Monday, January 31, 2011

visiting frog mountain

I have been fascinated with Guanajuato since reading Doug and Cindi Bower's Guanajuato, Mexico: Your Expat, Study Abroad, and Vacation Survival Manual in the Land of Frogs.

When I saw that a Melaque tour company, Experience Mex-ECO, was offering a two-day tour to Guanajuato, I grabbed a seat on the bus.  Admittedly,I had sopped some of the Bowers' impressions about Guanajuato.  But I promised myself to look at the town with a critical eye.

Let's start with the obvious.  Guanajuato is unlike any other town in Mexico that I have visited or read about.  Our tour guide, a native, described it as "eclectic" and "cosmopolitan."  It isn't.

It is as provincial as any conservative town whose present was built on its historical and actual wealth.

Think Venice.  Better yet, think of one of those mountainous hillside towns in Italy -- perhaps, Sienna.

Geography was both kind and cruel to Guanajuato.  The mountains held gold and silver.  But the mountains forced the Spaniards to build their boom town in a very narrow valley.  A valley that flooded regularly and destroyed buildings and lives.

But the Spaniards were miners.  They knew how to handle excess water.  They dug tunnels under the city to drain off the flood waters.  Big tunnels. 

And when dams were built to control the flooding and automobiles arrived, the drainage tunnels were turned into Guanajuato's main streets.  Leaving the narrow lanes above mainly to pedestrians.

The arrangement gives the town the feel of an Italian Renaissance community.  Narrow lanes.  Lots of people rushing about on foot.  And a resultant atmosphere of purposeful tranquility.

The place has the feel of what it is -- the capital of a once-prosperous state.

That prosperity is evident in its public buildings.  One of the best examples is the Juárez Theater. 

President Porfirio Diaz
ordered a theater to be built to honor Mexico's Abraham Lincoln -- Benito Juárez.  The irony of that project is thick enough to cut with a knife.  The dictator honoring the defender of Mexican nationalism -- with a theater that looks as if it had been built in Paris. 

But all of that is political theater.  Guanajuato's churches define its character.

The churches are beautifully designed and extravagantly executed.  In the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, a seventh century statute of Mary stands atop a pillar of solid silver. 

In almost every church, gold leaf covers vast expanses of ceilings and chapel carvings.  The most extravagent being the gold chapels of Tempelo de San Cayetano.  

All of this honoring a man who repeatedly taught of the soul-rotting power of loving material goods.

It is impossible to ignore churches for their architectural and design aesthetics.  And Guanajuato's are beautiful.  But their intended purpose seems to disappear amongst the tinsel.

Having said that, I could spend days examining the beauty of each building.  And Guanajuato offers a new church neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each one more beautiful than the former.

And then there are the historical buildings.

The Alhóndiga de Granaditas -- where the independence war broke out and the heads of the insurgents were displayed for a decade. 

The houses where Juárez and Maximilian stayed -- separately, of course.  (Hope and Crosby, they weren't). 

The house where Diego Rivera was born -- and is now an art gallery.

Then there is culture.  Anyone seeking a slight touch of Stendhal Syndrome will find it here.

The big event is Festival Internacional Cervantino (International Cervantes Culture Festival) in honor of the creator of Don Quixote.

Cervantes has no obvious connection with Guanajuato.  But Shakespeare had no contact with Ashland, Oregon (one of Guanajuato's sister cities).  So, why not claim Cervantes as your cultural icon -- and then rake in the pesos.

And there are pesos to rake in.  For three weeks every October, the town invites international artists (singers, musicians, dancers, actors) to the festival.  The streets are crammed with visitors willing to part with money to have their cultural itch scratched.

The presence of one of Mexico's premier universities adds another layer of vibrancy to the town.  the cultural offerings that accompany any university is an obvious asset.

But the presence of so many young people in the central area of town makes the place simply seem to be a fun visit.  Along with the attendant discos, jazz clubs, and street cafés.

So, there is the data.  I will add some additional impressions soon.

But first -- the mummies.


Rick said...

Steve - enjoying your history lessons beautifully written.

Nwexican said...

I dunno but I was thinking you seemed a little more metro/provincial and a little less surf bum than melaque. This could be the beginning of something BIG ;)

Francisco said...

I'm enjoying your postcards from the road. College towns are fun, Austin, Ann Arbor, etc. Must confess, I'm ignorant about the artsy fartsy culture. The Cervantino festival would be my time to visit, the music scene alone would make it worth my while.

penelope said...

That would be Diego Rivera, not Garcia.

jennifer rose said...

Diego Garcia was born in Guanajuato? Doug Bowers' books surely did have an affect upon you.

Steve Cotton said...

That is what happens when exposed to Socialist Realism -- facts melt into myth.

Steve Cotton said...

That was his pseudonym at Communist rallies. Wait. That may have been Sally Garcia.

Steve Cotton said...

The art sounds inviting. I am not certain I would want to navigate the crowds. Sounds a bit like a hoity-toity Woodstock.

Steve Cotton said...

And that is the dilemma. I love the buzz of urban areas, but I also like the tranquility of the beach. I think I can see a political compromise in the making.

Steve Cotton said...

Thank you very much. Mummies tomorrow.

Wyn said...

Steve, I was amazed by how easy Cervantino was to navigate. The crowds were not half as bad as everyone made them out to be. My favorite in Guanajuato has to be the International film's a great event.

Mcotton said...

I appreciate the detailing of your trip and the history lesson. There are times we forget or store the information in some back room of our mind. It is good to refresh our minds and with both old and new information.