Friday, September 16, 2011

Puebla Part 3: Centro Historico's fascinating streets

Talavera peacock decorates the front of a gallery on a Puebla sidestreet. Puebla's Centro Historico is huge, one of the largest I have encountered in Mexico. On strolls along its streets, block after block of beautifully preserved architectural gems unveil 500 years of the city's history. For much of this history, Puebla has specialized in the manufacture of painted tiles called talavera. Sometimes the designs are abstract and repeated, but other times the tiles are painted and then assembled into pictures like the peacock seen above. Although we drove our car the 655k (406 mi) from our home in Ajijic to Puebla, Carole and I are agreed that future visits will be by long-distance bus. Driving in Puebla is bewildering for the uninitiated. On the other hand, its Centro Historico is a great place to walk, the streets being flat and straight with sidewalks in good condition. While there, we kept our car parked the whole time and hoofed it, except for one time when we used public transportation to visit the neighboring city of Cholula. For a map of the Centro Historicoclick here.

Centro Historico's pedestrian-friendly streets

Calle Cinco de Mayo is one of several pedestrian-only streets. While Puebla closes off some streets around the Zócalo to auto traffic on Sundays, others are permanently auto-free. Begining at the northwest corner of the Zócalo and running due north, Calle Cinco de Mayo (5th of May Street) is lined with colonial and 19th Century mansions and other structures that now contain stores of all kinds. Spaced along the walking area are wrought-iron benches and beautiful old lamp posts as well as trees and potted plants. At intervals we encountered what I like to call "vest-pocket parks," small, shady nooks perfect for a short rest. The auto-free zone goes on for a number of blocks, making this street a walker's delight. 

Winged dragons support the glass globes of this lamp post. This sort of whimsical design was popular in the late 19th Century during the regime of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's dictator from 1876-1910.  In the background, you can see some of the wrought-iron railings that adorn the second-story windows throughout the Centro Historico. Carole sometimes chides me for taking so many pictures that I end up with 10 times the number I can actually use in my blogs. In a place like Puebla, there is something to photograph almost all the time, in any direction you choose to look. The expression "kid in a candy store" gives some sense of my delight in the photographic possibilities.

I also found the area good for "people shots." At certain times of the day, the pedestrian streets are mobbed, and attract sidewalk vendors like the balloon man above. Crowd shots can be difficult, because everyone tends to be in motion. Fortunately, I have a setting on my camera called a motor-drive where I can just focus on a scene and press the shutter release which then rapidly clicks off shots. Later, I can go through and pick out the best one. In this one, I was able to capture the tall column of the balloons in the background, with the smiling couple strolling towards me in the foreground. I think this photo captures the color and activity that one finds on Calle Cinco de Mayo.

Casa de los Muñecos

Architecture as a political cartoon. La Casa de los Muñecos (The House of Dolls) is an 18th Century mansion whose facade froze in time a political feud. Like many places in Mexico, this building has a wonderful story behind it, one that may or may not be true, but is so good it must be recounted. In 1531, shortly after Puebla was founded, the property in this prime spot near the northeast corner of the Zócalo was awarded to Captain Juan Ochoa de Elejalde, one of the original conquistadors. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Count of Castelo, Don Andres de Pardiñas. Needing funds in 1784, the Count sold the valuable property to a man with the ten-dollar name of Don Agustín de Ovando y Cáceres Ledesma y Villavicencio. He was extremely wealthy and wanted a house to show it off. None of the other mansions around the Zócalo at the time rose more than 2 stories high. More importantly, neither did the Palacio Municipal (City Hall) across the street. Don Agustín decided his house must have 3 stories. The announcement of his proposal provoked an uproar.

The Muñecos, or dolls, cavort across the front of the building. Talavera designs had become very popular as a way of decorating the exterior walls of homes and buildings by the 18th Century in Puebla. The City Council was outraged that anyone would dare to build something higher than the Palacio Municipal and saw this as an assault on their authority and presige. They sued and caused a considerable delay in the construction. Don Agustín ultimately appealed to the Spanish King, who granted him special permission to add the 3rd floor he desired. No doubt Don Agustín's wealth helped grease the way. In revenge for the delay and extra expense they had caused him, he commissioned 16 special talavera panels depicting members of the Council as buffoons. The panels were clearly visible from the windows of the Council's chamber across the street. Council members were apoplectic, but could do nothing, and these talavera tile political cartoons still amuse passersby more than 200 years later. Ironically Don Agustín never lived in the house, but rented it out as apartments and stores. Eventually, in 1984, the property was acquired by the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) a large public university based in Puebla. Restored by the university, the Casa de los Muñecos is now a museum and art gallery.

