Away from the beach, San Cristobal finds its place on a road less traveled

Color defines San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico 

Ten minutes into a free walking tour of San Cristobal in the Mexican state of Chiapas, we stop into the shop of a local artist we somehow missed while strolling around on our own. Her gallery, Kikimundo, is alive with colorful prints, cards, mirrors and cell phone cases featuring her whimsical designs. More important, it's the headquarters for monthly meetings of Group Vision, a local group that collects art supplies, for children in a nearby village and wheelchairs and old computers or laptops for people with disabilities. 

Our tour continues for the next four hours, with stops at a restaurant where the owner offers us free samples of pozole, a traditional soup made from corn and shredded chicken; a coffee roaster; a garden cafe offering bites of vegan tamales and a market stall where the owner stocks textiles made by local villagers instead of imports from Guatemala or China.

Our young guide, Nayib, like other local volunteers, works only for tips. Sporting dreadlocks and a leather backpack he designed with a pocket to carry his soccer ball, says his goal is to teach us to spend our money wisely, not as obvious as it might sound in a city with a Starbucks on the town square and a Burger King nearby. 
Our guide, Nayib de le Rose

Mention the southern Mexican state of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, and what comes to to mind for most people is danger as they recall the Zapatista rebel movement of 1994 that engulfed the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in nearly two weeks of violence.

The uprising ended with a government promise to guarantee fair treatment to the state’s pre-Hispanic indigenous population, many of whom live in outlying villages surrounding what is now a rapidly gentrifying city, attracting ex-pats and Mexican and foreign travelers. But While the Mayan people gained political rights and the freedom to preserve their religious traditions and languages, poverty levels remain high and living standards low.

A village woman with her wares

Twenty-four years later, with outside investors capitalizing on renewed interest in tourism, the challenge to visitors is to find ways to funnel pesos directly into the pockets of locals. Buying handicrafts would seem to be one obvious way. Dozens of women come into town each day, carrying their babies along with heaps of woven blankets on their shoulders, or sit for hours in market stalls filled with amber beads and leather pouches. The sad part is that children are often forced to help sell instead of going to school. Much of it what’s sold is low-quality, and a middleman is likely reaping most of the profits.

Much better and more fun, my husband and I found on a recent visit, was making connections with entrepreneurs such as Nayib and Ricardo Hernandez, owner of a restaurant called Belil, a combination art gallery and cafe, specializing in traditional Chiapan food and drinks, and selling crafts made by village weavers and potters. 

After our hotel directed us to a trendy tourist restaurant our first night, we decided to consult travelers' suggestions on Trip Advisor for other ideas. This is how we found Belil tucked away on a side street, off Calle Real de Guadalupe, San Cristobal's main pedestrianized street lined with shops and cafes. Hanging on the walls were colorful textiles made by members of a women’s cooperative with whom Ricardo's wife, Carmen, works to create the kinds of modern designs that will appeal to tourists. It was here we tried our first bowl of sopa de pan, a traditional bread soup topped with egg, while Hernandez offered us tips on what to see and do around town. 

"Big cheese" Ricardo Hernandez

We spent one of our best days on a tour of two indigenous villages with Alex y Raul Tours, run by local men who show up daily at 9:30 a.m. in front of the cathedral. No reservations necessary. They pride themselves on "culturally sensitive" tours that honor the traditions of local village people (no pictures without permission, no photos in church etc.) When we choose them over a tour with a local travel agency, I expected we'd be using public transportation. Our English-speaking guide, Cesar, showed up with a van and driver, a luxury considering the price was just $25 for a five-hour excursion. 

Cesar in San Juan Chamula

Our tour started in the village of San Juan Chamula where villagers combine traditional Mayan rituals with Catholic ceremonies inside St. John the Baptist Church built by Spanish missionaries. A priest comes around once a month for baptisms, but villagers are free to use the church for traditional ceremonies, sometimes involving shamans (spiritual leaders)  performing a ritual killing of a chicken, a practice believed to help heal the sick.  

"You are now in Indian territory," Cesar told us as we stopped the van at a cemetery just outside of town. Pine needles carry special religious significance among these villagers as we saw here in the cemetery as well as inside the church where they cover the floor. There are no seats. People huddle on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of candles, praying and making offerings that might include bottles of Coca Cola and bags of potato chips. 

