Puebla: A Night at the Museums

The city of Puebla (capital of the state of the same name) is not only set in the geographical heart of Mexico, but is famed for being the religious and historical centre as well. There is no doubt that Puebla has an abundance of public attractions, but more than that, you can sense authentic traditional Mexican culture in the streets: it’s a wonderful mix of the old and the new, charmingly preserved by its inland location. What was once meant to be the capital of Mexico (Poblanos tell me this, people from Mexico City highly contest it) boasts an incredibly rich background in all things truly Mexican, including food, art, and indigenous, religious and colonial history.

Two of Puebla’s mottos are La Ciudad que Queremos – The City that We Love, and Ciudad de Progreso – City of Progress: they are indicative of the notable increase in tourism that Puebla has experienced in recent years. State and national campaigns have worked hard to put Puebla on the map and both national and international travellers are increasingly seeking a more deeply cultural experience of Mexico than many of the coastal resorts have to offer. A part of this initiative to make Puebla’s rich culture more accessible is Noche de Museos – Night of Museums. One Friday evening of each month many museums offer free entry, for everyone, from 5 to 10pm. The locals embrace this as much as visitors, and it’s a great way to enjoy some of Puebla’s best attractions.

Unlike many world-famous European cultural institutions, most of Puebla’s museums and attractions are not vast and you needn’t allocate more than an hour to each. They are also largely located in the central ‘downtown’ area just a taco’s toss from the Zócalo, making a Night at the Museums a really great opportunity to tick off a few on your to-do list in one fell swoop. Even if you’re not particularly interested in art or exhibitions, it’s a great excuse to have a nosy around some of Puebla’s grand old colonial buildings, as many are set in old hospitals and monasteries.

San Pedro Museo de Arte – all descriptions helpfully translated into English: I particularly liked the exhibition ‘Constellations: Constructivism, Internationalism, and the Latin American Avant-Garde’, a series of 28 pieces by 26 Latin American artists in optical geometric style.

Palacio Nacional – Puebla’s equivalent of the Houses of Parliament offer free 15 minute tours during Noche de Museos. The guided tour is in Spanish, but it’s worth going along just to have a peek at the magnificent interior, complete with sweeping marble staircase and ceilings adorned with beautifully crafted angels, muses, birds and flowers.

Museo Amparo – Puebla’s swankiest museum wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or New York, and the security guards in every room make you feel it. It is filled with treasures of Pre-Hispanic, colonial, modern and contemporary Mexican art. Mexican artist Pablo Vargas Lugo’s exhibition ‘Micromegas’ is impressive: his works present an interesting take on conceptual ideas by mixing elements from astronomy, cartography and archaeology with language conventions and typical systems of measurement, and are beautifully curated here. I haven’t the faintest technical knowledge of art, but his ability to portray common concepts and make you reconsider them is delightfully intriguing.

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana isn’t included in the Noche de Museos, but at 20 pesos (less than £1) for entrance, it’s hardly going to break the budget. It’s little more than a large room, but it’s worth a visit just to  wander around and soak up the aura of antique literature. It’s the oldest public library in the Americas and boasts over 40,000 books (the majority of which date back to pre-Independence), lovingly conserved in their original bookshelves and in their original location in a grand old building just off the Zócalo, behind Puebla’s cathedral. In 2005 UNESCO added the library to its Memory of the World list.

There are many more museums included in the Noche de Museos, but my last must-do isn’t included because it’s always free. The Rosary Chapel (Capilla del Rosario) located inside of the Templo de Santo Domingo is a masterpiece of baroque architecture and decoration which was added to the church between 1650 and 1690. It is an incredibly sumptuous and lavish symbol of Puebla’s religious devotion and importance: the city was founded by the Spanish in 1531 as Puebla de Los Angeles – City of the Angels – after angels famously appeared to the bishop in a dream, advising him exactly where to build the city’s cathedral. High windows allow natural sunlight to enter, giving the extravagant gold leaf, sculptures and paintings a magical golden glow.  

Mexico is a vast and variant country comprised of 31 states, so it’s no surprise that the Lonely Planet guide is a whopper. However, Puebla is resigned to a measly few pages in the ‘Around Mexico City’ chapter – ¡qué barbaridad! – an unjust travesty! Sure, it’s ‘around Mexico City,’ a handy two hour southerly bus ride to be precise. On the flip side, it’s exactly its discreet inland location that has protected its modest and authentic charm from the brash development that usually accompanies beach-seeking tourists – so go there and rave about it afterwards, just not too loudly.

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¡VIVA MÉXICO!

Just as Cinco de Mayo was celebrated throughout the whole month of May, excitement had been bubbling throughout the Mes de la Patria (Month of Patriotism) in anticipation of Mexico’s official Independence Day which falls on September the 16th. The Mexicans are globally famed for their fiestas and for good reason – they rarely constitute a ‘little do’ as us Brits are more accustomed to, restricted to a set stressful few hours, for a limited number of family and friends. Mexicans go big on this one like every other, and it’s yet another opportunity to demonstrate and celebrate their impeccable hosting skills and generous, fun-loving, family-spirited nature. The city of Puebla (and entire country, no doubt) is cheerfully shrouded in lights and decorations in the national colours of green, white and red, much like the Christmas adornments we see in Europe’s cities throughout the festive season. Vendors line the streets and cram the markets with stalls of themed goodies from flags and face paints to wigs and ribbons, jewellery and garlands.

