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The Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

For our first full day in Mexico City, we booked a free walking tour of the Centro Historico, the heart of the city, through Freetour.com. The tours were run by Mexico a Pie, which means Mexico by foot. The tour was to start at 10:30 am outside the Metropolitan Cathedral and we had to report 15 mins ahead of time and search out the white umbrella.

After a good breakfast at the Airbnb we had rented, we took an Uber taxi to the Plaza de la Constitucion. Enjoying the warm morning sun, we watched the massive Mexican flag fluttering gaily in the breeze. It was hard not be struck by the size of the Metropolitan Cathedral, although it appeared a little misaligned at one end. Around 1015 am, we caught up with the lady under the white umbrella from the tour company who struck our names off her list.

At exactly 10:30 am, we formed into a small group of about a dozen people. And started following our energetic guide as she led us on an interesting tour, first we did the perimeter of the Cathedral, then the Cathedral itself and eventually we walked a short distance away to end at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The tour lasted just over 2 hours but we hardly felt it as we took a journey back in time and history.

As with all things, our tour started at the beginning. We learnt about the story of the Mexican flag whose symbol signifies the history of the Mexica people. Wandering in search of a suitable city to settle in, the Mexica believed that the divine sign would be an eagle devouring a serpent, sitting on a prickly pear. Legend has it that they found such an act on a swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.  Inventive as they were, the Mexica were able to slowly settle this area by creating a system of chinampas or small rectangular parcels of land over shallow lake beds to grow crops. Eventually, they built causeways to connect the island across the lake, thus creating the city of Tenochtitlan.

A walk around the Plaza brought us to the Templo Mayor, believed to be the Great Temple of the Mexicas, and located at the center of Tenochtitlan. The Mexica believed that the world revolved around this center. At its height, the temple would have risen, like a pyramid, an impressive 99 feet high. The priests worshipped both the patron deity, Huitzilopochti, the God of sun and fire as well as Tlaloc, the diety of water, rain and agriculture. There are supposed to have been two sets of stairs that led to the sacrifical altar where humans and animals were sacrficed as offering to the deities. And further steps led to the temples for each deity. The grandeur and splendor of such a temple is left to the imagination of the viewer. A visit to the Museum of the Templo Mayor would have helped fuel such imagination, but it being a Monday, the Museum was closed.

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Templo Mayor remains, a serpent balustrade is visible as well as steps
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Templo Mayor excavation site

About 500 years ago, Hernan Cortes and his Spanish Conquistadors landed in Tenochtitlan during the reign of Montezuma II. The Mexica and the Aztecs were at the peak during this period. As history recounts, Cortes and his Conquistadors defeated the Aztecs eventually, razed Tenochtitlan to the ground. They decided to establish their supremacy over the same parcel of swampy land, rebuilding over the same areas as the Mexicas, even using the stones from their temples in this effort.

The Plaza de la Constitucion, commonly called the Zocalo and its surrounding buildings are built over the demolished religious and political centers of the Mexican Tenochtitlan. The Spanish drained the lake, laying the foundations of the modern day Mexico City over the erstwhile Tenochtitlan. Of course, the soft subsoil of the lake bed has made Mexico City prone to flooding and earthquakes. It also has led to the city sinking slowly by about one to three feet per year. Which explains the slightly misaligned end of the Cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cathedral, at the northern end of the Zocalo, is an imposing structure. Built over the site of the Mexican temples, using resources from those temples, the original cathedral was a small structure that soon became too small to accomodate the growing population. The plan to build a new and larger cathedral took root, In reality, the contruction lasted nearly 240 years. The cathedral architecture boasts a blend of styles, including Baroque and Neo-classical, reflecting the amount of time it took to build this massive structure and the changes in architectural styles that governed them. And yet, the Cathedral appears put together.

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The central facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral

Looking up at the two large bell towers, one gets a sense of the grandeur that was being aimed for. The Cathedral has portals of entry, the central one bearing the relief of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. This was the first and the largest of the cathedrals in Latin America.

Inside, the Altar of Forgiveness was our first stop. We were told that those sentenced by the Spanish inquisition were first brought to this altar to seek forgiveness for their next world, before their beheadings. The statue of the Black Jesus near this altar caught our attention. Apparenty a pious clergyman used to kiss the feet of this statue daily. One day, an enemy injected the feet of the statue with poison so as to kill the clergyman. But the statue, instead, absorbed the poison, turning black in color and thus saving the life of the devotee.

