Tag Archives: Catholicism

Sacro Monte + Villa Crespi, Orta San Giulio

Adam Huggins ascends into heaven, Orta San Giulio

From Piazza Motta, a cobbled street leads uphill to a sunflower-hued church. Rising from the church’s apex is a statue of Christ, who is flanked by two angels. His arms are open, his head is back, and he is facing the lake. Below him is a faded fresco so in need of restoration that it accurately depicts nothingness.

This is clearly a corner of Italy that has yet to benefit from the restoration industry that decorates much of the country’s skylines with cranes. In the basilica on the island, it was depressing to see how many frescos were etched with the initials and graffiti of assholes. It was art desecration. Vandalism. And it had been done most likely by tourists, judging by the volume and off-the-cuff, hurried nature of each scribe. Someone’s initials here, profanities there. You’d expect this sort of thing on a big oak in a city park. But on a 14th century masterpiece? What possesses people? Continue reading

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To the Island: Isola San Giulio, Italy

Boat and Isola San Giulio seen from Orta San Giulio, Italy

I have been a firm believer that a landscape is at its most aesthetically pleasing when its left untouched. But the Italians have truly challenged this notion for me. Throughout the country beautiful hills, idyllic lakes, rugged coastlines and verdant plains are rendered even more photogenic by old buildings, artful decay and pastel colors. Continue reading

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10 Must-See Churches in Italy

(Click on photos for a larger view)

Tanager Photography is temporarily grounded (i.e. the baby is due in less than three weeks), so I figure a retrospective is in order — how about the most spectacular churches in Italy?

Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments box, or suggest ones I missed. Keep in mind a few things: these are from a non-Catholic, non-historically significant, photographer’s standpoint. My criteria was a simple scale of how blown away I was by each church. Also, I intentionally left St. Peter’s Basilica off the list because technically it is in the Vatican.

1. Duomo di Siena

In one of the few cities in Italy where the main piazza is crowned by a town hall instead of a cathedral, the Duomo of Siena still manages to stand out as Italy’s most majestic church. Composed of alternating stripes of black and white marble and situated at the crown of the city’s hill, Il Duomo is a riot of medieval art, storytelling mosaics and hallowed spaces. Of particular note: Pisano’s ridiculously elaborate pulpit (above right), Bernini’s ecstatic St. Jerome holding the cross like a cradled fiddle (top left), a floor mosaic depicting the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a painted dome that creates an optical illusion of the three-dimensional heavens (above right). This church is a mind blower.

2. Pantheon, Rome

My first stab at this list didn’t even include the Pantheon. Why? It’s not very churchy. In fact, it’s hard to figure out. From nearby Piazza della Minerva, it looks like nothing more than a massive, ancient turret. From the front, it’s portico of Corinthian columns looks more reminiscent of the Acropolis than any vestige of Christendom. And in fact, therein lies the rub. Built originally by Romans during the tenure of Hadrian in 124 AD, it was a tribute to the multiple deities of the day. Not until 609 AD was it converted into a Christian church, and fortunately, since then they’ve pretty much left this austere and daunting, perfectly symmetrical building as it was. At first blush, the Pantheon inspires a humanistic awe at how crafty the Romans were. But after an hour of watching the sun shaft that passes through the oculus move about the room, you can’t help but get the feeling that its God peeking in.

3. Basilica de San Francesco d’Assisi, Assisi

No word better describes Assisi than tranquil. Granted, I was there in early April, in the midst of constant rains and the renewal of spring. Summer may be a different story. Regardless of when you roll through this town, the Basilica de San Francesco d’Assisi is impossible to miss. Towering over the Umbrian valley, the cathedral that honors the town’s native son St. Francis — the patron saint of Italy, animals and the environment — is a massive complex, and somewhat contrary to the intimacy of the town. It is, in essence, a double-decker church. The Upper Basilica — which was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1997 but restored — is lavishly colorful, with richly detailed frescos by Giotto depicting the saint’s life. Underneath, the Lower Basilica is more somber, cold and bucolic, especially during a service, when chanting and hymns echo off its low-arched ceiling.

