Sunday, March 22, 2015

Gran Canaria by Margot Justes











The second island we visited in the Canary Islands was Gran Canaria, an island much more open to the present, visible oil rigs along the shore, and a modern approach to tourists, high-rises everywhere and beautiful beaches for tourists and locals to enjoy. Colors of homes and buildings were varied and plentiful. It is larger than Lanzarote and seemed for more cosmopolitan.

The island is volcanic in origin, and part of the island was formed somewhere around 9 million years ago, give or take a million, or two, or three...suffice it to say, it is indeed old.

Maybe as far back as 500 BC, the Guanches first settled in Gran Canaria. A varied and often brutal history followed, the island was finally captured with the help of Queen Isabella I, and the conquest helped expand unified Spain.

Las Palmas, is the capital city, founded in 1478, the history is simply amazing. It is a vital sea port, where about a thousand ships visit the port a month; anything from fuel ships, to cargo and cruise ships, and all sizes in between. 

Gran Canaria is touristy, and commerce seems to be thriving. The island is far greener than Lanzarote and doesn’t quite leave such a distinct and memorable impression.  It is more commercial, still exotic but ready for the summer onslaught of tourists. It is known as a “Miniature Continent” because of the different climates and landscapes found in a relatively small, round island that is approximately 50 km in diameter.

Whereas Lanzarote was a sleepy, quaint village style of an island, with an unforgettable landscape, Gran Canaria was lively, exuberant, celebrates Carnaval in a grand style, and
is ready for tourists even in late October. The cultural side is not at all neglected, and the Museo Canario, is an important and incredible archeology museum that depicts the history of the archipelago.

There is the potential of oil development, and several rigs were already in the port. In Tenerife, I later found out that the locals are opposed to the plan, and the prospect of the oil rigs occupying their ocean coast, but as our tour guide indicated, Madrid, the seat of political power thinks otherwise.

We took a hair raising bus ride to Cruz Tajeda (Cross of Tajeda), up 4,800 ft.  The roads are really narrow, the curves many, and every time we came upon a bend, the bus driver sounded his horn-because the bus could not be seen from the other side, and the road wasn’t big enough to share even with the smallest vehicle, and the bus wasn’t big to begin with. The views were fantastic, we even caught a glimpse of a kitchen of a modern cave dweller, the hole was small and it was too dark to take pictures.

We saw two rock formations that were supposedly worshipped by the Guanches, the first cave dwellers of the area. They, like the ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead, for a safe passage to the new life.  The next island of Tenerife, we saw some of the mummified remains in a museum.

As many know, cruising is my preferred way to travel now, and sometimes spending a day in one port is never nearly enough, but it gives me a glimpse of the area that in many cases I would not have had. Happy travels!

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lanzarote, Canary Islands by Margot Justes















Lanzarote is a volcanic island that dates back about 15 million years ago. Located on the African Coast it is uniquely part of Spain as are the other 6 Canary Islands, and yet border the African Continent. I only visited three.

You can tell immediately that it is a volcanic island, the terrain is pure black, and there is a crunch beneath your feet because you’re walking on tiny volcanic pebbles. This island has more than 300 volcanoes, and perfect weather year round, it is eco friendly and as a result it is a great tourist destination, it’s perfect for tourists looking for serenity and an unimaginable landscape.

The history is rich and goes back to Greek writers like Homer, Plato and Plutarch. The first known inhabitants were the cave dwellers Guanches who arrived somewhere in the 1st or 2nd century BC.  The first European visitor was Lanzarotto Marcello, who settled in the early 14th century. My guess is that is why the island is called Lanzarote. By the end of the 15th century, Spain had conquered all seven islands, and to this day they remain uniquely Spanish.

The first thing you notice is the black soil, the second is that all the houses are painted white, the doors and window trim must be either painted brown or green, or if you live by the sea blue. No other colors are allowed on the island.

There is only one high rise, or what is considered a high rise by locals-maybe 12 stories-rising like a lone needle from afar-they are no longer allowed to be build anything tall because of the possibility of volcanic eruptions. 

