Mexico City - Aztecs, music and more murals

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March 28th 2018
Published: March 28th 2018
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Mexico City 23-28 March 2018

So now we are in Mexico City after a short, if bumpy flight. The city is vast with a population approaching 30 million within the Federal District area or DF in Mexican. Although that number sounds horrific the historic centre is surprisingly easy to navigate. We had chosen a hotel for its location, nine blocks from the Zocalo but the road through seven of those blocks is mainly pedestrian walkways making the stroll in and out of the Zocalo very easy. China town starts just across the road. It is a much better area than where we stayed when we arrived in October. We realised that as soon as we arrived as there was no guard with a machine gun on reception!

The first day we went wandering around the Zocalo, the huge main square, one of the largest in the world, and saw that the centre part was cordoned off to allow thousands of Scouts ( male and female of all ages) to meet together with bags full of empty drink cans which were all gathered and stacked in a mound about three metres high and at 12 noon the plan was to create a huge replica of their logo on the ground using the coloured cans. Anyone was allowed to join them in the area and we walked about and I spoke to a few scouts to ask them what was going on. It was a very cheerful atmosphere and it was good to see that the young ones had lots of games arranged for them by their leaders. We were unable to stop and watch the building of the symbol but we hope to see it tomorrow if it is still on display.

Surprisingly we saw the long lines of riot shields beloved by the police in Mexico stacked alongside the square. We could not imagine the scouts creating a disturbance but as we were leaving we saw demonstrators arriving with posters about better treatment for immigrants so we assumed that was why the police were prepared for action. In the scouts arena we had seen police showing their motorbikes to groups of young people, joining in their activities and even a brave police officer controlling very young 'cub' scouts who were riding their two and three wheeler bikes on a marked out 'road system', presumably teaching them road safety. He seemed to spend a lot of time whistling at them and hurriedly jumping out of their way.

In another part of the square 'Aztec' dancers were preparing their elaborate costumes ready to entertain the crowds. There is historic evidence for the type of costume worn, full of colourful bird feathers (now hopefully produced in factories in Mexico or China), and representations of animals and skeletons, but there is no valid information about the dances themselves so the moves are left open to individual creativity and athleticism. Together with the clouds of incense they waft across the square it makes an exotic sight.

Eventually we reached our destination, the Templo Mayor. This is an Aztec temple complex from the 14th Century only rediscovered in the 1990s. When Hernan Cortes and the Spaniards arrived they built over the site and used much of the stone to construct their elaborate colonial structures on top. It is a fascinating area with excavations still ongoing, which has meant the removal of some colonial buildings.

The Templo Mayor was built in the traditional Aztec style of a double pyramid but each successive ruler wanted to expand and increase the height of the Temple so they covered the existing one with soil and then constructed new, higher pyramids on top. This happened at least five times. The model in the photographs might make this clearer. Unfortunately the whole area had been a swamp so all the structures sank and moved creating sloping walls and patios. It is believed the site was chosen because it is the exact spot where the eagle was seen with a snake in it's mouth which was recognised as a sign that the city should be established here. It is a powerful symbol and is still displayed on the Mexican flag.

Together with the excavated site there is a beautifully designed modern museum which describes the complex society which existed before the Spaniards arrived as well as displaying numerous artefacts. The Aztecs were able to develop sophisticated social structures and skilled crafts people because their land was so productive that not everyone had to be involved in food production in order to feed the city. They developed widespread trade routes through the use of pochtecas, travelling traders, who were very well versed about all trade goods including the luxury items they tracked down in other areas some as far away as Central America. They were well versed in how to negotiate trade deals and were able to speak the languages of neighbouring countries and tribes. If anyone harmed or killed a pochteca it was considered an act of war by the Aztecs, although the pochtecas were renowned for carrying out military espionage so they established a very widespread intelligence network.

