Friday, January 31, 2014

A museum, a church, a cemetery, and a monument

This morning I set out to visit a museum I had never seen before... the Museum of San Carlos.  Once again I took the Metrobus, but this time north up Avenida Insurgentes. Surprisingly, I was able to find a seat on the bus.  However we were slowed down by a street demonstration protesting the government's plan to privatize the oil industry.

The museum is located on a busy thoroughfare called Puente de Alvarado (the Bridge of Alvarado).  Before the Spanish conquest, the Aztec capital was built on an island in the middle of a shallow lake that covered much of the valley where Mexico City stands today.   Puente de Alvarado follows the route of one of the causeways that connected the Aztec city with the shore. After the Spanish took over, they gradually drained the lake until hardly any of it remains today.

The building which houses the museum was originally the Palace of Buenavista, a mansion built at the end of the 18th century for a Spanish count.  The building was designed by Manuel Tolsá, a famous Spanish architect and sculptor who brought the neoclassic style to Mexico.  Later the building served as the residence of the dictator Santa Ana.  In the 20th century it was used as a tobacco factory and the headquarters of the National Lottery. Forty five years ago it was established as a museum to house the art collection of the Art Academy of San Carlos.

                      The building is noteworthy for its circular courtyard and grand staircase.

The permanent collection of the museum consists of European art from the 1400s to the 1800s.  Although most of the paintings are by lesser-known artists, the collection is nicely displayed, and I found it rather interesting.

At this time they are having a special exhibition on the mannerist painters of the 1600s, and on display is an important El Greco on loan from an art museum in San Diego, California.

Heading a few blocks to the east toward downtown, I came upon the Church of San Fernando.  It was built in the 1730s on what was then the western edge of the city.  It was part of a large Franciscan monastery.  The monastery is gone, but the church still stands.

Next to the church is the Cemetery of San Fernando, also known as the "Panteón de Hombres Ilustres" (The Graveyard of Illustrious Men).  In the mid-1800s this became the place for the rich and famous to be buried.  It is a veritable textbook of 19th century Mexican history.  In fact it is now a museum (admission is free), and there plaques describing the importance of some of the people buried here.

One of the more imposing gravestones is that of General Ignacio Zaragoza.   On May 5, 1862, General Zaragoza defeated the invading French army at the Battle of Puebla.  This is the origin of the "Cinco de Mayo" holiday.  (It is not, as many Americans mistakenly believe, Mexican Independence Day!)   Just months after his victory, Zaragoza died of typhoid fever at the age of only 33.  It should be noted that the general is no longer buried here.  His remains were transported to the city of Puebla, the scene of his great triumph, and reburied at a monument there.

(image from the web)

The most famous person in the cemetery is Mexico's greatest hero and most beloved President, Benito Juárez.  Juárez, a full-blooded Zapotec Indian, became President of Mexico in the 1850s, in an era when Mexican politics were dominated by men of European ancestry.  During his presidency he passed a number of liberal reforms, and he faced the invasion of his country by the French.  The French forces and the puppet Maximilian that they had installed as emperor were defeated.  Juárez returned to Mexico City in triumph.  He continued to serve as President until 1872 when he died of a heart attack.  He is buried here along with his wife who preceded him in death.

(image from the web)

Since I was only a few blocks away, I walked to the Monument of the Revolution.  This structure was actually begun in the early 20th century by dictator Porfirio Díaz who ruled the country with an iron hand from 1877 until1911.  Díaz had grandiose plans to build a legislative palace, but only the framework of the huge central cupola had been completed when the Mexican Revolution broke out, and Díaz was deposed.  Later the unfinished structure was redesigned in a combination of art deco and Mexican socialist styles as a monument to the Revolution.

