Mexico City

It is, to be sure, polluted and crowded. and the traffic! but this sprawling metropolis also delivers an astonishing mix of high culture and lowdown fun. Joe Dolce Reports.

On my first visit to Mexico City I thought I had walked into the second Mexican Revolution. I was having a drink on the terrace of the Hotel Majestic in the central square, the Zócalo, which is the third largest public space in the world after Tiananmen and Red Squares. Three sides of the plaza are 16th-century colonial buildings that house the city government. The fourth is bordered by the enormous Metropolitan Cathedral, which slouches famously, as if exhausted from holding up its gold altars and Gothic arches, and the remains of the Templo Mayor, the Aztec ruin that was accidentally discovered in 1978 when the subway was being built. The sun was setting pink, some Indians were beating tribal drums, and the plaza was a swirl of people. I imagined the air had the same charge on those nights the Aztecs made human sacrifices.

My reverie was broken when across the way someone in military dress stepped onto a balcony and began to yell "Viva Mexico!" The crowd roared wildly and the whole scene brought me straight back to Times Square on New Year's Eve. I didn't know whether to join in or book the next flight home. An old waiter finally explained that I was witnessing El Grito, "the shout," Mexico's loudest public spectacle, in which the people gather to proclaim support for the government or to otherwise let off steam. After they've let roar, they all go out for a copa or two—Tequila, preferably aged for 15 years.

I've returned five times since, and like tequila, Mexico City is an acquired taste. Yes, it has its share of urban problems: It's jammed with 24 million people (one fourth of the country's population), merciless traffic, and has eye-stinging pollution. All this, plus its headache-inducing altitude, 1.4 miles above sea level, led Carlos Fuentes to rename it Make Sicko City. (The best antidote for altitude sickness is Tums.)

But what it may lack in beauty it makes up for with its ability to deliver all extremes of experience. Mexico City, or the D.F. (Distrito Federal), doesn't have the romance of Paris, the mystery of Rome, or the skyline of New York. It's an illogical sprawling tangle of wide European boulevards, crooked alleys, magnificent colonial architecture, daring modernism, and one-stall fruit vendors. It's a cosmopolitan mecca where all of Mexico's 56 ethnic groups and classes converge.

Over the years, millions of poor country folk have migrated to the valley to eke out a better life. Their shanties sit below the wealthy neighborhoods of Santa Fe an Lomas, which are built high on the earthquake-free hills toward the outskirts of town. Mexico has the fourth-highest number of millionaires of any country. Many of the modernist architectural extravaganzas they have built for themselves give Beverly Hills a restrained modesty.

The oldest capital in the Americas, Mexico City also has 85 fantastic museums, not to mention hundreds of galleries, ten archeological sites, 1,500 historic monuments, and 9,000 colonial houses. And, like many "developing" countries with populations that work hard for relatively little, it also knows how to party—some fiestas go on for days and all explode with color and food. You can have an elegant meal overlooking the beautiful lake in Chapultepec Park, or sample such pre-Hispanic delicacies as grasshopper, maguey worms, and armadillo at the traditional restaurant Fonda don Chon. You can stay at the Four Seasons, with its more traditional feel, or at the Camino Real, the modernist knockout designed by Ricardo Legorreta.

Some cities have all the luck. Lisbon, for instance, got hit by an earthquake in 1755, so by the time it was rebuilt it became a full-blown 18th-century showpiece. Geography and timing have not been so kind to La Capital.

When Hernán Cortés and his 400 soldiers stumbled upon the ancient city of Tenochtitlán in 1519, they saw an island city built in a shimmering lake connected to the shore by canals and causeways. Not only was this city beautiful, temperate, and protected by the surrounding mountains, but it was also in a fertile valley that kept its population fed. Moctezuma, believing Cortés to be a god as prophesied by a holy text, ferried him into town, showered him with gold, and set him up in a first-class palace. In thanks, Cortés took the Aztec ruler captive and started to massacre his people. After three years of bloodshed, the Spaniards seized control, razed temples, and then used the stones to construct their churches. They also set about draining the city's canals and filling them in with mud.

By 1900, the D.F. had grown into a quiet city of three million who lived in haciendas surrounded by lush tropical gardens. Not until after the industrial revolution did its population swell and its gardens get covered over with undistinguished apartment blocks.

