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A treasure wrought from silver

The once-prosperous mining town of Zacatecas is chock full of beautiful architecture and rich culture
Saturday, November 08, 2003
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PHOTO: Judy Waytiuk, National Post
In Zacatecas, the city's former bullring now forms part of the upscale Quinta Real hotel. This is not border town Mexico, broiling with cheap beer and brothels. A former silver mining town, founded by the Spanish in 1540 and still rich in Baroque architecture and culture, Zacatecas is nestled in a narrow valley in Mexico's mountainous interior region.
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PHOTO:  Judy Waytiuk, National Post
A statue of the lonely Jobito and his faithful dog watches over the courtyard of the Meson de Jobito.

Standing on one corner of a cobbled street in the small Mexican colonial city of Zacatecas, a short, grizzled fellow was selling tin cupfuls of a fermented-honey drink called balché, dipping servings from two clay jugs hanging off his donkey's flanks.
Ignoring the old man, hundreds of teenagers swarmed down the sidewalk, dodging family groups out for after- dinner strolls and treats along Avenida Hidalgo. All of them paraded against a backdrop of richly detailed, perfectly preserved Spanish colonial buildings more than 400 years old.
The people of Zacatecas live among ghosts, both architectural and ectoplasmic. Many in the crowd, like our group of five North Americans, were on their way to the Teatro Calderon, built in 1832, burnt in 1889 and rebuilt in 1897. The theatre was hosting a still photography show in its turn-of-two-centuries-ago foyer. In the square across the street, the local music school's symphony orchestra tuned up for its weekly performance.
Spectators sat on worn stone steps surrounding the square, and candy and balloon vendors stepped cautiously around fingers and feet.
Little has changed since the Spanish founded this town in 1546 after discovering rich silver lodes in the area. Set on the slopes of a narrow valley in Mexico's mountainous interior, 700 kilometres north of Mexico City and almost 600 kilometres east of Mazatlan, Zacatecas blossomed into one of Mexico's wealthiest and largest cities during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Most of the silver flowed back to Spain, but enough remained for locals to quarry pale-pink limestone out of nearby mountains and build dozens of ornately Baroque cathedrals, monasteries, convents and majestic public buildings in the city's historic centre. When world silver prices plummeted, Zacatecas was forgotten -- fortunately, as it turns out, because lack of outside economic interest in the city left its magnificent core untouched by commercialism.
In 1993, UNESCO declared Zacatecas a "cultural treasure of humanity," and it is the best-preserved of Mexico's nine World Heritage colonial cities, crammed with unexpected museums chock full of history, bursting at the seams with culture and almost empty of foreigners.
This is not border-town Mexico, broiling with cheap beer and brothels. Nor is it a sunburnt stretch of seaside resorts sprawling for dozens of kilometres along palm-manicured coastlines. This is a Mexico rich with bloody, passionate history. And so far, few Americans or Canadians know Zacatecas.
Its handful of historic district hotels date from the 17th century.
The upscale Quinta Real was the town's original bullring, and its dark, cool, ground-level bar once sheltered bulls waiting to go into battle.
The Meson de Jobito, once a traditional vecindad -- a common form of rooming house/apartment for lower classes -- is now a rambling, intimate place with long alleyways and courtyards where plants and flowerpots occupy window sills, stairwells and odd corners, and rooms sport 12-foot rough plaster walls and ceilings lined with 300-year-old wooden beams.
The Meson even has its own, sad legend -- the tale of Jobito, a wealthy former silver miner suffering from unrequited love for a lost sweetheart and two twin sons he never saw. The hotel has kept an inner courtyard statue of the old man, who supposedly built the place hoping his family would someday return. Every day, he waited with his faithful dog beside him.
Eventually, despairing, he filled the place with the town's poor families, whose children called him papa.
The city's main square, the Plaza de Armas, is bracketed by the 18th-century Governor's Palace and a cathedral, built between 1729 and 1752, with a wildly ornate facade crammed with relief carvings of saints, floral motifs and indigenous symbols. Nowhere else in Mexico is there a structure this spectacularly detailed. One street over and two blocks south, a second massive church, San Agustín, stands partly ruined by battles during Mexico's Reform Wars in the 1800s.
In equally old buildings, the Pedro Coronel and Rafael Coronel Museums house remarkable collections of art and thousands of Mexican masks -- the world's largest collection -- dating back to early native tribes.
The Museo Zacatecano holds a large collection of native Huichol cultural artifacts, while the Toma de Zacatecas documents the history of the Mexican Revolution, and the Galeria Episcopal shelters centuries-old religious art.
Underground, in the El Eden silver mine, tourists walk tunnels carved by miners' picks in past centuries. At the crown of the Cerro de la Bufa, overlooking the town, the Museo de la Toma de Zacatecas houses artifacts and articles about the capture of Zacatecas by Pancho Villa.
In the Mausoleo de los Hombres Ilustres de Zacatecas, city heroes are entombed. The townsfolk of Zacatecas respect and remember their ghosts.
I do not believe in ghosts, but one night in my room at the Meson de Jobito, my sole entrance door securely latched and locked, I awoke sensing someone move along the foot of the bed to stand beside me.
I bolted upright, screaming, saw nothing in the pitch darkness and promptly went back to sleep. The next day, I asked our tour guide, Arturo, if he knew of an explanation.
It was just Jobito, he explained, apologizing for not previously warning me about the hotel ghost.
At night, the old man still checks on his sleeping foster children, making sure they're safe.

© ;Copyright 2003 National Post