Thursday, May 2, 2013

Civilization on Top of Civilization

I woke up in my room alone and with a full day ahead of me to do with as I chose. My hotel was located a few blocks off the main square in the historic district. I had labored over where to stay.  Do I stay in the area the people I know live?  Do I stay close to the concert hall?  In the end, I decided that I loved the idea of waking up each morning and wandering streets filled with old churches and the palace and ruins.  Ok, so maybe I romanticized it a bit, but the location worked out fabulously. 
With map in hand I slowly made my way to the central plaza gazing in the windows of all the pastry shops that lined the street. Sadly the large plaza was filled with tacky white tents for some festival or event.  I wasn't able to stand back and get a clear view of the large Mexican flag billowing in the breeze or the long palace and cathedral lining the square.  
I walked slowly around taking picture after picture, trying to learn more about how to get a good shot with the sun beaming in the wrong place. At one point I thought about how my family would be ahead of me and I would have felt a bit silly taking all those pictures of yet another Latin plaza. I slowed down a bit and focused on the scene in front of me.  I'm thankful that my family is ever patient with me, but it was nice to be as much of a photo geek as I wanted. I guess they would be proud of me that I didn't get in anyone's face the whole weekend!
I love wandering into old cathedrals.  The architectural detail can keep me mesmerized for hours.  Vaulted ceilings, Greek columns, gilded alters - I love it all!  The tiny plaster rose carved in a moulding or vines weaving through the tile work on the floor beckon me to look closer.  The art in cathedrals often unwinds the history of a city or nation - bloody battles fought in the name of God as the Europeans conquered a tribe or the peaceful service of missionaries to the native people of a country.  Other paintings tell the stories of the Bible.  The apostles seated around the table sharing bread and wine, Mary weeping at the foot of the cross and Jesus ascending in the clouds accompanied by angels.  These are my favorites.  They bring the stories that give me life - to life.  
A guide came over.  I hired him because I had a bit of interest in knowing more about the Cathedral Metropolitana, but regretted my inability to say "no" when the pipe organ began and a boys choir burst forth.  I would have preferred to sit with eyes closed and listen to the sweet music filling the cathedral, but instead I listened to this man drone on about things of little relevance.  
Leaving the church I convinced the guide that I had no idea what my plan for the day was except that it did not include him.  I wandered into the National Palace quiet disappointed at how unadorned it was.  There was no throne room to see or great chambers.  The center square held a nice fountain and some botanical gardens around the corner were lovely.  The main attraction are the murals painted by Diego Rivera.  The paintings record the history of Mexico - the good, the bad and the ugly.  Wishing to know more about the details I was happy to stumble back into my guide on Sunday morning and hired him once again to tell me about the murals.  It took a bit of work to keep him on focus and not elaborate on the history of the building or the politics of Mexico, but when he understood exactly what I wanted and only what I wanted, the wall came to life and I could visualize the events before me.
I had no idea that Mexico City was built on the ruins of the Aztec empire.  Even standing in the Cathedral's plaza you can gaze through glass in the cement at the steps of an ancient temple.  Just next to the Cathedral is Templo Mayor, an excavated site of the ceremonial center of the Tenochtitlan.  I didn't bother with the audio guide or the museum, I just followed the paths and read the signs along the way.  I couldn't have handled any more information.  The skulls in the alter and the places for human sacrifice were overwhelming.  I glanced up and saw the Cathedral casting it's shadow over the ruins.  The irony caught me by surprise.  
Madero Street caught my eye.  I found a little cafe, long and narrow.  Although it was 12:00 and I was ready for lunch, Mexico was not.  It was breakfast time for them, lunch would come later at 3:00 and dinner at 8:00.  So I ordered and omelet and mocha.  Coffee drinks are beautiful in Mexico.  Served in a tall, clear, glass they are made in distinct layers with the darkest chocolate or coffee color at the bottom all the way up to silky, foamy white at the top.  Honestly, the art of sitting and sipping a cup of coffee was made all the better by the atmosphere and drink in hand.  Madero street was full of architectural delights.  Buildings covered in tile and small churches to pop in and out of, each unique in its adornment.  My favorite church was Templo Expiatorio Nacional San Filipe de Jesus.  The name was quiet a mouthful for this tiny little gem.  Mosaic floors, faux marble walls, gilded ornamentation and domes in the ceiling were like frosting on a cake.  
At last I crossed a street and before me was my destination, the Palacio de Bellas Artes.    The ornamentation done in Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles (probably my two favorite periods combined) brought beauty and majesty to Mexico's principle opera house.  I didn't bother with a tour of the inside - more paintings - I was there for the exterior.  The sight was worth the walk I knew I was going to have to get back to the hotel.  
I sat down and discovered I was on the edge of the fabulous Parque Almeda.  Newly renovated it is filled with fountains and statues and green.  I took the time to play with my camera a bit more before heading back.  I was a bit sweaty and tired and the highlight of my trip was still to come.

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