November 19 – 22
We found navigating the Mexico City Metro system to be fairly easy and enjoyed traveling on it with one exception; during certain times of the day it could become unbearably crowded, the bane of any large train system. A number of times we had to almost force ourselves into a car and would have to stand crushed together with other passengers for the bulk of the ride.
This did lead to one funny encounter a day or so later when we watched a man board the train carrying a large bag of red meat, his white uniform stained with blood. He boarded, set the bag on the floor as he had likely done many times before and road a station or two before departing. Fortunately for all of us the coach was not overly crowded as I couldn’t imagine being pressed up against such an inviting companion.
We departed the train at our station directly behind the Palacio de Bellas Artes and walked around to the front, taking a couple of moments to admire its grand façade. An earlier building that was the home of the National Theater of Mexico was demolished in 1901 and it was then decided to replace it with a more opulent one for the upcoming Centennial of Mexican Independence celebrations in 1910. The new theatre would be called the Gran Teatro de Ópera and the work was awarded to Italian architect Adamo Boari, who favored neoclassical and art nouveau styles.
The first stone of the building was placed by Porfirio Díaz in 1904 but despite the 1910 deadline, by 1913, the building was hardly begun with only a basic shell. One reason for this is that the project became more complicated than anticipated as the heavy building sank into the soft spongy subsoil. The other reason was the political and economic instability that would lead to the Mexican Revolution. Full hostilities suspended construction of the palace completely and Adamo Boari returned to Italy.
The project would sit unfinished for about twenty years. In 1932, construction resumed under Mexican architect Federico Mariscal, who completed the interior but updated it from Boari’s plans to the more modern Art Deco style. The building was completely finished in 1934 and was inaugurated on September 29th of that year. In 1946, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of the Fine Arts) was created as a government agency to promote the arts and is now housed at the Palacio.
More than anything, we’d come to see the murals that dominate the floors between the ground floor and the uppermost floors, painted by most of the famous names of Mexican muralism. On the 2nd floor is two early-1950s works by Rufino Tamayo: México de Hoy (Mexico Today) and Nacimiento de la Nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality), a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo (person of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry) identity.
At the west end of the 3rd floor is El Hombre Controlador del Universo (Man, controller of the universe- known as Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933. The mural depicts a variety of technological and societal themes (such as the discoveries made possible by microscopes and telescopes) and was controversial for its inclusion of Lenin and a Soviet May Day parade. The Rockefellers were not happy with the painting and the incomplete work was eventually destroyed and painted over. Rivera recreated it here in 1934.
On the north side of the third floor are David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part La Nueva Democracía (New Democracy) and Rivera’s four-part Carnaval de la Vida Mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life).
Not being experts on these individuals or their art and not having printed background information on them or the murals made the experience a bit less richer than it could have been. But this didn’t detract from the power of these pieces of art, their vibrancy, their obvious commentary on the life and times they were created during.
We left the Palacio in search of a snack; as we walked down Ave. 5 de Mayo towards the Plaza de la Constitucion, a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times, we passed by the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles), an 18th-century Baroque palace built by the Count of the Valle de Orizaba family.
The building is distinguished by its facade, which is covered on three sides by blue and white tile of Puebla state (which we would visit later in the trip). The palace remained in private hands until near the end of the 19th century; changing owners several times before being bought by the Sanborns brothers who expanded their soda fountain/drugstore business into one of the best-recognized restaurant chains in Mexico
A block or so down the avenue we found a Starbucks and were happy to discover that our app for it worked and we could use it to purchase a big latte and some food. Indeed, one of the positive elements of travel in Mexico is that our cell phone coverage with Verizon worked seamlessly for no extra charge and as a small bonus, the country uses the same electrical standard as the Unites States, meaning one doesn’t have to worry about adaptors.
Refreshed we completed the ¾ mile passage to the Plaza and stopped to admire it size and its surroundings, that being the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace, home to government offices. The cathedral was built in sections from 1573 to 1813 around the original church that was constructed soon after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, eventually replacing it entirely. Spanish architect Claudio de Arciniega planned the construction, drawing inspiration from Gothic cathedrals in Spain.
Over the centuries, the cathedral has suffered damage; a fire in 1967 destroyed a significant part of the cathedral’s interior. The restoration work that followed uncovered a number of important documents and artwork that had previously been hidden. Although a solid foundation was built for the cathedral, the soft clay soil it is built on has been a threat to its structural integrity.
Dropping water tables and accelerated sinking caused the structure to be added to the World Monuments Fund list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. Restoration work beginning in the 1990s stabilized the cathedral and it was removed from the endangered list in 2000.
We’d spend some time inside the Cathedral, admiring as we usually do the message about the power of god it conveys through its design and furnishing. On these long days of sightseeing, an imposing but quiet house of worship provides refreshing downtime, a chance to sit and reflect on what you’ve seen and will see, and your place in the world around you. It’s a good place to be.
Palacio de Bellas Artes: https://www.wmf.org/project/palace-fine-arts-palacio-de-bellas-artes
Plaza de la Constitucion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z%C3%B3calo
Metropolitan Cathedral: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/mexico/mexico-city-cathedral
Sisqueros attribution: By Wolfgang Sauber – Own work,