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Seeking, and Finding, the Romance of Mexico in Modern Guadalajara


GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Mariachi music was born in Guadalajara, and the rollicking, foot-tapping tunes of Mexico's popular folk minstrels still dance through the historic city's cobbled streets as if every day is a fiesta. Listen to the music, and you may quickly succumb, as I did, to the city's old-fashioned charm.

We tourists often travel in search of illusions, and in Guadalajara, I found the romantic Mexico of my imagination.

One lazy afternoon, my wife and I lunched in a flower-scented garden where peacocks begged crumbs and the waiter plucked ripe sweet guavas for us from the tree shading our table. I awoke daily to the sound of the cathedral bells, pealing their morning greeting as they have for almost four centuries.

We peeked into the loveliest of the city's many Spanish-colonial buildings, invariably finding quiet courtyards where fountains splashed in a profusion of bougainvillea, oleander and bright red hibiscus.

Twice we all but got lost in the crowded passageways of the city's sprawling Liberty Market, where we had gone in search of the decorative pottery for which the region is famous. At sunset, we lingered over tequila sours at a sidewalk cafe or joined the crowds strolling the city's splendidly formal plazas.

Magicians, folk dancers and other street performers entertained. On our last night, we took a long horse-drawn carriage ride through the old city, waving at Mexican families who waved back at us from their carriages.

My favorite memory, though, is the Saturday afternoon we chanced upon a mariachi concert in Tlaquepaque, a picturesque little village within Guadalajara's borders that is noted for fine pottery and other handicrafts. We had just emerged from a shop when I heard the unmistakable chorus of blaring trumpets and squealing violins.

I'm a great fan of mariachi music, so off we went in pursuit of the boisterous sound, joined by almost everybody else on the street. A fiesta was in the making, and we weren't about to miss it.

Guadalajara is perhaps an unusual destination for a Mexican getaway, since it is nowhere near an ocean beach. The nearest beach resort is Puerto Vallarta, a long and arduous drive away.

I was intrigued more by Guadalajara's lively colonial history and a reputation as Mexico's "most Mexican" city--an indication that I would see more local folk than fellow Americans on the streets. The fact that the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Americana--a good resource I always consult before I travel--calls it "one of the most attractive of North American cities" clinched my decision to go.

Guadalajara sits in a high, sweeping valley about 300 miles northwest of the capital of Mexico City. At an elevation of 5,141 feet, it enjoys a dry, pleasantly mild climate throughout the year.

Although we visited there on a long weekend in August, we left our hotel windows open at night to enjoy the cool breezes--which, of course, is why I heard the cathedral bells at dawn.

The cathedral's anthem was politely followed--in deference to its age perhaps--by the ringing echoes of first one and then another of the city's other churches. I found the bells a gentle enough alarm clock.

Guadalajara is Mexico's second-largest city, but this statistic can be misleading. Mexico City is swamped by a population that may exceed 20 million. Guadalajara's is only a quarter of that, at 5 million, and so far the city has managed to escape the oppressive congestion of the capital.

Indeed, in the historic colonial district, where traffic is banned from some streets and few structures rise above two stories, you might easily imagine yourself in a small (though sophisticated) village.

It is a very old city and a historical one, founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1542, a good 78 years before the Pilgrims established Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.

A regional capital, it was the jumping-off place for the Spanish exploration of California and other Spanish colonies in what is now the United States. Father Junipero Serra, who founded the first nine of California's 21 Franciscan missions, made his departure from Guadalajara in 1767.

Much of Spanish Guadalajara has disappeared, but in the past decade city officials have acted to preserve the colonial integrity of the historic district--an area of several square blocks in the heart of the city.

We picked our hotel, the comfortable little De Mendoza, because of its location within the district. It's nestled against one of the city's finest old chapels, the ornate Santa Maria de Gracia, a popular choice for weddings. I caught glimpses of at least three formal bridal processions from my third-floor window.

Large parts of the historic district are off-limits to vehicles, which makes it ideal for sightseeing on foot.

I found it an impressive place, a sort of architectural garden where a collection of handsome gray stone buildings and baroque-style churches are displayed amid broad plazas and well-tended gardens.

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