Because the city was built on a lake bed, its spongy soil is forever shifting. And even when the earth isn't splitting open, a mere hiccup can displace a foundation, which is why so much of the skyline is as crooked as a fallen soufflé.

This little lesson comes from my friend Rafael Fierro, an architect and scholar who has graciously arranged a personal tour of his Mexico City. If you're going to have fun here you need a plan of attack. I try to focus my day's activities in one or two neighborhoods around a specific theme, as otherwise I end up frustrated, exhausted, and perpetually stuck in traffic. I also reward myself by booking a table at one of the city's many extraordinary restaurants.

This time, Rafael and I are visiting the museum/homes of some of the city's former leading lights. This is the perfect agenda for someone like me, who is allergic to museums but unabashedly nosy. Because so many of Mexico City's small museums are in their subject's homes surrounded by their effects, visiting them feels as though you had happened to stop by while the owners were out for lunch.

Leon Trotsky built his home like a fortress because he was convinced that Stalin was trying to kill him even after he sought asylum in Mexico in 1937. He was correct. The study is still strewn with Dictaphone canisters and the manuscripts and newspapers the old man was reading one day in 1940 when Stalin's hired gun snuck into his study and assassinated him. In Frida Kahlo's cheerful family home I spotted pillows that she had embroidered with such sayings as "dos corazones unidos" (two hearts united) and "despierta corazón dormido" (wake up, sleeping heart). An uncharacteristic touch of sentimentality from the artist who has been hailed as the first feminist and who liked to challenge convention.

Rafael and I meet up for breakfast at Sanborn's, in the courtyard of a magnificent 16th-century building called La Casa de los Azulejos (the House of Tiles). Surrounded by writers in berets sipping soup and politicians drinking fresh carrot juice, I fin the setting marvelous, but it's the breakfast that I've been dreaming about since I was last here: fresh sweet papaya, honeydew, cantaloupe and the national fruit, watermelon, served with a wedge of lime.

After a spin through the grand house, which has been refurbished but remains suitably shabby, we hit the street, dipping in and out of former palaces, some magnificently rehabilitated, others still subdivided into shabby apartment buildings. Mexico City has more 17th- and 18th-century buildings than any city in this hemisphere. Besides their obvious architectural significance, they are imbued with another quality: mystery. Most are fortresslike outside, reserving their charms for their inner courtyards. One in particular stands out, the Museum of the City of Mexico. Before it was restored, the building housed low-income residents, one of whom was the Mexican Impressionist Joaquín Clausell. It takes a little persuading to convince the caretaker to unlock his studio attic, but it's worth the trouble. Clausell had no money for canvas, so he covered every inch of the wall with sketches, paintings and drawings. The room is a masterpiece of obsession, the closest I've come to walking into an artist's mind.

That afternoon, Rafael takes me to a place I've been wanting to see for years: the home Luis Barragán built for himself in 1947. Barragán was a latter-day Mexican modernist who in the last decade has been elevated into the pantheon of architectural gods. In fact, he was never certified as an architect. He was an engineer and landscape designer who built surprisingly few buildings, given the reverence his name evokes today.

Viewed from the outside, the house brings to mind a long and gray prison of concrete; inside, however, it is a meditation on space, light, and color. Reinterpreting traditional Mexican design, Barragán used volume to create surprise. Small hallways open up to soaring rooms. Windows are small and out of the way, except for a gigantic floor-to-ceiling glass panel that faces a garden, virtually eliminating the barrier between inside and out. Though a massive 9,000 square feet, it never feels empty or cold, but warm, sensual. A gurgling fountain drowns out the sound of the road. Bright pinks, yellows, and deep terra cotta are the accent colors. The place isn't ever gaudy, but totally serene. This is without a doubt the greatest home I have ever been in, and it still feels lived in, even though the master died in 1988. This is because Barragán left a stipend in his will for his servants to come to work every day to cook and clean in order to keep his house "living."

Judging from his bedroom, a spare cell with a narrow cot, a small window, and a bloody Christ figure gazing down upon it all, Barragán appears to have been a saintly soul. Not true, Rafael assures me. The architect grew notably cranky in his later days. He battled with Armando Salas Portugal, the photographer who documented all of his buildings and made him an international star. Barragán even tried to stop Salas from publishing his own work, claiming that he owned the photos. "Without my buildings you'd be nothing," he is supposed to have said.

