But back to Guanajauto… I was invited by Manuel on a whim I’m pretty sure. But as the site of the International Cervantes Festival, the Capital Cervantina de América. the birthplace of the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera AND the setting of my new favorite move El estudiante, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I think I surprised both Manuel and myself when I actually showed up on Monday night. I discovered a city easy to fall in love with. A city with both a Don Quijote art museum and a mommy museum?! What’s not to love?
From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive's trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.
Take for example Callejón del beso, an alley where two balconies almost, but almost reach each another. Legend has it that a young aristocratic woman of Spanish descent and the poor miner who lived across the alley fell in love. They would kiss, spanning the space between the jutting balconies. One night, her father caught her in the act and threatened to kill her, his only daughter. Not believing her father would actually carry out his threat, she and the miner met the next night, again kissing from their balconies. Without a word, her father entered her bedroom, saw the lovers, and retrieved a knife, stabbing his daughter to death. The poor miner planted his last kiss on her wrist as she died. Romeo and Juliet have nothing on this couple. Nearly every little alley as an associated legend like this one. It is a city that gives birth to stories, legends, magic. Guanajuato might feel like a trap as you lose yourself in its alleys, but it is by no means an ugly one.
During our first meanderings, narrow alleys opened onto beautiful churches, financed with the silver and gold removed from the city’s mines starting in the mid-sixteenth century, onto sweeping views of the city climbing up into the hills, onto plazas complete with fountains or ancient shady trees, picturesque scenes and still-lifes, perfect for an afternoon latté spiked with maple syrup or a savory crepe.
Arriving after the International Cervantes Festival and high season had come to a close, we at times felt like we had the city to ourselves.
One afternoon, we visited Teatro Juárez, rumored to be the most beautiful theater in all of Mexico with its Neoclassical façade, Moorish-inspired interior and original smoking lounge. Not another tourist in sight.
We played around with our cameras as the crew worked on the set and tweaked the stage lights, preparing for the upcoming weekend’s opera.
As we stumbled out of the dark theater into the afternoon sunlight, we heard music. A few steps further into the Jardín Unión, with shady trees forming a strolling arcade, and we saw the source: a full brass band playing classics in the plaza’s gazebo. We sipped on cocktails and enjoyed the music. Moments and coincidences you definitely cannot plan or recreate.
The music finished, we began to hear yells and cheers in front of the Church of San Diego. We pushed through the gathering crowd to see a group of new mining students, covered head to toe in body paint, dressed as hookers, animals, luchadores, diapered babies and sporting haphazardly buzzed hair. Mining school graduates held a rope surrounding the group, often chugging alcohol from large coke cups and passing them on to the dancing and cheering initiates.
After a sufficiently large crowd had gathered, the brass band accompanying the spectacle, followed by the graduates herding the new students and then the rest of the crowd, headed up the street. We joined in, buying bracelets to let us into a salón, an enclosed party garden rented by large groups, at the top of the hill. We climbed for over half an hour, sipping brandy bought from a convenience store and learning the mining school chants and the jeers aimed at the law students.
The all-male group, costumed in early modern attire complete with tights, play classic Mexican songs on stringed instruments and lead the crowd, drinking alcoholic punch from ceramic porrones, through the streets, ending on the beautiful steps of University of Guanajuato’s main building. Our group consisted of ourselves and a group of senior citizens, which made the singing and dancing all the more fun. Manuel and I finished our complimentary beverages and filled up with a handy bottle of wine we happened to have stashed in his backpack. I’ll stand by my statement that night, any time you have the chance to drink in the streets to live music is a good time.
The process of getting to know a city is fascinating. Each memory, each occurrence adds another layer of meaning to the streets walked, the buildings entered, the bars, restaurants, plazas and streetcorners. The city begins to take shape, not just the city known intimately by its residents and or the unknown city waiting to be discovered by two travelers, but becoming the city layered with meaning and memories significant only to oneself. Really, each of us has the power that Manuel desired, to change a city. That’s what exploring a new city is all about. It is the reason why I love traveling so much.
But the image of one bridged street evoked Venice, a paved street replacing the canal. A café spills tables out onto the bridge, making it a perfect place to eat a lazy, late-morning breakfast, people watching as the city strolls underneath. It didn’t hurt that a pivotal sequence of El estudiante was filmed on that bridge.
After pushing back our departure by a day and a half, our last full day in Guanajuato was November 20th, the anniversary of the Revolution. It took us a little while to figure out what all the music, horn-blaring and cheering was about, but when we did, we decided that the café on the bridge was the perfect place to enjoy breakfast while watching the parade pass by on both sides. That night, we wandered back to the University of Guanajuato, where most of my favorite movie is set and where I fantasize about doing a master’s next year. We found a full movie-theater-sized projector in front of the building’s steps playing an old Mexican film about the Revolution. Back to one of the first images of Guanajuato, now overlaid with the memory of being serenaded, slightly tipsy, by a group of tight-clad, mandolin-bearing residents, the memory of watching a film about a tumultuous time in Mexico’s history, the memory of falling in love with a colonial mining town.
After a lunch of Guanajuato’s typical enchiladas mineras (deeply satisfying enchiladas filled with cheese, topped with red sauce, savory roasted potatoes and carrots, crema and queso añejo with a side of chicken breast), we were off to Querétaro to celebrate Nico’s birthday for the night and then back to Puebla.
Guanajuato, a landlocked city just as magical, just as beautiful, and, from what I've heard, a whole lot less smelly than Venice. I don't think even Marco Polo could have come up with this stuff.