Sunday 29 December 2013

Mexico City top ten

I recently spent a week in Mexico City. It was my first visit but it will not be my last. I was captivated by the architecture, art, people, food, history and sheer excitement of the city. Most of all, I enjoyed exploring the city on foot and by Metro. Several times I was taken by surprise, for example the evening I was walking along Calle Palmas and thought I could hear singing. I wasn't hearing things. When I reached the junction of Palmas with Avenida Madero, there was a woman standing on the balcony of the corner music store singing operatic versions of well known songs to much applause and cries of bravo from a large crowd. She even had them joining in to Besame Mucho! So here, in no particular order, are my top ten Mexico City experiences, but remember, this is a huge city with many  things to see and do so please forgive me if you can't find your favourite amongst them.

Boats at Xochimilco
Xochimilco is some distance away from the centre of the city, but it is a truly Mexican experience. Families and groups of friends bring food and drink and hire a boat or boats together with a local version of a gondolier who steers the boat through miles of canals. Many also hire musicians and several have Mariachi groups or the Mexican version of country singers on board and when the eating is done, the tables are folded away and the dancing begins. It is a wonderful experience seeing several generations of one family enjoying the day together. For those who don't bring their own food, there are stalls along the side of the canal at embarkment points as well as floating food shops with food being cooked in small boats and sold on the water. I ate on land and had the best quesadillas of my trip - flor de calabaza with cheese. Yum. For dessert I enjoyed oblea - thin sweet wafers made from wheat flour and vegetable colouring, covered with a scrape of caramel and spread thinly with amaranth and pumpkin seeds - all for the equivalent of a couple of pounds.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is the hub of Mexico City's rich cultural life with a huge programme of music, dance and exhibitions. Building began in 1904 but was delayed many times due to political unrest and problems with the very soft subsoil. Work stopped completely in 1913, not resuming until 1932 eventually being completed in 1934. This long delay accounts for the difference in style between the art nouveau influenced exterior and the mainly art deco interior. The lobby with its dramatic staircase and galleries is imposing, but the real star of the show is the auditorium with its glass curtain designed by Hungarian Miksa Roth and made by Tiffany and Co. It consist of over one million pieces of iridescent coloured glass, weighs 24 tons and is the only one in the world. It is decorated with images of the Mexican volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. I went along to see a performance of the Folkloric Ballet. Being British I reluctantly obeyed the strict "no cameras" note on my ticket. I was the only one who did and remain angry with myself for missing out on the opportunity to photograph the auditorium. I'll just have to go again! The Palacio also has a restaurant, a gift shop and a good book shop.

Roof, Casa Barragan
Mexico City is an architectural paradise. One of the highlights of my visit was being shown around Casa Barragan, once the home of architect Luis Barragan. Completed in 1948, it also acted as his studio and demonstrates his views on the integration of internal and external spaces and the division between private and public areas. I especially enjoyed the roof terrace with its colours and their changing relationship with the sunlight. The house contains several pieces from Barragan's personal art collection, whilst his passion for music is evidenced by the large number of rooms containing turntables and the external speakers hidden behind the patio curtains facing the garden! To see inside you must make an appointment in advance for one of the guided tours which are available in Spanish and English. There are several Barragan buildings in the city and you can also visit Casa Gilardi, which is a private residence. Again, an appointment is necessary and staff at Casa Barragan can advise on how best to do this.
Detail from the lobby at Cafe Tacuba
Mexican culinary delights easily make my Mexico City top ten. My passion for desserts is well known and the sweetest experience of my trip was at Churreria El Moro at the junction of Lazaro Cardenas and Calle Republica de Uruguay, where they have been serving churros and chocolate since 1935. I made my way there after the show at Bellas Artes to find the place bursting at the seams with other post show visitors and table after table of Mexican families enjoying these warm and very sweet long doughnuts with milk shakes, coffee and in my case a delicious mug of hot chocolate. You can also buy from the window, where there was a very long queue waiting for their take-away treats. Pure happiness and something that you can enjoy 24 hours a day - El Moro never closes.

Cheating a bit on this one, I also want to mention Cafe Tacuba. Founded in 1912, as well as serving good food (I had quesadillas and soup - very good!), it is a beautiful place to linger with its stained glass art nouveau lobby, exquisite ceramic tiled interior and an art collection to admire between courses. They also have a nice cake display but for once I was too full to sample the wares! Cheating a little bit more, Jugos Canada at 5 de Mayo 47 (which doesn't seem to have a website) is possibly the best juice bar in the city. Pick the fruit you want from a long list and they will prepare your drink straight away. I had strawberry and banana. Delicious. They also serve tacos and burgers, but its the juice that's the big thing.

Detail of art deco building, Condesa.
For me, no trip is complete without viewing seeing the city's art deco buildings. Mexico City is a treasure house of this most elegant architectural style and although it can be found across the city, the main concentration of it is in the Condesa area. Developed in the 1920's and 1930's for the emerging middle class, the streets with most examples of art deco are Avenida Amsterdam and Avenida Mexico. There are also lots of gems on the side streets running off these avenues so if you are a real deco fan, you might want to set aside a whole morning or afternoon to see the area. Built on and around the site of a former racecourse, it is a great place to stroll, admire the architecture and sample some of the many excellent cafes or restaurants. I enjoyed Matisse on Avenida Amsterdam which serves good coffee and big cakes! You can read more about Mexico City's art deco buildings here.

