Saturday, April 28, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 7: Colonial churches, the restoration of Old Mérida, & Restaurant Chaya Maya

Iglesia Santa Ana is one of Mérida's numerous colonial churches. In this posting, Carole and I continue our foot-borne exploration of the northern area of the Centro Historico.  The church is located 7 blocks north of the Plaza Grande in the Plaza Santa Ana at the intersection of Calle 60 and Calle 45, near the south end of the Paseo Montejo, an area we will look at next week. Surrounded by tall palm trees, the church is notable, among other things, for its tall pyramidal steeples. For a map of the area covered in this posting, click here.

Interior of Iglesia Santa Ana. The main nave of the church is simple and spare, with the main decorations being large oil portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe and other religious figures. The original church as built in the late 1500s on the top of a platform which formerly contained one of the Maya temples of the ancient city of T'ho.

Beautifully-grained wood pews fill the main nave. There is something about these simple old churches that I find aesthetically appealing. I certainly slaked my appetite for them before we left Mérida. In the 16th Century, the Santa Ana neighborhood--then a separate village--was filled with the Maya craftsmen and laborers. They were the builders of many of the colonial structures of Old Mérida. In addition, the farms in the area (long since built over) became the pantry for the colonial city.

An elaborate wrought-iron screen shelters a baptismal font. Such elaborate metal work continues today. The bars that protect the doors and windows of many modern Mexican homes are often beautifully crafted. From 1724 to 1733, the Governor and Captain General of Yucatan was Antonio de Figueroa y Silva Lazo de la Vega Ladrón del Niño de Guevara, a man with a long monniker even among 18th Century Spaniards. Nicknamed "el Manco" (the one-armed), he ordered the building of a road leading straight to the north from the Ateneo Peninsular (Bishop's Palace) at the Plaza Grande. The road, now called Calle 60, passed through the Maya village where the original Santa Ana church was located. El Manco also ordered the present church built and construction was begun in 1729 at the site of the original one.

One of two chapels on either side of the main altar. Notice the white limestone pillars and arch framing the entrance. The ancient Maya builders of T'ho and the colonial architects of Mérida both used this material to construct their cities. El Manco was buried in this church after he was killed while battling English pirates in the eastern jungles of Yucatan in 1733, shortly before the completion of the church he had ordered built.

The broad plaza next to Iglesia Santa Ana also contains this statue. Andrés Quintana Roo stands majestically, with a book in his left hand and a pigeon on his head. Quintana Roo, born in Mérida, was an important figure both in Yucatan and the new nation of Mexico. When he was a young lawyer, he helped draft Mexico's Declaration of Independence from Spain. Later, he served as a legislator, Secretary of State, and member of Mexico's Supreme Court. The State of Quintana Roo, on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, is named after him. The plaza regularly plays host to flea markets, craft shows and you can sample succulent local fare such as panuchos y salbutes.

The Restoration of Old Mérida

Gutted building waits for further renovation. Mérida is filled with beautiful architecture from the 16th through the early 20th Centuries. Many of these structures have been allowed to deteriorate or even be demolished in favor of the ghastly styles of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Fairly recently, people in the city woke up to the treasures in their midst and began to reclaim buildings like the one above. Still, one can walk along many streets in the Centro Historico and see blocks where there is not yet any sign of renovation, or where only a building or two along a whole block have seen work. Much remains to be done before Mérida recaptures its former glory.

Work proceeds on these two side-by-side doors. The Mexican "chewing gum and baling wire" approach is sometimes amusing, but seems to be effective in holding this structure together while it awaits further work. In a country where materials--as opposed to labor--can be expensive, any old stick will do for a brace.

A technique a bit less rustic was used on this structure. The metal scaffolding is less likely to give heart palpitations to a vacationing American or Canadian building inspector. This old colonial mansion is now being used for retail businesses on its first floor. The apartments or offices on the 2nd floor will have the use of the long limestone balcony, an artifact of the building's colonial period.

