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‘Fanta Se’

New Mexico day seven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Adobe house, Santa Fe

We slept well in our cosy casita in Santa Fe and woke eager to explore a town we had read so much about. For Chris today was also an opportunity to take a break from driving, as we left the car parked in our allocated spot and walked everywhere for the day – our choice of a central location was really paying off.

We could (at an extra cost, naturally) have arranged to have breakfast at the B&B owned by the same people as our casita, but chose not to, and we also didn’t want to self-cater, despite having a very serviceable kitchen. Instead we preferred to sample a variety of breakfast places in the vicinity of our little home. On this first morning we tried one that came highly recommended in our Moon Handbook, Café Pasqual’s.

It was very busy and we were fortunate to be able to get a good table straightaway – we observed that others who weren’t so lucky were quite happy to wait some time, such is the reputation of the place. It seemed to be popular not only with tourists but also locals – girl-friends meeting for breakfast, and a couple of local businessmen. I loved the colourful décor, with bright murals and Mexican tiles, and our table on a raised area at one end of the small room gave us a great view of this and of all the activity.

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Blintzes and granola at Café Pasqual’s

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Proper espresso!

We found the breakfast menu to be quite extensive, as befits somewhere famous for its breakfasts. I decided to try something different, the ‘Three House-made Blintzes, Golden from the Skillet, Topped with Strawberry Jam and Sour Cream’. These were good but very filling, with a bit too much cream for that time of day (regular cream, which I left to one side, as well as the sour cream promised by the menu). Chris chose what he expected to be a healthy option, the nutty granola, with yoghurt and berries, but the portion was so huge that it probably wasn’t that healthy after all! He also had a cappuccino and I had a double espresso, really appreciating the availability of strong coffee to kick-start my day.

All this didn’t come cheap however. The cappuccino alone was $5 which was more than we were used to paying in pricey London, and our total bill (with two grapefruit juices as well) was $50 – more than we had paid for the previous night’s dinner! So although we liked the breakfast, and loved the atmosphere, we went elsewhere on the subsequent mornings.

Santa Fe

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Adobe architecture in Santa Fe

Santa Fe has sometimes been nicknamed ‘Fanta Se’, and it’s not hard to see why. The city lives for its art. And I am not referring only to the thousands of people here who are engaged in the arts in some way or another – running a gallery, creating paintings or photos or sculptures, writing or performing etc. No – the city itself seems to have a sense of itself as a work of art. Local regulations control very strictly control the appearance of all buildings in the downtown area, around the Plaza – if it isn’t adobe, it had better at least pretend to be!

But if that sounds critical, it isn’t really intended to be. We had a lovely few days here, enjoying the history, architecture, galleries and surrounding countryside.

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Adobe in Santa Fe

Today our focus was on the historic centre. When we arrived at our accommodation in Santa Fe the owner of the Chapelle Street Casitas had said ‘And yes, there is a law that everything has to be brown!’ The downtown area here preserves a number of old adobe buildings from Spanish colonial times, but at first glance you might be fooled into thinking that all the buildings were old, and all of them adobe. And that’s just what the city planners want you to think. For decades now, all new building in this part of the city has had to conform to the same overall style, although many of the apparently ‘adobe’ buildings that you will see are in fact plaster and stucco, built in the early 20th Century to satisfy this collective vision of what the city ought to look like to appeal to tourists. A city ordinance exists to enforce the on-going homogenisation of the downtown district, requiring that all new buildings, additions and restorations conform to one of two traditional styles:
~ ‘Pueblo Revival’ – a mix of styles based on Native American mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches
~ ‘Territorial’ – a style based on early Anglo modifications of adobe buildings, with additions like wood trim around windows and door openings and decorative friezes on the parapets

Opinion is divided as to the success of this approach to town planning, and I couldn’t make up my own mind either. When we first arrived I was rather struck by the appearance of the streets around the Plaza, with their uniform colour and (mostly) low heights giving them a very characteristic look. But after a while the uniformity can start to look more dull than distinctive. The secret to appreciating these buildings, I realised as we explored, is to stop seeing them as a homogenous whole and look for the details that make certain among them stand out.

