Times & Places: Puebla, a city with a small-town heart

We had never heard of Puebla before coming to Mexico, but chose it as a stopover on our way from San Miquel de Allende to Oaxaca because it was recommended as a city steeped in culture. And that it is! Puebla is a Unesco World Heritage Site, founded in 1531 as a city built “by Spaniards for Spaniards.”

The historical centre of this city of 1.5 million is a treasure trove of colonial architecture. The layout of the town is very well organized, with streets labeled North and South radiating from the central square called Zocala, surrounded by a colonnade of restaurants and shops. The square is lit up at night as are the fountains that spring from the sidewalks around the square.

There are few foreign tourists or expats here, which gives Puebla a local flavor, with no hustle or hassle in this laid-back, friendly urban space, more a town in its hospitality and accessibility than a metropolis.

A huge number of restaurants dot the centre. Fonda de Santa Clara, at 3 Pomiente, a block from our hotel on the road to the Zocala, part of a small chain, provided our best meals, service, and ambience, at reasonable prices.

Another dinner favourite, and place to see and be seen, is among a row of eateries on one side of the Zocala, offering a gorgeous view of the square, day and night. A lone alto saxophone player serenaded us with tasteful ballads as we dined on Mexican dishes, such as baked mushrooms and cheese or chicken, rolled in Mole sauce. For lunch, La Zanahoria, with its abundant and delicious vegetarian buffet, is a must for vegetarians and non-s alike. It’s set in a courtyard two or three blocks from Zocala.

There’s a wonderful selection of Mexican delights that changes every day, one reason it’s so popular with locals. The other is the price, $8CAD. You can’t beat that!

There are historic buildings at every corner, with explanations in Spanish, English and Braille outside, certainly a more sophisticated way of identifying historic landmarks than what we are used to in Canada or the US.

Of the three museums we visited, the Amparo was the most impressive with its modern architecture and displays of the rich cultures that pre-dated the colonial era. It’s one of the best museums in Mexico and holds one of the
country’s most important collections of pre-
Hispanic, colonial and modern art, from 2500 BCE to today. The colonial buildings date from the 17th and 18th century. One was a hospital
and another was a college for women. It was inaugurated as a museum in 1991, sponsored by the Amparo foundation.

The Museo Bello was just down the street from our hotel and is a magnificent three-storey mansion filled with ornate furniture, paintings, and ceramics. More than 3,000 pieces from the 17th to 19th century were collected by industrialist Jose Luis Bello y Gonzales and his son, with works from America, Asia and Europe. The sculptured, wooden doors are particularly exquisite.

San Pedro Art Museum, two streets from the Zocala, began as a hospital, dating from 1542. The entrance leads into a massive, stone courtyard surrounded by a colonnade and divided into five exhibition halls. One features mannequins sporting Mexican costumes of the last 100 years; another houses a ceramic exhibit by two women artists including high-heeled shoes, purses, and lingerie. The range and quality of modern Mexican art housed in this complex is astounding.

One day we took a 20 minute taxi ride to Cholula, $8CAD, a town known for its great pyramid, the largest in the new world as well as the largest known to exist today. Hard to tell because it’s covered with greenery and looks more like a large hill with a church conspicuously placed on top. Part of the pyramid, dating from the 2nd century BCE, has been excavated, but not enough, in our humble opinion. You can walk up steps leading to the church, which a hundred or so pilgrims did when we visited.

There are excavated tunnels under the pyramid, which we did not explore. There’s also a museum worth visiting, tracing the geological origin of the valley of volcanoes, and the archeological remains of the cultures that settled here. Rooms are dedicated to traditional crafts and ceramics.

Rather than taking the more expensive, all-inclusive bus tours of Cholula, we suggest taking a taxi and doing your own tour at your own pace.

Walking around the historic town of Puebla with its two or three-storey buildings on stone-blocked sidewalks, you walk through history. So few tourists and so much culture to explore!  There are touristy open tour buses but we suggest exploring on foot to appreciate Puebla, hardly known outside Mexico. Grab a map of the historic centre from your hotel and there’s no way you can get lost.

There are many older hotels, some with courtyards. Our hotel, NH Puebla Centro Historica, was the exception.

Three blocks from the centre, or Zocala, it is totally modern, a four-storey building with a small rooftop swimming pool and gym. One of its best features is the buffet breakfast, open 6:30am to noon and offering hundreds of choices, with all the Mexican frills. The waiters look after your every need and modest tips are much appreciated as they are in all the cities we visited.

Friendliness is the name of the game here and people we encountered on the streets are eager to help with directions. Most service people speak some English but if they don’t, they make every effort to ensure you get what you want, including exact change.

All in all, you feel safe here, connected to the history of this country and its colonial past, knowing that anything you might need is not far away.

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