At the very heart of Mérida is the Plaza Grande, an elegant green square bordered by historical buildings such as the Palacio Municipal, the Palacio de Gobierno and, topping them all, the impressive Catedral de San Ildefonso, at 460 years the oldest cathedral not only in all of Mexico but also the oldest in the continental Americas.
On this very site was the ancient Mayan city of T’Hó, found in ruins in 1542 by the Spanish Conquistadors led by Francisco de Montejo y León (el Mozo to his mates). From this time building work on the city of Mérida (named after the Spanish city) began, using in part the large limestone blocks that had already been quarried and worked by the ancient Mayan inhabitants of T’Hó for their own pyramids and temples. The Conquistadors also used captured Mayan slaves to build their cathedral, in the Spanish Renaissance style, adding to their humiliation by this very reuse of their sacred stones.
Today, these limestone blocks can clearly be seen bolstering the cathedral corners – they’re integral to its very being. Apparently if you look carefully, and I think I need to have this pointed out to me, you can just about make out some ancient Mayan carvings. Once you’ve recognised these distinctive limestone blocks, you start to see just how many of Mérida’s old buildings are constructed from destroyed Mayan splendours.
What is surprising about the Catedral de San Ildefonso is just how plain and unadorned the interior is compared with other churches and cathedrals we’ve seen on our travels, such as in Mexico City and Oaxaca. It turns out that much of the original ornate interior decoration from the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries was stripped during a wave of anti-Spanish sentiment in the 19th Century and further destroyed during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. As I stood outside the cathedral one morning a security guard approached me and pointed out some holes in the façade – I had thought the holes were wear and tear of this centuries old building but I was wrong. The larger holes are in-fact from cannon fire and the small holes that seem to pepper the outside, beside the large main wooden doors, are bullet holes. It seems revolutionaries were regularly rounded up and executed by firing squad against the cathedral walls. Chilling.
After that sobering discovery we wandered across the road to the beautiful Templo de Jesús de la Tercera Orden, a jewel of Spanish Baroque architecture from the 17th Century. For some reason this church seems to have largely survived the sacking of the Revolution and still has some rather beautifully coloured wall stencils, vast oil-paintings, ornate stations of the cross, and a stunning hemispherical dome.
Through history Mérida has often been called ‘La Ciudad Blanca’ (The White City) from the early predominance of its white limestone walls and foundations, but of course as you will have noticed, the local tradition here is to plaster and paint over the white using pastels and vibrant colours – so I guess in my book this city should instead be called, ‘La Ciudad Colorida’– so much more becoming!