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Guanajuato, a city with an old soul

Sift through the history of this unassuming, ancient town and its rich artistic heritage emerges.

October 09, 2005|Stephen Franklin | Chicago Tribune

Guanajuato, Mexico — SPRAWLED along steep ravines, Guanajuato is a dusty, workaday city of narrow streets and quaint alleys, of elaborately decorated churches and mansions that seem to breathe the air of another time. Below them lies a thick warren of underground traffic tunnels, some dating from colonial days. The tunnels seem fitting in a city that owes its existence to gold and silver mines.

Artist Javier de Jesus Hernandez says the city's soul is rooted in a distant time and place. And the Guanajuato he is talking about is not just the 500-year-old colonial relic left behind in the highlands of central Mexico by the Spaniards, who milked hundreds of silver and gold mines to feed their thirst for sparkling minerals.

His Guanajuato also is the Mediterranean city that inspired the 16th century style of pottery that he has tried to resurrect. His focus on the city's roots permeates the soft-brown-colored Moorish-looking house here where he lives and works and shows his painting, sculptures and ceramics.

"People don't think about their heritage," says the middle-aged university professor and artist, who began calling himself Capelo years ago. He has tried to re-create the lush-looking majolica pottery that the Spanish brought to Guanajuato in the 16th century; though others disagree about its root, he is convinced that the name "majolica" comes from the Spanish seaside city of Malaga.

This quest to reconnect with Guanajuato's roots intrigues me.

It sets my emotional bearings as I wander about the more-than-mile-high city. I meander most of the time on foot because the streets are so narrow that cars do not fit into the city's historic center.

It reminds me that I am strolling through a massive museum, and my job is to appreciate the exhibits, the marked and unmarked ones. Guanajuato's attraction is not glitzy restaurants or shops. It has an old soul and a story that it is willing to share.

Guanajuato, founded in the 16th century, had become the second most important and richest city in New Spain -- after Mexico City -- by the end of the 18th century. In 1988, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I am staying in a 100-year-old French-style mansion-turned-boutique-hotel at the peak of the city. Tree-lined streets funnel me downward past a small park, large old houses slumbering behind high walls, shops and schools, numerous buildings from the University of Guanajuato and then ultimately into the triangular-shaped Jardin de la Union, the heart of the city.

Guanajuato's central square, unlike those in some other Mexican cities, has a natural cover. A thick growth of carefully shaped Indian laurel trees forms a green shawl that shields from the sun black wrought-iron benches, a small bandstand where musicians perform several nights a week, and cafes and hotel restaurants where tables spill out onto the square.

Various bands descend nightly on the folks around the tables, and one night seated on a park bench I vicariously share the very public celebrations of a couple who gleefully welcome one band after another, asking for yet more romantic songs, toasting each other and occasionally dancing beside their table.

Solace and surprises

BECAUSE the mood here is more low-key than Mexico City or at any of the glitzy resorts, it seems easy to melt into the background. Unlike San Miguel de Allende, which is about an hour away, there are few other tourists, and being a stranger does not make you a magnet for unwanted attention.

On the outskirts of the city is the Museo Ex-Hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera, an 18th century neo-European-style mansion with quiet, well-cared-for gardens of various designs. It's a place that provides an insight into the comfort enjoyed by the elite, who once benefited from Guanajuato's mineral wealth. (Today, only about a dozen silver mines are still working.) At the entrance to the museum, now owned by the Mexican government, there's a small cafe that offers solace on a busy day.

A nearby mountaintop holds La Valencia mine, which once churned out tons of silver. The opulence that La Valencia and other mines bestowed on the city is reflected in the Church of San Cayetano, just off the road.

Clustered close to the church's plaza are several gift shops. Here, Detroit-born artist Randy Walz opened an arts-and-crafts store. He laments the fact that other expats are catching up with his discovery and searching for places to settle in Guanajuato.

Yet I am less moved by the spectacular vistas surrounding Guanajuato than I am by the experience of wandering in the crowded, compact city. The chances are greater that I'll wander into surprises.

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