Sometimes in the evenings, after the sun has set behind the monolith that towers over the small village of San Sebastián Bernal, animus or restless souls, who sleep in thesmall graveyard near the old chapel, rise up and move quietly through the quiet streets.
The animus mean no harm, they are just continuing what they did when alive.
“They carry candles that light up their faces and they’re going to the small chapel in the old part of town,” says Claudio Brusadin, who has never seen the animus but has talked to people that have including, he says, the mayor of Bernal and his wife. “Once they get there, they go in and pray and then return to the cemetery, which has been here since the town was founded.”
On the soft gentle evening that my friend Yusfia and I are sitting in Claudio’s restaurant, Piave, located on Avenida Zaragoza in the central district of Bernal, I see no animus walking to or from church. Instead, Bernal, a delightfully charming sixteenth century Colonial village, whose buildings are painted in the colors of a Mexican sunset – ocher, soft yellow, sienna, rich orange and dusty rose – is alive with the calls of a young boy, a bread filled basket balanced on his head as he walks up the street selling his wares, families sitting at the street side tables at Tia Le Millita, a corner restaurant and young children playing ball in the churchyard across the street.
I have come to Bernal because it is one of the Pueblo Magicos, magic towns, designated such because of their historic charm, closeness to a major city (in this case the wonderful Queretaro) and peaceful atmosphere. I am on a quest to visit as many of the Pueblo Magicos as I can. There are 35, each similar in its heritage and yet also distinctly unique.
But it may be Bernal, with its Peña de Bernal, a monolith of rock some 10-million years old jutting out of the earth and rising almost 350 meters high, which has the most interesting topography.
“Many say that peña gives off energy or las energies,” says Claudio, an Italian who trained as an electronic engineer in Switzerland but moved first to Mexico City and then Bernal to pursue his culinary career. “Bernal gets very busy during the Equinox when people come from all over to take part in the energy rituals.”
Claudio tells us that the peña is the third largest in the world. It differs from a mountain, he says, because there is no dirt or vegetation on the rock. It is instead, just a sheet of rugged outcroppings of stone.
The energy I am feeling comes not from Peña de Bernal but from sipping an espresso at the end of a long day. We had driven south from Queretaro after a leisurely breakfast in the courtyard of the beautiful Santa Rosa Restaurant on Independence Plaza. Our first stop was Cavas Flexinet, a Spanish winery, located just outside of Ezequiel Montes.
The winery offers tours and so we followed a group of college students through the bottling area and then down into the brick lined tunnels where thousands of bottles and casks are stored. Back upstairs, the students quickly buy glasses of wine and sandwiches from a small deli which also sells some of the local cheeses made in the area and then disperse around the flowing fountain to the small tables that are located in the shade. I take a few sips of the wine, which is sold only in Mexico, and then head with Yusfia across the street to our next destination, Los Azteca Hacienda Mexicana.
Marco Antonio Jaimes and his wife Yadira Gonzalez are there to meet us when we pull up in the dusty drive. Yadira tells us that Los Azteca, which dates back to the 1700s and is also a winery, is a charreria, where Mexican style rodeos are held. On busy days, hundreds of people arrive to watch the caballeros but today it is only us and the 20 or some horses that are part of the ranch. Marco, dressed in the uniform of a caballero, demonstrates the Calede Cabllo or Test of the Horse, in the large arena. His horse, Tlaloc named for the God of Rain, is a national champion and responds easily to Marco unspoken commands. Indeed, Tlaloc and Marco are so in sync, that most of the time he doesn’t even need reins to get Tlaloc to perform his “tests.”
A sip of their wine and then we’re off to dine in the outdoor gardens at La Ronda, another winery just down the road. This one is Italian and it is here that
we first meet Claudio, as he often cooks meals for visitors at the La Ronda on the weekends. Today, he has created a carpaccio of thinly sliced tuna topped with artich
oke hearts and arugula and sauced with a mango vinaigrette. This is followed by flambéed shrimp atop a squid ink risotto and tiramisu for dessert. One of the winery’s eight wines is served with the meal and after we’re done eating, it’s time to take another tour.
One of La Ronda’s specialties is growing grapes to mak
e Kosher wines that are only sold in special markets in Mexico City. The vineyards here stretch for 167 acres, off into the distance where blue black mountains line the edge of the landscape. We also take time to wander through the vineyard’s extensive cactus garden, following the winding pathways that meander through cacti from both Italy and Mexico.
I would love to linger by the gazebo or the fountain at La Ronda, or, maybe best, in the tasting room, but I want to get to Bernal while the light is still good. And so saying good bye – and tucking my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon into my vast mesh bag, we head out to Bernal. It’s about a 20 minute drive. Yadira told me that I could rent a horse at Los Azteca and ride cross country to Bernal, about a 15 minute trail ride – something I would love to do when I come back which I surely will do sometime soon. She says they frequently have visitors who head into town for a lunch or dinner and then ride back through the sage and cactus desert.
