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Santa Fe: a bit of old Mexico in the US

Santa Fe consists almost entirely of brownish sandy coloured low-rise buildings of the Pueblo Revival or similar styles

BonVoyage---Fred-DonnellySANTA FE, New Mexico, Dec. 12, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Santa Fe, New Mexico, population 69,000, has a strange almost other worldly aspect to it. Clearly it’s a city but it has no high-rise buildings to speak of and its civic architecture displays an eerie uniformity. For many decades its building codes have not only restricted heights of structures but also colours and styles.

Santa Fe is almost entirely, but not quite, a brownish sandy colour consisting of low-rise buildings of the Pueblo Revival or similar styles. To the visitor from away, it looks Spanish or Mexican or exotic. Perhaps this is its charm, to be foreign in appearance but still part of the American West.

Another curious aspect of Santa Fe for the visitor has to do with chronological disorientation. Generally we think of settlements east of the Mississippi River as older and those to the west of it as newer. Forget that rule of thumb when it comes to this western city because Santa Fe is old, really old by North American standards.

The Spanish came here from Mexico and made Santa Fe their regional capital in 1610. A cluster of buildings around the central Plaza date from that era, to the amazement of history buffs. The Governor’s Palace, now part of a museum, dates from 1610 and the foundation of San Miguel church is probably a few years older. Nearby is what purports to be the oldest house in the U.S., with roof beams dated to 1646.

The old central Plaza laid out by the Spanish all those centuries ago is still the hub of activity for the tourist. Running away from it in all directions are side streets, warrens of arcades, galerias and courtyards, along with many smaller ‘Plaza Mercados’. Santa Fe is a top destination for high-end shopping, with its many retail outlets. What’s on offer is fine art work, jewelry, native handcrafts, western apparel, rare books, antiques, china, leather goods and luxury imports of every type.

In the long covered space in front of the old Governor’s Palace native artists, mainly silversmiths and jewelers, sell their wares. This is a prime location on the Plaza and spots are at a premium. Who gets to sell there is decided by lottery and my informant, a woman from the nearby Santo Domingo Pueblo (Reservation), explained that the losers head home having made no sales.

What also attracts visitors to Santa Fe is its rich artistic traditions in both Native American Indian and more recent schools of American painting. Perhaps the latter is most famously represented by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). These traditions converge in the city’s many museums and galleries that, at times, can overwhelm even the most artistically appreciative of visitors. In the Plaza area alone I visited the New Mexico Museum of Art, the New Mexico Museum of History, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the Andrew Smith Photography Gallery/Museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts.

A 20 minute drive from the Plaza is Museum Hill, a cluster of four first class museums devoted to Native Indian cultures, International Folk Art and Spanish Colonial art. For the serious collector of contemporary art, a drive along nearby Canyon Road, with its more than 100 artists’ studios and galleries, is essential.

Santa Fe is also the capital of New Mexico and even the capitol building, a 10-minute walk from the Plaza, is a part of the art scene. It houses 650 works of mostly contemporary New Mexican artists and is open free of charge to the public.

Accommodation in Santa Fe often reflects the city’s sophisticated artistic and historical traditions. My small hotel, Otra Vez, had an interior decor that was south-west Native Indian with some Spanish colonial style furnishings. The hotel shared a building with a well-stocked bookstore which, in turn, contained a coffee shop. The public was invited to free regular authors’ readings on site. An historical marker on the exterior wall explained that our building site had once been the Santa Fe county jail whose most famous inmate was the infamous outlaw known as Billy the Kid.

The more upscale Hotel St. Francis had a large lobby in the style of an 18th century Spanish monastery. Meanwhile, the queen of the Plaza is the La Fonda hotel, an early 20th century Pueblo Revival structure remodelled on top of a much older building. Its lobby and rooms contain original artwork including famous prints by Gerald Cassidy (1879-1934) depicting New Mexican cultural figures. To see the hotel’s collection go online at lafondasantafe.com, click on ‘Photo Gallery’ then click on ‘View the Art Gallery’. Enjoy.

The area around the Plaza is also known for fine dining. There are no ‘golden arches’ here. Indeed, only one of the usual American fast food franchises has penetrated this zone and it is tucked away in an arcade. You are more likely to find gourmet burger and pizzas on the menu along with a good choice of Mexican delicacies.

For more upscale dining around the plaza, I tried traditional Italian at Il Piatto. Arugula salad with gorgonzola, apples and walnuts/Pumpkin Ravioli with brown sage butter, pine nuts and parmigiano and sauce piemonte/Tiramisu for dessert and a glass of Chianti. It came to US$41 on the combination special.

Over at the House of Anasazi, I had Smoked Yukon Potato Soup (with Bacon Vanilli oil)/Diver Scallops and Kurobuta pork belly with a glass of white wine for US$60.

Like most places Santa Fe has lots of bars but I was looking for something a little different. A short walk from the Plaza I found Kakawa, a chocolate house where truly exotic concoctions made from the cocoa bean were on offer. I sampled the Meso-American ones that contained chili (nice and hot) but finally settled for ‘The Jeffersonian’, a sweet brew laced with nutmeg and Mexican vanilla at US$3.50 a cup.

Santa Fe is not for everyone and those without an appreciation for the arts and history may find it daunting. It’s not a theme-park type place. It’s a sophisticated destination set up to cater for those interested in the Native American Indian culture of the South-West, Spanish colonial history and the new schools of American painting in 20th century New Mexico.

Santa Fe, it’s a bit of old Mexico or Spain that has somehow found its way into the U.S.

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