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Mexico Special Issue : Destination: Patzcuaro : Colonial style and Tarascan culture make this a city of soul, not sights

October 15, 1995|ERIC LAWLOR | Lawlor is a free-lance writer based in Houston. and

PATZCUARO, Mexico — If you believe in legends, Patzcuaro owes its origins to nothing more dramatic than a stroll. Taking a walk one day, a Tarasca noble saw four large rocks, which he recognized instantly: They were the mythic boulders marking the entrance to paradise. Sending for his followers, he ordered them to build a city on the spot, which he named "Patzcuaro"--a word meaning Place of Happiness in the language of the native Tarascans.

Located about 200 miles west of Mexico City, Patzcuaro, some Mexicans will tell you, is the country's nicest town. Built along low hills not far from the lake that shares its name, it looks much as it did three centuries ago: street after street of two-story, white-walled houses with studded doors and red-tiled roofs. Seen from above, they look like rows of poinsettias sprouting luxuriantly from large white pots.

Though Patzcuaro lacks conventional tourist attractions, travelers return here frequently, drawn to its incomparable atmosphere. In many ways, Patzcuaro is quintessentially Mexican: Its population of about 70,000 retains much of its Tarascan ancestry; its architecture is mostly colonial.

The stylistic unity of the architecture is remarkable. More than 90% of it consists of those potted-poinsettia houses. If they differ from one another, they do so in the smallest details. One home may have a wrought-iron balcony, another grills on the windows, a third a pediment above the door. Only in the two main plazas are the buildings more elaborate--and even there they're hardly grandiose. The mansion on the Plaza Quiroga is a handsome stone structure of just two stories with an escutcheon on the wall and high windows of beautifully etched glass.

In Patzcuaro, the traditional and the modern merge, producing some delightful incongruities. A youngster plays a traditional flute while seated on a skateboard; a woman in an expensive track suit makes corn tortillas; the plant above the pharmacy door is to ward off evil spirits. There are satellite dishes in Patzcuaro and video arcades. But the former sit in geranium-filled courtyards and the latter are concealed within 300-year-old walls.

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Seven thousand feet above the sea, Patzcuaro is small and intimate and unpretentious. The mood here is best described as languid. To enjoy it, a visitor should be languid too.

"There's no pressure to do things here for the reason that there's precious little to do," said a Boston man on this fourth trip. "Which is fine with me. I come here because it's lovely."

If Patzcuaro has a "sight" it's in the public library. Housed in what was once a church on Plaza Bocanegra, the library itself, with its bare white walls, barrel ceiling and empty organ loft, is a dismal place. There was just one person there when I arrived--an absorbed young man ripping pages from a copybook.

At most, the library contains a few hundred volumes. But the books hardly matter. It's the mural one comes to see. Fifty feet high and 30 feet wide, this powerful work fills what was once the wall behind the altar. Completed by Juan O'Gorman in 1942, it depicts in bright reds and vivid greens the history of the Tarascans--native people of this part of Mexico. Curiously though, the mural's central figure is not Tarascan, but a Spanish cleric. Named bishop of this region in 1536, Vasco de Quiroga saved the Tarascans from the worst excesses of the conquest, taking the attitude--unusual for his time--that they were human and deserving of respect.

By the bishop's side is Sir Thomas More, the author of "Utopia." More's description of an ideal state founded entirely on reason so stirred Quiroga that he tried to create a Tarascan utopia on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. He failed, of course, but the inhabitants remembered him with gratitude. Even today, they refer to him as Tata --a term of affection meaning father.

The basilica is built in the neo-classical style and reminds one of parish churches in rural Ireland: big, self-important and just a little ugly. It was Quiroga's intention that the basilica have five naves--one each for the five major cultures in the area, now known as the Mexican state of Michoacan--radiating like fingers from a central altar. But construction, which began in 1554, was plagued by problems. Delayed first by opponents who said the church was too expensive, and then by a series of earthquakes, only one of the naves was ever built.

Those earthquakes, as it happened, were to seal Patzcuaro's fate. Deciding that the town was much too dangerous, Quiroga's successor moved his bishopric to Morelia, about 20 miles northeast. Soon after, the civil authority moved as well and, bit by bit, Patzcuaro became the gentle backwater it is today.

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