After a delicious dinner, a good visit with our Toluca hosts, and a relaxing night at their lovely home, we went the next day to visit the Castillo in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. This major landmark has always been near the top of every list of places to see in Mexico, but somehow we had missed seeing it on our various visits to the city. This time we got to enjoy this treat with our friends. Chapultepec Hill (“hill of the grasshoppers”) was a sacred Aztec site, near the center of modern Mexico City. The castle was originally built at the top of that hill starting about 1775, but then changed in purpose and ownership a number of times. The castle settled in as the site of the Mexican Military Academy for some years in the mid-19th century. That was when the US Marine Corps lost lots of troops storming the castle in 1847 (hence the “Halls of Montezuma” in the Marine Corps Hymn). A few years later, when the French had installed Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico, the castle was renovated to be the palace of the new monarch and his wife Carlota. Maximilian ordered the construction of a magnificent boulevard leading from the city center to the palace; today that is the “Paseo de la Reforma” (originally named to honor the Empress Carlota). After the Empire was defeated and the Reforma took over, the castle remained the residence of the President through the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and beyond. Then when Lazaro Cardenas was elected president in 1934 he moved the presidential residence to “Los Pinos” nearby in Chapultepec Park, and dedicated the Castillo to become the National Museum of History (1939).
The Castillo commands a most imposing view of the city from the top of Chapultepec Hill. On one side you can look straight down the Paseo de la Reforma toward the city center, over the massive Monument to the Heroic Boys (Niños Héroes). Midway along Paseo de la Reforma, you can see the "Ángel de la Independencia", the Monument to Independence, the symbol of Mexico City.
A portion of the history museum preserves many rooms in the forms they were used during the brief reign of Emperor Maximilian. Other rooms show the style preferred by President Porfirio Diaz. All of these reflect sumptuous luxury, on a scale to match any European golden age.
A spectacular wall of five French stained glass windows adds to the glories of this top level.After our tour we were able to enjoy a free piano recital in the auditorium of the top level of the castle. The pianist, Eva del Carmen Medina Amezcua, played a program of Chopin and Ponce with great style.
Some of the most beautiful formal gardens we’ve seen are on the roof of the Castillo. The center is occupied by the Caballero Alto (“Tall Knight”) added as watchtower for the Military Academy.
As befits the Mexican National Museum of History, displays include powerful murals by some of the famous Mexican muralists. What treasures! The murals in the Lion Staircase entrance include the ceiling mural by Gabriel Flores depicting one of the Niños Héroes, shown jumping from the Castillo wrapped in the Mexican flag, in order to prevent the US Marines from capturing it. "Juárez, símbolo de la República contra la Intervención Francesa" by Antonio González Orozco" is in the entrance to the Carriage Museum. "La Reforma y la Caída del Imperio" by José Clemente Orozco depicts Benito Juarez in victory in 1867 over the Empire of Maximilian. The 1969 mural by Juan O'Gorman shows President Francisco Madero celebrating triumph over the dictatorship in 1913, under his slogan of "no reelection". At the other end of the room, O'Gorman pairs the "Dictadura" with the "Represión". The amazing multi-layered mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros titled "Del porfirismo a la Revolución" gave our visit an awe-inspiring finish.