A Stroll Through The Colonial Center
Downtown Morelia is a good town for walking. One comes across interesting details on just about any street. The walk outlined below could take an entire day. The museums usually open at 9am; you'll find a lot of places closed on Mondays, holidays, and between 2 and 4pm. For a guided tour of the city, contact the guide mentioned in the section on the monarch butterfly migration ("Michoacán's Monarch Migration"). He can provide colorful details about the city's history and architecture.
The cathedral is the place to begin. Built with the pink volcanic stone (cantera in Spanish) that Morelia is famous for, it's one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Mexico. Notice how Avenida Madero widens as it passes in front of the cathedral, and how a cross street lines up with its facade. Morelia's planners sought to lend prominence to the city's churches by the placement of plazas and the alignment of streets to allow good views. This cathedral took the place of an earlier one; construction began in 1640 and ended in 1745. The new cathedral incorporated the styles of religious architecture already in the city, including plateresque, mannerist, and a reserved style of baroque. The cathedral's impressive size and monumental proportions were necessary to place it at the top of the hierarchy of the city's temples, and to make obvious Morelia's superiority to rival Pátzcuaro. The Italian architect who designed it worked closely with the authorities of Morelia's sizable religious community, and he did a masterful job balancing the architectural elements in the facade and shaping the proportions of the towers. The inside is stately, but many of the cathedral's most valuable possessions were plundered. Things to look for include its beautiful organ with 4,600 pipes; the silver baptismal font where Mexico's first emperor, Agustín de Iturbide, was baptized; and the elegant choir with carved wooden stalls. Tip: If you're in Morelia on a Saturday, make sure to be around the cathedral when the lights are turned on. This is accompanied by a fireworks display.
Across Avenida Madero from the cathedral is a two-story stone building crowned with finials and fanciful decorations on the corners: the Palacio del Gobierno, built in 1732 as a seminary. It now holds sweeping murals depicting the history of Michoacán and Mexico. Some are the work of a well-known local artist, Alfredo Zalce.
As you leave the palacio, turn left and walk down Madero for 2 blocks. Turn right at a small church on your right with a tall wrought-iron fence. The name of the street is Vasco de Quiroga. Walk 1 block, and to your left you'll see a broad plaza and the church and convent of San Francisco. This is one of the two oldest religious buildings in Morelia. It draws on the Spanish Renaissance architectural style known as plateresque (already antiquated by the time of construction) because the builders wanted to accentuate their Spanish heritage. The building is quite striking; it has elegant, Moorish windows on the second floor, borrowed from Spanish Mudéjar architecture. The interior courtyard, unlike any other in Morelia, has a medieval feel. Instead of being broad and open with light arches, it's closed and narrow, with heavy columns set closely together and thick buttressing. The former convent now houses a local handicrafts museum with interactive exhibits and some explanatory material in English. It also offers the best shopping in Morelia.
From San Francisco (if you're not going to the market), take the street that lines up with the facade of the church and walk 2 blocks west to Calle Morelos Sur (you'll see Plaza Melchor Ocampo). Turn left. One block down, on the left side, is the Casa Museo de Morelos, Morelos Sur 323 (tel. 443/313-2651). This is where José María Morelos lived as an adult (there's another Morelos museum in the house where he was born, but it has little of interest). A grand house, with furniture and personal effects that belonged to the independence leader, as well as a period kitchen, this museum is worth a visit. On my last visit it was closed for renovation in preparation for the big bicentennial celebration set for September 2010. The museum is normally open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm; admission is 30 pesos.
The next place to see is the Museo Regional Michoacano, at the intersection of Allende and Abasolo (tel. 443/312-0407). To get there, walk uphill the way you came, and then make a left when you get back to Plaza Melchor Ocampo. Walk through the stone arcades behind the cathedral. Continue west to the end of the arcades. Across the street, cater-cornered to the Plaza de Armas, is the Museo Regional Michoacano. It provides a colorful view of the state from prehistoric times to Mexico's Cardenist period of the 1930s. Isidor Huarte, father of Ana Huarte, Emperor Iturbide's wife, originally owned the building, which was finished in 1775. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 4:45pm. Admission is 37 pesos.
