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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

If I had to choose just one museum to visit in Puebla, it would be the Amparo, but with just a bit more time, I'd reserve some for the former convents of Santa Monica and Santa Rosa, not far from each other, and both an easy walk from the zócalo. Built in the early 17th century to surround one of the loveliest tiled courtyards in a city of gorgeous courtyards, the museum in the former convent of Santa Monica illuminates the cloistered existence of Mexican nuns—most notably in the decades that began in the mid-19th century, when the government officially banned monasteries and convents, forcing monks and nuns to continue living there in secret. In the dark maze of narrow corridors, hidden chapels, a spiral staircase leading down into subterranean chambers and almost shockingly spare cells, it seems possible to inhale the atmosphere of secrecy and seclusion that the sisters breathed. A collection of (I suppose one could say) jewelry designed for self-mortification—belts studded with nails, bracelets fashioned from barbed wire—testifies to the extremes of penance that these devout women practiced. Yet elsewhere throughout the museum are abundant examples of the fantastic inventiveness and creativity that the women poured into the lace, embroidery and religious objects that they fashioned to fill the long hours of their contemplative lives.

Things are a bit brighter and more cheerful at the former convent of Santa Rosa, where the finest examples of Mexican crafts—pottery, masks, costumes, paper cutouts (including one of a slightly demonic Donald Duck), painted carousel animals and so forth—have been gathered from all over the country. My favorite section features a group of wooden armatures designed to launch displays of fireworks that, when lit, trace the fiery outlines of an elephant or a squirrel. But the museum is rightfully proudest of the former convent's kitchen. The glorious cocina is not only one of the city's best examples of Talavera tilework but, according to popular legend, the place where the resourceful nuns coped with the stressful prospect of a surprise visit from the bishop by combining the ingredients on hand and in the process invented the richly spicy, chocolate-infused, sesame-inflected sauce—mole poblano—that is now the region's most well-known dish.

The mention of mole poblano brings up yet another—and one of the most compelling—reasons to visit Puebla: its food. I've heard the city described as the Lyon of Mexico, and while it may be true that its cooking is the best in all of Mexico (as Poblanos claim), the comparison to Lyon would hold only if the five-star restaurants of the French culinary capital reconstituted themselves as open-air stands selling foie gras cooked over hot plates or charcoal braziers. There are good restaurants in Puebla, and it's useful to seek one out if you are there in summer, when it's possible to sample Puebla's second most famous contribution to its country's cuisine, chiles en nogada, peppers stuffed with meat and fruit, covered with a creamy walnut sauce and dotted with pomegranate seeds, so that its red, white and green colors are said to patriotically evoke those of the Mexican flag.

But in most cases, it is widely agreed, street food trumps fine dining. Generally speaking, the most reliable ways to find the best food are, first, to follow your nose, and second, to fall into place at the end of the longest line.

Several of these lines can be found every day at lunchtime a block or two west of the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, where Poblanos queue up for molotes, deep-fried turnovers made from corn tortillas stuffed with a choice of cheese, tinga (a mixture of shredded meat, chiles, tomatoes, onions and spices), sausage, and, in season, the delicious huitlacoches, or corn fungus. Throughout the city are small places specializing in cemitas, overstuffed sandwiches constructed on grilled, split sesame rolls, and tacos arabes, wheat tortillas filled with meat carved from a turning rotisserie column; both of these hearty snacks may have borrowed their names from the waves of Lebanese immigrants (cemitas may be related to the word for Semite) who arrived in Mexico beginning in the 1880s.

But by far my favorite destination for a Puebla night out is the Feria del Carmen, which takes place every July in the Jardin del Carmen, a few blocks from the zócalo along the Avenue 16 de Septiembre. The fair, which commemorates the feast day of Our Lady of Carmen, is an old-fashioned carnival of the sort you hardly see anymore north of the border, funkier and more earthy than anything you're likely to find at the most authentic, old-school county fair. If you're brave and trusting enough, you can ride a creaky Ferris wheel or let yourself be spun vertiginously in a scarily vintage whirligig, and, if you have a strong stomach, you can visit one of the forlorn sideshows.

But the major attraction of the feria—what draws Poblanos here—is the food. Under strings of bright-colored lights, women tend huge circular grills on which chalupas poblanas (mini-tortillas topped with red or green salsa) sizzle. A family sells plastic foam cups of esquites—corn kernels spiced with chile powder and other pungent Mexican herbs, then sprinkled with lime juice and cheese. When you tire of navigating the crowds and waiting in line to be served, you can sit at a table under a tent and have the proprietor bring you plates of huaraches (handmade tortillas stuffed with steak that resemble—in shape, and occasionally, in durability—the sandals after which they're named) or pambazos, fried bread filled with meat and topped with lettuce, cream and salsa.

Everything is so attractive and delicious, and it's all so much fun, it's hard to admit to yourself that you've reached the saturation point. Fortunately, you can walk off some of that sufficiency on the way back to the zócalo, where you can rest, watch people pass by, listen to the roving street musicians and enjoy all the sights and sounds of a balmy evening in Puebla.

Francine Prose's most recent book is Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife.
Landon Nordeman previously photographed Elvis impersonators for Smithsonian.

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