Stefano de Pieri conducts a culinary adventure around the Sunraysia and Mallee region and scoops up prime produce for his signature Italo-Australian dishes. Today, 7.30pm, LifeStyle Food.
Two engineers follow the journey of water from high above the upstate New York watershed to its final destination, a New Yorker’s kitchen tap. Sunday, 7.30pm, Discovery. Susan Kurosawa Maya references at Comalcalco, a Maya site northwest of Villahermosa. Like La Venta, this city, which peaked soon after AD500, occupies an alluvial plain with no stone. But Comalcalco’s architects devised a different solution: they ordered workers to bake thousands, maybe millions, of bricks, thus making this the only brick city in the ancient Maya world. Then the workers burned oyster shells for lime so they could stucco walls with reliefs of gods, kings and or Maya leprechauns, for whom some people still leave offerings.
Comalcalco is grander than La Venta, with a huge acropolis, pyramids and a plaza designed to accommodate 10,000 people. I am also intrigued by an offlimits section overgrown with vegetation. Mugarte tells me that beneath the tangle of vines lies a ritual ball court.
Maybe the best way to preserve it is to leave it in its present state,’’ he says.
This sense of hidden treasures can pop up anywhere in Tabasco, even at dinner, because the local cuisine is so little known. (Tabasco sauce? A Louisiana construct that’s about as Mexican as Harry Connick Jr.) So the cerdo en verde sopa (tender pork and fresh vegetable soup) at down-home Restaurante Cielito Lindo near Malpasito and the pato rostizado con mole frutal (roast duck with fruit mole) at up-market Io in Villahermosa are revelations. But what really brings out the Indiana Jones vibe in Tabasco is pejelagarto, a local freshwater fish with reptilian scales and toothy snout that make it look like the love child of a alligator and an eel. Seems almost every restaurant serves it so, sure, I eat it. Indiana Jones would have shot it.
The road from Villahermosa to Malpasito leads inland towards jagged mountains. At a certain point, a car can go no farther, so I walk the last bit past cows and roosters. Malpasito (AD600-900) is built of stone, which makes it look more like a classic Mesoamerican site than La Venta or Comalcalco. This place was home to Zoques, kin to the Olmecs and the Mayans, which is why one of the first things I see is a long ritual ball court. A nearby steam bath features stone benches where the players had a good soak and sat before the game. You have to wonder what they chatted about, knowing the loser would be unceremoniously dispatched.
As at La Venta, I am the only outsider, so a security guard offers to show me around. We ascend a stone staircase to a plaza with sloping, carefully crafted walls. Then we climb to the site of the temple via yet more vertiginous steps.
One of the best-preserved ancient Maya cities, Palenque, lies in Chiapas, not Tabasco, but you can get there faster from Villahermosa (a two-hour drive on good roads) than from the capital of Chiapas. When I arrive at the entrance and see vendors selling jewellery, pottery, textiles and yet more jewellery, I know I’m not in Tabasco. Palenque, which peaked between AD721 and AD750, sits on a series of hills artfully used to support the backs of shrines. The stylistic unity of the buildings, the design of plazas to unite clusters of edifices, and the aqueduct that runs through this pre-Columbian city make Palenque a masterpiece of urban planning.
The site is also huge: the 16ha or so we visitors see comprise but 5 per cent of the settlement. Walls display painted bas reliefs and hieroglyphics that record centuries of rulers, vassals and wars, all with accurate dates. Maya cosmology features an obsession with time,’’ according to archeologist Benito Venegas.
Deep within the towering temples and pyramids lie ornate sanctuaries, but they remained hidden until 1952, when the discovery of a secret staircase led to the crypt of Pakal (AD615-683), this Mayan region’s greatest king. Other crypts since discovered include that of the Red Queen, so called because her remains were preserved in cinnabar.
Venegas shows me Pakal’s great Temple of the Inscriptions and a sprawling palace complex of apartments and courtyards, as well as a three-storey square edifice that resembles a rural Italian church tower. It is unlike anything else in this hemisphere.
We visit rooms where kings lived and gazed at reliefs of captives slated for a nasty end. In the large museum, we admire jade death masks and huge totem-like censers. Leaving the restored site, we enter a jungle strewn with ancient buildings out of which great trees sprout, their branches hosting howler monkeys.
When I remark to Venegas that this unexcavated area seems lost in time, his reply is not what I would have expected from a scientist-historian. A visit to our jungle,’’ he admits, makes you feel like Indiana Jones.’’
The Mexican state of Tabasco is bordered by the states of Veracruz to the west, Chiapas to the south and Campeche to the northeast. The author travelled with driver-guide Raul Silva of Creatur Transportadora: firstname.lastname@example.org. For a complete tour package: www.tourbymexico.com/ tabasco/villaher/villaher.htm. Susan Kurosawa’s having a holiday.
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