By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Brother Julián Garcés, the newly appointed Bishop of Tlaxcala, overflowed with joy: before him extended the tree-filled valley of three rivers he had so often seen in his dreams. In his vision, angels descended from heaven and used gold and silver thread to trace the classic grid of a colonial European city. His dream became reality on April 16, 1531, the date of birth of Ciudad de los Ángeles (City of the Angels), later known as Puebla de los Ángeles, and now as Puebla de Zaragoza.
I try to conjure up the dreamscape as I contemplate the city from the lookout point in Parque de los Fuertes, atop Mt. Acueyametepec. Here, where the Spanish authorities built the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe to protect the city, the Mexican Army, under General Ignacio Zaragoza, charged the invading French forces commanded by Count Lorencez, who was forced to beat a retreat on May 5, 1862. In the end, the French did succeed in occupying the country and imposing Archduke Maximilian of Austria and Charlotte of Habsburg as the imperial rulers, but the defeat of what was considered Europe’s best army rankled for a long time in the Old World.
The erstwhile forts have been incorporated into a complex of museums, monuments, and parks enjoyed by inhabitants. Today, the vast plateau that danced through the dreams of Brother Julián is occupied by closely-packed buildings dominated by the cupolas of the Cathedral and some of the 128 churches standing guard over the streets and avenues. Imbued with history and tradition, Puebla is a lively, innovative, and very sophisticated city. The fourth largest in the country, after Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, the capital of the State of Puebla owes much of its prosperity to its industrial base, particularly the automotive industry. Along with thriving agricultural production made possible by fertile soil and a temperate climate, the city’s cultural heritage is yet another of the myriad attractions that turn Puebla into a veritable tourism magnet.
A short stroll through the environs of the historic downtown district suffices to convince a visitor of the city’s charms. Façades supported by stone bases and colonnades and clad in bricks laid in the so-called “lattice” pattern and interspersed with Talavera tiles line the downtown streets in a show of the wealth of a city built specifically for the Spaniards. Some of the constructions are known by provocative, evocative, and even comic names that recall a related historic event; the Doll House and the House of the Animal Killer are the best known. Dear reader, I leave the pleasure of discovering the stories behind them to you when you visit Puebla.
Many of these mansions now house boutique hotels, cultural foundations, museums, and academic institutions, as well as government offices. The Amparo Museum is one of the most interesting, and the recently-opened Vienna House of Music also merits a visit. Puebla has one of the highest concentrations of universities and higher education institutions in México, and is thus home to an enormous student population. The city abounds in Talavera pottery workshops, such as the long-established Uriarte, one of the industry’s oldest and most productive. Despite their beauty, these buildings cannot compete with the churches in terms of architecture and aesthetics. The tiled cupolas of the churches glisten in the sunshine, but the interiors are even more breathtaking.
The Church of Santo Domingo is a good example. My sense of hierarchy would have pointed me to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Mary first, but our host, Alfredo, suggested we start with this church, consecrated in 1659. The Baroque-style main altar highlights canonized Dominican popes and monks. The floor of St. Thomas marble enhances a pulpit that rises like a flowery verse written in onyx and mother-of-pearl. The reason Alfredo insisted on bringing us here this morning sits to the left of the altar: the Chapel of the Virgin of Rosario. Designed as a kind of golden shrine to house the Virgin, morning light filters into the chapel through the cupola’s windows, burnishing a space crowned with saints, Roman virgins, cherubs, angels, and sirens into a splendid court that continuously glorifies the holiness of the mother of Jesus.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is entered through immense studded, multi-paneled double doors that soundproof the church and the fourteen side chapels. The main altar, in the free-standing Cypress style, was dedicated to the European kings who were canonized for their efforts to defend the church. The powerful, dynamic, and visionary Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza consecrated the Cathedral in 1649. Its towers are the highest of any church in the country. The tower dedicated to the New Testament has bells, while one symbolizing the Old Testament does not, the reasoning being that since Jesus of Nazareth had not yet brought salvation, there was no reason to celebrate.
Other must-sees in the historic downtown district include the very modern Amparo Museum housed in a colonial mansion, Bajada de los Sapos (for antiques), the El Parián handicrafts market, and the Art District, where creative types find an atmosphere congenial to their work. Visitors should likewise be sure to drop in at the Palafox Library, a world heritage site donated to the city by Archbishop and Viceroy Juan de Palafox y Mendoza; the collection features works in several languages, including Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. Outside the historic downtown area, the image of Puebla takes on a more contemporary cast with the new urban development of Angelópolis, which includes a shopping center, offices, homes, and the nearby Parque Lineal, with its Puebla Star, similar to the London Eye.
Puebla’s legacy extends beyond architecture to another equally marvelous attraction that can be savored in a more tangible way than architectural flights of fancy: Puebla cuisine. The city is the birthplace of some of the wonders of Mexican gastronomy. Chiles en nogada —which, strictly speaking, should only be served between August and October, although some restaurants dare to commit the minor sin of serving them year-round— consists of a delicious mixture of shredded beef, peaches, apples, walnuts, pine nuts, raisins, and spices cooked together and gently stuffed into a poblano chile that is battered —usually, but not always— and then fried, after which it is bathed in a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with fresh pomegranate seeds.
The city’s other great culinary achievement is mole poblano. This sauce epitomizes the complexity of Mexican cuisine, with its seemingly interminable list of ingredients from three continents, all bound together by Meso-American cacao. Mole is the pride of Puebla: visitors are offered mole everywhere, from restaurants to private homes. Our team had the honor of tasting the mole made by Angélica Bravo, owner of La Casita Poblana, selected as the city’s best mole by the renowned Chowzter list.
A voyage of discovery in Puebla takes visitors beyond the confines of the capital. Several communities outside the city are cultural attractions in their own right. México’s tourism promoters have dubbed these kinds of places the “Magical Towns,” seven of which are in the State of Puebla. The largest, Cholula, is near the city and boasts the biggest pyramid in the world (in area rather than height). Construction began in the 1st century A.D. and the end result rivaled the magnificence of the pyramid of Teotihuacán; the two contemporaneous towns maintained trade relations. Cholula is also famous for its carnival, which is known for its huehues, characters who satirize the French invaders and take over the town square on the weekend after Ash Wednesday.
Zacatlán, another magical town, perches near steep canyons dotted with waterfalls, like Jilgueros, which can be seen from the town, or Tulimán, the triple waterfall that plunges some 800 feet; the site also offers adventure sports, camping, and day trips. This town is famous for its artisan breads and apple beverages such as cider—in fact, the town’s official name, Zacatlán de las Manzanas, incorporates the word “apple”— such as cider, and artisan breads. Equally close is Chignahuapan, which complements fruit products and artisan breads with glass Christmas decorations; the town is the main domestic producer of these baubles. The inventory of the State’s magical towns is completed by Cuetzalan, which holds the famous Coffee and Huipil (a type of regional dress) Fair; Xicotepec, site of the Xochipila shrine; and Tlatlauquitepec and Pahuatlán, which are still on this humble writer’s wish list.
There is more to be enjoyed, since this is simply Panorama of the Americas first taste of this enticing city and region. Puebla is like a living canvas, where layer after layer peels away to uncover new pleasures, even after many visits. Much more than the delirium of a Catholic prelate, Puebla is a dream of angels.