Discover this charming baroque beauty south of the border — a well-kept secret among Americans until now
BY BECCA HENSLEY — Fall 2018
eeding a snack, I’ve rambled over to Calle de los Dulces (Candy Street), a fantasia of delight that stretches across several blocks of the five-centuries-old, UNESCO-listed historic district of Puebla, Mexico. Fringed by age-old, brightly colored buildings, this street draws hungry tourists and locals (called Poblanos) alike in a search for sugary sustenance.
As I walk, I’m challenged to choose between shops, each tiny and old-fashioned, each immaculate and curated. Offering dessert specialties from sombrero-shaped confectionery to camotes (candied yams) to Tortitas Santa Clara (a frosted cookie), the stores present their goods in displays that often artistically incorporate Puebla’s famous Talavera pottery. When I do choose a shop, I buy the frosted cookies, which the saleswoman wraps in shiny, white paper, tying them with a blue ribbon, the resulting color combination mimicking both the pottery the store sells and the cobalt and snow-white facades of Puebla’s many Talavera-flanked buildings. The vendor tells me all her baked goods come from bygone recipes, most developed by the nuns who inhabited the city’s variety of convents in former times. “Cooking was like a prayer for them,” she says. One taste of a cookie, powdery and sweet, and I feel the invocation from long, long ago.
I spent my summers in Puebla as a child. My grandfather, a peripatetic, bohemian ex-pat, lived here, married to a woman my brother and I called “the aging flamenco dancer,” a gorgeous Poblana who seemed as ornate as the baroque buildings emblematic of Puebla’s distinctive downtown. My memories, snapshots, awaken as I explore the cobbled streets now as an adult. Passing the old market, I remember sneaking away to it with cousins to consume street food, something my parents forbade me to do, worried I might get sick, which I did.
Although my childhood introduced me to Mexico’s fourth-largest city (population: 2 million), many Americans know very little about this charmer that has long been a popular weekend getaway for well-heeled Mexicans from nearby Mexico City. That’s now changing. Once the world-class International Museum of the Baroque came on the scene in 2016, followed by the opening of two luxury hotels over the last 18 months — one by a well-established luxury brand in the U.S. market, Rosewood — the city has started grabbing the attention of savvy American travelers, especially those who have done the Mexican coastal resorts. I’ve returned after some 20 years to stay at these new hotels, visit the museum, and reacquaint myself with Puebla-style hospitality and cuisine — to remember what makes this city so special and to see how much it has changed, if at all.
bout 80 miles southeast of Mexico City, Puebla occupies a verdant valley, encircled by a quartet of towering volcanoes — most notably the ash-belching wonder, Popocatépetl. As the New World’s first planned city, Puebla was built on the verge of ancient villages and constructed from scratch by the Spanish to showcase Spain’s opulence and largesse and to impress the king and queen. Consequently, its urban fabric evokes a European vibe, with arcades, wide boulevards, ornate buildings, and such — all reminiscent of Madrid or Seville. Meant to be emblematic of the riches garnered and foraged by the Spanish, no expense was spared, so the city became one of the world’s most notable examples of baroque style. Puebla maintains that same regal appeal today with its jewel box of embellished churches, chapels, and convents, and with its extravagant houses, many layered with Talavera tiles, some with extraordinary plateresco (silverworklike doors), all boasting eye-catching hues of stucco, from yellow to pink.
One afternoon, I leave the bedlam of Puebla’s busy zócalo (town square) to take refuge in adjacent Puebla Cathedral, said to be Latin America’s tallest. Inside, I let the sanctum’s frigid temperatures cool and calm me. I recall the mortifying moment in my childhood when a priest admonished me for coming to Mass in a miniskirt, demanding I wrap myself in my grandfather’s long coat. But this morning, miniskirts and shorts appear in profusion.
That observation makes me think both how much and how little the city has changed since those summers more than two decades ago. Back then, I learned Spanish on the streets, as not many spoke English, though now many Poblanos do. I studied baroque architecture on the heels of my parents and their artist friends, who tutored me at every turn as we walked the streets. Today, visitors can see all the same buildings I did, thankfully protected by UNESCO, though urban sprawl on the city’s fringes manifests the style of modern times. As a child visiting, I learned about saints and mummies, seeing one and the same, a centuries-old holy man encased in a glass coffin at San Francisco Church in the town’s oldest part. He’s still there, and the church, right across from Rosewood Puebla, is an architectural wonder itself. Finally, in Puebla I learned to cook mole in my grandfather’s Talavera-lined kitchen. I still have the secret family recipe, but it never tastes as good as it does in Puebla, where it remains a sacred favorite.
