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PATZCUARO: Heritage shines in its crafts.

April 07, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PATZCUARO, Mexico — Four hundred and twenty-two years ago, when the local big shots hitched up their wagons and moved to new headquarters down the road, this city lost its juice. And perhaps thanks to that, a newcomer in the right mood can still taste its old flavor.

I mean juice as in power. Patzcuaro sits on a hillside by a lake, and as you stroll through its shady plazas and crowded markets or stand near the basilica and look down Calle Buena Vista, you can imagine it as a handy base of operations when Spaniards began to take over this area in the early 16th century.

In those days, Patzcuaro's power radiated out to the islands on nearby Lake Patzcuaro (pronounced POTS-kwa-ro) and surrounding towns of the indigenous Purepechas (also known as Tarascans), and the region's destiny was largely in the hands of an aged bishop named Don Vasco de Quiroga. Nearly five centuries later, whether you're slipping down an alley past the cooking tortillas and soaking corn cobs, or sitting by the strumming mariachis in the plaza, there's still no getting around this town without hearing about Quiroga.

But once his tenure had passed, church and civil officials decided in 1580 to move the state's seat of power from here to Morelia, about 45 minutes away. Over the generations, Morelia grew and grew, its colonial center eventually surrounded by a population of more than 600,000, and an airport on its outskirts. It remains the capital of the state of Michoacan and the seat of the region's Catholic bishop. Patzcuaro, meanwhile, stayed smallish, its 40,000 residents ambling along on cobblestone streets between adobe buildings with red-tile roofs.

I came to amble among them because I believe in enjoying the slower, small-town Mexico while it lasts. I had heard about Patzcuaro's colonial atmosphere, the scenic lake and islands next door, and the string of craft villages circling the lake like a necklace. I was far from being the only tourist (Patzcuaro has long been popular with admirers of Mexican crafts and folk art), but because there are no beaches here, and no 300-room hotels, tourism usually casts a shorter shadow.

My first stop was downtown Patzcuaro, where government offices, shops and lodgings stand shoulder to shoulder in old mansions surrounding the stately shade trees, benches and fountains of a main plaza named, yes, for Don Vasco de Quiroga.

But it wasn't an easy introduction: Booked into the Mansion Iturbe, a bed-and-breakfast in a historic building facing the plaza, I arrived in a late summer rain and was told that the hotel's off-street parking lot was several blocks away. By the time I had clawed my way to the lot and back through the thick, wet, end-of-day downtown traffic, I had all but abandoned the idea of Patzcuaro as a smaller, slower place.

But the rain abated, the hotel proved pleasant, the traffic never got that bad again and, as long as I was staying in the city, I didn't need to use the rental car anyway. Soon enough I was comfortably established amid the brightly colored walls and rustic furniture of my $95-a-night room, a tiny balcony just outside.

It didn't hurt that my favorite restaurant in town turned out to be a Euro-Mexican place called El Primer Piso (the First Floor), just across the plaza. Nor did I mind that the many arches of the 17th century Templo del Sagrario, my favorite piece of architecture in town, were just one block east of the plaza on Calle Portugal.

During the next few days I walked a lot and found that Patzcuaro, more than 7,000 feet above sea level and 240 miles west of Mexico City, is a good place for sweaters and umbrellas. It's cool most of the year, with winter lows often dropping into the 40s. In the summer, highs can reach the 80s, but afternoon showers are common.

One of my frequent stops was the Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra ("Plaza Chica," or little square, in the local shorthand), which fulfills more blue-collar purposes than the main plaza, including a farmer's market that goes on for blocks, snaking down alleys and around corners. Next to the Plaza Chica, I stepped into a building that I expected to be a church--and in fact it was built as a convent dedicated to St. Augustine in the 16th century--and found that it's now a library. Further, its back wall was covered with an enormous 1942 mural of Michoacan history, painted by the acclaimed Mexican muralist Juan O'Gorman.

The star of that mural, of course, is Don Vasco de Quiroga. Trained as a lawyer before joining the priesthood, he was in his early 60s when he reached this region in the early 1530s. Most accounts put his age at 67 when he was named bishop of Michoacan, and by all accounts his tenure was as mild and paternal as his predecessors' had been fierce and repressive.

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