Sunday, September 28, 2008

Guanajuato Part 5 - Marfil's old haciendas

Casa de Espiritus Alegres. The Spanish name of our bed and breakfast means House of Happy Spirits. The Spanish built this beautiful old 17th Century colonial hacienda beside the Marfil River on the outskirts of Guanjuato, along with a number of other haciendas. The word "hacienda" derives from the Spanish verb hacer: to make or do. A hacienda, therefore, is a place where something of value is created. In some areas, this meant a ranch or a farm. In the Marfil area, it mean processing silver dug from the mines of Guanajuato.

The 1906 Marfil River flood devastated many of the old haciendas and they stood in ruins for decades. In the 1950's an Italian sculptor named Georgio Belloli began to restore these beautiful old structures. In 1979, Joan and Carol Summers, California artists, bought some of these restored buildings and created a lovely space to work and collect arts and crafts from around Mexico. Later, they decided to operate the Casa de Espiritus Alegres as a B&B.

Carole and I stayed here for four days in August of 2008. We chose the House of the Happy Spirits because it looked wonderful on the internet and because it was one of the few B&Bs or hotels in Guanajuato that provides free, secure parking.

Former hacienda chapel. Now an elementary school, this was formerly the front entrance of the chapel serving the hacienda. Many colonial haciendas and mansions contained their own chapels and other religious structures.

Thick old stone walls protect a former hacienda outbuilding. Now a private home, this 17th Century stone building was once part of the original hacienda structures. Notice the arched stone entrance, wide enough for a carriage of the times.

Wooden gate and high walls provided protection from Chichimecas. The wooden gate was a carriage entrance to the courtyard which now forms the lower patio area. It would be many decades before the Spanish subdued the nomadic Chichimeca Indios. One of their favorite sports was emasculating unlucky Spaniards who fell into their hands. Of course, the Spanish invaders did much worse all over Mexico.

Entrance to an older world. I stumbled across this tunnel entrance in an obscure part of the patio garden. Upon inquiry, I discovered that this was part of the original 17th Century silver processing operation, for which the original hacienda was built.

Our casita overlooked the lower patio. We entered through the arched stone door up the wrought-iron stairs. The glass door gave us a wonderful view of the lower patio garden and provided a feeling of connection to the nature around us.

Casa Azul. We originally reserved Casa Azul (blue house), but repairs were needed due to the heavy rains. The Casa de Espiritus Alegres staff kindly upgraded us to our much larger casita without additional charge. This photo was taken from the porch just outside our door looking down at the patio garden. Casa Azul instantly struck me as a home a Hobbit would appreciate.

Home in the jungle. While wandering through the extensive gardens, which often took the appearance of wild jungle, I suddenly discovered the entrance of one of the other casitas. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to peek inside. Perhaps another time.

A dining room with a view. The glass walls and ceiling of the dining porch gave a feeling of openness and connection to the gardens around and below it. Every morning the Casa staff delivered tasty, filling breakfasts from the huge kitchen nearby. As we were the only guests at that time, one of the artist-owners, Carol, joined us. An interesting, cultured man, he has traveled throughout Mexico collecting the many dolls, toys, and other artifacts which fill and decorate every room of the Casa de Espiritus Alegres.

Sitting area in upper-level patio. Just behind and above the patio outside our casita was another, larger patio. At the back of this patio stood a covered leisure area filled with comfortable chairs and sofas and many odd and interesting objects to intrigue the visitor.

An Arabian setting in the Mexican highlands. The interior of the patio leisure area gave the feeling of a Bedouin tent. Because we were away in the El Centro area of Guanajuato during the day, and it often rained heavily during the August evenings and nights, we didn't use this open-air sitting area. On a clear, warm evening, it would be a delightful gathering place for guests.

Our kitchen and dining area. Our casita contained a richly decorated open-plan kitchen-dining room-living room area. We didn't find a lot of use for the kitchen, other than making coffee. We were only there for three nights, and delicious breakfasts were provided in the main dining room of the Casa. Out of sight to the right are a couch and corner fireplace for those chilly winter evenings at 7,000 feet.

A stairway to nowhere. Our bedroom was roomy and full of colorful artifacts from the owners' many years traveling in Mexico. Just beyond the bed are french doors through which you can see a narrow stairway. True to the owners' quirky form, the stairway goes nowhere, ending abruptly in the ceiling.

Colorful tiles typify many Mexican bathrooms. The owners of Casa de Espiritus Alegres spared no detail in creating a colorful, artistic environment for their guests. One unusual feature (for Mexico) in this picture is the tub. Mexicans tend to prefer showers, as do I, but Carole loves her leisurely baths and she was delighted to find one in our room. The square shape was a little odd, but in the end a bath is a bath.

This concludes our series on Guanajuato ("finally" I can just hear someone say). I hope we have given you a feel for this wonderful, historic, quirky place. I have many more pictures of Guanajuato than I am able to show, and there is much more to see than we had time to visit in four days. If you get to Mexico's Western Highlands, make it a point to visit Guanajuato. You won't regret it. Hasta luego! Jim

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Guanajuato Part 4 - El Pipila and random scenes around El Centro

El Pipila. This massive statue is one of the most popular attractions of Guanajuato both because of the drama of the story behind it, and because of the dramatic view from the terrace at the base of the statue.

