A scale model of the Centro Historico
The Cathedral fills all of the Zócalo's southside
300 years to complete, because of repeated interruptions. King Phillip II of Spain ordered its construction in 1575, using architects Francisco Bacerra and Juan de Cigorondo. Phillip is today remembered as the King who launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I of England, but he was also responsible for much that succeeded, including this great church.
The Palacio Municipal dominates the northside
The Palacio Municipal faces the Cathedral across the Zócalo. Although altered over the years, the Palacio still occupies the same site assigned to it in 1531. Originally it was called the Casas Consistoriales (City Hall) and the authorities gathered here to make decisions affecting the city. The Palacio has been completely rebuilt twice, once in 1704, and later in 1897 when an English architect named Charles T.S. Hall gave the building its present English Elizabethan appearance. Hall finished the building in 1906. Behind the archways lining the street are an art gallery, the entrance to the Palacio's central courtyard, and the Oficina Turística (tourist office). I would strongly suggest a visit to this office for maps and advice as soon as you arrive in Puebla. Inside the courtyard is a magnificent Carrara marble staircase that leads up to the second floor balconies. Avenida Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, the street in front of the Palacio, may look empty of traffic at the moment but most times it is packed with cars.
Water spouts from the sidewalk in front of the Palacio. When we first arrived, there was a torrential downpour about 5:00 PM. As we walked along under the protection of the portales, I spotted these water spouts and speculated that perhaps the storm drains were overloaded. However, the next day was bone dry, but the spouts still burbled along merrily. They are fountains, sited in the middle of a busy sidewalk! Just another example of Mexico's quirky sense of humor. My other interesting discovery was that the same torrential downpour occurred every day we were there, at about the same time in the evening. You could almost set your watch by it. The cool mornings were clear and gloriously sunny. In the afternoons, the clouds would begin to gather. Then at 5:00 PM, the deluge. However, the rain usually lasted only 30 minutes or so and then was replaced by a cool, clear evening. I've always said the Mexicans show remarkably good taste in how they arrange their weather. For a look at the year-round climate in Puebla, click here.
A narrow alley runs between the Palacio and the hotel next door. The city roofed the alley with glass and paved the floor to make a long, narrow shopping mall. When the 5:00 rains arrive, the water drumming on the glass above creates a thunderous din. However, one can stroll to 2 Oriente (East 2nd) from the Zócalo while remaining bone dry.
Avenida Juan de Palafox y Mendoza further west from the Palacio. On the left is the Zócalo, and on the right are some of the numerous sidewalk restaurants you find around the plaza. Calle 16 de Septiembre, the street just before the beige building on the right with the onion dome, has been turned into a pedestrian walkway, one of several in the Centro Historico. Because of the thick traffic along Palafox and the other streets bordering the Zócalo, dining on the sidewalk was not always the pleasant experience we expected it to be. We began to wish Puebla had turned all these streets into pedestrian walks, similar to what Oaxaca has done. We were pleasantly surprised to find that, on Sundays at least, the city does exactly that. What a difference it makes!
The food was excellent at the Zócalo's sidewalk places. Puebla is famous for its cuisine, including chiles nogadas, and mole poblana. Local legend has it that mole was invented in Puebla when the archbishop decided to visit the Convent of Santa Rosa. Having nothing prepared for such an august personage, the nuns panicked, throwing together this and that into a sauce and finally killing an old turkey over which they poured it. Holding their breaths, they were astonished when the archbishop loved it. The sauce, according to legend, contained chili peppers, day old bread, nuts, a little chocolate and other odds and ends. In truth, both Oaxaca and Tlaxcala have their own stories about how it was invented in their cities, but this blog posting is about Puebla and, anyway the name mole poblana stuck. There are now an unbelievable number of mole recipes and fully 99% of Mexicans have tried at least one. Add two Gringo fans to the list!
The sidewalk restaurants are busy from morning to late in the evening. Along with traditional Mexican cuisine, we found a McDonalds along this walkway. It was as busy as any of the others, even though McDonalds prices were on a par with or even more expensive than some. I must confess that Carole and I broke down one evening and had a couple of Big Macs, just for a change. We had not tasted McDonalds' food in at least a year, The place was mobbed, and unpleasantly noisy from screaming children, but the burgers were good, standard McDonalds fare. All set for at least another year!
The eastside: more restaurants and bars
Palacio Estatal, on the northeast corner of the Zócalo. This lovely, curved, corner building with the dome on top was built in the late-19th Century style popular during the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. It houses Puebla State Government offices. The east side of the Zócalo is also lined with arched portales and sidewalk restaurants. The many benches along this side were nearly always filled because of the shade from the large trees arching over the sidewalk of the Zócalo.
Heavily-armed mounted police patrolled the area. The first thing that caught our attention was not the automatic weapons looped over their backs, but the truly huge horses they rode. These reminded me of the ones that used to pull those heavy beer wagons in the old TV commercials. I imagine that an unruly crowd would definitely take notice if one of these was bearing down on them.
Umbrellas for sidewalk restaurants lined the whole east side of the Zócalo. We sampled the restaurants on the three sides of the Zócalo that contained them, and found the food pretty good everywhere. I took this shot on Sunday, when Calle 2 Sur (South 2nd Street) was blocked off from auto traffic. Notice the yellow building with the upstairs balcony and the Mexican flags. This was the Bar Museo Vittorias.
Like many of the drinking establishments, Bar Museo Vittorias was upstairs. While you could get an alcoholic beverage at the sidewalk restaurants, people looking for a bar needed to look upwards. There were several of these bars around the Zócalo, situated on the second floor with individual balconies for those who like to keep a eye on the action below. This place boasted not only drinks and free entertainment, but claimed to be a museum!
Westside restaurants come with clowns
The view down Calle 16 de Septiembre, looking south. In the other direction, to the north, 16 de Septiembre is pedestrian-only. This meant that when the light allowed crossing, the street became a mob scene heading south. The yellow building with the arched portales is a hotel. Each outside room has an individual balcony accessed by French doors. Like Avenida Palafox and 2 Sur, Calle 16 de Septiembre is lined with sidewalk restaurants.
On Sundays, throngs of clowns appear on 16 de Septiembre. Some do skits or otherwise interact with the large crowds that assemble to watch their antics. Others--for a fee--will apply clown makeup to children up to the age of 60+. A female clown comforts a baby who is not entirely sure he wants to participate in the painting process. The clowns appear to be young drama students from the local universities. Next week, in Part 2, I will focus on the many other interesting and fun activities that go on at Puebla's magnificent Zocalo.
This completes Part 1 of my series on Puebla. I hope you enjoyed it. If you would like to comment, you can leave a message in the Comments section, or email me directly.
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Hasta luego, Jim