By 1810 Mexico had been under Spanish rule for almost 300 years (since Hernán Cortés’ conquest in 1521); plans to begin a revolution were well under way and scheduled to commence on the 2nd of October. However, the plot was discovered early, arrests of the leaders had begun and hopes of liberation were in great danger. In a swift and masterful move the Roman Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo initiated the War of Independence: he took to a balcony and made a desperate call to arms for his fellow Mexicans to fight and win back their country’s independence. His speech took place in the small town of Dolores, not far from Guanajuato, hence being known as the Grito de Dolores. It is not known exactly what he said, but in what must have been a sufficiently rousing and powerful oration he raised a lot of support and set off to Mexico City with Ignacio Allende to demand the freedom of Mexico from Spanish rule. They were captured and executed in July 1811 and José María Morelos took over until his own capture and execution in 1815. He was succeeded by Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria, who fought until Mexico’s eventual liberation in 1821.

To mark and celebrate the initiation of the war which freed Mexico, the Grito (‘Cry of Independence’) is re-enacted each year by the President from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City (and by governors and politicians in Zócalos throughout Mexico) at 11pm on the night of the 15th of September. In it the names of all of Mexico’s heroes are shouted, ending with three heartfelt rounds of ¡viva México! This is followed by fireworks, parties and general merriment in the streets. Although the 16th is the national holiday, the festivities actually take place on the night of the 15th. Much like England’s Boxing Day or New Year’s Day bank holidays, the 16th is for sleeping, being hungover, demolishing leftovers and recovering from the previous night’s abundance of food, drink and joy. On the 15th, families host a Noche Mexicana – Mexican Night – an extravagant feast featuring any or all of the favourite traditional fare: posole, chalupas, chanclas, tostadas, tacos, pelonas, molotes.

We were to host the Noche Mexicana for all of the rellies at our house, and it had been voted by the democratic majority that we would dine on posole and chanclas. (A Noche Mexicana with a toque Inglés – the English touch being provided by my cooking an enormous amount of apple crumble.) Everybody loves posole. It dates back to Pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine and is the number one dish of choice for the Independence Day feast. It is a shredded meat soup (usually made with pork but often with chicken) with giant whole white kernels of maize. It is topped with thin strips of lettuce and finely chopped radish, powdered chilli and oregano, and served with tostadas (crunchy fried tortillas) rubbed generously with fresh lime. Absolutely exquisite. Chanclas (‘flip flops’) are one of Puebla’s many speciality dishes. It is made of pambazo (a soft white bread like a finger roll) with a filling of shredded beef or white cheese, onion and avocado, which is then drowned in adobo sauce (a rich, smoky, spicy salsa made from guajillo chillis). I say drowned because the sauce isn’t just poured over the top, but the rolls are actually submerged in the dish of adobo and the salsa poured inside as well to soak it all up into a deliciously soggy mess. They always come in pairs, like the shoes from which they take their name. We also ate buñuelos – huge, sweet, crispy round discs bathed in a dark spiced honey syrup.

After the feasting, and the watching of the Grito on the television, the games began. There was a lucky dip of presents (accordingly wrapped in green, white and red) and a game I will call Confetti Egg Smash. The children had made boxes of hollowed egg shells filled with confetti to break over one another’s heads. The children made the eggs, but they were distributed equally amongst all of the guests and a jolly good fight ensued.

The night is a brilliant celebration of Mexico’s well-deserved pride in their culture and cuisine, history and heritage, and a wonderful opportunity to revel in the pleasure of Mexican life with family and friends. Viva México indeed.

Remembering Mexico’s Heroic Children

On the 13th of September each year Mexico remembers six courageous young military cadets who fought to the death in the name of Mexican independence.

The Mexican-American War was well under way, and on the 13th of September 1847 this included the Battle of Chapultepec where the Mexicans fought to defend Chapultepec Castle (the only Royal castle in the American continent, but following Mexico’s independence from Spain, a military school) from the invading U.S. forces. Despite General Bravo of the Mexican Army ordering retreat, six young soldiers – Los Niños Héroes – refused to fall back and died fighting. They were Juan de la Barrera, Juan Escutia, Francisco  Márquez, Agustín Melgar, Fernando Montes de Oca and Vicente Suárez, the youngest of whom was just thirteen years of age and the eldest nineteen.

The bravery and patriotic heroism of these young boys is celebrated on the annual anniversary of their tragic deaths. They are also honoured by the naming of numerous streets, squares and schools throughout Mexico, the Niños Héroes metro station in Mexico City, and the Altar a la Patria monument in Chapultepec Park. They were featured on the five thousand peso banknote for many years.

At the time of the U.S. invasion Mexico was on the brink of civil war, left weak ever since achieving independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexicans forces were also armed with far inferior weapons. Texas and much of their northern territory was lost, which although sparsely populated signified a humiliating defeat. For this reason, the absolute dedication, honour and heroic sacrifice of Los Niños Héroes to their beloved country is particularly poignant for Mexico and its history.