There are only a handful of places in America that offer the enchantment of far away or long ago, somewhere with the ability to transport travelers to exotic lands without ever leaving the country. Only St. Augustine and Jamestown can claim to be older, but we think none has preserved its heritage better than Santa Fe.
Founded in 1607, Santa Fe became Spain’s provincial capital for the Kingdom of New Mexico. For over four hundred years Santa Fe has served as the center of political power in the region and, as a Spanish colonial outpost, it was also the hub of religious activity.
Jump into a European village
Walking up to The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi we felt like we had somehow jumped across the Atlantic into a European village. A church has occupied this spot since the earliest days of Santa Fe, but in 1869 Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy intentionally built the new Cathedral in the old world style so that it would stand out from the surrounding adobe buildings.
Getting better with age
Though there has been a church on this site for over four hundred years, it is not the oldest one in Santa Fe. That honor belongs to the nearby San Miguel Mission, which is not only the oldest in town, but is recognized as the oldest church in the United States. Yet neither of these may be the most interesting church in the historic center of town.
Climb the magic staircase
That distinction falls to the Loretto Chapel and the Inexplicable Stairs that lead up to the choir loft. Legend has it that when the chapel was built Monks used ladders to reach the loft, but since the chapel was for nuns, a staircase was needed. Conventional stairs would take up nearly half the space in the little chapel, so the nuns decided to pray for some divine assistance. Days later, a mysterious man with a few simple tools appeared and informed the sisters that he could fashion a suitable staircase, but he must be left completely alone.
After three days, he finished the stairs and disappeared without asking for payment. Nobody knew who he was or where he went, and the nuns supposed that the carpenter must have been St. Joseph sent in answer to their prayers. Claims were also made that the design of the staircase was a miracle in itself, defying the laws of physics. Though there is evidence that the reality may be somewhat less mystical, the staircase is truly magical.
Walk around the Plaza
The activity of the city, especially for visitors, still revolves around the original Plaza. This classic town square, with the usual benches, trees, monuments and a gazebo, is surrounded by centuries old adobe buildings. Artists and craftsmen still come every day to display their wares in a colorful hodgepodge of pottery, jewelry, blankets, paintings and rugs in front of The Palace of the Governors.
Older than the United States
Photo by Granger Meador
Although it is no longer the seat of government, the old palace still occupies the entire north side of the plaza. This is the oldest public building in the United States, dating back to 1610. By modern, or even contemporary European standards, this sprawling one-story adobe residence would hardly qualify as a palace, but in the frontier desert it stood out as some pretty deluxe digs. For your own deluxe digs, be sure to stay at the beautiful Encantado resort.
Albert Einstein’s Santa Fe digs
Photo by Chad Vespers
After circling the square we grabbed a spot on a bench, possibly one that Albert Einstein sat on while staying at the La Fonda Hotel during his time working on the atomic bomb at the nearby Los Alamos laboratory.
A haven for artists
Photo by Kent Kanouse
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe spent her summers at the Ghost Ranch just north of town, where she found inspiration in the scenery. Her work lives on at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum just off the plaza. She wasn’t the only one to be captivated either, right across the street we found another gallery that completely brought back the Saturday-morning-cartoon-watching kids in us, The Chuck Jones Studio. The local landscape inspired Chuck Jones to create The Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote while living in Santa Fe, and the gallery brings these, and many other Looney Tunes legends to life. Many of his original drawings and acetate cells from the classic Warner Brothers shorts are on display, along with much of his whimsical work with Dr. Seuss.
In fact, our old childhood friends have become such a part of the community that commuters ride the Rail Runner back and forth between New Mexico’s capital and its biggest city every day… hopefully without taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Beep-beep.