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Life spills into the El Alto outdoor market of Puebla, where "present and past coexist and harmonize," says Francine Prose. (Landon Nordeman)

Savoring Puebla

Mexico's "City of Angels" is home to gilded churches, artistic treasures and a delectable culinary culture

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Despite (or because of) its monumental scale, its crowded, buzzing intensity, its archaeological and political importance, Mexico City's zócalo, or central square, is—for all its beauty and grandeur—not the sort of place where most of us would choose to hang out: eating lunch, meeting friends, watching people go by. But a two-hour drive southeast from the capital, Puebla has at its heart a gorgeous historical center, a hundred-block showplace of Colonial and Baroque architecture. And its handsome zócalo is the gentle heart of that heart. Pause for a few moments on one of its wrought-iron benches, and you think you could stay there forever.

Lined with shady trees and cool walkways surrounding an elaborate 18th-century fountain that features a statue of the Archangel Saint Michael, the region's patron saint, the zócalo, also known as the Plaza de Armas, is endlessly entertaining. Everything seems emblematic of the ingenious ways in which present and past coexist and harmonize in this historic and modern city, home to over a million people. An old man dressed in the headdress and robes of a Mesoamerican shaman plays a flute and dances near a vendor holding a bouquet of giant balloons bearing the sunny face of SpongeBob SquarePants. Under a tent, workers inform passersby about the demands of the laborers at one of Mexico's multinational factories, while, in a distant corner, a film crew is shooting a commercial for mobile phones. A quartet of 21st-century mariachis—young men in sunglasses, jeans and T-shirts—are practicing Beatles songs, while a pair of tiny twins chase pigeons until their parents warn them to watch out for their older sister's snowy Communion dress. In the arched porticoes surrounding the square are bookstores and shops selling stylish clothes and devotional objects, as well as restaurants and cafés at which you can spend hours, sipping coffee and nibbling churros, the fried crullers that may be Spain's most uncomplicatedly beneficial export to the New World.

Without leaving the confines of the zócalo, you can contemplate the facade of the city's impressive and somewhat intimidating Town Hall, and, more rewarding still, the exterior of the cathedral of Puebla, a masterpiece of Mexican ecclesiastical architecture. The building was begun in 1575 and consecrated in 1649, but the interior—decorated with carved and inlaid choir stalls, onyx statuary, immense painted altars and a gargantuan pipe organ—required several hundred more years to complete; the exuberant canopy over the central altar was finished in 1819, and changes continued to be made into the 20th century. As a consequence, the church functions as a kind of guided tour through the major styles and periods of Mexican religious architecture—Colonial, Baroque, Mannerist and neo-Classical, all assembled under one soaring cupola.

Hearing the carillon chime every day at noon in the cathedral's south tower, reputed to be the tallest in Mexico, you can almost believe the legend that the daunting engineering problem of how to install the 8.5-ton bell in the unusually high tower was miraculously solved when angels took over to help the builders. Overnight, it is said,the angels raised the bell and set it in the tower.

Indeed, angels play a major role in the religious history of Puebla, which was founded in 1531. According to one story, the city owes its location and its very existence to a dream of Fray Julián Garcés, the first bishop of Puebla, who was appointed by Pope Clement VII in 1525, four years after Hernando Cortés brought about the fall of the Aztec Empire. In the Dominican friar's vision, angels showed him exactly where the city should be constructed.

The angels were not only blessedly helpful but astonishingly professional, coming equipped with string lines and surveying tools that situated the settlement, demarcated its boundaries and laid out a grid of streets designed to reflect the latest European notions of orderly urban planning. Puebla de los Angeles (City of the Angels) the town would be called. Occupying a lush valley in the shadow of a volcano, Popocatépetl, it would prove a pleasant place for the Spanish colonizers to live among the area's indigenous tribes (whose numbers had already been ravaged by the disease and bloodshed that followed the conquest) and beneath the bishop's angelic guides, fluttering beneficently over the churches that the friars and governors would build for themselves, their communities and the newly converted locals.

A less romantic explanation for the establishment of Puebla involves the colonial leaders' search for an area that would allow the settlers to own property and farm the land with a degree of success that might blunt the edge of their longing for their former lives in the Old World. Largely uninhabited, covered with a layer of fertile soil, blessed with a hospitable climate year-round, and positioned to be a convenient stopover on the route from the port of Veracruz to the Mexican capital, the spot on which Puebla would be built seemed the ideal place to realize the dream (somewhat more earthbound than Fray Garcés') of a prosperous industrial, agricultural and spiritual center that would serve as a model for others throughout New Spain. In addition, the new town would be located near the indigenous population center—and labor pool—of Cholula.

In the area immediately surrounding Puebla's zócalo, there's abundant evidence of the essential role played by one of the city's most important leaders, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who arrived to serve as bishop of Puebla in 1640, and, two years later, as the region's viceroy as well. Eager to see the cathedral completed, Palafox paid its building costs partly from his own pocket and presided over its consecration. In his nine years as bishop, Palafox oversaw the construction of a seminary, two colleges and 50 churches. But the true key to Palafox's character (the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, he was a reformer zealous enough to make his political superiors uneasy) can be found in the library he amassed, which can still be visited, directly across the street from the back entrance to the cathedral.

With its arched and vaulted ceiling, scalloped Baroque windows, tiered balconies, gilded altar, carved-and-polished wooden bookcases and huge, ancient volumes made of vellum, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana suggests a real-life version of Harry Potter's library of magic spells. The soaring space is moving as well as beautiful; it evokes all the reverence and hunger for learning, for books, and what books can contain, that inspired the most high-minded of the colonial settlers to introduce the best aspects of the Renaissance to the New World. The library's elegance and power trump whatever qualms one might have about admiring the culture that an occupying country imposed on the colonized, whose own culture was underrepresented in the 50,000 volumes on Bishop Pal­afox's shelves. Ultimately, entering the hushed and stately institution reminds you of all the ways in which libraries, especially beautiful libraries, can be as transporting and spiritual as cathedrals.

Like the rest of Mexico, Puebla has had a troubled history marked by war, invasions and revolutions. Several important military confrontations took place there, most famously the Battle of the Fifth of May, Cinco de Mayo, commemorated in a holiday that has assumed great significance for Mexicans living outside their own country. At the battle, which occurred not far from Puebla's center, on May 5, 1862, the Mexican Army defeated the French with the aid of local troops. Unfortunately, the French returned a year later and smashed the Mexican forces and occupied Mexico until they were defeated by Benito Juárez in 1867.

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