An Iffy Meal and a Good View

June 1, 2021

There are places to eat out that never fail to disappoint. Marco Polo, an Italian-style place in Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Lowry’s Under the Volcano) is one of them. I should know, because I go there about once a year, looking for the idea the place represents. 

The entrance to Cuernavaca Cathedral, from the Marco Polo restaurant balcony.

It’s self-described as a trattoria, which to me means somewhere where the pasta is unsubtly cheesy and tomato-y, with definite hints of oregano, onion and garlic. There’s a cheap Italian house red that’s hardly memorable, but is cheerful and zesty enough to complement minor sins in the kitchen, and red-check tablecloths. There are pizza options for the impecunious, and upscale cuts of meat for the businessmen.

And somehow, this place always gets it wrong. The decor is elegant and not a bad imitation of traditional Tuscan tiles and sculpture, and the menu was perfectly designed years ago. They make a delicious cheese-bread that augurs well for the main course to follow, and … then the main course follows.

I can hear the moans: “Well, go somewhere else, idiot, and stop complaining. Use your blog for telling people about cartels and extortion, or something.” I will write about how kidnappers recently tried to extort me in a day or two, but right now, I’m recalling ravioli that was just tolerable when Chef Boyardee would have come closer to excellence.

I have loved Italian food since I hit adulthood, and like I said, Marco Polo captures the idea of an Italian eatery perfectly. It’s just that they don’t seem to know you can go a couple of kilometres and get all the ingredients at Costco, or even Walmart, and your bolognese sauce will taste … maybe not like it would in Bologna, but like the acceptable imitations you get in other places here. Rich, balanced between sweetness and acidity, and probably available with all the spices and herbs already added in.

So, why did I go there today? The photo at the top is the reason.

I had actually gone to Cuernavaca hunting for the socks I forgot to buy on Friday when I was in a Walmart. And, having found some, plus some decent tea, I suddenly thought I wanted to eat on one of the four balconies Marco Polo has. I had to walk just three blocks, and was able to get a balcony table before other lunchtime customers grabbed them all. 

The restaurant, you see, is right opposite the Cathedral of Cuernavaca. That building is still, like other large religious buildings near here, under renovation from the 2017 earthquake, and access can be limited. But on either side of the main gate, there are two large, early chapels, which, unlike the cathedral, have not been extensively altered over the centuries. Both are currently open. The one at the left of my photo is the Santa Cruz chapel, which is just under 500 years old. 

Behind it are hills that are part of a long ridge leading into my current home town of Tepoztlan. Right of centre is the roof of a recently inaugurated museum of religious art, with a gold-topped cupola. In the cathedral courtyard there are cypresses, palm trees and other large plants.

If it looks like the thick walls of the courtyard are fortified, the perception is correct. Some native people were not cowed by beatings and burnings, nor won over by the newly imported faith, and there was intermittent armed resistance to Spanish rule throughout the 1500s. The convent in Tepoztlan is similarly fortified. 

When the cathedral gates are open, there are often crippled people and other beggars outside them: the impression is very medieval, and the urge to put a coin in their cups is hard to resist. Souvenir sellers, like the woman with her blue umbrellas, station themselves there also. Often, there are street musicians or, as there was today, a man dressed as a Toltec warrior playing a high-pitched flute. There are also the lamp standards, like the one in the middle of my image, which are over a century old. The cathedral itself is only visible here from its white ornamental roof turrets at the top right, and a small section of wall peeping through the trees, though it is quite impressive close up.

So, what draws me to Marco Polo isn’t the food, but the ambiance. This part of town was an Aztec stronghold until the Conquest exactly five centuries ago, so it retains some of that spirit, especially just up the road in the Palacio de Cortes, the Conquistador who took Mexico for Spain in the 1520s. There are large pieces of shattered sculptures there. 

Both the early efforts of missionaries and the more established devotions of later generations are embodied in the cathedral complex architecture. And there’s usually some bustle on the street outside.

I must have visited Marco Polo a half-dozen times over the years, and while a couple of meals were okay, most didn’t excite me. I never plan to go there, but always head up their stairs on a whim, as I did today. 

