Monday, December 12, 2005
Mexico Road Trips: Guanajuato
Traditions in a Colonial City
From the moment I stand in front of the Templo de San Diego listening to the sweet sounds of the callejoneadas as they perform in front of this 17th century church as dusk is settling over the cobbled streets of Guanajuato, I know that I have found what to me is the essence of Mexico—tradition, beauty and conviviality.
The lights from the streetlamps cast interesting shadows across the elaborate façade of Templo de San Diego, built in 1662, in a Spanish style characterized by elaborate engravings and known as Churrigueresque similar, at least in my mind, to the complexities of Baroque style art. Crowds gather around me and I am swept up in their quiet movement as we begin to follow the callejoneadas (traveling musicians) along the twisting callejones (alleyways) and streets, past houses with faded pastel fronts, some of which date back to the 1600s, and jewels of public plazas dotted with flowering bushes of fragrant gardenias and jasmine. The houses, accented with wrought iron baloneys, window boxes and intricately carved wooden doors, appear to have been perfectly preserved through the centuries.. The callejoneadas play every night, in what is one of the many rich traditions of Guanajuato, a Colonial city located some 220 miles northwest of Mexico City and named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, made rich by the silver and gold mines in the nearby hills.
I entered Guanajuato the day before through a series of tunnels burrowed into the mountains that surround the city. My first stop was lunch at La Tasca de la Paz on the Plaza de la Paz, one of the many plazas that dot the city. Sitting outside in the warm noon day sun, sipping hibiscus tea and dining on chicken in an almond and cream sauce, I watch as a religious procession including a band and several men carrying the figure of the Senora de Guanajuato made its way down the street towards the nearby Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato, which like so many churches in the city was built back in the 1600s. Hurriedly paying my bill, I follow the procession into the baroque style church, resplendent with gilt and stained glass, where the oldest Christian statue in Mexico—the 8th century statue of the Virgin Mary—has resided since being given the city in 1557 by King Philip II.
Coming back out into the bright sunshine, I head to the Mercado Hidalgo on Avenida Juarez, a large two story indoor market where for almost a 100 years vendors have sold fruits, meats, cheeses, chilies and food on the first floor and pottery, clothing, baskets and local handicrafts on the second. Though I have just eaten, I am tempted to try the small tortillas, filled with a variety of meats that are for sale at the many food stands, but instead opt for tiny little plums, that are freshly picked, and about the size of quarters.
It is time to rest at one of the many benches that line the streets and learn more about the city. My guide book tells me that Guanajauto was founded in 1552 and that at one time, in the 1700s, at least 70% of the world’s silver came from this area. Though the city is serene, well preserved and filled with friendly inhabitants, it’s history is bloody as it was here that Mexico struck its blow for independence against the Spaniards who exploited the mine workers and shipped so much of the wealth back to Europe. Now, Guanajauto is the capitol of the state (which has the same name) and attracts students from around the world to its three universities. Diego Rivera, probably Mexico’s best known artist, was born here in 1886 and though the family moved to Mexico City shortly afterwards, his house is now the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, filled with his paintings, murals and furniture original to the home.
My next stop is Jardin de la Union. Bordered by thick trueno trees that have been pruned into rectangular tops, this plaza is filled with people strolling and dining in the cafes that surround the band shell and splashing fountain. Just across the street is the ornate turn of the last century Teatro Juarez, magnificent theater whose elaborate neo classical outside is matched by its elegant interior, with a star shaped chandelier and a drop curtain painted by a Parisian comic opera scenographer, The stairs leading to the entranceway are thronged with people when I am there and a mime performs for the congregated group. Next door is the Templo de Santa Diego where the callejoneadas play.
Dinner that night is at El Jardin del la Milagros, where I dine in the courtyard of a home that dates back to 1670. Here, chef/owner Bricio Dominquez Aquilar, fuses the cuisines of Mexico, Spain and the Mediterranean, to create such sophisticated but immensely enjoyable fare as steak with cheese and shrimp in cilantro sauce and empanadas stuffed with cheese and marlin. While eating, I plan my schedule for the next day.
Though it sounds somewhat odd, I am told that the most popular tourist attraction in Guanajuato is the Museo de las Momias Museum or Museum of the Mummies. Located on the foothill of El Trozado, the museum now consists of 119 mummified bodies displayed in glass showcases (this is a fairly recent modification—old photos of the museum show the bodies leaning against the walls and were, I gather from the tour guide, to much of a temptation for those who wanted a finger or bit of clothing as a souvenir).
Leaving the macabre behind, I make my way to another square, the Jardin de la Reform Plaza San Roque. Here I sit, watching young boys play an impromptu soccer game. A curving alleyway winds its way up a hill. I will rest and then pursue another journey into the loveliness of Guanajuato.