged by a panel of persons convened for this purpose. The criteria for this exhibition was that the participant's work of art had a theme and focus on gender, women in the history of Ecuador, the female body, female aesthetics, motherhood, ancestral knowledge and daily life of women.
More than 120 local artists submitted their works of art, and only half were selected to be in this show. There is an amazing number of talented women artists in Cuenca, and kudos to the three North American women artists, Evelyn Johnson, Janda Grove, and Ali Spence whose works were accepted into the show.
The exhibition was held at the La Quinta Bolivar Cultural Center, a private patrimonial home that was acquired by the city and beautifully restored in memory of Simon Bolívar, and turned into a cultural center. It's well worth the visit just to see this gallery.
Vendors were selling food, cans of foam, and hats (including umbrella hats)
Carnaval has traditionally been celebrated in various towns outside of Cuenca, so we decided to check out the Sunday parade in Gualaceo, about 45 minutes away. The parade was much larger than Cuenca's, with some elaborate floats, performances by dance groups. There were also food tents, a ferris wheel and merry-go-round along the Rio Gualaceo to celebrate after the parade. The vendors not only sold foam, squirt guns, umbrellas and hats; they also sold plastic buckets, and we saw kids soaked in their t-shirts with water.
There were several elaborate floats in the parade.
And plenty of marching bands...
...along with many dance groups and schools.
Kids were having a good time, whether eating ice cream or squirting foam
Several beauty queens rode floats, while other masked characters were on horseback
The crowds enjoyed the parade, while some doused passers-by with water from roof tops (upper row)
After the parade, we went to the Gualaceo market, and had cuy (guinea pig) and hornado (pork) for lunch
During our first Cuenca Carnaval in 2012, the city was practically deserted. In those days, Carnaval in Cuenca consisted solely of roving kids with squirt guns and occasional buckets of water from balconies overhead in El Centro. More events have been added each year, and this year there were parades and events going on every day. This was the second year of the Carnaval Orquídea parade starting from Parque San Blas, running to San Sebastián along Simón Bolivar, organized by the Prefectura de Azuay to promote tourism.
Squirt guns have been largely replaced with cans of espuma (foam) in recent years. Last year's Carnaval Orquídea parade had a smattering of foam at the end, but this year the cans were out in full force from the very start.
There were a few floats in the parade, including a double decker tourist bus.
And lots of music
Wherever there is a fiesta, kids are always in attendance
Though many parade marchers tended to be older
Thanks to the "blue army" (lower right) that follows every celebration, Cuenca is the cleanest city we have seen.
In recent years, Cuenca has celebrated Godparent's Day with a foam party in Parque Calderon, in the center of town. Cans of foam ("espuma") come out at 5:00, and the entire park becomes a slip-and-slide zone within minutes. In past years, we walked over to the parque later in the evening, when teenagers were in abundance. We decided to go earlier this year, partially for better photography light. We discovered that the younger kids dominate the scene when the foam party first starts.
The adults involved in this earlier time were mostly parents or grandparents of the kids. A few of them had foam cans of their own, but more were covered with foam as they watched the fun. And yep, that is me in the lower right. Taking any photographs in the war zone was a constant shoot-wipe-shoot cycle to keep the lens clean enough to use!
Godparents had their own small parade. Whether they had their own cans of foam or not, they were quickly covered. Firemen were on hand (upper left), and the military provided music (upper right). Evelyn (lower right) managed to stay on the periphery and survived the evening with only minimal foam. Last year, Evelyn was carrying one of the humongous cans of espuma, and wondering why she was targeted by all of the kids and adults.
We have been amazed how the Carnaval celebration has evolved over the past few years in Cuenca -- 3 years ago, the entire city was a ghost town as all the inhabitants left for the coast, and now there's a huge party, parades and even some restaurants stay open for this holiday. The evening ended around 11:00 PM with the best choreographed fireworks we have seen in Ecuador.