Men wearing tunics made of goat hair

Members of different indigenous tribes can be recognized on the streets of San Cristobal by their traditional styles of dress. In San Juan Chamula, the men where tunics (black in winter, white in summer) made of goat hair. The women wear skirts made of the same material. The government allows villagers to operate their own justice system, their own police force and decide on their own punishments for breaking the law. There's one jail cell for men (open to the sidewalk so the public can peer inside) and one for women (shielded from public view) where offenders spend from one to three days. 

Making tortillas in Zinacantan

Our tour also included a stop in the nearby village of Zinacantan where many of the women weave beautiful textiles (many of which we saw for sale in Belil), and of course, make homemade tortillas by the dozens. This woman encouraged us to sprinkle ours' with ground pumpkin.

Claudia Ruiz Santiz

Back in San Cristobal, we knew we had to have dinner at Kokono, a modest "slow food" restaurant opened a year ago by Claudia Ruiz Santiz from San Juan Chamula. It's unusual to find a woman-owned restaurant in San Cristobal, let alone one owned by someone from one of the indigenous villages. We were delighted to find Claudia in the restaurant the night we dropped in for some of the best chicken mole of the trip.

Chocolate Caliente

Chiapas is famous for coffee and chocolate. Surrounded by mountains, San Cristobal sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet. That means chilly mornings and evenings, perfect for a steamy cup of chocolate caliente Mexicano. It's made by breaking chunks of dark chocolate spiked with cinnamon into a pot of boiling milk, then frothing it with a wooden whisk called a molinillo. The whole process can take 10 minutes or more in a small shop like Xocol-Na, above, staffed with just one person and room for only a few tables and stools. Starbucks it was not, and that was just fine with us. 

Mexico: What the new U.S. advisories mean for American travelers

Peaceful Guanajuato

I'll be leaving soon for a 12-day trip to Mexico. Reading over the U.S. State Department's revamped travel advisories, I'm either headed into a country that warrants no more caution than travel to France or Italy, or depending on where I go, carries the same threat of potential danger as war-torn Syria, Iraq or Yemen.

The revised guidance system for U.S. citizens traveling abroad, announced January 11, was intended to simplify an outdated and sometimes politicized method of issuing travel warnings and alerts for worldwide travel.

While the new ratings are easier to understand, they are apt to leave travelers headed for Mexico confused and worried.

The State Department rated the whole of Mexico a Level 2 on a scale of 1-4, meaning Americans should exercise "increased caution" because of widespread drug-related murders, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery. 

Five states, however, earned a Level 4, the highest level of potential danger under the new system. It carries U.S. government advice to avoid travel completely.

This means that the five states- Tamaulipas on the U.S. border and Sinaloa; Colima; Michoacan; and Guerrero on the Pacific Coast - will be likely off limits to student and volunteer groups, given insurance and liability complications, but what about the average tourist who just wants a few days at the beach in Ixtapa (Guerrero) or a cultural excursion to the Monarch Butterfly Reserves in Michoacan?

A closer look indicates that the State Department considers some destinations within the five states safer than others. One indication is where it allows government employees to travel. 

Scroll down an alphabetical list on the Mexico Travel Advisory to the state of Michoacan state, for instance, and you'll find the colonial capital city of Morelia singled out as an exception to the "do not travel rule" for government employees.

Many ex-pat Americans and Canadians have homes in Morelia. I doubt much has changed there since I spent a delightful few days there two years ago, mixing with the locals on the Plaza de Armas, and strolling through narrow streets lined with 17th- and 18th-century buildings built from pink stone. 

In the state of Sinaloa, the State Department allows its personnel to go into  Mazatlan's historic town center, a far more interesting area than more modern areas filled with all-inclusive resorts. There are also no restrictions for government employees in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta even thought the whole of Jalisco State carries a Level 3 advisory to "reconsider travel." 

As Mexican tourism officials point out, plenty of other areas in Mexico are rated Level 2, advising travelers to exercise caution but not to avoid travel. They include  Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo, where two popular tourist destinations — Los Cabos and Cancun — are. Also Chiapas State (Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas); Baja California; Guanajuato (the cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende); Oaxaca and Mexico City.

Mexico's Tourism Ministry noted that more than 28 of its most popular tourism destinations for international travelers have no restrictions.

