Saturday, February 28, 2015


The real beauty of Merida is difficult to see or imagine by just walking the streets of the city. The flavor is there with the painted facades but the homes are all packed block by block like cans of sardines their windows shuttered and closed. Like Don Quixote it's not the outer shell, but the beauty that lies within.
Every Wednesday expat, Keith Heitke, conducts a tour of three separate and diverse homes in central Merida. He pulls from a catalogue of over twenty homes so the tour is never quite the same. If your stay in Merida overlaps more than one Wednesday you can do the tour again and again and see a different collection of homes each time. The tours originate from the Casa de Cultura. You don't need a reservation. You only need to show up prior to the 9:45am starting time. The Casa de Cultura has a small café where you can grab a coffee or dolce prior to the tours beginning. The Casa de Cultura was established by a local filmmaker and includes an enclosed outdoor cinema right out of the celluloid closet of Cinema Paradisio. The cost of the tour is two hundred pesos. The money is donated to a charity. You get to choose from three: an elder home, an educational opportunity for disadvantaged children or a fund to feed the many dogs that roam the city.
Keith begins the tour with a somewhat lengthy history of the city and description of the architectural heritage of Merida. The tour is a walking tour. Sometimes the tour is concentrated on homes that are virtually across the street from each other. In our case it seemed we walked from one side of the city to the other and then back again. We were lucky with the weather on the day we took the tour but it can get exceedingly hot in Merida. Bring a hat or an umbrella and some decent walking shoes if you intend to do the tour.
The three homes Keith chose for our tour couldn't have been more diverse. We started out with a home that was under construction. You began to wonder about the tour and the quality of what he was take you to see when inside the first home you had to climb over piles of rubble, debris and everything you touched was coated in a layer of limestone dust.
There had been some rain that morning leaving the streets outside glistening in a coat of rain. Inside the mix of our wet feet and the powder like dust left a Hansel and Gretel path of footprints throughout.
It was difficult, at first, to get a gage on the design intent of the owner. We began our tour in the front of the home. Most of the homes from this period were built with similar floor plans, very narrow long lots with a central courtyard. You entered through a pair of iron gates behind which was a set of doors. Guests would arrive by horse and carriage into this entry. It was sort of their version of our garage. It was the only way in and out of the home. Every casa was its own little fortress. The gates, doors and single entry were all for security. From there we were led into what we would call the parlor where our tour began. The room as in most homes here had very high ceilings presumably allowing the heat to rise above the heads of its occupants.
The floors in each room where tiled in a local flooring material called "Pasta". Made in molds from finely ground limestone, the tiles were then colored and baked. The density of the limestone made the tiles almost indestructible. The antique tiles have survived for centuries while new tiles continue to be made using the same process.
The detailing of the original molding is French while the new reproduction lighting is Moorish
and the new construction looks as if it's going toward a very stark modern aesthetic. Clearly they have a ways to go.
We traveled from a home in reclamation to one slowly falling into ruin. Once we entered into the large front room you knew you were in the presence of the sole of its owner. I felt like a surgeon pressing through her breastbone to get a look at her heart. The eighty-eight year old owner had lived her entire life in this house, as had her parents and their parents before her.
The stenciled art nouveau walls fading in shades of peach and pale blue hung with paintings purchased decades ago when the room welcomed visitors as the music of Mexican guitars played on well into the night.  
A lifetime of a former prosperity was on display stuffed into cabinets and nailed to the walls.
You knew that at some far off time this elderly woman had walked through the spice markets of Marrakesh as a little girl on the hand her mother or a maiden aunt.
The only thing remaining were the three front rooms, one containing her bedroom where tucked in the corner on a thrift store chair was a set of four dingy dolls that no one no longer played with.
Beyond the wall delineating the meager amount remaining of la senora's past was the rest of the building; a pile of rotted supports holding a corrugated roof over a dilapidated kitchen
and an open courtyard filled with broken concrete flamingos.
Here is where she sat during our tour, her son wearing a broad smile as all of us filed past thanking her for allowing us in as her guests. Her son tapping her on the shoulder as each of us walked by. With each tap she would raise her head and seem to brighten and nod in our general direction.
The last home on the tour looked depressingly the same from the outside but once inside you could smell the difference. The air wasn't choked with the dust of construction or laboring under the weight of eminent collapse but filled with the smell of a more complete and prosperous side of the Yucatan.
The home belonged to our guide and his partner, former New Yorkers, now living the good life in Merida.
Keith's partner, David Sterling, the chef and author of Yucatan: Recipes for a Culinary Expedition, had completely transformed a centuries old building into a modern day incarnation of hospitality Merida style.