Last year the vast plaza around the monument had been occupied by a tent city of thousands of striking teachers.  Originally the teachers had occupied the Zócalo, the city's main plaza, but when that threatened to ruin the traditional celebration of Independence Day, the teachers were forcibly removed.  They then relocated around Revolution Monument until they were eventually evicted from there.  Even though I was a school teacher, and even participated bitter eight week strike in my school district, I cannot support the disruptive tactics of those teachers.  If they had been protesting the miserably low salaries that they receive, I might have some sympathy.  But they were protesting a reform law which mandates evaluations of teacher performance.  Welcome to the real world.  As far as I know, job evaluations are the norm for teachers in most developed countries.

Although the teachers were removed, there is now another, smaller tent city of protesters behind the Revolution Monument.

From what I could ascertain from the signs on the tents, the focus of these protesters are the proposed laws to privatize the Mexican oil and energy industries.  Even though PEMEX, the government owned oil monopoly, is dreadfully corrupt, I can muster a certain amount of sympathy for them.  One of the major grievances against the Díaz dictatorship was that he allowed foreign companies to exploit Mexico's resources.  A cornerstone of the Revolution has been that Mexico's natural resources belong to Mexico.  It is understandable that many Mexicans are not thrilled with the thought of American oil companies taking over the industry.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Sunken Park

Before I found out that I would be able to stay in my favorite apartment in Condesa, I thought that I would be staying in the neighborhood of Colonia del Valle, a bit further south from Condesa.  As a result, beforehand I had done some research on sights to see in Colonia del Valle.  

This morning I set out to see what sounded like the most interesting place in that neighborhood, a park called "El Parque Hundido" (The Sunken Park).  At one time in the 19th century, there had been a brickyard at that location.  Years later, after Colonia del Valle was developed as an upper middle class area, a park was created in the depression where the brickyard had been... thus was born The Sunken Park.

It's a walk of several blocks from my apartment to Avenida Insurgentes, the busy thoroughfare which crosses the entire length of the city from north to south.  Here I was able to catch the Metrobus to reach my destination.  The Metrobus is a fairly new addition to the city's public transportation system.  The buses are long, articulated vehicles which have dedicated lanes and stations in the center of major avenues.  The very first Metrobus route was the one along Avenida Insurgentes.  They are very convenient, but unfortunately they are often just as crowded as the subway.  This morning we were packed like sardines, and I was straining to get a glimpse out of the window to see the names of the Metrobus stops, so that I would get off at the correct place.

After nine stops, I got off right in front of the park.  The centerpiece of the park is a floral clock.


On closer inspection, I could see that the clock kept accurate time, but that it was in need of some additional plantings.

 Throughout the park there are statues and carvings that are replicas of works of art from the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico.

Here are the serpent columns from a Mayan temple at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán.

And here is a replica on one of the giant stone heads that were carved by Mexico's earliest civilization, the Olmecs.

While I was in the park I ran across a film crew that was filming a scene for a "telenovela" (soap opera).  I spoke very briefly with one of the actors, and he told me that the name of the show was "El Señor del Cielo" (The Lord of the Sky).  In the scene that they were filming, a woman was screaming while two well-dressed men dragged her across the park.

On the other side of Avenida Insurgentes, just a block away, is another park which has a tiny church dating from the late 16th century, "La Capilla de San Lorenzo Mártir" (the Chapel of St, Lawrence the Martyr).  Back when it was built, this was surely countryside some distance from Mexico City.

I walked around the neighborhood very briefly, and from what I saw Colonia del Valle appears to be a  pleasant and prosperous part of the city.

An elegant apartment building seen from the Park of San Lorenzo.

I returned to my apartment by Metrobus, and even though I had to stand, it was not nearly as crowded as before.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


The apartment where I am staying is in one of the most pleasant parts of Mexico City, the neighborhood of Condesa.  It is probably the greenest neighborhood in the city with parks, tree-lined streets, and shady pedestrian walkways running down the middle of major avenues.  

