Archive for November, 2011


Murals Triumph Over Time at Casa del Deán

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Each sibyl in this mural carries a banner depicting a different moment of the final hours of Jesus’ life.Although many of Mexico’s best-known muralists — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Juan O’Gorman — made their marks in the first half of the 20th century, muralism in Mexico began more than a millennium ago. Long before the Spaniards arrived, pre-Hispanic civilizations painted pictures on walls to express their beliefs and rituals: For example, the 180-foot-long mural Bebedores de Pulque inside the Great Pyramid of Cholula depicts masked figures drinking pulque, the fermented nectar of the maguey plant, during a feast or ceremony. During and after the Conquest, murals were used to evangelize Christianity to the natives. Today these paintings provide fine, lasting examples of Colonial art.

Some of the most important murals left behind can be found inside the Casa del Deán in Puebla. Aside from their artistic value, the 400-year-old frescoes are the oldest non-religious murals registered in Mexico.

The Casa del Deán originally belonged to Don Tomás de la Plaza Goes, who was dean of Puebla from 1553 to 1589. As such, Goes was second in command to the bishop — and held the keys to the Cathedral. Having to live close to the church, he built his home right around the corner. The house, which historian Enrique Cordero y Torres classified as the city’s oldest still standing, remained intact until the 1950s, when it was sold and largely converted into a movie theater. During the renovations, however, elaborate murals were uncovered in two outlying rooms and, after much lobbying from artists and intellectuals nationwide, the space was preserved and turned into a museum.

The building, designed by architect Francisco Becerra, features a Renaissance-style façade with a coat of arms above wrought-iron balcony. Inside, a grand stone staircase leads to two rooms decorated with murals. The murals were created by artists called Tlacuilos (a Nahuatl word), whose names are unknown. Their work has been restored twice, most recently in 2009. Before entering the first room, visitors can view a set of photographs that show the murals as they were found and the restoration process, providing a fair before-and-after comparison.

Part of the wrap-around mural in La Sala de las Sibilas at the Casa del Deán.The first room, called La Sala de las Sibilas, contains a wrap-around mural of a parade of sibyls — female prophets from Greek mythology — who narrate the passion of Christ. Each sibyl wears 16th-century clothing and carries a banner depicting a different moment of the final hours of Jesus’ life. “The central scene on each of the four walls is flanked by borders demarcated by a cord, a method that was used to frame the content of murals in Franciscan convents, evoking the habit of St. Francis of Assisi and underscoring the strong influence of the Order and natives in the region,” an INAH sign tells visitors. “Note that the definition of the formal design with a black line is a style that has its origins in pre-Hispanic mural painting techniques.”

The murals in La Sala de los Triunfos narrate Petrarch's poem, “The Triumphs.” Despite its Christian imagery, the mural is considered to be nonreligious because it features heretic themes (i.e., Greek Mythology) and non-Biblical metaphors, even though it was ordered by a Catholic dean. The mural also mixes European symbols with indigenous ones, such as the regional animals, insects, flowers, birds, and fruits that adorn its friezes.

The second room, called La Sala de los Triunfos, could be considered downright blasphemous, given that it narrates “The Triumphs,” a poem written by Italian humanist Petrarch in 1352 and banned by the Church in 1575. The murals depict the nature of human life, proving its weakness in matters of love, chastity, time, death, and fame (or divinity). This room is believed to have been Don Tomás’s bedroom, and the murals were supposedly constant reminders of his mortality. —Vica Amuchastegui

The Casa del Deán is located a short walk from the zócalo at 16 de Septiembre #505. Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is 31 pesos.

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A Weekend in the ‘Magic Town’ of Cuetzalan

Monday, November 14th, 2011

A panoramic view of CuetzalanIt took me four years of living in Mexico to visit Cuetzalan, but it was worth the wait — and the winding, three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to get there from the Puebla capital. The tiny town, carved into a mountainside in the state’s Sierra Norte, is surrounded by natural beauty: Its thick tropical forests conceal waterfalls, grottos, and coffee plantations. And, although the area is frequently blanketed by the clouds, mist, rain, or fog typical of the region, on clear days visitors can see for miles across the gorgeous peaks and valleys that stretch east toward the Veracruz border.

I arrived at the Cuetzalan bus station early on a sunny October afternoon and walked down the town’s steep cobblestone streets toward its main square. After admiring the view — wow — and wandering around a bit to get my bearings, I checked into Hotel El Encuentro (Av. Hidalgo #34), which appeared clean, seemed safe, and cost an affordable 320 pesos ($24) per night. It turns out that the group that runs the hotel also operates the Xoxocitc Botanical Garden, which maintains orchid, heliconia, and butterfly gardens, as well as a collection of endangered tree ferns. After stowing my bag, I set out to find lunch and to explore what makes Cuetzalan one of Mexico’s longest-running “magic towns,” or pueblos mágicos.

