Four Days in Puebla: Part Two OR Talavera Heaven

The Spanish architect designer Gaudi would have loved it here.  Handpainted, shiny glazed high fire tile work is de rigeur in Puebla.  Building exteriors, courtyards, archways and floors are covered in tile or embellished with tile inlays. There is a Moorish quality to this town that is fascinating.  As I look skyward, I see onion domes that top church chapels covered in tiles.  There are tall church bell towers that look like the Medieval turrets of Tuscany villages.  Streets are paved in quarry stone.  Hotel floors are a mix of red, yellow or black onyx and the polished stone of millions of feet treading back and forth over centuries.  The brass and copper studded doors, the fanciful grillwork, the Zocalo full of balloon vendors, dancing children, strolling couples, and courting novios add a remarkable flavor to the soup of Puebla de Los Angeles.  This Zocalo is smaller than the one in Oaxaca (or so it seems) but its Jacaranda trees are 100 feet tall giving it a sense of greater majesty.  A central fountain is reminiscent of Rome, complete with cherubs spouting water.

This morning we left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and took a taxi to the Zocalo where we ate a great buffet breakfast for $80 pesos at the Hotel Royalty.  This included fresh fruit (papaya, watermelon, pineapple), a made to order omelet (I chose two cheeses and onions), yoghurt, breakfast breads (one tasted like my marzipan wedding cake),  fresh avocado, tortillas, and chips.  Other options included sausage, scrambled eggs, cereal, chilaquiles, and pancakes.  Or, one could order off the standard menu.  Then,  the walking began.

My friend Sam (short for Frances, go figure) and her husband Tom collect Talavera tile.  They had been to Puebla before and this trip was a mission to search for more tile in their favorite La Reina pattern.  I had no plan but to tag along.  Ha, ha.  We headed away from the Zocalo, stopping first at the tourism center to get a better map, then made our way down Av. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza to the El Parian district in the neighborhood of 4 Oriente and 6 Norte.  This is Talavera Heaven, or at least one corner of it.  Actually, there is one family of potters that pretty much populates the two to three block area.  I learned that there are different qualities of the ceramics.  The authentic “certified” Talavera is made in the traditional process.  Then there is a variety called Rustica and another variety called Moderna.  The difference has to do with the type of clay used, the overglaze, and the kiln firing process.  Naturally, the traditional “certified” is more expensive and it looks like Majolica, but it is dishwasher safe and ovenproof.  The mark next to the signature on the authentic Talavera is “DO4.”  This is what you should look for on the bottom of the “foot” of the piece.  So, imagine 100 stalls lining both sides of four blocks, all selling decorated tile.  I’m a visual person but this was sensory overload.  I managed to make a selection of two small plates that I intend to give as gifts.  But as we were about to sit down for a respite and a bowl of homemade sopa de verduras (all fresh vegetables in a rich, spicy chicken tomato broth), I got swept into another shop by two very engaging young men, muy guapo.  And, I spotted one of my best finds of the day — a lovely painted piece in soft colors of lemon, green and blue, a veritable plate full of lemons hanging in verdant foliage.  This one is definitely a keeper.  So, now my backpack has two plates in it and my handwoven plastic shopping bag from the Teotitlan market contains another plate, plus my traveling paraphernalia: scarf, jacket for when it gets cold later, camera, dictionary, notebook to record momentary thoughts and expenditures, plus bottled water.  Sam is now laden with bowls and backsplash tiles.  Tom carries another bundle, plus they both are sporting cameras with big lenses.

Our quest now is Avenida de Los Dulces.  We are going in circles or so it seems, heading back toward the Zocalo, then making a turn onto Av. 5 de Mayo, passing the Iglesia Santo Domingo ( yes, we’ve been by here before), then going another block maybe, and making a right turn onto this street that is lined with candy shops — at least three blocks of candy shops many also selling high quality Talavera tile.  Oh, no.  We stop again, in and out, back and forth across the street, plying our way through mountains of dulces and then Sam and Tom find the ultimate Talavera tile shop where they place and order to ship back to Columbus, Ohio.  Meanwhile, I meander across the street to discover another incredible find of extraordinary handpainted DO4 mugs, bargain (getting a 10 percent discuenta), and now find myself hauling around what feels like 50 pounds of ceramics.

By now, it’s time for comida and we haul our weary bodies into the Hotel Colonial restaurant in a restored centuries old building, across from the Autonomous University of Puebla, and settle into an elegantly comfortable dining room with great service and a fixed price menu of $90 pesos for a five course meal.  The chicken mole poblano, for which Puebla is famous, was spectacular, rich and spicy.  I did pass on the dessert, keeping in mind that I wanted another chocolate and nut coated chocolate bar at the nieveria on the Zocalo.  After a stop through the municipal museum to see a black and white photography exhibit of Puebla circus life circa 1915, and a stroll through the balloon filled Zocalo, we indeed settled in for our evening “meal” of Italian Coffee Company coffee, ice cream and people watching before heading back to the hotel.

Such is life in Puebla.

To read more about the history of Talavera tile, go to:

http://gomexico.about.com/od/shoppinghandicrafts/p/talavera.htm

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