Santa Fe’s vibrant culture offers much to explore

August 23, 2009 

SANTA FE, N.M. — This Labor Day, while the rest of the country enjoys a weekend of revelry, the people of Santa Fe will begin a celebration that will last a bit longer.

Labor Day weekend in Santa Fe, the oldest city among the nation’s state capitals, will kick off a yearlong celebration of its 400th anniversary.

The city’s story began long before 1609, however. Pueblo Indian villages dotted northern New Mexico as early as the 11th century, and the Spanish began exploring the area about 1515, when Francisco Coronado came in search of gold. He found none, but that didn’t stop him from claiming the land for Spain.

White settlers began pouring down the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s, and in 1848, the United States gained control of the New Mexico Territory from Mexico. New Mexico was a territory until 1912, when it became the 47th state. This brief history is an attempt to explain why Santa Fe (which means “holy faith”), with its colorful history and vibrant culture — a melding of American Indian, Hispanic and Anglo — is one of the most fascinating cities in America.

For starters, there’s its location, 7,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Then there’s the unusual architecture: low-style adobe buildings, ranging in color from pale rose to deep ochre. Finally, there’s Santa Fe’s unique regional flavor.

One of the city’s most famous culinary attractions is the nationally acclaimed Santa Fe School of Cooking. The school’s Cuisine and Culture Walking Tour exposes participants to New Mexico’s flavorful cuisine as influenced by its mix of cultures. Our group started at the cooking school building and followed chef Rocky Durham on a progressive tour of four hot spots — three restaurants and a museum — where we sampled some of the most delicious food Santa Fe has to offer.

The first stop was the courtyard of Los Mayas, where, over daiquiris and a guitar serenade, owner Fernando Trillo explained the differences between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. Next up was the Museum of Native Contemporary Arts and a dish of yellow corn tamales with pork and red chili sauce. Then it was on to La Boca for seared tuna tapas. The last stop was the renowned Coyote Cafe, where chef/owner Eric DiStefano offered tempura soft-shell crab with saffron polenta, wasabi frise and lime aioli.

On my last day in Santa Fe, it seemed only fair to balance the previous day’s activity with leisurely­pursuits.

My destination was the El Dorado Hotel’s Nidah Spa for its signature turquoise gem massage. A version of a hot stone massage, it draws on the culture, traditions and ingredients of the Southwest.

Instead of using any old rocks, the therapist places warm turquoise stones at each of the body’s five chakras, or energy points. If you’re a nonbeliever in New Age philosophy, let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better than when I got off that massage table. That feeling of well-being continued for the rest of the day.

Gazing up at the New Mexico sky, which I have always thought was colored by the bluest crayon in the box, I couldn’t help but wish I was going to be around for Santa Fe’s big 400th-birthday bash.

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