Finished products

This pink hotel is a nice example of where Mérida is headed. Compare this building with the modern glass and concrete structure on its right. I shudder to think of the architectural gem that may have been demolished to put up a building so totally lacking in personality or grace.

Iglesia Santa Lucia is another little gem. Santa Lucia Church is nestled among palms and other Yucatan vegetation, providing cool, shade throughout the day. Notice the old bell ropes that dangle from the campanario (bell tower). Most of these old colonial churches have eschewed the modern practice of using loudspeakers in lieu of physically ringing the bells. The construction on this church was begun in the late 1500s and finished in1620. The atrium was used as a cemetery up to 1821. Inside the church is a mural of the story of Santa Lucia painted by noted muralist Torre Gamboa in the 1950s. Directly across Calle 60 from the church, at the intersection of Calle 55, is  Parque Santa Lucia where musicians and dancers regularly perform the Senenata Yucateca. Crafts booths are set up in the park on Sundays when the street is closed to vehicle traffic. Parque Santa Lucia, also called Parque de los Héroes, used to contain the facilities of a brotherhood devoted to healing the ill, and the park itself was created in 1804 by official decree.

This colonial-era mansion is now a university library. Libraria Península is a facility of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This national university has branches all over Mexico. Much of the finest and best-preserved examples of Mexico's architectural heritage now function as government offices, museums, schools, and universities.

Amate Books on Calle 62 is filled with books in English. Opening on February 1, 2007, Amate Books is connected to the original bookstore in Oaxaca. The store occupies yet another restored colonial building, and specializes in English-language translations of Mexican and Latin American works on art, history, architecture, anthropology, and also many works of fiction. The store is located on Calle 60 at Calle 49. The bark of the amate tree was used, among other things, to make paper in ancient, prehispanic times. I'm not sure, but this may be how the store chose its name.

Restaurant Chaya Maya

Chaya Maya restaurant is a favorite tourist spot and deserves its good reputation. Having worked up an appetite as we walked the area, we decided to stop for lunch at Restaurant Chaya Maya (Calle 62 at Calle 57).The restaurant's delicious meals are accompanied by an unending supply of fresh tortillas cooked by these two Maya women sitting next to the front window. They wear the traditional, beautifully-embroidered dress called terno de gala, still worn daily by many of Mérida's women. Their recipe and manner of cooking the tortillas is little changed from that found by the conquistadors when they came ashore in 1519. Perhaps the only modern touches are the metal griddle, heated by gas. Many traditional Maya women still use a wood fire to heat a clay griddle.

Papadzules, garnished with a chaya leaf. Maya dishes are quite different from those we find in our home state of Jalisco, generally having little of the mouth-scorching spices to which we have become accustomed. The Maya flavors are thus more subtle, and the food is to be savored rather than wolfed. Above, my plate of Papadzules holds three tortillas filled with hard-boiled, chopped eggs and covered by a creamy pumpkin seed sauce along with more of the eggs. On the left side is a leaf from the chaya plant from which the restaurant gets its name. The chaya is eaten in a variety of ways, including as a drink, and is incredibly healthful. According to Mexican Institute of Nutrition, chaya will improve digestion, blood circulation, vision, and memory, while fighting cholesterol, excess calcium, coughs, anemia, arthritis, and diabetes. And that's only a partial list! A cautionary word to Mérida vistors: Chaya Maya is very popular and it may often be difficult to find a table. However, it is worth the effort.

This completes Part 7 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week we'll visit Paseo Montejo, Mérida's "Avenue of the Millionaires". This street lined with the former mansions of the great sisal hacienda owners of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. I always appreciate feedback and if you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. I believe I would prefer a wood fire and clay surface to make tortillas. Although gas/metal is very convenient. Maybe the modern way weekdays and the traditional way weekends.

    Love the idea of the chaya leaf!


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