Naples Florida's Mediterranean "Cannes"... the Everglades National Park the Keys Key West, Sunshine Key South Bay Lake Okeechobee Orlando Disney Epcott - SeaWorld - Gatorland - Universal Studios -
International Drive - the Mall at Millenia
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This is an extract of what to see in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description, history and full-sized photos, in my e-book View America: South Atlantic - Part 1
In the travel series View America, South Atlantic - part 1 covers Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.
My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 100 full-sized photos.
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FLORIDA is also called the Sunshine, Peninsula, Everglade or the Orange State. The name Florida comes from the Spaniard Ponce de Leon, who discovered the area on Easter 1513. Easter in Spanish is La Pascua Florida, which was shortened to Florida. n 1845 Florida was the 27th state to join the US. Its capital is Tallahassee and the largest city is Miami.
Florida's surface is approximately 155,000 km2 and there are approximately 16 million inhabitants, with a density of 117 per km2. In Miami, Hispanics represent 60% of the population. Between 1950 and 1990 the population multiplied fivefold, through influx of retired people and Cuban refugees and the expansion of tourism.
Florida has the longest coastline after Alaska with 2,173 kilometers, but if one also counts all the inlets, the entire coastline measures 13,560 kilometers! The longest river is the St Johns river, which carried busy water traffic until 1880. In that year the water hyacinth was accidentally introduced in the river, and it grew so thick that the northern part of the river became virtually unnavigable. Another river is the Suwannee River, well known through the song "Swanee River". Lake Okeechobee covers 730 sq miles (1,900 km2) and it is the largest freshwater lake in Florida, and the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S. after Lake Michigan.
There are more than 7,000 lakes and large ponds, mostly occupied by alligators. The original pine forests were completely decimated through unregulated mining of turpentine, pitch and tar, but now the surface is again forested for 47%.
In the south lie the Everglades, a wetland ecosystem of 734 sq miles (1,900 km²), that reaches from central Florida to Florida Bay. The Seminole called it Pay-hai-o-kee or grassy water. They can be visited with an Airboat or Marsh Buggy. It is an exceptional natural reservation with a cornucopia of animals, an enormous insect population, and all sorts of reptiles like alligators, crocodiles and turtles. There are also some very poisonous snakes like the coral snake, rattlesnake and Water Moccasin. The birds are also well represented, including the pelican.
Around 1750 the Spanish introduced citrus (mainly oranges and grapefruit), sugarcane and cattle. The state realizes an important income from tourism, but the terrorist attack of 9 September 2001 caused an exceptional decline in the number of visitors. At that time, the state's budget was hastily scaled back with more than one billion dollars.
Florida's exceptional climate ensures good weather all year round, and tourists visit the Everglades, Cape Canaveral, and the historic cities of St. Augustine and Pensacola. The state's most popular destinations are the theme parks around Orlando (Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios), and the many coastal cities.
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The campground Silver Lakes Golf Club and RV Resort in Naples, next to Marco Island, is simply extraordinary, with huge sites, large ponds, many stately coaches and well-maintained lawns. Many owners have converted the sites next to their coach or fifth wheel into more or less permanent residences, some with verandas and others even with fixed homes. The entire campground is well maintained, spacious and elegantly laid out. The resort also contains a nine-hole golf course, two swimming pools, two club houses, etc.
Naples can easily be compared to the French Mediterranean beach resorts such as Cannes, Nice or Palm Beach. An exploration of the city center is most interesting and rather remarkable. Highway 41 is Naples' main street, and the city presents elegant low rise buildings, vast lawns, nice landscapings, and a lot of fancy cars. It bears a remarkable likeness to the "Croisette" in Cannes, and is certainly worth the stroll.
The entire Everglades region is a protected area, and the locals do everything they can to keep the ecosystem intact. A nice one-hour excursion can be made with a small Air boat, which is more fun than with a large boat and its many passengers. The air boat only uses very specific paths through the marsh, and avoids cruising through the high grass that would otherwise inevitably be worn away. These paths are tightly scheduled throughout the entire park.
The tour leads through a private area of about ten square miles, or some 30 km2. The manager of the Airboat rides told us that he prefers to hire local people, since they know the area better, and even more important, they are more familiar with the animals.
