One of the most delicious days of the month is when friend Barbara and I stroll the streets of the trendy colonias of Condesa and Roma with no intent. We have come to refer to these afternoons as our flaneuring days. As in, “Barbara, would you care to go flaneuring about Condesa next week?” The correct term, of course is en flânant, but we enjoy using our made-up term.
It all started with a brilliantly written, highly entertaining, and educational book called The Flaneur by Edmund White, in which the author takes the reader on a detailed walk through the streets of Paris with no goal in sight. Along the way, the reader is the recipient of White’s vast knowledge of the famous and non-famous people that haunted the area. In addition, his historical references imbue the book, as well as endlessly fascinating tidbits and mountains of gossip relating to gadabouts such as Baudelaire and Balzac. Johnson quotes Walter Benjamin who in 1929 said “the flaneur is in search of experience, not knowledge.”
Our day begins about 11 am on the terrace of my apartment in Roma Sur for a dark, rich Cuban coffee, freshly made from beans that I buy at La Selva cafeteria (at the corner of Amsterdam and México in Condesa) and scones from Pastelería Alcazar (on the corner of Quintana Roo and Anahuac in Roma Sur). Other branches of this bakery chain, known for its heavenly cakes, are scattered throughout DF. There are items for takeout and cakes to order in advance, or you can enjoy the street scene from either indoor or outdoor seating.
If you’re visiting the Condesa area, a great place to begin your day with breakfast or to stop for a nibble is the well-known and respected Maque café and Pastelería, located in Parque México on Ozulama 4 on the corner with Citaltépetl. Chilaquiles, crêpes, and enchiladas are the specialties, but Maque offers a wide variety of tastes for whatever time of day you pop in. There are plenty of salads and soups and sandwiches. Our personal favorites are the tortilla soup, the spinach crepe in béchamel sauce. The bread, brownies, and cookies bring reliable raves. In fact, carry out a packet or two of cookies for later. There’s indoor and outdoor seating, where you can view the lovely Art Deco clock in the adjacent park.
Satisfied and fully caffeinated, we begin the day, usually with no goal in mind, though often our first stop is a visit to Under the Volcano bookshop (Celaya 25), the best used bookstore in Mexico City (maybe anywhere, for that matter). Grant, the owner, seems to have read every book in his shop, and then some. There are books for everyone: biography, fiction, poetry, history, etc., by the finest writers of all time. All books are in excellent condition: no torn or yellowed pages with small print, rendered unreadable, as are found in the used bookstores that pepper the streets of Donceles in the Centro. This is a place in which you’ll glance at your watch two hours after entering and wonder just where the time went. Grant encourages clients to browse his enclave at a leisurely pace to find just the right books.
From there it’s a short stroll to our favorite park, Parque México. This is one place I take all my visitors, for its green escape from the busy city streets teeming with traffic and people. You can feel the oxygen enter your lungs as you roam the park’s paths. There’s a specified area for dogs and their owners to play and music abounds, as do vendors. Sunday is a busy day full of family activity. If your goal is to read quietly or just ponder, best to visit on a weekday.
While in the park, take a few minutes to view the art deco architecture of the buildings that circle it. If you check your map, you’ll see that Parque México is encircled by a street called Amsterdam (one of the most envied addresses in the city). This circle was the former Hipódromo race track.
On September 19, 1985, at 7:17 am, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 struck the city. Condesa was one of the hardest hit colonias. Afterward, those who could manage it left, leaving behind many abandoned buildings. The parks became dangerous, but the low rents attracted young people, and gradually a demand for restaurants and nightclubs developed. Clever developers bought up the damaged buildings and created the conveniently located, classy, tree-lined neighborhood it is today, filled with some of the best international and local restaurants, cafes, and shops in this grand megalopolis.
On the mid-Sunday of each month, you’ll find the Bazar Condesa, on Nuevo Leon 80, just a few blocks from the Parque Mexico. GuiU purses and other small bags, made by indigenous artists from Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Puebla, are a highlight of this bazaar. The bags are made from leather and cloth, with unique design touches. Other artists on the two floors of the bazaar sell homemade chocolates, clothing, jewelry, accessories, and miscellanea. There is both food and music to propel you through your shopping spree. A serious day here can put a good dent in your Christmas gift list.
Discovering new places for a light lunch is one of the highlights of flanuering. Recently we wandered into the first cat café in Latin American, called La Gateria, located at Tabasco 337. This is a new concept. It is not a place to bring your cat, but rather a place for abandoned cats that have been rescued to live until they are adopted. You can enjoy a cappuccino or smoothie here while adorable kitties sleep, beg for a pet or hug, or just spy on the diners from their perches in the restaurant. Rest assured the cats have been cleaned up, sterilized and pampered before taking over their reign of the restaurant. In fact, when you enter, the waiter asks you to clean your hands with a liquid sterilizer
Barbara and I are crazy for the panini sandwiches: she for the camembert and apple, I for the asparagus and avocado. The green smoothie is refreshing and not too tart, sweetened with apples. There are salads and desserts, including cute, tasty cookies in the shape of a cat.
Important tips for flaneuring
Even though you’re not crossing many main boulevards in Condesa, stay especially sharp while crossing the streets. Cars seem to zoom out of nowhere, especially on the circular streets around the park where several streets intersect. Unless you hail from New York City, you may be unaccustomed to Mexico City’s aggressive drivers.
If time allows and you want a break from walking, enjoy a paseo on the Tranvia, a small streetcar-type vehicle that will take you on a tour through the two colonias, Roma and Condesa. You can hop on at the Parque México and relax while a guide onboard narrates the important sights. The narration will be in Spanish, but if you’d like to hear the tour in another language you may call in advance for a reservation (5659-7198). The regular tours run daily starting at 10 am.
I leave Barbara on Avenue Insurgentes where she will take the Metrobus to her home about 45 minutes south in Tlalpan. I continue to walk down Insurgentes to my home, passing the colorful windows of the stores where the 15-year-old teenage girls shop for the formal dresses for their quinceañera parties, then past two classic Sanborn’s stores, and sidewalk vendors selling DVDs, scarves, wallets, incense, women’s stockings, and sweets and nuts galore.
Before arriving home, I stop at Tutti Frutti, a small storefront fruit market on Bajio and Anahuac, in Colonia Roma, where it seems that each fruit and vegetable is individually chosen. On the corner I greet the usual five or six white poodle-type terriers taking sun on the sidewalk.
As I slip the key into the front door lock and before climbing the three flights of stairs to my cozy city apartment, I feel a warm glow of friendship, contentment, and tranquility (as well as a full stomach) provoked by hours of flaneuring…and realize that maybe it was more than just a walk in the park.