This blog post is my 4th on Guanajuato, a tribute to the photographic possibilities of this wonderful colonial city. I hope it has not tried your patience to focus so much on one subject, but I could do ten posts and never exhaust the beautiful pictures available around every corner.

El Pipila stands watch over El Centro. The statue of the early Indio hero of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, known as El Pipila can be seen from the Jardin Union between the Teatro Juaraz and the Templo San Diego.

The prudent (or lazy) person's way to El Pipila. The hillside up to El Pipila is very steep, and although there are callejones (alleyways) one can climb up, it makes a lot more sense to take the Funicular (tramway) up and walk down. The ticket office and entrance are located just behind the Teatro Juarez off the Jardin Union.

El Pipila stands as a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the Indians. In my Part 1 post on Guanajuato (see August archive), I told the story of Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez. Juan Jose, an Indio, strapped a paving stone on his back as a bullet shield and crawled through a storm of Spanish fire to blow open the gates of Alhondiga de Granaditas fortress leading to the first victory of Father Hidalgo's rag-tag campesino forces in the early days of the War of Independence.

Carole, catching her breath. The terrace just below the El Pipila monument serves as a wonderful place to take pictures, catch the view, or just catch your breath. Directly to Carole's right you can see the light blue and white buildings of the University of Guanajuato, which will be shown in more detail below in the Random Scenes section.

A symphony of pastels. Across from the ridge on which El Pipila stands, one can see the homes and buildings rising steeply up the opposite hillside. Mexicans love color and use many vivid varieties on their homes.

A long, steep, way down. The steepness of the hillsides on which the city is built can clearly be seen in this shot of the callejon leading down from El Pipila. These callejons can leave even natives of Guanajuato short of breath. It is well to remember that at 6562 feet (over 2000 meters), Guanajuato is more than 1000 feet higher than Denver.

Byway up to bedrock. The houses and apartments built on the slope up to El Pipila are set directly into the bedrock of the mountain, as can clearly be seen here. Conformance to the lines of the bedrock gives the city a sense of natural flow very different from the east/west-north/south grid pattern so familiar to North Americans. It all feels very ancient and organic.

A balcony looking for a Romeo. Balconies of various shapes, sizes, and forms are very popular along the callejones, particularly along this narrow one leading up to El Pipila. They are often loaded with planters and flower pots.

Wall detail on callejon to El Pipila. This detail was part of a very large retaining wall at the base of a house on the callejon leading down from El Pipila. We wondered at the patience and expense required to achieve the work exhibited here, particularly the tiny stones edging the larger blocks.

Random scenes from the El Centro area
Roof dog keeps an eye on things. "Roof dogs" are a peculiarly Mexican phenomenon. The old houses along the narrow streets have no front yards, and very possibly no back yards either. The roofs of the houses are generally flat, so the dogs are kept there. From such a vantage point they can keep a close eye on who may be lurking about (or even just walking by) and raise a ruckus if they deem it necessary, which they usually do.

Silver ore cart finds a new use. We found several of these old mining carts around the El Centro area. This now serves as a planter.

Checking their text messages. Cell phones have hit Mexico big-time and are nearly as ubiquitous as north of the border. Our waiter at La Luna Restaurante stopped to compare notes with one of the cooks.

A seat of learning. The University of Guanajuato is built down the side of a hill, creating a dramatic amphitheatre. Thousands of students swarm through the El Centro area, sipping coffee in the cafes, surfing the internet at numerous small stores, chatting, and romancing each other as students do world-wide.

Fast food, Mexican-style. A vendor sells roasted corn to hungry passersby in the Jardin Union. Wherever we go in Mexico, someone seems to be making a living selling roasted corn ears. This vendor's set-up was a little more sophisticated than some, with its wheels and cabinets. Some vendors have little more than a small brazier fired by wood chips that they set up in a plaza at any convenient open space.

The store with no name. Inside this unmarked colonial-era doorway, we found a small shop selling hand-painted ceramics and other crafts. Carole bought a small ceramic frog to commemorate our visit to the city of Las Ranas (the frogs). Who knows what other purposes this space has served over the last five centuries, and what scenes have played out in the narrow cobblestoned callejon running just past it.

Ancient steps lead to...? Everywhere one turns in Guanajuato there are interesting and mysterious callejones and byways. It would be possible to spend an entire visit just exploring these twisting, curving pathways with their iron-studded wooden doors and carved balconies and stately old gateways such as the one at the top of the stairs above. Maybe next time.

Entrance to an underground world. Guanajuato is built over a network of tunnels. Originally, these tunnels channeled the river which flowed through the canyons that shape the city. Repeated flooding convinced the city fathers to dam and divert the river. The tunnels were then paved with cobblestones and given over to traffic. This keeps a large number of cars from clogging the streets, but creates a confusing puzzle for the first-time visitor. We took a bus to El Centro (downtown) but were baffled as to where to debark. Seeing our confusion, friendly passengers alerted us at the correct stop. We then walked upstairs into the bright sunshine of the Jardin Union, quite a startling change. Carole can be seen in the red shirt on the left.

