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Singing the Praises of Romantic Guadalajara


GUADALAJARA, Mexico — When a local swain is smitten by a town senorita , but doesn't have the voice to serenade her in the traditional manner of Jalisco, he may hire a group to perform a serenata jalisciense outside her window. The surrogate Romeos don't come cheap ($150 for a trio, $300 for a small symphony of 10), but love is love and never mind the pesos.

One wouldn't normally expect the air to be heavy with romance in a city of 4 million, but Guadalajara is still very much a provincial town. According to local boosters, there are 6 million rose bushes blooming at any time; seven shades of bougainvillea cascading down the pastel walls and ironwork of colonial mansions, and more graceful fountains (147, many lighted), birds of paradise, laurel and jacaranda trees in town than you are ever likely to see elsewhere.

Guadalajara rightfully boasts that it gave Mexico its first charros (cowboys) with their handsome costumes and formalized rodeo, tequila, the Mexican hat dance, and those manic mariachis that seem to be wailing out the glories of "Guadalajara" and its state of Jalisco in every cantina in town. About the only things Mexican they don't claim here are the Halls of Montezuma, Fernando Valenzuela and the country's best beer, which is still brewed in Monterrey.

If all this crowing about their town strikes you as a bit much, consider that locals are also proud to call themselves Tapatios , which translates roughly from an ancient dialect as "three times worthy." Now add that Guadalajara has the largest outdoor market in the Western Hemisphere, and--according to the considered opinion of National Geographic magazine--just about the best weather in any hemisphere.

Several visits to Jalisco's capital city have convinced us that most of the civic pride and hoopla is deserved. The only down side, locals complain, is that the workday two-hour siesta creates four traffic jams rather than two. And a local newspaper refers to the 16th-Century cathedral as "architecturally grotesque."

We disagree with the newspaper's assessment of church design, although it is a trifle busy, and there's always a cantina and frosty Mexican beer at hand to wait out the gridlock.

How long/how much? Give the considerable sights of the town at least two days, another one for surrounding attractions. Food and lodging costs in Mexico always strike us as moderate to low.

Getting settled in: Hotel De Mendoza is probably the best of three small hotels in the central part of town, where you'll spend most of your time. Mendoza captures the charm of colonial Mexico with a fine old mural, antique chest and huge brass chandeliers in the lobby, bedrooms tastefully done in period furniture, hand-painted bedsteads and touches of wrought iron. There's also a handsome restaurant, small pool, rooftop terrace bar and parking garage. The hotel is just across from the spectacular Degollado Theater on Plaza de la Liberacion.

Another old friend, Hotel Frances, predates our acquaintance a bit, having been built in 1610 and operated as an inn for almost four centuries. The arcaded lobby is built around a lovely marble fountain, very much in the Spanish style, and bedrooms carry on the aura with gorgeous colonial furniture and ironwork balconies overlooking Plaza de la Liberacion. Frances was rightfully raised to the status of a national monument a decade ago.

Hotel Fenix breaks the Mexican colonial mold but keeps the central-city location as a contemporary hotel and member of the Best Western chain. The long, cool lobby has a businesslike feeling, and bedrooms are attractively done in muted browns and beiges with a few touches of Mexico in antique-repro bedsteads and wall sconces. Ask for the recently redecorated new wing, where some rooms have a nice view of the cathedral.

Regional food and drink: Chiles poblanos (or chiles en nogada ) is a local favorite. It's mild green poblano chiles stuffed with diced pork, onion, garlic and tomato, and dressed with a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. The red, white and green colors make it a particularly popular Independence Day dish.

Crepas con flor de calabaza (crepes stuffed with squash-flower filling) and smoked suckling pig with jalapeno peppers are two more favored dishes. Less fancy standbys include pozole , a meat-and-hominy stew given added luster here with the addition of a pig's head.

Jalisco gave us tequila and also sangrita , a cocktail of tomato, orange juice, lime, green peppers and hot sauce, all blended together as a chaser for tequila.

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