Café Época de Oro serves as a restaurant and a museum of coins, antiques, and movie posters.I ordered a plate of chicken enchiladas at Mesón Don Chon, and it would have been a lovely meal had I not been badgered by countless vendors who wandered in off the street. They were relentless, so I ate quickly and returned to the main square. I checked out the massive Parroquía de San Francisco de Asis, which took 200 years to build and decorate (1790-1990) and, perhaps because it was finished so recently, boasts a vibrant interior that seems wonderfully ostentatious for a church founded by Franciscans. As I took it all in from the front pew, I decided that any house of worship that could successfully incorporate a grapevine motif into its altar decor was OK by me. Shortly thereafter, I met up with my travel-savvy friend Freda. We grabbed a beer at the retro-kitschy Café Época de Oro, a restaurant that also serves as a museum of coins, antiques, and movie posters from the golden age of Mexican cinema. According to the newspaper Sierranorte, owner Oscar Rubén Rivera Dáttoli is not only a meticulous collector, but also quite a local character who plays 17 musical instruments and likes to write and act in Vaudeville skits.

Traditional "voladores," or fliers, perform in Cuetzalan's main square.The café offers an excellent view of the main square, but we were drawn outside by the high-pitched flute sounds of the voladores. These “flyers” dress in colorful costumes (which are traditional except for the tourism-board shirts), scurry up a tree trunk that’s at least 60 feet tall, and then — tied by their ankles to ropes wound around the tree — jump off as if they were scuba diving in mid-air, backward and head-first. Four people soar around the tree as the rope unwinds, while a fifth person dances on a tiny platform at its top. The impressive, death-defying ritual expresses people’s harmony with, and respect for, the natural and spiritual worlds. Although its precise origins are unknown (and hotly debated), its importance to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was recognized by UNESCO in 2009.

We strolled around town a bit more, peeking inside churches, hotels, and the cultural center, before capping off the evening with, well, a nightcap. We sampled a shot of yolixpa, a locally made herbal liquor with a strong anise-like flavor, and then washed it down with some tequila at Bar El Calate (Morelos #9B).

On Sunday morning, I got up early to go to the weekly market. Nibbling on a freshly made hotcake from a street vendor, I carefully negotiated the steep steps and bustling walkways. The market occupies the entire main square and flows into the adjacent avenues, beckoning buyers with ripe papayas and melons, recently butchered pig heads, shaved tree sap for starting fires, and delicate jewelry made from seeds and beans. One particular decorative bean — nicknamed vaquita for its black-and-white spots that resemble a dairy cow’s — also happens to be delicious when boiled with garlic and bay leaves. So my search for a bag of these beans began and, with the help of a young mom who knew her way around the market, it ended successfully, and I bought a necklace from her as a thank-you.

Travel tip: Bring walking shoes. Your calves are going to get a workout while traversing Cuetzalan.

A few hours later, after hauling our bags up to the bus station and leaving them in storage, we hired a Mototaxi by the hour to take us to a few spots outside of Cuetzalan, including the ruins at Yohualichan and the waterfalls Las Brisas and El Salto. Yohualichan is a village and archaeological site about 5.5 miles outside of Cuetzalan that’s reachable via a rustic, bumpy road. The first people here were the Totonacs, who built the site’s houses, ceremonial buildings, and ball court between 400 and 800 A.D. The temples paid tribute to water and forest animals. According to legend and the INAH’s sign, the Totonacs also constructed the pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan and El Tajín. Yohualichan was subsequently occupied by Toltecs, Chichimecas, and Nahuas, who ransacked the previous settlements and re-purposed the materials to erect their own buildings, some of which still exist today.

Off an even rougher (unfinished) road closer to Cuetzalan, our intrepid driver-cum-guide led us on a hike to two of the area’s waterfalls. Although the path was narrow, muddy, and filled with tree roots, rocks, and other obstacles, I managed it in slip-on shoes, with a helping hand when the going got rough. After about 15 minutes, we were rewarded with an almost-private glimpse of the Las Brisas and El Salto waterfalls. We’d hiked to the middle, putting us at the top of one and the bottom of one, where, if we’d planned ahead, we could have taken a dip in the pool. Another tourist jumped in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I shuddered to think of the chafing on his hike back to the road. I decided to stay dry. We hiked back out and made it back to town in time to grab lemonade and a torta for the 4 p.m. bus. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

Cuetzalan is located about 110 miles northeast of the city of Puebla. The Vía bus line, operated by ADO, offers frequent departures seven days a week from the main bus station, CAPU. Tickets can be purchased at the station or online from Ticketbus (in Spanish only). To get there by car, take the Puebla-Orizaba highway (150D) to Amozoc, exiting onto the toll road toward Perote (140D). From 140D, head north on federal highway 129 toward Zaragoza to 575. Follow 575 through Zacapoaxtla to Cuetzalan.