San Francisco Cathedral

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San Francisco Cathedral

We started our explorations in the area to the east of the Plaza, at Santa Fe’s cathedral. In the homogenous adobe world of Santa Fe’s downtown area, the Cathedral of San Francisco seemed somewhat incongruous. How did such a European-looking place of worship come to be here? Well, it was, unsurprisingly, due to one particular European, a French priest – Jean Baptiste Lamy. Apparently when he first arrived here in 1851 he was shocked at some of the religious practices, including the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and also horrified by the church buildings, finding it impossible to believe that anyone could reach heaven while praying on a dirt floor inside a building made of mud! So he commissioned this new cathedral for Santa Fe, and all of the old church was demolished, apart from one small side chapel. But it seems that he ran out of money, and the two spires that should have topped the towers either side of the front porch were never added – hence their rather odd stumpy appearance.

Inside it is light and rather lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the ancient adobe would have held more atmosphere and sense of the spiritual? I got some hint of that in the one remaining adobe chapel, on the left of the altar. This houses a small statue, La Conquistadora, brought to Santa Fe from Mexico in 1625. She was carried away by the retreating Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt, but reinstated in 1693, and has been honoured ever since for inspiring the Spanish to stick with their colonising project, and for what was regarded (possibly mistakenly?) her peaceful acceptance by the natives . Whether such colonial ‘smirking’ is appropriate in a church I was not so sure, but the little statue is a marvel indeed.

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La Conquistadora, and dreamcatcher bell

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Crucifix with saints in native clothing

Elsewhere in the cathedral though, the native influence was more apparent, for instance in the clothing of some of the saints portrayed and in the dreamcatcher-like bell that hangs above the lectern. This and many other elements of the decoration and ornamentation are quite modern, such as the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to the right of the altar, the altar screen and the great bronze doors. All of these were added in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. I very much liked these modern touches, which added to the sensation of lightness and airiness.

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The altar screen

In front of the cathedral are a couple of interesting statues. One is naturally of the patron saint, St Francis. The other is more unusual and depicts Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. She was a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquian woman, who converted to Christianity at an early age.

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Statue of St Francis with Contemporary Art Museum behind

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Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha

There is also a statue of Bishop Lamy, but I was perhaps feeling a little irritated by this rather sanctimonious French cleric at this point, as I omitted to photograph him!

Cathedral Park

Next we investigated the small park next to the cathedral. This was established in 1998 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first European, i.e. Spanish, colonisation of New Mexico. There are some lovely trees there and it seemed a quiet, restful spot away from the bustle of the streets. In the centre we came across a monument commemorating the anniversary. The inscription on it reads:

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Monument to the settlers, Cathedral Park

‘The year 1998 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival in New Mexico of about 560 valiant men, women and children to establish one of the earliest permanent European settlements in the United States. Their leader and first governor, Don Juan de Oñate, led this intrepid band north over hundreds of desolate, dangerous miles to the green valleys of northern New Mexico. It was there the colonists established themselves by introducing European crops and the first horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and poultry – thereby establishing European culture and technology in the United States, where they had not previously existed.

With the settlers came the Franciscan priests and brothers who ministered to the colonists and to the native inhabitants of the region. It was this unswerving devotion to their faith and to their families that consoled and inspired those settlers and their descendants to endure and prevail over 400 years of isolation, abandonment, hardship and cultural challenges. It is to those heroic precursors that our community joins in raising this monument to our forefathers’ continuing contributions to the history, culture and values of today’s America. May they serve as an inspiration to all who pass this way.’

The monument includes sculptures of different types of settler – Franciscan monk, a colonial settler family (man, woman and two children), and a Spanish soldier. They surround a column which is topped by a statue of Mary La Conquistadora. At its base are many of the fruits, vegetables, tools, music instruments etc. brought to New Mexico by these colonialists, and it is supported by a cow, a pig, a sheep and a donkey.

The Loretto Chapel

Our next visit was to the much smaller Loretto Chapel. Not content with rebuilding the Cathedral in an architectural style which, he believed, was more fitting for worship, Bishop Lamy also commissioned the small Loretto Chapel a little to the south of it – the first Gothic structure to be built west of the Mississippi. Outside the chapel we saw a tree hung with rosaries, which is interesting in the light of the fact that the chapel was desanctified in 1971 and sold to a private family.

