The wonders of Santa Fe - art blossoms in the desert

ACEQUIA Madre is not a tourist road. Unless you knew someone living there, you would have no reason to discover it on your trip to Santa Fe. And that would be a shame, because you would be missing an aspect of this old town that is at once beautiful, peaceful, secretive, and quintessentially Santa Fean.

Acequia Madre may be loosely translated as Mother of Irrigation Ditches: a logical name in a town where water is so precious that to have an irrigation ditch running by your house has historically been a status symbol.

To drive down Acequia Madre, with its tawny pink adobe walls on each side, interrupted by an occasional heavy wooden gate and overhung at intervals with the feathery silver-green of gambel oaks, is to feel how Spanish this city really is. For you can only glimpse the houses of residents on Acequia Madre. They are private, secluded, protected by peaceful desert gardens, by sand-colored walls often three feet thick, by wrought iron bars covering windows in elegant, simple patterns. On this stretch you can glimpse the varied, vivid charm of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe is foreign yet American, sunbaked yet cool, primitive and earthy yet sophisticated and chic: stark simplicity amid a wealth of art, culture, and consumerism.

It was founded when Shakespeare was alive, the tallest buildings are under 64 feet high, and the all-pervading color is that glowing, yet delicate, tawny salmon pink.

History buffs, lovers of Indian crafts, gallery-hoppers, window-shoppers, and theater and concert enthusiasts will all be attracted by Santa Fe, proudly described by its tourist board as the City Different.

Santa Fe is ''foreign'' in that it is more a Spanish, Mexican, and Indian city than an American one. The Spaniards, through their rich and prosperous colony of Mexico, or New Spain, had begun sending explorers and missionary friars into New Mexico before the end of the 16th century. New Mexico was a Spanish colony during the entire 17th and 18th centuries, became Mexican with the independence of that country in 1821, and only became one of the United States in 1912.

But long before the Spaniards, Mexicans, or Americans, it was the 19 tribes of Pueblo Indians to whom New Mexico belonged. They have been there for at least a thousand years, cultivating the land, building their fortified adobe ''apartment'' dwellings, practicing their all-encompassing religion, and producing their incomparable handicrafts.

The very sight of Santa Fe will corroborate this multi-cultured history. Just about every building is of adobe, that sunbaked mud material adopted by the Pueblos centuries ago. It makes for low-lying, flat-topped structures embellished with nothing but the ends of rough-hewn beams. The corners of adobe houses are gently rounded, as if worn down by the persistent desert winds. Many signs of the 20th century, such as billboards and neon, are simply not there.

The temptation to dawdle in the shops around Santa Fe's historic square Plaza , or linger among the Indian jewelry-sellers at the Palace of the Governors, is strong. This terrific town boasts more top-flight art than many larger cities, and it literally gleams with silver and turquoise, exquisitely crafted in infinite variations by the Pueblo Indian tribes. You can also be charmed by wonderful Indian pottery and rugs, with ''primitive'' designs that are timelessly classic and modern all at once. But for all their abundance, rock-bottom bargains in Indian crafts are hard to find. Shoppers in Santa Fe tend to be well heeled, and sellers generally ask what the market will bear.

If you can tear yourself away from the Plaza with its venerable low-lying buildings and swarms of eager tourists, you can actually do some serious museum-visiting in this, the nation's oldest city that serves as a state capital. Just off the Plaza is the Museum of Fine Arts, with its large permanent collection of the works of promi-nent Southwest artists. Along one side of the Plaza itself is the famous Palace of the Governors, built in 1609 and successively occupied by Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and American (including Confederate) governments. It now houses exhibits tracing the colorful and turbulent history of the state. And along its Plaza side, of course, is the ubiquitous line of Indians displaying their jewelry in the shade of its portal, or porch.

There is something about this sight that is so colorful, exotic, and dramatic that it has come to personify the charm of Santa Fe. The Plaza itself will be drenched in sunlight, and in the shadows under the portal will be a river of silver jewelry spread on cloths upon the ground, studded with flashes of turquoise. And sitting with their backs to the palace wall will be the Indians, their faces serious and proud, yet gentle, too, their jet-black hair gleaming like their silver handiwork. The Indians selling there monitor the authenticity of their wares, and every item must either have been made by the seller or a member of his immediate family. The photographing of these Indians at the Palace of the Governors is strictly prohibited.

To find the primitive, untouched aspect of Santa Fe, simply take any road in the center of town and drive for about 10 minutes in any direction. The endless Southwestern landscape will stretch out all around you. Where the town ends, the wilderness begins. To the north will be the towering Sangre de Cristo mountains, really the tail end of the Rockies. It is said they were named ''Blood of Christ'' because of the blood-red glow cast on their slopes by the setting sun.

To your left, beyond a wide plain, are more mountains, but very different from the Sangre de Cristos. They are extinct volcanoes, and with their gradual conelike shape, they look it. Geologically they are a much older group than the higher Sangre de Cristos.

The ground around you outside of Santa Fe will be pale pink, studded with rotund pinon and juniper bushes about four feet high. At any distance, these bushes take on the look of dark green polka dots against the pink background of the hills. And always, except in the early morning when the sky is nothing but a blaze of blue, you will be accompanied by the giant, bulbous, gleaming white cloud formations of the Southwest.

With such powerful scenic surroundings, it is only natural that Santa Fe should have long attracted artists. They have come here and stayed, enchanted by the mystery and poetry of the place.

Fine art galleries abound here, but I found that one in particular gave me a wonderful introduction to the art of the Southwest: the Wadle Galleries at 128 West Palace, just off the Plaza. The owners and staff are so friendly, the many chairs and seats so inviting, the large and small exhibition spaces so peaceful, intimate, and conducive to uninterrupted gazing, and the quality of art so outstanding, that one can spend hours there and come away inspired and refreshed.

When I visited, the large landscapes of Laurence Sisson were among the most impressive paintings, though perhaps my favorites were the impressionistic pastels of Albert Handell, the luminous watercolors of James Kramer, or the romantic and delicate still lifes of Caroline Norton.

It is telling to note, by the way, that Laurence Sisson and Caroline Norton are originally from New England, Albert Handell is from New York, and James Kramer from Ohio. But the pull of the Southwest has been such a powerful influence on them that here they remain.

What else is there for the tourist to do in Santa Fe? You can take a highly informative walking tour of 21/2 hours, which will acquaint you with the history , architecture, and folklore of the town. Or you can hop the ''Roadrunner'' open bus for a shorter but still instructive tour. In the evening you can attend the world-famous Santa Fe Opera a few miles north of the city; the Santa Fe Festival Theatre, which presents three productions (one a world premiere) every summer; the Desert Chorale; or the Santa Fe Chamber Orchestra, to name but a few.

Christmas is a particularly lovely time in Santa Fe. Snow is usually plentiful on the surrounding mountains, and the skiing is reported to be excellent. In town, farolitos - lighted candles standing in sand at the bottom of paper bags - are everywhere, giving out a soft yellow glow. A musical procession known as Las Posadas begins every evening at 7:30 during mid-December. Santa Fe's restaurants, always festive and always serving superb New Mexican food, are especially inviting. In winter there are fewer tourists, and the town can seem to belong to you, to reveal some little-known secrets, to entice you to linger and savor its special charm.

In fact, lingering is so easy to do in Santa Fe, one wonders how many residents originally came as visitors, and never managed to tear themselves away.


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