Only the elite were allowed into inner rooms and patios within the Templo and it can be seen from the seating arrangements and from chemical analysis of the floors and altars that animal and human sacrifice was common. Under another colonial building about half a kilometre from the Templo Mayor they have discovered the school where children of the elite were educated.

After the Templo Mayor we went to the Palacio Bellas Artes. This white marble building was commissioned by President Porfirio Diaz and construction started in 1905 in neoclassic and art nouveau styles. Inside the walls and pillars are made from dark red marble. However the heavy marble soon started to sink into the subsoil. Then further development was held up by the Mexican Revolution so it was not finished until the 1930s. The interior was completed in art deco style. It contains murals by a number of artists and includes the famous Man at the Crossroads, (El hombre en el cruce de caminos) by Diego Rivera. It was originally commissioned by the Rockefellers for their New York Center. They had clearly carried out insufficient research into Rivera as when they saw the final work they destroyed it because of its anti-capitalist themes. Diego recreated it in the Palacio Bellas Artes in 1934. The Palacio also houses exhibitions and concert halls. There is also a mural by Orozco, the artist from Morelia, called Catharsis which highlights the inner conflict between man's social or human nature and his animal instincts.

We went along to a concert of operatic songs in the Palacio performed by two well known professional performers supported by an excellent pianist. The relatively small and intimate concert hall was full and the cost was approximately 80 pence each ticket, all one price. It started at 5pm which seems to be the normal time here for concerts. Another performance of a requiem mass was taking place at the same time and cost in another concert hall and outside in the adjacent garden a symphony concert was being screened and that was free. We enjoyed the concert despite the slightly disconcerting format. The female soprano would sing one song and the male tenor the next and so on, but each time they finished a song they disappeared through a door next to the stage and the other one came out. It started to resemble one of those Swiss clocks at work.

The next day we visited the Palacio National, which houses the President's and other government offices and is another beautiful colonial building, but built once again on top of Aztec structures, some of which are exposed in the gardens. Inside are more fantastic Diego murals chronicling the history of Mexico from the arrival of the Aztec plumed serpent god to the post-revolutionary period.

There are so many museums in the Historic Centre it would be possible to spend a couple of weeks visiting them, and that is only the ones within walking distance. Many are free. However after a couple of days museum hopping we decided to
Model of Templo MayorModel of Templo MayorModel of Templo Mayor

You can see how soil was poured over one templo and then another was built on top with two pyramids. This happened five times.
take a trip out to Xochimilco. The Aztecs developed the agricultural technique of building up rows of mounds of vegetation and soil in the swampy land between water channels so that with time these mounds provided ideal growing conditions as the volcanic soils were fertile and the moisture ensured plenty of water even in the hottest of seasons. Some 180 square kilometres of these chinampas are still in use, but mainly growing flowers nowadays. So were decided to leave the city centre and head to Xochimilco were boats are moored ready to take trippers for a tour of the channels.

To reach Xochimilco took an hour, firstly a half hour ride on the metro from just around the corner from our hotel. Then at the end of the line at Tasquena, we transferred to a light railway for another half hour journey. The total cost of the fares for two of us was the equivalent of £1.20. Then we walked a couple of kilometres through the town to the embankments where literally hundreds of boats were waiting for customers. On Saturdays and Sundays the Chilangos, (residents of the city) come here in their thousands to take picnics on the boats and ride through the channels and fields. We chose to go on a quiet day, Monday, but even so the channels were full of boats with frequent traffic jams, sometimes caused by the floating Mariachi bands playing, other times by people stopping to get off and buy flowers and plants in the numerous garden centres along the banks. The boats, called trajineras, are propelled by a pole similar to punts in England but they are much bigger and complete with a long table and chairs to seat ten to twenty people. It is hard to visualise the scene at the weekend but everyone sets out with the intention of enjoying themselves and they do despite, or perhaps because of the crowds . The area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 because this traditional style of agriculture is still in use.

On our last full day we decided to go to the Frida Kahlo Museum about ten kilometres south of the centre. The journey by metro and a two kilometre walk across a lovely large park was easy. The difficult part started when we arrived.

The guide book said arrive early so we were there twenty minutes before opening but the queue was already along the whole block and then half way back again. Then we saw a small queue which was only for people who already had tickets. We joined on the end as it continued to grow in length rapidly. A young man came along the row to explain what was happening and how much the entrance charge was for different people. He said that once you reach the end of the blue wall, (the house is called the Blue House and all the walls are blue), the waiting time is an hour more or less from then. It took us over an hour to reach the blue wall and over two hours to reach the ticket office.

Only forty people are allowed in each fifteen minutes and many of these have prepaid tickets with allocated times so they go in from the other queue. Then tour buses arrive and they seem to go in at will. There was no mention of pre purchase of tickets in our guide book and clearly all the Mexican people knew nothing about it so I think it is well concealed! The local man in front of us said this was the fourth time they have tried to visit and the first three times the queue made them change their mind. He said to his wife quietly when yet another group miraculously appeared from nowhere and were allowed through that he thought corruption was evident. Perhaps it is just too successful for it's size. It is the second most visited museum in Mexico.

So what is all the fuss about and was it worth it. I definitely felt it was but I was very pleasantly surprised to hear Jim agree as he really struggles to stand up for two hours, especially when for about fifteen minutes we had no shade.

The Blue House is where Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 and died in 1954. She is one of the best known Mexican artists and she was married to Diego Rivera, he of the fantastic murals as well as paintings, not once but twice! Despite being born into a wealthy family, her father was from Hungary and worked for President Porfirio as the official photographer of Mexican architecture, Frida had a troubled life.

At the age of six she contracted polio which left one leg permanently thinner than the other. She hoped to train as a doctor but in 1925, when she was eighteen, whilst travelling on a trolleybus there was a collision and she was very seriously injured. She was not expected to survive as she broke her right leg, collarbone, pelvis and ribs. She recovered and it was during her convalescence that she started painting but the pain remained part of her life.

Frida met Rivera as they both moved in left wing artistic circles and they married in 1929. He was 21 years older and had already had children to two Russian women before marrying 'Lupe' Marin in Mexico and having two more children with her before they divorced in 1928.

They were part of a 'celebrity set' and spent some time in the US. Then they returned to Mexico and Frida together with Rivera's friend and fellow artist Juan O'Gorman designed and built a studio complex with three houses, Frida's and her husband's linked by an aerial walkway. After Frida discovered that Diego had had an affair with her sister they divorced but remarried a year later. Trotsky and his wife lived with the Riveras for a while when he fled Russia to escape Stalin but he was assassinated in a house not far from the Blue House.

The Blue House was built by her father for the family three years before her birth and it is very big with a beautiful huge garden complete with a number of outdoor patio areas providing shade and quiet corners, when the visitors are not marching around that is. The rooms are more or less as they were left by the family and in Frida's bedrooms, she had separate day and night bedrooms, there are all the pictures and ornaments still in place together with Frida herself in an urn on a little altar! So all in all it was well worth the wait.

We thought we might find that five days here in Mexico City was too much but now I regret not having at least another week as there is so much more that we have probably not covered half of what I would like to see here. There are many more museums and historic sites perhaps awaiting another visit. For now we have to pack to fly home overnight tomorrow, arriving in London on Thursday afternoon. We think we are going to spend the summer pottering around the UK to have chance to spend time with Anna, Gilli and friends.

On September 10th, if all goes to plan, we will be heading off to Australia, meeting up with Richard and Beverley to tour the South East winelands before hopefully catching up with Clive and Helen in Perth when they return from the UK. Then we will set off alone (unless anyone is tempted to join us?) in a campervan to cross the Great Australian Bight, drive the Great Coast Road again and spend a month in Tasmania. If I don't post a blog during the summer we hope you will catch up with us in Australia.

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