I rarely show photo or video work from others in my blog, but am making an exception today. I came across this fascinating 3 minute video today about the area. It is actually a commercial commissioned by Turkish Airlines. I definitely think it is worth seeing...
Every January 6, Cuenca celebrates the Day of the Innocents with a parade that combines satire, political and social commentary. It is variously called the Fools Parade, Inocentes Parade, or Masquerades Parade. This was originally a religious event commemorating King Herod's death sentence for all new-born boys after the birth of Christ, though Cuenca's version has evolved into a fun-filled costume party combining April Fool's Day, Carnaval, and Halloween, with some politics thrown into the mix.
Our first time seeing this parade was in 2013, when we found it definitely unique among the festivities we had seen previously. 2014 followed with a large number of men dressed in drag. 2015 saw a definite subdued political satire, as President Correa had just put through a law making it illegal to make fun of political leaders, and most groups were clearly worried about crossing that line.
The local newspaper reported that there were three times as many entrants in the contest as in past years. However we only captured the first hour of the festivities starting at 6:00 PM, as the party continued well into the night with many arriving after 8:30 PM. This year, the University of Cuenca won the Mascaradas 2017 contest prize of $4,000. The $3,000 second prize was awarded to the University of Azuay for their skit that included zombies dancing to Michael Jackson's song, Thriller, making fun of the obsessive use of electronic devices and social networks.
Every year there are groups that come through where we can recognize the parody... and then there are numerous ones where we just shrug our shoulders and wonder what the heck they are referring to. One repeating theme this year was Ruliman. Who is Ruliman, you ask? hmmm... I am still asking that too... ☺ I have since read several articles that talk about the Ecuadorian government creating a solidarity hero called Solimán. Ruliman is a character from a local voice impersonator named Santiago Illescas. The crowd cheered every time a float or group came by with the Ruliman theme, but I still don't understand why...
There were numerous groups led by floats or banners. Sometimes we knew what they meant. For example, the upper left is complaining about the Tranvia light rail project in Cuenca that is running more than a year late and well over budget, partly due to political maneuvering and mismanagement. Lower right says "Water is love and parties. Gold is death and the demon." This one is objecting to massive gold mines that have recently been opened in the Amazon. Upper right is telling people to "never forget" Cuenca traditions. Another skit with caskets reminded everyone of the many famous people who passed away the past year.
Many groups traveled in costumes, all matching a single theme.
Superheroes were in plentiful supply.
Masks and elaborate face paint was common, and many were quite well done.
As with all large parades like this, the police and Red Cross were on hand as needed. I have never seen any disturbances at any of these events.
The audience is often as interesting as the parade itself, and tonight was no exception.
Just a last few more images that I particularly liked tonight, as the Inocents enjoyed their party.
As usual, politicians were mocked throughout the large neighborhood dioramas. Clinton, Obama and Trump were all represented from the States, plus an assortment of Ecuadorian political figures.
This was our fifth New Year's Eve in Ecuador. Except for 2015 in Salinas, we have spent each of them in Cuenca. Our first was at the end of 2012, and was easily the largest and most elaborate we have seen here. Each year since then has been smaller, and this year was much more subdued than any prior celebration. There were fewer elaborate dioramas, fewer manigotes (effigies), fewer fireworks, fewer cars decorated with their manigotes and fewer people walking around el Centro. There were supposedly 19 entries for the annual neighborhood Amistad Club contest, however with no map nor addresses published, people walked to their favorite spots looking lost and saying "nada".
Given the vitriol that Trump spewed towards Latin Americans, it was not surprising that he was a major target of ridiculing.
There were a smattering of other manigotes around town, some humorous, but most poking fun at various politicos.
There were a few cars driving around with their manigotes tied to the roof or bumper, but far fewer than past years.
As always, food was plentiful. There was even tripe (3rd row right) this year, and a manigote of a woman cooking cuy (2nd row left).