My next stop is the decidedly less inviting house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who hit the height of their fame in the 1930s and were the Mexican precursors of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Married, divorced, then married again, their life together (and apart) seemed to feed on betrayal, humiliation, and various forms o riveting abuse. Their residences, mostly in the south of Mexico City, lend some insight into this operatic dynamic.

Frida was not a traditional beauty. She is often described as "exotic," which in those days meant physically flawed. She had a hairy face, that famous monobrow, and a limp that had been caused by a childhood case of polio—all of which gave her what today would be called self-esteem issues. As a young woman she was in a horrific bus accident that broke her spinal column and left her crippled for months at a time. On top of it all, her career as a painter was largely overshadowed by that of Rivera. Only since Madonna became a collector and the prices for her work hit seven digits has Frida's reputation as an artist grown. In Mexico she's almost a religious cult; devotees consider her a martyr to art. But quite a few of her old acquaintances whisper that she exaggerated her pain for sympathy and attention.

Like many committed Communists, both partners indulged their sexual appetites; but Diego was an unrepentant philanderer who had hundreds of women, including Frida's sister. The house/studio in San Angel that Rivera commissioned in 1928 exemplifies the chill that had come over their relationship. Surrounded by a "fence" of speared cacti, it is a stark example of industrial modernism: Concrete stairs, unfinished brick ceilings, and exposed electrical wires make it resemble a factory more than the home of Mexico's most revered painter. Frida surely found it a prison. Composed of two separate "his" and "hers" buildings, the "home" is joined by a perilous catwalk spanning the roofs—this for a woman who frequently required crutches to walk. (In all fairness, the place was not only a challenge for Frida to navigate. As Rafael points out, the stairs and doorways in Rivera's house are barely wide enough to accommodate Kate Moss, let alone this bear of a man; he had to turn sideways to squeeze through them.)

The final act of their story is set at the Dolores Olmedo Patiño museum, which is built on a part of Olmedo's hacienda in the suburb of Xochimilco. Olmedo was a patron of the arts, a lifelong pal of Rivera's whom Frida could not stand. The museum that she built is impeccable: Surrounded by groomed lawns populated by peacocks, turkeys, and those strange hairless dogs, it also houses the largest collection of both artists. But as I toured the galleries I wondered why Rivera willed the majority of his estate, and that of Frida, to Olmedo rather than to his own daughters?

Rafael perks up at this question. Dolores had a great eye for fine art and rich men and accumulated both rapaciously. Though she has never admitted that she and Rivera were lovers, almost every Mexican will tell you otherwise. And while Diego appreciated Dolores' charms, the talent he most respected was her ability to marry money. He knew that by leaving his estate in her hands his legacy would be ensured. Frida must have felt that slap in her grave. Her work was never collected or exhibited in a museum until the woman whom she most hated put it on display.

Dolores is still alive. She still keeps her hair ebony black, and plucks her brows in that high Lana Turner arch. Occasionally she'll put on her jewels and black Chanel dress and hold audience for a special guest, although she's known to repeat the same stories and has difficulty remaining awake. There's a statement on a plaque by the door that roughly translates as: "My mother told me to share what I had. I give this museum as a gift to the people of Mexico." Some think she's a saint for sharing her wealth; others consider her a megalomaniac who built the museum as a shrine to herself. It's hard to argue with the latter contention when at the exit you are confronted by a towering bronze of Dolores, palms open, welcoming all the little people at her feet.

It's October and the winds are blowing, which means the air is relatively clear—for the first time I am seeing the volcanic peaks surrounding the valley. The winds of change are also kicking up. Vincente Fox Quesada has just unseated the PRI, the party that has held power for 71 years, becoming the country's 63rd president. The economy is starting to rev, and the crime wave that has kept residents in fear and foreigners at bay appears to be in recession. The mood of the city seems high except for one major problem: the tequila shortage. The whole world has taken to drinking Mexico's national beverage, and demand has outstripped supply. It has hit crisis point because the blue agave cactus from which tequila is distilled takes seven to ten years to mature and the old crops are tapped out. As a result, some bottles of aged tequila are selling for $200.