Casa del Alfeñique

A house named after candy. Alfeñique is a type of candy similar to meringue, made of sugar and egg-whites. The white trim on the eves and around the windows and doors of the Casa de Alfeñique closely resemble the favorite candy of the wife of Ignacio Morales, the man who built the house in 1791. He was the wealthy owner of an iron-works and commissioned architect Antonio de Santa Maria Inchaurregui to build the house this way to humor his girlfriend. She had refused to marry him unless he built her a house of candy.

The white plaster "alfeñique" seems almost to drip off the eves. Above, you can also see the talavera tile work and the beautifully shaped wrought-iron railing around the balconies. The balconies were probably made in Sr. Morales own factory. The home remained in the Morales family until 1874. 

The windows are also surrounded by the intricately shaped white plaster. In 1896, Alejandro Ruíz Olavarrieta, a public spirited citizen of Puebla, ceded the house to the City of Puebla. The building went through some hard times but was restored in 1926 and opened as Puebla's first museum. Among the 500 items in the various exhibits are a painting of the Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo), maps and other documents, and examples of period clothing including China Poblana, a style that became extremely popular in Puebla and throughout Mexico in the 19th Century.  Open 10 AM - 5 PM, Tuesday through Sunday.

Teatro Principal

Teatro Principal is the oldest theater in the Americas. It is built around Plazuela San Francisco in the central eastern part of the Centro Historico. Work on the original theater began in 1742 but dragged on so long that the City Council despaired of its completion. Finally they commissioned the master architect José Miguel de Santa Maria, and master carpenter José García Serrano to finish the job. Their plans were approved in 1759, and the theater was opened during Easter Week in 1761. Teatro Principal is the oldest theater in the Americas and it is considered a jewel of architecture. However, by the beginning of the 19th Century, there were not sufficient theater company renters, so the facility began to sponsor other kinds of performances including puppets, jugglers, and acrobats. Between 1812-1814, the theater was closed by the City Council as offensive to God. For a time, the patio in front was used as an artillery park. Then it hosted bull fights, with subsequent damage to some of its furnishings. 

Interior of Teatro Principal. The interior has four levels of boxes built in a U shape around the general seating area. The theater was closed when we visited, but we persuaded an attendant to let us take photos. After the bull fighting era, the theater began to show light operas from Spain until the end of the 19th Century. In 1902, Teatro Prinicpal was heavily damaged in a fire. From then, through the years of the Revolution and the turmoil that followed, the theater remained in ruins. Finally, in 1937, restoration began, and Teatro Principal reopened in 1940. However, by 1950 it was again in ruins, and it was not until 1959 that restoration work began and the present building was reopened in 1960. 

La Casa de los Hermanos Serdan

Where the Revolution began. The house above belonged to the Serdan family in 1910. Aquiles Serdán, his brother Máximo, and a friend named Jesús Nieto were killed here on November 18 in a desperate defense of the house. 400 police and soldiers had come to seize arms hidden in preparation for the beginning of the Revolution scheduled for November 20. Aquiles Serdán had been an early ally of Francisco Madero, who was calling for the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. In addition to Madero, Serdán had been in touch with guerilla leader Emiliano Zapata who had launched his own revolt in nearby Morelos State. Aquiles' brother Máximo and sister Carmen were also actively involved in the political underground. Aquiles' wife and mother were both at the house on November 18 but apparently took no active part in the fighting.

Bullet holes from the furious battle remain after more than 100 years. Unfortunately for the Serdán family, informers were everywhere and someone tipped Puebla police chief Miguel Cabrera. He mobilized his forces and attempted to take the house and its cache of weapons, but the Serdáns fiercely resisted. In the end, Aquiles, Máximo, and Jesús Nieto were all killed. Carmen was wounded as she bravely harangued a crowd of spectators below one of the windows you see above. Thus, two days before its officially intended start, the Mexican Revolution began. Ironically, one hundred years before, the War of Independence also got an unplanned start in 1810 when its leadership were betrayed and forced into hasty action. Today, streets all over Mexico are named for Aquiles Serdan, his martyred brother Máximo, and Carmen his brave sister. Carmen survived the siege, was jailed by Diaz, and released when he was overthrown by Madero. Later, after Madero was assassinated in a counter-coup, Carmen worked as a field nurse for the Revolutionary army of Emiliano Zapata. She lived until 1948. The Serdán house is now the Museum of the Mexican Revolution, open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM to 5 PM. 

