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On Guadalajara's outskirts: colonial town known worldwide for pottery provides glimpnto Mexico's glorious past.

Few sights are as arresting as a village of colonial buildings rising out of the urban sprawl of Guadalajara. Shaking off the modern world of Wal-Marts, motels and franchise food chains, a slice of centuries-old Mexico emerges as the road winds through industrial landscapes and congested thruways.

Tlaquepaque may look like something one would see in the countryside outside Madrid or Barcelona. But this enclave of world-renowned artisans and superb handicrafts is as much at home in Jalisco as tequila and mariachis.

This energetic pocket of Mexican culture was once called Tlacapan, which translates as "men who make clay utensils with their hands." It borders the municipalities of Tonala to the north and Guadalajara and Zapopan to the south.

Tlaquepaque is famous for its high-quality crafts and attracts connoisseurs from around the world. Especially coveted are the hand-decorated ceramics (it's considered the leading center of pottery production in the country) and the blown glass, which is worked in the classical way. Maestros deftly convert it into Tlaquepaque's signature red water glasses plus dishes and decorative figures of animals and people in contemporary design.

Metalworkers use bronze, tin and brass to create lamps, candelabra, picture frames and other home accessories as well as imposing sculptures.

FIRE UP THE KILN AND GLAZE ME

Perhaps the breadth of the ceramic industry can best be appreciated by a visit to the Museo Regional de la Ceramica founded in 1954 by the National Indigenous Institute in a neoclassical house that dates to the colonial era. The museum exhibits the seven different types of clay used by local craftsmen that is exclusive to the Tlaquepaque area.

Bandera, which means "flag" in Spanish, is the first and so named because it has the green-red-and-white colors of the Mexican flag. Canelo is cinnamon-colored and the most popular and used mainly for water jugs since it's good for keeping liquid cool. Petatillo is distinguished by tightly drawn lines painted across the vessel and embellished by images of flowers and animals but it's so labor intensive, it's rarely used today. A giant urn can take up to three years to complete.

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Alta clay is fired at intensely high temperatures of over 1,100 degrees Celcius, and the technique was developed by the late American ceramist Ken Edwards. Brunado is not fired, but instead polished with pyrite when it's dry. Betus clay is painted with colors made from plants and flowers. Engregado objects have a special varnish that make them useful for cooking, the varnish acting like a coating of Teflon that prevents food from sticking when heated.

A colorful bit of history says that one of the owners of the house was known around town as Burro de Oro (Gold Donkey) because of the wealth he amassed from a gold mine. He had 50 wives at the same time all over Mexico, and, as the story goes, he dressed them all alike. A supporter of Maximilian, the Gold Donkey supposedly invited the ill-fated emperor to his home and had 100 seamstresses sew a tarp several miles long to shade the Hapsburg's path to his door. The emperor never showed up.

Tlaquepaque's creative expression can best be seen in its galleries. Not far from the museum is the Sergio Bustamante Gallery, an explosion of color in an exquisitely decorated showroom. Owned by one of Tlaquepaque's most famous sons, Bustamante shot to fame with his whimsical, surreal sculptures and his galleries now span the globe. Besides the sculptures, the gallery showcases his engaging silver and gold jewelry, elegant custom-designed furniture and paintings by other artists.

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STROLLING WITH A COP

Tlaquepaque is not only a place to shop but also a destination steeped in history. The local tourism office employs bilingual tourist police. My tour guide was officer Rogelio "Obed" Reyes Cano.

We met under the arcade outside City Hall in the historic center of town. Taking a brief swing inside, I admired the vivid mural painted by Camilo Rodriguez, which depicts the history of Tlaquepaque starting with the Indian artisans who populated the area. It was founded in the 13th century and had around 2,000 inhabitants when the first Spanish conquistador, Nuno de Guzman, arrived three centuries later.

To the left of City Hall stands El Parian, a famous dining spot that opened in 1878 as a marketplace. Today, it features gorgeous Mexican tile, local cuisine, live mariachis and the biggest bar in the world, according to Reyes Cano. It's always packed for lunch, which is served around a veranda in an open courtyard.

The man behind El Parian, a prominent figure who repeatedly pops up in the history of Tlaquepaque, is Fray Luis de Arguello. According to legend, the 19th century Franciscan monk became gravely ill and prayed to the Virgin of Lourdes for salvation, promising to dedicate his life to good works if he recovered. Miraculously, he survived and kept his promise by seeing to the collection of funds for the building. El Parian served the city as a market for 100 years before being converted into a restaurant.

JEWELRY AND GENERALS

El Parian and City Hall both front Calle Independencia, a pedestrian avenue lined with art galleries, high-end boutiques and outdoor stalls selling inexpensive handmade leather and embroidered goods, jewelry and toys. The avenue borders the six square blocks that make up the historic quarter of the city. Most of quarter's 150 shops, especially those along Independencia, are housed in converted mansions, former summer homes of wealthy 19th century families from Guadalajara.

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The tree-lined El Jardin Hidalgo lies across the street from El Parian and displays a statue of Father Miguel Hidalgo, a hero of Mexican Independence, who passed through the town with a 6,000-man army. A few blocks away, Nuestra Senora de Soledad church, a Neoclassic Byzantine building, also owes its existence to Fray de Arguello, who built it in 1878. The philanthropic monk is buried beneath it.

The 250-year-old Casa Historica is where generals Agustin Iturbide and Pedro Celestino Negrete. Mexican and Spanish commanders, respectively, signed the Plan de Ayala ending the War of Independence. It was a typical mansion of the era with 28 rooms and several patios and was used as a military barracks. Today, part of it has been sectioned off as a gallery, specializing in beautifully detailed miniatures of nativity scenes and mariachi bands, among others.

The Centro Cultural El Refugio is by far the largest building in Tlaquepaque, covering an entire city block. The former 550-room hospital for the homeless was built in 1859 with the backing of Fray de Arguello. It now showcases the creations of contemporary local artisans like Pantaleon Panduro, who has a separate museum under its roof. Each year, El Refugio hosts the En Arte competition where artists who specialize in ceramics and metal vie for prizes. The winning pieces are later put on display here.

Whether it is award-winning pottery or the beautiful legacy of a monk, Tlaquepaque has a lot to offer visitors looking to take a trip beyond the colorless shopping centers of Guadalajara.

GUIDED TOURS

Bilingual tours can be arranged by calling the Tlaquepaque Tourist Office at least a day in advance at 3635-1220, ext. 104 or 116. The tours are free and last two to three hours. Tlaquepaque can be reached by taxi from downtown Guadalajara. A trolley running between downtown and Tlaquepaque is expected to begin operating this year.

Patricia Alisau is a travel writer who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She has written on travel in Mexico for years.

Story and photos by Patricia Alisau
COPYRIGHT 2004 American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico A.C.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Getaway
Author:Alisau, Patricia
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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