Revolutions and revival
John Huxley is confronted by Aztec torture, violent revolutionaries and the passion of artists who painted the capital.
To the passer-by strolling in the sun along Calle Viena, one of several tranquil, tree-lined streets named after European capitals in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan, the house at No. 45 looks much like any other.
The walls are oddly higher than those of its neighbours and the comings and goings might seem more frequent. But there is little else to suggest that this is, in the words of an excitable local guide, Francisco Urrutia, a ''crazy house of horror''. For it was here, on a baking-hot summer evening in August 1940, that the communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky was assassinated by a rare visitor, admitted as a friend to his home, with an ice-axe blow to the head.
Political opponents, of which Trotsky had millions worldwide, would later joke gleefully that it was the first time in the exiled Russian's life that he had an open mind about anything.
Today, the house and gardens, still lined with the rabbit hutches and chicken coops tended by Trotsky when he was not plotting the overthrow of international capitalism, have been transformed into a museum.
The story is graphically told of how Trotsky, expelled from Russia by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, wandered Europe - Turkey, France and Norway - before being granted asylum in Mexico. Of how he and his wife, Natalia, lived in the nearby Casa Azul, or Blue House, with artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera before a falling-out - possibly over an affair between Leon and Frida - forced them to relocate to No. 45. Of how the ordinary-looking house had been transformed into a fortress - with steel shutters, watchtowers and armed guards - after an earlier assassination attempt that left the walls pock-marked with machine gun fire.
Much of the interior remains untouched by time. Here is Trotsky's narrow bathroom. Here, his bedroom, his clothes and shoes laid out in tidy lines. And here, his makeshift office. Papers, pens, books, bottles of ink, a magnifying glass and a pair of wire-rim spectacles, possibly spilled in the struggle, clutter the desktop.
A faded map of Mexico hangs on the wall. A dictaphone gathers dust, waiting to capture the words of a man whose ashes are buried beneath a stone monument, decorated with the hammer and sickle, in what remains a luxuriant, though sadly chook-free, backyard.
For visitors to Mexico, there is no shortage of violence to be found in its museums, in the pages of its tumultuous history, in the ruins of its ancient monuments. At the Museo del Templo Mayor, in the centre of Mexico City, for example, there are almost comically blood-curdling accounts of the human sacrifices made by the Aztecs.
One information board relates how for four days in 1487, priests honoured their gods by ripping the beating hearts from some 30,000 captured warriors lined up four abreast for three miles. ''Each day blood ran like a river onto the pavement of the Great Plaza and the stairs of the great pyramid were literally bathed in blood,'' visitors are told. Only priestly exhaustion, it seems, put an end to the slaughter.
Nearby, the Inquisition museum artfully - and without freak-show exaggeration - displays the most terrifying instruments of torture inflicted on, among others, witches, homosexuals, adulterers, heretics: el garrote, la guillotina and la tortura del agua, a forerunner of waterboarding. Again, it is interesting to note that torture techniques were frequently amended to make life easier for the torturers, whose productivity, patience and ability to enjoy accompanying religious ''music while you work'' were strained by too much screaming. This museum is, seriously, not for the faint-hearted, or the visitor who has just had a plate of paella.
And then there are the stirring struggles of Mexico's long list of leaders, liberators, revolutionaries and T-shirt heroes such as Benito Juarez, Miguel Hidalgo, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. No one can say Mexico's history - featured in various exhibitions celebrating the anniversaries of independence in 1810 and revolution in 1910 - has been dull or lacking in drama.
But what of present-day Mexico? Barely a day passes without another atrocity in a drugs war that has so far claimed an estimated 28,000 lives. Recent headlines include 70 bodies found in a dump at Matamoras; dozens killed in fighting between the army and ''narco-trafficantes'' near Monterrey; the bodies of 15 decapitated men discovered outside a mall in the faded tourist target of Acapulco.
As the Economist wrote recently: ''Sun, sea and severed heads. Mexico is not a holiday destination for the faint-hearted.''
Little wonder, then, that everywhere they go, visitors are fearfully asked by concerned citizens, especially those millions whose livelihoods depend upon tourism, ''What does your country say about Mexico? About the violence?''
Despite current Australian government warnings about hurricanes, landslides, demonstrations and a ''high level of violent crime and drug-related violence'', it is tempting to reply: ''Violence. What violence?'' Sure, northern cities, such as the infamous Ciudad Juarez, now ruled by rival gangs, should be avoided. Sure, care should be taken in the capital on days - well, most days - when a ''manifestation'' is planned. And, sure, the wrong place, wrong time, should be avoided.
In almost three weeks, divided between the capital and the over-commercialised resort of Puerto Vallarta, we saw no violence and experienced no fear. We were shown considerable kindness, even when I accidentally stumbled into a ''ladies only'' carriage on the underground.
We always walked or used public transport and ate good food, even on the streets (locals say try a bit out on a dog beforehand, but we found our son worked just as well).
Frequently written off as inhospitably smoggy, impossibly sprawling and, of course, inherently violent - Mexico City is a revelation: vibrant, colourful, excitable, edgy, accessible, trainable, walkable, friendly and cheap as chipotle peppers.
A city-centre apartment with pool, opposite the Alameda Central - once an Aztec market, now a busy park - costs about the same as a half-decent Australian motel and is within easy walking distance of the delights of the Centro Historico.
