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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

Touch the country [of New Mexico] and you will never be the same again.

Updated: Sep 1, 2019

I have a list of things to do in Santa Fe, but first I quickly read an overview of the history of Santa Fe, and indeed, New Mexico. After about half an hour, I realise that the history is ancient and very, very complex. However, the key players in the story of Santa Fe include indigenous people, the Catholic Church, Spanish, American, and pioneers, making this city the oldest state capital in the United States. There's no point in me rehashing history here - the point of the blog is to share my impressions and personal experiences.

I walk out of the mid-town carpark, taking note of the faux Moorish/Spanish Renaissance/Art Deco-ish theatre across the road. The Lensic Theatre, built in 1931, is an unusual mishmash of styles, but isn't out of place here. I walk along the narrow footpath towards the Plaza.

In 1573, King Philip II established town planning rules, which had included the fundamental principle of laying the town out around a central Plaza. Like every Spanish-influenced city I've visited in Central and South America, Santa Fe's Plaza is the social centre of the city. On the northern side of the plaza is the Palace of the Governors, the original seat of government, and is the oldest continuously-occupied public building in the United States. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. The Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi occupies the eastern side, whilst commercial buildings occupy the other two sides.

The Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi was built between 1869 and 1886 by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy in the Romanesque Revival style, it became a basilica in 2005.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe

I enter the church through the heavy bronze doors. These doors are fairly new; they replaced the old ones during the 1986 restoration. The twenty panels each depict an event in the history of the church. Inside, high vaulted ceilings, arches and Corinthian columns produce a bright, airy atmosphere, whilst the location of the central baptismal font, situated between the doors and the altar, is symbolic of the faith journey. In 1626, Fray Alonso Benavides brought Our Lady of the Rosary to Santa Fe. She was renamed La Conquistadora in honour of her peaceful acceptance by Native Americans. The church is beautiful and has been sympathetically restored to preserve the historical features, but more than the physical features, it has a presence - an atmosphere.

Opposite the Cathedral is the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Currently it is undergoing a changeover of exhibitions, but that doesn't matter because there are a couple of things happening in other parts of the museum. Inside a small space is an exhibition of Sami art. The Sami are indigenous people from the northern part of Scandinavia and the Murmansk region of Russia. They have lived in the Arctic region for approximately 3,500 years. Inside, a documentary movie is in motion, and a professor explains to a group of students the history of the Sami people. At the end of the documentary, visiting Sami artists explain the significance of their art work. I leave the room as question-time starts. I walk through another exhibit; beautiful artwork made up of native plants and seeds before going outside into a traditional Native American garden. As I leave the museum, I see the professor in the gift shop and approach him to thank him for the interesting lecture. He tells me the Sami exhibition is experimental. He wants to include art from indigenous groups from across the world to expand the experience of the students. It sounds like a wonderful undertaking and I wish him luck for future exhibitions, adding that I would like to think that one day he will exhibit Australian Indigenous artwork.

The midday sun beats down. It's probably about 40 degrees Celsius. The day half-over and I've only visited two sites so far. I pass signs for both Route 66 and the Santa Fe Trail on the way to my next destination: the Loretto Chapel.

The Loretto Chapel was built by the Loretto nuns for their school in 1873. It is now used as a museum and a wedding chapel. When the chapel's architect suddenly died before the completion of the building, the nuns were left with a dilemma. There was no access to the choir loft and a traditional staircase could not fit in the space, so when a stranger appeared and built a staircase for the chapel, it solved a problem. The staircase is a magnificent work of art.

The staircase, Loretto Chapel

Santa Fe is a very old city with some very old buildings. The next church I visit is reputed to be the oldest church in the United States of America. San Miguel Mission Church was built between 1610 and 1626 and is in the Spanish Colonial Mission style. Although it has been restored many times over the past 400 years, there are places where the original adobe walls have been displayed under perspex. Believed to have been constructed by Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico, it was purchased by Archbishop Lamy and was used as a chapel by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, who established a school on adjacent land. Like all churches in Santa Fe, it was damaged during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The wooden altar screen, or reredos is one of the oldest in New Mexico. The most unique artwork in this chapel are the paintings of Jesus on buffalo hide and John the Baptist on deer hide, which were painted by the Franciscan Friars in approximately 1630, and were used as teaching aids by the friars when converting the local Pueblo Indians to Christianity.

Painting on Buffalo Skin, San Miguel Chapel

It is hard not to notice the atmosphere of spirituality of Santa Fe. The churches I've visited today show the extent to which the Catholic Church had extended into New Mexico. I purchase a novel; a classic American literature by Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop. Although a work of fiction, it provides an insight into the friction between the Native American pueblo people and the Church.

I don't have time to visit Canyon Road, which is the centre of the art galleries and upmarket stores. I return to the Plaza, where a band is onstage and people are dancing. I follow my nose to the aroma of food cooking and the unusual, but pleasant aroma of burning mesquite wood. I don't feel like eating at a restaurant, instead buying a burrito from a food truck on the corner and enjoy it whilst watching the locals enjoying the music. The atmosphere here is beautiful and safe.

All afternoon, I've listened to the background rumblings of thunder, and as darkness threatens to fall, I return to my hotel. The day has been incredibly interesting and as I write up my scrappy notes from the day's sightseeing, the rumbles turn into a full-blown orchestra accompanied by fierce lightning. The rain tumbles, heavy, relentless. Within a short time, flash-flooding warnings interrupt the television show I'm watching. I'm not sure what to expect tomorrow, so I'll wait and see if the weather improves and if the roads will be clear to continue tomorrow.


TITLE QUOTE: DH Lawrence 1917

ACCOMMODATION: Motel 6 3007 Cerrillos Rd, Santa Fe, NM 87507

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