Bottom line: For those who care what the U.S. government has to say about travel, the current advice on Mexico is more useful than it’s been in the past. Could it improve? Sure. Let's hope officials keep it up to date, and not let political biases affect ratings. It's hard not to suspect politics played a part in Cuba's Level 3 rating (Reconsider travel), although that's a notch up from an earlier warning not to travel there. 

Beyond consulting the State Department's advisories, travelers are always wise to poll a variety of sources when planning a trip. Talk to people who live in Mexico or visit frequently. Read the blogs and forums on websites such as Check to see if your travel insurance will cover you (some policies don't cover areas where the government has warned people not to travel). And check out what other governments are telling their citizens.

Canada's advice on Mexican travel is to exercise a high degree of caution in general, and avoid some of the states targeted by the U.S., but it helpfully singles out exceptions such as Mazatlan in Sinaloa; Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo and Taxco in Guerrero; and Morelia in Michoacan. 

Australia recommends reconsidering the need to to travel in Michoacán, but exempts Morelia and the Monarch Butterfly Reserves since the reserves are accessed from the State of Mexico and are insulated from the rest of Michoacán. Like Canada, it exempts Ixtapa-Zihautanejo and Taxco from its Guerrero warning.

I’ve traveled somewhere in Mexico once every year or two for many years, and have never encountered any problems bigger than a compromised credit card. My take is that most drug-related violence occurs in peripheral towns and neighborhoods where travelers rarely go, and that petty crimes happen mostly in touristy beach resorts.

Stick to the historical cities or low-key coastal towns that attract a mix of Mexican and foreign travelers interested in outdoor adventure vs. all-inclusive drinking and eating, and you should be fine. 

This time I'm off to the town of Tequila near Guadalajara for a story on the family distillers and agave growers who produce Mexico's national drink, then I'll head south to San Cristobal de la Casas, a highland town in the southern state of Chiapas (rates Level 2). I'll be doing what I love most, that is finding ways to tap into Mexico's rich cultural heritage. I consider that the best, and yes, safest way, to explore all Mexico has to offer.  

Beyond the palaces and cathedrals, contemporary Seville awaits

Metropol Parasol

Winding walkways lead visitors around the top of Metropol Parasol, a waffle-shaped creation of wood, steel and concrete towering over medieval Seville's domed churches and narrow streets.

The vibe from the rooftop bar is relaxed as we sip wine and admire the views. In the distance are the spires of the city's Gothic cathedral; the Alcázar royal palace and the Giralda bell tower, originally built as a minaret when Seville fell under Morrish rule. Below us is the Plaza de La Encarnactión, a once-neglected area destined for a parking garage, now ringed with cafes, boutiques and art galleries. 

"You have the historical center and the contemporary center," a local tour guide told me. He recommends visitors to the Andalusian capital find ways to explore both.

"See the must-see sights," he advises, "then cross over the tracks and experience the different neighborhoods" where young entrepreneurs are nudging one of Spain's most traditional cities into the 21st century with contemporary food, fashion and art. 

Do spend time in Barrio Santa Cruz, a romantic tourist hub filled with horse-drawn carriages, flamenco halls and atmospheric tapas bars decorated with autographed photos of bullfighters, then go exploring to find out how old blends with new. 

Here are three suggestions, all within walking distance of hotels in the historic center.


Dominating this artsy enclave in the Alfalfa-Encarnación neighborhood is the Metropol Parasol, nicknamed "Las Setas," the Spanish word for mushrooms, for its canopy-like design.

Explore the archeological museum and indoor market on the lower levels, then take the elevator to the top a sense of what German architect Jürgen Mayer had in mind when he used the 16th century Seville cathedral as inspiration for the tree-like parasols shading the plaza below. The renovated market, originating in 1842, makes a good lunch stop, as do the cafes ringing a shady terrace surrounding Las Setas. 
Jesus Barrera in Un Gato en Bicicleta

Back at ground level, walk along Calle de Pérez Galdós in an area dubbed "Soho Benita" by a group of arts-minded entrepreneurs. Pick up a map at Un Gato en Bicicleta, a cozy cafe, bookstore, art gallery and potter's studio where owner Raquel Eiden turns out playful sculptures and whimsical gifts such as tiny ceramic pins resembling Scrabble tiles.  Across the street is Delimbo, a modern art gallery with works by Spanish and international artists. Find dresses by local designers at Isadora Concept Shop, and wallets made from Spanish cork at Verde Moscú, a fair trade cooperative specializing in eco-fashion. 

