by Sancho Puente

A feast for all the senses

You can't fly to Santa Fe direct. You fly into Albuquerque. Then take a twenty-five minute Mesa Airlines shuttle, or rent a car and drive a relaxing hour through the high desert up into the pinons and cottonwoods where Santa Fe sprawls like spilled sugar cubes on an earth tone palette. Along the road, fall Aspens gilt the polychrome slopes below the rusty peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The shade of thunderheads dapple the mountain as the light shifts and changes. I roll down the windows to savor that unique, dusty New Mexico smell of chimisa, yucca, cholla and saltbush. Traffic stops as sheep, herded by a dusty dog and a Navajo boy, amble across the two lane highway. Nobody minds. Nobody honks. Nobody cares. The serene spirit of Santa Fe extends past the city limits.

This laid back spirit may be one reason why Santa Fe bills itself as "the City Different." Where else can you find a city where the capitol building is round, the tortillas are blue, the opera is outdoors and the architecture cubist? Is there another state capitol with no downtown buildings taller than five stories and neither an international airport nor train service? Is there another United States city with so many artists per capita?

Santa Fe's "scenically patriotic" with it's often whitewashed adobe, red roof tiles, and blue skies and tortillas.  PHOTO CREDIT: ANNETTE LUCIDO


Where else can some trace ancestors back 14 generations? Where else can you find such a delightful climate and varied scenery? Where else do the "Tri-cultures" of present and past Indian, Hispanic and Anglo blend so well? No place I know! So visitors, except for the Spanish explorers who found little gold, usually find what they seek. Some leave. According to locals "too many stay." Nobody forgets their visit!

I come for the arts and crafts, the wonderful music, and a daily dose of blue tortillas. So on each visit I start with the new exhibits in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the adjacent 61-year old Laboratory of Anthropology, a short drive from downtown. Exhibits carry me back 50,000 years to the mastodon hunters as I wonder what it felt like to spear one of those hairy "tusked tanks!" Displays encompass more than 50,000 pieces of prehistoric and historic basketwork, pottery, textiles, jewelry, clothing and other Southwest arts and crafts. Fortunately for my wallet, these aren't for sale.

The nearby Museum of International Folk Art coddles one of the world's great collections of folk art, the Girard Collection. Its dazzling exhibits display the 107,000 items donated by Alexander and Susan Girard. Fine Anglo and Hispanic sections display dolls, houses, animals, boats and furniture. These collections tune my eye and hone my taste for the galleries too.

After a morning at the Museums, and a quick look at the "Roundhouse," the capitol building worth but a single visit, I satisfy my lust for blue tortillas, made from the local "blue" corn that look puce or purple to me. A double order of tortillas slathered with butter and home-made salsa, and washed down with beer, makes a wonderful meal anywhere. However, I agree with one-time resident John Erlichman's choice of inexpensive Tomasita's or the Tecolote Cafe. On sunny days, I picnic in the shade of a cottonwood in the "Roundhouse" Gardens.

I spend my first afternoon in the plaza, the hub of the city since 150 years before our Revolutionary War. Then, the Plaza was the north end of the Camino Real -- the "King's Road" -- from Mexico City. Two Centuries later it was the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Now the plaza is a popular shopping center next to the Palace of the Governors, built in 1610 by Governor Pedro de Peralta. The Palace still shades Indian sidewalk vendors and an amazing assortment of tourists in what one local calls, "a feeding frenzy."

A few doors away The Museum of Fine Arts exhibits the work of regional artists. The quality varies, but the Art of New Mexico: The Early Years show in the Indian Gallery is worth a look. So is the museum shop.

Around the corner I peek into St. Francis Cathedral on my way to San Miquel Chapel, billed as the "oldest" church in America even though cynics claim only the foundations are original. Pueblo buildings buried here, like the one under San Miquel Chapel, may have been settled as early as 1100 A. D. With a little imagination, and a slight squint, I see this area as it looked in 1900, 1800 or even 1700 A. D. before the Santa Fe River went dry. The colors and styles haven't changed much since Spanish days, as statues, and good taste, limit colors and allow only Pueblo and Territorial architecture downtown.

After exploring the plaza I always stop at the La Fonda Hotel -- locals claim "everyone in Santa Fe eventually passes through." Billy the Kid even washed dishes here. Like the nearby Inn of the Governors that just underwent a $1,000,000 restoration, the La Fonda offers decent lodgings in a central location.

If you wish to stay away from downtown the Bishops Lodge, north of Santa Fe by way of Bishop's Lodge Road, offers four star, four diamond lodgings as well as tennis, dozens of rental horses and a trout pond. Closer in, the Sheraton de Santa Fe has lovely views of the city and mountains and, in the Mariposa Dining Room, searing Mexican Green Chile Stew.