A university neighborhood

Colegio de San Jerónimo, part of BUAP. I wandered into this campus building a few blocks from the Zócalo, curious to see if Mexico's university neighborhoods would have a similar feel to those I remembered from the United States. The answer is a definite yes, but the students looked incredibly young. Perhaps I am just getting incredibly old. Memory is a funny thing. Still, the atmosphere was the same: youthful, earnest, idealistic, and anxious about doing well. Benemérita Universidad Autónomo de Puebla (BUAP) is a huge state-owned school that has autonomous control over its curriculum and functions, hence the name. BUPA originated as a Jesuit school of higher education, founded in 1587 as the Colegio del Espiritu Santo at the request of the Puebla City Council. It remained under Jesuit control, with some interruptions, until the end of the colonial period. In 1825 it became a public college, and in 1937 a public university. Most of its buildings are former colonial religious facilities. However, the building seen above was once the home where Mexican poet Rafael Cabrera was born in 1884.

University neighborhood street. The two-story colonial buildings of Calle 6 Sur (South 6th St.) were filled with little galleries, restaurants, antique shops, and crafts stores. The colors were a delightful mixture of pastels, definitely a great place for an afternoon stroll. I recalled reading an article in the Puebla newspaper (I read Spanish pretty fluently now) about the recent publication of the names of those accepted into BUAP. The article was accompanied by photos of the joyous smiles of those who made it and the tears of those who didn't. A BUAP degree in one of the professions can mean a ticket into Mexico's affluent middle class. The stakes are high in a country where the working poor live hard lives.

Galeria de las Casas. I was attracted to the vibrant colors of this little gallery, formerly the comfortable home of a middle class colonial merchant. The talevera panel to the left of the main door is the same one shown at the beginning of this posting.

A talavera frog investigates a tasteful sign, also in talavera. I like talavera best when it is used to accent, rather than dominate, the facade of a building. This sign formed the address of the Galeria de las Casas, owned by Elizabeth Joyas (see previous photo).

An eclectic collection. You could buy anything here from a child's toy dump truck, to a backpack, to a suit of armor. I was rather partial to the armor, myself. It's just what every well-dressed gentleman needs. 

And, of course, the ubiquitous college bar. What would any campus neighborhood be without the local college bar. In this case it was filled to capacity with the late afternoon student crowd, relaxing from their final classes. How many of these did I bend my elbow in, during my own college years? As with many such bars in Puebla, it is on the second floor with balconies overlooking the street.

A tribute to John Lennon. I was touched to find this small plaque outside Colegio San Jerónimo dedicated to ex-Beatle John Lennon and his song "Give Peace a Chance." The sign says "Puebla recognizes John Lennon (1940-1980) for his musical, cultural, and humanistic contribution to the world. 'Give Peace a Chance'." It was placed there by the Puebla City Council in 2006. Lennon and his music seem to be still quite popular in Mexico. I have often walked down a street in Ajijic where I live, past a humble working class Mexican home only to hear the strains of Lennon's song "Imagine" or another of his hits. Some things and people seem to be universal in their appeal.

This completes Part 3 of my Puebla series. Next week we'll take a look at some of the wonderful pre-hispanic artifacts to be found in Puebla's famous Amparo Museum. If you would like to comment on this or any other of my postings, please do so either in the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thanks for your great blog and for awonderful Puebla presentation Question : Which do you consider would be the pros and cons of living in Ajijic and living in Puebla, Puebla? What does Ajijic offer that Puebla doesn´t?
    I know you will be objective, since you and Carol are seasoned travelers Thanks, in advance !!! Maritza - my email

  2. Hi Jim & Carole,
    My name is George Alarcon Cabrera and I reside in the State of California. I'm doing research on my Grandfather, Rafael Cabrera born in Puebla. I ran into your blog by chance while doing my research. Would you have any more information or photos regarding the Poet Rafael Cabrera, I believe it might be him. His date of birth 1884, matches the approximate year that my grandfather was born which I placed around 1886 from the stories that my Mom, his daughter, told me about him. Any more information about the house where he was born? Any information would greatly be appreciated. If you answer my request, would you mind sending me an email message so that I can be alerted to it? My email is: or
    Thank you so much,


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