Sunday, September 4, 2011

Puebla Part 1: The Magnificent Zócalo

Palacio Municipal from Puebla's magnificent Zócalo. Carole and I had long looked forward to visiting this storied colonial-era city, and in August we fulfilled our desire. Puebla, a World Heritage Site, possesses one of the finest collections of 17th Century baroque architecture in Mexico, all embedded in a wonderfully preserved Centro Historico that is the largest I have yet encountered. All of this is surrounded by a modern city with a population of 1.5 million (2.1 million total in the municipality). Puebla de los Angeles (City of the Angels), was founded in 1531 as a way station between the Gulf port of Vera Cruz and Mexico City to the west. It also sits astride a route from Oaxaca in the south to the north-central highlands of Mexico. This strategic position had two results: first it made Puebla rich; but second, it has placed Puebla on the route of every successful foreign invasion in Mexico's history. Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors passed this way in 1519 on their way to seizing Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztecs. US General Winfield Scott captured Puebla during the 1846 Mexican-American War while heading for the same destination as Cortés, now called Mexico City. In 1862, the French came to Puebla, and were temporarily repulsed by Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza on May 5. This event now commemorated as Cinco de Mayo. The famous battle also resulted in a new name for the city: Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza. Ultimately the French were able to reach Mexico City and install (for a time) their Austrian puppet Maximilian as Emperor. However, Zaragoza's victory at Puebla heartened the Mexican resistance and they finally managed to expel the French in 1867.

A scale model of the Centro Historico

Metal model outside the Palacio Municipal. Although large, the model still shows only a part of the whole Centro Historico. The old city was the first the Spanish created from scratch in Mexico, and not built upon the foundations of a previous indigenous city. The streets were laid out in a strict north-south, east-west grid. The central point of the grid, from which the four quadrants radiate, is at the northwest corner of the Zócalo, which was the very first block laid out. All the streets are numbered in all 4 quadrants. At first this can be confusing but, once deciphered, finding your way becomes easy. In the photo above, the Zócalo is the rectangle just to the north (left) of the Cathedral with diagonal walkways between its corners forming a giant X. None of the buildings in the Centro Historico rise above 3 stories, except for the Cathedral and other churches with steeples. This gives the area a pleasing human scale. Puebla is a great walking town because of this, and because of the flat terrain.

Close up of Cathedral model. The Cathedral is so large that this is the only photo I have that gives a sense of the whole structure with its grand towers and multiple domes. While the west entrance of the church (between the two steeples) would seem to the the main access, it is not. The main entrance is found on north side, facing the Zócalo. Just to the south of the Cathedral is the block-long federal building (upper right in photo), a structure that once held church-run schools.

The Cathedral fills all of the Zócalo's southside

My first view of Puebla's Cathedral. This view is from the southeast corner of the Zócalo, looking west. It was the only shot I could get that incorporated steeples, domes and the great north entrance. The Cathedral took 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 central dome, where the two naves cross. I am always torn between the splendor of the whole and the beauty of its individual components, when I am photographing something like this Cathedral. After almost 75 years of construction, the church was finally consecrated in 1649, although it still lacked half its walls, the roof, and the steeples. The north steeple wasn't finished until 1678 and the south 90 years later in 1768. In the lower right of the photo is the upper part of the main (north) entrance.

Detail from the north entrance door. I love little details like this: the ancient wood, weathered to a golden brown, and the brass studs with their patina of green. It puts me in mind of cowled 17th Century priests pushing these giant doors open to allow entry to richly dressed nobles and the poor mestizos and indigenous people in ponchos and homespun. Unfortunately for me, the Cathedral authorities don't allow photographs inside the church. I am baffled by church policy on this. In Guadalajara, cameras are welcome inside the Cathedral. The photo policies seem to vary literally from church to church and place to place. But then, in Mexico, things don't necessarily always make sense, but have a sometimes delightful and sometimes maddening randomness.

Two lovely Poblanas stroll in the Zócalo in the shadow of the north steeple. Poblana means "woman of Puebla". The steeples are the tallest of any church in Mexico, standing at about 70m (231 ft). There are 12 bells on each of the 2 steeples for a total of 24. They are on three levels, 4 bells to a level with the largest bells on the bottom. On Sunday we were walking in the Zócalo when suddenly we were deafened by a cacaphony of ringing bells. Without apparent rhythm or attempt at a tune, all 24 bells clanged repeatedly and (it seemed) endlessly. It was difficult to make oneself heard. Fortunately this stupendous clangour happened only on that Sunday. The people of Puebla may be a bit hard of hearing if it takes a stupendous din like that to get them to church. Be advised, Puebla can be a tad noisy at times.

Ringing for all she is worth. Using my telephoto, I examined the scene in the north tower. All the bell ringers I could see were women. They did it the old fashioned way, with a rope and the considerable muscle power required to move the huge clapper in this old bell. I can't even imagine standing under the bell as it pealed, along with the 23 others in the immediate vecinity. I hope she was wearing ear plugs.

Angels over my shoulder. Every one of the numerous pillars in the fence surrounding the Cathedral is topped by one of these lovely bronze angels. According to legend, angels descended to show the Bishop of Tlaxcala where the city of Puebla should be founded, thus giving the city its original name.

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.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. We were in Puebla in spring, 2010, and it is a spectacular city! Thanks for the memories and some new facts.

  2. Thank you Jim Cook....You are a man
    after my own heart I can well appreciate your enthusiasm of photographing and writing the story of Mexico. 45 years ago, I did the same adventure in Guatemala and photographged and wrote two books over a five year period while living there.
    Keep up the good work. I have a good friend Enaj in Ajijic and also my favorite Niece owns a home sometime again I will be back for more. Meanwhle stay in
    touch with your fine photos and writings and keep up the fine work.

    With all good wishs,
    Phillip Schaeffer
    Santa Barbara. California

  3. Thank you. I really enjoy this travel article, as I read it I felt like I was walking alongside you.

  4. Jim,

    I have been following your posts on destinations in Mexico diligently as we travel the country looking at Unesco world heritage sites for a forthcoming book. Your insights seem keenly tailored to my own as a professional architect and author. I enjoy your (lengthy) descriptions and historical notes, as well as your observations about culture, crafts, and cuisine. We have also followed your hotel recommendations which have been spot on. One comment: Is it not possible to organize your posts from first to last. I find it difficult to scroll through place visits by going backwards from last to first.
    All the best,
    Russell Versaci


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim