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6 Great Colonial Mexican Cities

The Museo Regional de Querétaro, in the Ex Convento de San Francisco, has a wide-ranging collection. Among the objects that stand out the most are an 18th-century painting depicting Querétaro's aqueduct; a pre-Columbian ceramic dog deliriously chasing its own tail; and the Emperor Maximilian's ornate meerschaum pipe. Querétaro is where Maximilian's short, ignoble career ended: he was executed by a firing squad here in 1867. The event was recorded in a series of dramatic paintings by Édouard Manet; in this museum, the day is represented by the table on which the failed emperor lay embalmed and by the plain coffin in which he was carried away. We walk out to Cerro de las Campanas—a park named for the bell-like sound the native stones make when tapped together—where a simple one-room chapel (a gift from the Austrian government) commemorates the execution. From the hill, the city of Querétaro sprawls out to industrial suburbs and a network of highways.

Morelia

Morelia, a magnificent colonial city, had been called Valladolid by the Spanish and was later renamed in honor of Morelos. The capital of the state of Michoacán, it is located in a high valley (at 6,400 feet), an elegant town with broad boulevards, genial plazas, and expansive views of the countryside. Its harmoniously composed center is reminiscent of  Vicenza or Edinburgh's New Town. In the 16th century, King Philip II of Spain issued Las Ordenenzas, a set of urban-­planning ordinances regarding the layout of Hispanic American cities. According to these rules, each city should feature a main plaza bordered by four streets (Morelia, unusually, has two main plazas); the buildings facing the plaza should include ground-floor portals, arched semi­public spaces linking the buildings to the street. Historically, these shaded spaces provided an area for country people to sell their goods in the city; today, the portals are also occupied by cafés, contributing to Morelia's essential air of sociability.

At our hotel—a stylish 17th-century episcopal palace that has recently been renovated by architect Fernando Pérez Córdoba—we confront the basic design dilemma of colonial buildings: a balconied room that faces the plaza is loud; an interior room looking onto the patio is dark. At Los Juaninos, our room is dimly lit, and the windows are fitted with iron bars; we are, however, insulated from street noise and the tinny sound track of Christmas carols broadcast nonstop from the municipal Christmas tree.

The colonial cities are ideal for walking: compact, yet architecturally rich and accentuated with unanticipated blasts of color and imagery. In Morelia, at one of the oldest universities in the Americas, the Colegio de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, there is a dynamic 1929 mural of Michoacán daily life by Marion Greenwood, a young American painter who worked with the graphic artist Pablo O'Higgins, a United States–born Mexican citizen and colleague of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. The university lecture halls, conforming to European tradition, are called aulas and named for great philosophers; a miniature wooden sign embossed with gold-leaf lettering indicates the Aula Carlos Marx.

At Museo del Dulce, the candy museum, we fill a basket with handmade tin toys, pumpkin-seed brittle, and dulce de camote, pastel-colored confections made from sweet-potato pastes. Flirtatious teenage girls costumed as nuns sell bottles of Rompope, an eggnog-flavored liqueur. We stop for savory snacks, antojitos (literally "little whims," like the tasty quesadillas stuffed with the corn fungus huitlacoche, and tacos al pastor), in the vaultlike bar at the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, a grand 17th-century palace built for the city's first viceroy. At the edge of town, an impressive 18th-century aqueduct—a graceful arcade of pink stone—merges the countryside with the city streets.

Guanajuato

The high plateau that stretches from Morelia to Guanajuato seems to be skimming the surface of the surrounding lakes. The modern road into town descends into a rugged dirt-walled tunnel that forks and finally surfaces at the edge of the Jardín de la Union, Guanajuato's triangular-shaped plaza, a pedestrian precinct bordered by laurel trees and cafés.

With its narrow cobblestoned alleyways, or callejones, and higgledy-piggledy layout, the city is a startling contrast to Morelia: a Cubist landscape encountered after a vision of the rational sublime. Guanajuato is the birthplace of Rivera, and we visit his childhood home, a prim Victorian house built on a rocky outcropping in the Centro Histórico. Its interior is laid out in a crazy-quilt pattern, curiously accommodating the site's irregular terrain.

Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera contains an exceptional array of the artist's work, ranging from staid early portraits to studies for his famous murals. As a young artist in France, in the years just before World War 1, Rivera enjoyed his first wave of success: his quick-witted eye and always confident hand seem to have effortlessly mastered Cubism, the radical vision he was born to.

Guanajuato's regional museum is absorbing and happily does not provoke any flashbacks of school field trips. One of the galleries features an impressive pre-Hispanic collection, assembled with care by the painters Olga Costa and José Chávez Morado. Even the museum's building, Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a tremendous Neoclassical stone structure originally built as a granary, is a reminder of Mexico's complex history. Father Hidalgo and his fellow insurgency leaders Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, and Mariano Jimenez were executed here by the Spanish royalists; their decapitated heads were hung from cages outside the Alhóndiga for 10 years.

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