Oaxacan Diary 2: Travels with my mother at the top of the world

The main plaza at Monte Albán
The main plaza at Monte Albán

For more than a millennium, successive generations of Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples ruled the life of the Oaxacan valley from the city state of Monte Albán. Carved into a mountaintop 6400 feet above sea level, vast areas  were levelled in 300 BC for terraces and plazas. Temples and residences that allowed for seismic movement were built using layers of quarried stone and adobe. By 800 AD, 50,000 people lived in the city of Monte Albán. It was so large that suburban satellite neighbourhoods were built on surrounding mountaintops.

Monte Albán was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.

When you are in Monte Albán, you feel as though you at the top of the world. There is nothing between you and the sky. The scale of the city is overwhelming. The central plaza is exactly oriented on the cardinal points (I checked with a compass), and so large that it dwarfs people as they cross. Stone staircases seem built for giants. It was built to impress.

Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán
Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán

My mother and I have been to Monte Albán before, and wanted to go again, but we wanted to start with a visit to Atzompa, one of Monte Albán’s satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond
Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond

The Atzompa archeological site has only been open to the public since the fall of 2012, and there is little information about visiting. New roads are being built to access it, but as yet there are few who travel there and it remains undiscovered by most tourists. So we hired a car and driver to take us to the top of the world.

We left early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Our driver Vincent took us out of Oaxaca, edging upwards through villages with dusty, winding streets. The “modern” village of Atzompa is known for its distinctive green pottery. About 90% of the villagers are involved in making pottery. It’s a traditional village and there is terrible poverty, but people are scraping by somehow.

The contemporary village of Atzompa
The contemporary village of Atzompa

There’s a small artisan’s market for intrepid tourists, but we passed by, and headed up the mountain. We passed a man with a burro, laden with something that looked like coal or maybe just rocks. We passed workers building the new road. Up and up Vincent drove, weaving past barriers, until he could drive no further. Mom and I set out on a newly created gravel stairs, leaving Vincent to wait in a newly built but vacant parking lot.

There is an entrance to the Atzompa archeological site, where we signed in. From the sheet I could see that there were 4 visitors yesterday, 18 the day before. Today, we have the place to ourselves.

The name Atzompa is Nahuatl meaning “at the headwaters”. It was built by Zapotecs from Monte Albán about 1200 years ago. After about 600 years of Zapotecs, it was inhabited by Mixtecs for over 600 years. The pottery making inhabitants of the contemporary village of Atzompa are descended from those Mixtecs.

Atzompa was built in a similar style to Monte Albán, although scaled down. There are small plazas, a temple, a tomb with funerary chambers, an artisan’s area, a stone quarry, and a large ball court.

From “Plaza C” you can see across to the city of Monte Albán, as well as to other, as yet uncovered, satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán
Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán

The plaza makes us understand the level of wealth and privilege in Atzompa. Residents looked down on the peasants, workers and farmers in the valley. They looked across to the seat of power, both political and religious. But it was also practical. Looking down, they could easily see movement or threats from other people travelling in and out of the valley. These were wealthy and powerful people, who lived in luxury.

Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below
Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below

The main square is 50 x 50 metres, bordered by a temple, with a central burial mound.

Main square and temple, Atzompa
Main square and temple, Atzompa

One of the two residences, the House of Altars, has a sunken patio surrounded by a sidewalk, and 18 rooms accessed by four different staircases. Servant’s quarters were attached by walkways. A desirable house, in prime location.

House of Altars, Atzompa
House of Altars, Atzompa

The ball court, one of the largest in Meso America, is 5 x 22 metres in an “I” shape, with a north/south orientation and long benches for spectators on either side. Ball games had both religious and political ramifications, and were “practiced to influence the movement of the stars in the sky, the continuation of the existence of the cosmos, and thereby, the continuation of life” (so the signage at Atzompa tells us). It is easy to imagine, as we stand so close to the sky, the power and influence of the games.

Ball court, Atzompa
Ball court, Atzompa

There’s a kiln and ceramic studio here. The original building hasn’t been excavated, as it sits 2.5 metres under the surface, but a re-creation gives weight to the importance of the studio, which specialized in large cooking pots. As today, each artisanal home is responsible for one type of pottery whether it be pitchers, griddles, casseroles or toys. I think back to the potters we passed on our way here. Tradition goes a long way back in this part of the world.

Kiln, Atzompa
Kiln, Atzompa

A burial chamber was unearthed in July, 2012. Not open to the public, it’s been dated to be 1100 years old, apparently in amazing condition, and unique in its design of three layers of tombs above ground and brightly painted murals on the walls. A wooden structure sits incongruously on the top, replacing the original stucco temple. The restoration is clearly still in progress, but the only work we see being done today is by men slowly raking stones on the plaza.

