Posted by: acooksca | 03/31/2009

Mexico City – 24 hours


I had never been to the capital of Mexico, and this was only a 24 hour visit. But an evening stroll and dinner in Mexico City’s charming Centro Historico was too appealing to pass up.

We weren’t in this City of 20 million long enough to see much beyond the monumental city center. But it was delightful to just be there and enjoy this vibrant place.

Famous for its choking smog, the broad basin that holds the city was clear as we flew in over densely clustered neighborhoods. Areas that looked more affluent were marked with broad, tree-edged boulevards and parks.

Once on the ground we met one accommodating person after another.
Can I go through the immigration line with the airline crew? I am traveling with them…  “Si, Senora”.  Sorry, we don’t have identification to enter this government building, but can we go upstairs to see the Diego Rivera murals? “O.K., no problem”.

We were staying in the Gran Melia Hotel, a 5-star hotel at the edge of the Historic Center. Two blocks away is the Alameda Central, a beloved city park whose paths are deeply shaded by century-old plane trees. Fountains sparkled and police on horseback straightened their sombreros for our camera. A vendor grilled corncobs over smoky tree bark. This is not the juicy sweet corn we know, but rich tasting, tough and jaw-tiring.

The Alameda leads to the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes, often called the Opera House. Within its art deco lobby café goers gather in small alcoves to sip coffee beneath famous wall murals. The buzz of a private event mingled with voices of visitors forming a reserved background murmur.

To complete our evening we took a suggestion for an authentic “Mexican Cuisine” restaurant.  Steps from the Opera House is Los Girasoles. We were hoping for a contemporary treatment of traditional Mexican ingredients such as kid goat, rabbit or duck. They offered mostly beef and chicken breast. We ordered dishes with unique sounding sauces such as Beef Packet with Jamaican Vegetable Salsa. We couldn’t figure the dish out. But the tortillas in each preparation caught our attention. Some were crepe-thin and others thick and deep flavored. They seemed house-made to match the specific preparations. I vowed to look harder in The Bay Area for a resource of unique tortillas.

The next morning we continued invetigaitng the streets of the city center, where it is always wise to glance down. Outside the most magnificent  buildings the side walk can suddenly pitch at a steep angle or have holes punched out to reveal a dank under street environment. I understand this central area of gilded nineteenth century Placaios is slowly sinking.

Jewelry stores and imported luxury goods sellers keep these blocks of crumbling grand buildings alive. An art museum advertising the 100 year anniversary of Frida Kahlo shares courtyard space with a ruined church from the 18th century. Modern life pulses in these streets of age-old shadows.

Three highlights of the historic center share the Zocolo, “the Third Largest Square in the World”. I have seen other immense squares, supposedly amongst the biggest, and Mexico City’s looks too cozy to be on that list. But its historical importance is vivid.

On one side The Metropolitan Cathedral is imposingly ornate inside and out and a fabulous place to watch locals. Bordering another side of the square is the National Palace, the political center of the Mexican government. A ceremonial guard allows visitors to troop in and gawk at a series of world famous murals by Diego Rivera. They vividly depict indigenous peoples and the loss of their lifestyle at the hands of Europeans.

Steps from the murals is the former seat of the last regime, that of Montezuma. Although his reign ended abruptly in 1521, some ruins of his ancient Aztec capital survive. The archaeological museum, Templo Mayor, looked inviting but we wanted to get to one other area. We chose the Zona Rosa, down Via Reforma about a mile.

The Zona Rosa brims with sidewalk food stalls and restaurants, antique shops and art schools. Our visitors guide told us it is a “predominantly gay area with many bars with a lipstick environment.” It reminded me of North Beach in San Francisco or The Village in New York, with a distinctive Latin flavor.

A one day visit allows only a few quick impressions. But absorbing the buzz and admiring the historic core of Mexico City is a delightful way to spend 24 hours.


Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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