In­spired by Santa Fe

New Mex­ico’s cap­i­tal is a city of divine old churches and red-hot chilli pep­pers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

I AM stand­ing on the spot where this man from Santa Fe says he sold two sil­ver plec­trums to Led Zep­pelin’s lead gui­tarist.

‘‘He came here twice,’’ the man says, eye­ing me furtively through his thick black fringe as I browse the sil­ver items on a blan­ket at his feet, one of many such stalls set up along the por­tal of the Palace of the Gov­er­nors.

I am im­pressed. I have no idea who Led Zep­pelin’s lead gui­tarist is, but I love Stair­way to Heaven and can well imag­ine the ex­quis­ite strains of this song be­ing coaxed from a gui­tar with a piece of sil­ver hand-wrought by the Na­tive Amer­i­can man sit­ting be­fore me.

A lit­tle later, my teenage son, who’s an ac­com­plished gui­tarist, tells me it’s Jimmy Page. I have found my son on Santa Fe’s plaza, lean­ing in­sou­ciantly against a tree like some cow­boy blow-in from Ari­zona with his faded jeans and checked shirt.

‘‘Jimmy Page is the lead gui­tarist from Led Zep­pelin. And I doubt he’d buy his plec­trums here.’’

We have come to this city in New Mex­ico by way of Route 66, which once fol­lowed the Old Pe­cos Trail to Santa Fe, cut­ting through its adobe-crusted streets, as­cend­ing La Ba­jada Hill and me­an­der­ing back down to­wards Al­bu­querque. This is an an­cient set­tle­ment by Amer­i­can stan­dards: 500 years be­fore the ar­rival of the Span­ish in 1540, Pue­blo vil­lages were scat­tered about this bar­ren land­scape, their flat-roofed build­ings con­structed with mud and straw, a ro­bust com­bi­na­tion that en­dures to this day.

As for Route 66, in the 1930s it was rerouted so that it by­passed the city en­tirely. But this re­jec­tion hasn’t stunted San­tas Fe’s progress: creative in­di­vid­u­als have trod a steady path to the city that is con­tained by the San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains to the east and the Je­mez Moun­tains to the west.

And Santa Fe’s will­ing­ness to nur­ture such artistry has been re­warded with a des­ig­na­tion as a UNESCO Creative City. Writ­ers, artists and ac­tors gather in neigh­bourly res­i­dence here, fa­mous mu­si­cians pur­chase their plec­trums from ven­dors sit­ting out the front of the Palace of the Gov­er­nors (if you be­lieve it).

Trav­ellers who take a side-trip along the ne­glected align­ment of Route 66 into Santa Fe find them­selves in a city with a quirky per­son­al­ity forged by decades of re­mote­ness, aban­don­ment and dogged self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Best way to get around: Not­with­stand­ing its des­ig­na­tion as New Mex­ico’s cap­i­tal — mod­ern Amer­ica’s old­est cap­i­tal city and the old­est Euro­pean city west of the Mis­sis­sippi — Santa Fe is com­pact and fa­mil­iar enough to nav­i­gate by foot, with restau­rants, gal­leries, mu­se­ums and shops ra­di­at­ing out from its cen­tral plaza. Many of the ho­tels and mo­tels lo­cated be­yond the city lim­its of­fer a shut­tle ser­vice into town, and taxi and bus ser­vices are read­ily avail­able.

Best dish: Bright red and green chill­ies are added with aban­don to ev­ery type of stew, en­chi­lada, salsa, ta­male, cal­abacita, taco and paella con­cocted in the city’s kitchens. But there’s a su­perb coun­ter­point to the cap­saicin emit­ted by this spicy fruit, and it is the white choco­late veloute, a sweet soup in­vented by staff at the En­can­tado Re­sort.

The dish took out the best soup award at Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl, an an­nual event held for the ben­e­fit of the city’s food bank, and it con­tin­ues to im­press taste­buds with its rich com­po­si­tion of milk, white choco­late and creme fraiche, a thick driz­zle of mac­er­ated grape seed and vanilla oil, and a top­ping of trop­i­cal fruit. More: en­can­ta­dore­sort.com/din­ing.

Best shop­ping: Au­then­tic­ity un­der­pins the daily mar­kets at Santa Fe Plaza: the jew­ellery, arts and crafts set out along the por­tal at the Palace of the Gov­er­nors are cre­ated and sold by Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Not only does this mar­ket en­cour­age trav­ellers to pur­chase gen­uine prod­ucts but it fa­cil­i­tates in­ter­ac­tion with a peo­ple who’ve pop­u­lated this land since long be­fore the ar­rival of the Span­ish and the mod­ern Amer­i­cans.