The home flowed around an open central courtyard with a sparkling plunge pool.
Circling the courtyard and pool were two bedrooms with adjoining en suite bathrooms,
a huge study with a wall of books, the main entry room,
and a huge dining room with a hand-painted mural circling a dining table meant for twelve.
The focus of the house was the kitchen, the gourmet kitchen, a kitchen that doubled as a cooking school where tourists and expats learned the art of cooking Yucatan style.
The amazing part of their story, the part that made you want what they had, was the price: $40,000 spent on the shell of the building and then $250,000 spent on the renovation. That totals less than $300,000. I don't think there are many places in the United States that could match that bargain. The unfortunate part of this is you have to live in Merida with summer heat reaching one hundred and fifteen degrees. It was still tempting.

Paseo de Montejo is Merida's millionaire's mile. The avenue is lined with old money now mostly devoured by banks and industry and turned into offices and commercial space. A few homes remain in the hands of private owners but most have slipped from residences to alternative uses. One remaining home is the Quinta Montes Molina Mansion. Still owned and lived in (although infrequently) by the family that has had it for generations. The home is a mix of styles prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century. A grand staircase leads to a neoclassical entry, a hexagonal turret standing asymmetrically to its left.
While the current owner, a niece of the original owner's daughter, holds ownership she continues to allow tours to walk through the house even when her and her family are in residence. The main floor harbors a central hall flowing from front to back. The large doors at the front and the back are kept open allowing for a cooling breeze to whisper through the space.
A group of French architects were commissioned to design the space. Their influence can be seen in much of the ornamentation on the ceilings and dripping down to the cornices encircling many of the public rooms.
Tiffany was also popular at the time and any home of importance had to have at least one Tiffany inspired window added to their home.
The art nouveau movement went hand in hand with Tiffany. Much of the decoration in the home is representative of this fad from lamps and sculptures to the bedroom furniture.
With the humidity always present in this part of the world wallpaper was a luxury not even the rich could get to stick to their walls. To acquire that art nouveau flavor walls were painted and stenciled with designs of William Morris and Bradbury and Bradbury.
Cool marble floors run the length of the main hall and public spaces but the traditional pasta tiles add warmth to the family's sleeping quarters.
There's a tradition of sleeping in hammocks throughout the Yucatan and even in the most luxurious of homes there are the traditional wall hooks where most people chose to sleep even though conventional beds were offered as well. As tall as the mansion appears there is no second floor.
All of the homes main rooms remain on this one elevated floor. Underneath is where the servants live and work, still sleeping in hammocks, cooking in the kitchen and hand scrubbing the laundry in wooden tubs still used today.
With most cities what is opened up and put on display are the remains of its wealth, the homes and public buildings were money could buy style and importance. In Merida and its surrounding areas the majority of its architecture forms a patchwork quilt of the very poor.
As you push to the outskirts of Merida or take the opportunity to peek into the open windows of the city's side streets you'll see a world of tiny one room homes filled with multi-generational families eking out an existence without the benefit of electricity or even indoor plumbing. Some of these homes date back to the abodes of the original Mayans. These are one-room oval huts made of mud and limestone with a single door and a thatched roof. Wealth and poverty are more frequently separated. In Merida they can exist side by side. The contrast is sometimes hard to understand.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you had an interesting excursion. Enjoyed the stories and the pix.