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Rosaries hanging outside the Loretto Chapel

This family have preserved it well, hiring it out for weddings and opening it to the public each day. There is an admission charge of $3 (September 2011 prices) and I though it was well worth paying this small fee for a glimpse inside. The chapel is richly decorated with stained glass windows from France and Stations of the Cross from Italy, but what makes it special is the so-called miraculous spiral staircase that leads to the choir loft. Fashioned beautifully from an apparently extinct species of wood, it twists elegantly upwards with no central pole to support it, resting solely on its base and against the loft, and making over two complete 360-degree turns as it climbs. It is 20 feet high and was constructed without glue or nails, using only square wooden pegs to hold the parts together.

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The miraculous staircase

One story starts with the suggestion that the Sisters of Loretto had been given the funds by Lamy to build their chapel, but that the money ran out before they could build a stair to reach their choir loft. Another version says that the small size of the chapel meant that no carpenter could identify a way to fit a staircase into the space. Both versions go on to tell how the Sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a mysterious carpenter appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. He worked at the staircase for six months, never saying a word, and then left, without taking any payment. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers. Certainly the carpenter was never heard from again, although some historians claim to have tracked him down to Las Cruces, where he met his end in a bar fight. Whatever its origins, the staircase is beautiful, and even the later addition of balustrades and handrails (for safety reasons) cannot detract from the simple grace of its upwards sweep.

San Miguel Mission

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San Miguel Mission

Next we walked a little south of the centre to this adobe mission chapel, which claims to be the oldest church in the United States, having been built between around 1610 to 1626. Whether that claim is true or not, this old building certainly has plenty of character and again I thought it well worth the $1 we were charged for admission. Slightly oddly, you enter through the gift shop, so that it feels rather like a shop with a church tacked on to the back. But once inside you find a little gem. The beautiful wooden altar screen or reredos dates from 1798 and is the oldest of its type in the state. The statue in its centre is of the chapel’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel and was brought here from Mexico in 1709.

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The altar screen

In front of the altar, glass panes in the floor allowed us to peer down at the original foundations of the church and of the Native American structure formerly on this site. At the other end of the little chapel, near the door, is a large bell. This once hung in the bell tower and has an inscription dedicated to San Jose and dating it to 1356.

There are several picturesque old houses in the area immediately around the chapel, one of which the oldest house in the city and also claims to be the oldest in the US, supposedly built around 1646 (a claim I was unsure whether or not to believe). Near this is another house with stunning turquoise wooden window frames and shutters.

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The oldest house in the US?

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A vision in turquoise!

By now it was lunch time so we wandered back towards the centre in search of refreshment.

The Shed

A friend who lived in the Santa Fe area for a while had recommended this restaurant, so although we usually choose somewhere more casual for lunch we decided to give it a try for our first lunch in the city – what a great decision! We loved it here – food, setting and ambience.

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At lunch in the Shed

The restaurant is located in an old hacienda (dating back to 1692) and spread over nine rooms, as well as a small courtyard at the front. The décor is bright and cheerful, with lots of interesting paintings and other traditional crafts.

They don’t appear to take reservations for lunch and when we arrived we were told there would be a 15 minute wait. We were given a pager and took a seat in the courtyard to wait but in fact were called to a table inside after about 10 minutes (we would have waited longer if we’d wanted an outside one I think). As we were looking for something light, we were pleased to find plenty of choices. I had the gazpacho which was refreshing and tasty, and Chris chose a ‘small’ salad (that is, smaller than the ‘big’ version of the same!) of chicken, blue cheese, walnuts and salad leaves.

While we were eating our lunch a lady stopped by our table to look more closely at the painting behind it and we got talking. She explained that she was from Guatemala (where we had been just last year) and recognised the style of the painting as Guatemalan, so was trying to make out the artist’s signature – sadly neither she nor we could do so.

On leaving we asked about reservations for dinner the next day but could only get a table at 8.30 pm (or 5.30pm, but that was rather too early for us). Although we normally eat a bit earlier that that we accepted, as we were very keen to return and sample more from their extensive menu. And we were very pleased that we had – but that’s a story for a future entry!

The Plaza

We had already passed through the Plaza earlier in the day, on our way to the cathedral, but after lunch we returned for a better look around. The Plaza originally marked the end of El Camino Real (the Spanish Royal Road from Mexico City) and the Santa Fe Trail, an important trade route. In those days it would have been surrounded by a large defensive wall that enclosed residences, barracks, a chapel, a prison and the Governor's Palace. Of these just the Governor’s Palace, on the north side, remains, and where there were once barracks and defences today you find restaurants and shops.

