This city may have an ancient spirit, but it also has plenty of Santa Fe sightseeing
Santa Fe, New Mexico, is more than a place. It is a spirit. Some say it is an energy that enters your soul and takes residence in your worldview as well as your inner vision. The town is a state of mind, a way of life more than a place to live. It’s a lifestyle, not a destination. This adobe city expresses the poetry that is Santa Fe, a language not spoken anywhere else in the country. People live here because they cannot imagine living anywhere else.
Everyone knows Santa Fe is synonymous with art, whether Southwestern, Native American or contemporary. It is no surprise that the city is the first in the country to be designated a UNESCO Creative City for Craft and Folk Art with 250-plus galleries. Rest assured, I’m not going to cover them all. For me, “The City Different” designation goes beyond that.
Let’s first dispense with the museums. No disrespect intended. The SITE Santa Fe Museum of Contemporary Art, The Museum of International Folk Art, the New Mexico History Museum, New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum plus so many others are indeed wonderful – each one warranting a visit.
Santa Fe is a haven for art
Every museum is an immersive emotional connection to whatever and whoever it is celebrating. Not to mention the hundreds of galleries proffering paintings and pottery. Travelers can find artworks and art wear as well as artifacts, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, and photography. Have I forgotten any form of artistic expression? There are galleries on steroids and shopping opportunities galore. Visit the Railyard Arts District, Canyon Road and, of course, all around the central plaza which forms the heart of the city.
The Loretto Chapel and its miraculous staircase
At this point, I am longing for some other type of attraction, some sightseeing stereotype. Fortunately, Santa Fe has those, as well. There are three very old structures, each sporting its own history and appeal. First, the Loretto Chapel, built in 1873 as the first Gothic, as opposed to adobe, structure west of the Mississippi. It is home to probably the most inspirational staircase anywhere.
Here’s the story: the architect building the church died before access to the choir loft could be constructed. The chapel was too small to allow for a traditional staircase. So, the nuns did what nuns do. They prayed to St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of Carpenters, for 9 days. After this time a carpenter appeared without any of the tools needed to build a staircase. Yet a spiral staircase, taking up little floor space, was built. Then the carpenter disappeared without thanks or payment.
It’s understandably known as the Miraculous Staircase. It is built with simple tools, wooden pegs and rare wood not native to the American Southwest. It turns two complete 360 degree turns with no center pole for structural support. The entire weight of the staircase rests on the bottom stair. I’m not knowledgeable enough to recognize the feat of engineering this required. However, I am discerning enough to delight in and be amazed by the story. Just the visual of the staircase itself is moving.
Native American and Spanish history abound in Santa Fe
Santa Fe boasts the Oldest House. By old, I mean really old, as its adobe foundation dates back to an ancient Indian Pueblo circa 1200. The museum itself is relatively new, as recent as 1646. Two rooms with even newer household artifacts from the 1800’s to 1900’s rest on part of the original foundation, conveying a sense of the family life that thrived back then. Not surprisingly, a sheaf of dried red peppers so prevalent in modern-day Santa Fe also make their appearance here; red chili peppers hang in historical perpetuity!
From the oldest house in the U.S. to the oldest Church – San Miguel Mission – and it’s still operating today. You’re probably beginning to pick up that I am more of a history buff than art connoisseur… Santa Fe and the church were pretty much born in the same year – 1610 – and once again, the original foundation is still evident. A number of very old paintings flank the walls, but the most exciting feature is a large church bell sitting proudly behind the mission pews with its own fascinating history dating back to 1356. Now that’s impressive!
The chapel, the church, and the house are all situated on the Santa Fe Trail – its own historic landmark — which in 1821 connected Missouri and New Mexico, heralding a decades-long period of trade, adventure and western mobility unheard of before in the new nation. The historic trail ends in the Santa Fe Plaza, which forms the heartbeat and soul of the city.
The multifaceted Santa Fe Plaza forms the heart of the city
There, many Native Americans gather to sell their wares daily alongside the Palace of the Governors. Upon entering the city, we spotted decorative Native symbols on a bridge, heralding an immediate connection with Native American history and culture. That never dissipates, and, indeed, permeates every facet of the city.
As a Washington, DC, resident, I was amused to see a Redskins cap on the head of one of the vendors. When I mentioned the controversy surrounding the name – many claim it is culturally derogatory – he proudly said, “I am a Redskin,” alluding to a lot more than the football team. As for those who object? “That’s only East Coast lawyers wanting to make money,” he asserted. We left with a hearty, “Go Redskins,” having brought all the history of Santa Fe into the modern era! Native American culture comes full circle! And, oh yes, there is also art!
For more information, visit https://santafe.org. Photos © Victor Block.
Editor’s Note: One of my favorite spots in Santa Fe is with the Seret Family. They have created a wonderful store, Seret and Sons, with extraordinary rugs, fabrics, beadwork, ceramics, and other items from the ‘stans — Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The store and its collection of Asian architectural elements are worth the trip to Santa Fe if only for the wonder it invokes. (In fact, Disney’s Imagineers came here for inspiration and assistance in creating part of their Animal Kingdom park.)
If you have the where-with-all you should splurge and stay at the Inn of Five Graces. It has been selected by Travel and Leisure Magazine as the best small hotel in the world. Built into a series of ancient adobe huts, the hotel wraps its guests in luxury, colors, woodworking details, and sumptuousness of the Asian steppes. Lodging here is a unique experience. [Charlie Leocha]
Fyllis Hockman is a multi-award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 30 years — and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles appear in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. When not traveling, she is almost as happy watching plays or movies, working out and sitting on a barstool next to her travel-writing husband.