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Walking down Avenida 4 Poniente on the western edge of central Puebla, you could easily miss the Uriarte Talavera pottery workshop. At eye level, the old building seems uninviting and dull, with heavy wrought-iron bars on the windows and worn stone that’s as gray as the sidewalk. But look up and you’ll see a façade that shouts about the beauty being created within: ornate tilework in cobalt, yellow, and white.
Through the arched doorway sits a bustling workshop, now nearly 200 years old, that continues a pottery tradition called Talavera, rooted in colonial-era Spain but adapted to Mexico’s soils. Inside, artisans roll out clay and press it, tortilla-like, before throwing it on pottery wheels or molding it into tiles. Others stencil patterns using vegetable carbon. Still others hunch over tiles, bowls, and plates, painting intricate designs with mule-hair brushes. One of only a handful of products protected by the Mexican government with an official appellation of origin, Talavera is made exclusively from the volcanic clays of the states of Puebla and neighboring Tlaxcala.
That such painstaking artistry remains largely overlooked by outsiders is good news for those wanting to experience a part of Mexico cherished by Mexicans yet untrampled by mass tourism. It also tells a bigger story: Mexico might be one of the world’s most popular desti- nations right now, but Puebla is a jewel hidden in plain sight, not least because of its extraordinary cultural wealth.
Located just a two-hour drive from Mexico City, Puebla de los Angeles—literally, “habitation of the angels”—has long been favored by the country’s elite, partly due to its reputation in other parts of the country as a haven from violence. Its 1.4 million inhabitants, known as Poblanos, have preserved significant swaths of what is now a nearly 500-year-old city center and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stories abound here; many might not realize that Puebla is where Mexican soldiers defeated French invaders on May 5, 1862, an event you probably know as Cinco de Mayo.
For me, the Puebla experience crystallized on a Sunday afternoon under a blue sky at the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, where Mass had just ended. Outside, the church is stolid but unspectacular. Inside, when I turned left at the front of the main sanctuary and entered a small Baroque chapel known as the Capilla del Rosario, suddenly everything shined. The chapel’s ornate walls and ceiling, blanketed in 23-karat gold leaf, seemed to make the numerous statues of the Virgin and the heads of chubby angels glow. No one could be anything but dazzled, even stunned, especially with sunlight pouring through windows in the chapel’s majestic dome.
Puebla is a city of domes—big, small, brick, tile-covered. Most belong to churches, some of which have doubled as innovation labs. According to a folktale retold by Diana Kennedy (often referred to as the Julia Child of Mexico), in the 17th century nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa were preparing a banquet when a gust of wind swept up ingredients lying about the kitchen and tossed them in a pot. The result: mole poblano, that famously velvety sauce that’s savory but sweet and now made differently by every chef (and definitely made better by someone’s abuela).
Puebla has been called the Lyon of Mexico, the apex of the country’s culinary pyramid. (Anthony Bourdain once said that most of his cooks came from the state of Puebla.) One morning I went to the brand-new Rosewood Puebla, one of the latest additions to the luxury resort group, for a mole-making lesson with chef de cuisine Jonathan Alvarado, who cooked under Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City, one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants. As he dry-roasted chilies in a pan, Alvarado (whose mole recipe includes traditional ingredients, such as plantains and cinnamon, as well as brioche, which may have to do with his training in Paris) emphasized that Puebla, while a city of high tradition, also has a way with subtle experimentation.
For instance, rather than serving his meltingly tender suckling pig as is, he prefers to debone the meat, press it French-style, freeze it, and cut it into small blocks. “You serve the pork with a quenelle of eggplant purée; a little salad of orange, lime, and arugula on top; and jus,” made from roasting the bones into a thick sauce, he said. “It’s the same as carnitas, but not. It’s traditional, but not really.” Alvarado served us his mole on Talavera plates, of course.
Wandering Puebla, your eyes adjust as if to new light, and you see Talavera all over the city. It embellishes venerable buildings such as the Casa de Alfeñique, believed to be Puebla’s oldest museum. (Unfortunately, the large earthquake that shook Mexico last September, and which was centered not far from Puebla, left the intricate façade in danger of falling off, and the museum remains closed.) At Puebla’s other world-class hotel, the recently opened, 78-room Cartesiano, decades-old Talavera from a disused tile shop form part of the sleekly modern design, yet another instance of the commitment to honor the old and nurture the new in this city of abundant scaffolding and cobblestone. The most striking examples of Talavera I saw were at Herencia 811, a mansion that has been transformed into a collection of galleries and shops, where the lavatory floor is made of the most varied collection of tiles I saw anywhere.
Puebla is one of Mexico’s most prosperous cities, and its monuments have long testified to its wealth. Today they include the stunning International Museum of the Baroque, which opened last year to honor that era of ornate art and music. Cleverly, the museum’s austere home, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Toyo Ito, is anything but ornate. Like Puebla itself, the unexpectedly minimalist structure refuses to look only backward, pairing contemporary art with colonial masterpieces.
Another museum showing off Puebla’s extraordinary cultural riches is the Amparo Museum, whose classic façade opens up to a luminous construction of glass, steel, and marble that brings to mind an Apple store stripped of gadgetry. The Amparo holds one of Mexico’s best pre-Hispanic art collections, but many of the works on display, such as stone carvings of dogs and jaguars, have cool, modern lines—unwitting indicators of how creativity can transcend the centuries. Recently, the museum has ramped up its cultural offerings in other media, venturing into music performances and film screenings, with the goal of embracing Puebla’s heritage holistically, rather than preserving a time capsule. This mission takes physical form when you ascend to the museum’s spacious rooftop, where wooden decking surrounds a glass-walled café/bar and blue square-tiled planters abound with blossoming iris, snapdragons, and lavender. The cityscape, with all those domes, almost embraces you, and I sat there for a while, nursing a Tecate and marveling at Puebla’s remarkable energy.
After years of having none, Puebla now has two five-star hotels, the first of which to open was the 78-room Rosewood Puebla (rooms from $250), occupying a complex of lovingly restored buildings in the old city. World-class amenities and colonial ambience are also available at the Cartesiano (rooms from $500), a boutique hotel in a pair of 300-year-old mansions just minutes from Puebla’s UNESCO-protected town square.
Both the Rosewood and Cartesiano offer venues for sampling Puebla’s renowned cuisine. At the Rosewood’s Pasquinel Bistrot, executive chef Jorge González, an alum of Spain’s famed El Bulli, applies high-concept interpretations to classic recipes. For snappy fare in a boho setting, head outside the city center to Casa Nueve in Cholula.
If Puebla’s visual splendor leaves you wishing you could bring it back, check out Uriarte Talavera, which has been firing ceramics since 1824 in what is now one of the last workshops downtown. “We stick to the traditions,” says co-owner Michael Paulhus, which means all products are handmade (no plastic molds) by local craftspeople. In addition to its showroom and kilns, Uriarte includes a small museum featuring work by contemporary artists.