New Mexico day five continued
26.09.2011 - 26.09.2011
As we drove into Albuquerque after a fascinating morning spent visiting Acoma Pueblo, we had two things on our minds. One was lunch; the other a song by one of our favourite bands, Prefab Sprout:
All my lazy teenage boasts are now high precision ghosts
And they're coming round the track to haunt me.
When she looks at me and laughs I remind her of the facts
I'm the king of rock 'n' roll completely
Up from suede shoes to my baby blues
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque …
[The King of Rock and Roll]
While the song has nothing to do with Albuquerque beyond the frequent repetition of the line ‘Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque’, it was naturally stuck in our heads as the only thing we had ever heard about the city prior to visiting!
Downtown car, Albuquerque
Although it is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque surprises by not being the state capital – Santa Fe has that honour. The city was established as the Villa de San Felipe de Alburquerque in 1706. Initially a small farming community clustered around the church of San Felipe de Neri, it expanded rapidly when the Camino Real, the main trade route north from Mexico, was developed to run through the area just a few decades later. Later came the railroad, which triggered expansion to the eastern side of the Old Town, in what then was known as New Town but today is Downtown. This was followed by Route 66, which ran through the city on its Central Avenue, and later still further expansion out into the surrounding desert.
Thus Albuquerque has always been a city for travellers, a stopping point on a journey, and so it was for us. Despite its many attractions, we decided to spend only one night here, preferring to have more of our limited time in more scenic parts of the state. Nevertheless we had time to explore the Old Town and see something of the Art Deco style of the Downtown area too.
Perhaps inevitably we were to leave the next morning wishing we had stayed longer, but Santa Fe beckoned, and that did indeed deserve more of our time ...
Chilies for sale
Meanwhile, here we are on I40 heading into the city with lunch top of our agenda. We found parking near the compact old town and set off to explore.
At first it seemed to us that most of the places around the Plaza were more suited to a large dinner than the sort of light meal we were after. But then we spotted the sign for the Bebe Café (now closed down, I believe) and followed the trail into a pretty courtyard surrounded by interesting little shops, and in one corner a small café with just a few tables outside.
The Bebe Café
There was one other customer there, waiting for his lunch, and with just the one server we had to wait a short while as all the sandwiches are made freshly to order. But we didn’t mind as it was very pleasant sitting in the courtyard with our cold drinks, and the sandwiches when they came (the day's special of turkey and mango salsa wrap) were very good. The server explained that she had to get to class (clearly a student working to pay her way through college) so would have to lock up the café, but the owner would be along soon – or if we finished our meal before then we could just leave plates etc. on our outside table – very casual and friendly.
After lunch we had a look around the little shops off the courtyard, especially a very good photography gallery opposite the café, and then set out to explore the Old Town area.
The Old Town Plaza
Gazebo in the Old Town Plaza
As in any Spanish colonial city, the heart of Albuquerque’s Old Town is its Plaza. The town was founded in 1706 and as it grew settlers built their houses near the church and around a defensible centre, which eventually became the plaza.
Shaded with trees it is a very pleasant place in which to take a rest between sightseeing and shopping (the two main activities in the Old Town). Children play, and both locals and tourists relax on the benches. At the centre is a gazebo which apparently is a popular place for wedding photos to be taken after ceremonies in the church. Also on the plaza are two replicas of cannons which were buried by retreating Confederate troops during a Civil War skirmish on April 8 – 9, 1862. The original cannons are in the Albuquerque Museum.
Jewellery seller, Old Town Plaza
The Plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops with high tourist-appeal and under the porticos of some of these Native American traders sell jewellery and other crafts. We didn’t buy anything here (although were to do so a couple of days later in a similar setting in Santa Fe) but it looked a good option if you are shopping – it’s always nice to buy direct rather than pay shop overheads!
San Felipe de Neri
San Felipe de Neri
The most striking building in Albuquerque’s Old Town is the church of San Felipe de Neri on the north side of the Plaza, the oldest building in the city. With its slightly incongruous white wooden spires gleaming against the blue sky it is very hard to miss. These spires are a later addition to the late 18th century adobe structure, which itself was built to replace the original (1706) building that collapsed after the particularly rainy summer of 1792. The spires were added under the direction of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom we were to encounter again later in our trip, in Santa Fe. This French bishop came to the area with very European ideas of what a place of worship should look like – and it wasn’t built of mud!
San Felipe de Neri, outside and in
The bulk of San Felipe de Neri is adobe however, with five foot thick walls. Its cool interior would have been welcoming in the heat of the afternoon even if we hadn’t been interested to explore within. It isn’t large but is quite grand in appearance, with an ornate Baroque altar and an elaborate pressed-tin ceiling (added in 1916).
Capilla de Nostra Senora de Guadelupe
Patio Escondido, Albuquerque
This tiny cross-shaped chapel is a hidden gem of the Old Town, and I’m sure many tourists pass by without realising that is there – we certainly would have done so if it were not for our trusty Moon Handbook, as it isn’t visible from the road and neither is it signposted. It is tucked away in the pretty Patio Escondido and is dedicated to the first saint of Mexico.
