One of Mexico's most impressive colonial cities is Morelia, its downtown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, many tourists bypass this Michoacán state capital, located a short distance away from San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. The city that the Spanish built exclusively for themselves (they banned natives from living within the city) is known for its candy, folk art and music as well as its regal Mexican Baroque colonial buildings, the architectural style first employed in its massive Cathedral.
Blue and white tiles covering the Cathedral's dome compete for attention with the 61-metre high towers (the third tallest in Latin America) and 28 statues of evangelists and saints fronting the pink sandstone facade. Only the Spanish could walk down the centre aisle of the church, adorned with an altarpiece and baptismal font created from half a ton of gold and silver. Carved human faces peeping out from the centre of some sculpted vegetables line the walls. The faces indicate that bodies were buried inside the walls. Their spirits were believed to protect the building against earthquakes.
If you are lucky, a music student may be practicing on the church's 4,600-pipe organ, and if you visit in May, you might also catch the two-week international organ festival.
On the main plaza, adjacent to the Cathedral, Ficus trees with their branches shaped into square blocks, add a formality rare in Mexican plazas. Each street radiating out from the square leads to a church. The 14 orders that settled here wanted to insure that residents never lost sight of their faith.
The irregular characteristic of the Mexican Baroque style is evident even in the city's streets. No road is straight. Many vary in width, wider in front of wealthy residences and narrower by homes of the poor. Morelia is Mexico's candy capital. Colourful displays of candied fruit to jello-type confections fill the stalls at the downtown sweets market, Mercado de Dulces. Be forewarned, however, much Mexican candy is tooth-achingly sweet.
A healthier snack is gazpacho sold at little stands that seemingly pop up between buildings everywhere downtown. This is definitely not the typical Spanish gazpacho but Morelia's version. Traditionally, a mix of chopped pineapple, mango and jicama flavored with lime, orange juice and a splash of hot sauce topped by crumbled cheese.
Walking by an 18th century baroque-style temple and convent, you might hear music and singing floating through the windows. Latin America's first established music conservatory, Conservatorio de las Rosas, and home to the Boy's Choir of Morelia, hosts afternoon concerts in the school's auditorium. The students also perform periodically in the main plaza. And they sometimes practice in the school's grass courtyard. Entry is through a doorway under the convent's arches. Benches encircle the peaceful setting. Off to one side are the nuns' 18th century outdoor laundry tubs.
According to legend, the high-class ladies who attended the convent are responsible for the lack of roses in the charming little park, Jardin de las Rosas, opposite the school. Every time a rose appears, it immediately dies. Locals claim the death is due to the women's spirits: "There cannot be anything more beautiful here than us."
Murals adorn many colonial buildings. My favourite is in the 17th century Palace of Justice facing the main square. Painted by Augustine Cardinas. The centerpiece of the boldly coloured scene is the black-robed José Maria Morelos holding a paper torch, symbolizing the light to follow towards the country's independence. Morelia takes its name from this Mexican hero who was born here. You can learn more about this priest and revolutionary at his home. The baroque mansion, built in 1758, displays antique furniture, paintings and part of Morelos' military uniform. He was killed by a Spanish firing squad.
A 16th-century bishop encouraged the surrounding Tarascan Indian villages to each specialize in one craft. At Santa Clara del Cobre, for instance, every second store seems to sell copper dishes, decorations and jewelry. Some double as workshops. We watched one coppersmith melting the metal, then another hammering out the copper.
The first convent that the Franciscans built in Morelia back in 1532 displays work from various villages in its combination handicraft museum and shop. Shining ceramic dishes - the glow from rubbing stones over the pottery before baking - leather coats made from deer and wood furniture strikingly coloured with flowers and other designs are just a few of the types of handiwork on sale at Casa de Las Artesanias.
A toll road connects Morelia to the Pacific resort of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, about a three-hour drive. Morelia is also about a four-hour drive from Mexico City. Travel agencies offer tours to the Monarch butterfly sanctuary, Santuario de Mariposas El Rosario, 114 km away.
Mary Ann Simpkins is a frequent contributor to the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Spa Life, North American Inns, and also Fifty-Five Plus, Grit, Rolls Royce Diary & Fodor's Travel Guides. She is author of Travel Bug Canada & Co-author of Ottawa Stories. Mary Ann is a member of TMAC & SATW..
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
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Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
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