Sat 28 Apr 2007
That’s the official name of Puebla, a city about two hours by bus southeast of Mexico City. LL was invited to speak at a conference there last week, and I decided to go, just for fun: No wine tastings, no business lunches, no laptop or cell phone. Of course, one does have to eat.
Founded in 1531, Puebla was the first city started by the Spanish in Mexico not built on the site of an Indian town. Located between Vera Cruz, on the Caribbean coast, and Mexico City, Puebla grew to be a major trading center and the heart of an important agricultural region. It lies in a vast basin dominated by three volcanoes, one the famous Popocatepetl, 30 miles to the west of the city. Puebla today is a metropolis of 1.5 million, yet its historic town center, crowded with 17th and 18th century houses and palaces (even a few still from the 16th century), monasteries and convents (now mainly converted to hotels, museums or government agencies) and highlighted by the stone and gilt frosting of Baroque churches, feels like a small town.
The architecture of Puebla is noted for its exuberant plasterwork, the intricate patterns of bricklaying and tilework and its bold exterior colors: pink and lime green, chrome yellow, mauve and purple. Like similar towns in Italy and Spain, this wealth of detail is softened by a patina of neglect and shabbiness that only adds to the richness of its timeless effect. “This is where we live and work and where our grandparents and their grandparents lived and worked,” seems to be the attitude; “this will all be here when our grandchildren live and work here. Why change?”
And live they do. Puebla has a street-life that starts about noon and doesn’t let up until midnight during the week and later on Friday and Saturday. The city has beautiful and well-used parks — the blooming jacaranda trees were particularly abundant last week — but every street corner becomes a platform for human work and play. Music comes from everywhere and its contending presence increases as the night proceeds; high in the air echo church bells and the angelic harmony of choirs, mariachi bands and American hits from the 1970s and ’80s. Markets like the “Little Plaza of the Toads” are filled with vendors selling every conceivable object of human effort and desire and silliness, the sober antique and the gaudy contemporary, it seems, having been drawn irrevocably from all the Americas to this ancient crossroads.
Where there is street-life, there must be food. I have never been in a city where so many entrepreneurs set up charcoal braziers on corners and curbs and plazas to cook in the open air and feed the thousands of people who apparently feel it is their duty to party endlessly. Men and women chop and slice, grill, shape and roll out tortillas — and we have never had tortillas this good in the U.S. –Â offer exotic fare of unusual colors and sweets of infinite shapes and textures. The Poblanos, as the inhabitants of Puebla are called, love food; every block of the old town holds numerous restaurants, some grand affairs, others tucked into any space available, a narrow store-front or a niche that used to be the entrance hall of a palace.
By the way, we saw more Volkswagens in Puebla than I have seen in one place since I was in graduate school in Iowa City 40 years ago. It turns out that the major industry in town is the largest Volkswagen factory in the Western hemisphere.
Well, that’s an overview that I hope gives you some of the flavor of Puebla, a city that we would return to in a flash. In a post coming in a few days, I’ll write about the food of Puebla, our search for the best mole (mo-lay), a sauce the city claims to have invented, and the (I guess not so startling yet disconcerting) lack of wine.