To take a break, sit at one of the outdoor cafes under the stone arches along Avenida Madero. (No need, really, to overexert oneself. Besides, sitting at a table having a little coffee or beer and watching the passersby is a favorite activity of the locals.)
After having your fill of people-watching (or beer or coffee), head west on Madero for a block and you'll come to Calle Nigromante. On the right, you'll see the College of San Nicolás de Hidalgo, a beautiful colonial building that claims to house the oldest university in the New World. Founded in Pátzcuaro in 1540 by Vasco de Quiroga, the university moved to Morelia in 1580 and became the University of Michoacán in 1917. On the other corner is another of Morelia's oldest religious structures, the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, built by the Jesuits. It's now a picturesque library. Through a doorway to the right of the church is the state's tourist information office. Attached to the church is the former convent, now called the Palacio Clavijero. To see the arches and rose-colored stone of its broad interior courtyard (the most photographed in Morelia), turn down Nigromante and follow it to the main entrance. The former convent now houses government offices. Once you've seen the palacio, continue down the street to the little park. Facing the park is the Conservatorio de las Rosas, a former Dominican convent. It became a music school in 1785 and is now the home of the internationally acclaimed Morelia Boys Choir. The choir practices on weekday afternoons. If you would like to attend a concert, ask for information inside.
At the other end of the small plaza, facing Calle Guillermo Prieto, is the Museo del Estado (tel. 443/313-0629). Exhibits include a display on the archaeology and history of the area and a 19th-century apothecary shop. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 2pm and 4 to 6pm. Admission is free. Look for, or ask about, concerts and other goings-on.
To visit another interesting museum, continue east on Santiago Tapia 2 blocks to Benito Juárez and turn north (left). The Museo de Arte Colonial, Av. Benito Juárez 240 (tel. 443/313-9260), is a colonial house with an exhibition of religious art from the 16th to the 18th centuries: three rooms of crucifixes and Christ figures and two rooms of oil paintings, including a couple by Miguel Cabrera. Some of the crucifixes are made from the paste of corn stalks, using a pre-Columbian artistic technique among the Purépecha. The missionaries soon had their Indian converts using it to create the Christ figures and saints that adorn many churches in Mexico. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 8pm, Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free.
Just around the corner from this museum (turn right as you exit) is the Plaza del Carmen. Across the plaza, behind a heavy wrought-iron fence, is the church and former convent of El Carmen. The entrance to the convent is on the opposite side of the block from the church, on Morelos Norte. The building is home to the state's Instituto Michoacano de Cultura (tel. 443/313-1320), which has made this a comfortable and utilitarian destination; you can examine the calendars posted at the entrance to see whether a concert, film, or exhibition is happening during your stay. You can also view the large stone courtyard built in the style often used by the Carmelites. Around the courtyard are a cafe, a large bookstore, and a gallery. Entrance is free. The institute is open daily from 10am to 8pm.
Morelia's city market is 5 blocks south of San Francisco in a plain, warehouse-like structure. If you're a veteran market shopper, you'll like this one. It's especially rich in regional manufactures, such as sombreros and huaraches, and has a good produce section where you can stock up on different kinds of dried chiles if you like cooking Mexican food.
To get to the market, go downhill from San Francisco Plaza along Calle Vasco de Quiroga. Just before you get there, you will see a little plaza and the Templo de las Capuchinas. It's a precious little baroque church with a gilt retablo (altarpiece) inside. Unfortunately, it is often closed; the best time to try is from 8 to 9am and from 5 to 6pm, when the priest opens the church for Mass. Behind the church is the market.
A Brief Pause for the Food Cause
Behind the cathedral are two local food vendors that are institutions in the city. One is an ice-cream stand called Nieves del Correo, so named because for the first 30 years of its existence, it occupied a bit of sidewalk on Avenida Madero in front of the post office. Now it's in the last doorway under the arches before you get to the pedestrian-only Cerrada de San Agustín. You can't miss it. The specialty is fruit flavors such as mango and mamey. The other option is to enjoy a fruit cocktail known locally as a gazpacho (nothing like a gazpacho in Spain). Turn left on the Cerrada and you'll come to Gazpachos La Cerrada. Order one and you'll get chopped fruit (mango, pineapple, and jicama) swimming in orange and lime juice with a touch of powdered chile.
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