However, I always change -- my wife likes to dress up -- before we try the succulent roast pork served at the Pink Adobe, a more formal restaurant favorite. Tuesday nights they have classical guitarists; on any night reservations, like their cookbook, are recommended!

My second day in Santa Fe starts with hot corn muffins from The Bakery near the plaza. Then I visit Canyon Road art galleries until my eyes, and feet, and plastic give out. These galleries cover two miles, 50,000 years and several dozen artistic traditions. Many sell Indian weavings, pottery and other crafts. Fine old blankets can now fetch $125,000. San Ildefanso "black on black" pottery made by Maria has reached the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" stage. However, decent contemporary arts and crafts can suit any budget.

Popular Hispanic oil paintings, stout furniture, iron and tin work and carving may offer the best values in antiques and fine contemporary woodwork sturdy enough to support Godzilla.

More galleries feature Anglo or international artists. Anglo artists and writers visited Santa Fe even before Governor Lew Wallace did. He finished his novel, Ben Hur, while living in the Governor's Palace and wondering if the roof would collapse. It still sags a little.

Just after World War I, "Los Cinco Pintores," Fremont Ellis, Josef Bakos, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Wil Shuster reinforced the firm foundation of today's arts scene. They were close enough so they even lived on the same street. Later artists seem a bit more contentious.

After World War II, artists like Georgia O'Keefe, the best-known artist of the Southwest, fertilized the arts of the area with colorful landscape and sensual flower paintings. It's a shame so few of her fine landscapes and flower painting are available locally. Eliot Porter and Agnes Martin painted and photographed masterworks in the Santa Fe and Taos Area too. Younger masters like R.C. Gorman, "The Picasso of American Indian Artists," continue Santa Fe artistic excellence.

Today, Santa Fe may be the third largest art market in the United States. It takes me several mornings to visit my favorite galleries. Most are along, or near, Canyon Road or the Plaza. Canyon West (656 Canyon Rd.) offers lovely stark oils of Southwest subjects by Tano Boone. Morning Star (513 Canyon Rd.) featured delicate Indian crafts. Zaplin-Lampert (651 Canyon Rd.) had a wonderful George Catlin watercolor on paper and some fine early American Impressionists as well as Hudson River School paintings on my last visit. For the "hand-made" look in furniture typical of Santa Fe, see Nancy Bloch Design (725 Canyon Rd.) or Johnson & Benkert (128 W. Water Street).

Galleries like Tom Riggs (943 Canyon Rd.) add Pacific Basin and African art. Channing, Dale, Throckmorton (53 Old Santa Fe Trail) specializes in African and other ethnic masks, textiles and pottery. Raven Gallery (622 Canyon Rd.) has the best contemporary Northwest Coast art and artifacts I have seen outside of Seattle and Vancouver. And we collect baskets and blankets. It's difficult to classify Textile Arts (1571 Canyon Rd.) as their Inca, Chinese and African textiles are wonderful, but so were their Flemish tapestries and Navajo weavings.

Then there is jewelry. I cherish the memory of a blond woman with a saddle-brown tan eating fried chicken with fingers almost hidden with silver and turquoise jewelry. She claimed, "Chicken fat adds luster to turquoise."

Ortega's Turquoise Mesa (on the plaza) has a representative selection of mid-range Indian jewelry. Storyteller (228 Old Santa Fe Trail) offers nice concha belts and turquoise; every other shop and street vendor has silver for sale. Some is junk. I see everything first, then buy.

After a morning on Canyon Road I head down the street to Celebrations for more blue tortillas; these filled with peppers and cheese, and served with pinto beans and Spanish rice. Then it's time to hike, bike fish or relax until evening when, with an eye full of fine art, I give my ears a musical treat.

On fine days I drive out to the pueblos or fish the Rio Grande or Rio Chama River or Heron and Cochiti Lakes for trout. I spend a day on the Los Alamos Loop which can include Bandelier National Monument, one of the more imposing Anasazi ruins, and the Coronado State Monument. Coronado's army moved through this area as early as 1540.

In the fall, dusk falls early so I have time to dine and still enjoy the fine music of Santa Fe's Symphony, Guitar Society, Desert Chorale, Pajarito Ballet or chamber music groups. In season, the world famous Santa Fe Opera performs classics of the 17th, 18th and 19th century and 20th Century premiers. The audience, bundled in blankets and puffy ski parkas, stirs and buzzes under the Thunderbird wings of the opera house's unique open state as the 12,000 foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains fade into dusk.

One year as the processional of Madame Butterfly crossed the stage we were to imagine that the glittering lights 35 miles away in the Jemez Mountains were those of Nagasaki. Strange, I thought, that they were really those of Los Alamos where the A-bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was born. Santa Fe is like that. Look carefully, you find all sorts of historical connections. You also buy better art!