For a high-tech spin on a historical walking tour, sign on for an augmented reality tour with Past View headquartered in the  Metropol Parasol.  Wearing smart-glasses and a touchpad linked to an iPhone, visitors follow a guide through the city viewing video re-enactments of what life was like in the days of Roman and Arab rule. "Prepare to enter the past," our guide, Chris, instructed as my husband, Tom, and I donned glasses and followed him on a tour of a virtual Roman palace that once occupied a space where a gift shop now stands.

El Arenal

El Arenal is a neighborhood close near the Guadalquivir River that draws tourists on Sundays to an outdoor art market outside the Museo de Bellas Artes.

Artists originally sold traditional Spanish paintings, but that's changing as more showcase contemporary arts and crafts. 

Sculptor Angelo Giovanni

I was tempted to take home one of the small Don Quixote sculptures Angelo Giovanni creates on site from scrap pieces of metal, glass and wood. Easier to fit into my carry-on were napkin-sized sketches by Manuel Fernández, a young artist who uses watercolors and India ink to tell stories with whimsical line drawings.  

Gravitating to the neighborhood are are young chefs experimenting with "gastro tapas," new twists the small plates, traditionally ordered a few at a time as friends roam from bar to bar. 

Near the bull ring is Cinco Jotas, a bar owned by Spain's top producer of Iberian ham from acorn-fed pigs. We sampled paper-thin slivers of air-cured ham along with glasses of Fino, a pale, dry sherry. 

Slicing ham in an art form in Seville

Next stop was La Bulla, across from a shipyard used as a set in the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Seating at a picnic table next to a wall mural of a big red hen, we shared truffled artichokes and tempura shrimp trumpets served in a soda glass.

Tempura trumpets at La Bulla

Marked with a blue door and a barely visible sign is La Brunilda Tapas on a sleepy side street near the museum. Its ranking on "top ten" lists mean most of its dozen so tables fill quickly with local families. One strategy: plan on a late lunch. My husband, Tom, and I, arrived a half an hour before the kitchen closed. 

Our waiter, tattooed and English-speaking, patiently translated the chalkboard menu, then put in our order - salt cod fritters with pear aioli and grilled pork - with time left to snag a serving of bread pudding with caramel sauce for dessert.  Nearby is Azotea, where a line forms early for 8:30 p.m. dinner, and the owners reserve most tables for customers ordering full dinners. We were after tapas on a raining evening, but showed up early enough to score a small table by the window which our waiter quickly covered with butcher paper. Out of the kitchen came olives, a thick chunks of whole-wheat bread, grilled veggies with goat cheese, slice of Iberian pork with mushroom hummus, and mini-burgers packed in little McDonald's-type paper boxes. It was standing room only by 8:50 p.m., and we felt guilty about keeping the table for dessert, so we popped open the umbrellas and ran around the corner for ice cream at Helados Rayas, a Seville institution since 1980. 

La Macarena  

Tucked into courtyards and side streets in the northeast area of the city are artists' studios, cafes and small restaurants with local followings. 

Landmark sites include the La Feria, one of the city's oldest food markets, and the Basilica de la Macarena, honoring the virgin, La Macarena de la Esperanza (The hit song was about one of the Sevillian women named after her). 

El Convento de Santa Paula
Cloistered nuns support themselves by selling homemade sweets at the Convento de Santa Paula. Follow an arrow from the church to the monastery and ring the bell, then enter a courtyard filled with plants and orange trees. The sister on duty welcomes visitors into a small room with shelves lined with homemade marmalades in dozens of flavors and wooden boxes of a nougat candy called torrone.

Around the corner is the Plaza del Pelícano where artists welcome visitors into their workshops. At Hombre de Madera, a studio in a former engine repair shop, craftsman Ignacio Sánchez took time to explain how he uses wood from neglected orange trees to create custom-made furniture. 

Doubling as a gallery for Pelícano artists and a venue for jazz musicians is conTenedor, more restaurant than tapas bar, with a slow-food approach to dishes meant for sharing. Customers can print out the restaurant's business cards on a hand-cranked printing press near the entrance, then peruse a daily-changing menu presented on chalkboards brought table side. 