This concluded Part 4 of my Guanajuato series. I decided to do one more post next week about Marfil, the Guanajuato suburb where we stayed at the Casa de las Espiritus Alegres (House of the Happy Spirits), a 16th Century hacienda which played a role in the silver boom.

Hasta Luego!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Guanajuato Part 3 - Theatres, plazas, museums, markets

Teatro Juarez dominates the Jardin Union with late 19th Century splendor. Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz built the Teatro Juarez in an Italianate style popular in many places around the world at the time. The Teatro opened in 1897, but was not dedicated by Diaz until 1903, just a few years before he was overthrown at the start of the Mexican Revolution. Usually a church is the most prominent structure in a Mexican plaza, and the Templo San Diego next door (to the right) once did. Now, in my opinion, the Teatro clearly out shows the Templo. The steps form an informal amphitheatre at which people gather to meet, study, or just enjoy the scene unfolding below in the Jardin.

Standing guard. This bronze lion is one of two guarding the broad stairway leading to the tall arched wooden entrance doors behind the massive columns.

Shedding some light on the matter. Ornate street lamps with multiple lights illuminate the dramatic Teatro entrance at night.

The Escalera de Honor. This grand staircase in the lobby of the Teatro creates an atmosphere of drama as it leads up to the upper floor balconies or down to the lobby. Many high officials, diplomats, and Mexican aristocrats have ascended and descended this staircase dressed in all their theatre-going finery from Porfirio Diaz’ time down to the present.

Ornate urn is one of several bronze pieces gracing the Teatro lobby.

The best seats for the "best people". One of several U-shaped balconies riming the back and sides of the Teatro as they rise in tiers above the orchestra seats. The balcony rails are of intricately carved wood.

The Ruling Class "steps out". Photo from the Diaz period showing a typical audience of the time, dressed for the occasion.

Intricate tapestry covers the area immediately above the stage.

Praying for a good performance. When I entered the Teatro, few people were around. This left me free to explore normally off-limits areas. I found this shrine back-stage, apparently for the actors and stagehands. It forms a sort of stage within a stage.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato overlooks Plaza de la Paz (Peace Plaza). Built in 1671, the Basilica serves as the main place of worship in Guanajuato. King Philip II of Spain, the same ruler who sent the Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I of England, donated the statue in the middle of the garden. The large building to the left of the garden is the Palacio Legislative (Guanajuato State Legislature). The building to the right houses a row of sidewalk restaurants where patrons can enjoy the Plaza de la Paz.

Look like anyone you know? The massive old wooden front doors to the Basilica contain carvings that once again demonstrate Mexican artistic whimsy. This fellow bears a remarkable resemblance to the Mad Magazine character Alfred E. Neuman whose favorite line was “What? Me worry?” Others have noted the resemblance to George W. Bush on a bad day.

Restaurante Tasca en Paz. One of the numerous sidewalk restaurants in Guanajuato, the Tasca En Paz faces the imposing Basilica and the garden of the Plaza de la Paz. Carole and I stopped here for a much needed and very excellent Mexican coffee.

Private chapel is now a public museum. The churrigueresque entrance facade of the Museo Publico chapel lies inside the former mansion of a Guanajuato aristocrat. Now the mansion and its chapel function as a public museum exhibiting the work of various Mexican artists. It was not unusual for the wealthy of the 16th-18th Centuries to build personal chapels in their haciendas and mansions.

Fortune favors the ruthless. In this detail of a large mural inside the Museo Publico chapel, a Spaniard stands on ingots of silver, tossing handfuls of coins in the air to celebrate his good fortune while sick and maimed Indios huddle nearby. Above, an Indio chief submits to a conquistador, while his tribesmen slave in the mines. Conditions in the mines were atrocious. Contemporary accounts speak of the dead and dying covering the ground near the mines so thickly that one never needed to touch the ground while walking over the area.

Spreading the wealth. The rich doing their part for the poor. A great Senora reluctantly hands a coin to a poor Indio boy while her husband averts his eyes.

The Burning Dunce. I don't know exactly what the figure in this Museo Publico mural represents. Perhaps he is another victim of the Inquisition, burning for his "sins". The Inquisition and its fiery punishments lasted well into the 18th Century in Spain and its colonies.

Mercado Hidalgo. The main Mercado in Guanajuato was originally a French-built railway station.

Mercado interior. In the cavernous interior of the Mercado nearly every kind of food or other object can be purchased.

Caterina dolls. In the 19th Century, dolls of skeletons mimicking the dress and mannerisms of the wealthy became very popular during Day of the Dead fiestas. Like the fiestas, the dolls, known as Caterinas, are usually cheerful and humorous. Carole had long wanted a Caterina and found just what she wanted at this Mercado booth.

Everything you ever wanted to scare you. Mexican folk artists show great creativity in their work on masks and other items for the Day of the Dead fiestas.

This concludes my 3rd post on Guanajuato. I hope you have enjoyed it. I have enough material for one or maybe two more, which will follow in about a week. Hasta luego! Jim