Monday, 19 November 2007

Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende and Tequisquiapan

In October, we went away for a weekend in Querétaro with Maggui and her mother Romy, to the holiday house Maggui bought when she retired. It isn't that far from Mexico City but getting out of town on the Friday afternoon was horrendous - it took 2 hours to get to the start of the toll road, then about 2 hours more to get to Querétaro. Our return trip late on Sunday was a bit quicker, but very nerve-wracking especially after dark. Barry and I both feel that we couldn't cope with the volume of traffic and how hard it is to get out of the city by car - not to mention how stressful we would find driving in the intense city traffic, with cars double parked everywhere, no lane discipline whatever, and people disregarding red lights at will if they feel they can get away with it. The traffic and fear of owning a car and driving here would be one of my major arguments against living in Mexico City long term, however much I enjoy it short term.

One of the reasons Maggui chose Querétaro is that she has family living there who can keep an eye on the place when they are not there, in the form of Gerardo, one of her nephews but like a much younger brother. For a few years of his childhood Romy cared for him, so they are very close - in fact when I first met him some 30 years ago, I thought he actually was one of her brothers, and it has taken me years to get the family straight. He commutes into Mexico City usually on Sunday night, where he works for Pemex (the state owned petroleum mega-enterprise), returning Friday night. Latterly he has been going by bus but formerly he drove. Now he is considering looking for work in Querétaro, which seems from appearances to be booming, but there is not really that much opportunity - there are small Pemex offices around the country, but all the major bureaucracy and functions are centralised in Mexico City. His wife Marisela works at the local university, and their 2 sons are finishing high school or in junior college there. But they do not want to return to living in the Mexico City, and enjoy the pace in Querétaro a lot better. Some of the photos show how attractive the downtown colonial areas are.

We had brought food with us from the city, but also went out in the morning for fresh bread and hand squeezed orange juice (brought home from the corner store in 1 litre plastic bags!). Maggui had brought the makings for chilaquiles, and I had a lesson in making this typical Mexican treat. It consists of layers of several alternating layers of fried tortilla strips ( home made in this case, but I guess you could use corn chips in Australia), a fairly mild green salsa - home made again, shredded cheese (most Mexican cheeses are not very strong and melt well. I will look up a recipe to confirm what type of cheese is used), and some cream (Maggui had a low fat version , and didn't use a vast amount). The baking dish is heated in the oven till bubbling, with the cheese melted. I have eaten chilaquiles several times (including breakfast at the wedding I blogged about earlier this year), but these were far and away the best ever. This was teamed with scrambled eggs, home made frijoles and potatoes with rajas (chilli strips), and fresh rolls and/or tortillas to mop up the sauce. Plus we had the juice and heaps of fresh fruit - I had brought huge mangoes and a decent melon, Maggui added bananas and grapefruit. I had brought some strong teabags for us from home - if you want a strong cup of black tea here you need the imported stuff , or else 2 local teabags.

As well as having family there, by now Maggui her mother have formed great relationships with their neighbours - in fact one of the neighbours popped in to thank Maggui for the birthday present she had brought from the city and given to her 8 year old daughter, and, this being Mexico, she stayed to eat a belated breakfast (there was of course a huge quantity) and I had a chance to practice my Spanish. Then an hour later, Gerardo and Marisela arrived and another round of breakfast was served for them - by now it was about 12. Then Maggui left Romy in their care, and took us into the centre of Queretaro to have a look around. We had gone in to have drinks and coffee in a lovely old hotel the night before (the first photo was taken then), and noted how beautifully the colonial city centre had been restored, but everything looks very different during the day. We took in a museum in an ex-Franciscan convent (see photos) and the artesanía market in the very central section, and noted how many different cultural activities were listed for that evening - I noted a choral concert early in the evening and Barry a Cuban Band playing later in the evening, at various of the outdoor plazas. And of course Barry found a book shop where he just had to buy a few books!

We then headed off to Gerardo's house, which is in one of the many recent developments all around Queretaro. In this case all the streets are named after the stars of the Golden Age of the Mexican movies and radio, really evocative names like Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Maria Felix, Dolores Del Rio - I have since learned more about lots of them from my Cancionero Mexicano course.

We collected everyone, and spent the rest of the day with the family, now also including Daniel, the younger of her nephew's sons, driving to San Miguel de Allende, which is a fairy tale of a place. Viewed from the lookout point on our way in, it looks like the original on which Walt Disney modelled Fantasy Land.

