Friday, June 30, 2017

Making Money

On Wednesday I added one more to my list of Mexico City museums that I have visited.  I went to the "Museo Numismático Nacional"... the National Numismatic Museum... in other words, a museum that's all about money.

The museum is located on a rather scruffy street in the historic center in a 17th century building that was known as the Casa de Apartado.  Originally it was a factory for the production of sulfuric acid which was then used in the separation of precious metals.

Between 1848 and 1983 the building was Mexico's National Mint where all Mexican coins were made.  (Today the coins are minted in the city of San Luis Potosí.)

Upon entering, I was told that there would be a guided tour in a few minutes.  I usually dislike being herded around, but I am glad that I decided to join the tour.  The fellow who led our small group (only five of us) was very knowledgeable and personable.  I didn't understand everything (there were a lot of technical words), but I got the gist of what he was saying.  We were given a demonstration of how coins were actually made here.

First we were led to a cavernous room where gold and silver were smelted and cast into ingots.

From there we went to another large room where the minting of coins was done.  All of the machinery from when this facility was the National Mint is still here, and it is still operational.  Many of the machines date from the early 1800s.  At that time they were run by steam power and then later converted to electricity.

First we saw how the ingots were put through a machine that flattened them down to thin metal strips.

The strips were then placed through another machine that would punch out the discs that would become coins.

Our guide

Next there is a machine to stamp the design on the edge of the coin.  In this demonstration they stamped a disc with the motto "Independencia y libertad" which used to be on the edges of the five peso coins in the 70s.

Finally this apparatus stamps the front and back of the metal discs and then spits out the finished product.  (This machine was built in 1824, was modified to be powered by electricity, and is still functioning.)

The machine minted souvenir coins which each of us could keep.  The "M" under an "O" (the first and last letters of "Mexico") has been the emblem of the Mexican Mint since Spanish colonial times.  If you look very carefully at any Mexican coin, you will see that to this day that emblem is on the Mexican coinage. 

I would have missed this entire demonstration if I had not taken the tour.  All I would have seen is the display of historic Mexican coins.

This is an eight "real" coin minted in 1755 during the reign of King Fernando VI of Spain.  In that era this coin was widely used throughout the world, including the United States.  This is where we got the old term "pieces of eight".

Here is a gold coin from the ill-fated reign of Maximillian von Hapsburg.

If you should ever visit the National Numismatic Museum, be sure to take the tour!  Even if you don't speak Spanish, watching the process of making a coin will be interesting.

The Rains Came

image from the web

Even though we have had some rain ever since I arrived here on June 7th, it wasn't until this past week that the rainy season arrived with a vengeance.  Each day the rains have held off until late afternoon or evening, and I have been able to get out of the apartment and do some sightseeing.  I have taken my rain jacket with me, but I have not needed to put it on.  The sun has even come out for periods of time.

On Wednesday night we had heavy thunderstorms with 2.8 inches of rain recorded.  Early Thursday evening we had a brief downpour here at the apartment, but other parts of the city had a record rainfall of 3.3 inches.  Flooding was reported in many areas, with 19 inches of standing water in some places.  On some lines, subway and bus service was halted.  Highway underpasses were flooded.

Fortunately there was no flooding here at the apartment nor where Alejandro works nor at his parents' home.

The forecast for today...90% chance of rain by 5 PM.
Saturday... 90% chance of rain in the afternoon and evening.
Sunday... 90% chance of rain in the afternoon and evening.

Happy Weekend!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Let Them Eat Cake!

Mexico City has loads of bakeries and pastry shops.  In the historic center of the city, on Avenue 16 de Septiembre, there is one which is a landmark...  "Pastelería La Ideal".   It has been around since 1927.

It would seem that it has even attained the status of a tourist attraction since at the entrance there is a sign in English directing you upstairs to the cake display.  I didn't see any other gringos when I went upstairs, but the staff was not at all fazed by me walking around taking pictures.

Here there are cakes of all sizes for all occasions.  Of course the stars of the show are the wedding cakes.

A sign tells how much each cake weighs as well as the price depending on what ingredients you order.  The cake above weighs 68 pounds and costs up to $300 US.

This one weighs 120 pounds and costs up to $550 US.   I have no idea what wedding cakes cost in the United States, but I suspect that by our standards those are pretty reasonable prices.

I then went downstairs where a huge variety of breads and pastries are for sale.

If you have never been in a Mexican bakery, there is a procedure which you must follow.  First you take a tray and a pair of tongs and put what you wish to purchase on your tray.  Then you go to the lady at the counter who will write up your bill.  You go to the cashier and pay for your goodies.  Finally you take the receipt back to the counter, and your purchases will be carefully wrapped and packaged.

I gave in to temptation and bought a bag of pastries.

I left the bakery, and just a few doors down the street I came upon a shop selling marzipan.  I looked in the window and thought about going in, but giving in to one temptation per day is quite enough.

