Thursday, 2 November 2017

Memories of Mexico

Mexico is one of my favourite countries. I have visited three times and on each occasion have found different things to surprise and delight. It is a country of great contrasts. Mexico City, the huge, teeming metropolis is very different to the smaller provincial cities but each have their own charm and attraction. Everywhere it is possible to see beautiful colonial style architecture, magnificent murals, indigenous culture and extremely friendly and welcoming people. There is a strong contrast between the ancient and the modern and it is not unusual to find outstanding contemporary architecture adjacent to archaeological sites dating from pre-Colombian times. These two elements are combined every November on Dia de los Muertos  (Day of the Dead) where people maintain the centuries old tradition of visiting the graves of departed relatives and decorating shrines in their homes and public places as well as participating in the huge modern parade in the city centre.

Dia de los Muertos, Mexico City
Detail of a shrine for Dia de los Muertos
Many visitors only spend a few days in Mexico City, but there is much to keep even the most experienced traveller interested and busy for a week or more in this huge capital that has some of the finest art galleries and museums in the world. These include the Museo Nacional de Antropologia,  Case Azul (the Frida Kahlo House), the Museo de Arte Popular and the fabulous Fernando Romero designed ultra-modern Museo Soumaya. But art lovers do not need to visit galleries or museums in this city in order to appreciate the works of great artists. The murals of  Diego Rivera, Jose Clement Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and many other great artists can be seen in many public buildings and spaces. The Palacio de Bellas Artes in the city centre is the major venue for ballet, folk dance performance and classical concerts as well as displaying the work of most of Mexico's important 20th century artists. The building itself has a wonderful art deco interior, inside an imposing belle époque facade.

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Museo Soumaya, Mexico City 
Detail of mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City 
The city is huge and in addition to the attractions of the Centro Historico, it has many fascinating neighbourhoods. One of my favourites is La Condesa which has a large collection of art deco and modernist architecture dating from the 1930's including a couple of early examples of the work of the Luis Barragan. His work was extremely influential and Barragan is considered to be one of Latin America's most important architects. It is possible to visit his former home - Case Barragan - and to enjoy a guided tour as part of the price of entry. Condesa also has many cafes and restaurants and is a great place for strolling, admiring the art deco and stopping off for coffee, cake and other treats.

Roof terrace, Casa Barragan, Mexico City
Art deco doorway, La Condesa, Mexico City
The Coyoacan neighbourhood is different again and has a distinctly village-like feel to it. As well as being home to Casa Azul there is a handicraft market and dancing in the main square at weekends but my favourite activity here is to stroll along the quieter lanes away from the main square, visiting the old churches and independent shops and making the occasional stop for coffee (and quesadillas!). Regular readers know of my passion for coffee and cake. In Mexico City I prefer churros and hot chocolate at the wonderful El Moro, which has provided a 24 hours service ever since opening in 1935. Fantastic. 

Museum of the Baroque, Puebla
View across the city, Puebla
Art Deco building, Puebla
Puebla is Mexico's fourth largest city with a population of almost three million. It is easily reached by car from the capital and  you can see the highlights of the Centro Historico in a day but to get the most from the city a stay of one or two nights is preferable. As well as enjoying the Centro Historico with its Cathedral, baroque churches, hidden courtyards, cafes and artisans' shops, staying overnight will allow plenty of time to visit the new Museum of the Baroque. Just outside the city, it opened last year and houses an amazing collection of baroque items bringing home just how important the style has been to the history of Mexican design. The building is spectacular. Designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, its brilliant white exterior contrasts with the deep blue Mexican sky and the greenery of the surrounding park land.

Puebla is the major centre for the manufacture of Talavera ceramics. The Uriarte Gallery, just a short walk from the main square is the best place to see and buy Talavera items as well as to see the manufacturing process. Of course, it is not cheap to buy things there and if you can only afford to look and still want some Puebla ceramics to take home there are many smaller shops selling good but cheaper items in bright colours and a range of designs. Puebla also has a few interesting art deco buildings and great churros at the Antigua Churreria de Catedral. What's not to like?

Quiet courtyard, Puebla
Cafe La California, Puebla
Monte Alban, Oaxaca
Oaxaca City is a short flight from Mexico City but can also be reached by car with an overnight stop at Puebla or another town en route. It has a more relaxed atmosphere than the two cities already mentioned and is full of brightly coloured colonial buildings. The city has several markets including Mercado Benito Juarez which offers flowers, fruit, handicrafts and household goods as well as unusual snacks including flying ants, grasshoppers and red worms! Oaxaca is famous for its huge range of different coloured mezcal - a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave. There is also a large craft market, the Mercado de Artesanias which sells clothes for adults and children, household items and locally produced textiles.

Monte Alban, a major pre-Colombian architectural site is located just 9 kilometres away from the city. It is believed to have been founded in 500 BCE by the Zapotec people. The site included several temples, elite residences and ball courts. Evidence of all of these can be seen today whilst there are also spectacular views from the site due to its mountain top location. The Zapotec are believed to have had a calendar in addition to their own writing system. Monte Alban includes a museum with models of the structures and many precious artefacts recovered during excavations.

Back in the city, the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman and the accompanying monasteries were built over 200 years commencing in 1575. It houses a superb museum of Oaxacan culture with great views of the surrounding mountains. The church overlooks a large plaza where artisans sell their work and where there are occasional musical performances. There are many good restaurants, cafes and chocolaterias including Casa Oaxaca, one of my favourite hotels which also has a superb courtyard restaurant with a kitchen under the direction of TV chef Alejandro Ruiz.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman, Oaxaca
Calle Alcalá, Oaxaca
Mexico is full of surprises. It has a long and fascinating history and there is evidence of this everywhere. It is one of the world's most colourful countries with a long tradition of producing amazing works of art in a unique style.  I have been fortunate to travel extensively in different parts of the world but Mexico has given me some of my most memorable times and experiences. I have been assisted in visiting the cities mentioned here and also many other places in Mexico by my good friend, Alex Ramirez Cruz. Alex is also a superb travel guide. He is very experienced, extremely knowledgeable, speaks perfect English and has enhanced each of my visits to Mexico with help and suggestions for places to visit, sleep and eat. He can be contacted by emailing alextourguide@hotmail.com

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