Imagine a ten foot boat, three feet wide, with a flat bottom and three seats. In the rear of the boat a heavy engine has been installed with a large propeller and rudders, like an airplane. The captain sits in front of the engine, well protected from the noise with ear mufflers, and he controls the engine speed and the position of the rudders. The propeller blows on the rudders and pushes the boat forward.
At first our contraption chugged along rather slowly at some ten mph, and I was getting worried that this was going to turn into a rather sluggish ride. But once we got out of the main channel the captain opened the throttle, and then the boat literally flew over the water at more than forty mph! It is a fantastic experience, the wind flying through your hair, the beautiful surroundings, cruising left and right through the bushes and the trees, and even the rather deafening noise of the propeller.
Besides the natural environment and the many animals, the Airboat-ride is an attraction in its own right, especially when the captain expertly guides his boat at full speed through the narrow passages between the trees. An outstanding experience!
Key West is the southernmost point of the United States, and it is only ninety miles away from Cuba. The beaches are not particularly inviting and dotted with old and rather shabby homes. However, the center of the city is far more attractive, with small streets taking off in haphazard directions.
Duval Street leads to the west of the island. As you approach the port, there is more movement and more people on the street. There are many nice small shops, tourists drive around in electric golf carts, and regularly a city-tour train passes by. The only downside are the relatively narrow streets, that is, if you drive a wide pickup truck. If a car is parked on the street it leaves only a tight fit, which is why parking is prohibited almost everywhere.
The port of Key West offers a beautiful walk, with many yachts, rental boats, fishing boats, fuel, docks, and so on. In short, a bustling port! Everywhere you'll find colorful shops, restaurants, bars - some of them in converted old warehouses, and throngs of tourists. The neighborhood certainly invites to a pleasant walk, and a visit to a number of ancient wooden houses, dating from 1860 to 1880.
On our way to Sloppy Joe's, we happened to cross a large, broad-shouldered and very muscular man on the sidewalk. He was dressed like a pirate with a scarf, had a big white mustache and wore dark sunglasses. My dear spouse suddenly stopped, turned and stared after him, and without a word she backtracked and asked him if she could take a picture of him. I was completely flabbergasted and thought that the noonday sun must have gotten to her, but no, this was indeed Hulk Hogan! And he didn't mind to pose with her for a photograph. A most affable man!
Another point of interest is Sloppy Joe's, the bar where the famous author Ernest Hemingway used to hang around. The "hanging" part can be taken literally, because apparently the man was a heavy drinker...
Walt Disney World is the world's most-visited entertainment resort. It has a surface of 47 square miles (121 km2) and comprises four theme parks, two water parks, twenty-four themed resorts, two fitness centers, five golf courses, and other recreational and entertainment venues.
The resort was developed by Walt Disney in the 1960's to supplement Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. In addition to hotels and a theme park, Disney's original plans included an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" (EPCOT), a test bed for new innovations in city living. Walt Disney died in 1966 before his original plans were fully realized.
The theme park opened on 1 October 1971 with only the Magic Kingdom, but has since added Epcot (1982), Disney's Hollywood Studios (1989), and Disney's Animal Kingdom (1998).
Describing a theme park is obviously a grateful subject to a very large audience, but I have limited myself to illustrating only Epcot. Nevertheless, Magic Kingdom hosted approximately 17 million visitors in 2011, making it the most visited theme park in the world!
• Spaceship Earth : a train ride through the evolution of communication.
• Universe of Energy : Exxon presents a very nice and interesting 45-minute-show about the origin of various forms of energy. More recently, the presentation has been somewhat modernized to keep in line with modern shows.
• Imagination Gallery : Kodak presents its "research" into the five human senses, and the quaint little dragon Figment brings the show to life. Unfortunately, the presentation has become rather commercial, compared to many years ago...
• Canada : presents a 22-minute film in Circle Vision, titled "Oh Canada", which exhibits extraordinary pictures of this vast country.
• United Kingdom : obviously there would be a traditional English Pub, but but the site also brings street theater scenes. The spectacle is amusing, and King Arthur performs well, with or without the enthusiastic cooperation of the public.
