Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Old Spain in New Mexico

Even as it gets carried away with itself, Santa Fe is a special place.

By Paul Gerald

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  They don’t allow billboards in Santa Fe.

That was the first thing somebody told me about New Mexico’s capital before I went there. And while it’s a pretty shallow analysis of such a magnificent place, it’s also a telling one. Anything that gets in the way of Santa Fe’s marketing scheme — The Old Spanish Empire Is Alive and Well — is simply not tolerated. That is, unless it’s part of the New, Hip Southwestern Scene.

So there are no billboards, except along the interstate and a couple of highway drags. And once you get into downtown, the scheme is unavoidable. That ancient-looking adobe is actually a Woolworth’s. That little pueblo-looking thing is actually a Chevron. Indeed, thanks to an aggressive preservation effort that started in the 1930s, Current Santa Fe looks a lot more like Old Santa Fe than did 1930s Santa Fe.

And “old” is what Santa Fe is mostly about. A great trivia question is “What’s the oldest public building in America?” The answer is Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors, built in 1610, 10 years before the Pilgrims carved on Plymouth Rock. Santa Fe was the northern end of the Camino Royal, the Spanish “royal highway” from Mexico City.

In 1680 the local Pueblo Indians staged a revolt, either killing or running off all the Spanish, but they came back in 1693, and the two have more or less lived in peace with each other ever since. A hundred and fifty years later Americans started coming over the Santa Fe Trail, and then in the 1980s the Big Rich came in. They brought the marketers with them. The 60,000 residents of Santa Fe have moaned and groaned ever since, but the million-plus tourists who come in every year couldn’t be happier.

They ski, either at the small-but-friendly local hill or at the world-class Taos an hour away. They visit the local pueblos (where the descendants of those who greeted the Spanish still live), especially for fiestas marking major holidays, both traditional and Catholic. They peruse the works of 1,200 artists at the Indian Market (the 79th annual will be held August 19 and 20, 2000). They go to America’s oldest party, the Fiestas de Santa Fe, held each Labor Day weekend since 1712. They wander the cave dwellings of Bandolier National Monument, less than an hour from town.

But that’s just the old stuff: After 1980 or so, Santa Fe started becoming something more like a theme park, or a playground for the rich and famous. That’s when the marketing started. It was the marketing, for example, that convinced us that dishes like banana-crusted Chilean sea bass was Southwestern food. One wonders if the dons and padres ever saw a banana or a sea bass.

Still, there’s the New Santa Fe. It has 250 art galleries and 50 Indian jewelry shops. It has 13 major museums, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, opened in 1997, with 10 galleries housing the largest collection of her work in the world. It has the world-famous opera, in a fancy new amphitheatre up in the hills. It has 200 restaurants, including places like the legendary local diner Josie’s Casa de Comida, a tiny whitewashed house serving up lunch-only fare of chiles, tamales, and enchiladas ... but also including places like the world-famous Coyote Cafe, where the budget recommendation is either the $40 set meal or the rooftop cafe, where prices average $30 or so per person.

But the essence of a visit to Santa Fe is, in some ways, to give in to the hype. It might be getting a bit overblown, but it is a special place. It’s a place where three distinct cultures — Hispanic, Native American, and European — live with each other but maintain their independence from one another. You can sip sangria in the tower of the La Fonda hotel and watch Midwesterners buy turquoise from Navajos in the plaza. You can hike or mountain-bike to ancient architectural sites, and then hit modern art galleries and have a world-class dinner. You can look at all the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings you can handle, then drive a little ways to the ranch where she lived.

Or you can just relax and admire it all — the scenery, the history, the architecture, the people, even the weirdness. Because while the marketing scheme is a little weird — adobe Chevrons? — the product itself is downright wonderful.

Getting there and around: Airfares from Memphis to Albuquerque (an hour from Santa Fe, with $20 bus connections or full rental-car options) get as low as $250. If you drive or take the Bette Bus to Little Rock and fly Southwest, it’s less than $200. Amtrak passes 15 miles from town and has a van connection. Hotels start at $50 in winter, $80 in summer. A local bus called Santa Fe Trails connect major sites and museums. For more information call 1-800-545-2040 or surf to www.santafe.org.

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