Guanajuato's historic wealth is evident within its Baroque churches: their exuberant interiors are festooned with multitiered chandeliers, pure-silver embroidery, and an abundance of gold leaf. The Teatro Juárez, inaugurated in 1907 by President Porfirio Díaz (a dictatorial leader who admired all things French), features swags of red velvet, richly upholstered poufs, and plenty of gilding. Every surface is patterned, and the overall effect is a bit like being caught inside a millefiori paperweight.
The Francophilia of that period—derisively summed up as unpatriotic by José Clemente Orozco ("we have our own architecture, we don't need refried châteaux")—extends with greater refinement into the outskirts of town, where streets widen out to boulevards lined with acacias. Many of the area's 19th-century houses were originally built as summer residences; with their shuttered French windows, ample rooms with parquet floors, and unrepentant bourgeois formality, they could easily have drifted up the Rhône and across the Atlantic.
One of these houses is Quinta Las Acacias, where we stay. Built in 1890 by Alberto Malo, engineer for the Teatro Juárez, the Quinta has 14 balconies and hillside terraces overlooking the city. The Mexican breakfasts—slivers of glistening papaya brightened with wedges of lime, freshly squeezed juices, hefty plates of chilaquiles (a casserole of green chile sauce, tortilla strips, sour cream, and often chicken or pork, colloquially called "a broken-up old sombrero")—are, without exception, superb. We are always offered eggs prepared in a variety of ways, including poches, which is translated on the menu as "drowned." Reading this, Tom remarks, with characteristic Scottish concern, "Poor wee things." Each morning, we feel very well looked after.
Cuernavaca, with its nearly flawless weather and lush gardens, has long been a retreat for modern city dwellers. In 1526, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés built a formidable palace for himself, the Palacio deCortés, directly on top of an existing Aztec temple, on a hillside that is now the city center.
We reach Cuernavaca in the early evening; a full moon floats in the mercifully clear sky. At the Casa Colonial, we follow the hotel receptionist—a droll and discreetly helpful man named Nestro—up one staircase, through a loggia, and up a flight of narrower stairs to a large, almost secret room adjoining the roof. Nestro opens the bathroom door. "And here is another garden for you," he announces before he turns to leave. In the enormous skylit bathroom, small palms and flowering vines are growing against lustrous walls of artisanal tiles.
The streets of Cuernavaca snake out from the zócalo, the hectic central plaza filled with urban strollers and sidewalk vendors. The centerpiece of the zócalo is a 19th-century ironwork bandstand, purportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel, that resembles an oversized Victorian lampshade. Christmas, of course, is everywhere: a towering tree is decorated with giant medallions emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo, and Mylar piñatas, plump six-pointed stars, are hung between the streetlamps. Throughout town, iron-railed balconies are strewn with pots of blazing red flores de Noche Buena, the ﬂowers of Christmas Eve; a native bloom, the plant was introduced to the United States in 1825 by the first American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, and vaingloriously rechristened poinsettia.
The Palacio de Cortés now houses the Museo Regional Cuauhnáhuac, Cuernavaca's museum. Its sprawling collection includes archaeological discoveries; eyewitness accounts (in reproduction) of the meeting between Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, and the conquistadors; and a muscular mural by Diego Rivera recording the city's history. Rivera has featured, in his voluptuous signature style, a portrait of the 19th-century mule skinner turned priest José María Morelos, a hero of the War of Independence. Rivera's Morelos—a robust figure with deep, hooded eyes and an ample double chin—bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the artist himself.
Within the city's restrained, sepulchral Catedral de la Asunción de María, completed in 1552, a fragile mural recounts the crucifixion of the 16th-century Mexican saint Felipe de Jesús, in Japan. Portrayed with 26 fellow martyrs, San Felipe appears to one side, a pale, fragmented wraith adrift in a worn plaster sea. We wander through the Jardín Borda, 18th-century terraced gardens now overgrown and redolent of derelict gentility and enticing melancholy. In the museum here hangs a portrait of Emperor Maximilian with his lover, the gardener's wife, La India Bonita. It was Maximilian who observed that the Mexican climate necessitated a constant intake of "tonics": each day he imbibed 20 glasses of champagne.
One night, we have dinner at Gaia, a Nuevo Mexican restaurant in a colonial house that was once the home of Mario Moreno, the comic film star known as Cantinflas. Gaia has been designed in a pleasing minimalist aesthetic: high-ceilinged spaces flow into one another; the dining areas have whitewashed walls and low, flickering candlelight. At the center of the garden, a lighted swimming pool glows seductively in the darkness. Silhouetted beneath the water is a tiled mosaic of Gaia, the ancient goddess of fertility, created by Diego Rivera. We drink tamarindo and guanábana (soursop) margaritas, inspired marriages of tart fruit and smoky reposada tequila.