A family weekend to Mexico’s capital of D.F. boasts such rich cultural and culinary highlights that it’s like having Europe next door.
It had been 10 years –- and a lot of press about kidnappings and deadly air pollution — since our last family visit to Mexico when the opening of the fabulous Embassy Suites Mexico-City Reforma and the 100th anniversary of the birth of artist Frida Kahlo coincided to lure us back in the summer of 2004. Since her death, Kahlo had become a magnet for the country’s intelligentsia; from reproductions of her self-portrait in shop windows, to an enormous retrospective of her work at the fine arts museum and famous chefs recreating her favorite recipes at world-class restaurants, Mexico City had gone Frida-crazy. In one great family vacation, so did we.
Given the beautiful weather (summer days are typically 70°-80°F/21°-27°C with a once daily downpour), our teen’s short attention span, and our interest in Frida Kahlo’s work, we decided to stay outdoors to get a feel for the city. A two-day pass on the new Turibus double-decker sightseeing bus was perfect.
Following its reduced crime rate, Mexico City has experienced a building boom; modernist highrises tower above the edges of classic neighborhoods, such as Condesa and the Zona Rosa. We rode past attractions we remembered (the extraordinary collection at the Museum of Anthropology and Chapultepec Park) and discovered more: the stylish El Palacio Hierros department stores; the 42nd floor Torre Latinoamericana observation deck; and the ritzy fashion boutiques of Polanco. New to us were The Chapultepec Castle, Tamayo Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was Saturday, the air was crisp, so we decided to continue on the bus as it circled to Insurgentes Sur and the Plaza San Jacinto for the weekly Bazaar Sabado flea market in San Angel.
Flea Markets to Frida Menus
Although the small streets around the San Jacinto church were packed with fruit and toy vendors, locals come year round for the indoor arcade of upscale galleries that feature jewelry, tiny plaster Day of the Dead figurines, embroidery, painting, copper pots, and other wares. Resisting the urge to buy too many things, we left after a wonderful lunch at the historic San Angel Inn (5255/5616-1402) a restored 17th century hacienda where fine Mexican fare is served indoors or out on a pretty patio.
The home shared by Mexico’s two most famous artists is the Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo Studio Museum (5255/5550-1189) at Diego Rivera 2, in San Angel, and it’s open to visitors daily. The Dolores Olmedo Museum (5255/5555-1221) at Av. Mexico 5843 in Xochimilco (about 20 minutes by car south) is said to have the best collection of work by both artists.
And Frida Kahlo’s birthplace, now the better known as Casa Azul or Frida Kahlo Museum (5255/5554-5999), is at Londres 247 in nearby Coyoacan. The large home is painted in the vibrant blues of her art and displays items from her tempestuous daily life there between 1929 and 1954. The audio guide is essential for a self-guided tour; in addition to the corset Kahlo wore to ease her lifelong back pain and the kitchen tiled with images of lovebirds touching wings, the most memorable aspect for us was the large garden where she often entertained. Running the house as a writers’ and artists’ salon, a destination for visiting intelligentsia and communists, prompted Frida to develop recipes that could feed her friends well, and economically. The elegant Coyoacan quarter is full of colonial homes and heladerias or ice cream shops, so we stopped at Siberia for tuna ice cream (flavored like a type of cactus flower) before joining the Turibus bus loop back to the hotel.
That evening, a hotel concierge suggested we try the “Frida Menu” at La Valentina (5255/5282-2297) in fashionable Polanco. The stylish crowd and Kahlo-inspired decor rival Madrid’s most chic restaurants, and the sophisticated fare from Frida and Diego’s kitchen (typically poultry seasoned with dried fruits or vegetables) was as delicious as their regular menu.
Frida’s Dances, Diego’s Murals
The next morning we were up for an early performance of the Ballet Folklorico (5255/5529-9320). This long-running show is totally engaging; choreographed by Amalia Hernandez (the Balanchine of Mexico), it features dozens of dancers in traditional costumes (much like Frida’s celebrated wardrobe), doing the traditional folk dances of each region to live music. It is very entertaining, educational (taught us that only the strolling musicians of Chiapas could be called mariachi) and illuminating in terms of the color and energy found in Frida’s work.
There was a mile-long line outside the door of the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes for the “Frida Kahlo: National Homage” show – proof positive of the impact this woman’s art and life has had on the country and a diverse array of citizens. The local newspaper had commented that on Saturday, the lines to see the show were so long that the museum had remained open until midnight. Sunday was no different, and learning that there would be a six-hour wait to enter the exhibition, we decided to head outdoors to Alameda Park and enjoy the streets. Besides the back half of the snaking museum line, we saw an organic foods exhibit, had our family Christmas card taken on a donkey, and snacked on dulces de leche.
