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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Central Albuquerque


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When I researched New Mexico, it quickly became apparent that Santa Fe was getting a lot of love in travel guides. That was fine with me as we were planning on staying there for a good chunk of time. What raised my eyebrows was how much negativity there was about Santa Fe's much larger neighbor Albuquerque. The knock on Albuquerque seemed to be that it was missing the culture and beauty of Santa Fe while suffering from various urban blights. I took this with a grain of salt since we've been tremendously impressed by American cities such as Milwaukee and Houston that suffered from similar reputations. Quite often a lack of tourism seems to preserve the authentic culture of a city rather than detract from it. I found quite a number of interesting things to put on my list in Albuquerque so eventually it was an easy decision to spend two nights there.
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Naturally we'd chosen an Airbnb in the traditional adobe architectural style. These houses are emblematic of Santa Fe but we found a strong adherence to this aesthetic in Albuquerque as well. Many of the houses are made of concrete or traditional brick instead of actual adobe and are given the classic appearance with masonry and stucco, so the term Pueblo Revival is more accurate than adobe. Either way I love the texture, color, and rounded edges of adobe houses and I would love to live in one if they didn't stick out like a sore thumb anywhere except the Southwest. The Airbnb was one of the best we'd stayed in on this trip: roomy, stylish, and comfortable. We were within walking distance of the Old Town and the neighbors had their own outdoor book exchange that we quickly took advantage of.
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We had a little time to kill before dinner so we took a drive west to the Monte Vista neighborhood to see the distinctive Bart Prince residence. Prince adapted the classic style of Frank Lloyd Wright to the landscape and traditions of New Mexico. His residence in Albuquerque is famous for the futuristic elevated living quarters that locals call the Spaceship as well as the oblong gallery supported by steel girders above the adjacent adobe house. At the front of the property were impressively large metallic modern sculptures. I was a little self-conscious about gawking at the architecture since it is a private residence, but I imagine the occupants are probably accustomed to the attention by now.
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One area where Europe and Asia and even Latin America are clearly superior to the United States is in the preservation of antiquity. Of course in the USA there isn't that much antiquity to preserve, but even the three to four hundred year history that we have has largely been plowed under in the service of endless modernization and adaptation to advancing technology. Finding an American city with an authentic preserved core is a rare pleasure, and I was surprised not to have heard of Albuquerque's Old Town before I began researching the city. The small neighborhood dates to the founding of the city three hundred years ago and still contains several original buildings from the 19th century. The oldest is the iconic San Felipe de Neri Church which was built in 1793. Most of the buildings have been renovated and remodeled in recent decades as the area has commercialized, but the city has done a good job of maintaining the Spanish colonial atmosphere of the neighborhood.
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We had arrived in the early evening when almost all the businesses had already closed. There were few pedestrians and we largely had the charming neighborhood to ourselves under the overcast evening sky. The only exception was in the central plaza where a band of elderly musicians was putting on a folk dancing performance at the gazebo.
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Sawmill Market was within walking distance of Old Town. We love eating at food halls because they have a great vibe, the food is usually high quality, and it's fun to mix and match diverse cuisines in one meal. Sawmill Market had just been opened a year earlier in a former lumber warehouse and it was one of the best food halls we've visited in the United States. It was beautifully constructed with high wooden ceilings that paid homage to its provenance and the spacious layout accommodated the sizable clientele perfectly. There was a large, vibrant courtyard with live music. The food was good but not exceptional, but the atmosphere was so awesome that we stayed for a couple of hours to enjoy the music and people-watch. Our first evening in Albuquerque was a strong indication that this city was punching high above its size of a half million people.
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We began our one full day in Albuquerque with breakfast on Central Avenue, which is the name for Route 66 as it passes from one end of the city to the other. There are hip restaurants, intriguing boutiques, and street art along much of the ten miles of Central Avenue as it bisects the city, especially in the central downtown area. We were on a tight schedule but we resolved to return and explore the colorful street on foot.
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After visiting Sandia Peak we drove back towards the center of town to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, a complex that is collectively owned and operated by New Mexico's nineteen Indian pueblo tribes. Inside there are conference centers, exhibition halls, and a permanent museum. We were mainly interested in the Native American artists who display and sell their work from booths in the mural-filled courtyard. Many of the artists were from Acoma Pueblo, which we had been prevented from visiting by COVID. There were some similarities to Zuni pottery, but the Acoma creations have a distinctive look due to the particular techniques they use. We were particularly amazed by the intricate patterns one artist created by placing horsehair on his pottery while it is being fired, and we bought a vase and a wedding vessel. The museum was a little dry so we cut that visit short and had a lunch of traditional Pueblo dishes at the Indian Pueblo Kitchen in the main building.
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We returned to Old Town in the hope of finding open galleries and a more energetic scene. The streets were a little more active now and all the businesses were open but it was still a lot quieter than I would have expected. Perhaps the tourism industry was still showing the effects of COVID here more than in other places.
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The galleries in Old Town had some of the most impressive and inexpensive Native American art that we had seen so far. One place had colorful and intricately designed large pieces at prices I couldn't believe, and that was before I realized they were offering an additional 50% off. Since we had just bought the Acoma pottery at the cultural center we weren't in the mood to make purchases but I've since regretted that decision. Several galleries occupied a two-story adobe building that was once a home for unwed mothers. Numerous artists displayed their work here and our favorite was the carved wooden bowls with magnificent grain and turquoise inlay.
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Next we paid a visit to a great second hand bookstore called Downtown Books to stock up on reading material for the rest of the trip. So far we had been doing a pretty good job of keeping the kids off their iPads during the long drives and all the used books were a big help. The vintage store next door was having a sale that spilled out onto the sidewalk, creating a colorful and quirky display.
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The bookstore was just a block from the beginning of Central Avenue. We drove over to 505 Central, Albuquerque's other food hall, but we didn't have much appetite yet so we took a walk down the avenue admiring the quirky architecture and street art. Some of the buildings like the Kimo Theatre date back almost a hundred years while others like The Library Bar and Grill are modern but adopted the whimsical aesthetic of the neighborhood. The overall effect reminded me a lot of the Art Deco neighborhood in my home turf of Miami Beach.
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Enormous, colorful murals adorned many of the concrete walls and building facades on the avenue. They commemorated the history of Route 66, expounded political messages, or displayed abstract themes. Walking down Central Avenue was like touring an open air museum of art and architecture.
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505 Central Food Hall was relatively slow and empty compared to Sawmill Market from the previous night, but the food was actually a little better. The Moonwalk Bar is probably an extremely cool place to hang out on busy nights, and there was interesting abstract art strategically placed throughout the space. We returned home exhausted after a long day of exploration, but we would still have time for another interesting morning in Albuquerque before the short drive to Santa Fe.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:11 Archived in USA Tagged new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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