Funerary Chamber, Atzompa
Funerary Chamber, Atzompa

The mid morning sun is beginning to bake us. We gingerly make our way down the gravel paths, to find Vincent waiting patiently. We reluctantly leave the peace of Atzompa. Monte Albán, filled with tourists and school groups, beckons to us across the valley. Aztompa has become our shared secret, our own private discovery. Monte Albán is, as it should be, filled with the trappings of civilization.  We head there for desayuno (breakfast) in a lovely outdoor café …

Desayuno at Monte Albán
Desayuno at Monte Albán

The Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre are 5 tiny villages that perch on the edge of the cliffs along the Ligurian coast. The name means five villages, not lands, and stems from medieval times. Cinque Terre comprises the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.

Historically subject to raiding by pirates from North Africa, the peaceful little villages are now protected by the Cinque Terre National Park authority. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997, the villages are not accessible by car, but are linked by train and, in the summer, by regular boat service. There are also extensive hiking trails between the villages and through the surrounding hills.

Trains leave from La Spezia for Riomaggiore every half hour. The train ride itself is only 8 minutes long but the journey takes you from a busy, gritty working city to a magical fishing village of tiny shops and restaurants, carved into the cliffs.


We arrived in Riomaggiore on a gorgeous sunny day a few days after Christmas and set off to walk up the incredibly steep main road, finding churches and piazzas hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny streets. A recording of Placido Domingo was playing on a speaker in the street and we followed it into a tiny room, carved into the rock, filled with a massive nativity scene.

The Nativity Grotto

A whole village was reproduced, with figures fishing, shopping, washing clothes, all powered by water. It was the first of many nativity scenes that we have seen in Italy.

We decided to have lunch in La Grotto, a restaurant built into the cliff, with raw rock forming some of the walls. The village is known for its fish, so some of us decided to see what the local cuisine had to offer from the sea.

The harbour in Riomaggiore. A fish lover's paradise.

My mother Laurie and I ordered a specialty of the region called Ciupin’. “Cuipin’ di pesce fresco del golfo con pomodoro, pepe nero e romarino servitor con frette di pan tostato”. (Fresh fish from the Gulf with fresh tomatoes, pepper, rosemary sauce, served with toasted bread). We thought that it was a fish soup but when it arrived there was no real broth – just a massive amount of fish. Sea bass, sole, mussels, clams, scampi, 3 different parts of squid. All with heads and tails, each tasting unique, in the delicious sauce. It was a bit of work, but with the fabulous breads and local wine it was one of the most delicious meals I have had.

After lunch, we wended our way along the Via dell’Amore toward the next town, Manarola. In reading about the Cinque Terre, the walk is described as a hike, but I think it is better thought of as an exquisite promenade.

Momma Laurie hikes the Via Dell'Amore

It is a paved walkway along the cliff edge, festooned with tiny locks, left by lovers pledging their love together. It really is just about as romantic as you can get.

Lover's locks

We arrived in Manerola as the sun was beginning to set. We walked to the top of the town and stood in the piazza outside the church (built in 1388), watching the sunset.

Sunset in Manarola

Just above the town, in the terraced vineyards above the houses, was a massive nativity scene. Figures of the nativity and of every day working people were lit up as the darkness set in. Apparently these are the work of a local resident, who sets up many different religious scenes as a tribute to his father.

Nativity scene in the terraced vineyards of Manarola

There are over 200 figures illuminated by 12,000 lamps, making it the largest nativity scene in the world. The picture does not do them justice, unfortunately. It was a very memorable sight.

We were a bit too late in the day to go on the vineyard tour, but made up for that by buying several bottles of local wine. There are miles of grape vines on the hills above the towns and the terraced vineyards are one of the reasons for the World Heritage Site status. The sheer number of stone terraces is equivalent to the building of the Great Wall of China. We are happy to take home a sampling.

Two days later, Xan’s partner Meghan arrived from Canada, and we knew that we wanted to go back and visit the third town, Corniglia, with her. The last two towns, Vernzza and Monterosso al Mare are currently closed to tourists. There were deadly mudslides in October that have closed the towns, as well as the path between Corniglia and Manerola. But we were able to take the train to Corniglia and explore.

The main square in Corniglia

It is the tiniest of the villages (population about 240) and sits highest on the hills. It is not as often visited by tourists, because it is a bit more remote. But it was well worth the climb, or the cost of the shuttle that drives up to the hill top.

Corniglia has been famous for producing good wines since Roman days, and in the regular season there are tours and wine tasting bars. It was exquisitely quiet when we arrived, and much of the town was closed. We spent time in the sunshine in the main square, the Largo Taragio, centre of which spouts the old town well that used to bring in water from the hillside to the locals who lived without plumbing.

