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Daily Beast Cheat Sheet to Chapultepec Castle

By william.oconnor@thedailybeast.com (William O’Connor)
Jorge Alberto Romero Orrantia / Alamy

Sometimes you don't feel like paying for an audio guide, or have the time to go on a Wikipedia deep-dive. So, once a month we at Beast Travel are giving readers a cheat sheet to some of the world's most iconic destinations that will make your experience just a little richer. Last month was the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C, and this month (given its one of the best times of the year to visit Mexico City) we’re giving Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City the treatment.

The hill was a sacred religious site for the Mexica (Aztec) and had a temple and palace

Chapultepec (which means “grasshopper hill”) was considered sacred, and so a temple in which human sacrifice was practiced was erected on top of it. The greatest of Aztec rulers, Moctezuma-Ilhuicamina, ordered that reliefs in his image as well as his ancestors be carved into the eastern side of the hill—remains of which can still be seen today. A palace was reportedly built on it by the philosopher king Netzahualcoyotl and it was he who planted the ahuehuete (cypress) trees that still stand today. The hill was also used as a burial site for Aztec kings. Moctezuma II (the one who lost to Spain) would hold massive banquets amongst the cypress groves.

Its springs (with potentially lost treasure) were legendary

The hill was once surrounded by beautiful springs which had been used by Moctezuma to bathe and to keep his collection of beautiful fish. During the reign of his great-grandfather, Moctezuma I, huge caches of treasure were rumored to have been dumped into one of the reservoirs around Chapultepec to appease the water god after a devastating flood—treasure that has never been found. The springs were also famed for their purity, and the Aztec built an aqueduct in the 15th century from Chapultepec to Tenochtitlán as the reservoirs were the city’s main water source.

In the colonial era it became the site of a near undoing of the Spanish Empire by an American hero

One can’t-miss room in the museum complex is the Hall of the Viceroys, which contains portraits of every viceroy who ruled Mexico (New Spain) from 1535 until 1821. It’s sooo much fun with all the different fashions, beards, and strange-looking men. But most of a wall in the room is taken up by an equestrian portrait of Bernardo de Gálvez, who ruled from May 1785 until his early death in November 1786. But in that measly time frame, the man (one of only eight honorary citizens of the United States) got busy. He transformed the hill with a palace on its top that was more fortress than country house, and that is by and large the palace that exists today. With his military status, the fortress-like shape he gave the castillo, as well as the garden that was supposed to have his personal motto (Yo solo, Don Bernardo de Gálvez) written out in hedges, many in Spain suspected he was preparing to carve off an independent kingdom. But in 1786, he died.

The next 40 years were, well, a mess

The Castillo is actually the combination of the old Military College (famed as the site of the final battle of Mexican-American War where cadets threw themselves to their death rather than be captured) and the luxurious palace largely designed by Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota. Today what was the military college is given over to the country’s national museum. A good portion of this focuses on the years after the revolution (and the forgotten short rule by self-declared Emperor Iturbide) when a whopping 54 administrations took office in the period between 1823 and 1863. The two pieces most likely to intrigue U.S. visitors are the Alamo Flag, which the state of Texas has been trying to get for decades, and a fake leg of General Santa Ana, that capricious egomaniac who oversaw the halving of Mexico’s territory (and who in fact had a number of fake legs, one of which he allegedly tried to get put in a church as if it was a reliquary).

The museum has a number of can’t miss items

The room focusing on Pre-Columbian history houses a copy of the Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus. The original, a rare piece of pre-Columbian writing sits unappreciated in Vienna among the endless baubles of the Smaug-like Hapsburg Treasury. The Austrians’ refusal to return it dates back to at least 1865, when Emperor Franz Josef did what he was best at (saying no) and declined his brother Maximilian’s entreaty to return the codex to Mexico. There is also an object—an esfera de la paciencia—that if I ever win the lottery will become the obscure thing I collect. Made of intricately carved ivory spheres placed inside one another which you had to manipulate until they lined up, it was a baroque version of a Rubik’s Cube. There are also the absurd floor to ceiling malachite doors (the largest pieces outside Russia) the dictator Porfirio Díaz bought that used to belong to the tsar.

“One of the saddest, drowned-kitten, Princess-in-the-Tower stories in history.”

That’s how the famed author Rebecca West referred to the story of Maximilian and Carlota, who attempted to rule Mexico from 1864 until 1867. An incredibly complex story (a much more in depth version can be read here), here’s the very, very quick synopsis. Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon) was Emperor of France (1852-1870) and wanted control of Mexico which was in a state of disarray, so he invaded and placed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor) and his wife Charlotte (Carlota, daughter of the king of Belgium) on the throne. They never managed to come even close to conquering Mexico, and Carlota returned to Europe and went mad, and Maximilian was executed by a firing squad in Querétaro.