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In the Plaza

In the centre of the Plaza is the Indian War Memorial, which was dedicated in 1867 to those who died in ‘battles with…Indians in the territory of New Mexico’. As this inscription suggests, the monument was erected during times of conflict between colonists and natives, and the space between ‘with’ and ‘Indians’ originally carried the word ‘savage’. This has been removed in these more enlightened times, although the monument itself still seems something of an anachronism.

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The Indian War Memorial, with local and his dog

The Plaza is nicely laid out with lawns, trees and plenty of benches where you can relax and watch the world go by – an activity which locals seem to enjoy here as much as do visitors.

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Native jewellery seller

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Artist selling his paintings

Palace of the Governors

The Palace of the Governors, lies on the north side of the Plaza – a single-storey adobe building running the full length of the block. It was built in 1610 as Santa Fe’s original capitol building, and claims to be the oldest U.S. public building still in continuous use. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure in 1999.

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The Palace of the Governors

Inside is a museum which tells the story of Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Collections cover the Spanish colonial (1540-1821), Mexican (1821-1846), U.S. Territorial (1846-1912) and statehood (1912-present) periods of history. We only had limited time to look round (doing our usual trick of trying to pack too much into one day, while also wanting to chill and enjoy our surroundings!) But even with limited time it was worth making the effort to go in – for me, not so much for the collections, good though they are, but for the chance to see inside this old building. I also liked seeing the period rooms which offer a glimpse of how life would have been in the past for residents of Santa Fe.

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The lady who made and
sold me my necklace

Along the portico of the Palace of the Governors, and on the north side of the Plaza opposite, Native Americans take up their places each day to sell jewellery and other traditional crafts. This is an eighty year old tradition, nowadays operated through the ‘Native American Artisans Program of the Palace of the Governors’. There are around 1,000 vendors who are licensed to sell here after going through a strict application process to assess the quality of their work. The goods displayed and sold by participants in the scheme must be made by the seller or by their household members. Every morning the 63 spots available, each 12 bricks wide, are allocated by lottery, so you can never be sure who you will find here or what they will be selling. But it’s a great opportunity to buy directly from the creator and as they all seem happy to talk about their work you will also find out a bit about the piece you are buying.

I looked at a number of items. One man was selling silver necklaces with representations of the different sacred animals, such as Bear and Wolf, and explained the meaning of each to me. But in the end I opted for turquoise, choosing a pretty silver necklace threaded with small stones which the seller told me came from Arizona, where she and her sister lived and made the jewellery. Sadly that necklace was one of the items taken when we were burgled a couple of years ago, so I'm glad I at least have this photo of the seller by which to remember my purchase.

Andrew Smith Gallery

We visited quite a few galleries during our stay in Santa Fe (most of them on our final day here), although only a fraction of the total number – I read that ‘Art galleries’ take up five pages in the local Yellow Pages directory, and ‘Artists’ have their own separate heading, with subheadings for painters, sculptors, etc. Perhaps our favourite gallery of all was the one we visited first, the Andrew Smith Gallery, which specialises in ‘Masterpieces of Photography’. It was a real thrill to see some of their wonderful images by such famous photographers as Ansel Adams, Annie Liebowitz, Edward Weston, Alfred Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson and more, as well as to discover some that we didn’t know.

Although this is a commercial gallery and all the photos are for sale, we didn’t feel pressurised into buying and I got the impression that they are as happy to welcome enthusiastic sightseers as serious collectors.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

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Outside the O'Keeffe Museum

We had passed what is probably the best known of Santa Fe’s many galleries, large and small, earlier in the day, as it was just round the corner from our little casita in Chapelle Street. We didn’t know a lot about O’Keeffe before coming to Santa Fe, but we were keen to find out more. We had been warned by our Moon Handbook that the museum had perhaps fewer of her works than might have been expected in one dedicated entirely to this single artist – unfortunately by the time it opened in the late 1990s many of her pieces were already in collections elsewhere. But as the guidebook explained, this had been partly rectified in 2005 when the museum received the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, so lovers of her work, or the curious such as ourselves, should at least find it worth a visit.