Watch as chefs work in a glassed-in kitchen, plating slices of duck with crispy rice and salads flecked with black sesame seeds. Feel free to linger well past 4 p.m. when the kitchen closes. It's siesta time, after all. No one seems to be in rush, and neither should you.

If you go:

Be sure to find a way to explore the history behind the colorful ceramic tiles and pottery you see everywhere in Seville. The industry flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries when artisans mined clay from the Guadalquivir River and set up factories in Tirana, a poor suburb across the river from the historical center. Cafes, hotels and pottery shops have replaced most of the factories, but a few artists still struggle to keep up the tradition.

Paula Felizón calls herself a "ceramics romantic." Working in her studio, Barro Azul, (named for the blue clay taken from the Guadalquivir River) she is one of the few remaining artisans in Triana, a riverside neighborhood that was once the center of Seville's ceramics industry.

Paula Felizón in her workshop

Moorish designs influenced the colorful, glazed tiles found in courtyards, churches and street corner shrines throughout the city. Each was hand-painted, using techniques Felizón teaches in two-hour classes. 

I learned a technique called Cuerda Seca used centuries ago to create tiles with geometric patterns.  Felizón demonstrated how to trace a design onto a blank tile, outline it in heavy black pencil, then use a syringe to fill in the spaces with colored glazes. My finished work - a small square inlaid with yellow stars on a blue background - isn't perfect, but that's the point. It's one of a kind.   

A version of this story appears in the January, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine.

Keep that passport dry, or risk hassles

On a return trip home from Paris to the United States recently, I broke my No. 1 rule, and put my passport in the pocket of my nylon shoulder bag instead of a secure place beneath my clothes.

No, the passport wasn't stolen. I was exiting U.S. Customs in Seattle, so felt I was home-free as far as theft goes. What I didn't account for was feeling seriously jet-lagged when I decided to put my bag in the washing machine later that afternoon.

I washed my passport, and thus begun a saga far that was far more hassle than simply renewing a travel document.

The laundered passport didn't look damaged. It dried out fast without many wrinkles. A few stamps inside were slightly blurred, but the main page and picture, coated in plastic, looked fine. Then I found out what most people who have been through a flood or a hurricane know: Passports with water damage can no longer be used, and must be replaced - not renewed via the convenient mail-in application -but replaced, as in applying for a brand new passport as if it was your first time.

Even thought the passport looked OK to me, there was no way of telling if the RFID chip (the microchip inserted into passports to deter fraud) inside was damaged, an official told me over the phone. Surely someone in the Seattle Passport Agency would be able to check, I thought. I brought the passport in for inspection, but was told they had no way of testing the chip. Further, I learned, water damage invalidates a passport, no matter how current, and any attempt to use it is a federal crime. I could take my chances that the chip was OK, but given the current political climate, I decided to pass on the potential hassle the next time I reentered the U.S.

It's been a long while since I applied for a passport in-person. I've always renewed by mail. Now I had to start over, not only by filling out a detailed form, but by coming up with all the necessary documentation to prove citizenship and identity. The U.S. State Department lays it all out on a page titled "Replacing your Passport after the Storm.

Here's what's required:

You must apply in person to replace a damaged passport at an acceptance facility or at a passport agency. I went to an acceptance facility a few miles from my house, located in a City of Seattle neighborhood services center.

You need to send the following:  The damaged U.S. passport, a signed statement explaining the damage. Form DS-11 (Application for U.S. passport), Citizenship evidence  (e.g. birth or naturalization certificate),  a photocopy of citizenship evidence,  ID presented in-person, a  photocopy of the ID, and one passport photo taken in color without glasses.

An alternative to sending a certified copy of a birth certificate is to present a fully-valid, undamaged, expired U.S. passport.  Luckily, I have a stack of old passports in my desk drawer, and was able to use one as proof of citizenship. An officials told me that the expired  passport would be returned to me, but my current "invalid" passport would not. 

I paid the fee - $110 for the passport plus $25 to the acceptance facility - and went home, expecting to wait 4-6 weeks for routine delivery rather than pay extra for expedited service (2-3 weeks).