4. Basilica di San Marco, Venice

I have mixed feelings on Venice, particularly St. Mark’s Square. On the one hand are the hawkers of trinkets, the tourists feeding pigeons, the 6-Euro cappuccinos, the menus in 8 different languages. On the other hand, is the stout, gray onion-domed cathedral crowned with gold-winged angels and Byzantine mosaics. She’s like an old lady with too much jewelry, but you can’t help but love her anyway. Like Sophia Lauren, now that I mention it. The basilica is, in a word, ridiculous: from the length of the line to get in, to the amount of opulence the Venetians put into it to demonstrate their wealth. The ceilings, walls and arches of the interior are layered with gold tiles and mosaics depicting saints and the prophets, and its easy to fall under the spell of the cathedral’s radiance. Much of the church is filled with treasures the Venetians raided from elsewhere, including it’s namesake’s relics. Historically, its fascinating, but on a WWJD level … well, you decide.

5. Santa Maria d’Idris, Matera

Poles apart from the Pantheon, the Church of St. Francis and Basilica di San Marco, is Santa Maria d’Idris. Located in a small cave atop a rocky mount overlooking the grottos and canyon of Matera (upper right corner, above left photo), it is a strange, mystical, spooky place. This ancient city in Basilicata (it dates back to Paleolithic times — put that in your pipe and smoke it, Rome) has clusters of cave churches throughout the city limits, but this one is most memorable, in part because of its rocky mount location (it’s entrance takes in a beautiful 270-degree panorama of the city), and its labyrinth of meditation chambers, which are decorated with boldly colorful frescos in various states of decay. Looking like it was carved by hand out of the rock, Santa Maria d’Idris is imperfect and intimate, two traits missing in so many places of worship.

6. Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo), Florence

Intimacy was clearly never the intent of Florence’s massive duomo. No, this church was meant to send a message to other city-states, like Siena. Looming over the city center and seemingly peering into every alley, passageway and window in the city proper, it is one of those rare churches that’s actually a skyscraper. It’s interior includes an unforgettable and grotesque ceiling fresco by Vasari and Zuccaro, but is largely forgettable in comparison to the cathedral’s exterior circus of pink, green and white marble. A row of grim-faced saints on the facade point at patrons of the piazza, a once stern and effective reminder of morality no doubt, that has slowly been lost on the tourist licking their gelato at the Baptistery’s gate. But the truly moving element of this iconic cathedral is Brunelleschi’s dome. By the time it was conceived in the early 1400s, the formula for Roman concrete (the kind which made the Pantheon possible) was forgotten. So he just decided to make it of bricks instead — 4 million of them … without a crane.

7. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

Venice has a staggering amount of amazing churches, but after the Basilica di San Marco, the Frari Church is head and shoulders the standout. Not because of its exterior (which is actually quite drab) but because of the art it holds inside. Most famous may be Titian’s altarpiece, The Assumption, a fantastic portrayal of Mary’s Assumption to Heaven, surrounded by swirling angels and clouds. The church also houses Donatello’s John the Baptist, works by Bellini, several tombs (including Titian’s) and elaborate wood and gold choir stalls by Marco Cozzi.

8.  Santa Maria Assunta, Positano

OK. I’ll be honest. I barely peeked inside this church. I know, I know. How could it make the must-see list if all I’m basing it on is the exterior? Some roving journalist I am! But there’s something romantically delightful about this church. From my experience, no other church in Italy fits more perfectly into the landscape than this one. It appears to anchor Positano to the ground, as if its presence keeps this wildly gorgeous town from floating away. Secondly, it’s beautiful mosaic dome has grass and plants growing out of its clefts, a small detail that shows that all things — manmade or otherwise — are reclaimed by nature. And finally, spend a Sunday in Positano and you’ll see the locals flocking to church, a pleasant reminder that this is a living, breathing community after all — not just a tourist playground.

