Catholic Chapel in Playa del Carmen – Mexico

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo

I was missing the sun as Spring in Berlin was taking her sweet time to arrive. So I began thinking about Mexico, the Caribbean sun and the beaches, and the lovely time I had there in 2017. I didn’t have much time to see everything that the amazing Yucatan Peninsula has to offer, but I started flying into Cancún and going down the coast via Puerto Morales, to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and then across the peninsula to Mérida, Valladolid and seeing some pyramids along the way. Well, to be precise: seeing one of the new seven wonders of the modern world! Yes, Chichén Itzá really is pretty awesome. Despite it being a gazillion degrees, and there being a gazillion other tourists competing for selfie space, yes, it is truly amazing and worth the visit. 

Safety in Mexico

Don’t be too alarmed by the bad news that often makes its way out of Mexico, aimed especially at US tourists. There is certainly plenty of shady dealings happening in Mexico, but my experience as a white female traveler there was one of being very privileged, safe and secure. I can highly recommend travel in Mexico, while taking the usual precautions mentioned in many great travel blog guides. There were a lot of tourist and municipal police patrolling the tourist areas, although someone told me that they are often not very well-armed and are there more often than not to deal with drunken tourists, rather than locals being any type of threat to said tourists.

I didn’t rent a car while there either, which—as in every country—increases your chances of having encounters with law enforcement and corruption. I took the ubiquitous taxis around the city, and hired a driver to take me to visit some nice cenotes, and then hired the same driver to take me to my next city. He was lovely and friendly, and brought his wife and child along for the last leg, as they were going shopping afterwards. There seemed to be way more drivers than customers, so everyone and their brother was giving their card and trying to hustle for the next gig, so keep that in mind, and as usual, always ask about the fare beforehand. 

Playa del Carmen

I stayed in Playa del Carmen (Playa for short) for five nights, at a humble little Airbnb in the northern end of the city, in the high 80s street number-wise. I was able to walk to the beach and head northwards, finding a beautiful fresh-water cenote that flowed into the sea. Walking ‘to town’ for dinner didn’t take long, and although I found the main drag la Quinta (5th Avenue) to be a rather dreaded mix of drunken-tourist-trap cum hipster-hippie-commercialism, I kept finding myself drawn there, walking the length of the Quinta several times.

standard tourist trap store on La Quinta (5th) Avenue in Playa Del Carment
Standard tourist store on La Quinta (5th) Avenue in Playa
Religious figurines for sale on la Quinta

La QuintaYou can buy anything, and I mean anything, with no prescription in the pharmacies that line La Quinta—they seem to specialise in the viagra—and all the stores, bars, restaurants compete for your attention with different types of music blasting out onto the street, competing with the wandering mariachi troubadours. At some point I had had enough, and looked at the map in search of a church, and its promised quiet and respite from the La Quinta scene.

Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Carmen

the side view of the chapel

I found a little chapel listed on the far southern side of town where I had not yet been, and hailed a cab. My limited Spanish allowed a conversation with the driver who knew where the chapel was, I found out that he was a Mormon himself, and had converted from catholicism after meeting Mormon missionaries. 

The chapel was well-maintained and freshly painted, and upon entering….full of music pumped in by loudspeaker! I guess they also had to compete for ambience. The altar area was backed by a window looking out onto Los Fundadores Park and the iconic Portal Maya, a 50 ft. high, arched beachside sculpture depicting men and women in a swirl of water and wind right on the beach.

The Portal Maya next to the beach, next to the chapel
Entry to chapel
program, English for ya’lls!
tourist police keeping everyone safe, including limbless beggar

Sign on chapel saying:

“Currently considered as a symbol of identity and foundation of Playa del Carmen, Nuestra Señora del Carmen Chapel was built around 1960s by founding families of Playa del Carmen stones of Maya ruins, sand and sea water were used for its construction.” Sign dated 14 November 2015

the chapel interior

The setting is striking and beautiful, and the chapel does represent the best of the area. The chapel walls inside had very interesting shell-lamps too, which I thought might look good on my dream-villa that I will build someday. Right next to the chapel is a park which leads to the beach and pier. There was an art fair happening, and I found some lovely local products for gifts, and came across some nuns, selling handmade cosmetics. Totally my thing! I’m all about nuns having fun.

beautiful shell lamps
Nuns selling their goods at the art fair next door in the park

In fact, I can’t wait to return to Mexico. I could eat tacos every day. In fact, I did while I was there! My record was eating three meals in one day that involved corn tortillas. There is so much more to explore in Mexico, and I am working on some posts about the rest of my trip, especially the highlight – La Ruta Conventa!

St. Elisabeth’s Church in Vienna – Wieden

The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named  Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.

Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.

From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?

The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.

The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.

Left side altar of Maria, by Josef Kessler
Main High Altar image of Elisabeth of Thuringia
Right side altar, Christ, by Josef Kessler
St. Elisabeth’s Wieden