Our Lady of Guadelupe
It is clear by the votive candles burning here, the flowers and the little prayer messages that it is an active place of devotion. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates one arm of the cross, to your right as you enter, and opposite it is a colourful stained glass circular window which acts as perpetual calendar, showing the Feasts of the Virgin and the phases of the moon. Opposite the entrance is a small altar.
Inside the chapel
After our visit I found a story associated with the chapel, which claims that it is haunted by a lady in black. She has apparently often been seen seated on the far right bench of the chapel, weeping copiously. She wears a long black dress and her face is concealed by a dark veil. She is often mistaken for a real person, until she mysteriously vanishes, at which point the observer realises that she cannot after all be real. The lady is not menacing or threatening, but those who have seen her say that there is a deep sense of sadness emulating from her.
The chapel is not old, having been built in 1975 by a Dominican nun, Sister Giotto, as part of the establishment of a school of sacred art in Albuquerque, the Sagrada. Outside the chapel a wall is decorated with a number of small ceramic tiles set in at intervals, portraying various saints.
Decorative tile of St Francis
Meeting a medallist!
Our warm sunny afternoon spent exploring the Old Town certainly called for an ice cream at some point, and we found a few places to choose from to the west of the Plaza, opting for Romero House Ices (also now closed down) because it had plenty of seating outside. It is located in an old house, Romero House, which was built in 1915 and was the last major home built on the plaza. Today it has been converted into a sort of mini mall, with a couple of galleries/shops opening off its central corridor and this small café tucked away at the back. As well as a good selection of ice cream and frozen yoghurt, as promised outside, they also sell cakes and fast food savoury treats such as nachos and grilled sandwiches.
While perusing the different flavours on offer we got talking to the woman selling behind the counter and asked if we could take a few photos. She agreed, and suggested that her father should be in them. It turned out that he was one of two older men sitting at a table in the corner, and as she explained, he is a bit of a local celebrity, having won medals at the Senior Olympics for race-walking. Slightly bashfully he agreed to pose – to be honest, I think he really rather liked the attention even while protesting that he wasn’t worth a photo!
A Senior Olympian and his medals!
Photography over, we turned back to the display of ices. I had a mango sorbet and pistachio, and Chris chose chocolate and strawberry. We ate them outside in the shade of the flowering bushes on the patio and they were fine – not as good as those we had enjoyed a few days earlier in Silver City, but pretty good just the same.
Staying in Albuquerque
The Hotel Blue, Albuquerque
After our ices we decided to go and check into our hotel. The ones in the Old Town were pretty pricey so I had reserved a room in the Hotel Blue, which had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Gillian. This is located in the downtown business area on a stretch of Route 66, here known as Central Avenue.
The hotel is a modernised 1930s cross between a motel and hotel – the shape, lobby, parking lot etc are more like a hotel in feel, but you access your room from an outside walkway. This may not suit everyone (I saw a few reviews expressing concerns about security) but we had no issues with it, and rather enjoyed the expansive views of the city from our fifth floor room. We were lucky to have been given one in the north east corner as these have views of the mountains beyond the city.
The lobby of the Hotel Blue
The hotel lobby is very impressive and really reflects the Art Deco style of much of this Downtown district. Staff at reception were friendly and helpful, and there was the nice touch of a plate of cookies on the desk for guests to help themselves!
The décor in the rooms was a lot plainer and the external areas (e.g. the walkways) were not up to the standard of the interiors, but on the whole we felt the facilities and overall appearance exceeded what we would expect for this price and were very happy with our choice.
Our room at the Hotel Blue
View from the walkway outside our door
Exploring Central Avenue
Signs on Central Avenue
In the early evening we had a walk along part of Central Avenue, near the hotel. Had we not been staying in the Downtown area we might never have explored beyond Albuquerque’s touristy Old Town, and that would have been a mistake. We really liked the ‘vibe’ around here, even though it might be considered a little edgy by some.
The KiMo Theatre
We spent some time wandering up and down the road, checking out a few shops (there was a fascinating large one with a huge range of Native American items, from the kitsch to high-end crafts) and taking photos of the wonderful KiMo Theatre. This is a 1920’s cinema whose ornate ‘Pueblo Deco’ style was inspired by Native American iconography in the same way that cinemas of that era elsewhere were built in the style of Moorish mosques or Chinese pagodas. You can tour the interior, which I would have loved to have done, but it’s only open for tours during the day unfortunately. It sounds amazing, according to the cinema’s website, with ‘plaster ceiling beams textured to look like logs and painted with dance and hunt scenes, air vents disguised as Navajo rugs, chandeliers shaped like war drums and Native American funeral canoes, wrought iron birds descending the stairs and rows of garlanded buffalo skulls with eerie, glowing amber eyes.’