9. Chiesa dei Gesu, Rome

The mother church of the Jesuit Order is located a few blocks from the Coliseum, the Pantheon and the Forum. Talk about a long shadow. But that’s Rome. For us, the church was a quick stop en route to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the Pantheon at the insistence of my cousin, Nick, who lives in Ciampino and has been a Roman resident for years. The church is a neck craner, with the highlight being a spectacular ceiling fresco by Giovanni Battista Gaulli called Triumph of the Name of Jesus (above right). It’s the only ceiling I’ve ever wanted to stare at for an hour.

10. Duomo di Amalfi

The Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Amalfi exudes a rare elegance among large churches. Its 62 stairs spill like a waterfall from the zebra-striped and gold facade. It’s campanille is composed of multiple cylinders, a style I haven’t seen elsewhere. Considering that the church is in the middle of the spectacular Amalfi Coast, it’s an amazing convergence to see from the piazza below. Inside, Baroque and Romanesque elements combine beautifully, but the real story lies in the crypt. Here, supposedly, lie the bones of St. Andrew. How they ended up here is just one of those historical footnotes of Europe’s history. Like with other saints, his relics were transported, stolen and stashed all across the continent. St. Andrew mostly ended up here, where his bones were safely stored after the sacking of Constantinople in 1208.

Of course, there are a few honorable mentions:

And the one that got away: The Cathedral of Milan. A train strike kept us from spending any time in Milan, so we missed what is considered by many to be one of the most spectacular Gothic churches on earth. Perhaps another time.

Alright, if you’ve been: what did I miss?

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Mexico Travelogue (Part 10): The Funeral

2009-04-10San-Miguel-8017Somewhere, buried in the emotions and endurance of Holy Week’s brutal processions was a story angle. A child walking in their first parade, an old centurion wearing his Roman helmet and armor for the 40th straight year, a devout gringo who signed on and was carrying a shrine to St. Peter. I wanted to know about them, understand them and retell their story in some way.

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But as the stream of parishioners flowed out of Oratorio de San Felipe Neri into San Miguel de Allende’s streets, it was clear that I was only going to encounter these personal tales on the surface. I was wedged between a hulky teenager and a posse of expat Texas housewives at a nearby intersection, legs locked, with little mobility, and, oh yeah, little command of Spanish. The writer in me would never get to the bottom of these stories. I was merely an observer with a 200mm lens.

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This was to be the ultimate spectacle of the week: the funeral procession of the savior. Hundreds of the faithful dressed in all black, or in the garb of period piece re-enactment, waltzing somberly to the slowest drumbeat on Earth. After high noon’s broiling crucifixion ceremony, standing through five more hours of slow-motion walking might sound like torture, but it wasn’t. All I can say is that sometimes the mystery of something can captivate you so much that time, bloodless legs and cooking skin are rendered insignificant.

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“You’ve found the best spot in all of San Mee-gul. How’d ya know?” asked one of the Texans. She had bleach-blonde hair that was tamed into a bob by what could only be called an ample amount of hair spray.

“I guess its because we came early and scouted where we wanted to be,” I remarked.

“Well, you’ll get great pictures from here. I do every year, but you’ve got a better camera.” It’s true, I did, but I was paying for it with a spine that had been twisted severely from the awkward weight of my camera bag and its multitude of lenses. Such is the price of devotion to a hobby.

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Then again, my devotion was nothing by comparison. Take for instance, the women in black. Caught between the need to dress sufficiently dark and somber, and the need to look graceful, many of them shouldered the weight of the massive altars on top of severe, four inch heels. The simple physics equation of doing so — on cobblestones no less — befuddled Hailey.

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As the minutes passed, I came to realize that we may have had the best spot in the city for viewing the procession. It hung a sweeping left turn in front of us, affording a 270-degree view as it went by. An hour into the parade, the sun passed low enough down the street to allow for amazing backlighting conditions. Flooded with sun, my 24mm, 50mm and 200mm lenses were capturing an ethereal light that washed the images with warmth.

