A walking tour of Puebla's historic district was included in our hotel package, so after our first cooking class, my friend Tammy, our classmates the Peels, and I met Carlos, our guide. A former engineer, Carlos is knowledgeable and personable. He took us on a two-hour walk that covered many of Puebla's main sights.
We started at the zocalo, Puebla's main square. It was full of people enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon. Merchants selling balloons and trinkets set up shop under the trees, carts sold lime ices in cups ringed with chile powder and big bags of chicharrones, ready to be slathered with hot sauce, and families strolled under the arcades which surround the Zocalo in three of its four sides.
After explaining a bit about the zocalo's function as a communal gathering spot, Carlos led us around the corner to see the famous Casa de Los Munecos, or House of the Puppets. It's a 17th-century mansion that's covered in Talavera tiles -- but these tiles aren't the typical flowers or delft-like patterns. They're murals of grotesque figures, all dancing strange little jigs. Apparently, the home's original owner was a wealthy general and he wished to add a third story to his house. City regulations didn't allow this, so the incensed general went over the heads of the town council by requesting permission to build from the King of Spain. The king allowed the general to build the third story, and as a way of thumbing his nose at the local government, the general covered the house's front facade with panels depicting the town councilmen dancing to his tune.
Not far from the Casa de Los Munecos is El Parian, the local craft market. Originally, it was where traders from the Phillipines and the far east set up to trade their wares. Today, El Parian consists of two long buildings that run parallel to one another, with a wide pedestrian avenue between them. Each building is divided into tiny stalls, each shaded by a curving tile overhang, where craftsmen sell pottery, clothing, metalwork, and (during the Day of the Dead), tiny clay skeletons dressed as working people who perform their daily activities, apparently unimpeded by the inconvenience of being dead.
At the far end of the market, across a broad avenue, lies the Teatro Municipal. Dating from the 18th century, it is supposed to be the oldest theater in the Western Hemisphere that's still in operation. Unlike European playhouses from the same period, the Teatro is very simple. This is due to the fact that it began life as a bull ring -- you enter the ground-level seats where the bulls entered the ring. The theater has a modern mural on its ceiling depicting the valley of Puebla and the three volcanos which surround the city.
Across the street from the theater is the church of San Francisco, notable for its stunning facade of Talavera tiles, this time in murals of vases stuffed with stylized flowers. In the church's forecourt, we saw a friar blessing people's cars (though judging by the number of breakdowns we saw on the way to Puebla, this isn't an effective form of maintenance). Nearby is a picturesque church that was the backdrop for a scene in the movie Frida (and a bakery which sent the delicious smell of hot bread into the afteroon air).
Heading back towards the zocalo, we walked down the Calle de los Dulces, or Candy Street. Here, confectioners turn out Puebla's famous sweets, including camotes (candies made of sweet potato) and rompope (Mexican eggnog). The street is also studded with convents. The nuns who lived in them were the inventors of most of the confections, the recipes for which slowly seeped out to the general populous and were the impetus for the candy-making district.
At the far end of the street is the Museum of the Mexican Revolution, located in the home of the brothers Serdan. The Serdans were reformers in the early part of the 20th century and were killed by government troops for plotting the downfall of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Bullet holes from the firefight still scar the outside of the house.
Closer still to the zocalo, on the pedestrian Boulevard Cinco de Mayo, is the Church of Santo Domingo. From the outside, it looks like a typical colonial curch, and inside, the nave's decoration is positively restrained (especially comapred with some of the baroque decor of the other local churches). But to the left of the apse stands the stunning Capilla del Rosario, considered by many to be the most beautiful chapel in Mexico. It's certainly the most amazing, with talavera wainscotting, huge oils of the life of the Virgin (they must be at least 20 by 30 feet high) that decorate the chapel's nave, and a ceiling of carved and gilded plaster which must be seen to be believed. This link gives you a pale idea of what it's like, but nothing's like being there.
After seeing the Capilla del Rosario, visiting the cathedral (which forms the fourth side of the zocalo) seemed almost anti-climactic. But the cathedral has delights of its own -- stunning floors of local marble, glorious 17th- and 18th-century altarpieces, and an amazing classical high altar designed by Manuel Tolsa. You can see a scale model of this altar in the Museo Amparo, a few blocks away.