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Altar of Forgiveness, Metropolitan Cathedral
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Black Jesus, Metropolitan Cathedral

The Altar of the Kings, is quite grand, golden and totally overpowers the senses. Dedicated to many saintly kings and queens, this altar is a feast for common man as well as artisans of all kinds. There are nearly 14 or 15 chapels in the cathedral, we stopped at the one for Virgin de Guadalupe a its supposed to be very highly regarded. We took the time to admire the church organs, which are nearly 300 years old.

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Altar of the kings, Metropolitan Cathedral

Given its precarious foundations on a lakebed, the cathedral is slowly sinking over time. While nothing can be done about this phenomenon, engineers have now found a way to stabilise the structure and allow it to sink in an even manner.

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The pointer indicates how the building has shifted over time

As we walked outside into the sunny morning, we passed a statue of Pope John Paul II, which stands just outside the cathedral building. With over 85% of the country identifying as Catholics, this Pope remains a beloved figure here. The uniqueness of the statue is that its posterior aspect is made of keys sent in by everyday Mexicans, as well as a pipe. The Pope apparently held the “key to their hearts”. A touching symbolic gesture!

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The gradient to the right (seen clearly in the distance) is from the natural sinking phenomenon

Once back on the Zocalo, we made our way past a variety of shops. From food to comics, they sold everything. As we passed a taco shop, our guide told us that tacos “al pastor” got their name from the Lebanese who migrated to Mexico in the early 1900s. They brought the spit -roasted meat concept with them, thus inspiring the “al pastor”(shepherd’s style) name for such meat.

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Tacos al pastor

Our walk took us past the nearly 150 year old Dulceria de Celaya, well known for its sweet offerings. From candied fruit rolls or bollitos to alegrias, which are bars made from a combination of amaranth seeds and honey, to cookies, cocados and chocolates in various styles, the store is a sweet lover’s paradise. We visited the store briefly and enjoyed its timeless beauty but didn’t taste or buy any sweets.

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Candied fruits at the Dulceria

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From the Ave. 5 de Mayo, we turned left onto a side street before emerging onto Av. Fransisco I. Madero. Here we merged with the crowds, dodging them to keep up with our guide. She talked to us about some of the grand homes situated on this avenue. The Borda House with its elegant iron works balconies came first. The Palace of Iturbide, built by a wealthy count as a gift to his daughter, and  home to Agustin de Iturbide, who was mexico’s first emperor after independence from Spain. The grand entrance speaks eloquently of its original owners. Further down, we stopped to see the Casa de los Azulejos, the house of tiles. Indeed, tiles covered the house on all the sides we could see. Its a matter of opinion if it had been done tastefully or not. Either way, it was a unique home and one we won’t forget soon!

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Grand entrance to the Palace of Iturbide
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House of Tiles, Casa de los Azulejos
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Side walls of the Casa de los Azulejos

We took a peek at The Church of San Fransisco, a small church which is what remains of a once vast complex of church and monastery of the same name. Once occupying a place of great import, it sunk twice and has been reconstructed a third time. Of course, a large portion of the original church has given way to new roads and new buildings in the area.

From here, we also took a look at the Torre Latinamericana, an engineering marvel of a skyscraper, the first of its kind built in a highly seismic area. So far, the building has withstood the ravages of three earthquakes successfully. And it is said that during the first earthquake, one of the architects of the building was in his office in the building as the earthquake struck. The tower stood tall and proud as other buildings around it collapsed.

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Torre Latinoamericana

Our guide then took us to see the Palacio Postal or the Correo Mayor, the main post office, and certainly the most opulent one of its kind! Functional since its opening in 10907, the post office is dressed up in gold with ornate staircases, glass domed roof and flowery relief work along columns and ceilings. Its quite stunning to visit! It almost felt like a travesty that such a beautiful buidling was being put to use for something so mundane as selling stamps!

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Ornate staircase at the Palacio Postal
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Opulence at the Palacio Postal

The street where the opening scene from Spectre was shot is near here, although I forgot to write down its exact location. From the post office, we walked across to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. This iconic building is home to the cultural center that hosts everything from paintings to plays. Built fully of white marble, the structure is quite fantastic to see.

Our tour ended outside the Palacio de Bellas Artes. After the customary photo, we gathered some restaurant tips from our guide before giving her a generous tip and setting out on our own. Our guide was an archeologist and that helped to boost her enthusiasm for recounting the history of the places we visited and the sights we saw. From the Mexica to the Conquistadors to the fight for Independence from Spain to Porfirio Diaz and his policies, we had travelled a long way down history’s lanes yet covered only a few short blocks in the Centro Historico.

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Palacio de Bellas Artes

So next time you are in town, take a walking tour and let someone else transport to ancient temples and swampy islands, to majestic post offices and of course, the Casa de Azulejos, the house of tiles! For this is Mexico City, quite unlike any other!!