Sunday 23 November 2014

Return to Mexico City - Coyoacan, Soumaya and the Day of the Dead

I visited Mexico City for the first time last year and enjoyed it so much that I returned just a few weeks ago for a second look. Last year I was overwhelmed and delighted by the colours, sounds and tastes of Mexico and this time was no different. I had nine full days in the city and was able to cover a lot of ground but be warned - Mexico City is huge and I still have a long list of places yet to visit. A good reason to go again!

Detail from the Day of the Dead presentation at the Dolores Olmedo Museum
I timed my visit to coincide with the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos in Spanish) festival at the beginning of November and found the city to be awash with colour - especially bright orange from the ubiquitous marigolds used to decorate the altars dedicated to departed relatives and friends. The festival pre-dates the arrival of the Conquistadores and despite its links to the old religions and the continued power of the Catholic Church it remains important and hugely popular. People remember the family members who have passed away and many go to cemeteries to place the favourite food and drink of the departed on the graves in the belief that on this day the spirit of the relatives will visit. Altars are set up in homes, businesses, the street and even museums to acknowledge the dead, often displaying their photographs amongst the food and drink, skulls and skeletons, papercuts and brightly coloured items. I particularly liked the altars in the lobby of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de Mexico, at the Dolores Olmedo Museum and in the Jose Emilio Pacheco bookshop.

One of the key figures in Day of the Dead tradition is La Calavera Catrina, a character believed to be based on the Aztec goddess known as the Lady of the Dead. Normally shown as a skeleton in a  large European style hat and gown of the type fashionable in the 19th century, Catrina can be seen everywhere in the city during November. Despite the link back to Aztec tradition the modern representation of her dates back only as far as 1910 when the famous Mexican printer, cartoonist and lithographer Jose Guadaloupe Posada included her in a satirical zinc etching. 

Detail from the Day of the Dead presentation at Casa Azul
Dia de los Muertos is not seen as a sad occasion but a celebration of the life of the departed. Evidence of this was the spectacular parade staged on the night of November 1st along Calle Isabel de Catolica in the centre of the city. Starting outside a churchyard and led by a Catrina on stilts, drummers, jugglers and assorted skeletons paraded the length of the street, sometimes turning and doubling back before resuming the onwards direction. All along the Calle, hundreds of people joined the parade, danced with the skeletons and even helped out by taking a turn on the drums. Catrina stopped and posed for photographs, blew kisses and danced her way along the street - on those stilts from start to finish. A night to remember.

Altar at Jose Emilio Pacheco bookshop
Another new experience for me was to visit the Soumaya Museum in Polanco. When traveling, I usually like to walk as much as possible, to wander about and happen on unexpected delights. In keeping with this I decided to walk from Polanco metro station to the Soumaya. I probably wouldn't do that again - its a very long way, but the reward at the end of the walk was well worth it. The museum is a stunning piece of modern architecture, designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero and engineered by Frank Gehry and Ove Arup. Completed in 2011 it houses the private collections of Carlos Slim, Mexican multi (multi) millionaire and possibly the richest man in the world. Slim had the museum built to the memory of his wife, Soumaya, who died in 1999.

The building stands 46 metres high, includes six storeys and is covered with 16,000 hexagonal aluminium tiles that change shade in response to the changing light. It soars upwards with beautiful curves, the upper floors being larger than those below, resembling a flower opening up to face the sun. The interior is also interesting with different shapes and layouts on each floor and a ramp around the perimeter of the museum that reminds me somewhat of the Guggenheim ramp in New York.  As well as displaying Slim's private collection, the museum stages temporary shows - when I visited there was a large exhibition about Sophia Lloren including some fabulous costumes, film clips, and posters, jewellery and press cuttings. The Soumaya is open to the public every day and there is no entry fee. 

Polanco is an extremely stylish and affluent area. The Soumaya is in a newly developed part of the neighbourhood and is surrounded by expensive shops, restaurants and malls. It was interesting to see that despite all of this, the office workers continue to queue for food at the street stalls that stand below the Soumaya and its neighbouring museum, the recently built Jumex Museum of Contemporary Art. Let's hope the stallholders continue to do well and that independent businesses can thrive. Speaking of small business, one of the good things about the long walk from the metro station was the number of excellent patisseries along Moliere, the boulevard leading to the museum. Did I try any? Of course, but only on the way back and only as a means of fortifying myself...

