Friday, May 4, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 8: Mérida's Millionaires' Row, also known as Paseo de Montejo, & Hotel Dolores Alba

Paseo Montejo is lined with opulent mansions built by sisal hacienda owners. The private home above is one of the two structures known as the Casas Gemelas (twin houses) near the lower end of the broad, tree-shaded avenue called Paseo Montejo. This avenue can be found in the northern section of Mérida's Centro Historico. Toward the end of the 19th Century, sisal (hennequen fibre), was bringing vast wealth to the owners of the haciendas that grew it. Sisal was used to make twine, an essential product for the newly invented McCormick grain-harvesting combines that were rapidly changing US wheat-farming from family operations to agri-business. The demand for the fibre was enormous. Extremely low wages, and even the use of slave labor, enabled nearly all the profits to stay in the pockets of the hacienda owners. Little was left for those who actually performed the work. Many hacendados preferred not to live at their haciendas, far from the cultural attractions of Mérida. Instead, they built eye-popping pleasure palaces along Paseo Montejo, like the Casas Gemelas. For a Google map of the area, click here.

We toured Paseo Montejo in this carriage, a popular form of transport in Centro Historico. You can find a whole taxi-rank of these carriages near the northeast corner of the Plaza Grande, across the street from the Catedral de San Ildefonso. As we climbed aboard, all the other carriage drivers in the line cheered boisterously. This may have been because we were the first customers of the evening, or perhaps there was an inside joke to which we were not a party. The ride was comfortable and the driver amiable, and our horse pulled us down the street at a stately trot. However, we were a bit unnerved by the buses, taxis, and cars careening wildly around us. Mérida traffic is not for the faint of heart, or the unwary.

Yucatan's conquerors were a father and son, both named Francisco de Montejo. The pair were conquistadors who seized Yucatan for Spain in the 1540s. The son, usually known by his nickname el Mozo (the Boy), built Mérida on the foundations of the existing Maya city of T'ho. This statue is located in the middle of the glorieta (traffic circle) at the southern end of Paseo Montejo where Calle 47 crosses. Inspired by the great avenues of 19th Century Paris, the wealthy sisal producers sought to create an avenue "worthy of the City of Mérida". The Paseo begins just outside the old gates that were once the northern limits of the city and has a total length of 5,483 meters (3.4 mi.). Its northern end becomes the route to the port of Progresso, 40 km (25 mi.) away. Construction lasted from 1886 to 1905.  While many of the mansions along the Paseo are now occupied by banks, insurance companies, and museums, some are still privately owned.

Another view of the Casas Gemelas. The one on the right is the house seen in the first photo of this posting. The two mansions were built in French Renaissance style by a European architect named M. Umbdenstock. The construction was supervised by a local engineer named Manuel Cantón Ramos.

Detail from one of the Casas Gemelas. The original plans for the Casa Gemelas were brought over from France in the early 20th Century by Ernesto and Camilo Cámara Zavala. Although the houses were designed to be twin structures, it didn't quite work out that way. The one above was initially bought by Sr. Fernando Barbachano who lavished it with all the "bells and whistles" of his day. The completion of the other twin was delayed for many years, until its current owner Sr. Mario Molina Méndez finally finished it.

Detail from the other twin. A lion wearing a head dress growls from a roof corner, while an ornate vase sits below it on the pillar of a balcony. When I encounter former mansions like this, they are usually public buildings or being used to house large private institutions. I searched in vain for a sign to tell me what organizations or businesses are currently housed in the Casas Gemelas. I was surprised to learn from our carriage driver that this vast, ornate edifice is actually someone's private home.

Palacio Cantón, also known as the Museum of Anthropology and History. This magnificent structure was originally owned by General Francisco Cantón Rosado, from whom it got its name. General Cantón won fame and fortune by suppressing the Maya during the revolt known as the Caste War. A conservative politician and a strong supporter of dictator Porfirio Diaz, the General grew wealthy through acquiring haciendas and railroads. General Cantón served as Governor of Yucatan from 1898 to 1902. The Palacio Cantón was built between 1904 and 1911 in the style known as Mannerist Baroque by Manuel Cantón Ramos, the same engineer who supervised the construction of the Casas Gemelas. I assume from his name that he was related to the general. In Mexico, people like to keep things in the family. In the next posting, we'll visit this museum to see the ancient Maya treasures it contains. There are numerous other spectacular mansions to be seen along Paseo Montejo. Unfortunately, shooting photos from a carriage in the process of dodging annihilation by zooming buses does not lend itself to carefully composed pictures. I suggest a walking tour for those wishing to photograph these amazing edifices.

Monumento a la Patria

Monumento a la Patria sits at the center of Paseo Montejo's third glorieta.  Above, our carriage driver carefully studies this harrowing intersection, watching for an opening. Monumento a la Patria (Monument the the Fatherland) was created by Romulo Rozo who, ironically, was not Mexican but Colombian. However, he spent his last 33 years in Yucatan, dying in 1964. His remains are buried at the foot of the monument. Mérida makes the proud claim that this is the first great monument to nationality in Mexico.