The gallery is modern and light, with six of its rooms now given over to the O’Keeffe collection. Of these I liked best the large flower pictures, such as white jimson weed, for which she is perhaps best known, and the landscapes painted in the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe, evocative of her love for this red sandstone country. I also liked the way the exhibition was curated, with some fascinating quotes from O’Keeffe painted on the walls alongside the paintings.

No photography was allowed inside, but I note from the website that this policy has now been changed and photos are actively encouraged – a sign, no doubt, of the increasing importance of social media in spreading the word about places to visit:
‘The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum allows non-flash photography in most areas. Feel free to photograph friends and family and your favorite works of art. Please note that photography is allowed only for personal, noncommercial use, with the following restrictions: no tripods, no flash photography, no selfie sticks, no drones. Some artworks have a no photography sign, we ask that you please honor this.’

The remaining rooms are devoted to temporary exhibitions featuring O’Keeffe’s contemporaries or artists influenced by her. At the time of our visit this meant a travelling exhibition called ‘From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri & Ireland’. I didn’t previously know the work of Robert Henri, and sadly after seeing this exhibition I was not inspired to do so! Apparently he is regarded as ‘the leader of the urban realists group known as the Ashcan School,’ but the portraits of (mainly) Irish children were not really my thing I’m afraid. Nevertheless I was really pleased to have seen the works by O’Keeffe and that was, after all, the purpose of our visit.

On our way out we visited the inevitable gift shop, which was in fact one of the better examples of a museum shop that I have seen – relatively compact with high quality (and consequently expensive) items. I was tempted by some rather pricey silk scarves screen-printed with O’Keeffe’s flowers but managed to resist. We did however buy ourselves a small print – not one of her works but a good reproduction of an Ansel Adams photo of aspens which reminded us of our drives around the state. It now hangs in our lounge, a permanent reminder of this fantastic road trip.

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Chris on our front porch

We spent the last part of the afternoon relaxing on the small terrace of our casita, enjoying our little ‘home’ in the city.

Coyote Rooftop Cantina

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Sunset over Santa Fe

The Coyote Café is one of the more upmarket places to eat in Santa Fe, and looked rather more formal than we usually opt for when on holiday – the sort of place you’d celebrate a birthday or anniversary maybe, but not for casual ‘any night of the week’ dining. But adjacent to it, and under the same management, is a rooftop bar and more informal eatery, the Rooftop Cantina, which looked more like what we had in mind for this evening.

We didn’t have a reservation but it wasn’t too busy so we decided to start by having just a drink while seated at the area put aside for drinking only, the table around the edge of the terrace. Perched here you have a great view of the street below, and, if you time it right (we did), of the sun setting at the end of the road. But my attention was regularly diverted away from the sun’s orange glow by the possibly lovelier glow emanating from my excellent margarita, which proved to be possibly the best of the entire trip – the ‘Norteño Margarita’, which they make with a tequila infused with green chilli. Fantastic!

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Margarita at sunset

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Fire-grilled salmon

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Wall decoration

We then moved to one of the lower tables more suited for dining. I decided to have a change from the tortilla-based dishes I’d been eating, so chose the salmon served with polenta and hot chilli sauce: ‘Fire Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Crunchy Fried Polenta, Bird Chile Sambal Sauce, Organic Lettuces & Pepinos’. Chris had the Kobe burger: ‘American Snake River Kobe Beef Burger with Manchego Cheese, Crispy Fried Vidalia Onion, Greens, House made Beer Pickles, Tomato & Cilantro Mayonnaise, Sweet Habanero Tomato Ketchup & Boardwalk Fries’. Both dishes went down very well indeed, although mine was a little on the small side – I compensated by pinching a few of the French fries that came with Chris’s burger! We shared a dessert, a ‘trio of sorbets’, and although the bill was higher than we paid elsewhere on this trip, it did include our pre-dinner drinks, including that wonderful margarita! We felt the quality justified the slightly higher prices, and with more time in Santa Fe we would definitely have come back here again.

After dinner we went back to the El Paseo Bar where we had drunk last night. This time there was no live music, and we enjoyed it rather more. The bartender poured a generous Jack Daniels, the non-live music was much more to our taste than the live had been, and there was a friendly, buzzy atmosphere without it being too busy.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:18 Archived in USA Tagged churches art buildings architecture road_trip monument history statue square restaurants houses museum cathedral new_mexico street_photography Comments (7)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

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