Originally, I had planned to try to visit the three famous sites around Mexico City's main square, the Zócalo, my first day there. I knew it was an ambitious - maybe impossible - plan. In the end, I only visited the Templo Mayor on Saturday and nixed a day trip to Puebla on Thursday in order to follow a more leisurely schedule and fully enjoy everything Mexico City has to offer.
I'd ended up missing the Ballet Folklorico on Wednesday evening, as tickets had sold out. The lady at the ticket booth was pretty rude and abrupt about it too, especially when I asked if there was a cancellation line. Returned Thursday morning to check out the interior of the building, and was, again, unimpressed. So I walked toward my next target, the Palacio Nacional.
Built on the site of and with some of the materials from Moctezuma II's palace, the Palacio Nacional is the official seat of Mexico's executive branch. It's not used as a presidential residence today, though it has been in the past. You know you're entering a government building - though free to enter, you have to bring along a form of ID to trade for a visitor's pass. Once inside, I was almost trampled by some quickly marching soldiers, then barked at to take off my sunglasses as I tried to read the signage to figure out where to go.
I gave up and followed the group in front of me to an exhibit on the life of Benito Juarez. (I went into some history on Juarez, and how beloved he is in Mexico even today, in an earlier post.) From a US perspective, I kind of want to compare him to Lincoln; for his humble beginnings, his career as a lawyer, and the period during which he was president. Juarez's family lived in the Palacio Nacional while he was president - he even died there. The exhibit was pretty well done, with lots of artifacts both personal and political.
Then it was time for Diego Rivera's grand staircase mural. 1) I wasn't expecting it to be outdoors, as part of a courtyard and 2) I found it infinitely more fascinating than the work at Bellas Artes. It's the sprawling history of Mexico, and incredibly well done. The use of color and the monumental size of the work creates a sculptural feeling - people painted toward the back almost felt 3-D. I walked around the upstairs porch in awe of this, and the smaller murals of different indigenous peoples Diego painted.
Skipping back to Wednesday night - after a day spent in Coyoacan and missing out on Ballet Folklorico tickets, I decided to check out the Metropolitan Cathedral instead. (Its official name is Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos, so I'll just be calling it "the cathedral".) It's the largest cathedral in the Americas, and is sinking, as it was built on the old lake bed. The first Catholic church on the site was built by the Spanish almost immediately after conquering the Aztecs, over parts of the Templo Mayor. There are glass panels in the sidewalk out front of the cathedral, where you can peer down and see some of the excavations below.
The usual lowering of the massive flag in the center of the square was suspended for setting up a Major League Baseball practice field, and much of the interior of the cathedral was blocked off for Holy Week, but I'd read there was part of the cathedral that not everyone realizes is open to the public, that makes a visit there completely worthwhile. For $20 MEX, you can visit the bell towers and walk across the roof of the cathedral.
Our tour started up the narrow stone spiral staircase. It felt very 'Hunchback of Notre-Dame', even more so than my visit to Notre-Dame itself. Our guide - a lady about my age, wearing a leopard-print jacket - was great. The whole tour was in Spanish, of course, but I understood about a third of what was said. (Yay!) We started in the east tower, where the majority of the bells are. The guide rung one right in the ear of the poor, unsuspecting kid that had been in front of me. LOL. From there, we continued on, down across the brick roof - which was fun. Another spiral staircase was involved. While others tread carefully, I hopped down the stairs easily - the church I grew up in had spiral stairs to keep horses from entering the sanctuary ever again. (The joys of growing up in an area that was hotly contested during the American Civil War!)
Standing atop the cathedral, we had amazing views of the city, the mountains beyond, and the dramatic evening sky. In the western tower, I comprehended enough to understand that there are two types of bells - one where you ring the clapper with the rope, and one where you move the entire thing by its frame - think the Liberty Bell. On the second type, the bell literally goes all the way around as she demonstrated for us, pushing it through several ring-less revolutions, and finally, stopping the motion by grabbing onto the wood portion and bouncing her feet off the bell itself. The group broke out into well-earned applause. (She'd also explained how one of the bell-ringers had gotten clocked and killed by a bell, so props.)
After the tour, I visited the western side of the Zócalo, the Portales de Mercederes, a historic shopping area. I'd stopped by earlier in the day to buy chocolate at Que Bó, now I was in search of something a little stronger. I found the entrance to the Gran Hotel, which is known for its beautiful stained glass ceiling. After taking it in and snapping some pics, I asked the concierge about the rooftop bar. They pointed me in the right direction. While I didn't manage to snag one of the few outdoor tables, I enjoyed a great view of the Zócalo as I worked on my enormous guava margarita. A gorgeous full moon rose over the Zócalo, just above the bell that Hidalgo rang to call for Mexican independence.