By Vincent J. Schodolski, Chicago Tribune.
TAXCO, MEXICO — After driving across the hot plain that stretches south from Cuernavaca, through the flat fields of corn, then up the winding mountain roads, the first sight of Taxco might make you think you`d taken a wrong turn and arrived in Europe.
Gazing out over the orange tile roofs and church spires of this spectacularly beautiful colonial town, you might very well think you were in Tuscany, or southern France
The narrow cobblestone streets, the graceful central plaza dominated by the rose colored baroque facade of the church of Santa Prisca does little to dispel the illusion. The dark, comfortable restaurants, the cafes, the central food market and the neat, small hotels don`t help either.
If the mood gets too strong, however, some very authentic parts of Mexico are nearby, and with Taxco as a base for a day or two, driving through the area is a pleasant way to get a feel for the complexities and contrasts that are part of modern Mexico.
Cuernavaca might be a more logical place to stay on a drive from Mexico City to Acapulco, but a stop in Taxco and a little back-tracking could prove more satisfying.
The drive from Mexico City to Taxco takes about three hours, and except for the last 30-minute climb up to Taxco the roads are well-engineered and well-maintained two-lane highways.
Part of the reason the road from Mexico City is so good is that a number of important government ministers and influential businessmen still have weekend homes in the Cuernavaca area.
Leaving Mexico City at mid-morning, staying on Route 95 and bypassing the center of Cuernavaca, you could be in Taxco by the Mexican lunch hour, which starts around 2:30 p.m. and continues until 5 p.m.
Once in Taxco, there is a wide choice of hotels and dozens of charming restaurants.
By Mexican standards, it is not cheap. Rates at the top of the line Monte Taxco start at $90, on top of which the standard 15 percent value added tax must be tacked.
The De la Borda is slightly less expensive, averaging $70 to $90. Further down the line is the Posada de la Mision at $40 to $70.
None of the rates include meals.
Once in Taxco, you can park your car and leave it because the narrow, crowded streets that wind through the town make driving far more trouble than it`s worth.
Compared with some of the nearby towns and villages, Cuernavaca included, Taxco was a wealthy place largely from the silver industry that grew up here in the 18th Century. The hills onto which the town has nestled are rich with ore that was exported to Spain.
Jose de la Borda was one of the founders of the industry and with part of the profits from a single mine, San Ignacio, he built the church of Santa Prisca between 1748 and 1758.
The place is baroque with the flair of Indian artistry that characterizes much of Mexican colonial architecture. The rose facade explodes around the center medallion above the doors that depicts the baptism of Christ. Mosaics of blue and white tile cover two of the cupolas.
Inside there are ornate, gold leafed altar pieces that soar to the ceiling inset with dozens of statues.
Santa Prisca dominates the skyline, but silver once dominate the economy in town.
In the 1930s, a Canadian named William Spratling was instrumental in attracting artists and craftsmen to Taxco with the idea of using some of the silver produced in the area to make items for local consumption.
Spratling developed his own style of design and some of it can be seen in a small museum just behind Santa Prisca.
Almost every street is lined with silver shops offering everything from tiny earrings to elaborate candelabra at prices that compare well to those in most major U.S. cities. In some cases they`re 35 to 50 percent below what they`d fetch in New York or Chicago.
Some caution should be taken, however, since not all that glitters in Taxco is silver.
Most of what is on sale is pure sterling silver. By law all such items must be marked with the crest of an eagle, the number and initials of the jeweler and the number 925.
Silver plated items, which abound, do not carry such markings and some items carry markings clearly designed to look like the official designations, but which on close inspection are not.
Some of these are items, known locally as “alpaca,“ contain only 25 percent silver.
With a little care, however, quality items can be purchased at good prices, although merchants do not bargain.
Like most Mexican cities, towns and villages, Taxco radiates from a central square, called the Zocalo.
Diagonal to Santa Prisca on the square is del Angel Inn, a pleasant restaurant where a meal can be had for $15. It is a pretty place with charming views.
A traveler could do justice to Taxco in a full day and once convinced that Mexico is nothing but a piece of Europe plopped down in the Americas, could move on for a dose of reality.