My new passport arrived in 10 days, and is now in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, awaiting a visa for spring travel. Uzbekistan requires applicants to include copies of inside passport pages with stamps, along with the passport itself. I hope they will understand why all my pages are blank. Just in case, I included a note of explanation. 

So here's a lesson for all you experienced travelers: Whatever rules you set for yourself on the road, don't break them once you're home. And hang onto those expired passports. You never know when you might need one.

Bordeaux reborn: How to spend a weekend in the world's wine capital

Bordeaux's annual wine and flea market festival

Bordeaux ranks as France's second-favorite city, after Paris. Had anyone visited here 20 years ago, they might wonder why. Always prosperous due to the wine trade, it was a city whose beauty was hidden behind blackened buildings and traffic-clogged streets.

Credit Alain Juppe, the mayor and former prime minister, for kick-starting a clean-up campaign in the mid-1990s. With its riverfront promenade, mostly pedestrianized town center, neighborhood markets and neat rows of 18th century wine merchants' homes, the Bordeaux feels a little like Paris, minus the crowds and prices.

New high-speed train service introduced last summer means visitors can travel from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to the world's wine capital in two hours instead of three, incentive enough for my friend, Jen, and I to plan a three-night getaway.

Villa Bordeaux

It was around 11:30 a.m. when we settled into La Villa Bordeaux, a five-room bed and breakfast just outside the gates of the former medieval town center. Hidden behind a wall on a busy street were lush gardens and an open-air terrace, perfect for sipping wine on a sunny afternoon. Owner Sylvain Deon served breakfast buffet style- three or four kinds of cheeses, cured meats, homemade yogurt, fruit, cereals and assorted pastries and croissants. Had it been raining, it would have been easy to stay put. But the sun was out, and it was lunchtime. On Sylvain's advice, we headed into town, passing the booksellers on the Place de la Victoire, and found the art deco-style Cafe des Arts off pedestrianized Rue Sainte-Catherine, Bordeaux's main shopping street.

Cafe des Arts
Fast-food restaurants and chain stores catering to students have mostly replaced classic bistros like this one on Sainte-Catherine. We ordered a cheese plate and salad listed on the menu under "desserts," a choice that drew a puzzled look from our waiter. The French have their mealtime rules, and one is that you sit down for a proper lunch, meaning a starter and "plat" or main dish. Stopping for a snack is doable, but may mean selecting something intended as an appetizer or in our case, cheese, often eaten after the main dish but before actual dessert.

Rue Sainte-Catherine bisects the city north and south. It's a convenient path across town, but not the most interesting route for exploring Bordeaux's backstreets. Detouring a bit after lunch, we walked under the Grosse Cloche bell tower, one of the oldest in France, and the only remaining part of the ramparts that once surrounded the city.

Our destination was the Saint-Pierre district of old Bordeaux, one of the first areas to be renovated and pedestrianized under Juppe's plan. Since 2002, Bordeaux has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tourists generally head straight to the riverfront to see the 17th and 18th century buildings lining the quays. Right behind those buildings is Saint-Pierre, home to dozens of little wine bars and restaurants with outdoor tables set up under strings of colored lights. It was here we discovered one of 16 identical statues placed at various point around town by an English artist. The game is to find them all while wondering around.

From Saint-Pierre, it was an easy walk to the Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux's most photographed 1700s-era monument, fronting on the Garonne River. Refurbished and on one of the city's modern tram lines, its main attraction is Le Mirror d'eau, the Water mirror, an art installation of granite slabs with a thin layer of water and erupts into fog every 15 minutes or so.

Place de la Bourse

Almost everything in the old city is walkable or reachable by a short tram ride. A few stops from the Bourse is the wine merchants' district of Chartrons. We joined the locals at the annual wine and flea market festival, held each October to celebrate the harvest. Here life takes on a village-like atmosphere along Rue Notre Dame and the Eglise Saint Louis. In between browsing for antiques and listening to street musicians, we sampled vin bourru, a fizzy, not fully fermented "new wine," drunk a few weeks after grapes are picked.

Vin bourru

Upriver from Chartrons is the $90 million euro La Cite du Vin wine museum opened in June to mixed reviews. Its stunning riverfront location and 20 euro entry fee promise more than the exhibits deliver. Given the price includes an English audio guide and a free glass of wine on the top floor with views around Bordeaux, it's worth a stop if only for the interior design and techno tricks used to keep visitors entertained.