The City of Palaces

In 1803 the German geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited Mexico City.  He found the city, which was then the largest in the Americas, to also be the most advanced in terms of educational, scientific and cultural institutions.  He called it "the city of palaces"... a nickname which has endured to this day.  As you walk around the Historic Center you see many buildings which were once the grand mansions of the Spanish aristocracy.  It is fairly easy to identify the buildings which date back to the colonial era.  They are usually built of the dark red, volcanic stone called "tezontle".  On some (but unfortunately not all) of these buildings there have been placed historic markers which tell when they were built and who lived there.

Here are some pictures of just a few of the old mansions which I spotted during my walks in the old city.

This building which houses the offices of a mutual aid society for teachers was built in 1682.  It was the home of Juan Chaverria de Valera, a Knight of the Order of Santiago.

This building is the headquarters of the Mexican Geographic Society.  Founded in 1833, it is the oldest geographic society in the Americas.   I have mentioned that the spongy soil of Mexico City has resulted in many buildings sinking or leaning.  If you look carefully you will notice that the façade of this building is buckled.

There was no plaque giving the date of this building's construction, but on the Mexican Geographic Society's website I learned that it was built in the early 1600s, and that it was the home of Guillermo Gutiérrez de Montealegre, a magistrate and official of the Inquisition.

The courtyard of the Geographic Society with a statue of the revered President Benito Juárez 

This ornate mansion was built in 1760 and was the residence of the Count of Heras Soto.  Today it is the headquarters of the Historical Archives of Mexico City.

Detail of the sculpture work on the corner of the building

The courtyard of the archive building

The plaque on this structure said that it was the site in 1524 of one of the houses of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.  Although this building is a later construction, it is still obviously very old.  Today the ground floor is occupied by a shoe store.

Madero Street, the principle street of the Historic Center, is the location of a number of colonial palaces.  The home of the Marquis de Prado Alegre, built in 1725, now has a McDonald's.

This building, which stretches for much of the block was built in 1775 and was the lavish residence of José de la Borda.  Borda was a miner who struck it rich when he discovered silver near the town of Taxco.

I have mentioned this building previously in a number of posts.  It is today owned by Banamex (Bank of Mexico) and is used for cultural exhibits.  It was originally built in 1780 as the home of the Count of San Mateo Valparaiso.  It was later the residence of Agustín Iturbide, an ambitious military officer who had himself proclaimed Emperor of Mexico shortly after the country won its independence.  The building is still referred to as the Palace of Iturbide.

The doors of the palace

Detail of carving on the façade 

Probably the most famous of the city's colonial palaces is the so-called House of Tiles.

It was the home of the Counts of the Valley of Orizaba, and around 1735 it was decorated with Talavera tiles.

Today it is the flagship of the Sanborns restaurant chain.

Those were just a few of the many colonial houses in Mexico City.  Add to those the many churches, convents, schools and other structures and you have the largest collection of colonial buildings anywhere in the Americas.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


To me the word "pambazo" sounds like it should be something from a Mexican comic book... the sound made when the hero knocks out the villain with a punch to the jaw.  In fact it is a type of Mexican sandwich, and I had one for lunch today.

The sandwich is made with a tough, dry bread.  In fact, the word "pambazo" comes from "pan basso" which in the Sephardic language means "low-class bread".  A tough, dry bread is necessary for this sandwich to keep its shape since the bread is soaked in a sauce of "guajillo" peppers and then lightly fried.  The soaking gives the bread its distinctive orange color.  The filling is typically potatoes and chorizo sausage.

It may be made with "low-class bread", but a "pambazo" is a very tasty lunch!

A Surprising Museum

Mexico City is a city of museums, around 150 altogether.  One of the more unusual and surprising is a historic former synagogue located in the old center of the city.

In spite of the predominance of the Catholic Church and the existence of the Inquisition in colonial times, ever since the mid-nineteenth century, with the separation of church and state, Mexico has been a generally welcoming country to Jewish immigrants.  Both Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Sephardic Jews from the old Ottoman Empire came to Mexico.  The majority of them settled to the east of the Zócalo, Mexico City's main square.

In 1941, Nidje Israel, the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico, opened its doors.  Eventually the Jewish community moved to other neighborhoods such as Condesa and Polanco, new synagogues were built, and the old house of worship fell into disuse.  In 2008 a restoration of the building began, and today it is a museum and Jewish cultural center.

You enter the museum through a colonial building facing Justo Sierra Street.  Because most of the immigrants came from strongly anti-Semitic countries, it was their custom to keep their synagogues discretely out of sight.

Only the stars of David on the wooden doors give us a clue of what lies within.

Beyond the colonial façade, there is a courtyard and the synagogue building in a completely distinct neo-Roman style of architecture.

On the first floor is a large hall which was used for events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events.  

Upstairs is the beautifully restored place of worship.  The interior design was copied from a photograph of a synagogue in Lithuania at the request of one of the principal donors. 

The "sacred closet" is the holiest part of the synagogue.  Behind the velvet curtain the scrolls of the Torah are stored.

In the center is the pulpit from which prayers and speeches were given.

The ceiling is painted with symbols of the Jewish faith.