There is a magnificent cactus garden designed by a local resident and much beloved artist, Cesar Manrique. According to our guide, he is said to be the man who gave Lanzarote a future filled with potential and hope. The garden is designed in a quarry, it has the feel of a Roman theatre, surrounded by volcanic rock, iron gates, steps leading down, up, and long narrow passages, it is modern and totally captivating. It houses over 1000 species of cactus, along with a few of Manrique’s mobiles. The garden is truly breathtaking, modern, functional, so peaceful that you never want to leave.

There is a café on top with amazing views to the gardens below, and alongside the café a few steps down is a small gift shop. The coffee was delicious,
and the view from the cafe sublime. At the time that we were there the phone lines were down, and people couldn’t charge their purchases, they had some lovely books on the design and history of the garden. I have never seen a design like this before, it’s one of the most unique places I have visited-I took picture so I can share them with you.

The tour also included a visit to Cesar Manrique’s house, designed by him on 5 volcanic bubbles, basically big holes in the volcanic land. He used each bubble to create wonderful open spaces, sitting options, each one unique and vibrant. All were connected by narrow passages, painted a bright white.  He included a pool, small dance floor, sitting rooms, all were open to the environment, with plants, creative lamps, a magical place, he even had what would for us pass as a barbeque grill.

His own art collection is now part of the museum as well. He is much beloved in the area, and our tour guide pointed out several times that he was killed in a car accident, she even pointed to the exact spot on the roundabout, as we were heading to visit his home.

As an indirect result Lanzarote has a brand new highway system that is efficient and much safer. According to her there were many deaths on the old roads. There are no traffic lights but roundabouts are everywhere. It is a small community, deeply rooted to the volcanic earth, and Cesar Manrique helped bring that closeness about. Cesar Manrique was instrumental in making the people of Lanzarote aware of their unique and wondrous heritage.

We also visited an agricultural museum, El Patio. To call it a journey to the past would be perfect. The museum houses farming equipment that dates back to the 1840’s. We were treated to local goat cheese, green olives, homegrown tomatoes, along with crackers and the local wine. After which we fed the chickens, rooster and one peacock the leftovers, they patiently waited for us to finish.

A charming place, although I found the scarecrows dressed as the local old farmers, sitting in a dilapidated, run down old house that was dimly lit downright eerie.

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Cartagena, Spain by Margot Justes


I love the Spanish cities I have visited in the past-all unique and all beautiful, and Cartagena, located in the Region of Murcia was no exception. 

A long maritime past and many cultures have left an imprint and a rich heritage that the locals are very proud of, and are hoping the rest of the world will soon discover. It is a city with a spectacular waterfront, and recently discovered Roman ruins that date back about three thousand years.

The Roman Theatre is a must see, along with some terrific Art Nouveau architecture, like the Grand Hotel, the Casino and City Hall to name just a few.  According to our guide, the ruins have seriously put Cartagena on the tourist map, and that is excellent news.
Funds are needed for additional architectural digs and discoveries. As recently as 1987 they found remnants of the Punic wall, and other treasures that date back to Hannibal.

The question of further digs is twofold, there are houses, businesses, and parks that rest on potential archeological treasures, and many who live on those sites would prefer to continue to do so, while others want the excavations to continue. It is not so easy to start digging, yet the sense of history and preservation is desirable, and besides ancient ruins tend to bring tourists in, and of course that builds the economy, but as always there are many sides to every issue.










Along with the recent discoveries, fortunately for Cartagena, they have a wonderful moderate climate, reasonable prices and lovely beaches to motivate the tourist industry. 
The development of the industry is still a work in progress, few tourist shops, except for the usual Flamenco dolls and the obligatory Cartagena stamped stuff.

However, there is progress if the one shop I visited is anything to go by. Our guide mentioned that the wine produced in the region was quite good, and recommended one store that would carry it. I looked for others in the main square but couldn’t find any. What I found instead was the glorious paseo, the wonderful Spanish tradition of a leisurely stroll on the boulevard. It seems everyone was out and that included the family pets.

The Submarine Shop sold some excellent local wines, tomato jellies, along with beautiful locally made pottery, and a few wine related trinkets. That was the only store I fund that sold locally produced items, reasonably priced and the pottery made for some beautiful gifts.

I also discovered a local liqueur, simply called Licor 43. The secret formula has 43 ingredients,  chief among them is citrus, fruit juices, with a hint of vanilla. It is luscious, and it is available on Amazon. I’m beginning to think everything is available on Amazon.