Lunch was saved for the nearby Café de la Tacuba, where the seasonal specialty was a mild chili pepper stuffed with white cheese and baked in a sauce of pomegranate seeds. We felt right at home surrounded by murals and a decor that dated back to the cafe’s 1912 founding.
At the north end of the park, we discovered the small Diego Rivera Mural Museum (Colon and Balderas Streets), built, funded by donations, after the 1985 earthquake. It houses only the 60-foot-long mural by Rivera – “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” – that had decorated the lobby of the destroyed Hotel del Prado. Fantastic salvation efforts are chronicled in the upstairs photo gallery; families can see how the “village portrait” depicting all the celebrities of his day was brought to this spot, where a museum was built around it.
From there, we revisited the Zocalo, the city’s main square and one of the world’s largest, to see the Diego Rivera murals decorating the Palacio Nacional‘s grand staircase. Our son, now familiar with many of the characters that Diego inserted into this mural, “Epic of the Mexican People in their Struggle for Freedom and Independence,” absorbed this art work with little protest and continued through the palace, open to the public free of charge, to see the Mexican Parliament where independence from Spain was declared.
Sunday night was our teen’s choice. Intrigued by the stylish Polanco quarter seen from the top of our double-decker bus tour, he wanted to visit Area at the very hip Hotel Habita (800/745-8883). Typical of the bold minimalist style and contemporary stucco architecture springing up around the city, the hotel’s popular rooftop bar boasted a fireplace, lounge islands under white canvas umbrellas, views across the city and sightlines to a blank brick facade across the street, where a Mexican Western was being projected five stories tall. The staff graciously accepted his order of a conga (mixed fruit punch – Mexico’s drinking age is 18) and my husband’s many questions about the tequila menu. From Area, we took a hotel taxi (tourists hailing public taxis is still considered an invitation to trouble throughout the city) to the Pabellon Polanco mall, where we caught an American made film with Spanish subtitles and some packaged tacos from the concession stand.
Our weekend casa in the most sophisticated city south of the border was the Embassy Suites Mexico-City Reforma (5255/5061-3050 or 800/EMBASSY from the US) at Paseo de la Reforma No. 69, Col. Tabacalera, 06030 Mexico D.F., much more of a hip boutique operation than its name suggests.
Boasting the chain’s all-suite rooms and complimentary breakfasts, the glass-clad 18-story Reforma also delivers unexpectedly upscale amenities (such as daily delivery of the International Herald Tribune), a business center, guest laundry, an “in” bar scene and attentive personal experience — and it’s a bargain during the summer off-season. Our compact one-bedroom suite had a living room with a double-size pullout sofabed, dining table, and entertainment center with its own large flat screen TV, as well as floor-to-ceiling views of the evening lights glittering along the Paseo. The chic bedroom had a king bed draped in fine linens, crisp duvet and down pillows, its own flat screen TV, and large work desk with a comfy ergonomic chair, Internet access and two-line phone. Both rooms shared access to a large rose marble and limestone-clad bathroom and wet bar with coffeemaker, microwave and fridge. Larger families will appreciate that the Embassy Suites will put a free rollaway in the living room on request.
Down in the hotel’s B2 level is a small but attractive pool surrounded by deck chairs and cushioned chaises, artfully arranged under a faux skylight to add “sunlight” to this and the adjoining fitness room. La Reforma’s breakfast buffet included fresh tortillas and chorizo sausage, huevos rancheros and a large international spread. The on-duty chef preparing fresh omelets or pancakes delighted our son with the variety of “mix-ins”: for example, huitlacoche (a seasonal Mexican mushroom), squash blossoms, several types of salsas, Mexican tropical fruits, berries and more.
One of the hotel’s main assets is its location — a two-minute walk from the Turibus stop and 15 minutes from the historic Zocalo. The Paseo de la Reforma is lined with striking examples of colonial and contemporary architecture, major banks and embassies, and historic Mexican monuments that define the neighborhoods that intersect with it. Any family fortunate to be there on a weekend, as we were, will enjoy seeing hundreds of local families out on their bicycles, pushing strollers or rollerblading down the ten-lane avenue, which becomes a pedestrian zone on Sundays.
Getting around is easy. The Turibus is a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus with a multilingual audio guide. As an alternative, families may want their own car and driver/guide. We used the services of Carlos Rosales Morales (email email@example.com), a driver recommended by the Embassy Suites concierge, for a comfortable car seating five.
We never made it to the hotel’s complimentary evening cocktail reception, but enjoyed talking with Antonio, Arturo, Bernardo and many of the concierge staff, who welcomed our son’s attempts at Spanish and were helpful in planning every moment of our weekend – and our newfound appreciation for Frida Kahlo.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.
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