And while I do wish the ravioli was … raviolier, and bottles of the house wine were not kept sitting around for days on end, the view from the balconies is always the best compensation for visiting. Not that I’ll go back there again this year, I’m quite sure. I always tell myself not to go back. But if I do get the urge again some time next year, and I will probably will, the view will still be there to make up for the gastronomic deficiencies.

The Giant Next Door

June 8, 2019

The summer rains have started, but erratically. Today I woke to clear blue skies, and two hours later, Popocatepetl was still visible from the high point that the combi into town passes.  A sighting, for me, feels like a good-luck charm on the day.

I understand why people feel threatened by volcanoes. They occasionally explode, or more usually erupt in half-a-dozen less nasty ways, and they also make threatening noises at times. They sit atop fault lines that produce earthquakes, and of course there’s the idea of buried Pompeii and Herculaneum to caution us that sometimes the things can get very nasty.

I don’t care. I like being (relatively) close to a volcano, even though from my village it’s invisible. Perhaps if I didn’t have the mountainous shield that I do, plus a 20-mile space-cushion, it would make me more nervous.

Its legend, of a warrior who wanted to marry the princess Ixtaccihuatl, is well-known. Popocatepetl was cheated out of his bride, and now he watches over her eternally, for she is the volcanic mountain to the north of his, though she has been silent for many centuries. He has been emitting smoke (his name means “Smoking Mountain”), and quite often more than that, since 1991. Sometimes, the ash is so bad, flights into and out of Mexico City have to divert, and we find a brownish-grey grit to sweep up on our patio.

The mountains around here run to between 6,000 and 10,000 feet in altitude. Popocatepetl is 5,450 metres in height, or 17,880 ft, so that it dominates the surrounding scenery. It is Mexico’s second-highest peak after Pico de Orizaba.

I always look for it when the skies are relatively clear. The ideal sighting comes after a rainstorm, because despite the fact we’re in the Tropics, at that altitude the rain falls as snow and the great cone is entirely white.

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The volcano after rain that fell as snow, from the village of Huilotepec, 25 miles from the summit.

It easily disappoints. I took two friends to see it up close some years ago, and all I could show them was a huge cloud-bank. This afternoon, I went to Cuautla, a town to the south of the volcano, and while it had been clear at 10.00 am, by 1.30 it was completely concealed. Sometimes, it can still be seen from downtown Mexico City, as it usually was until fifty years ago, but this is increasingly rare. Malcolm Lowry’s famous novel of a man’s disintegration, Under the Volcano, is set in Quauhnahuac, the city called Cuernavaca today. I once glimpsed the cone from there a few years ago, but otherwise, it’s been invisible at that distance. I’ve never seen it red and glowing at night, as some photos show it to be during major eruptions, though I have seen a massive grey cloud ascending from it in the daytime. Naturally, I had no camera on me at the time, so here I’ve poached an image of a rather smaller ash-cloud.


The volcano erupting in July 2013, seen from the west.

In 1901, the British mountaineers Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley ascended it, later inviting a sarcastic Mexican journalist to join them, then glissading with the alarmed man all the way back down to the bottom. The British sense of humour was always very dry, and the periodista was suitably subdued after the experience.

Centuries earlier, an Aztec emperor sent warriors to investigate the summit, and they came back down with lung damage from the high altitude. In 1520, Hernan Cortes mined sulphur from up near the cone to make gunpowder when he fought the Aztec empire, so presumably he chose men for this who’d had experience with great heights.

Today, though, the mountain is off limits because it’s simply not safe to ascend. It’s a sight to see, not to touch, and only webcams offer close-quarters access to its activities.

To say a lot about Popocatepetl is to miss the point. It’s so overwhelmingly itself, so dominant and majestic in the landscape, that it produces more silence than commentary in anyone who sees it.  It has produced highly fertile soil for agriculture, as many volcanoes do, but it can just as easily turn on that sort of enterprise.

My own affection for it stems in part from the fact that there’s no currently conceivable technology that could contain it. Monitoring has improved, but nothing can block a few hundred thousand tons of magma on the move. There are Ruta de Evacuacion signs all around it in the nearby communities, but that’s the only option if it does go full-on. You leave, or you die. It won’t stop to argue.

It’s a god, for sure. A proud one, a noble one, and a beautiful one.