La Cite du Vin

While Mondays are often the worst times to do or see anything in France (most museums are closed and some shops open late), Sundays are often the best. Next on the city's list of neighborhoods to get a face-lift is working-class Saint Michel district, built around the Gothic-style Saint Michel's basilica. Locals gather here for a huge Sunday flea market, followed by shopping and lunch at the Marche des Capucins covered food market.

Saint Michel's flea market 
I wasn't quite ready for oysters at 10:45 a.m., but how could I pass up the chance to sample six for 9 euros, including a glass of white wine at this charming little bar. Food is really the best part of travel.

Marche des Capucins

Savoring the local life in Lille

Taking a bike ride with a local guide is one of the best ways I know to get the feel of a new city. Nothing seems as far away on a bike as it does on foot, and if you're lucky,  she or he will share tips on favorite places to eat, museums to visit and short-cuts that save precious steps when you're out sightseeing on your own. Sign up for a group tour, and you may even score a private guide as I diid on my first visit to Lille, a city in Northern France near the border with Belgium, an hour's train ride from Paris.

I signed on for a tour with a company called Le Grand Huit, but it turned out to be a slow Friday. I was their only customer. Instead of cancelling, my guide, Frédérique Lamoureux, above, treated me to a 2.5-hour, one-on-one ride on a sunny fall morning. We road along riverside bike paths, dedicated bike lanes and cobbled streets. Flemish before it became French in 17th century, Lille has a different feel than other French towns.Think beer instead of wine, strong cheeses, waffles and architecture reminiscent of what you might see in Brussels or Amsterdam. 

Just as interesting as riding around town with Frédérique was learning a bit about local life. She is the mother of three girls, ages 3, 5 and 7, and uses her Dutch bike to carry all three, although the seven-year-old now often rides on her own. Each morning, she and other mothers take thier children to school in what they call the "bike bus," a caravan of kids and mothers riding together. At 41, she recently started working again after taking a government-funded, two-year maternity leave. 

 Frédérique pointed out that Lille was originally an island bisected by canals and rivers, now mostly filled in with buildings. Most visitors stay in Vieux Lille, the picturesque old quarter, filled with quaint restaurants and bars, but also lots of tourists. Neatly-planned row houses reflect laws that required new owners to copy the styles of their neighbors. Not everyone follows those rules today. Note the tiny pink ball in the left corner of the photo below on the Place de Theatre, one of Vieux Lille's two main squares. The owner of a lingerie shop painted one of the original cannonballs built into the facade of his building pink to resemble a woman's breast.

I booked a B&B (a room on the top floor, six flights, 60 steps up from ground level, no elevator) in 19th century Lille, the expanded new city about a mile away from the old town. I was disappointed at first that I hadn't found a room in the Vieux Lille, but staying in a local neighborhood turned out to be a great choice. Vietnamese, Cambodian, Moroccan and Indian restaurants lined little side streets, along with inexpensive French bistros.  My hostess at L'Art de Vivre B&B served local cheese, croissants, yougurt, fruit and homemade jams at breakfast, leaving me no room for lunch. At the Saturday market a few blocks away, farmers set out bottles of homemade pear and apple cider and rows of giant cauliflowers. Cheese trucks and olive trucks shared a parking lot with vendors selling mattresses and sweaters. 

Lille has many fine museums, including a massive fine arts museum, the Palais des Beaux-Arts, and a small museum devoted to Louis Pasteur who came to Lille at the behest of brewers to work on the study of fermentation. One afternoon, on Frédérique's advice, I took the metro (Lille's system is driverless, which locals like to say is immune to strikes) to the town of Roubaix.  It's a short walk from the station to La Piscine (French for swimming pool), a museum of art and industry, in an Art Deco building on the site of a former community swimming pool. Architects incorporated water features and shower cabins into display spaces, and used old bath tubs to house the museum's fine art collection. 

Like Paris, Lille has its share of American-style fast-food restaurants and coffee shops. I was disappointed to see a cafe on Place du General-de-Gaulle serving coffee in paper cups. Worse was the prospect of a "FIve Guys" burger chain due to open soon on a main pedestrian street. 

