Monday, February 24, 2014
a tale of two cities
For those of us who live in Mexican towns with limited history, staying in one of the colonial towns is a real treat.
Sure, San Patricio and Villa Obregón have their town squares. And churches. And government buildings. But the buildings surrounding them are not old enough to qualify for Medicare -- let alone have any connection with the conquistadors.
On this trip, we stayed in two of the classic colonial cities. Mérida and Valladolid. Both named after cities in Spain. Both with everything you would expect in a colonial Mexican town.
Let’s start with Mérida. Because that is where we started this tour.
The Spanish founded the town in 1542 -- building it on the ruins and out of the rubble of an ancient Maya city. We have already seen how some of the Maya stones have been incorporated into the walls of the Spanish churches (rumbling over the rubble).
Mérida’s grand plaza forms the center of the historic district. With the requisite religious and governmental buildings standing cheek by jowl -- representing the combined power of the Spanish crown. Sword and cross.
But the plaza is not merely an historical anachronism. It is the center of a modern city -- filled with working people savoring their lunches, children chasing pigeons, tourists being propositioned by drunk prostitutes (but that is another story).
Even though the French-inspired courting chairs (those white side-by-side jobs) evoke the time of Porfirio Diaz, they are more often filled with overly-earnest young people indulging in one of Mexico’s public pleasures. Free wi-fi in the park.
You can see the top of the cathedral in the plaza photograph, but you cannot see its salient feature. When I first saw the cathedral, it looked less like a place of worship than like a fortress. In fact, most of the churches in the Yucatán had retained an outdated Romanesque fortress appearance while the mainland churches were being built in baroque flourishes.
It turns out there was a good reason for that look. I have mentioned that the Yucatán was one of the last areas of Mexico to be subdued by the central authorities in Mexico City.
The Maya repeatedly attempted to wipe out the European settlements. You can still see the narrow slits in the cathedral walls, where Spanish gunners would attempt to protect the townspeople gathered inside.
One of the most violent periods was the Caste Wars, where the Maya targeted any non-Maya (including mestizos). That rebellion did not end until 1905.
The oldest house in Mérida is the Casa de Montejo -- the Montejos being the founding family of the city -- built in 1549. To call it a house is to exaggerate. It is now merely a facade for a bank building. But, at least, that much has been preserved.
The historical buildings impress me. But they would not be enough to entice me into moving to Mérida.
But the culture would. Mérida is a town that honors its cultural life. Where else could you find an entire plaza of bronze busts dedicated not to a group of obscure politicians, but to musicians?
The capitol of culture, though, is the Teatro José Peón Contreras.
By now, you do not need my guidance to inform you know that this French-inspired building was built during the reign of Porfirio Diaz. It could just as easily be found in Lyon or Rouen.
I was a bit disappointed that I could not see the interior. And, unfortunately, there were no tickets available for evening performances while I was in town.
As luck would have it, blogger pal Debbie came to the rescue. Sort ot. If you want to know what goes on behind the walls of a similar theater, take a look at i went out of town last night.
Culture would get me to move to Mérida. But, as far as I could tell, there is little along those lines in Valladolid -- the other city we visited.
Valladolid was founded on a mosquito-infested site in 1543. The Spanish apparently disliked the blood-suckers as much as I do. In 1545, they moved the entire settlement to its current location. Once again mounted on the remains of a Maya city -- which proved to be a simple quarry for building the new town.
The church facade tells the same story as Mérida’s. The place was a fortress.
Again, for good reason. Valladolid suffered Maya uprisings from its founding. The city was captured by the Maya in 1848 during the Caste Wars.
Visitors can still see some of the weapons the Maya used in the war. This rifle, along with the rest of the weapons of the local Maya, were thrown into a cenote at the Convent of San Bernadino de Siena at the end of the war.
When I was last in Valladolid, the church was locked up so tight I thought another Maya revolt was underway. On this visit, it was open.
There is nothing special about the interior. Other than this odd alms box apparition.
I will avoid the priest-choir boy references -- only because I am a paragon of good taste. My first reaction was the cast iron figure must be the Yucatán equivalent of a lawn jockey. For all I know, this boy may be on his way to the scrap heap of history.
Valladolid never appeared on any of my “possible places to live in Mexico” list. And it isn’t there now. But it is a good place to get a dose of colonial history.
Mérida was on my list. And there is always the possibility that I could show up on its Frenchified streets -- where encounters with ladies of the night are always a possibility.