I now know what it feels like to be inside a snow globe.
But instead of fake, swirling white snowflakes, substitute butterflies -- hundreds, thousands, millions of orange-and-black monarchs -- flying around like autumn leaves in a gale. Then, you can envision the scene at the Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary) near Morelia.
Each fall, 150 million of the butterflies set off from the northern United States for the highlands east of Morelia. They take on this annual migration -- about 2,500 miles -- to winter where the oyamel fir trees grow. From November through March, they gather to mate and feed on the nectar of local flowers.
Last winter, I began to envy the monarchs, which each year leave the cold and gloom for warmth and sunshine. How nice it would be to huddle together in the morning air of a mountaintop, then enjoy the midday sun in a forested preserve under an innocent blue sky.
So, in January, I flew to Mexico City with my wife, Janice, and our son, Paul, then took a comfortable but inexpensive bus west to Morelia, the capital of the Mexican state of Michoacán. We spent 10 days in Michoacán, which lies between Mexico City and the Pacific.
Morelia, which has more than half a million residents, was named Valladolid just after its founding in 1541, but it was renamed in 1828 in honor of José María Morelos, a local leader in Mexico's fight for independence from Spain. The Spanish influence remains, however, in Morelia's architecture.
UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1991, because more than 200 colonial-era buildings still stand in the city's center. Among them: a long stone aqueduct, which provides a series of graceful arches for games of hide-and-seek, and an 18th century fountain where three statues of women hold cornucopias of food.
Our mornings typically began with breakfast at one of the sidewalk cafes facing the zócalo, or town square. Café con leche (coffee with milk) -- so milky that it really should be called leche con café (milk with coffee) -- was followed by many happy combinations of eggs and peppers. My favorite was two fried eggs, one with red salsa, one with green. It looked like a spicy traffic light on a tortilla.
The cafes gave us diners a nice view of the pretty tower of San Agustín, an old monastery church across the square. Bells at the Cathedral of the Divine Savior rang as the world passed by our table.
The 18th century cathedral, whose exterior is pink, starts off simply, its lower level built of unadorned blocks. Then it gets Baroque, with balconies and niches for statues and pigeons, crowned with two 200-foot bell towers.
In contrast to its exterior, the cathedral's interior is sedate, its grays and browns reminding me of the parlor of a devout, wealthy grandmother.
The morning Janice and I toured the cathedral, it was busy, even during a weekday hour when Mass was not being said. Cleaning men polished gold trim and dusted statues of the saints. A woman trimmed chrysanthemums behind the altar, creating floral confetti. A little girl dipped her fingers in the holy water font and, unafraid of offending the pious, giggled. Two praying, middle-aged women advanced slowly on their knees down the center aisle toward the altar. A line of women waited for their turns in the open confessional.
Appropriately, I had an almost holy experience with a shoeshine on the sidewalk adjacent to the cathedral. The shoeshine man, exceedingly polite and neatly groomed, crossed himself as I hopped into his raised chair. The ensuing shine was the most thorough I've ever had; when I left, my ratty old shoes gleamed and my feet felt as though they had been massaged. I went back to him the next day, even though my shoes didn't need another shine.
Because Morelia is a university town, tourists can benefit from businesses that cater to students' needs -- maybe not shoeshines, but Internet cafes, laundromats, varied night life, inexpensive food and transportation.
The library at the University of Michoacán de San Nicolas de Hidalgo has three 10-foot levels of shelves sagging under the weight of ancient-looking volumes. The room smells deliciously booky.
A large, modern mural at one end shows likenesses of Albert Einstein and other representatives of scholarly fields. An academic building on the same street is designed so that each classroom opens onto a large central courtyard. Its stairwells are decorated with murals reflecting fierce patriotism and reverence for Mexico's freedom fighters.
Students often eat on the go, so I was not surprised that good tacos, gorditas and other fast food were plentiful. My favorite discovery was gaspacho, a sort of juice, sort of salad. The Morelian version consists of chopped pineapple and jicama, crumbled cheese, two kinds of peppers, salt, and lime and orange juice. You use a straw for the juice and a spoon for the crunchy remainder.