Temple of the sun, Teotihuacan
Still on the subject of architecture, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, 47 km north-east of the city, is one of the most impressive cities in the ancient world. The site covers over 20 square km and was once home to over 100,000 people. Work began on the city in around 100 BCE and it remained settled until some time around the 8th century when it was abandoned, the reasons for which are not clear. The site includes two major pyramids - the pyramid of the sun and the pyramid of the moon. The larger pyramid, that of the sun, can be climbed but be warned, some of the 243 steps are extremely steep and the descent must be tackled carefully, but the climb is worth it for the view alone. From the summit you can see right across the valley to the surrounding hills. On the day I visited there were also many orange coloured butterflies at the top of the pyramid. Other major attractions at Teotihuacan, include a fragment of brightly coloured mural of a jaguar, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl which includes carved masks of this god and reconstructed villas with faithfully restored wall decorations. Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

Detail from Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central
Together with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera is Mexico's best known artist, both inside the country and overseas. Rivera was heavily involved in radical politics, a firm supporter of the legacy of the 1910 Revolution and together with Kahlo gave temporary asylum to the ill-fated Leon Trotsky as he fled the Stalinist Soviet Union. His beliefs are reflected in his work, including the huge murals for which he is so famous. There are many of Rivera's murals spread around the city, but my favourite is housed in a museum of it's own. Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central was originally housed in the dining room of the Hotel del Prado which was severely damaged in the 1985 earthquake and subsequently demolished. The  mural was saved and re-housed in a new pavilion in Alameda Park, known as the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. The mural depicts real characters from Mexican history and illustrates the gap and tensions between rich and poor. It originally bore the phrase "God does not exist". After this was defaced by a Christian group and the mural stored for several years, Rivera eventually agreed to remove it and it was re-displayed. Ironically, when I visited, a Christmas carol concert was taking place in the building - right in front of the mural. Rivera would not have approved! Entrance is free on Sundays.

Estudio Diego Rivera, San Angel
Still with Kahlo and Rivera, my next choice for my Mexico City top ten is the Estudio Diego Rivera in San Angel. Built between 1929 and 1931 to the designs of artist and architect Juan O'Gorman, it consists of two houses, one each for Kahlo and Rivera joined by a narrow bridge at roof level over which Kahlo would bring food that she had prepared for her husband Rivera. Rivera's house also contains his double heighted studio with its spectacular floor to ceiling window and collection of his papier mache figures, items from his collection of pre-Colombian artefacts and on the occasion of my visit a portrait of actress Dolores del Rio. The Kahlo-Rivera marriage was extremely tempestuous with many affairs, divorce and remarriage but despite this, the frail Frida was clearly willing to scale the very narrow and steep steps at the side of her house leading to the roof top bridge to make sure he didn't go hungry! To the rear of the Estudio there is a third house which O'Gorman designed for himself which is now used for temporary exhibitions.

Portrait of Dolores del Rio, Diego Rivera
My penultimate choice is the Museo de Arte Moderno which is one of several excellent museums in the Bosque de Chapultepec - a huge park a few metro stops from the centre of the city. The permanent collection includes works from all of the great Mexican artists of the twentieth century - Rivera, Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and many others. There are also frequent temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was a special exhibitions devoted to the works of Maria Izqueirdo and our friend, architect Luis Barragan. During temporary exhibitions some of the star items from the permanent collection remain on display, such as Frida Kahlo's disturbing Two Fridas from 1939 and Fernando Leal's  Zapata from 1958. The museum also has a good cafe and a very good book shop. Chapultepec is also home to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian artefacts including reconstructed sections of temples. The underrated but excellent Museo Rufino Tamayo is close by and stages exhibitions of contemporary art, but for me its Tamayo's works that are the main attraction.

Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo, 1939.
And my final choice for my Mexico City top ten is…the Metro! This might seem a little unusual but during my stay I found the Metro to be an efficient, safe and very cheap way of moving around this huge city during the day.  The cost of a single ticket is just 5 pesos - that's about 23p in Sterling and it is possible to travel significant distances across the city much more quickly than on buses or in taxis. It does get very crowded at the end of the working day and interestingly two carriages are allocated to women and children only which lone female travellers may wish to take advantage of. As with public transport in any major city, one needs to be vigilant and keep valuables safely out of view but this is no different to London, Paris or New York.

The Metro is very easy to navigate with clear line maps on display and good signage in stations. As well as the practical advantages of the Metro, I was fascinated by the presence of many musicians and people trying to sell a whole range of items in order to make a living. At almost every station, a different seller will board the carriage and offer any one of a range of products including cigarettes, chewing gum, small snacks, children's toys and during my stay, small Christmas decorations. After a brief verbal advertisement for their goods, they walk the length of the carriage and sell items to people who are interested - I did not see any of the aggressive begging that I have seen in other cities, including at home in London. And people did buy small items as well as giving a few coins to the many musicians that populate the carriages.

So that's it, my top ten for Mexico City. It has been very difficult making my choices (even though I have cheated bit!) and so I have included a few pictures below of other personal highlights of my stay. It's a place I will be returning to!

Antigua Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadaloupe
Detail from lobby, Hotel Gran Ciudad de Mexico
My favourite shop front! El Borcegui shoe shop, founded in 1865

Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros in Polanco. Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros. World Trade Centre in the background
Detail from ceiling, Synagogue Justo Sierra.
Torre Latinamericana and the Edificio la Nacional building
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