Officially there are 288 churches in Puebla, but ask any local and they’ll swear there are 365, one for every day of the year. And on first impression they might be right, as there does seem to be a church on pretty much every street corner here. Some of them so spectacular that they take your breath away.
The Basilica Cathedral of Puebla, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, is so sumptuous and so incredibly vast in scale that it has to be one of the finest examples of Neoclassical Baroque architecture in the Americas. It was consecrated in 1649, so some 374 years old. I read that the interior plan of the cathedral (with five naves) includes a parallelogram 97.67 metres long by 51 metres wide (apparently based – interestingly – on the Greek Orthodox cross). The Cathedral has 14 colossal Doric style columns that carry the weight of forty vaults and two vast neo-classical domes, one of which soars over the awe-inspiring Altar of the Kings (Spanish Kings, of course, and Queens – benefactors to the church, but also, dare I say, recipients of huge wealth from their new colonies).
We arrived early Sunday morning with the bells tolling – you could see the bell-ringers exerting themselves in one of the towers – to find the Cathedral packed to standing room only, and realised that today is the first Sunday in Lent. There was no admission other than to religious Poblanos, so we headed to another great church, the Templo de Santo Domingo, in particular to see the Capilla del Rosario (Rosary Chapel). Built between 1650 and 1690, it’s a visual feast, dripping in gold and representing the pinnacle of New Spanish Baroque. It was described in 1690 as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ by Friar Diego de Gorozpe (not biased of course) and is considered to be one of the greatest artistic-religious achievements of New Spain. Again there was a full lent service taking place, so again we were thwarted – but vowed to return to both the Cathedral and the Chapel later in the day.
Puebla’s Centro Historico has superbly preserved its Renaissance grid plan which was laid out in the mid 16thCentury, its elegant and exceptionally long streets retaining their original character. There are many beautiful surviving 16th Century buildings, churches, palaces, historical structures and tree-lined plazas with fountains. The streets are so long that it’s possible on a Sunday, when the cars are banished for cyclists (on certain streets), to stand in the middle and see to the vanishing point.
Sunday is packed in Puebla. There were also several manifestaciónes (demonstrations – many city-folk were wearing shades of pink for some reason) going on around the Zócolo, which added to the chaos. It’s clearly a family day out in town and the streets in the afternoon were jammed with both crowds and cars. Seemingly every second shop was heaving with the local Talavera-ware, some of it reproduction you’d imagine, but a lot of it really quite tempting! The local Churrería was doing a roaring trade, with the queue down the street, so I had to wait until later in the afternoon to get my Churro fix.
Sunday is market day, so many of the streets around the Cathedral, including our own street, Calle 3 Oriente, were jammed with really interesting stalls, handcrafts and bric-à-brac, far superior to what you’d normally expect in a city market. The nearby Barrio de Los Sapos (of the Toads), is a fantastically colourful and authentic antiques market with fascinating finds spread across pavements, around the edges of fountains and the adjacent shops, bars, restaurants and homes. There’s was a DJ tucked in there somewhere spinning some vintage vinyl and a lone organillero (street organ grinder) cranking it up for a sadly disinterested crowd (and never losing his smile). It’s a fascinating place and I don’t think I’ve seen such an interesting market as this – I could have bought up big, but I’d need several new suitcases, and as we are travelling light, on a budget, and have months left on this trip, I resisted. Though the bona fide Talavera outlets will be open in the week, so temptation awaits again.
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Fabulous photos, as always. Mexico is definitely the country to give your camera’s colour pixels a workout. Imagine if all the money spent in Mexico on churches had been spent on people. Less superstition, more sustenance makes sense to me, but clearly not to them. That said, truly eye popping structures bring in the tourist dollar more than better cared for locals would 😜
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