ARM­CHAIR TRAV­ELLER

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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.’’

Check­list

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: va­ca­ciones@crea­tu­vi­aje.com. For a com­plete tour pack­age: www.tour­bymex­ico.com/ tabasco/vil­la­her/vil­la­her.htm. Su­san Kuro­sawa’s hav­ing a hol­i­day.

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