• USA : The American theatre is most interesting. It presents a play, entirely interpreted by electronically controlled puppets. In the American Adventure, hosts Ben Franklin and Mark Twain comment the history of the United States. Very well done !
• Norway : proudly presents a genuine "snek" in front of the building, and the inside shows the attraction "Maelstrom", a boat ride on a "wild" river travels through time and historic Norway. The cruise ends in a movie theater, where the visitors have to endure a movie that is supposed to be about Norway. By Thor, at least I think it was.. In the souvenir shop you'll find the traditional and outstanding Norwegian woolen sweaters, that somehow may be a little out of tune in Florida's hot climate...
• China : invites you to a Circle-Vision movie exploring China's history and scenery. The old 14-minute exquisite and interesting movie was entitled "the Land of Many Faces". While you're waiting for the movie to begin, you'll appreciate a short concert on traditional Chinese instruments.
SeaWorld Orlando is a marine-life based theme and zoological park. It offers an outstanding and educational visit in an extraordinary setting, next to many rides, attractions and innumerable shows.
• Zoo : Pink flamingos, sea turtles, rays, dolphins, sea elephants and manatee's.
• Journey to Atlantis : a water ride in an ancient palace of Atlantis
• Sea Lion & Otter Stadium : A nice show, with these very intelligent fish !
• Shark Theater : A very interesting presentation about sharks.
• Whale & Dolphin Theater : A beautiful, dazzling and colorful show, definitely a must!
• Nautilus Theater : A'Lure is a kind of Cirque du Soleil show.
• Shamu Stadium : The name Shamu seems to be immortal, though the present whale Shamu must be about the 100th in line... Nevertheless, the show and spectacle is outstanding.
• Wild Arctic : An interesting visit to watch the comic penguins (Antarctica), and their Arctic counterparts, the Ice Birds. There is an exhibition about polar bears, and the Wild Arctic Ride is a flight simulator bringing a helicopter ride over the north pole. Antarctica, Empire of the Penguin: a new family ride over the South Pole, seen through the eyes of a penguin. Then explore their colony in their icy world.
Gatorland is a 110-acre (45 ha) theme park and wildlife preserve, founded in 1949. It specializes particularly in alligators and has a scientific value, with ongoing alligator studies.
• The entrance: it used to be very picturesque, in the form of the gaping jaws of an alligator. Unfortunately in 2006 it burned down, and was replaced with a painting.
• Zoo: A long corridor leads past several cages, presenting a Florida black bear, turkeys and deer. In between the cages lies a huge (plastic) alligator, allowing an extended but risk-free photo session.
• Gator & Snake Photo: this attraction is a true tourist flypaper, whereby a three-foot alligator (with its jaws securely bound) and a six-foot snake (near comatose) is expertly draped over the tourist's neck. The photo session delivers unique pictures, which allows the tourists to widely elaborate on their grand exploits, once they're back home.
• Alligator Jumping: this is allegedly the main attraction of Gatorland. Twenty-five years ago the spectacle showed a man, heavily chained into a cage, hanging about six feet above the water. He slowly lowered a chicken on a rope and the hungry "gators" jumped more than five feet out of the water to catch the chicken. The heavy chains were a security measure, for if the alligator would happen to catch the man's hand or arm, he would otherwise be dragged completely into the water (and probably into the alligators too)... Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the alligators didn't seem to be very hungry and only two of them actually showed up to skeptically examine the offering. The park contains many crocodiles of different origins, some come from the Nile region, others from Cuba, and you'll even find saltwater crocodiles!
• Mini-train ride: this ride tours the park. The rear section of the park is a wild botanical garden, that provides an excellent image of what the original Florida landscape must have looked like 500 years ago.
• Botanical Garden: A nice walk leads along the marsh, where more than sixty alligators have their breeding grounds. Countless birds build their nests in the trees above the banks, since the alligators keep most egg-eating predators away, and so their nests are safe. Except of course if baby bird falls out of the nest. In the middle of the marsh there is an Observation Tower, that offers a splendid overview of the entire park.
