Icing on gingerbread

Delta Junction, AlaskaReggie Nadelson, January 10 2009

Lovely, scented Santa Fe where in winter the air smells of pine and cedar. Where ristras of bright red chillies hang over every wall. And where, on top of the adobe buildings, the farolitos – traditionally votive candles in brown paper bags, now plastic bags with electric lights inside – flicker at night. Adobe houses in Santa Fe decorated with ‘farolitos’

In the summer, Santa Fe, capital of New Mexico, is packed with tourists, shopping, eating, heading for the opera just outside town. But in the winter it belongs to me. A handful of visitors amble around the central plaza, or into the galleries and shops, or the hidden courtyards. A few Native Americans huddle under blankets, selling turquoise and silver in the arcades along the 17th-century Palace of the Governors. The air at 7,000ft is as heady and clean as iced gin. More often than not on these deep cold winter days, the sky is an endless blue bowl, the sun intense.
I smell the delicious aroma of Café Pasqual even before I turn the corner and see it. This café is a popular spot – where I come to eat a breakfast of huevos motuleños, eggs over easy on corn tortillas with black beans and sautéed banana – but at this time of year there is no queue for tables.

The exact date when Santa Fe was founded is disputed, so there will be celebrations this year and next. This is a small city, with 70,000 inhabitants, but it has the grandeur of its age. At night in the winter you can just about imagine conquistadores roaming the wild landscape, establishing Santa Fe as the northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire in the Americas.

Even earlier there were the Anasazi, who made their home outside Santa Fe at Chaco Canyon where they lived in exquisitely sophisticated multi-storeyed pueblos. I like to think of them as early Manhattanites. Then, in some 13th-century apocalyptic version of 9/11, they simply vanished. No one is quite sure why. In the winter you can visit the canyon, untroubled by anyone except the spirits.

In his book Mornings in Mexico, DH Lawrence wrote of his Taos ranch just up the road from Santa Fe: “In a cold like this, the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon … And the place heaves with ghosts.”

When the low, cold light glints off the city, Santa Fe takes on a gilded patina. Dusk comes on fast, the sky turns pink, gold, then black. The moon, big, white, strange, hangs low over the mountains – the Sangre de Cristo, the Jemez – at the edge of town. The scene reminds me of Ansel Adams’ most famous photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM”. Adams was on his way back to Santa Fe after a disappointing day of photography when he saw it – the mountains, the moon – and just took the picture. It was late afternoon at the very end of October. Winter was coming.

I try to arrive in Santa Fe late at night, always hoping for snow. As much as anything, for me, Santa Fe is about the thrill of the return, about holding my breath to make sure nothing has changed. I’m like a kid yearning for the rituals of past trips in places I love.

In Santa Fe I stay at the Inn of the Anasazi where a log fire burns in the lobby. In my room, the bleached wood four-poster is made up with local blankets and fine, crisp Italian linen. The easy chair is covered in brown and white cowhide, the rugs and art are south-western, there’s a fire in the kiva fireplace. If I contact the right spirits – I’m not usually much on animal spirits or crystals, but this is Santa Fe – it snows overnight. In the morning the snow is on the adobe buildings, icing sugar on gingerbread. But even as I head out for coffee, the sun rises, the snow begins to melt.

Almost all the houses are adobe, so are most of the galleries and cafés, which pack the elegant city centre and wind up Canyon Road. This is a liberal, arty town of painters, sculptors, jewellers, shopkeepers, real estate novelists (to steal a line from Billy Joel), retirees, rebels with money who bask in the memory of Georgia O’Keeffe on the back of a motorbike. There is also, and importantly, a traditional Hispanic culture; a lot of people are bilingual. Months after the presidential election, in the windows of most houses there are still signs that read “Obamanos”.

The adobe architecture gives the city its coherence. Starting in about 1912, when Santa Fe was a dying town, when the railway had passed it by, some of its citizens got together and marketed it as exotic, romantic, artistic, as “the city different”. It was part of the beginning of the “Pueblo Revival” and the idea of living in the sort of buildings native Americans had lived in for millennia.

Over the decades, the style grew. With it came a local cuisine, part Mexican, part European, part American. Santa Fe boasts some of the best food in America outside New York and New Orleans and in winter the warming, spicy dishes come into their own.

Santa Fe style is kiva fireplaces, gilded folk art icons, distressed wooden doors in thrilling turquoise and green, hammered tin mirrors, elaborate crosses. There’s a cross above the fireplace in my room at the inn. Santa Fe, the city of the Holy Faith, grew up as and remains a Catholic city, and the great cathedral soars in the city centre. But this is also where Michael Linder, who owns a shop where I buy a gold charm, reveals he is the cantor in two of Santa Fe’s synagogues. And that he does “Ave Maria” in the cathedral at the request of his pal the bishop. In his western dude shirt, Michael, who came to Santa Fe by chance decades ago, sings me an exquisite sample in Latin.

Santa Fe’s shops are filled with jewellery, photographs, rugs, objets, some kitsch, some very fine. Some people – snobs, mostly – tell me Santa Fe is just a theme park, Disney for adults, that it was made up, invented, contained, by a fantasy of the past. But so what? Its Museum of International Folk Art is the best in the world and its permanent exhibits include wondrous artefacts, beaded African rhinos, toy cars made out of tin cans, punched tin hearts from Mexico. So what if the farolitos on the building tops are plastic bags with electric lights inside?

I love Santa Fe precisely because it is man-made, all art and artifice. But, then, so are Venice, and Havana, and Manhattan. I love Santa Fe the way a child loves fairy tales or magic, or, indeed, Disney. I love it in winter, and which city is not better in the off-season, when it’s cold and sunny? For a few days, every winter, Santa Fe makes me feel that I’ve dropped back through a shining rabbit hole into a not quite real city, all lit up and smelling sweet.