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Nothing was done the easy way during Holy Week. Midway through, music was provided by an actually orchestra, who carried their instruments — from flutes to timpanis — through the streets. Eventually, the casket and shrine of Christ — a massive 10-foot tall structure of wood, brass, glass, plaster and flowers — was ushered through the crowd by 20 men.

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We were 100 yards from the starting and ending point of the procession — the Oratorio San Felipe Neri — and after the casket and shrine to Christ passed, the corridor of people dispersed and reorganized to accommodate the parade’s return. Just as they did, the front of the snaking procession (pictured below) appeared down the street in the late evening light.

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By now, we were three and a half hours in, and somehow, someway, each character in the procession remained true to their part, even the children.

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We stayed until nightfall — five total hours — and quietly watched as the casket and shrine of Christ passed through a corridor of lit lanterns. The crushed plants that the angels had sprinkled on the pavement (a mixture of herbs and daisies) were scattered across the cobbles, a pleasing but biting smell of tarragon hanging in the air. But as the parade rounded the last turn to head back into the church, a cleaning crew — an army of sweepers and blowers positioned in a V formation around a sanitation truck — turned the tranquil, meditative street into a buzzing dustbowl. Good Friday had come to a close.

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Mexico Travelogue (Part 9): Moment of Surrender

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{Note: I have created a slideshow of the best images from Good Friday on my portfolio website. Please visit, and let me know your impressions. Critiques are welcome in the comments box below}

Just outside San Miguel de Allende lies a village named San Luis Rey, where the Passion is enacted with such brutal devotion on Good Friday, they actually tie three men to crosses and hang them up in the hot sun. Such is the intensity of faith in this part of Mexico.

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But in San Miguel de Allende, it was appearing that Good Friday was just as much a spectacle for visitors as it was a community event. What had seemed like a sleepy hamlet in the middle of nowhere on Monday, had by Friday become the center of attention. El Jardin — the charming tree-lined square set underneath La Parroquia — was swarming with Mexicans on vacation, gringos clammering for a spot on the parade route, and Indian women aggressively selling dolls. By the time the procession began to flow from the stairsteps of La Parroquia, the hot April sun was directly overhead, the makings of a sunburn and a brain-boiling headache underway.

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A steady drumbeat once again set the even and slow pace. Women in all black lead with a large altar bearing a sculpture of Mary, followed by a small boy in a purple tunic carrying a skull. More children followed, dressed as angels or wisemen with beards painted across their cheeks, and then the centurions — the brutish, stone-faced warriors who were so effectively played by the men of the town. They marched with a swagger and a touch of subtle arrogance, as if they were the embodiment of man’s flawed sense of justice.

Pontius Pilate emerged, a sneer spread across his face as the hot wind blew his white cape. He lurched from step to step, stopped, produced a microphone, and read the death sentence of Christ to the hushed crowd.

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As the drum beat picked up and the procession threaded through the streets, barefoot men in purple robes with thorny crowns followed in twos bearing large wooden crosses, and just beyond them…

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…two shirtless men, tied to posts with nails dramatically positioned as if they’d been nailed through their palms. These were the two thieves who had been crucified alongside Christ, and they were covered with rusty paint to signify their profuse bleeding.

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Two centurions handled them with a taunt rope, and occasionally would unleash a ghastly flog across the men’s back. The audience gasped in horror, an exasperation of disbelief that these men were actually being whipped. Despite all of the gringo tourists (and I do not pretend that I was not one of them), Good Friday would not resign itself to a quaint cultural festival. This was the supreme sacrifice, a moment of deep meaning and transcendence, and by reenacting the cruelty of their savior’s death, these people were somehow closer and more intimate with his suffering. It was a level of devotion that was all at once remarkable and rare.

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The thieves were followed by a richly decorated altar of Christ carrying the cross, and then more figures on more altars — St. Peter, Mary Magdalene, Joseph — each weighing a few hundred pounds and bearing the scent of lilies. Scattered girls dressed as angels dropped herbs and petals on the streets. It was a beautiful set of contrasts and juxtapositions. Pain, suffering, death. Beauty, rebirth and fragility.