The owners were friendly and eager to expand their tourist trade, and were excited about their product. I was told that soon they will ship wines internationally, and they looked forward to growing their business.

Our tour guide went beyond the normal tourist offerings, and made sure we learned about his city’s important heritage and recently discovered ancient past.

There is a plaza just down the street from the beautiful waterfront, and I sat down in a cafe and enjoyed my obligatory coffee and the view. 

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by Margot Justes










It is no secret I love cruising, for one it’s simpler and easier at this stage in my life than packing and unpacking, lugging suitcases from place to place. On the ship I unpack once, granted you only see a little bit, but at least it is a taste, and sometimes a day is enough.

On the third day at sea, the captain announced that tomorrow morning between 4 and 5 in the morning we would be crossing the Strait of Gibraltar,  and the Rock would be visible. I scheduled a wake-up call for 4:00, I didn’t want to miss it a second of this event. Yes, I know it’s just a rock, but what a magnificent one.

The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
It is largely believed that the Neanderthals considered it home as far back as 125,00- years ago, and as late as possibly 30,000 years ago. The history is significant, but on this trip, I was only going to see the big rock, not the tunnels and passageways, nor the flora and fauna.

I didn’t know what to expect, when you’re in the open sea, it’s pitch black at night, sometimes you see an island, dim lights twinkling in the distance, another cruise ship heading to a port, or a freighter chugging along, but darkness is routine. We were moving toward the Atlantic in November, cruise ships were heading somewhere warm, just like our ship was doing-the final destination was Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

I thought I’d be the only one out on deck, not so, many other souls were up, many were in pajamas, sweat shirts, comfort clothes fit for the occasion. For all of us the first call was to the ever present coffee machines. The crew was up, and along with the coffee a continental breakfast was served while we all awaited the big rock. The anticipation was great.

Even in the dark and the huge gap between the ship and the rock, it was still a monstrous hunk of stone, and even with lights twinkling everywhere, it was an eerie spot.

At five ten, we crossed the straits, and indeed the big pile of rock was there, it is huge even from a great distance. I have a couple of pictures mostly of what looks like a massive dense space surrounded by light.

After the crossing we were on the Atlantic Ocean, bound for Agadir, Morocco-tomorrow’s stop. As the saying goes there was quite a bit of motion from the ocean once we crossed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

Proof of the movement were the bags placed on the landings. Delicately phrased, people call them barf bags for a reason. Usually when the bags come out, I expect some pretty rough seas, and they didn’t disappoint.

It is really strange walking on deck when it’s windy and the seas are rough-it feels as if you either have lead feet or are floating on air. I lasted 20 minutes before I gave up, and actually had to sit down and rest for a few minutes. I was not alone on deck, there were a couple of other souls floating on air, or not, depending on the wind.

For the afternoon, the captain predicted fifteen feet swells, the bags were firmly in place and that included the elevators; otherwise it was life as usual on board ship. They believe in being prepared, and you know it’s serious when the crew couldn’t walk in a straight line-their  sea legs were firmly in place. 

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Agadir, Morocco by Margot Justes













The port of Agadir was my first visit to North Africa. Our tour included a souk visit, which is a typical market/bazaar, tented and patched with whatever was handy, you could see imagination at work everywhere you turned.

The souk we visited was positively huge, there was no time to stop and shop, our guide was rather persistent that we stay together, and he just marched on, one turn after another in a wondrous maze. I was grateful, I tend to wander off and get lost; they’d probably still be looking for me today, but I was smart enough to stick to the guide like the proverbial glue.

Alley upon alley of curved and narrow paths, most were dirt, others had tile, cracked plaster, still others pieces of bricks, well worn rugs, all uneven, and all led to infinity. It seemed never ending. Anything was for sale from cheese to meat to clothes, massive selections of olives, live poultry and everything in between.

We walked through town for a little bit, visited the top of the hill, or mountain as the guide indicated, where in 1960 at almost midnight a volcanic eruption killed 20,000 people. The place remains untouched, neglected  with few dry plans marking some graveyards. A sad reminder of a horrific loss. Along the path coming down the hill, vendors lined up their good on either side of the street, and once again touristy trinkets were for sale, most were imports from China.

