East of the capital, the road to Puebla climbs steeply, with glorious views of the snowy heights of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl along the way. Little more than an hour on the bus from Mexico City, Puebla is the republic’s fifth largest city (after Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Tijuana). The centre has a remarkable concentration of sights – a fabulous cathedral, a “hidden” convent, museums and colonial mansions – while the mountainous surrounding country is in places startlingly beautiful. Nevertheless, Puebla is unlikely to tempt you into staying particularly long and in a couple of leisurely days (or one packed day) you can see the best of the city and nearby Cholula.
The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1531, preferring it to the ancient sites of Cholula and Tlaxcala possibly because the memories of indigenous power there remained too strong. It rapidly assumed great importance as a staging point on the journey from the capital to the port at Veracruz and for the shipment of goods from Spain’s Far Eastern colonies, which were delivered to Acapulco and transported across Mexico from there. Wealth was brought, too, by the reputation of Puebla’s ceramics, particularly its tiles. This industry – still very much in evidence – was helped by an abundance of good clays in the region, and by settlers from Talavera in Spain, who brought traditional ceramic skills with them. The city did well out of colonial rule, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it took the wrong side in the War of Independence. As a result, it preserves a reputation for conservatism and traditional values, not dispelled even by the fact that the start of the Revolution is generally dated from the assassination of Aquiles Serdán in his Puebla home.
Military defeat seems to play a larger part in Puebla’s history than it does in most of Mexico – the city fell to the Americans in 1847 and to the French in 1863 – but it isn’t what’s remembered. Rather, it’s the greatest victory in the country’s history – here, a force of some two thousand Mexicans defeated a French army three times its size in 1862. To this day, Puebla commemorates May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) with a massive fiesta, and there’s a public holiday throughout the country.