On Central Avenue
This area was once the city’s ‘New Town’, developed in the early years of the last century on either side of Central Avenue (which is in fact a stretch of iconic Route 66), and was the commercial hub. But as the city grew, new shopping plazas opened in outlying districts and the centre declined and became ever scruffier, with boarded up shops and unused office buildings. Then at the turn of this century a movement started to revitalise it, following the principles of New Urbanism. These don’t seem very revolutionary to me, as a European and Londoner, but in the US possibly only New York and few other older cities would recognise what the planners are attempting here. The idea is to create mixed-use neighbourhoods where people can live, work and play without relying on cars. Everything they need – shops, restaurants, bars – should be within a ten minute walk. In a typical American city, where going out means getting in the car and pedestrians are a novelty (we know, we have been those pedestrians!), this is a radical concept – and a marvellous one.
Some redevelopment had already happened in the 1990s, with bars and restaurants springing up on Central Avenue, but the idea that Downtown could be a place to live was a fairly new one when we visited in 2011.
One reason for choosing the Hotel Blue was the free shuttle service offered to take guests to the Old Town, which we thought would be useful when it came to going out for dinner, but my research had thrown up a few options in the immediate area, so in the end we didn’t take advantage of this. Instead we went to the Flying Star Café, recommended in our Moon Handbook. This is a small local chain with a handful of branches in the city. The one we visited seems to have since closed down but there are still several in the city.
The branch we visited was located in an interesting and rather striking building – which I completely failed to take any photos of! It was originally the Southern Union Gas Company and was designed in 1950 by a regionally famous architect, John Gaw Meem. The gas company stopped using it about 17 years ago and the building was restored for use by the café. It has been granted the status of a National Historic Place, and today is occupied by an IT company, Rural Sourcing (see https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2016/09/07/how-this-tech-company-turned-a-downtown-restaurant.html).
On the evening we visited the café was busy with a wide variety of diners – students making a coffee last for hours while working on laptops (there is free wifi), groups of friends evidently on the first leg of a night out, tourists like ourselves, family groups, business people etc etc. This was clearly a popular spot.
In the Flying Star Café
We went to the counter to order (no table service here) and found several tempting dishes on the menu. We decided to keep with the casual vibe and go for sandwiches – Chris’s the Turkey and Swiss on rye, and mine the “MOO-ve Over Meat” veggie burger, which was delicious (I’m not a vegetarian but I do like anything spicy, which this promised to be: a ‘grilled, spicy southwest black bean patty with melted cheddar & Cajun dressing’). Both our sandwiches came with a choice of sides – I opted for the homemade BBQ potato chips while Chris had the French fries.
To go with our meals we ordered a couple of bottles of Santa Fe pale ale – and thus began one of the more amusing incidents of our trip. It is New Mexico state law that anyone drinking alcohol must be over 21 years of age. Neither Chris nor I are under any delusions that we look anything like that age for decades! Consequently we were not surprised to be able to buy beer and other drinks in a number of places during the first few days of our trip. The friendly Buffalo Bar in Silver City happily served us beer and Jack Daniels; the Socorro Springs Brewery had no problem with us enjoying their brews both with and after our meal; and our hotel in Grants served us without a quibble. So imagine our surprise, and initial amusement, when we were asked to show ID here. It was, even back then, a very long while since anyone questioned whether I was over 21! But the server was adamant – no ID, no beer. She did offer to see if her manager would waive the rule, but the manager too was insistent. According to her, state laws meant that anyone serving alcohol to anyone had to ask for and see evidence that they were of legal drinking age. We pointed out that no one else had so far done so, but she said that she could lose her job if the police were to raid the restaurant and find anyone drinking without ID, so Chris popped back to the hotel (thankfully only a few minutes away) to get our passports.
Chris with passport and hard-won beer!
To be fair the manager was only doing her job and we certainly didn’t want her to lose it because of us! And she obviously felt a bit bad because when I went up to the counter to order dessert (Key Lime pie to share and a decaf latte for Chris) she came over to tell the server that it was on the house – how kind!
After this incident we made a point of taking our passports out each evening, but hardly anywhere else apart from Albuquerque did we come across anyone who bothered about this law, if law it was. In the end, only one other place asked for ID, and that was a small family-run restaurant in Alamogordo which had only recently got its license and was presumably being very carefully to do the right thing.
After dinner we again strolled along Central Avenue, and saw for ourselves how the area was becoming more lively when we stopped off for a night-cap.
There were a couple of bars on this stretch of road; one had a live band and therefore a cover charge, but the other, although it had a DJ playing records in one corner, was free to enter. The Blackbird Buvette (now closed down, it appears) was quite a dark and old-fashioned bar and on this warm evening it seemed a shame to sit inside, especially as the music would also have made conversation difficult, so we were pleased to see a table available on the pavement outside. The tables though were carefully roped off and to reach them you had to go into the bar, passing the bouncer who, like the server in the Flying Star, asked us for ID – we were ready for the question this time!
We bought our drinks (a Sodbuster Pale Ale for Chris and a Jack Daniels for me) and grabbed the free table. We then passed a very pleasant half hour or so watching the late evening activity of Downtown – dog-walkers, late-night shoppers, sporty gym-goers, a few tourists, groups of girls clearly on their way home from the gym, young people and older couples on a night out and a handful of business people who had perhaps stayed late at the office that night. It felt much more urban than most US cities do to me, with their sprawling suburbs and often hard-to-identify centres, and we really enjoyed sitting there.