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The parade redefined our notions of endurance; we had thought we were enduring physical distress just by standing, locked legs, in the 100-degree heat. As the parade tapered off, we ducked back into El Jardin’s shade and I quickly deleted images I knew were no good. A blocked face here, an out-of-focus subject there. In a mere 45 minutes I had fired off 300-some shots.

As the procession circled back to the square, we headed back out into the sun and found a prime viewing spot for its return. The procession’s players were looking exhausted: the angels seemed restless, the men behind their fake beards were clearly melting, and the barefoot devotees who had carried their crosses through town for 90 minutes looked utterly spent.

And then again, there were the two thieves — one looking down the whole time, the other gazing into the distance. A centurion flogged the older of the two, who winced and then returned to his far-off gazing. Guilt spread on the centurion’s face, a moment of humanity in a role of utter brutality.

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Mexico Travelogue (Part 6): Scenes from Holy Wednesday

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Miercoles Santo (Holy Wednesday) was when things in San Miguel de Allende became a great deal more serious. We had known that there would be special masses to commemorate los matines de tinieblas (loosely translated in our guidebook as “the vespers of darkness”) followed by a spectacular procession in the evening. From a photography perspective, it would serve as a warm-up to the main event: Good Friday. I had never photographed a cultural procession quite like this one, with its requisite crowds, split-second moments and hard-to-anticipate movements.

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At 5pm, we entered El Jardin, the tree-lined main square that is set beneath the magnificent Gothic cathedral, La Parroquia. Like on previous evenings, children played with their cheap-thrill toys, mariachis entertained tourists, and old men sat on benches watching the world go by. Nothing unusual, but if anything, it was a bit more subdued than previous nights. And then the angels appeared — five-, six- and seven-year old girls dressed in white with purple ribbons in their hair and feathery wings bouncing on their backs. Some carried religious symbols while others sprinkled petals and tarragon-scented sprigs onto the cobblestones.

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They were followed by the Roman centurions, a multi-generational group of men dressed in deep-red fabrics and bronze armor. One methodically beat a drum at his waist to give the parade a steady timing, his lips downturned in a kind of sadness you wouldn’t expect on the face of a warrior.

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The drummer was followed by a buffer of angels and then an altar of Christ, profuse with an elaborate bouquet of lilies. Purple and white confetti rained down from the balconies above, and while it looked like a celebratory spectacle, it was actually a somber and silent event, the only noises emanating from the thumping drum, the shuffling of footsteps and murmuring of prayers.

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Hailey and I were fortunate to be at the front of the parade where we could move, cross in front of it, try new angles and anticipate as many upcoming shots as possible (the same could not be said for Friday’s parades due to the huge increase in spectators).

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The route had begun at Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, a church that had actually seemed like the epicenter of the city during Holy Week. But as it moved through the cobblestone streets, it would stop at Stations of the Cross that had been sculpted into the city walls (above). Romans would stand stoically, girls would fidget with their clothes and smell the flowers from their basket, and a priest would read a passage into a microphone. Speakers would materialize, and the altar-bearers would catch their breath as wooden support stands would hold the weight of the massive icons.

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At one Station of the Cross, children dressed in silken robes of vibrant colors silently stood vigil, hand clasped in prayer, their eyes shifting between each other, the colorful procession standing by them, and the spectators. What did they think of all this? What did they feel? Among them were two toddlers (one of whom I’ve written about, Mexican Jer). One of them cried with confusion, the other plucked happily at his toes. The oldest girl (pictured above right) was a silent mother figure to the other children, leading by example, but fertively stealing glances at each one to make sure they were doing things properly. It was a very sweet scene, one that felt universal in its innocence, in its tradition. This was faith living on, moving forward, but also recalling the last few thousands of years — this was how it had passed from generation to generation.

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And I really don’t know what this guy’s story was. He emerged from a door, and while the priest spoke, he played his whistle and beat on his tourist drum. A man with a bicycle emerged from a door next to him, laughed at the scene, and then pushed his bike up the street as if these parades happened every day.

