Visit Santa Fe, New Mexico

I would like to have met Alexander Girard.

He was a man who appreciated whimsy, as well as history and culture. This is evident in his vast personal collection, now on permanent display at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Quirky figures, busy street scenes, fanciful toys, miniature trains, bizarre masks, and fantastic puppets – from almost every part of the globe – fill the display cases. They offer a peek into the stories and customs of so many countries. 

Folk art speaks to the child in all of us, and exploring the maze of displays here, I find myself delighted and enchanted.

But it must be said that this vibrant museum reflects its home. Santa Fe is all about colour and culture and yes, even whimsy. 

This is, after all, the city which every Autumn celebrates the Fiestas de Santa Fe, starting with the burning of a giant effi gy of Zozobra – Old Man Gloom. The 50-foot, 2,000-pound marionette Zozobra is stuffed with divorce decrees, bankruptcy filings, tax receipts and other papers representing the woes of the past year. His name means anxiety and by burning him, people destroy those troubles in the flames. 

If only it were so easy!

But dispelling past woes may be how this city has survived for more than 400 years. Established in 1609, it is the oldest capital in North America. Early battles led to an alliance between the Spanish conquerors and Pueblo Indians. And in the 1800s, a third group joined the cultural mix. A stone memorial in the town centre marks the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Along it trekked English speaking settlers, hoping to build a new life here. 

This remarkable blend of Spanish, Anglo and Native traditions has resulted in a city whose roots remain firmly embedded in its history while celebrating the best of all these cultures. One result is that Santa Fe has become a formidable melting pot of artistic endeavour. 

The simple, flowing lines and dun brown of the traditional adobe style buildings may seem drab. But this is a city of colour, set in a landscape whose many hues often seem surreal. And it has become a Mecca for artists. 

Under the overhang of the Palace of the Governors, Native Americans sell extraordinarily detailed sand paintings in shades one never imagined could be found in nature. Others sell intricately wrought, turquoise studded jewellery and vivid blankets. Even a simple stroll past the shops around the central plaza is a mini art tour of paintings, sculpture, and traditional Pueblo pottery and crafts.

But nowhere is this artistic zeal more evident than along Canyon Road. A short distance from the town centre, this half mile seems to be the epicentre for galleries, shops and the artists who fill them. Whimsical or grand, large and small, this short street’s exhibits could rival the world’s best galleries of contemporary art. It’s almost artistic overload!

And here, as everywhere in Santa Fe, the dun adobe is enlivened by ristras – ropes of drying red chillies hanging against the walls. These are not simply decoration, but a clever, colourful way to dry this essential ingredient of New Mexican cuisine. 

Indeed, thereby hangs a cautionary tale.

At The Shed, a classic Santa Fe restaurant, I unwittingly order Adovada – pork cooked slowly in red chili pepper sauce. Not unfamiliar with spicy food, I’ve happily sampled some of the zestiest cuisines in the world. But this dish leaves me gasping. 

Patently Santa Fe residents are asbestos tongued. They eat chillies at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and these little bombs of taste bud devastation are incorporated into everything from sauces and condiments to honey, jams and even marmalade! 

At the Inn of the Governors, my Del Charro margarita in the eponymous restaurant, has the classic rim of salt, augmented here with dried chillies. My dinner is Chili Rellenos – a huge, beer-battered chili pepper stuffed with black bean and corn relish and topped with a chipotle sauce. 

In fact, order almost anything and the waiter will ask, “Red or green?” He’s asking which chili sauce you prefer (the green is a little hotter). The locals will often reply, “Christmas.” That means both. There isn’t a term for ‘neither, thank you, I prefer to preserve what remains of my palate’.

I assume it’s going  to take several gallons of water to replenish the liquid dripping from my pores as I determinedly consume my adovada.

But surprisingly, after several bites, my taste buds are numb (with shock, one presumes) and I find myself enjoying my meal. Indeed, it’s well known that one becomes accustomed to the heat of chillies and can even crave them. But beyond the heat of a zesty, chili-laced dish, or the flames of Zozobra, Santa Fe offers warmth – friendly people who smile and stop to chat, music and art that speak to the heart, and a setting that fi lls the spaces in the soul.