The mar­ket cul­mi­nates in the an­nual Santa Fe In­dian Mar­ket, a two-day arts and crafts ex­trav­a­ganza held in Au­gust ( Au­gust 18- 19 this year), dur­ing which Na­tive Amer­i­can artists from the US and Canada sell their work to col­lec­tors, gallery own­ers and tourists. First held in 1922, the mar­ket at­tracts about 100,000 vis­i­tors from across the world. More: swaia.org.

Best spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence: Churches are abun­dant here. There’s the ro­manesque re­vival­style Cathe­dral Basil­ica of Saint Fran­cis of As­sisi, which sits on the ru­ins of two ear­lier churches, one of them de­stroyed dur­ing the Pue­blo re­volt of 1680; and there’s the gothic re­vival-style Loretto Chapel, with its mirac­u­lous cir­cu­lar stair­case built by St Joseph, the nuns be­lieve, with­out the use of nails or any cen­tral sup­port.

But the most af­fect­ing house of worship is the hum­ble San Miguel Mis­sion, built in 1610 by the Tlax­calan In­di­ans un­der the guid­ance of Fran­cis­can padres. The Span­ish-made church bell, which bears an in­scrip­tion from 1356, was used as bal­last in a ship des­tined for the Amer­i­cas. Vis­i­tors are warned that if they ring it too many times, the spir­its will re­turn them to this city for good.

Best public art: The State Capi­tol build­ing is a wel­come de­par­ture from the tra­di­tional domed state leg­is­la­ture build­ings strung out along Route 66. Built in the 1960s as a re­place­ment for the Palace of the Gov­er­nors, it takes the shape of the Zia sun sym­bol and em­ploys the New Mex­ico ter­ri­to­rial style, an adap­ta­tion of Greek re­vival and Pue­blo adobe ar­chi­tec­ture.

Within is a mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary mas­ter­works cre­ated by artists from New Mex­ico. Vis­i­tors can browse the art­works, view the House and Se­nate cham­bers from the sec­ond floor, peer over the rail­ings into an in­ter­nal ro­tunda in­laid with na­tive mar­ble and a turquoise and brass mo­saic, and gaze up to­wards a sky­light shaped like the un­der­side of an in­tri­cately wo­ven In­dian bas­ket. More: nm­capi­to­lart.org.

Best mu­seum: ‘‘All the colours of the painter’s pal­ette are out there,’’ said the artist Ge­or­gia O’keefe, who came to New Mex­ico in 1929 in search of fresh in­spi­ra­tion. Her paint­ings cap­ture beau­ti­fully the in­ti­ma­cies of her beloved bad­lands: bleached bones, pur­ple-and-orange creased hills, time-smoothed rocks, the volup­tuous in­nards of desert flow­ers.

More than 1000 of her paint­ings, draw­ings and sculp­tures are held by the Ge­or­gia O’keefe Mu­seum. The mu­seum also ex­hibits the work of O’keefe con­tem­po­raries such as Jack­son Pol­lock and Andy Warhol. More: oke­ef­fe­mu­seum.org. FOR sheer sen­su­al­ity, check into the Inn of the Five Graces, a Re­lais & Chateaux prop­erty built in 1920 that sup­ple­ments the lo­cal aes­thetic with el­e­ments bor­rowed from Morocco, In­dia, Ti­bet and Afghanistan. Own­ers Ira and Sylvia Seret have trans­formed the prop­erty into a work of art, with Sylvia’s mo­saics splashed across walls and the cou­ple’s col­lec­tion of im­ported fur­nish­ings dec­o­rat­ing the 24 gue­strooms and lav­ish suites. From about $US340 a night. More: five­g­races.com; re­lais­chateaux.com; ki­wicol­lec­tion.com.

PIC­TURES (ABOVE & TOP LEFT): CHRIS COR­RIE/SANTA FE CON­VEN­TION AND VIS­I­TORS BUREAU

The stair­case of Loretto Chapel is said to have been built by St Joseph with­out the use of nails

The Capi­tol build­ing takes its shape from the Zia sun sym­bol

Inn of the Five Graces has been trans­formed into a work of art

Mar­ket at Palace of Gov­er­nors

Rooms have in­di­vid­ual decor

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