Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in Mexico City with Michael Nyman

The composer sounds out his second city for Mark C O’Flaherty.

June 07 2010
Mark C O’Flaherty

“From the window of my house in the downtown district of La Colonia Roma – or La Roma, as everyone here calls it – I can hear the continual sound of an ice-cream van with a particular chime. I’ve tried to transcribe it and work it into a piece of music, but it hasn’t happened quite yet. At my other home in Islington the street is so quiet that a car horn would be dramatic, but Mexico City is all noise, noise, noise.

La Roma is full of local industry, artisanry and loud, drinking people. It’s a reality of existence that goes back generations, and I really like that. The pavements look like they haven’t been repaired since the earthquake in 1985, just after I first came to Mexico City. The city blew my mind. I remember my first meal here at a restaurant with a Pre-Columbian menu (I don’t think it exists any more); I ate fried grasshopper.

After my first trip, I revisited every two or three years to play concerts; then, three years ago I came to play a solo date in Puebla and stayed on to edit something. I stayed in the Condesa DF hotel for a week, having a really good time, and this introduced me to the experience of Mexico City as a resident rather than as a tourist. The hotel has a very elegant design by India Mahdavi: lots of stark but quite beautifully designed white furniture, stone floors and contemporary wood aspects. It is full of bold geometry, graphics and clean lines and there is as much outdoor as indoor living space. The roof terrace is fantastic. You can have breakfast and bump into interesting people, such as Rhys Ifans or Sienna Miller, or an American digital philosopher.

I love the Condesa district, just west of La Roma; there are elements of Hoxton in the way it’s been remodelled, but it’s still Mexican rather than something that feels transplanted. It’s very vibrant, with dozens of restaurants and lots of nightlife. It has a strange combination of elegance, freedom and control.

The same people who own Condesa DF own the equally contemporary Habita, which was the venue for a great party I went to recently. It’s in an arresting, impressive glass box of a building in the Polanco district and, like the Condesa, is ultra bright, predominantly white and has a fantastic roof terrace with a pool. Polanco is incredibly chic; with its Armani and Gucci shops you can sometimes forget you’re in Mexico City and think you’re in Milan.

The hotel restaurants in Mexico City are surprisingly good. I particularly like the Hip Kitchen and Bar at The Hippodrome Hotel: a mod-bistro that specialises in Mexican-fusion cuisine (empanadas is a favourite dish, but so is edamame with prosciutto) in an elegant 1930s deco building. Au Pied du Cochon at the Presidente InterContinental hotel is somewhere I go that might best be described as a 24-hour Wolseley. It’s a big-city, international glossy hotel dining room with lots of pig motifs on the walls, roasted pig’s trotter on the menu and a really lively late-night crowd. You could spend a whole day here, which I intend to one day. It has a fascinating, somewhat overdressed, wonderfully overwrought clientele – many of them in incredible fur coats – that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.

In 2008 I came here to edit another film and set up in a large suite at The Red Tree House, which is a sort of post-hippie kind of hotel that reminds me of being in Istanbul in 1966. I stayed on to look for a house, initially in Condesa and then in La Roma, where I found the perfect 1930s art deco place.

There’s a brilliant old cantina quite near me called Covadonga – a huge, bustling, noisy place with wooden chairs, picture windows and football permanently showing on the TV. They serve octopus, tortillas and free aperitivos with drinks in the evening. It used to be one of those typical Mexico City hangouts for old dominos players but it’s been taken over by a younger arty crowd, though not in a disagreeable way.

I also like Javier Carral’s secondhand furniture store Trouvé, where you can always find excellent leather chairs and modern Mexican design. Javier scours the whole country for interesting pieces and supplies some of his raw finds to a fantastic French guy called Emamanuel Picault, who has a design store called Chic by Accident. His furniture is brilliant but staggeringly expensive; I always tell him this, and he just shrugs in that French way and says, “Yes, it is.”

He’s something of a design guru, and created the interior for the very chichi Roma tea shop, the Maison Française de Thé: Caravanseraï, which has excellent cakes. There are also great vintage finds at Chez Jeanne, which is a private house rather than a regular store, so you have to make an appointment. It sells a lot of jewellery that dates from the 1920s to the 1940s.

I often take breakfast at a beautiful place called Casa Lamm. It’s a cultural centre in a classic 19th-century building, with a glassed-in restaurant very stylishly added on, and an excellent art bookshop called Librería Pegaso.

My favourite fish restaurant is Contramar, a very upscale lunch spot that might well be the best-quality restaurant in the whole city. You can get species of shellfish here that I’ve never heard of anywhere else, as well as tuna tostadas with chipotle-chilli-flavoured mayonnaise. The restaurant is only open until 6.30pm; late lunching habits here are even more extreme than in Spain.

I also love a place called Peces. Outside there’s a sign that reads, “The only restaurant in Mexico City not owned by Carlos Slim.” It has tiny tables and live music and is run by a wonderful woman called Teresa who sings every Friday night. The fish dishes are organised on the menu by geography – there’s even British fish and chips on there – with about 20 different sauces.

The best thing I have discovered in La Roma is the Mercado Medellín, the most immense fruit and veg market. It’s fantastic and has eight or so restaurants inside. You wander in and find 10 different varieties of mango.

There’s a café and bookshop close to the market called El Péndulo that has a fantastic collection of Spanish-language books – it makes me realise how relatively few foreign-language books make it into translation. They also have a bookcase with English-language titles; I think if I lived there permanently, its turnover would be enough to satisfy me. The second time I went in, they had my book, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, sitting next to Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche. I had my photograph taken in front of them. I doubt that it was ever restocked.

In Mexico City you have to be a tourist, as this is one of the greatest cities in the world for architecture, art and history. There are fantastic museums and churches that I still haven’t been to. Obviously, you should visit the Frida Kahlo Museum and Trotsky’s House, where he was assassinated by a Russian agent with an ice pick. And I think the best way to understand the Mexican people is to go to Alameda Central park, which has the most wonderful, continuous carnival atmosphere around its fountains and hills. It’s a scene that seems more geared towards locals than tourists, and all the better for it.

I have a great desire to play in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, facing Alameda Central. It’s a beautiful theatre, with art deco interiors, and it also has a great art bookshop inside. On the other hand, you could lose yourself in the Museo Nacional de Antropología (the National Museum of Anthropology) for days. Every region in Mexico has its own room and you can focus on a single representation of any ancient or folk culture without your attention being diverted by a competing one – it makes you realise that the British Museum’s recent Moctezuma exhibition [September 2009-January 2010] was very Eurocentric.

I recently made a short film of a guy pushing a cart through the streets of La Roma, and it highlighted my preconceptions and cultural misinterpretations of the city. I’d assumed he was dispossessed and carrying all of his possessions with him. Three of his bags fell off and a dustman picked them up and threw them into his dustcart. I thought he was throwing the man’s belongings away, mistaking them for rubbish.

Later I showed the film to a friend who explained to me that I’d got it wrong – the man with the cart was collecting rubbish for the dustbin men, and being paid to do it. There’s a whole dustcart culture here that’s really worthy of study. Like so many things in Mexico City, it’s entirely unique.”

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