Universal Orlando is a theme park and the second-largest theme park in Florida, after Walt Disney World. It consists of two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, a night-time entertainment complex, Universal CityWalk Orlando, and three hotels. It opened its doors on June 7, 1990, and it is located north of International Drive.
The original Universal Studios were built around the movie sets of popular films. Islands of Adventure, which opened its doors in May 1999, is a mix between movie sets and fiction worlds, and it contains far more rides. In June 2010, the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" were added. CityWalk Orlando is the resort's entertainment department, with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and dancings.
Islands of Adventure
• Disaster: disaster scenes from some of Hollywood's biggest movies, with a subway car accident and a terrifying earthquake
• Harry Potter: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, after the wildly popular series of books and movies.
• ET Adventure: fly your bicycle over the woods and the city and find ET's magical planet
• Men in Black: ride through MIB's underground headquarters and drive through the streets to zap the aliens and save the Galaxy
• Revenge of the Mummy: a roller coaster in total darkness, hampered by fireballs, scarabs and mummies
• Shrek 4-D: Lord Farquaad has kidnaped Princess Fiona, so you join Shrek and Donkey to save her
• The Simpsons Ride: a ride with the Simpsons through theme park Krustyland from Krusty the Clown
• Twister: live the event of an F5-tornado with the extraordinary special effects of the devastation of a monster storm
• Transformers-3D: a ride through a battle between the autobots and decepticons
The Mall at Millenia is an upscale and luxury indoor shopping mall, that was built around the change to the new millennium, and opened in 2002. It is home to more than one hundred and fifty shops, and has a surface of 1,1 million square feet!
The decoration is very special, and it is a nice destination to visit and shop. An interesting anecdote : the name of "Mall at Millenia" was deliberately misspelled for trademark reasons, as Millennia is normally written with two letters "n"...
Memorial Highway also used to be host to the wonderful theme park Splendid China. The entrance led through a picturesque Chinese portal and came out in a beautiful Chinese garden, very relaxing and nicely decorated with bonzaïs and mini-plants. One hundred and twenty Chinese artists worked for two years to construct seventy-five Chinese scenes, temples, pagoda's, buildings and landscapes in mini-format!
Each attraction was painstakingly built brick by brick, and then painted. Then the landscaping around them was decorated with a "scaled vegetation" through bonzaïs, and flanked by figures of soldiers, animals and humans. The result was most remarkable ! The miniatures included The Great Wall of China (800 m long!), the Terra Cotta soldiers of Xi'an, the Great Buddha statue in Leshan (scale 1/8), the Forbidden City, complete with an imperial wedding and a parade, the Potala Palace (the residence of the Dalai Lama), the mausoleum of Mao, and many others.
By the end of 2003, the park closed its doors. It was beautiful, quiet, clean and very interesting. Truly a remarkable achievement, and a shame that it was completely lost !
The first stop of the Trolley Tour is the Fountain of Youth, a commemoration of the landing of Ponce de Leon. Since the man didn't find any gold or silver, he decided to look for the Fountain of Youth instead... The next stop, Bay View, provides a "panoramic" view over the bay. Unfortunately at the time of our visit, this was more of a view over the extensive work being done on the bay and the bridge...
The next stop was station # 6, St George Street. This beautiful and picturesque walking and shopping street looks very European, with its countless small shops and the Spanish Quarter. We walked on to station 7, where we visited the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the Plaza de la Constitucion and the Government House. This building has been used by three different administrations ; the Spanish, the English and the American !
The Tour bus drives past the impressive Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church. When his beloved daughter passed away at the early age of thirty-six years, the man was inconsolable and wanted to build a church to commemorate her. To have this done as soon as possible he hired more than 1,000 workers and paid them triple wages. But the church was built in 361 days!...
The San Sebastian Winery can be visited at the next station. Stop # 11 is next to the Flagler College, with several remarkable buildings. This college charges its students only 18,500 $ per year, which compares very favorably against the usual 30,000 $, charged by other colleges. The enormous building is located in the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, built by Flagler in 1880. It used to be a super-luxurious hotel with 550 rooms, which attended exclusively to wealthy patrons, because even then the price was already 6 $ per night ! The guests were supposed to pay for the entire three month season, regardless of whether they stayed or not... There was an unwritten etiquette of appropriate clothing for every occasion, and social life was very high class - and probably also very boring...
