Exploring the Zócalo

An extensive urban renewal around the Zócalo is turning the Centro Histórico on its head. It is funded to such an extent by Carlos Slim, head of Telmex (the government telephone monopoly), owner of Sandburns and numerous other establishments that the project has been dubbed SlimCentro. Despite all this remodeling, the Zócalo remains pretty much the same to my eye, although prices in the area have skyrocketed.

Walk across the large paved rectangle known officially as La Plaza de la Constitución and popularly as the Zócalo and you step on stones that cover the blood of untold thousands of sacrificial victims as well as the organization, the beauty and the enchantment of the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan. Surrounding the square are elegant reminders of the Colonial past and more mundane signs of the chaotic present.

An artist rendition of 'then' and Mexico's flag flying over today's Zócalo.

The great Catedral Metropolitana looms to the north. To the west, is the impressive if somewhat gloomy National Palace filled with Diego Rivera murals. The Monte de Piedad or national pawnshop shares space on the eastern side with shop after shop filled with glittering gold jewelry and coins, mute reminders of the compelling factor that brought about Montezuma's fall and the sacking and latter razing of his city. To the west you find governmental offices for the Districto Federal .

An inside view of the Presidential Palace and a part of the mural by Diego Rivera outlining the history of Mexico.

Intermingling with the various echoes of the past are hundreds of images of its present. On our most recent visit in November, the square was a cluttered confusion of scaffolding, metal stadium seating, rolls of electrical cords. monster speakers perched precariously one on top of the other and massive floodlights as workers scurried to get the stage ready for a benefit concert for Chiapas hurricane victims. This was to be the concert to end all concerts combining Maná, Los Jaguares and the Kumbia Kings. To the side, huge tents were already in position to receive the donations of the public which was to be the price of admission for the concert.

The synergism between ancient, colonial and modern times is nowhere so electric as in this six plus block radius. Moving from the rarified heights of history to the more plebian pleasures, good eats and a greater view can be found in two nearby hotels.

Every town has its Grand Hotel but El Gran Hotel Ciudad de México on the SW corner of the Zócalo, lives up to its name. The lobby is opulently luxurious in the style of the Robber Baron era but the lesser tourist is graciously made to feel welcome. The Saturday/Sunday breakfast buffet is a hefty 250 pesos but well worth the splurge. There's everything from sushi to Mexican favorites to International cuisine. The buffet remains open until 5:00 p.m. so you could hit the line for comida and feel more frugal about the price. However, the elegant setting, the spectacular view from the newly opened terrace restaurant and the quality and variety of the food make it seem like a bargain to me.

The old-fashioned elevator and the art nouveux stained glass in the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México.

The weekday buffets though, are in the viewless lobby, making a trip to the Hotel Magestic a good alternative. The rooftop restaurant has the best view of the Zócalo and the food and the price, while still respectable, are more subdued. If you're lucky you can be there when the fellow brings his trained birds around. For a few pesos tip, you receive a bit of paper (Spanish or English) with some personal advice and get an impressive little performance from the two birds.

The one guidebook recommended place that I will scrupulously avoid in the future is the Casa de las Sirenas (Republica Guatemala behind the Cathedral and a few doors away from the excellent Hostel Catedral) where high-priced indifferently prepared meals are served lukewarm by surly waiters. It was a true disappointment in a town known for its fine cuisine.

On a later happier visit to another restaurant, the owner asked why we had chosen his rather out-of-the-way spot. We replied that once in a while we follow a guidebook and every now and then they show us a gem and other times it can be total bust. His expectant look made us reassure him his establishment belonged in the former category.

‘And can I ask what you've found in the latter?'

We mentioned the Casa de las Sirenas .

‘Ah, then that explains it,' he laughed. ‘I know who the owners are and was rather puzzled to see the brother of the owner come here to celebrate his birthday with quite a group of friends. At the time, I wondered why he didn't take the crowd to his brother's place. It certainly would have been cheaper. Now I understand.'

One bad meal aside, the Zócalo is captivating. There is a special aura about walking on stones that cover the heart of a centuries-old, highly advanced civilization. The ashes of that dead civilization rose like the Phoenix in 1978 when municipal workers uncovered a massive stone carving prompting further excavation west of the Cathedral and north of the National Palace . One can now walk within the religious heart or teocalli of the Aztec Empire right in the center of modern Mexico .

If you plan your visit on a weekday and manage to time it between school groups, you can have the area pretty much to yourself. The sounds of cumbias overlap with Norteñas competing with the newest rock hit from Café Tacuba as vendors of pirate CD's vie for customers on Justo Sierra. The music blends in with the pitch from the hawkers of creams to cure insomnia, hair loss, kidney disorders and a wealth of other health problems all in one cream and all for ten pesos. The jack hammers attacking the concrete in front of the Cathedral overrides at times the sounds of claxons and unmuffled exhausts from the vehicles circling the Zócalo. Spires of several Colonial churches jut into the horizon.

Exhibits from the adjoining museum. The center piece shows the stone whose discovery accounted for the subsequent uncovering of this lost city.

Despite the reminders of more modern times, one can still feel as Bedford wrote even before the discovery of the Templo Mayor, ‘In the spaces of the Plaza Mayor, walking over the grave of a pyramid, one is assailed by infinity, seized at the throat by an awful sense of the past stretching and stretching backwards through tunnels of time…Can this be Here, can one be in it? One is in a legend, one is walking in Troy .'

An artist rendition of how Mexico's various cultures are interconncected to make the foundation of today's society.

Walk, though, a bit to the north on say Republica de Brasil and one leaves the mystic of the Zócalo and enters a rawer version of modern version of Mexico City . There is a swift and abrupt line of demarcation between the urban renewal and restoration around the Plaza de la Constitución and the area moving into Lagunillas and the infamous Tepito market. Evidence of damage from the 1985 earthquake coexists with present day deterioration. Ambulatory vendors crowd the sidewalks. There is a general unkempt image to the place and the people. With the exception of the rather elegantly dressed transvestite we saw, the place was pretty shabby. And he/she had evidently suffered a bit of gender confusion in the morning. Sandwiched between the coiffured hair, carefully made-up face and precariously high heels was decidedly masculine garb.

The daily bustle of the Zócalo is a far cry from the scene just a few blocks away.

It just goes to show that even the billions of Carlos Slim can keep only so much of the city's reality at bay. It's a reality that is only five hours away from Pátzcuaro. Five hours on a 1st class bus is certainly doable. If you go deluxe from Morelia, you don't have to listen to the movie and get even more legroom. Unlike Sybille Bedford, who after her initial rave review on her first visit, found nothing good to say about the place the second time around, Mexico City intrigues me more and more each time I go. A week is my limit with five days optimum. After all, I don't need to see it all in one pop. I know I'll be back.

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