Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cruising the Castle's interior

Last Tuesday was the anniversary of the heroic defense of Chapultepec Castle by the Niños Heroes on September 13, 1847.  Though an important event which has shaped Mexico's thought, there are many more reasons to visit that historic place.  

The hill on which the Castle is built was known as Grasshopper Hill, sacred to the Aztecs, a favorite retreat of their emperors; its spring a source of water for Tenochtitlan, later to be Mexico City. Mexicans use the Nahuatl derived word for grasshoppers -- chapulin; hence Chapultepec -- rather than the Spanish saltamontes -- hill jumper.  

In 1785 Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez built what was to be the first component of a sprawling Castle that has grown as it has gone through different uses.  During two extended periods it housed the Military Academy; for more than 50 years the Presidential residence, and since 1944 the National History Museum.  

Despite the Castle’s extensive history, it has become identified with French imposed Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta even though Maximilian did not build the Castle and only lived there a brief two years. Chapultepec is the only Royal Castle in North America used to actually house sovereigns.

In keeping with Mexico's museumography the displays are excellent and follow a theme.  Once inside the building you'll choose a route to follow.   One area contains National History exhibits.  As to be expected there are swords and military uniforms, but exhibits of historical periods also go into surprising depth. Murals by O’Gorman, Orozco, and Siquieros are history lessons in themselves.  Another route takes you through the living quarters portion of the Castle looking northeast along Paseo de la Reforma.  As palatial as any European castle, and kept in excellent condition, the rooms are decorated as they were by different occupants.  Some are as Maximilian and Carlotta may have used them, others furnished as they were when Porfirio Diaz lived in them; the last room is furnished as it was under President Lazaro Cardenas.  Cardenas felt it inappropriate for a revolutionary president to be living in such opulence and moved the official residence to Los Pinos, also located in Chapultepec Park.   

Over the years The Castle has gained prestige as a setting for dialog.  Is the open feeling of the glass enclosed space with the buffering effect of the forest and the secure feeling at the top of the promontory conducive to understanding?  The 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accord put an end to the civil war in El Salvador.  This year meetings have been hosted in the Castle for dialog between the movement headed by Javier Sicilia and the highest ranking members of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. 

Most visitors walk a wide path that spirals around the hill and soon has them above tree level looking out over Chapultepec forest, the largest urban park in Latin America.   A few visitors with special needs or VIP status are allowed to ride the elevator from the base of the hill and step out inside the Castle at the top. 

I rode that elevator once -- in the company of a U.S. high-school student with extensive knowledge of the 1846-47 war and a desire to see the parapet where Juan Escutia jumped to his death.  Remembering my previous visit on a windy day, when the French doors in the residential palace area were banging between the walls and the ends of chains attached to their doorknobs, we took forty rubber doorstoppers purchased from a street vendor on Tacuba street.  Once inside the building I asked to see the director of the museum.  "Not available," we were told, "perhaps later."  Upon finishing our visit I asked again and got the same reply.  I told the security guard I'd try another day, and that the reason for my query was to make a gift to the museum. 

Benjamin Weems, his aunt and I proceeded to walk down the long exit path.  Just as we reached the bottom a guard came running down the walkway calling after us.  In the absence of the Director, the Administrator would see us!  We were hustled, like dignitaries, through a tunnel, to the elevator, escorted by two guards to the Administrative Offices.  Perhaps they thought I had a valuable artifact to contribute.  I suddenly was struck by the possibility the administrator might think my doorstops irreverent or worse, irrelevant and a waste of his time.   With some trepidation we were ushered into the presence of the Administrator where I had to finally open my bag and present my matching rubber doorstops.  I was afraid that what had seemed like such a wonderful idea would appear to be mere silliness.  

The Administrator betrayed neither amusement nor annoyance.  He expressed appreciation and charmingly explained that rubber doorstops, made in China, would not be in keeping with 19th century doors; he agreed that something along their lines was necessary and graciously accepted our gift. 

Benjamin maintained perfect decorum until we were once again descending the walkway and were out of earshot of the guards.  The three of us broke into relieved and sustained laughter.  Since then we have referred to this visit as the Doorstop Caper.

I highly recommend a visit to this enchanting Castle.  If you go, please let me know if rubber doorstoppers are in place, or even better a 19th century rendition.

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