City of Culture, Churches, Synagogues & Streetlife

Trip Start Jan 23, 2011
Trip End Feb 14, 2012

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Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Thursday, December 15, 2011

Around 20 years ago Annie visited Mexico City and her lasting impressions are of smog, dirt, pollution, danger and, before the aeroplane doors even opened, being able to smell the pollution. So my expectations were danger, dirt and us passing quickly through.

That Mexico City, I am delighted to report, no longer exists. Today, Mexico City is a vibrant, exciting, cultured city filled with people having fun while others are going about life and work; the skies were blue by day and the sunsets rate in the spectacular cityscape sunsets; there is an abundance of museums, galleries, magnificent architecture, colourful markets, and places oozing culture and history; the subway system and streets of central Mexico City are clean, patrolled by police and large weapon toting subway guards, and we felt pretty relaxed about it all. Make no mistake, danger lurks down dark streets and alleys away from the central policed zone but, taking usual city precautions resulted in a wonderful, exciting and fun visit.

We had opted for the Mundo Joven Catederal hostel at the edge of the main square, just behind the main Cathedral and, by the time we had been on the metro, seen some of the guards standing on raised platforms with their giant guns protecting us passengers, changed subway lines, walked through the square, and checked into the hostel, we knew we were going to have fun here.

City hostels seldom have "that" feeling or atmosphere but this giant, 7 storey building, with 164 or more beds, was a definite exception. On the top floor was a kitchen with a balcony overlooking the main square, excellent coffee on tap all day long. While there were few English speaking travellers (they apparently mostly stay in the safer, trendier suburbs - I think they are missing out), there was a great bunch of South American musicians who we chatted with, cooked dinner around each other, and were all late night owls enjoying our high-up viewpoint.

Our first day was our self-designed architectural "tour". We had a sort-of route to follow, which we deviated from regularly :-) and saw some incredible buildings. Two of the most impressive were across the road from each other, one the Gothic-style Post Office, the other the Art Deco marble Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), so completely different from each other and yet both designed by the same architect! They were wonderful to walk around, inside and just ogle at their incredible detail and décor. If I lived in Mexico City I think they would be some of my favourite places to visit regularly just for the pleasure of their beauty. An unexpected event was a sudden street demonstration that stopped the traffic and caused a bit of chaos on a giant, 6 lanes street. We think it was a group of Indigenous People who were demanding their rights and were clearly exasperated to the point of this demonstration. It was fascinating to watch them and the scurrying policemen who took copious notes and photos in a vain attempt to move the demonstrators away. They were singing and chanting their demands as they handed out flyers inviting the curious onlookers to another, bigger event. After watching for a while, and taking our own photos, we moved on, and up – up the tallest tower, Mirador Torre Latino, where we could see the city for many miles in every direction. One of the things we saw was that many buildings had rooftop parking, accessed by car lift we think, which is just so sensible in a city where space always becomes a premium. The sun was shining again for us and we could see all the way across the city centre to the main square and even our hostel :-) It is also the site of the most ridiculous photographic exhibition I have ever seen – giant photos, really good photos of the city, but covering most of the panoramic windows we had come up to look out of – how daft! :-) We completed our tour by sitting in the park eating ice-creams (of course :-) What a fun day!