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Ultimately, the procession reached a chapel atop a hill. Prayers were read as the centurions led the angels and altar-bearers in a dramatic 180 turn at the foot of its steps. Steadily they pressed on, and brought them back into the heart of the city and into the dwindling daylight. A smiling boy sat on the chapel’s rooftop (pictured below), happy as humanly possible because he got to the ring the bell.

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And below the chapel, an angel who’d had enough.

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As the sun set and we broke off from the parade to find dinner, I could see what was happening to my perceptions. The next few days were going to forever mold my understanding of the Christian faith.

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Mexico Travelogue (Part 3): Palm Sunday

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There was a welcomed serenity to Guanajuato on the morning of Palm Sunday. The light was crisp, the air oddly still, and the few people who were out and about were headed to church.

The night before had been merry and raucous. Jardin de la Union was profuse with music as mariachis serenaded diners. At one restaurant, a single table was surrounded by a six-piece band, blaring trumpets, drum kit and all. I was getting the impression that this wedge-shaped plaza with tightly packed shade trees was always this cheerful.

Just steps away from the plaza we had dinner, and then made our way back to Hotel Antiguo Vapor, but found ourselves on the steps of Templo de San Roque watching another open-air baile folklorico performance. Guanajuato’s serendipity struck again, and its energy seemed to be ceaseless.

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But in the morning, things were refreshingly different. On the steps of Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato (which is fun to say backwards as fast as you can), men, women and children of all ages gathered and wove palms into beautiful crosses and Christian icons. We purchased one that incorporated rosemary, simply to fill our room with its wonderful scent. Two blocks away at Templo de la Compañia de Jesus, a teenage girl was selling incredible palm crucifixes, the chest and arms of Christ appearing like a braided helix of DNA. I bought one, not knowing fully what to do with it, and together we walked to breakfast at a subterranean restaurant called Papalotl, where they serve eggs scrambled in mole sauce with a side of fried plantains.

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Guanajuato in April is blazing hot, and our afternoons were consumed with napping or pursuing a cold cervaza. Palm Sunday, our last day in the city, proved to be no different. A one-hour siesta, a cold soak in the bathtub and then a late lunch (that also passed for dinner) at La Bottelita on Jardin de la Union. Tricked out in funky Mexican folk art and garish colors, the bar/restaurant was one big nonchalant fiesta. We ordered a molcajete filled with enough steak, chicken, chorizo, onion, jalapeño, nopal (cactus), and grilled pineapple to feed a six-piece mariachi band, and then opted for a tram ride back up to El Pipila for sundown.

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As we waited for the light to fade into blue hour — that magical time when a cityscape lights up but preserves its daytime colors — we heard an eruption of drums coming from the general direction of Templo de San Roque. Its acoustics moved through the winnowing streets below and echoed off the ravine walls of the city, and soon we could see a colorful parade leading past Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. A girl sat on a mule, altars covered with flowers were carried past, and a steady stream of young boys in shiny, colorful robes walked by. In the slanted evening light, it would have made for amazing photographs.

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But an hour later, I was happy we stayed put. Blue hour over Guanajuato was simply gorgeous.

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The Moment: Good Friday in San Miguel de Allende

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My impressions of Christianity will never be the same. Not after yesterday in San Miguel de Allende. Good Friday was marked by two vivid processions through the streets of this 400-year-old Mexican city. At noon, the Passion of the Christ was marked with a steady parade of Roman centurions, angels, and two men portraying the thieves crucified with Christ (pictured above). At dusk, a silent parade of some 2,000 mourners marked the funeral of Jesus Christ. It was stirring, graphic, and oddly foreign — odd in that I come from a “Christian nation” and have never seen such a display of devotion. Between the men being whipped shirtless in the streets, to the old women carrying massive altars of the saints that must have weighed at least 1,000 pounds, I have developed a whole new understanding of Christianity’s complexities, both spiritual and cultural.

I will do a whole blog post on the parades when we get back. For now, I just wanted to post one image that captures one moment in a more significant journey. Tomorrow is our last full day in San Miguel de Allende. Monday, we return.

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