Why this when I found in my own neighborhood excellent food, served at charming little bistros brimming with local ambience. At Le Chat Dans L'Horloge (The Cat in the Clock), I sat at a little wooden table next to a wall decorated with copper pans and old magazine covers. The night's fixed-price special was a creamy goat cheese tarte, steak frites and a glass of wine for  $17. 

The next night it was a chicken tangine with pears, almonds and orange-flavored honey at Le Souk, a Moroccan restaurant that even on a Saturday night was quiet and uncrowded. The bill, with a small pitcher of white wine, was $19. Meanwhile, the guys at Five Guys must be onto something. A friend reports a 45-minute wait at the chain's new location in Paris.

Coping with Trump's war on travel

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

When Donald Trump took office last January, many of us were asking ourselves how his policies might affect travel for Americans abroad.

Nine months later, we have some answers. 

Our dollars are worth less against almost every major currency. 

Travel to Cuba has been restricted. That country along with 40 others, including Mexico, Egypt, Jordon, Colombia and parts of Israel, have been hit with U.S. government travel warnings advising Americans to stay away.   

And the latest: U.S. citizens can no longer get a visa to enter Turkey, disrupting travel plans for thousands, and leaving tourists, business travelers, tour operators, airlines and cruise lines in limbo when it comes to future plans.

What might be next is anyone's guess. In the meantime, here's a rundown on where things stand in the immediate future.


Turkey's decision to stop issuing visas to American travelers either in-person on arrival or online through it's e-visa program, came in direct response to a move by the U.S. to suspend the issuing of visas for Turkish citizens hoping to visit or study in the United States after Turkey arrested a U.S. consulate employee on allegations of espionage. The U.S. suspension followed a March travel warning, reissued in late September, recommending Americans citizens carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey. By the time you read this, the latest spat may have ended, but until then, and perhaps after, due to the possibility of this happening again, we will have no choice.  

This is sad, because Turkey is one of the most fascinating places in the world to visit. More than 37,000 U.S. nationals traveled to Turkey in 2016, a drop from the 88,000 visitors in 2015, a change that can be attributed to the coup attempt and security crackdown in Turkey last year when many cruise lines and U.S. tour operators cancelled trips. 

Tour operators and airlines are coming up with refund policies to help Americans who had already booked trips. Intrepid Travel said travelers booked on coming trips who are affected by the visa suspension will be issued refunds or can use their deposit toward another tour.

The dollar

The U.S. dollar, long a symbol of American economic might, has fallen steadily since Trump took office.

As of August, the value of the dollar index, which tracks the dollar against six major global currencies, had fallen about 10% since January. Europe's political and economic problems apparently haven't outweighed the effect chaos and uncertainty in U.S. In January, the dollar exchange rate against the euro was $1.06. Today's it's $1.17.


The State Department has issuing a travel warning, urging Americans not to travel to Cuba after 21 U.S. diplomats and family members became ill after a string of mysterious attacks. No tourists were affected, and no other major country has issued a similar warning.

The travel warning has created plenty of confusion and resulted in some cancellations of planned trips to Cuba, but RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel), an association of 150 travel agencies, tour operators and others who provide travel services to Cuba, told the Miami Herald that the warning is unjustified and its members are continuing to organize trips to Cuba.

“This is just not a question of travelers’ safety,” said Bob Guild, co-coordinator of RESPECT and vice president of Marazul Charters, which organizes group tours and individual travel to Cuba. He told the Herald that so far this year there have been 500,000 U.S. visitors to Cuba, including Cuban Americans. “None of them, to the best of my knowledge, has experienced similar health issues. The State Department warning is a political warning, not a health warning.”

The warning comes on top of new restrictions the Trump administration placed on Americans travesl earlier in the year, forcing most to go on expensive group tours instead of traveling independently as people from most other countries freely do.

Other countries

Consult the U.S state department's long list of advice on travel elsewhere, then check to see what Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia are telling their citizens. Official government travel  warnings can sometimes impact travel insurance coverage, so be sure to check on coverage details before buying a policy. 

Where to go?

Donald Trump's idea of "foreign travel" might be a quick hop to Puerto Rico followed by a golf game in New Jersey, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to buy into false fears. Exercise caution, just as anyone visiting the U.S. should be doing right now. Change plans when it makes sense, but by all means, keep on traveling.