Our next “tour” day was completely different yet equally excellent; this was to be the day of murals and markets, religion and relics, and, of course, coffee and conversation :-) Annie had read about the murals painted by Diego Rivera in the 1920s  in the Secretaría de Educación Pública Building. First, a quick diversion into an art gallery next to out hostel that had an exhibition of paintings and sculptures of skeletons, we thought it must have been for the Day of the Dead which had been not too long ago. Then off to the Secretaría de Educación Pública Building we went. The entrance was not too obvious and was crowded with police or uniformed officials. We asked for the murals, "Frescos" as they are in Spanish, were shown in and a lady was asked to show us where to go. Now, when hearing about murals we think a big painting or two on a couple of walls. This was incredible, three floors of a GIANT building around a double courtyard and every space had another depiction. Some told the story of a revolution, others were coats of arms for the regions of the country, one area was all religious, another depicting daily life, and so it went on and on and on... Quite incredible! We wandered along our planned route, stopped in at a local eatery for a bite to eat, had a look inside the remnants of an old and interesting theatre building (Teatro Del Pueblo) with more murals, and then went to find the market, Mercado Abelardo Rodríguez. What a great market inside a gorgeous old building, again with murals, seemingly quite the fashion of decor at the time. The Mexican markets have been really quite impressive and reminiscent of our favourite Bolivian markets. We bought some fruit from one stall and sat and ate fruit salad with yoghurt, granola and honey at another. These markets, to us, are attractions that we seek out to explore and photograph, but they really are daily life for most people entering the market so I guess, at times, we end up being the curiosity and getting the looks of interest just as much :-) Next came the church that shows how Mexico City is sinking; the Templo de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Church is completely lopsided and inside is even worse! Our final stop for the day was on the opposite side of the square from the sinking church, the first Sephardi Synagogue built in Mexico City by Syrian Jews in 1918. Unfortunately it was undergoing major renovations and, even though we managed to get the guard to open the door, it was too dusty and dangerous to go into. Luckily for us he pointed us in the direction of another nearby Ashkenazi Synagogue. We were on the wrong day for tours but, after much discussion and Annie realising he was asking for a little bribe I gave him what he asked for, the equivalent of US$1.50! The guard happily let us in after telling his caretaker mate what they had got :-) The facade was deceptively ordinary hiding the most beautiful Synagogue with magnificent windows. The building was apparently originally copied from a photo of a Lithuanian synagogue. We were shown around by the caretaker, who was happily sharing in the spoils of the bribe, and told us some things about it. We had the entire Synagogue to ourselves and, realising we are Jewish when I asked for a Yarmulkah before entering, he let us walk around inside without shadowing us, very special. We saw on a noticeboard that a stamp had been made in 2005 in honour of the centenary of the Ashekanzie community's presence in Mexico. Quite amazing in a predominately Catholic country! We thanked our hosts (what a well spent bribe :-) and went off to find a coffee shop. We saw one that looked good and then realised that the guy standing outside talking on a megaphone was actually from the same place and busy inviting all passers-by into the coffee shop, hilarious :-) On entering, we found there was a courtyard seating area that was lovely and, as we put our stuff down at a table, Annie noticed some statues in the next courtyard so we went off to investigate. While we were looking, two men came out from the next building and one of them gave us the most interesting explanations.  He could tell that, even though unable to respond in Spanish, we, mostly Annie, could understand enough to be able to get what he was telling us. This included how Mexico City has more museums and cultural institutions than most of the major cities in the world! He also told us where we should not be walking after dark which was exactly where we had discussed not going :-) This was one of those times that it really would have been a lot better if we had more than just Spinglish but at least we did have enough between us to understand most of what he told us. We finally went back to our table and had a lovely cup of coffee :-)

As it was our last night, we had already extended our stay (not bad for a city I thought we would just pass through!), we headed for the supermarket. Wow, we got caught up in something going on in the main square and a pedestrian cordon-diversion. There were MASSES of people trying to get anywhere and it made a busy London Oxford Street feel quite calm and relaxing :-) The police were also out in force to ensure we all obeyed the rules, their presence seemed to work very well. Quite an experience!

After we were finished in the supermarket we went to admire the Christmas decorations shops, they were incredible! Lights that made anything we have seen before pale into insignificance. These were brilliant - round things with lots of circles of little lights that flashed, flickered, danced and changed colour. There were shops lined one after another filled with these and many more varieties and jam-packed with people admiring and buying - just wonderful :-) Actually, the lights on display in the main square were quite spectacular too - a giant tree with lots of lights, all the buildings covered in more than each other, and an ENORMOUS "Feliz Navidad" sign that flashed on and off in different stages and patterns. This city takes Christmas lights very seriously :-)

One last stop was required at our favourite shop; a department store called Liverpool. I am sure it has a lot of really nice stuff as it had a fairly sophisticated feel but we were only interested in the only department we has visited, where we could act like the big kids we are; the best "Pick 'n Mix" area we have ever been in :-) There was everything from sweet to savoury, chilli to chocolate, and much, much more. We had seen other people taking tastes so we did the same, just to check what we liked of course :-) We also only took a few small selections as it is just such fun and a treat and would be easy to get carried away. On this visit I had our grocery bags with us so the security guard followed us around as we must have seemed very suspicious :-) I went and stood in an open area away from everything while Annie finished up, which made him happier :-) Hilariously, on the way out and really completely unintentionally, I was walking ahead of Annie and went the wrong way for the doors, heading for a glass pane instead and walked straight into the same security guard with my White Cane :-) He very kindly and politely helped me in the right direction (and must have realised were not the great thieves he had first thought we were :-) We laughed a lot when we got out of the shop :-)

And that brought us to the end of our Mexico City meanderings, we would be back on the metro to another bus terminus for a LONG bus journey to take us to Copper Canyon. Wow, I can hardly believe where we are heading off to, this is yet another dream destination of ours.

A fellow traveller back in Bogota in Colombia told us that Mexico City is his favourite city on earth, I can understand why.
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