There was the usual collection of characters and toll collectors having fun.
Kids were enjoying themselves, whether climbing trees (middle left) or reading a tablet (upper right), or playing with sparklers.
Many families started burning their own manigotes before midnight this year.
Though the large neighborhood bonfires started at midnight, which has been the tradition. However, it did not feel like a war zone of numerous fires this year, as it has in the past.
The smaller crowds enjoyed the ritual of burning bad thoughts from the past year, and starting the new year fresh.
As we arrived home, our neighbors were preparing to launch their globo (paper sky lantern written with all the hopes they wished for in the new year, such as "salud, dinero, amistad, familia...) Though now formally discontinued in town, after 2 churches caught fire in 2013, this family has continued to launch one each New Year's Eve.
Peter Dudar, a gringo expat actively involved with various Ecuadorean charitable causes, led the parade as one of the Three Kings
The Christmas Eve el Pase del Niño (the passing of the child) parade is claimed by its organizers to be the largest in all of Latin America. This year, at least 100,000 people lined the streets to watch the celebration with a perfect mix of sun and clouds, compared to the heat in past years. This is our fifth year watching the celebration (prior years can be seen here -- 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 part 1, and 2015 part 2). The parades all follow the same schedule(with varying routes), with the transfer of the child from Iglesia El Carmen de la Asunción (the flower market) around 9:00 AM to Iglesia San Sebastien around 10:00 AM, when the parade officially starts. Then, around 4:00 PM following the dancers, horseback riders, marching bands, floats with boom boxes, the doll child is then escorted by soldiers and the bishop along Calle Simón Bolivar to Iglesia San Blas. This year, there were some expat entries, as all Ecuadoreans are represented in this celebration. The religious celebration is a 3-month long event, with numerous events at local schools, churches, and neighborhoods.
As always, we took a zillion photographs this year, so here is a flavor of how the day progressed:
The "traveling child" (upper left / bottom right) is the centerpiece of the parade, and numerous Baby Jesus dolls are carried throughout the parade.
Many more women than men participate in the annual parade.
Many women marched along the parade route while carrying their babies.
The parade shows off the beautiful children of Ecuador.
Boys were often dressed as kings, shepherds or vaqueros, and painted mustaches were common.
Traditional masks appear regularly throughout the parade.
This year it seems that more kids were dressed as Santa Claus.
Chickens, cuy and pigs are often displayed. This year there was a goose in the mix too (top center).
The people watching the parade are often as interesting as the parade itself.
Police and military take part in the parade, and also help maintain order.
The local Catholic Bishop always rides with the Niño Viajero at the end of the parade. (There were two bishops on the float this year, the old and the new.)
The rain held off this year until shortly after the parade ended, then the sky opened up and helped us break the recent drought.
This week leading up to Christmas has been filled with holiday music in Cuenca. First we went to 2016 Christmas Candlelight Concert put on by the Cuenca International Chorale. In our opinion, this year was their best performance ever, and we especially enjoyed hearing Mara Gano. Kudos to the director, Andrea Lyman, accompanied by Sheila Johns and the entire chorale group. A couple days later, we got into the holiday spirit again with a special performance from Karen Kennedy and her daughter, Daniela, at the Jazz Society of Ecuador, a club just a few doors down from our condo.
Other music performances that we could have attended included a children's choir, two performances of the Cuenca symphony, Novenas, additional performances at the Jazz Society, the military band playing at Parque Calderon, a concert with the choral group from the conservatory performing with the Cuenca orchestra at the University of Cuenca, plus many more performances at several bars around town. All this within a single five day period! As always, there is no shortage of activities for us to choose from.
This was a Christmas song compilation by Karen Kennedy on Thursday evening, at the Jazz Society of Ecuador.
Silent Night was the closing song from the Christmas Candlelight Concert on Monday evening. And, here are some of the attendees with their candles, while waiting to exit the church.