But they dramatically changed the palace

Maximilian was very much a man of the arts (see his palace Miramare in Trieste) and the couple found the National Palace in the center of Mexico City completely unsuitable (bedbugs and other pests forced Maximilian to sleep on a billiard table, Carlota outdoors on a terrace in their first night). So they transformed the ruins of Chapultepec into what it is today. The iconic rooftop garden was designed under Maximilian, and everything from the winding road up the hill to the stunning rooms opening up onto the polished marble terrace were added. Carlota’s bathroom, decorated with beautiful tiles and a single-block marble tub, remains untouched. The pair reportedly loved the palace, and Maximilian wrote home that Chapultepec had a beauty matched only by Sorrento. In fact, Maximilian said, “in moments of difficulty… nothing had so much power to cheer and strengthen him as the wonderful harmony of this view.”

A man Maximilian captured went on to rule Mexico 

In the middle of the fight for Mexico, the hero of Cinco de Mayo, General Porfirio Díaz, surrendered to the French. Word was sent to Maximilian that one of the rebellion’s heroes had been captured, which should have meant immediate execution. Sitting down at one of his over-the-top dinners at Chapultepec when he received the news, Maximilian reportedly queried his guests, “What should I do with this rebel?” One of the women responded that Maximilian should have him shot, “for if you do not he may one day shoot you, they tell me this General Porfirio is a man of great determination.” He didn’t, and just ten years after Maximilian was executed, Díaz was elected president in 1877. He would remain in power for nearly 35 years.

Most of Chapultepec’s decor today is from Díaz

While Maximilian transformed Gálvez’s ruins into Chapultepec Palace, most of what is visited today reflects Diaz’s tastes. A mix of Lee Kuan Yew, Qaddafi, and Nazarbayev, Díaz was once bitingly described by Rebecca West as “proving in a boisterous way that great soldiers make poor statesmen.” His rule brought the industrial revolution to Mexico, but he also oversaw a hardening of inequality that festered until the bloodsoaked decade-long Mexican Revolution began in 1910. His first marriage was to his niece, who died in 1880, and his second bride, Carmen, outlived him by two decades. His rule is viewed as a complicated one, as it brought Mexico a stability it had not known in nearly a century, but it came at the price of American companies (two-thirds of railways and 90 percent of mineral resources in Mexico were American-owned) and large landowners.

In a bizarre twist from the man who fought so hard against the French and Maximilian, Díaz fetishized the court Maximilian created and the styles and goods of the French Belle Époque (he also reportedly used skin-lightening creams), and so a lot of the objects such as silver, hangings, and even the elaborate state carriage from Maximilian remain in the palace today. The Neo Rococo frills throughout the palace are his touch, and the bedroom he had decorated in the style of the Second Empire can be seen just off the roof gardens.

The palace played a central part in the end of Díaz

In 1908, Pearson’s Magazine published one of the most cringeworthy pieces in journalism history. For some reason Díaz had agreed to give a wide-ranging interview to the obscure American journalist James Creelman on the terrace of Chapultepec Castle. While Creelman’s final piece is one breathlessly obsequious paragraph after obsequious paragraph with the occasional aside about the magnificent view, it contained one nugget that set Mexico on fire—Díaz said he would not seek to stay in power when his term ended in 1910.

After two years of political maneuvering in Mexico, Díaz reneged on that promise, and decided to run against the man who would have been his likely successor, Francisco Madero. After jailing Madero, Díaz won the election with near unanimous numbers. Declaring the election a sham, Madero and his backers revolted and Díaz fled to Paris where he would eventually die in exile in 1915. The Mexican Civil War, which would take Madero’s life as well, began.

Carlota had perhaps the saddest end of all

As it was all falling apart in 1866, Carlota went back to Europe to plead their case. Somewhere along the way, the pressure got to her, and in September in Vatican City every single screw came loose. In the middle of the night, a tear-stained bedraggled woman arrived on the Vatican steps demanding she be let into the pope’s private apartments. She claimed her servants were trying to poison her, and was barely lucid, a mental break exacerbated by not eating. It was Carlota, and while the pope’s top men were aghast at the request, Pope Pius allowed Carlota to spend the night in his private library Eventually, her family intervened and she was sent back to Belgium to live with her brother the king and his wife. Until she died in 1927, it was said that she would strip and whip herself with a riding crop. In other moments, she would talk incessantly about sex, attempting every now and then to bed one of her guards. Her own sister-in-law, Queen Marie-Henriette, was sometimes forced to seal the widow in a room with padded walls. Over those six decades, her servants still called her “Imperial Majesty” and every spring she would go down to the moat, step into a boat, and declare, “Today, we leave for Mexico.”

In the 1930s it was made into a museum

The palace would remain the official residence of the president of Mexico until 1939 when President Lázaro Cárdenas made it the National Museum of History. While some of it has been updated over the decades, an old guide book from 1963 shows that over the decades the museum has largely remained untouched. One of the few major additions are the murals completed in the ’60s by David Siqueiros, one of the big three (Orozco and Rivera being the other two) Mexican muralists, on the first floor. The murals are searing portrayals of the harsh Díaz regime (known as the Porfiriato) and the subsequent revolution, and a clever way to set the lens through which visitors will view all the finery in the palace. It is a method for dealing with troublesome historical sites that curators on this side of the border may want to take note of.

This cheat sheet has been condensed from a larger feature story on the incredible tale of the castle and the men and women who shaped it.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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