In the center of Querétaro, you'll notice right away how many plazas, churches, and convents there are. If you're really observant, you'll see that the plazas are frequently next to the churches. In fact, most of these plazas were formed at the cost of the convents, which lost much of their land to the government during La Reforma. This is true of the town's most important plaza, Jardín Zenea, where we will begin. This plaza was part of the atrium of San Francisco Church and Convent, which you see facing the park across Corregidora Street. This park is popular every night, but especially on Sunday, when the municipal band plays dance music of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Great fun! The old bandstand dates from 1900.
Turn toward San Francisco Church to see the depiction of St. James on the facade. From the beginning, this church was the most important in town; it remains so today, the more recent cathedral notwithstanding. It and the attached cloister are all that remain of a large complex that included several chapels and an orchard that extended a few blocks east and south. Inside the church, you will see a few interesting remains of baroque decoration. The main altar is a rather uninteresting piece of neoclassicism that replaced what reputedly was a masterpiece of baroque design. This is a common story with churches in Querétaro. Many of the baroque retablos escaped the plunderers, only to fall prey to the "improvers," as was the case here.
Next door to the church is the cloister, which now houses the Museo Regional. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm. Admission is 41 pesos. Exhibits include artifacts from pre-Hispanic, colonial, and republican times. The architecture shows common traits of Franciscan design in the simplicity of its lines and decoration, which you can contrast with the rich decoration (caryatids and all) of the former Augustinian convent, now a museum of colonial art. Leaving the museum, turn left and then left again, and you'll be on the pedestrians-only Andador Libertad. This leads to the small Plaza de Independencia or Plaza de Armas, with its carefully pruned Indian laurel trees, outdoor restaurants, and colonial mansions.
At the Plaza de Independencia you'll find Galería Libertad, on your right just as you get to the plaza. It's free, and in past visits, I've come upon some entertaining exhibits. At the far end of the plaza is the Casa de la Corregidora. As you walk toward it, you will pass on your left the Casa de Ecala, a baronial mansion with magnificent balconies and wrought iron, which dates from the 18th century.
"La Corregidora" was the wife of the mayor (corregidor) at the beginning of the struggle for independence. Her full name was Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. She was a member of a secret group of intellectuals bent on liberating Mexico from Spain. As the wife of Querétaro's mayor, she was in a useful position for gathering information. When the group was discovered, she was put under house arrest but still managed to get a warning to Father Hidalgo. He eluded capture and rushed to Dolores, where he gave his famous grito (the cry for independence). For her actions, La Corregidora was imprisoned several times between 1810 and 1817. She died several years later, impoverished and forgotten, but was later remembered and became the first woman to appear on a Mexican coin.
The fountain in the middle of the plaza honors Querétaro's greatest benefactor, a Spanish grandee named Don Juan Antonio de Urrutia y Arana, who built a large aqueduct to bring water to the city. This colonial aqueduct is the most famous landmark in the city. To view it, continue east on Andador Libertad. It ends in 1 block, so you must dogleg to the next eastbound street, either Independencia or Carranza. The street gently climbs toward the church and convent of la Santa Cruz, where missionaries were trained to evangelize the heathens as far away as California and Nicaragua. The church has one bell tower with an attractive tile dome. It and the convent are Franciscan. The convent continues in operation. You can take a short tour, usually led by an elderly monk, Fray Jesús Guzmán de León, who speaks English. He will show you how the water from the aqueduct arrived here and how it fed a system of fountains known as cajas de agua that provided water throughout the old city. From these, the citizens of Querétaro would fill their buckets. He will also show you a thorn tree said to have grown from the walking stick of Friar Antonio Margil de Jesús, a famous missionary who covered vast territories on foot. This thorn tree is considered miraculous because its thorns grow in the shape of the cross. The tour is free, but you may make a contribution to the preservation of the convent and church.
Behind the church is a small plaza from which you can view the aqueduct. Follow the rough stone wall partially covered by the branches of mesquite trees, and you can't miss it. The aqueduct extends across an expanse of bottomland from the hill in front. This feat of engineering required the construction of 74 arches. Work began in 1726 and finished in 1738.
From here, make your way back to the Jardín Zenea. If you go by way of Calle Independencia, you can pop into La Casa de la Zacatecana (look for a banner), Independencia 59 (tel. 442/224-0758). It presents a vision of what many colonial mansions were like in Querétaro, with period furnishings and decor. Hours are from Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 6pm in winter (11am-7pm in summer). Admission costs 30 pesos. Associated with this house (as with a couple of others in town) is a tale of illicit love, murder, and retribution. Colonial Mexico is a fertile land for Gothic tales.
Back at Jardín Zenea, head west on Calle Madero. At the first corner, just before the street becomes an andador, is La Casa de la Marquesa, an opulent colonial residence-turned-hotel. The courtyard lobby has elaborate mudéjar style (a Spanish architectural style with Moorish influences) arches and patterned walls.
Cater-cornered from this hotel is the church and former Convent of Santa Clara. Inside the church are six astonishing baroque retablos and a choir loft, all gilded and each a self-contained composition. In prominent positions are sculptures and paintings of saints; here and there, the faces of angels appear out of the enveloping, thickly textured ornament. Gazing upon these is like gazing upon a mandala. The juxtaposition of straight lines and multiple facets with overflowing curves that move inward and outward make the retablos appear fluid and rigid at the same time. The key to enjoying these retablos is not to look for proportion, balance, or an underlying composition, but to look at them as the expression of an ecstatic religious sentiment that rejects these very notions.
For a greater acquaintance with the colonial religious mind, walk south 1 block on Allende. On your right will be the Museo de Arte (tel. 442/212-3523), in the former convent of San Agustín. Admission is 30 pesos; it's free on Tuesday. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm. It contains one of the great collections of Mexican colonial art, but the architecture of the former convent alone is worth the price of admission. Highly stylized human forms, complex geometric lines, and vegetal motifs are everywhere. The art is organized by style of painting. The collection has works by Europeans, but its focus is on painters in New Spain, including the most famous of the land.
If you're still in the mood for colonial splendor, walk west 2 blocks on Pino Suárez. After you cross Melchor Ocampo, turn left down a narrow street graced with bougainvillea and you'll come to the church and former convent of Santa Rosa de Viterbo. Like Santa Clara, it is a masterpiece of baroque architecture. On the outside, notice the scroll-shaped flying buttresses (a style that, as far as I know, is unique to Querétaro) and the imaginative tower. Inside, the church is much like Santa Clara, with magnificent gilt retablos occupying all available wall space. Also like Santa Clara, the main altar failed to escape the "improvers."
Farther west (a bit too far to walk) is the Cerro de las Campanas (Hill of Bells), where Maximilian was executed. You'll find a large, ugly statue of Juárez installed there by the Mexican government to counter a small and sad memorial chapel for Maximilian erected by his brother, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Immediately south of downtown is a park called Alameda Hidalgo, which is a lovely setting for a walk.