But as has been said before, Flagler was a very shrewd businessman. So in 1883 he built a second hotel, the Alcazar, that was somewhat less "chic" and carried a somewhat less expensive price tag, at only three $ per night. To put everything in its proper perspective ; in those days the common worker earned about 1 $ per day... In this hotel no full three-month residence was imposed, the social etiquette was not as strict, and requirements for clothing were not so strict. Furthermore, Flagler provided many additional activities such as the world's largest indoor swimming pool (120 x 50 ft), a bowling, tennis courts, golf, etc. Overnight this hotel became a huge hit ! Today this hotel has become the Lightner Museum.
A third hotel, the Casa Monica, is also located in the city's center. This hotel was built in 1888 by another tycoon, Franklin Smith, who was jealous of the success of Flagler's hotels. In no time Flagler ran his competitor out of business, and bought the hotel for peanuts after the bankruptcy. He called it the Cordoba, and now owned the three largest hotels in St Augustine !
Lightner museum Casa Monica Zorayda Castle Castillo de San Marcos
The trolley drove us along Zorayda Castle, a remarkable building with a Moorish design. All the windows have different forms, so that the evil spirits won't find their way back after leaving the building... The walls were built with the (then) brand new process of concrete, like most other large buildings in St. Augustine. The wooden windows are painted in bright and remarkable colors. Despite its age the building still looks attractive, though it has been empty for a long time.
The Old St. Augustine Village is a collection of nine ancient wooden houses, of which eight have been fully restored. Potter's Wax Museum displays wax figures of a very good quality and workmanship, and even Harry Potter is on display... As usual and even in St Augustine, every possible item is scraped together to lure tourists. For instance, in "the Oldest Home of St Augustine" you'll see a stone first floor and a wooden second floor, and that is about all there is to see...
Station 15 is the Castillo de San Marcos, an old stone fort with a somewhat peculiar shape. This fort allowed the Spaniards to protect the bay and the entrance to the city against pirates, and also guaranteed the passage of Spanish trade ships along the coast. The fort accomplished its job for more than one hundred and fifty years !
Finally, the small mission Nombre de Dios (Name of God) is situated within walking distance from the road. The beautiful city of St Augustin is certainly more than worth an extended visit !
The security check at the entrance of Kennedy Space Center is most thorough, after which the visitors end up in the Visitors Center. It is important for NASA to present the best possible public image, since it directly impacts on their budget. The latter is granted annually by Congress, and politicians listen to their voters... For example, after the public embarrassment of the Apollo disaster in 1967, the NASA budget was almost cut in half !
To obtain additional revenue, and to boost its image, NASA started giving public tours of its facilities. They outsourced the organization to the Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts. This company organized the public visits in a professional and streamlined way, and even better, they also managed the commercial aspect. Thus, the entire box of tricks is put to use, to harvest more money from the tourists... Besides the bus tours, the inevitable souvenir shops, restaurants and snacks, there are several attractions. It is even possible to have lunch with an astronaut (that is, some astronaut will give a speech during lunch...). A brand-new attraction is a large simulator, with a space flight and a moon landing !
The first attraction is the commented bus tour. During the trip, the driver provides interesting information about the sights, such as the Vehicle Assembly Building, the CrawlerWay, and the VIP Observation Area. There are three stops : the Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry, the Apollo / Saturn V Center, and the International Space Station Center.
Vehicle Assembly Building
This is the second largest building by volume in the US, after the Boeing plant in Washington State. The most spectacular things in this building are the huge sectional gates, which are more than 550 feet high and take more than an hour to open !
This is a 22-foot thick gravel track, along which the finished Orbiters are transported to the launch pad. No hard concrete surface was poured on this track, to avoid any dangerous sparks that might possibly ignite the Orbiter. The 3,000 ton transport vehicle is so extremely precise, that it can place the entire 90,000 tons of its load on the launch platform within ½ inch ! This huge monster crawls forward at a snail's pace, and it needs no less than eight hours to cover the 5.6 kilometers from the Orbiter Processing Center to one of the two Launch Pads !