Just a few minutes' walk away is the cluster of buildings so voluptuously described by author Carlos Fuentes in The Death of Artemio Cruz, a wonderful, fictional guide to the sights, sounds and smells of Mexico past and present. They include the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with its ''range of cupola and fat white columns'', which houses some of Mexico's finest murals. The Post Office, with its extravagant ''ochre Venetian portal''. The old Bank of Mexico, with its ''leafy sculptures, full breasts and emptied cornucopias''. Sex-mex.
Within a few more minutes' walk is the centre of the Centro, El Zocalo, meaning stone or plinth, the local name for the vast Plaza de la Constitucion, a palimpsest on which the remains of several layers of history can be seen.
Lining the plaza are the aforementioned Templo Mayor museum, the imposing Catedral Metropolitana, struggling to remain upright on earthquake-prone ground, and the offices of the president of Mexico, the Palacio Nacional.
The palace is also home to important exhibitions, such as that commemorating the centenary of the Mexican revolution, and giant murals by Diego Rivera, the artist, playboy and political agitator. Breathtaking in their size, detail, passion and historical sweep, they overwhelm the visitor.
So prolific was Rivera, there are a dozen other places in the city to enjoy his work and explore his relationship with the remarkable and far more famous Frida Kahlo.
Not surprisingly, the best such place is the Blue House, in Coyoacan, 10 kilometres south of the city centre. It's an arty, lively, colourful colonial ''town'' that has retained its distinctive identity despite being surrounded by Mexico City sprawl.
It was here, in what is now an extensive museum extravagantly promoted as ''her intimate universe'', that the indomitable Kahlo was born and died.
She lived a life that was tragic (she contracted polio at six and was crippled by multiple fractures in a bus accident at 19); notorious (she was beautiful, bisexual and wild) and prolific, though she staged only one exhibition in Mexico.
Her on-off marriage to the womanising Rivera - a liaison compared to the mating of an elephant and a dove - was passionate, their artistic collaboration explosive, their parties in the house at 247 Londres Street a magnet for artists, statesmen and revolutionaries.
The 2002 movie Frida, starring Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina and Antonio Banderas, is good. Better still is their former house, which reveals the artist's daily life, not just through her art but her toys, clothes, plants, pots, pans, crutches and medicine bottles.
Poet Carlos Pellicer, who helped turn the Blue House into a museum after Kahlo's death in 1954, wrote: ''Painted blue inside and out, it seems to house a little bit of the sky … a typical home in the peace and quiet of a small town, where good food and a good night's sleep give one sufficient energy to live without greater stress and to die in peace.''
Barely an hour away by road from Mexico City, at Teotihuacan, are the famous palaces, gardens and awe-inspiring pyramids of the sun and of the moon, from which Frida and Diego drew inspiration. Against a distant backdrop of snow-covered mountains, the pyramids sit on a vast plain dotted with the ruins of a city that once covered about 20 square kilometres.
Probably the best plan - last night's tequilas and tortillas permitting - is to book a guide, pack a hat, plenty of water and sunscreen, rise early, beat the crowds, the sun and the souvenir sellers and spend a morning walking, climbing and exploring.
A half-day or full day at the Teotihuacan pyramids should be supported by a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, only a short walk or ''white bus'' ride from the main entrance to the city's biggest park, the Bosque de Chapultepec. So much is there to see, so much to learn, so much Spanish to translate in this otherwise user-friendly, innovative museum, it is tempting to make return visits.
But there's much more to experience in Mexico City. Travel through several layers of history at the Plaza de la Tres Culturas, not far from the city centre. Nearby is the site of more recent violence, where government troops killed hundreds of student protesters on the eve of the 1968 Olympics.
Visit the Basilica de Guadalupe, ancient and modern, a national shrine and place of pilgrimage where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1531 to a Christian convert named Juan Diego. When the old basilica began sinking under the weight of worshippers into the shaky ground, a new one was built. Such is their scale that both make an uplifting, albeit giddying visit for believers and unbelievers.
And take a leisurely trip through the extensive ''floating gardens'' of Xochimilco, 20 kilometres south of the city, on a gaily painted boat punted by a prima donna with a pole. Invariably, you will be chased gleefully by boatloads of entrepreneurial cooks, hawkers and musicians.
Just go with the flow. But, as Basil Fawlty might have said, don't mention the drug war.
Mexico City's centre is eminently walkable. The metro is cheap, safe and easily navigable. Most attractions are closed on Mondays; some are free on Sundays.
The Teotihuacan ruins are open 7am-6pm, entry 51 pesos ($4). Free site guides are available. Buses run regularly from the Terminal Norte. Coach tours, from about 500 pesos, also take in sites such as Plaza de la Tres Culturas and the Basilica of Guadalupe.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia is open 9am-7pm Tues-Sun, entry 51 pesos. More details, in Spanish, at mna.inah.gob.mx.
The nearest metro is Auditoria.
Museo Leon Trotsky is open 10am-5pm Tues-Sun, entry 40 pesos; see museocasadeleontrotsky.blogspot.com. Museo Frida Kahlo is open 10am-5.45pm Tues-Sun, entry 55 pesos; see museofridakahlo.org.mx. Both are within walking distance of Coyoacan metro.
The city has a huge range of accommodation, from budget hostels for $20 a night to five-star hotels in or around the Zona Rosa. The author booked online a one-bedroom apartment with pool, opposite Alameda Central, for about $120 a night.
Mexican fare is available from top-end restaurants near the Zocalo or in the Zona Rosa, in cheap, reliable chain eateries such as VIPS and Sanborns and, of course, on street corners. Take a culinary tour of stalls offering everything from pozole stew to pig uterus tacos with local experts from Eat Mexico; see eatmexico.com.
Sydney Morning Herald