For 100 pesos an hour, you can hire a Mototaxi to tool around Cuetzalan.Yohualichan is a hilltop archaeological site about 5.5 miles from Cuetzalan.A modest church stands near the entrance to the Yohualichan archaeological site.The top of El Salto waterfall in Cuetzalan.

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Touring Two of Cholula’s Magnificent Churches

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Fans of religious architecture shouldn’t miss a visit to San Andrés Cholula, where two churches — Santa María Tonantzintla and San Francisco Acatepec — provide magnificent examples of local craftsmanship and the region’s blended Spanish-indigenous influence. Each structure is special and important in its own way, with one displaying its splendor on the inside and the other on the outside.

Tonantzintla's relatively plain facade gives visitors no indication of the splendor inside.Santa María Tonantzintla could be one of the most enchanting places of worship ever constructed in Mexico. Located just six miles from downtown Puebla in San Andrés Cholula, the 17th-century church uniquely fuses European and native designs, a style of architecture known today as indigenous baroque. Inspired by the stunning Capilla del Rosario in the nearby city of Puebla, Tonantzintla’s architects tried to give their church a more local, realistic feel. Tonantzintla is adorned mostly with colorful plaster in place of gilded stucco.

The name Tonantzintla, which means “place of our little mother” in Nahuatl, comes from the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the earth mother who became the equivalent of the Virgin Mary when the Spaniards conquered the pre-Hispanic world. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much: Crude figures of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary greet visitors from their perch atop an austere facade (see photo, at right above). But its magnificence quickly becomes apparent inside. The walls are completely covered with ornate plaster molds and models, which are colorfully painted or coated with gold. It’s an explosion of shapes, symbols, and meanings. And, although the figures and faces are rough, childlike, and less elegant than those typically found in other Baroque churches in México, they are equally breathtaking.

Tonantzintla's walls are covered with plaster molds and models, either colorfully painted or coated with gold.“The church of Santa María Tonantzintla is a required visit for anyone who wants to enjoy a spiritual atmosphere that’s ‘out of this world,’” notes architect Ignacio Cabral in his book, Religious Architecture in San Andrés Cholula, Puebla. “The fruits, flowers, children, faces, masks, birds, figures of saints and more together form an extraordinary mosaic — a frank ‘horror vacui,’ or fear of empty space — that is so typical of the Baroque style and here is interpreted in an indigenous fashion.”

What merits the most attention, Cabral continues, is Tonantzintla’s dome, which is like no other in Mexico. “It’s a ‘celestial vision’ of the indigenous world as they imagined it and captured it with their own hands … a magnificent example of the union of Mexican and European [cultures] and of the syncretism between Christianity and the indigenous worldview.”

The church operates autonomously from the Archdiocese of Puebla and is supported and promoted by the community. Signs in the church forbid tourists from taking any photographs inside, with or without flash, to preserve the paint’s colors (they make exceptions during weddings, which is how we got our shots). Post cards may be purchased at the entrance; the money collected goes toward maintenance efforts.

San Francisco Acatepec offers one of the finest examples of the Baroque talavera style in Mexico.Less than a mile from Tonantzintla, San Francisco Acatepec offers one of the finest examples of viceregal architecture and Baroque talavera in Mexico. Upon arrival at Acatepec, the first thing visitors notice is its beautiful facade, which is entirely covered by locally produced ceramic tiles. The handcrafted pieces are so intricately painted that they appear to change colors with the weather: When the sun shines, the reddish hues catch fire; when it’s cloudy, the cobalt blue tones seem to complement the gray sky. The vivid details and ornamentation are characteristic of Puebla’s trademark pottery, a centuries-old traditional art that continues today. “The magnificence of the façade is such that it looks like a porcelain temple, worth being kept under glass,” renowned Colonial art historian Don Manuel Toussaint once noted.

The church — built during the same era Tonantzintla — is named after its original village, Acatepec, which means “hill of reeds” in Nahuatl, and the patron saint of the new church, St. Francis. Sadly, on December 31, 1939, a fire destroyed its original interior, which featured carved cedar altars and gold-covered stucco details.

Some 15 years before the disaster, an engineer named Alberto Pani made a series of books called Churches of Mexico, which depicted 17th- and 18th-century churches to demonstrate the architectural richness of the country. To present them in the best way possible, he worked with one of the nation’s top photographers, Guillermo Kahlo. (If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because he was Frida’s father. Yes, that Frida!) Based on these pictures, the interior of San Francisco Acatepec was largely reconstructed in 1941, and, although it is nowhere as complete as the original, it’s still stunning — and well worth checking out. —Vica Amuchastegui

Both churches are accessible by taxi and bus, including the Cholula Tranvia, which departs from the zócalo of Puebla at 11 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday. (Adult tickets: 100 pesos.) The churches are open to the public every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Post updated November 6, 2013.

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