I learn this at a cocktail party on the roof of Habita, a brand-new hotel in the relatively leafy and centrally located neighborhood of Polanco, which is home to designer shops, trendy nuevo Mexicano restaurants, and pretty Spanish colonial houses. Hotel Habita is an attempt by the capital to lure the international fashionable set. It's a glass-sheathed modernist gem appointed with all the latest signifiers of cool: Danish faucets in the bathrooms, 100 percent cotton sheets, imported alpaca blankets, Internet ports in each room. Besides the outdoor spa, there's also a one-lane lap pool.

Carlos Couturier Gaya, a co-owner, has spent $5 million and five years transforming an undistinguished apartment block into a structure that tonight is like a shimmering pearl in the dusk. "Most travelers, when they come here, want to stay in an old palace filled with paintings by Ruffino Tamayo," Carlos tells me. "Here, there is no art. The design is the statement. We want to say that Mexico City is changing. It's no longer a place to just pass through. Now it's a place that you will want to visit and come back to."

I'm impressed with the hotel, but more impressed that there's a generation of young Mexicans who are trying to make change happen at home rather than exporting their talents to the Big Neighbor Up North. I tell Carlos he should be proud of his accomplishment. "In the States, people are respected for what they accomplish. Here, people are admired for what they can get away with." He delivers this line in the characteristic Mexican fashion of speaking a bitter truth without a trace of bitterness.

By the outdoor fireplace a few dozen girls in Prada heels and guys in overbearing cologne are talking, and smoking as though it's good for them. These are the people who can swing a $200 bottle of tequila, so discussion centers on the prospects for Habita's success (which are high) and the city's second obsession, crime. When Fanny, a smartly dressed editor at Quien, the Mexican version of Hello! magazine, finds out that I'm from New York she coos enviously, "Oooooh, the shopping!"

I explain that shopping is not my sport of choice, and confusion clouds her face. "But it's so much easier to live there, no? You don't have to worry about security."

"I like Mexico," I say. "In New York people work all day, then go to a party and relax by talking about business. Here, people really know how to enjoy themselves."

She exhales a cloud of smoke, taking in my point. "There's a saying here. 'Exige más, pero le da más'—it takes more [to live in Mexico City], but it gives you back more." At which point it occurs to me that for residents, Mexico City is like living with a difficult lover—you never know whether to stay or leave. But for visitors it's not a problem. We can enjoy ourselves without having to commit.

Are you sure you know where you're going?" The next day I'm taking Rafael to lunch at Los Merlos, a restaurant that has been highly recommended to me by several teachers at the American School. Los Merlos is in the far-flung neighborhood of Observatorio, which is way up beyond Chapultepec Park. As we wend our way through the dusty enclave of small houses and street vendors hawking mountains of fruit in their carts, I see doubt in Rafael's eyes: Gringo is dragging him off to another tourist trap.

Wrong. Los Merlos is owned by Lucila Molina de Merlos, from Puebla, the epicenter of Mexican cuisine. She's also one of the founders of the mole festival, which takes place in various restaurants across the city each October. Mole is the most famous and most misinterpreted of Mexican sauces. It's often made of chocolate plus 26 other ingredients, including fruits, pumpkin seeds, nuts and different types of chilies, but Lucila is quick to point out that her mole has 35 ingredients. She has also concocted eight varieties of green, white, or the traditional brown moles, one of which is smothering the steaming plate of chicken enchiladas she has just placed on our table.

The flavor is sweet, piquant, perfectly balanced. It is eclipsed only by the dish that follows: Chicken in a pipián sauce made of green pumpkin seeds inflected with cilantro, garlic and pasilla chili. She also whips out chiles en nogadas, peppers filled with meat, nuts, raisins, and pomegranate. We wash it down with a cold glass of michelada, a mix of beer, lime juice, and salt and... heaven. Even Rafael is impressed. I take my last bite, close my eyes and try to store the flavor in my senses so I can conjure it every day for the rest of my life.

On my way to the airport, stuck in traffic and inhaling exhaust fumes through the closed windows of my car, I have a moment of doubt. Has the combination of a designer hotel, splendid weather, and great cultural shrines left me with an undeservedly rosy view of this tangle of a town? Will it ever find a way out of its problems?