Because it was an orthodox synagogue, women were seated in a separate upstairs gallery.

A view of the synagogue from the upper gallery.

The historic synagogue is one of the unexpected gems to found in Mexico City.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

More Breakfast Options

I have been on the lookout for good breakfast places nearby where I can take friends and relatives that may visit me here in the future.  I have found a couple more spots that I liked. 

This morning I went to restaurant at a fancy boutique hotel just a short walk from my apartment. 

The restaurant is open to the public, although it is quite small.  All of the tables were filled, so I was seated at the bar.  I had "huevos divorciados" (divorced eggs). 

One fried egg is covered with red sauce and the other is covered with green sauce.  The salsas were very good, although perhaps too spicy for some gringos' tastes.  However there was a pretty wide variety of breakfast choices, including eggs Benedict, pancakes and Spanish tortilla.

My breakfast including coffee and juice cost 140 pesos (about $8 US).

On Sunday Alejandro and I had breakfast at little place at the World Trade Center.

They have a wide selection of breakfasts.  Most of the choices are Mexican... although not all of them are necessarily spicy.  Or you can just order eggs (served with the requisite "frijoles".)

I had crepes filled with chicken, strips of Poblano pepper, corn and Manchego cheese, and covered with Poblano sauce.  With coffee and a sweet roll my bill came to 110 pesos (about $6 US).  

Alejandro was put off by the place because his bread plate was dirty.  (The waiter immediately replaced it.)  I however really liked the place, and would recommend it.  Plus, when the weather is nice, you can eat outside. 

A Less than Stellar Day

I am writing two rather negative posts in a row.  Readers are going to think that my love affair with Mexico City is waning.  Not so, but, wherever you are, not every day is going to be fantastic.

Our plan for Saturday was to take the group of relatives and friends who were visiting Alejandro on an excursion to Valle del Bravo, a lovely lake town a couple hours from Mexico City.  Alejandro's car is not big enough for all seven of us, so he called on Friday to rent a van.  Early Saturday morning, he and I took a Uber to the airport to pick up the vehicle.  I had never heard of the company... Mex Rent a Car.  In spite of the reservation, they did not have a van available for us.  The young lady at the desk called some other agencies, and said that Eurocar had a van.  We were driven to the area where all the different car rental agencies have their fleets of cars, but when we got to Eurocar, they said they didn't have a van available for immediate pick-up either.  So we proceeded to go from one agency to another looking for a rental.  We got to the last agency, Hertz, and they had a van!  After doing the paper work, the vehicle inspection, etc., we headed off to the hotel to pick up our group.

Fortunately it was still early... around 9 AM.  We wanted to get out of the city, not only because Valle del Bravo is a couple hours away, but because this was the day of the annual Pride Parade.  By noon they would be closing down streets for the parade.  None of us had eaten breakfast so we stopped at a shopping mall in the western district of Santa Fe along the main highway out of the city.  There was a Sanborns restaurant in the mall, and we all ordered the weekend breakfast buffet.

The televisions in the restaurant were showing the soccer match between Mexico and Russia.  (Apparently some sort of international tournament is being held in Russia.)  I had to chuckle when Russia scored the first goal.  Someone at our table said, "Right now Trump is tweeting, 'Our team just scored.' "  Before we left Sanborns Mexico scored two goals, and the restaurant erupted into cheers and applause.  (The final score was 2-1.)

I did not hear the conversation, but, sometime during breakfast, the group decided that we shouldn't bother with our excursion.  The weather forecast in Valle del Bravo called for rain, and they thought we might as well go back to the city and see the parade.  Alejandro and I were both rather ticked off that we had gone through all that hassle of renting a van for nothing.  (In fairness, I should say that the others paid their share of the rental.)

So we headed back into the city, found a parking lot for the van, and walked to the Paseo de la Reforma where the parade was soon to begin.  I had no desire to stand for several hours amidst the crowd, and neither did Alejandro, so we left the others, and took a walk.  We ended up on the Plaza de Madrid, a circular park with a replica of the Cibeles Fountain of Madrid, Spain, in the center.

On one of the streets leading into the plaza there is a weekend bazaar.  We wandered through that, and I bought a couple things.  My bad mood was starting to dissipate.

We then stopped in a coffee shop for something to drink.  Alejandro got a phone call.  The older members of the group were bored with the parade and had returned to the hotel.  We agreed to meet at the parking lot where we had left the van.

We drove to Coyoacán, a picturesque neighborhood in the southern part of the city.  We stopped at a taco joint there for something to eat.  That's when it started to rain.  (After all, it was July 24th, the Day of St. John the Baptist, the saint that the natives associated with Tlaloc, the rain god.)

We walked around Coyoacán a bit in the light rain...

...and then we ducked into the Coyoacán market.  Neighborhood markets are always colorful places, and this one was no exception.

Later that evening we went out to a movie theater.  The group decided upon "Wonder Woman", which is not my type of movie.  However, I have to admit that it was better than I expected.

Well, in retrospect, perhaps it wasn't such a bad day after all...  although I would have still preferred to go to Valle del Bravo.