What surprised me most about returning to Santa Fe after 27 years was how little it had changed. Native Americans still sold well-made geegaws in front of the Palace of the Governors and the beige adobe shops, galleries, and museums of the main Plaza seemed untouched by time. And the people were still friendly at America’s oldest capital city which is nestled 7000 feet in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains,
I later learned that my comparatively new (built in 1986) hotel, the Eldorado, was a shocking five floors, taller than any other structure in this seemingly minuscule burg of 37.4 square miles and about 65,000 full-time residents. The estimated number of visitors is much higher, 1-2 million annually, and one wonders where they put them all because it seemed relatively uncrowded (summer months are busiest).
But Santa Fe punches its own time clock, and it’s more like a sundial. A flavorful mix of three cultures – Native American, Hispanic, and Wild West — it’s a combination of low-tech Pueblo architecture, high desert, and some of the most amazing art around, both on display and for purchase.
We began our excursion with a walking tour. Despite appearances, the city has grown considerably, adding more space, for example, to the Palace of the Governors. Since it was built by the Spanish in 1610, this means that any renovation is more like an archeological dig. So what may be found in the layers of dirt outside may end up as part of an exhibit at this museum which focuses on New Mexico history and is the nation’s oldest public building still in continuous use?
Next, we stopped at St. Francis Cathedral, whose Gothic-looking French Romanesque architecture stands out in stark contrast to its surroundings. Built in 1869 by Archbishop Lamy, it was constructed over the site of a church destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, replacing a later adobe church called La Parroquia, much to the dismay of the native population.
Also steeped in local lore is the Chapel of San Miguel, the city’s oldest house of worship built in 1626. Nothing of the original structure remains, having been burnt down during the Pueblo Revolt. It was completely redone in 1710 and purchased nearly 150 years later by Archbishop Lamy and the Christian Brothers of Santa Fe who made it part of a college. However, with its unadorned adobe front and simple cross, it retains the flavor of a Spanish mission.
Other sites include Loretto Chapel and its “miraculous” spiral staircase which has two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support, among other mysteries; the Museum of Fine Arts, with its extensive collections of Southwestern and contemporary artists; and the State Capitol which is built in the shape of the state’s Zia sun symbol and has its own art display.
But a real magnet is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. A novice to the art world, I spent a few hours at this user-friendly attraction learning about her peripatetic life as well as her stunning and sensual American Modernist paintings, drawings, and sculptures. We also stopped at the gift shop, whose reasonable prices were offset by several purchases, and the O’Keeffe Café whose menu and decor are as original (and abundant) as its namesake’s work.
The next day, we headed towards Museum Hill. OK, this might seem like overkill but when you’re at one of the three top art destinations in the country, it’s hard to resist. And our first stop, the Museum of International Folk Art, caters to nearly every sensibility. Stuffed with colorful fabrics, paintings, dolls, and ethnic crafts from hundreds of cultures, its many huge rooms encompassed eras from prehistoric to Spanish Colonial to contemporary. Native works from the American South peacefully coexist with those from countries such as Ethiopia and Iraq.
Along with containing more than 10 million artifacts of which only a fraction are displayed, the adjacent Museum of Indian Arts & Culture uses poetry, story, song, and dance to illustrate two thousand years of Native American history. And the smallest but newest addition to the Hill, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, boasts rooms furnished with authentic pieces and adorned with santos, painted and sculpted images of saints; elaborate textiles; and ornate adornments of tin, silver, iron, and gold, such as the huge hair combs worn by senoritas. Aficionados of religious objects should check out the gift shop with its one-of-a-kind decoupage crosses.
Those wanting to view contemporary and historic art and crafts from all Native American cultures can make a detour at the nearby Wheelwright. Pottery, jewelry, textiles, and outdoor sculptures are set amidst a traditional Navajo hogan.
By now, we were thinking of purchasing some beauty for ourselves. But before we stopped at Canyon Road, the main drag for galleries, we put on the old feedbag at the Santacafe. Originally built circa 1860, it was once the residence of Jose Manual Gallegos, a controversial and colorful priest and politician (he’d have to be with that resume). Defrocked by Bishop Lamy in 1852, he later married and became a powerful force in building the territory. Today his former crib is a chic eatery with a fusion menu and a glass floor in the bar where you can look down and see the remains of an old mine.
You’ll need a map (and good shoes) to traverse the two-mile stretch of Canyon Road. One hundred of Santa Fe’s 230 galleries and studios are located here. Once used by Spanish settlers as a trade route, it is now Ground Zero for contemporary and other kinds of art. Among the galleries we visited were Marigold Arts, with its handwoven fabrics in a rainbow of colors; Patricia Carlisle Fine Arts, whose witty “Cats I’ve known – 1st litter” portraits complemented a wide array of paintings, sculpture, and jewelry; and the Morningstar Gallery, renowned for its antique Native American beadwork, pottery, basketry, clothing and more. If you miss one Chiraroscuro Gallery there’s another just down the road. The Zaplin-Lampert Gallery encompasses the whole enchilada: classic Western art, original paintings, and prints from early Taos and Santa Fe, traditional Mexican and New Mexican furniture, and a garden with works of contemporary sculptors.
Speaking of which, we had yet to sample the Southwestern cuisine which helped put Santa Fe on the culinary map. Located within walking distance of another lodging we stayed at, the luxurious-yet-homey Native-American owned Hotel Santa Fe, was Tomasitas. At this local favorite was real Mexican food, as well as killer margaritas (later I found out that margaritas have approximately 65 calories per ounce which would have added up to about two days’ worth of food in my case, including chips, salsa, and the meal itself).
The next day we drove back to Albuquerque, the nearest major airport hub. The route in and out is pleasant and only about an hour if you take I-25. It offers stunning views of the mountains and amazing colors, especially during the early morning or dusk. However, we took Highway 14, known as the Turquoise Trail.
Allow at least an extra two hours to explore this scenic national byway. Here you’ll catch glimpses the “real” New Mexico: the quaint town of Cerrillos with its dirt streets and Old West storefronts; Madrid (pronounced Mad-rid, not like the Spanish city) with its funky, 1970s ‘tude and eclectic art, and Golden, the site of the first (1825) gold rush West of the Mississippi. These and other landmarks played a major role in the development of the region and provided turquoise, coal, lead, and other valuable minerals.
I still get compliments on the handcrafted moonstone and gold ring that I’d gotten in Santa Fe so many years ago. Like the area itself, it has held its value.