Inspired by Santa Fe
New Mexico’s capital is a city of divine old churches and red-hot chilli peppers
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.
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