A light drizzle started to fall just as my daughter and I stepped on to the narrow cobblestoned Callejón de los Sapos (Alley of the Toads), refreshing the warm air with its coolness. We ducked into the tiny folk art shop next to us to stay dry, and gazed at the impossibly vast array of wares on its narrow walls. A tap on my shoulder surprised us, as the handsome young clerk of our next-door hotel, Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía, had hunted us down on the street with an umbrella. “I thought you might need this,” he smiled. Not only did we need the umbrella, but his friendly and hospitable touch started us off on a delightful, if moist, afternoon in Puebla.
If you, as most Brits do, only know Mexico from being or hearing about Cancun, then Puebla is nothing like that. This is colonial Mexico.
Puebla is a gorgeous Spanish colonial treasure of a city some 50 miles southeast of Mexico City. (about two hours by car or bus.) With about 2.6 million inhabitants, it is the fourth largest city in Mexico. Puebla, the capital of the state of Puebla is one of Mexico’s 36 states. It was also the site of the famous ‘Cinco de Mayo’ battle in 1862, (where the Mexicans defeated a French army that had been expected to win. The battle is a much revered part of Mexican history) and is the capital of the state of Puebla, one of Mexico’s 36 states.
Puebla offers is a vibrant, yet peaceful, incredibly beautiful area with a year-round mild climate. It has a unique architecture replete with intricate tiling, cupolas, (domes) cobblestoned streets, fantastically ornate churches and cathedrals. There is a friendly and traditional Mexican culture, exquisite artesanía, (handicrafts and folk art,) spectacular natural scenery including four snow-capped volcanoes and some of the nation’s most beloved and well-known gastronomy.
The tree-lined zócalo, or main plaza, (La Plaza de la Constitución,) is the place to begin your Puebla experience. This is where locals meet, greet, live and love and you’ll delight in experiencing its ambiance at different times of day. Take time looking around the historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage site – there are surprises in every direction. Puebla has more than 2,600 buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries that are catalogued as being of great architectural and cultural value. The tiled buildings are truly magnificent and in amazingly good condition. You’ll see courtyards, balconies, stone carvings, and many other touches reminiscent of Spain’s Andalucia or Toledo, where Talavera (a type of majolica pottery, which has a white glaze) originated. Afterwards, head back to the zócalo for a taco árabe (a locally popular snack similar to a doner kebab) or a menjul- a Mexican version of a mojito with rum, sugar and mint – at the Bar Los Portales at the Hotel Royalty.
With wrought-iron benches on all sides, fronting sidewalk cafes resembling those of a European city, the zócalo is centered by the enormous Catedral de Puebla, dating from 1575. The cathedral, a wildly ornate, carved masterpiece that well shows off Puebla’s status as a wealthy Spanish colonial city, is dominated by two almost 230-feet tall towers. Look up – the tiled domed ceiling was built to resemble St. Peter’s in Rome. There are other magnificent churches, as well as various museums, such as the whimsical Casa del Alfenique or the Casa de los Muñecos (a tiled mansion with depictions of dancing figures, or dolls all over.
Puebla is renowned for its folk art and high-quality Talavera ceramics and tiles, which it has produced since 1550 and which adorns its buildings. Visit Talavera Armando at 6 Norte 408 to join a fascinating workshop tour as well as to see the shop selling their exquisite and certified talavera dishes, tiles and decorative ítems.
Sunday is antiques day in Puebla, and the Callejón de los Sapos (Alley of the Frogs) is the place to go. You’ll find everything from fine Talavera pottery to 1950s Mexican movie posters. You’ll also find paintings displayed on the cobblestone streets by various artists at the Barrio del Artista in the Plaza del Torno. Then finish off at the Mercado de Artesanías, an 18th-century market selling crafts from the state of Puebla, including locally made sweets called dulces de Santa Clara.
The gastronomy of Puebla is famed throughout the world. Puebla’s chefs came up with some of the most beloved dishes in Mexico, the most famous of which may be mole (pronounced mole-ay)poblano (the exotic dark sauce is made with some thirty ingredients including chilies, cinnamon and chocolate; (very well prepared indeed at our hotel) Then there is chiles en nogada (seasonally available in August and September only,) which has green, white and red ingredients to match the colours on the Mexican flag. Don’t miss cemitas (a type of sandwich,) and some of the best regional sweets in Mexico.
Be sure to visit Cholula, a small town just across the river from Puebla. This is home to an enormous pyramid built in the second century B.C. and which is now covered by a church. Climb outside to the top for an impressive view of the four volcanoes, or explore the tunnels and chambers inside. Cholula has many churches as well and a wide, much more placid, but lovely, town plaza, also surrounded by shops and bistros. The delightful Quinta Luna is an intimate, luxurious and very well-run hotel here, (try to arrive in time for their once-a-month classical recital in the courtyard,) within walking distance from the pyramid, the market and the plaza. The plush presidential suite is in high demand for honeymoons – a perfect fit.
Much more awaits those who travel to Puebla – try Africam, a safari park with almost 200 species of African and other wild animals, or many kinds of adventure travel, including white water rafting, spelunking and rock climbing, waterfalls, and hiking or exploring archeological ruins.
You can fly to Mexico City via British Airways. Alternatively fly on Aeromexico from Paris or Madrid; Air France from Paris; KLM from Amsterdam, Iberia from Madrid or Lufthansa from Frankfurt. Then there are flight connections to Puebla. You don’t need to fly to Puebla from Mexico City, as the airport has a bus terminal inside. You can take an Estrella de Oro luxury bus directly into Puebla for less than £14 each way, including assigned seats, a light lunch, an onboard movie (with earphones) and surprisingly good security (they X-ray all luggage and video each passenger before departing.) The trip takes about two hours and taxis wait at the bus terminal in Puebla to whisk you to your hotel.
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