Morelia, capital of the state of Michoacán, is a grand city, filled with well-maintained buildings dating back to the colonial era. The city was founded in 1541 and was originally known as Valladolid, after the Spanish birthplace of New Spain's first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza. In 1828, after independence from Spain, the name was changed to Morelia, in honor of José María Morelos, a resident of the city who became a general and hero in Mexico's War of Independence.
Most of the main buildings in the Morelia's historical district were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. In an effort to preserve the colonial look, the city even today requires that all new construction in the historical area conform to the early colonial style. But unlike some colonial cities (Guanajuato for instance) Morelia also enjoys wide boulevards that can accommodate even modern traffic, generous sidewalks that make it a pleasure to stroll throughout the city, a large central Plaza de Armas and several tree-filled parks.
Morelia's central plaza, the Plaza de Armas (also known as the Plaza de los Mártires, or Plaza of the Martyrs, in honor of rebel priests executed during the War of Independence), is a large, tree-filled park bustling with activity and a venue for cultural events. Along the eastern border stands Morelia's cathedral, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in Mexico. It took almost a century to build (from 1660 to 1744). While the exterior reflects a baroque style that is somewhat plain my Mexican standards, the cathedral's fine proportions give it a majestic air. Inside, the cathedral is richly decorated and features a three-story, 4,600 pipe organ. (The cathedral is the site of the International Organ Festival held each May.)
A stroll eastward along Avenida Madero, which runs directly in front of the cathedral, leads past the dense plantings of the Parque Villalongín, a fountain celebrating Tarascan women and to the old aqueduct that once brought fresh water to fountains throughout the city. The aqueduct is more than a mile long, with 253 arches. Crossing under the aqueduct leads to the Calzada Fray Antonio de San Miguel, a peaceful, tree-lined pedestrian path. At the end of the path is the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church's plain exterior may tempt the visitor pass it by. Don't! The interior is the most ornately decorated in Morelia and has been carefully maintained to show off all the detail in its original splendor. After the church, a few steps further on brings one to Morelia's Bosque Cuauhtemoc, a large, wooded park that was pulsating with families and exuberant children on a Sunday visit.
All in all, Morelia was an unexpected – and very pleasant – surprise. I had not known what to expect and, in retrospect, I wish our schedule had permitted more than just one night in the city. I hope to return soon.