The Pink Colonial City of Morela, Mexico

Under the light of the full moon, a man on a white horse gallops through a busy village square. Women in braids, whirling skirts, and shawls bring baskets of flowers, bread, and fruit to the tune of fiddlers and guitarists. As the villagers dance, I think I can make out the faint tinkling of strings. The sound of birds singing in the Governor’s Palace’s outdoor courtyard snaps me out of my reverie. I find myself in front of a massive painting by one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists, Alfredo Zalce, and I find myself wishing I could jump right into the merriment depicted.

Husband Eric interrupts my daydreaming by screaming my name from across the stone arcade. In another of Zalce’s murals, located in a stairway, he has discovered a more depressing scene: a fight in which the victorious stand atop stone slabs while the defeated are crushed beneath them. After paying our respects for a few minutes to the fallen of Mexico’s early 19th century struggle for independence, we make our way down the steps and out into the bright sunlight and friendly banter of the strolling public, who all bow and grin as we pass by.

Morelia, the capital of Michoacán and located halfway between Mexico City and Guadalajara, is a lovely colonial city in Mexico where history, art, the Spanish Renaissance, and Mesoamerican culture all blend together harmoniously.

The city, which dates back to the 16th century and is home to one million people, was named for José Mara Morelos y Pavón, a pioneer in Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain and a native of the area.

The city of Morelia has worldwide acclaim for its stunning beauty. More than 200 ancient buildings in the Spanish colonial style were responsible for earning it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. These picturesque buildings are home to a variety of institutions showcasing anything from art and history to music and dance. The kind locals of this picturesque historical city showed us that they rightfully value their community.

It’s time for supper, so we sit outside at Arte y Cultura Café, one of several quaint eateries along the north side of the zócalo, or town square. An endless stream of people stroll by in the evening’s pleasant air while we dine on white fish covered in avocado sauce and almonds, Chicken Morelia, topped with spicy sausage and a cheese sauce, and roast pumpkin.

On the other hand, families with young children can be seen strolling around the tree-lined zócalo while enjoying an ice cream treat. The twin-steepled Morelia Cathedral, bathed in blue and green floodlights, towers nearly 200 feet (61 m) above the square like a wise old grandmother looking over all.

One of the largest Baroque cathedrals in Latin America draws us in, and once inside, we are taken aback by what we see. Hundreds of rapt listeners have come in the golden-lit, vaulted space to experience the soaring melodies and resonant bass of a gigantic 4,600-pipe organ.

Up on a balcony, an organist plays Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach. The music washes over us as we take in the high, blue-and-yellow tiled dome, the exquisite side chapels, and the silver baptismal font where José Mara Morelos was christened. and the unusual silence of the whole crowd. Even a pair of bright-eyed tots in frilly dresses sits back-to-back, arms intertwined, acting both playfully and respectfully.

Our hotel, Los Juaninos, is a stunningly renovated old convent and one of the city’s most appealing lodging options, so after hearing several moving classical pieces, we strolled across the street to check in. In our loft on the second story, just yards from the cathedral, we fall asleep to the hum of a ceiling fan.

As morning breaks, I head out onto the balcony and watch the city come to life below me as commuters make their way to work. You can find almost anything within a six-block radius of the zócalo, where our hotel is located. We’re not after anything in particular, simply the thrill of a lucky break.

Neat as a pin, the streets are lined with shops selling everything from the latest trends in clothing and footwear to high-quality leather items and a wide variety of household necessities. In front of a bridal shop, I hesitate. Eric and I just got married, therefore I’m looking at wedding dresses. The typical cost of one of these sweet treats, which is manually stitched and adorned, is only US$300.

“Whoa! For the price of the dress we bought you, we could have flown down here and bought you a dress AND taken you on a vacation! Eric claims. This causes me to laugh and shrug. It’s too late now. We’re currently on that trip.

The sight of a bakery causes my jaw to drop. My life’s mission is to sample baked goods from as many bakeries as possible. In this traditional Mexican bakery, tasty treats are displayed on shelves, and customers help themselves. We hover in front of the bewildering selection of baked goods, each holding a set of tongs and a round tin dish we’ve selected from a stack.

The baker is very friendly and helpful as he describes the many desserts available to us. One of our offerings is a delicious pineapple pastry shaped like a bear’s claw.

A little distance away is the Mercado de Dulces y Artes, a maze of narrow streets lined with towering kiosks selling handcrafted candies flavored with exotic ingredients like mango and jalapeño.

This area is Eric’s domain. He prefers the more exotic flavors that are hard to get by in mainstream American cuisine. My spouse picks up fresh caramel-coconut haystacks and sugared tamarind balls after the aproned shopkeeper graciously serves samples of the various sweets. My daughter and I buy a candy-pink tiered skirt and a lovely muslin blouse, respectively, from the market’s crafts stands.

The huge collection of Michoacán crafts at the neighboring Casa de Las Artesanasis gorgeous, and prices appear to be affordable, but normally I prefer to ferret out arts and crafts where they are manufactured, even if it means trekking down dirt roads to nothing. Not only are there seemingly tens of thousands of handicrafts here, but they also seem to be of exceptionally high quality — collector’s items, with themes ranging from bright, tropical-themed wooden artifacts to handwoven tablecloths, embroidered garments, and painted pottery.

Nearly every block, in every direction, seems to contain a cultural or historic site. Within the space of an hour we come across the Museum of Contemporary Art, filled with ultra-modern photographs and contemporary paintings; the birthplace of Morelos, a simple home built around a serene courtyard with historical displays; the Museo Casa de Morelos, a museum honoring Morelia’s most famous son; and numerous stone churches with bell towers.

We rest in the lacey shade of trees at one of the city’s many plazas, where schoolchildren are taking a midday break. Several boys fill their water bottles at a fountain then chase each other; the less fleet get squirted. Two girls in blue jumpers and white blouses scoop the water with their hands, then, laughing, bound over a low border into a grassy triangle, which becomes their private play space.

“Did you notice …” I mention, “everyone we’ve met here seems so happy.” Even the simple act of walking down the sidewalk here leads me to feel unusually bold; everyone we pass smiles at us, and I return their smiles, feeling like a long-lost family member.

For our last night in Morelia, we settle into Villa Montaña Hotel & Spa, a luxurious hilltop hideaway with a newly opened spa and spectacular city views; we quickly pick out the cathedral in the distance. Our ivy-cloaked casita features antique colonial furniture, a comfortable sitting room and a cozy fireplace in the bedroom. The dome-shaped brick ceiling in the bedroom is a mystery of mastery; Eric and I ponder how it was constructed.

Outside, we explore the sculpture-filled terraces, one of which holds a swimming pool at the brink of the hill, the city spread before us as far as the eye can see. The day is glorious, as it always seems to be here, and we trade shorts for swimsuits, take a lemon-fresh dip in the pool and lie on chaise longues, savoring the Latin-spice sun of this friendly and beautiful colonial city.


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