After the somber reminder of the loss of those poor souls, a welcome break called the Fantasia Show was held in a tent and garden, where galloping horses and riders with guns drawn came to a sudden stop and fired into the air, even a snake charmer was thrown in for good measure. There were souvenirs to buy, and one was expected to haggle. Even patient camels were waiting for tourists to ride them-the awkward creatures are actually quite soulful, graceful and limber.

In the evening I took another tour, back to the tent lined with red carpets and the same garden. This tour included a traditional dinner in the tent and entertainment in the garden.  I’m sure there were Arabian Knights lurking in a corner somewhere…well I am a romance writer after all.

More of the traditional Arabian Nights riders, guns drawn as they galloped across the lawn, fired their guns, and majestically rode back. Blanks were used but the noise was enough to wake the dead. It was a delightful evening, filled with local customs and traditions.

After the show we had a typical Moroccan dinner of a soup made with chick peas and local spices, a chicken with vegetables slowly cooked in a tagine, and then couscous with roasted vegetables and lamb, and for the finale a huge bowl of fresh fruit. I love couscous and the preparation was outstanding.

A belly dancer provided the after dinner entertainment. By the time I was back on the ship, I really did think about the magic and romance of the Arabian Nights, moonlight and mysterious strangers.


Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Setting the Story by Margot Justes









I write romantic mysteries for a niche market, my stories deal with art, travel, a bit of mayhem and romance. I might preface that with-I love art and I love to travel-and have been fortunate to be able to do so. The old adage write what you know and love is true.  

When I started writing, I knew my novel would be set in Paris. In my youth, I lived there for a year, and have since gone back a few times. It stood to reason that my first romance should be set there.

New architectural structures reflect a modern appeal, but the old is appreciated and treasured. The Louvre now has Pei’s Pyramid at the entrance, a few buildings have been added, but the age old charm, the cobblestones, the meandering streets, the essence and soul are still very much there.

The first time I visited Bath, England, I told myself I must come back, and I did. My second book is set there. My third hotel book, my current WIP is set in magical and mysterious Venice. All three cities are mystical and romantic places. Venice has captured my heart perhaps as no other city-there is a constant pull to go back and see what I have missed.

My heroine is an artist, and through her eyes, I introduce my readers to my favorite artists, allow her to live in exciting places, give her mysteries to solve, and someone to love. The best of all worlds.

For me it is essential to visit the place I write about, get a sense of the culture, the everyday, mundane activities that make up our lives. The magical moment of sitting in a cafe, sipping an espresso, and watching people go by. An image is created that will allow a glimpse of that perfect intimate moment.  A sculpture in a garden described so well that the reader can almost reach out and touch a sinew, that is the wonder of the written word.

Rodin has always set my pulse racing, his work is strong, exuberant, poignant to the point of agony, and sometimes even mischievous. I tried to bring that sense of joy and discovery to my hero in A Hotel in Paris, and hopefully to my readers. I find solace in art, for me it’s therapeutic. You don’t have to be an art scholar to enjoy it, it’s everywhere we turn, it surrounds us, all we have to do is take note.

Imagine tea at the Pump Room in Bath, and that first sip of the heavily scented Earl Grey tea, you take a deep whiff to savor the smell of the bergamot oil, take a bite of that a fresh scone still warm, loaded with clotted cream and strawberry preserves-except that I skip the cream and go directly for the jam, lots of jam. Those are all real memories that will enrich a story.

Visit a restaurant that has been in business since the early 1600s, in Bath and watch out as you step down on the crooked stairs and touch the warped wall, coated with gobs of thick paint as you continue your descent that doesn’t seem to end, and then you gingerly sit down in a rickety old chair and hope you won’t be sitting on the ancient brick floor instead.   

Stand on top of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, look down at the Grand Canal, and the mesmerizing traffic below, boats gliding on water expertly and avoid contact. Sip an espresso in a cafe and listen to a gondolier serenade you from afar.

From the Rodin Museum in Paris, to the Pump Room in Bath, to the dark and narrow canals in Venice, where the water mysteriously shimmers in the moonlit night. It’s all there. Familiarity with a location makes it easier to write about the experience, it makes it come alive.

Even though I write contemporary romance mysteries, I love history and art, and that is what I write about. It goes back to the beginning, write what you know and love. 

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Blood Art
Hearts & Daggers
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com