For years I’ve followed the Top 10 list of favorite travel destinations in North America and have noted that Santa Fe has consistently made the grade. I could no longer contain my curiosity so I packed my bag and headed to this Southwest town. I was eager to check the veracity of this rating.
Situated on the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains, Santa Fe sits high and dry at 7000ft. The stark desert landscape deceived my eyes. It gave me the impression that the ocean was just beyond the horizon. Punctuating the flat terrain are mountains ascending to 12,000 feet.
This landscape has been the inspiration for many artists who have made Santa Fe their home. Among these was Georgia O’Keeffe who settled in Abiquiu, a few miles north of the city. The O’Keeffe Museum has a fine collection of the artist’s New Mexican landscapes and startling floral paintings. Much controversy has revolved around O’Keeffe’s larger-than-life flowers. But once you have examined these canvases, you will never view flowers in the same light again.
Downtown Santa Fe is a place like no other I’ve visited. Low rise adobe structures in varying shades of brown conform to a city ordinance which preserves the architectural integrity of the city. This is a step in the right direction so future generations can enjoy their historical and cultural heritage.
If you can’t visit Santa Fe during the Opera season, then the winter holidays present a viable alternative to savor the many Christmas revels and indulge in your favorite winter sport. The city radiates with a warm glow when traditional “farolitos” (little candles in brown paper bags filled with sand) adorning the Plaza of Santa Fe are lit up in the evenings. The lanterns line the entry to the Romanesque-style Cathedral of St. Francis. Red poinsettias, a towering Christmas tree and a crèche herald the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus. The reredo (altar screen) while recently carved, is a throwback to the days of early Spanish settlers. A side chapel is the only remaining part of the original church on this site.
The altar of the chapel is an antique reredo with the oldest Madonna in the United States. Fray Alonso Benavides brought it here in 1626. After the Spaniards won Santa Fe back from Native Americans in 1693, the statue was renamed La Conquistadora (Our Lady of the Conquest).
That Santa Fe is an important art center is supported not only by thriving art galleries that generate the third largest revenues for the city, (government and tourism are first and second, respectively) but also by the collection of substantial artworks on display in the State Capitol and in various museums in town. On Museum Hill, there are museums dedicated to Spanish colonial art (including santos from the Philippines), American Indian history and culture and international folk art.
A walk along Canyon Road is like walking in an outdoor museum. You’ll be bowled over by the whimsical and colorful sculptures and courtyards that beckon you to enter. Art galleries tout paintings from classical to modern and Soutwestern themes. R.C. Gorman’s paintings are beautiful with simple lines on an austere canvas.
Native Americans have left an indelible mark in the cultural tapestry of Santa Fe. Their vibrant handwoven rugs and blankets, intricately decorated pottery and jewelry are sold throughout town. Alas, the prices are sky high. At the Palace of the Governors, Native Americans sell their jewelry as they have for decades. Turquoise and silver are valuable to them because they represent the sky and running water (respectively), important elements in our daily life.
While Spanish and Native American influences abound, Santa Fe has yet another foreign legacy. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a Frenchman and the subject of the novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather, initiated the expansion of St. Francis Cathedral. He brought Europeans to Santa Fe to build and decorate this and other churches in town. One of these is the Loretto Chapel which is built in the Gothic style and patterned after the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
But people come to the Chapel to see the mysterious spiral staircase with no visible support. Legend has it that the Sisters of Loretto were desperate, after a failed attempt, to build a staircase to their choir loft. They prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, for help. A carpenter showed up one day and built an extraordinary wooden staircase that makes two complete 360° turns. But just as mysteriously as the carpenter appeared, he disappeared after the staircase was completed, never collecting his fee. This tale is one of the many interesting threads that make up the fabric of the oldest capital city in the United States. The closer you look at Santa Fe, the more you appreciate the handiwork created by various cultures.
Santa Feans have a special name for their town. They call it “The City Different”. And it certainly is.
*Images from TOURISM Santa Fe
Where to stay:
Hilton Santa Fe is a short walk to the Plaza of the Governors. For more info, go to hilton.com.
**This article was published in the February 26, 2004-March 3, 2004 issue of the Manila Bulletin USA.