The Largo Taragio, with a memorial to the dead from WW1, and the old town well

In the Oratory of Santa Caterina on the Largo Taragio the nativity scene included a tiny pizzeria, with a man putting pizza into the oven. From the square we continued to climb higher to a small clearing and the Santa Maria Belvedere, the most stunning look out point to the sea.

Maddy & Tim looking out from Santa Maria Belvedere in Corniglia

It is a natural sun trap and a perfect picnic spot.

However, we didn’t bring picnics – we were there to sample local cuisine. We discovered the Enoteca Il Pirun, a wine bar and tiny restaurant that served us an amazing meal of pastas. Tim & I shared a plate of acciughe sotto limone (anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil) that was one of the highlights of our visit. Sweet and lemony – we were eating fish caught directly outside the village with lemons grown on the trees in the village and olive oil made from olives grown on the surrounding terraces. How could it be better? We all shared around our different plates of pastas with mussels, clams, pesto and rolled away from the table late in the afternoon to take the 3-minute train ride to Manerola. From Manerola we walked into the sunset of Via Dell’Amore toward Riomaggiore. A couple of new lovers locks were added to the collection.

Xan & Meghan on the Via Dell'Amore

We’ve only scratched the surface of Cinque Terre. There was so much to take in and we were overwhelmed by the outrageous beauty. We are already making plans to come back to visit the last two towns, to hike the high paths through the vineyards, and to perhaps pick up a few more bottles of local wine.

Sut set on the Via Dell'Amore

More than cheese, chocolate and clocks

Tim’s friend Sandra picked us up in Geneva to bring us to her house outside the town of Chexbres. Leaving Geneva we made a quick stop to Cologny to see the Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley first began to write Frankenstein.

Villa Diodati

It’s hard to imagine such a dark book coming out of a villa set in such a sunny, well-manicured garden.

Born in the U.S., Sandra now lives with her husband and daughter in the Lavaux region of Switzerland. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 2007, the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces stretch for approximately 30 kilometers along the north shore of Lake Geneva.

The Lavaux Terraces

A unique microclimate, the area has been under cultivation as a wine-making region since at least the 11th century, when Benedictine and Cistercian monks created the stone terraces that hold the grape vines to this day. The grapes continue to produce exquisite wines. Why have I never heard of them? “Unfortunately, they do not travel well”, says Sandra’s husband with a glint in his eye. Switzerland is proving to be a country of many surprises.

Sandra’s house is a calm oasis amongst the terraced grape vines, directly overlooking Lake Geneva. Designed as a retirement project by a successful engineer, it is a house whose deep windows open to the extraordinary scenery; a house of “noble” products: wood, stone, and polished granite floors.

View from the house, across Lake Geneva to the French Alps

We sip a Dezaley white wine, the appellation of the region. We watch the mountain range on the other side of the lake slide into the purple of the night sky. The French Alps with the famous city of Evian twinkling on the shore. It is an evening of astonishing beauty and invigorating talk under the scent of pine trees.

Dinner in the "magic spot" with Sandra & Andreas. Photo by Olivia

In the morning, we are given a tour of the area, with a brief glimpse of Saint Saphorin, a tiny town that sits atop an ancient Roman villa and produces some of the best wine in the region. We drive along the lake down to Montreux, known to me primarily for the famous jazz festival.

The Grand Hotel in Montreux

In days gone by it was one of the essential stops for Europeans on a “grand tour”. Sandra also takes us to the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey, the smaller of the “grand tour” hotels and the setting for Henry James’ novella, “Daisy Miller”.

Hôtel des Trois Couronnes

We wander into the fin-de-siècle lobby and out onto the gorgeous terrace looking out over the topiary to the sun-drenched lake.

We lunch in Lutry, at the Café de la Poste, right beside Lake Geneva. The specialty is tiny Perch fingerlings, fresh from the Lake. Tim, who knows a thing or two about filleting, can’t imagine the difficulty of filleting these tiny fish, but the taste is well worth any effort. The chef comes to our table to explain the cooking process in which the fillets are soaked in milk for half a day, patted dry and lightly floured on the flesh side only. Butter is melted with a little oil and permitted to slightly brown. The fillets are gently fried, always starting with the flesh side first. A delicious sauce, made from a lemon reduction, melted butter, cream and shallots is ladled over the perfect morsels.

The chef in Lutry sits with us to explain how the Perch fingerlings are made

Sandra surprises us by ordering another specialty of the Lavaux region for dessert: Raisins à la Lie et Glace. La Lie is a distilled alcohol, (“sort of like Grappa”) made from the second pressing of the grapes. White Sultana raisins are soaked in the Lie (pronounced Lee), which is slightly diluted with a simple sugar syrup and some lemon zest. Our spoons dip through the creamy ice cream to the sweet alcoholic prize below.

Our experience of Switzerland is full of surprises. Clearly this is a country of much more than cheese, chocolate and cuckoo clocks!

Tim and Sandra in the tropical climate of Montreux
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