Archive for April, 2011

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Spring Break in Atlixco, the City of Flowers

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

One of the gardens at La Aldea.Americans aren’t the only people who go on spring break in Mexico. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter — also known as semana santa — is one of the nation’s busiest travel periods. In 2010, half of the 9 million people expected to travel during the holiday period were Mexican citizens, El Economista newspaper reported. My other half, Pablo, and I knew exactly what that meant: crowded beaches, booked hotels, and clogged traffic arteries. So, in an attempt to avoid hordes of tourists and road rage, we headed inland instead of toward the coast, to nearby Atlixco.

Atlixco is a relatively tranquil town about 20 miles southwest of Puebla. It has a reputation for exceedingly good weather. In fact, the city’s official tourist brochure boasts that the Atlixco has “the best climate in the world.” The moderate temperatures enable the production of two other things Atlixco is known for: gardening supplies (some people call it the City of Flowers) and cecina (beef that’s been salted, marinated, and sun-dried). The landscaping at La Aldea Hotel & Spa, where we stayed for three nights, was indeed gorgeous — and everything was in bloom.

An image of Christ is depicted in colorful sawdust on the zócalo sidewalk.We ventured into town on Good Friday, hopeful that everything would be open, and it was. We even found the free city parking lot, located just behind the ex-convent of El Carmen, where we stumbled upon the modest Museum of Atlixco Valley Cultures. Its curators collect and identify artifacts that people have found in the area. In March 2010, they added an exhibit of marine fossils dating back some 420 million years. I’ve heard that central Mexico is one of two places on the planet that scientists suspect life on Earth originated. These ancient fossils — white coral, giant snails, sea sponges, fish heads, and more — seem to support this.

Next, we headed for the zócalo, stopping to check out the vendor stalls along the pedestrian-only alleyway of Constitution and a dazzling display of Easter-themed murals covering the ground with colored sawdust at Plaza de Armas. The tourist information booth offered us a free guided walking tour (in Spanish), so we headed up the hill to the ex-convent of San Francisco, arriving just in time for a throng to gather for a re-enactment of the crucifixion, a popular annual pastime among Catholics here.

A crowd waits for the re-enactment of the Crucifixion.We wandered around a bit more with our guide, admiring art at a couple of other churches, then decided it was just too hot to continue our stroll in the sun. So we headed to the indoor market for a cool drink and some shade. We sampled some yummy queso fresco and cecina, but felt it would be perceived as disrespectful if we ordered a huge plate of beef on Good Friday (a mistake we made two years ago at a restaurant in Oaxaca). Refreshed, we headed back to the hotel to enjoy the rest of the afternoon by the pool.

On Saturday, we took advantage of the hotel’s spa, enjoying chakra-balancing massages and spending some time in the jacuzzi before eating breakfast so late that it was really lunch. Aside from being annoyed by a drunken, half-naked couple that decided to make a complete spectacle of themselves (because, really, what spring break would be complete without spring breakers? I’m just thankful that they weren’t Americans), we enjoyed a quiet, relaxing day. We wrapped up our mini vacation that evening with a bottle of wine, music, and Yahtzee on our room’s balcony. Bliss.

To get to Atlixco from the Puebla capital, take Vía Atlixcayotl (head south of the Periférico) until it turns into a toll highway (438D). You can also take Linea Oro buses from the CAPU station.

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The Centuries-Old Art of Making Talavera Pottery

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

A veteran painter puts her personal touch on a series of titles.Since its introduction by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, talavera pottery has become synonymous with Puebla. The beautifully hand-crafted ceramics, which take the form of everything from garden tiles to dinnerware, adorn building fronts in the historic center, replace china sets in Mexican households, and travel home with visitors as souvenirs. Talavera is so revered that President Calderón ordered a special bicentennial pattern last year for his Independence Day state dinner; Governor Rafael Moreno Valle buys centerpieces to give as personal gifts; and collectors worldwide seek out new and historical pieces to display as fine art.

The local tradition of making talavera started shortly after the city of Puebla was founded in 1531. “The Spanish feverishly began building churches, monasteries, and convents,” notes MexOnline.com. “To decorate these buildings, craftsman from Talavera de la Reina … were commissioned to come to the New World to produce fine tiles as well as other ceramic ware. In addition, these same craftsman were to teach the indigenous artisans their technique of Majolica pottery, in order to increase production levels.”

Orders in progress at the Uriarte Talavera Factory.Nearly 500 years later, artisans continue to produce talavera in Puebla. In fact, the capital city is home to the longest continuously operating factory in Mexico and perhaps the world: Uriarte Talavera. Uriarte is one of the oldest businesses in the country, ranking in the top 10 behind José Cuervo’s tequila distillery in Jalisco and several other well-known enterprises.

Located in Puebla’s historic city center, Uriarte Talavera has been turning out handcrafted pottery since 1824. The factory is one of seven or so certified producers in the region; its competitors include Talavera de la Reyna, Ansar Talavera, and La Concepción. Certified ceramics — which bear the mark “DO4” on the bottom — are made from a 50-50 mix of black and white clays from the Sierra Negra. They must include only mineral-based paints, have a glaze that contains a minimum amount of lead, and meet various other government standards. “Lead makes it shine,” co-owner Michael Paulhus explained during a recent visit. “Mexican authorities are stricter than their U.S. counterparts, so our lead content is below the FDA rules for food service.” (Paulhus, for the record, is Canadian; the four other partners in the business are poblanos.)

The central courtyard features the original “Coke bottle” furnace (no longer in use).The entire process is labor- and time-intensive. Depending on its size, a single piece of talavera takes weeks, if not months, to produce. The clay is shaped, dried, fired, glazed, hand-painted, and fired again before it’s finished — and then nearly a third of the pottery produced gets smashed because it doesn’t meet quality standards, Paulhus says.

Although Uriarte Talavera dabbles in new shapes and original designs — look for Mayan-themed items in 2012 — some of its licensed patterns date to 1724. Back in the day, talavera from Puebla became highly sought-after as a symbol of prestige in part due to its signature blue decoration. The vivid paint color is derived from cobalt, which comes from Africa and for a long time was difficult to acquire. “Now there’s FedEx,” Paulhus noted, “but before it came over on a ship.” About 80 percent of Uriarte’s work is made to order, but visitors can shop for sets and one-offs at the company store on-site, on its website, and in selected boutiques.

The Uriarte Talavera factory and store is located at 4 Poniente #911 in Puebla’s historic center. Tours are offered Monday through Friday, 10am to 2pm (one per hour), in English and Spanish.

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