We’re staying in a rather gorgeous 300-year-old casa in the very heart of Puebla, just a couple of blocks back from the Zócalo in the cutely named Barrio de los Sapos, the ‘Neighbourhood of the Toads’ and just off the Callejón de los Sapos, the ‘Alley of the Toads’ – named from colonial times when the alley would frequently flood, the stagnating water attracting a huge number of amphibians. These days, this neighbourhood of narrow streets and brightly coloured houses is one of the most popular parts of Puebla – packed with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops and, on weekends, a flea market that sprawls across several city blocks.
Puebla was founded by the invading Spanish in 1531 to secure a trade route between Mexico City and the Gulf port of Veracruz, in the unpopulated Valley of Cuetlaxcoapan. It took the area for Spain without (for once) destroying an existing indigenous city or settlement, so in essence, creating a new Spanish city for the invading Spanish people, hence the name ‘Puebla’, an old Castilian word meaning town or village. Puebla was built on a traditional Spanish Renaissance grid, a series of intersecting streets running parallel to the four sides of the Zócalo (streets named after compass points: 2 North, 7 West etc), the Zócalo being the city’s heart where the most important civil and religious buildings coexist. The streets themselves are lined with orderly rows of similar height buildings, interspersed with small tree-shaded plazas with glorious baroque fountains, some formally arranged gardens and, almost on every corner, of course, a church, from the sublimely decorated to the ridiculous over the top bling.
Today, Puebla has managed to largely retain its New Spain Renaissance city layout and 16th / 17th Century baroque architecture, with the Cathedral dominating the skyline. There are little to no modern buildings in the centre, other than some low-rise blocks that may have been the result of earthquake damage over the years, of which there have been many, most notable recent quakes in 1985 and 2017. These caused immense damage to many of Puebla’s archictectural treasures, though, thankfully, many have been restored or are currently under restoration. As an aside note, we felt a tremor lying in bed last night, so I guess they’re fairly frequent!
The streets of Puebla are of an exacting geometry, so much so (as previously mentioned), that you can see almost the entire length of a street, in both directions with the buildings perfectly aligned to the vanishing point, save for the occasional Baroque Church pile thrusting upwards with a splash of yellow, orange or blue.
The other striking feature here is the use of blue and white glazed azulejos and the red unglazed ladrillo tiles that create dazzling-coloured façades on many of the older buildings. It’s a stunningly decorative effect, the likes of which I haven’t seen anywhere. One of the most stunning examples of tile use is El Patio de los Azulejos, a building that dates to 1793 as the ‘Venerable Concordia de San Felipe Neri’. Its courtyard has an amazing brick and plasterwork wall with bright yellow, white, blue and green floral motif tiles. Another jewel in Puebla’s crown is the Ex-Convento de Santa Rosa, which holds an intact 17th Century cocina that’s lined floor to ceiling with blue, white and yellow Talavera tiles. It’s also purported to be the birthplace of Mole Poblano, first cooked by nuns, ‘the’ dish of Puebla.
Another one of Puebla’s hidden treasures is the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, dating back to 1646 when a personal collection of around 5,000 books was donated to the Colegio de San Juan y San Pedro by Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, which resulted in the construction of the Palafoxiana Library in the very heart of Puebla. The Bishop insisted that the books be made available not only to seminarians but the general public, making it recognised by UNESCO as the first and oldest public library in the Americas, now holding some 45,000 books and manuscripts. The main library is 43-metres long with two tiers of bookshelves made of ayacahuite pine, cedar and coloyote wood. It’s an incredibly sombre space, devoid of tourist throngs, so it was just us on the day, left to ponder the minds that once sought knowledge in this wonderful room.
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How stunning the Biblioteca is, and such a study in brown after the riot of colour in your other photos. The Alley of Toads rather makes one think of Oxford Street on an off night 😜 and as for the earthquakes – they bring a whole new meaning to “Honey, did the earth move for you too? “ 😜
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This sounds like a great place to stay! I’m curious about the name of the alley – is that where the flea market is?
Yes, the fantastic weekend flea markets are all around barrio Sapos. It’s a wonderful place to be based in Puebla, central to everything.