Soumaya Museum, Polanco

Detail, Casa Azul
Casa Azul - Frida Kahlo's cobalt blue painted house in Coyoacan is one of Mexico City's main tourist attractions. Unfortunately it was closed when I tried to visit last year but this time, not only was it open, I managed to get there early enough to be first in the queue. This was a good thing as a very large queue soon built up including large numbers of school children and tourist groups. Getting there first meant I was able to enjoy the house, the collections and the garden without feeling too crowded.

Frida Kahlo was born and also died in this house which contains several of her paintings as well as some of Diego Rivera's works, a large collection of Meso-American items, some of her personal effects and a number of the original furnishings. Despite the large numbers of visitors, the house and gardens are peaceful and it is easy to understand why she loved this place so much. The exterior of the house is painted a deep cobalt blue whilst there is also a riot of colour inside including the blue and yellow kitchen with its geometric patterns and tiles. The garden is equally beautiful with its lush green palms, cacti and trees as well as a number of Mayan sculptures set amongst the foliage. Kahlo and Rivera both had a particular interest in and fondness for works of art from the pre-colonial period and a special pyramid was constructed in the garden in order to display some of their pieces. It is still there today.

Kahlo suffered great physical pain and disability as a result of a traffic accident sustained during her youth. The museum connected to the house contains a number of the special implements she used in order to remain mobile and to live as full a life as possible including special corsets and footwear. She "customised" these items to make them beautiful. The current temporary exhibition shows how her style has influenced contemporary fashion designers. 

Meso-American sculpture, Casa Azul
The pyramid, Casa Azul
The kitchen, Casa Azul
Casa Azul may be the main tourist destination in Coyoacan, but this former village, now subsumed into the city has many other charms. The main square is a hive of activity especially at weekends when there are markets, musicians and sometimes dancing, whilst the 16th century church of San Juan Bautista, one of the three oldest in the city, is also worth a visit. I liked strolling along Calle Francisco Sosa, a long street that links Coyoacan to the neighbouring district of San Angel. It is a relatively quiet, leafy lane filled with beautiful houses from a number of periods painted in yellow, green, orange, purple and red, several with decorative geometric patterns laid over the top. Some of the paint is peeling but this only adds to the romance of the street. There are also a number of small, specialist shops including the chocolatier and confectioner, Puro Gusto at Francisco Sosa 103 which has around 20 different types of marzipan (!) and the delightful delicatessen, Barricas Don Tiburcio at number 243. This beautifully presented shop sells quality wines and food including those chocolate discs (hearts here actually!) to make real drinking chocolate with and even a few kosher snacks. If I lived here this would be a regular stop for me. As it is I came home away with a box of the chocolate hearts which I have been happily making my way through since coming home.

Happening upon little jewels like this is one of Mexico City's delights. Other unexpected treats including the almost daily gathering of Mexican Indians in the small plaza outside the National Art Museum  on Calle Tacuba, to play various types of drums and to perform traditional dances. This is not intended to be a "performance" but crowds gather and the movement and the drumming are intoxicating. The drumming is also very loud - it can be heard at the top of the Torre Latinoamerica, at 188 metres the tallest building in the Centro Historico. 

Zinco Jazz Club was another find. Tucked away behind a small metal door at Montalina 20, the club hosts some great jazz concerts. I was lucky to catch Gabriel Hernandez the Cuban pianist, playing on one night and to see him again the following night, this the supporting the veteran American trumpeter Doc Severinsen with Mexican guitarist Gil Gutierrez completing the front row of an excellent ensemble. The live music doesn't start much before 11.30 (but you can eat and drink from about 9), with a second set starting well after midnight. Its a long time since I knocked on a locked hotel door at 2 in the morning but both concerts were certainly worth it!

No trip to a major city is complete for me without searching out its art deco buildings. Mexico City is full of them. You can see pictures of them at Mexico City Art Deco - you can find it everywhere. 

Mexico City is one of the world's largest cities. There are surprises everywhere you go. It's one of my top five cities and I will be going again. More posts from marvellous Mexico still to come!

Peeling paint, Calle Francisco Sosa
Light and shade, Calle Francisco Sosa.
Tower of Church of San Juan Bautista
A peep into a restaurant/ cultural centre on Calle Francisco Sosa
Look up! Purples, yellows and decorative tiles in Calle Francisco Sosa.

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