Nothing says southwest like Santa Fe.
The combo of scenic mountains and mesas with the native Pueblo, Spanish and cowboy cultures defines this quadrant of the country.
The area was claimed as the “Kingdom of New Mexico”
by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado for Spain in 1540.
By the early 1600s La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, the Royal Village of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi, was founded and became Spain’s provincial capitol for the region.
The city kept its status as capital through Mexican independence and then statehood.
The recommended starting point for a big dose of Santa Fe flavor is the Plaza, so naturally that’s where we headed. This is a classic colonial town square.
A small park with the usual benches, trees, monuments and gazebo, surrounded by centuries old historic buildings.
We started at the original Palace of the Governors, which occupies an entire side of the Plaza.
The palace is the oldest public building in the US, dating back to 1610.
By most standards, this sprawling one story adobe residence would hardly qualify as a palace, but back in the 1600s in the frontier desert, it was the finest accommodation for hundreds of miles in any direction. Today it serves as a market place for native jewelry and artwork.
Walking the perimeter of the square is an easy stroll so we continued along the Plaza’s other three sides. Traditional crap shops mingle with high-end galleries, hotels and boutiques.
In the structures where Conquistadors and cowboys once shook off the trail dust, now tourists shop for designer clothes and Jackalopes.
Looming over the Plaza, The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi has stood since the 1870s, but a church has occupied this spot from the earliest days of Santa Fe.
Walking up to the church we felt like we somehow warp traveled across the Atlantic into a European village.
The French-born Archbishop Lamy intentionally had the Cathedral built in Romanesque Revival style so that it would stand out from the surrounding adobe buildings.
He was highly successful in his attempt. In what seems to have been a huge event, on October 4, 2005 Pope Benedict XVI elevated the cathedral to basilica status. We don’t really know what difference that makes to the church, but it sounds pretty snazzy.
While we were in church exploration mode, we headed a few blocks over to the Loretto Chapel. This is home to the famous “Inexplicable Staircase.”
As the legend goes, when the chapel was built without stairs up to the choir loft. Monks used ladders, but since this chapel was for nuns, a staircase was needed.
Conventional stairs would take up nearly half the space in the little chapel, so the nuns decided to pray a novena for some divine assistance.
On the ninth (and final) day of the devotion, a mysterious man with a few simple tools appeared and informed the sisters that he could fashion a suitable staircase, but he must be left completely alone.
Locked in the chapel for three days, he finished the stairs and disappeared without asking for pay. Nobody knew who he was or where he went, so naturally the nuns assumed that the carpenter was St. Joseph sent in answer to their prayers. A miracle.
At the chapel, which is privately owned these days, a recorded message plays this story on a never ending loop. Celestial choirs rise to a crescendo as the tale unfolds.
Then our narrator adds to the mystery by claiming that the design of the staircase defies physics and that no one can explain its construction.
The actual story is that the staircase was more terrifying and dangerous than miraculous. So much so the nuns had to crawl up and down it on their hands and knees until a railing was added ten years later.
The spiral design, while very unique, still falls within the laws of nature.
There even seems to be some evidence that the sisters knew who the carpenter was and kept a record of it.
One Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas was actually credited as the builder in his obituary. The legend of St. Joseph appearing to the nuns didn’t crop up until decades later.
Of course now that this is a private business it pays to keep the myth alive and we made these discoveries elsewhere. Though the reality may be somewhat less than mystical, the staircase is truly magical.
The craftsmanship is superb and the finished product absolutely beautiful. Both the original stairs and the railing are gorgeous examples of fine woodworking, worth every bit of the $2.50 entrance fee.
After our believe-it-or-not experience, our minds turned to our bellies.
Just off the Plaza, in an historic pueblo adobe, we found Cafe Pasqual’s. The casual cafe was named in honor of the patron saint of Mexican and New Mexican kitchens and cooks.
The intimate little dining room seats a mere fifty folks, but luckily we arrived early. Much of the seating is communal, so we joined the big table in the middle of the room and proceeded to get acquainted with our fellow guests.
As we are prone to do, we stayed on the appetizer side of the menu. The offerings at Pasquale’s are inspired by the desert southwest and the chefs try to use local ingredients whenever possible.
But as our first selection showed, some bending of this rule is necessary, since there are very few halibut swimming around in New Mexico.
The Halibut Ceviche was marvelous, and considering how well it was matched with lemongrass, avocado, jalapeños,
cucumber, tomato, and crispy tortilla triangles, maybe some of those halibuts should consider swimming up the Rio Grande.
My Tacos Barbacoa featured famous Niman Ranch beef and Chile d’Arbol Salsa. The Niman Ranch began near San Francisco, but now is a network of sustainable natural meat producers all over the country.
And yes, non hormone and antibiotic laced meat does taste better.
We continued our crawl through the menu with Pigs & Figs. Veronica can’t resist anything figgy, even if it is piggy. This tasty treat is pretty much what it sounds like, sweet figs wrapped in Applewood smoked bacon. Sweet and salty… delicious!
The cloaked little Newton fillers came on a bed of mizuna greens with balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with cabrales, the Spanish version of blue cheese.
We also gave the tamale a try. A little bit of Caribbean meets New Mexican, since the corn meal masa stuffed with green chili and Jack cheese is wrapped in a banana leaf as opposed to the traditional corn husk.
The only item that we tried in our prowl through Cafe Pasquale’s appetizer menu that wasn’t stellar was the Caesar Salad. The attempt to make it unique was a swing and a miss as far as we were concerned.
Dressing poured over whole Romaine leaves with crispy baked Parmesan on the side wasn’t bad, but didn’t hold up in comparison to some of the jammin’ Caesars we’ve experienced elsewhere. But it was more than made up for when the dessert platter arrived.
Every bit of it was delectable, but the chocolate torte with olive oil and sea salt was beyond believable.
There’s a lot of that going on today. All in all, a phenomenal evening of food and fun.
The large communal table allowed us to get to know some of the locals and enjoy good conversation while learning a little about Santa Fe. Great tidbits like, only two cities in America can claim to be older, San Juan, Puerto Rico and St. Augustine, Florida.
Albert Einstein used to hang out in the Plaza while working on the atomic bomb at nearby Los Alamos. Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones came up with The Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote while living here. Georgia O’Keeffe spent her later years living and working here and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum houses a huge collection of her work.
All of this combines to make Santa Fe one of America’s coolest cities. Even better than Atchison or Topeka… we think.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com