There is a lot of gorgeous pink stone and the crenellated towers of the Cathedral look exactly like Sleeping Beauty's castle in Disneyland. It is hilly and unbelievably charming, full of colonial buildings and streetscapes , very hilly and therefore full of gorgeous views. Many retired and artsy Americans have retired to San Miguel, so the prices have been pushed up, and there are many stores selling art, pottery, clothing and textiles not strictly along the lines of the usual handicrafts. The night life and music scene looked interesting, but we weren't there in the evening. I know Bev and Judy enjoyed their few days here, as their first port of call in Mexico.

A highlight of our return drive to Queretaro was stopping for dinner at Chilo's, a local seafood place, where Maggui got the band to serenade Barry (she had missed his actual birthday by a couple of weeks, but that wouldn't stop Maggui!). I have video footage of the serenade, but have had the usual problems downloading it. One of these days I will manage to move the video to somewhere you can actually view it, but probably not till we are back in Oz. See the picture I took to show the relative sizes of a normal bottle of white wine, the oversized beer bottles they served to the table, and a fish fillet Gerardo ordered.

The seafood was excellent, fresh and cheap. We met the owner, quite a young guy, who said he trucks in the fresh fish 3 or 4 times a week direct from the coast at Tampico. It is a huge barn of a place, completely unpretentious, and was full of families, who were mostly just leaving as we arrived, as their business is serving Mexican lunch, and they close about 8. Driving back the final half hour or so to Queretaro, there was a beautiful crescent moon illuminating the landscape, the mountains just visible on the horizon by starlight under the absolutely magical deep navy sky. Too gorgeous!

We returned to Gerardo's then just Maggui, Barry and I carried on into the centre to catch the last half hour of the Cuban band. The quality of the amplification was excellent: I've noticed how clear the sound often is at large outdoor events here, not sure how they do it and avoid the distortion I often associate with this kind of concert. The city was absolutely full of people: family groups with lots of small kids, asleep or awake, and young people in couples or packs. Everyone was eating something or other from the street vendors, from packet snacks, corn and ice cream to plates heaped with food. Kids had balloons and were blowing bubbles, or playing with marionettes and other toys bought on the street.

Echelons of men earn their living from tips earned by managing the parking - guiding you to spots on their pitch, helping you park in the tight spots by whistling, waving their rags about, thumping on your car, or whatever other means they have invented. In some cases they will wash your car while you are away (this happens a lot in Mexico City), thereby increasing their tip, and the presence of a watchful eye ought to discourage break-ins and car theft, so drivers cheerfully pay the guardians. I often wonder how the various guys in this informal economy claim and retain their particular pitch, and if there is a mafia of sorts which controls them and claims a cut of their takings. (Likewise I wonder about the street vendors - I photographed the Indigenous women below in San Miguel.) Outside the smarter restaurants and hotels there seems to be a bit more formality to the system, which even runs to valet parking, but it is amazing how people create a market and find a niche in the most straitened circumstances. Maggui had negotiated the parking system, having dropped us off near the plaza before she went off to park, and only rejoined us in time for the last song. Walking back to the car, she met some of the inevitable ex-Nestle crowd - she worked there for well over 30 years, in increasingly senior executive assistant roles, and seems always to run into former colleagues wherever we go.

On Sunday morning after breakfast Maggui dropped us off at a lovely park which has a museum and a few large statues of heroes of the Mexican Revolution, so we could have a look around for a bit, then picked us up and we packed up the car and Romy and headed off to Tequisquiapan, an incredibly charming village which used to be famous as a spa, but whose water has largely dried up as a result of lack of attention and poor environmental guardianship. After wandering around the zócalo we chose a place to eat lunch. Paella was on that day, so I had to have it, but I was a bit disappointed: the version cooked by the grandmothers at El Hogar Español in Johnston St in Collingwood at home is very much better!

We then had a wander around the place, taking in the artesanía market and ending up at the retirement home of Maggui's former boss, who was away in Europe . His chef, who is caring for the house and the rather overweight poodle, is a great friend of Maggui's and took us on a guided tour of the lovely house, pool and gardens, and regaled us with tales of Tequisquiapan in the old days. He also gave Maggui a huge bag of avocados from the garden in various stages of maturity: she passed on half a dozen to us which we consumed with relish as they ripened over the next couple of weeks. From there we negotiated our way through the extensive and very dusty roadworks back to the main toll road, and back to Mexico City. Maggui and I had both noticed "Speedy Gonzalez" playing over and over in the very small play list of a local radio station we had been tuned to, which neither of us could really explain! We just changed the station to something classical and a lot more calming for the journey home.

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