I tell my driver that a Mexican associate of mine in New York cried upon hearing that Vincente Fox Quesada had unseated the PRI, which had seemed glued into power since 1930. I wondered if he was excited by the changes ahead.

"Not really," he said. "It's too early to know what promises will be broken."

"You're a cynic?"

"A realist, sir. I've heard many promises in my life and I don't know what difference they have made. A poor Mexican earns $4 a day. He works hard and he knows that he will never make it to any success like you have."

At that point, the street that we're driving down dead-ends at a park. The driver is momentarily flummoxed. "Watch this," he says. "We'll go around the park, and on the other side the road will be one-way in the opposite direction."

Of course he's right and not at all surprised. "This is Mexico City, sir. When things are supposed to be straight, an unexpected turn comes your way. And for many of us, it gets tiring. Especially with something as simple as the direction of a street."

 

A Few of my Favorite Things

 

Restaurants

You have just entered gastronomic heaven. Whenever possible, make a reservation.

LOS MERLOS Victoriano Zepeda 80, Observatorio; 5277-4360. Excellent traditional fare. Moles and pollo pipián are musts.

LA TECLA Moliere 56, Polanco; 5282-0010. Nuevo Mexicano. The duck enchilada with mango and pasilla chili is unforgettable; the sopa de tortilla, the Mexican version of chicken soup, eases all pains.

LITORAL Tamulipas 55, Condesa; 5286-2025. Romantic setting. Nuevo Mex fare.

VILLA MARIA Homero 704, Polanco; 5203-0306. Slightly more trad than rad, but very good. Hilarious mariachi band.

LA GALVIA Campos Eliseos 247, Polanco; 5281-2310. Smart crowd and food.

SAVANNAH Moliere 44, Polanco; 5281-5599. Great seafood.

ISADORA Moliere 50, Polanco; 5280-5586. Creative contemporary Mexican. Order the calamari grilled with three chilies.

CAFETERIA BONDY Galileo 38, Polanco; 5281-1818. This is where Mexico's chic set gathers for breakfast. Go before 10 a.m. to avoid the lines.

Art & Culture

Most of the smaller museums are open to the public, but keep in mind that the schedules can be a bit whimsical. Check guide book before making the journey.

MUSEO FRIDA KAHLO Londres 247, Coyoacán; 5554-5999. The home of the famed painter.

MUSEO DOLORES OLMEDO PATINO Avenida México 5843, La Noria Xochimilco; 5676-1055. World's largest collections of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, set in a former hacienda.

CASA ESTUDIO DIEGO RIVERA Corner of Calle Diego Rivera and Altavista, San Angel; 5550-1518. The painter's house/studio, which was designed by Juan O'Gorman.

CASA/MUSEO LEON TROTSKY Avenida Rio Churubusco 410, Coyoacán; 5658-8732. The fortresslike home where the Russian philosopher lived in exile.

MUSEO DE LA CIUDAD DE MEXICO Pino Suárez 30, Zócalo; 5542-0083. Upstairs, the Clausell studio.

CASA DE LOS AZULEJOS Avenida Francisco Madero 4, Centro Histórico; 5518-0152.

DIEGO RIVERA MURALS Two locations: The Palacio Nacional in the Zócalo feature his visions of the Aztec city that is now the D.F.; Man, the Controller of the Universe, the mural that John D. Rockefeller had torn out of Rockefeller Center because it eulogized Lenin, was repainted by Rivera in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

CASA DE LUIS BARRAGAN To visit the houses and chapel of Luis Barragán, you must arrange a private tour one week i advance. Contact: Tamara Hernandez, 5515 4908. The 1947 house is at Francisco Ramierez 12 and 14 in Tacubaya.

Hotels

HOTEL HABITA Avenida Presidente Masaryk 201; 5282-3100, fax 5282-3101. Mexico City's first boutique hotel. Great location and a friendly staff.

CAMINO REAL Avenida Mariano Escobedo 700; 5263-8888, fax 5263-8889. A modernist palace with vast halls, art by Tamayo, and two pools. Under restoration, so phone first.

FOUR SEASONS Paseo de la Reforma 500, Colonia Juárez; 5230-1818, fax 5230-1808. Great atmosphere but slightly out of the way.

Etc...

CASA BASURTO Avenida México 187, Condesa. This private apartment building is a Deco masterpiece, surely the inspiration behind Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.