The land was originally the private estate of a Spanish noblewoman (hence the name "Condesa" which means "countess").  Development of the area began in the early twentieth century.  There once was a racetrack in the neighborhood, but in the 1920's the inside of the track was turned into a park, Parque México, and the oval shape of Avenida México and Avenida Amsterdam are due to the fact that they follow the perimeter of the old racetrack.  Development was in full swing by the 1920s and 1930s.  The neighborhood attracted affluent residents who moved into "neo-colonial" and "art deco" homes and apartment buildings. By the 1970s, the wealthy families were moving into newer, more fashionable neighborhoods, and Condesa fell into decline.  But by the 1990s the lower property values were attracting a new generation of young professionals and intellectuals, and the neighborhood reemerged as a fashionable upper-middle class district.  Although it is primarily residential, the area is also considered one of the trendiest parts of the city for dining and entertainment.

                                                              My street in Condesa

           Some examples of art deco and neo-colonial architecture in the neighborhood 

                                            A shady walkway along Avenida Amsterdam

                                                                   Parque México

  Condesa boasts a wide range of dining options, from hole-in-the-wall "taquerías" to expensive
                                                     international restaurants.


                                         Flower vendors are on many street corners.


                                               Bougainvilleas are always in bloom.

       The jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom, a sign that spring is around the corner.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gourmet Meal at a Budget Price

In Mexico the main meal of the day, "comida", is served in the mid-afternoon.  In the old days, businesses all shut down for several hours in the afternoon so that employees could go home, have their "comida", take a "siesta" (nap), and then go back to work.   The "siesta" is a thing of the past, but the "comida" is still the main meal.  There are countless restaurants throughout the city that cater to working people taking a break for their afternoon meal.  In fact many small restaurants are not even open in the evening; they do all their business in the afternoon.  These small eateries typically offer a "meal of the day" with three courses, and several choices for each course.  The day's offerings are usually written on a chalkboard outside the restaurant. The prices are generally very economical, although the food is often unremarkable.

This afternoon I went out looking for a place to eat.  Just a few blocks from my apartment I found a little "hole-in-the-wall" kitchen with a few tables on the sidewalk.  The place had the odd name of "Kousmine Delight".  The menu on the chalkboard looked rather intriguing, so I gave the place a try.  I'm sorry that I did not take my camera with me so that you could see what I had.

First course - a soup from the Mexican state of Michoacán made from tomatillos and cilantro.

Second course - an elegantly presented salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, apple, and jícama served with a strawberry vinaigrette dressing.

Third course - a beef tart with carmelized onions, basil pesto and avocado sauce.

Also included were a beverage and a dessert which was like strawberry mousse.

The entire meal was quite creative and tasty.  I can imagine some pretentious restaurant in the United States serving a similar meal and charging a small fortune.  My bill was 100 pesos... less than eight dollars! 

This Little Piggie Went to Market

An important part of Mexican life is the "tianguis".   The word "tianguis" comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and refers to an open-air marketplace.  These markets have been around since long before the arrival of the Spanish.  Today, even though many Mexicans shop at modern supermarkets, the traditional "tianguis" is still found throughout the country.  In small towns, one day of the week is the designated market day when vendors set up their stalls selling fruits and vegetables, meats, household goods, clothing... everything under the sun.  In large cities each neighborhood will also have its own weekly market day.  

Here in the neighborhood of Condesa where I am staying, every Tuesday there is a "tianguis" just a short walk from my apartment.  Several blocks of one of the neighborhood streets are closed off to traffic, and a sizeable marketplace is set up.  Since Condesa  is an upper middle class neighborhood, the emphasis in this "tianguis" is on fresh produce, rather than household goods and clothing.  (I doubt that the fashionably dressed residents of Condesa go to the open-air market to buy their clothes!) 

The marketplace is always colorful with many fruits and vegetables that are not commonly seen back in the typical supermarket in the U.S.(or if we do have them, they won't be as ripe and flavorful as they are in Mexico).

A wide variety of chile peppers

  Tomatillos, relatives of the tomato, are used to make green sauce.  Chayotes are a vegetable that taste somewhat like a squash.