The first stop of the bus tour is the Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry. This rather grandiose name means that the tourists can observe and photograph almost all the facilities and launch pads from this point !
The second stop is the Apollo / Saturn V Center, that presents a movie about the history of the NASA launch program. The tour is continued in a control center, where you see the original equipment that was used for the first launches. The main part of this section is an enormous hall, where the impressive Saturn rocket is exhibited, which dwarfs the other sights by its enormous dimensions. The hall also contains a copy of the Moon Lander, a few Apollo capsules, and of course the inevitable souvenir shop...
We visited the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is an exhibition in which the American astronauts are honored. It also contains several attractions, such as an acceleration-pressure simulator, a Space Walk for children, and all sorts of devices to simulate the effects of gravity !
Silver Springs is a nice theme park next to Ocala. It contains the following attractions.
• Glass Bottom Boats : A boat with a glass bottom, that allows to see the bottom of the river quite well. We watched the famous Silver Springs, that produce some 850 million gallons of fresh water every day !
• Spring Side Café : A somewhat chaotic restaurant, where it took forever to get our order...
• Floral Gardens : Several flower beds, but unfortunately at the time of our visit nothing bloomed yet...
• Giraffe Barn : A real giraffe awaits your visit ! The animal was so obviously begging for a candy, that it was irresistible. If you want to give it a few sweets, you better take off your glasses, cap, bag and photo equipment first. Or else the giraffe might mistake those for more candy, and grab for it with its very long blue tongue...
• Carousel : a real life-sized horse carousel !
• Kritter Coral : in this Petting Zoo the children can pet several animals.
• Wings of The Birds : A bird show.
• World of Bears : Two black and two brown bears are on display. Except that it is way too warm in the sun, so most of the time they sleep...
• Wilderness Trail : A Jeep ride with a jungle-trailer through an original Floridian landscape, virtually untouched since the area was first discovered. The driver provides interesting comments about almost everything the eye can see. This park borders the State Park and many (imported) animals, including monkeys, were simply dumped by their owners in the early 1900's. Since then, they have adapted quite well to the local life...
• Lost River Voyage : A cruise along the Yalaha river. There are beautiful and unspoilt views along the banks, with here and there a sunbathing alligator... There is a bird sanctuary, where you'll get an interesting explanation about various birds, who have become permanent residents after sustaining an injury. On the bottom of the river there is a boat wreck that was sunk there in the sixties, for the filming of the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller. Over time, more than ninety movies were shot here ! We also noticed an ancient tree, that has been in the water for more than one hundred years, and still is in perfect condition. The water of the river is namely pure well water, without any impurities or insects, and it remains constantly at twenty degrees Celsius. So nothing rots !
• Florida Natives Exhibit : An exhibit with lots of snakes, alligators, crocodiles, turtles and parrots. It is also the starting point of several boating trips along the river, including the Fort King River Cruise.
Every Monday there is a Flea Market in Webster, some 25 miles from Clermont. To actually reach the center of Webster, one usually has to crawl through very intense traffic. There are many parkings though, and many local shops make a nice extra revenue by allowing the many visitors to park on their land...
This flea market is by far the largest Flea Market in Florida, with more than 1,200 regular exhibitors ! There are at least a dozen hangars, and hundreds more of exhibitors display about everything imaginable in open air on tables, in cardboard boxes, and even simply on the ground.
Strolling around the many stalls is quite fascinating, though it gets somewhat tiring from wrestling through the thick crowd of thousands of visitors. In the front of the market you'll find fresh vegetables, fruit, bread and lots of clothing, and in the rest you'll find just about everything you can think of.
The second part, over the back road, exhibits antiques, where the visitors have to discover the rare pearl between lots of ancient, rusty, worn out and broken down junk...
This fascinating market lasts till after noon, after which the vendors pack their wares and leave. What is left of fruit and vegetables is usually sold a an interesting discount, to avoid having to take it back !
A visit to this enormous Flea Market is a very remarkable experience, and every year it attracts literally hundreds of thousands of tourists. Definitely worth the trip !