Central to the monument is a mestizo figure, symbolizing the nation. The 14 meter high (45.93 ft.) statue faces due south along the Paseo. The carved, stone figure wears a jade pendant decorated with a snail, and a coat covered with plumed serpents. Both of these hark back to the Itza people, who built the great pre-hispanic city of Chichen Itza. Numerous other symbols representing the pre-hispanic past are also carved on this colossus. A wall on either side of the figure curves part way around the circle and is carved with faces and scenes from Mexico's history through the early 20th Century. As you can see, the late afternoon light was fading, so I could not photograph many of the fascinating details.

The back (north) side of the Monumento a la Patria. In the center of the north side is another statue containing important national symbols. An eagle, its wings aflutter, sits on a nopal cactus while it struggles to consume a snake. This is the symbol of Mexico, found in the center of the national flag. The image refers to an ancient Mexica (Aztec) legend. According to the legend, the tribe originated in a place called Aztlán and journeyed south for many years. During this journey, tribal leaders received a vision of an eagle on a cactus eating a snake and interpreted this as a sign of where they should settle. In the 14th Century AD, the Mexica reached the great lake in the middle of the Valley of Mexico where they visited a small island. There, they encountered the eagle and the snake, just as in their vision. On that spot, the Mexica founded their capital, Tenochtitlán, which became Mexico City after the Conquest.

End of the line. After touring the Paseo, our driver returned us to the Plaza Grande and waved goodby. In the background, the Bishop's Palace called the Ateneo Peninsular shines brilliantly in the floodlights that light up this and other white limestone buildings around the plaza. The glowing buildings exemplify Mérida's nickname: The White City.

Hotel Dolores Alba

Courtyard dining room of the Hotel Dolores Alba. While in Mérida, Carole and I and our friends Denis and Julika stayed at Hotel Dolores Alba Mérida, originally a colonial mansion. The hotel is located on Calle 63, about 3 1/2 blocks west of the Plaza Grande. There is a sister hotel called Dolores Alba Chichen located just outside the park where the ruins of Chichen Itza are located. The 100 rooms distributed on 4 floors are moderately priced.

Our room overlooked the pool in the second courtyard. The second courtyard, located behind the first, is reached by a short corridor. In addition to the pool, this area contained gardens and palm trees. These added to its shady coolness, very welcome on hot afternoons. We encountered very few people from the US at our hotel or elsewhere in Mérida, although there were plenty of Europeans and a sprinkling of Canadians. It appears that the relentless scare stories in the US news media have so cowed potential American tourists that few can work up the courage to visit Mérida, one of the safest cities in Mexico.

A quiet nook near the main hotel courtyard. The floors were beautifully tiled and the comfortable wicker rocking chairs were seldom empty as seen here. The walls surrounding the courtyard were filled with works by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, wife of the great muralist Diego Rivera. There were many things we liked about this hotel including the large, comfortable guest rooms. Complementary services included in-room safes, as well as excellent breakfast buffets served in the dining room courtyard. Above all, we liked the friendly and extremely helpful desk staff. They were English-speaking and very responsive to our needs. They helped set up taxis and tours and assisted in smoothing out problems. However, there were a few things that set my teeth a bit on edge. Even local calls from phones in the rooms were charged and the toll was hefty. Unlike many hotels, there was no access to complimentary computers for checking email, etc. In fact, a great number of services provided free of charge by other hotels we have visited were subject to charge here. These things could certainly add up, after a while. However, with those caveats in mind, we would definitely recommend the Hotel Dolores Alba Mérida.

Frida, as she saw herself. Frida Kahlo, known in the art world simply as "Frida", is often overshadowed by her more famous husband. However, she was a great artist in her own right. Many of her paintings were self-portraits, and her work was intensely personal. Her thick eyebrows, meeting over her nose, were a signature feature, as well as the colorful indigenous costumes she often wore. As a teenager, Frida was involved in a streetcar accident in which she was impaled by a metal rod. This caused extensive internal injuries from which she never fully recovered. Frida spent her life in great pain and it colored her view of the world, making her very conscious of the suffering of others. Both she and Diego Rivera were members of the Mexican Communist Party in the 1930s. They hosted Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in their home when he was exiled by Stalin. It is believed that Frida may have even had an affair with Trotsky. Above, she portrays herself in a bleak sandy desert, with a crumbling, Roman-style column as a spine. The flesh all over her head and body is punctured by innumerable nails, representing the constant pain she endured. Many of her other paintings were more cheerful, but I see this as one of the most revealing.

This completes Part 8 of my Merida series. Over the next couple of weeks I'll walk you through the treasures of the Museum of Anthropology and History, housed in the Palacio Cantón. I always welcome feedback, and if you'd like to provide some, please either used the Comments section below, 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 comment:

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