Ripe mangos

And my favorite tropical fruit... mamey!  I bought one to have for breakfast tomorrow!

My Home Away From Home

Those of you who have been reading all of my posts will recall that I was in Mexico City last November, and that I was not very pleased with the apartment that I rented for that trip.  

My favorite apartment in Mexico City is owned by a charming lady by the name of Verónica.  Although it is no longer listed there, I had found her apartment a couple years ago on the "AirBnB" website.  I booked it for one of my trips to Mexico City, and was very pleased with it.  It is a lovely, comfortable place in an excellent location in the Condesa neighborhood.  I stayed there again on several subsequent trips, and soon began to think of it as my "home away from home" in Mexico City.  

Unfortunately, when I tried to book it for my trip last November, Verónica had a long term tenant. I tried to book it again for the Mexico City portion of this trip, but the apartment was still unavailable.  However, Verónica had another rental apartment that was available, so I reserved that one.

While I was in Mérida, I received an e-mail from Verónica telling me that the long term tenant had left, and that I could switch my reservation to my "home away from home"!

So here I am happily ensconced in my favorite place for the next two weeks! 


Monday, January 27, 2014

Back to Mexico City

Alejandro and I were up before dawn this morning, because we had a 6:30 A.M. flight from Mérida to Mexico City.  We flew on a Mexican budget airline called Interjet... my first time on that airline.  It may be a budget carrier, but in many respects it was better than United Airlines.  For one thing it is more comfortable.  Alejandro told me that they removed five rows of seats from the cabin to create more legroom.  Also, even on domestic flights, you may check two suitcases, weighing up to 55 pounds each, free of charge.  Our flight left right on time from Mérida airport, and shortly after 8 A.M. we landed in Mexico City.  Our pilot did something which I haven't experienced for a long, long time.  He pointed out landmarks that we could see from our windows...  the port city of Progreso, the Gulf coast at Celestún, and the parade of volcanoes leading up to Mexico City.  I was very pleased with the flight.

(Image from the web)

Upon arrival in Mexico City, we got a taxi and went to Alejandro's house.  There he picked up his car, dropped me off at the apartment that I have rented, and then went to work.

So, here I am back in "the monster", as the Mexicans call Mexico City, settled into a very comfortable apartment, and ready to begin the final chapter of my seven week sojourn south of the border.

Last Day in Mérida

Yesterday was our last day in Mérida.  Being a Sunday, of course we had to check out all the activities that occur in the city...  the handicrafts and clothing market on the main plaza, the performers in front of city hall, the artists displaying their work in the little park by the "Monument to Motherhood", and the live music and dancing on Santa Lucía Plaza.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to someplace in Mérida that I had not yet seen... the new Museum of the Mayan World.  It is located on the far north side of the city, the modern part of town by the convention center and one of the big shopping malls.  It was opened in 2012 in time for the surge of tourism surrounding the so-called "end of the Mayan calendar".

The architecture is very modern.  I'm not sure whether I like it or not.  The round section on top (which Alejandro says looks a bird nest)  is not even part of the exhibit area.  It's apparently an IMAX theatre, although I didn't see any movies advertised.

The museum is interesting, but I guess I was expecting something a bit more awe-inspiring.  My biggest criticism is that the displays are not in chronological order.  First you are ushered into a hall dealing with the natural history of the Yucatán, including the asteroid which probably led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.  (The asteroid collided into the earth near the present day village of Chicxulub.)  Then you are led to the rooms which deal with the Mayas, but they are presented in reverse chronological order.  First come the displays on the present-day Mayan people followed by rooms dealing with the life of the Mayas during the 19th century and then colonial times.  Finally you come to the rooms dealing with the Mayan civilization.  Even here there is no sense of chronology... tracing the civilization from its earliest beginnings, through its periods of flowering and decline.

                                     A Mayan god

We enjoyed our visit, but I don't feel guilty for not having brought Fred and Nancy or Jane here earlier this month. 

Alejandro peering through a ring from one of the Mayan ball courts.