Indeed, horseback riding is common. In the town of Cadereyta de Montes, we see a band of men wearing crisp and clean white shirts, who are riding through the town, stopping at a convenience store to stock up on bottles of water and then buying freshly cooked corn, painted with butter and spices, from a street vendor. They are part of a group that meet once a week and ride between the towns.
As we drive, Peña de Bernal becomes bigger, looming large over the landscape. But when we head down the cobblestone street that leads to the historic district of Bernal, I almost forget the monolith and instead am overwhelmed by the charm of the town. It is picture perfect but I have to admit that despite its allure, one of the first things I want to do is find a shop that sells the brown opals which are mined near here and are, I’ve been told, both beautiful and inexpensive.
The first store I find that lists opals on its outside wall is closed. Am I too late, I wonder? I ask a young woman if she knows of another place selling opals and she motions me into her shop, Artesanias La Peña. It’s a small store, cool compared to the warmth of the day and it is filled with glass covered cases which in turn are loaded with opals in rich earth colors of oranges, browns and yellows. Watching as she brings out trays of earrings and necklaces, I am almost overcome by the choices. I finally settled on a beautiful necklace with delicate dangling opals and matching earrings. The prices, indeed, are reasonable and I know that I am wearing something that is natural and from the nearby earth.
My opals secured, I head across the street to the San Sebástian Mártir Church, built between 1700 and 1725. This is a good place to start my stroll through Bernal and I wander through the courtyard, admiring it calm and beguiling beauty. My guidebook tells me that the handiwork in the bell tower preserves the handprints of those who built the church.
Across the street is El Castillo, another Colonial structure, this one, in washed shades of pale orange accented with pink, contrasts nicely with the vivid oranges, reds and yellows of the church. The striking German clock tower is a 20th century addition to the 18th century building which houses the municipal government.
The centro or central district is small, but crammed with shops offering a unique variety of goods. La Aurora Centro Artensanal has wall hangings and clothing. Bernal is known for its woolen goods and artisans with weaving skills who create rugs, shawls, cushions, bedspreads, jackets, serapes, dresses and ponchos. Just down the street, Artensans La Esperanza features religious art including what look to be elaborately craved and ornately studded church doors. No way to put those in a suitcase to take on the airplane.
Because Bernal is known for its candies, we stop at Dulces Artesanales Peña de Bernal, a delightful candy store that sells the locally made apple wine and a variety of candies including candied cactus fruit and traditional dulce de leche de cabra (traditional goat milk candy) whose varieties include fresa (strawberry) guava, nuez (walnut) higo (fig) and ajonjoli (sesame). Unable to decide what to buy, I settle for a package that contains all the varieties as well as a packet of obleas con cajeta, thin wafers separated by a thick layer of goat milk candy. The candy factory, where dulces Bernal are made, is just down the street and Claudio tells me they offer tours.
The town is also famous for its blue corn gorditas – rounds of masa stuffed with a variety of fillings. But we had promised Claudio that we would meet him at his restaurant and so we wonder past the market building with its broad courtyard where we are told farmers bring their produce to sell each morning. It is empty this early evening, but we stop to look at the murals painted on the walls that showcase the community’s agricultural roots.
Bernal boasts some of the Moorish influence, called Mudéjar, brought over when the Spaniards ruled Mexico and common in many of the Colonial cities. It can be seen on Avenida Zaragoza in the tiles covering the front of Casa Tsaya, a hotel with a charming courtyard restaurant which is next door to Piave.
Claudio tells us that the building where Piave, which is Italian for river, is located dates back to 1730 and the faded murals of once bright blooms on the walls of the foyer are most likely two centuries old.
But a century or two is just a moment ago in Bernal which was founded by Captain (some say he was a lieutenant) Alonso Cabrera of the Spanish Army who came here in 1647 with ten soldiers and three of his sons in order to protect the locals in this hostile terrain. Some time after that, a chapel was built on the peña and that becomes a focal point during the Festival of the Holy Cross, each May 1 to 5th when thousands come to the town.
“The Day of the Holy Cross is our main festivity,” Claudio tells us as he makes one of his menu items, Insalate Anne – lettuce, avocado, grapefruit, crabmeat and green apples in a vinaigrette. “That’s when the bring the Holy Cross down from the top of the peña.” 30 or 40 escaloneros are chosen for the task. The criteria, says Claudio, is that they must be good Christians. And they must be strong ones too for the group passes the cross down the hill and then carries it through town. But they don’t stop there.
According to Claudio, the escaloneros then travel with the cross to other surrounding towns, part of the week long festivities which have been going on for centuries. There’s a mystical feel for what the monolith emits though it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly causes that energy. It may be the mythical snake that lives in the center of the peña, the core of amethyst and other crystals which some say lay beneath the rock or it may just be the beauty of this little town, tucked into the highlands of Central Mexico.