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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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Puebla's aristocratic upper class, which still maintains familial and cultural connections to Spain, lives side by side with a rapidly growing middle class, while many of the city's desperately poor residents inhabit its sprawling, ever-expanding margins. The capital of Mexico's Puebla state, the city is widely regarded as politically conservative and religious, its people deeply tied to tradition and to the church.

Perhaps coincidentally, Puebla is home to several of the marvels of Mexican Catholicism—not only the massive cathedral, but also the Rosario Chapel, located to the left of the central altar in the Church of Santo Domingo. Described by a visitor in 1690 as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," the chapel is so thickly decorated—so heavily populated with statues of angels, saints and virgin martyrs and figures symbolizing faith, hope and charity—and, above all, so artfully and generously splashed with gold that to stand beneath its dome is not just metaphorically, but quite literally, dazzling. The density of detail and form is so over-the-top that you can only experience it a little at a time, so that photographs (no flash, please) are useful reminders that the gilded splendor could in fact have been as ornate and exuberant as you recall.

Aside from the governors and priests who worked to establish and maintain control of the city, the most influential of the early Spanish immigrants to Puebla were a deceptively humble delegation of potters and ceramicists from the Spanish town of Talavera de la Reina. Even as the politicians and friars labored to govern Puebla's civic and spiritual life, these brilliant craftsmen addressed themselves to its vibrant, glittering surface.

Enthusiasts of tile and tile-covered-buildings (I'm one of them) will be as blissful in Puebla as in Lisbon or southern Spain. The streets of the downtown area are lively, but not so crowded or pressured that you can't stop and gaze up at the sunlight bouncing off ceramic patterns of clay colored blue, brown and Nile green, or at the figures (wicked caricatures of the enemies of the home's original owner) baked into the exterior of the 17th-century Casa de los Muñecos. The effect can suggest elements of Moorish, Aztec and Art Nouveau styles. The nearer one gets to the zócalo, the better maintained the buildings are, but farther out, where the tiled facades are more frequently hidden behind electronics stores, taco stands, the studios of wedding and graduation photographers and outposts of OXXO, the Mexican equivalent of 7-Eleven, the dwellings take on a slightly crumbling melancholy.

A lighthearted, carefree, almost reckless enthusiasm informs the decoration of many of these structures, in which the hand of the individual craftsman (or artist, depending on your point of view) is everywhere in evidence. The name of the Casa del Alfeñique, a beautiful 18th-century building that houses a museum of the history of the region, translates roughly as the "house of the egg-white confection," something resembling meringue.

In 1987, Unesco designated Puebla a World Heritage site, noting that the city contains approximately 2,600 historic buildings. It would be easy to spend weeks in the central historic district, taking time for each lovingly preserved colonial wooden door, each plaster angel, each curlicue and trellis, each vaulted courtyard leading to a shaded patio—a hidden oasis just a few steps off the sunny street. The sheer variety of food shops—from open-air fish stalls to ice-cream parlors where you can sample avocado, chile and other unexpected flavors—reminds you of what it was like to inhabit a highly functioning but pre-corporate metropolis, before so much of urban life was blighted either by the middle-class flight from the inner city, or, alternately, by the sort of gentrification that has given so many streetscapes the predictability and sameness of a high-end mall.

Likewise, Puebla reminds you that cities can still be centers of communal as well as commercial life. Proud of their town, of its history and its individuality, its residents see their home as a place to be enjoyed, not merely as a hub in which to work and make money. There's a broad span of cultural activities—from concerts at the stately 18th-century Teatro Principal to the Monday-night Lucha Libre fights at the main arena, where masked wrestlers throw one another around before a roaring crowd. On weekends, Poblano families stroll through the flea market in the pleasant Plazuela de los Sapos, where vendors sell goods ranging from old jewelry, religious pictures and vintage postcards to purses woven from candy wrappers and belts made from beer-can tops.

At the top of the Plazuela de los Sapos is one of Puebla's most beloved institutions, the charming La Pasita, manufacturer of the eponymous sweet, walnut-brown liqueur, tasting of raisins, made from local fruit and known throughout Mexico. A tiny, stand-up bar with only a few seats, La Pasita also sells a selection of other dessert­like but surprisingly powerful drinks, flavored with coconut, ginger or anise, and served in shot glasses together with wedges of cheese. Founded in 1916, the store is open only for a few hours in the afternoon, and it's a temptation to spend those hours getting sweetly looped and finding yourself increasingly interested in La Pasita's unique décor, the shelves covered with bric-a-brac from all over the world—images of movie stars and historical figures, toys and playing cards. A poster of a young woman reads "Pasita calmó su pena" ("Pasita calmed her sorrow"), and you can't help thinking that, over the course of almost a century, this delightful bar has helped its customers do exactly that.

For travelers who want to spend at least some of their time in Puebla doing something beside relaxing in the zócalo, exclaiming over the extravagantly tiled buildings, visiting churches and drinking candylike liqueur, the city offers a wide variety of museums.

Opened in 1991, the elegantly designed Museo Amparo occupies two Colonial buildings combined to display an extraordinary private collection of pre-Columbian and Colonial art. It's one of those gemlike museums (Houston's Menil Collection comes to mind) in which every object seems to have been carefully and consciously selected with an eye for its uniqueness and aesthetic perfection, so that even visitors who imagine that they are familiar with the wonders of Mesoamerican culture will find themselves catching their breath as they move from one dramatically lit gallery to another, past vitrines displaying artifacts that include a sensitively rendered Olmec figure reminiscent of Rodin's Thinker, expressive stone masks, realistic sculptures of animals (a dog with an ear of corn in its mouth is especially striking) and others that could almost persuade you of the existence of the most fanciful and unlikely creatures, as well as all manner of objects relating to rituals, games, mythology and scientific and astrological calculation.

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