Hankering to taste again the city’s most famous culinary dish, mole poblano, and its festive, seasonal summertime splurge, chiles en nogada, I take a seat at El Mural de los Poblanos, one of Puebla’s most renowned dining spots. At a small table beneath the restaurant’s namesake mural, a massive stretch of Diego Rivera-like wall art, I gaze up to see the history of Puebla unfold. Historical scenes and figures, such as Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, look down at me as I sip a beer — a drink the staff encourages all diners to help themselves to from a large, ice-filled bathtub by the door. It makes waiting for a table at this buzzy spot a breeze. Mole, legendarily invented when nuns wanted to surprise a visiting cardinal with a feast, doesn’t have an exact recipe, with chefs closely guarding the way they make it. Nevertheless, this mix of various, unexpected ingredients, which range from chocolate and raisins to chilies, nuts, and stale bread, always emerges tasting sweet, smoky, and piquant simultaneously. Traditionally, Poblanos serve it atop chicken or turkey, crowned with scattered sesame seeds. Mine arrives at my table with turkey. After a moment with the mole, I turn my attention to my other plate — chiles en nogada, a fat poblano pepper stuffed with spicy ground beef and blanketed with a creamy walnut sauce. The taste? It’s like poetry.
art of Puebla’s allure comes from the pre-Spanish heritage that encircles it. Various villages, designated by the Mexican federal tourism board as pueblos mágicos (magic towns), manifest the culture of Mesoamerican people. As a child, I visited Cholula, a short drive from downtown Puebla, to see its Great Pyramid, an adventure that awakened a lifelong love for history, mystery, and archaeology. In my memories, I was the only person at the pyramid. On this visit, I’m in the company of many visitors. In turn, we enter the 3,500-year-old structure’s bowels, wandering with guides through undulating tunnels once used by ancient people. Eventually, I pop out on a wide lawn, near an amphitheater, part of the 25-acre empire, where ingenious acoustics and mind-boggling artifacts — such as a stone slab for sacrifice — bring the past to life. The pyramid is just as moving as I remember it. Later in the day, I visit Santa Maria Tonantzintla, one of Cholula’s most ornamented churches, just a stone’s throw from the magnificent pyramid. Here, the history comes together for me. Amid all the expected adornments, this little chapel reveals the secret resistance of indigenous workers, who crafted the interiors with cherubs in their own image and incorporated local symbols into the embellishment — including a Virgin Mary who bears a crafty resemblance to a local goddess. The passion of it, and the palpable soulfulness of the region, brings me unexpectedly to tears.
Some say that the Puebla suburb of Angelópolis is just the opposite of ancient Cholula. Modern, trendy, luxurious, dotted with skyscrapers, universities, malls, and upscale developments, it contrasts sharply with Puebla’s historic center. Fitting right in to that urbanscape, the 2-year-old International Museum of the Baroque is housed in a startlingly contemporary building. I reserve an entire afternoon to peruse it — and that’s not enough.
A feast for the senses, the museum draws me in at the door with baroque background music, tunes that have a Pied Piper effect as they lead me from chamber to chamber. A blurb on the wall says that baroque (the abundantly extravagant, even edgy, style that defines Puebla’s historical architecture) was meant to inspire awe. I’ve felt and seen that around the city. But in this canny, hands-on museum, I discover baroque was so much more. A clever labyrinth of themed rooms reveals how baroque infiltrated more than architecture — it showed up in music, design, science, art, literature, fashion, and beyond. Baroque was Rubens, Shakespeare, Vivaldi, gilt buildings, hoop skirts, and medicine’s strides via anatomy, too.
Within a somewhat whimsical structure conceived to make one reflect (it has pools of water for metaphor and walls that look like folded origami paper), I follow a path from room to room that presents baroque as a global movement, always bringing the style back to Puebla. A replica of the historic district in one room, for example, displays all the town’s many baroque structures. I leave the museum thinking it a masterpiece, a destination in itself.
My last afternoon, I visit Capilla del Rosario, a stunning, gold-abundant, Talavera-bedecked baroque hideaway within the Church of Santo Domingo in the historic district. Once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” this tiny gilded room achieves baroque’s ultimate goal of exuberance and profusion. Awed, like many before me, I sit surrounded by glimmer, long enough for a priest to enter. When he does, I nervously realize that I’m wearing a miniskirt in this holy, glittering place — a mistake I shouldn’t have made twice in Puebla. I expect him to throw me out when he turns to speak to me. Instead, he says, “They say architecture is music made from stones. Can you hear Puebla sing?”
I do. I certainly do.
Talavera Buying Tips
Originally hailing from Spain, Talavera, a type of decorated ceramics, quickly took root in Puebla during colonial times due to the high quality of the region’s natural clay. A complicated process, the hand-thrown pottery requires many steps, rituals that have not changed for centuries. Since the 1990s, Talavera workshops have had to follow strict guidelines regulated by the government. You can identify genuine Talavera by checking for a workshop’s name etched on the base of a piece. You should also see a destination of origin number. Artists produce jars, plates, tiles, vases, and more. While prices vary by size and maker, expect to pay about $35 for a plate, with a 53-piece table setting (one of the most popular purchases) averaging about $1,100.
Two good places to buy the pottery
• Talavera Celia in Puebla, which has an interactive museum. talaveracelia.com
• Talavera Santa Catarina, near Cholula, where you can watch the artists at work. talaverastacatarina.com
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