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

November 18, 1990|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

A modern element in the district that enhances rather than detracts is the seven-block-long Plaza Tapatia, an inviting pedestrian mall completed eight years ago. It is graced with arcades, fountains, hand-wrought iron lamps and statuary--monumental and whimsical alike.

The plaza is an attractive link between two of Guadalajara's historical treasures, the cathedral and the Cabanas Cultural Institute. On our way from one to the other, we stopped for apricot-flavored ice cream cones at Helados Bing, a modern ice cream parlor tucked into one of the arcades--yet another of the charms of Plaza Tapatia.

The 16th-Century cathedral, its twin towers decorated in tiles of blue and yellow, dominates the western edge of the historic district near the intersection of two major shopping streets, Avenida 16 de Septiembre and Avenida Juarez.

On the eastern edge, about a dozen blocks away via Plaza Tapatia, is the Cabanas Cultural Institute, occupying a former orphanage that was the largest colonial structure ever built in the Americas. It's a delightful, six-acre sprawl that hides--by official count--23 charming patios. In one, we watched a group of eager youngsters learning local folk dances to mariachi tunes.

We spent most of a full day exploring the historic district, ate traditional Mexican meals within walking distance of the hotel and joined the evening crowds promenading on the Plaza Tapatia and the other adjacent squares.

Guadalajara's handsome 19th-Century theater, the Degollado Theater, overlooks one of them, the Plaza de La Liberacion. One night, the theater drew a glamorous tuxedo- and gown-clad crowd to a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet, which was visiting. The group added to the elegance of the colonial structures around us.

We found it easy to poke our noses into most of the old buildings, many of which house government offices. Built mostly of gray stone, they present a solid, imposing exterior.

But it's all a bluff. Inside, the buildings are far more inviting than they may seem. Arched walls encircle delightful gardens and cool, quiet courtyards decorated with sprightly fountains, wrought-iron balconies and tiled walkways. Orange trees, a local symbol, flourish among palms and other semitropical foliage. I liked to sit for a moment and soak in the aura of earlier centuries.

In our rambles, we inevitably reached the Government Palace, a large 18th-Century colonial structure that faces the neatly manicured Plaza de Armas. We stepped inside, anticipating more of the pleasant courtyards that so appealed to us.

Instead, we were all but stunned by a massive and fiery mural sweeping across the ceiling directly above us. It is the work of Jose Clemente Orozco, Mexico's famed artist.

Completed in the late 1930s, it depicts Father Hidalgo, a Mexican revolutionary who in 1810 proclaimed the end of slavery from this very building. Carrying a burning torch, Father Hidalgo glares down in unrelenting anger--probably well-justified by the injustices of Mexico's colonial past.

The Regional Museum of Guadalajara, on the north side of the Plaza de La Liberacion, occupies yet another fine old colonial building, once a seminary. I don't know whether I was more taken by its quiet, pillar-ringed courtyards or the exhibits of colorful Indian costumes on display.

That evening, we would chance upon a group of folk dancers dressed in similar attire performing for the street crowds on the plaza.

We concluded the day's history lesson with lunch at Cafe Sandy, a second-floor restaurant with balcony tables overlooking the museum entrance and the colorful street scene.

Guadalajara is famed for its traditional dishes--tacos, tostadas, gorditas (meat pies) and pozole , a hominy soup--most of which were on Sandy's menu. I opted for a chicken tostada and hot sauce. A large lunch for two, including beer, cost about $14, reflecting the generally moderate prices in Guadalajara.

Afterward, we headed for Liberty Market, reportedly the largest public market under one roof in Latin America. About three square blocks in size, it stands just outside the historic district at its eastern end, easily within walking of the Hotel De Mendoza.

The place is intimidating at first, a vast and confusing arena jammed to overflowing with individual shops selling almost everything from fresh fruits and meats to sombreros and hand-crafted guitars. We went in search of hand-painted pottery, which we found in overwhelming array. We had been advised to bargain, but the prices were so low already I didn't have the heart.

On our last day in Guadalajara, we ventured beyond the historic district to visit two nearby artisans' villages, Tonala and Tlaquepaque.

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