Colorado's Cliff Palaces: The most beautiful jewel west of the Skelligs
Shane Fitzsimons visits Mesa Verde National Park, and the gorgeous ghost estates in its canyon walls.
In the south-west corner of Colorado, nestled high in the red rock canyons of a storybook landscape, lies a mysterious ruin that whispers of ancient civilisations, of silent and forgotten rituals, and of the tenacity and determination of a people whose ways have vanished - though their buildings still stand.
It's a place called Mesa Verde, and it will take your breath away.
Granted, you may well be short of breath once you arrive at Mesa Verde National Park, as the 800-year-old cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people are almost 2,500m above sea level, and at this altitude the air is thinner - and you will gasp to fill your lungs with oxygen as you scrabble up a 60ft ladder set into the steep side of a canyon cliff.
But scrabble up the vertigo-inducing ladders you will, for these adobe brick houses are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful and most important cultural jewel west of the Skelligs. Let me tell you why.
But first, a quick diversion - some necessary background.
Today only the swifts and swallows make their homes in the cliffs - but 1100 years ago it was very different. The entire south-west region of what today is Colorado had been home for millennia to Ancestral Pueblo people (forefathers of today's Hopi tribes). They were smart and they were skilful, settling the plateau between the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers where they farmed corn, pumpkin, beans, hunted bighorn goats, reared turkeys, and made their magnificent pottery and baskets.
But their greatest achievement was that they built. They used hard quartzite hammer stones to carve out the softer sandstone blocks, which they cemented together with mortar of sand, ash and clay. They smoothed over the rough block inside and outside of their homes with a fine plaster, which they sometimes coloured red, white or yellow.
And they built big. Donald Trump big. In Chaco Canyon they built apartment complexes of up to 700 rooms - four- or five-storey houses centred around a plaza, with the front rooms facing the plaza finished as large prestige apartments and smaller rooms extending the suite to the rear.
And they built roads too (more than 300km of which have been excavated), along which they transported luxury goods such as turquoise, marine shells, musical instruments, exotic animals and high-status pottery pieces. And though they had a complex religious belief system, they lived in peace (excavated burial sites showing little sign of death by conflict).
And then, after building this golden age, something happened. Something bad.
It may have been a water-related problem, it may have been a sudden onslaught of raiding tribes from the Rockies to the north or the Plains to the east - it may have been both combined in a perfect storm. We just do not know. What we do know is that late in the 1100s they began to dismantle their religious sites, and a few years later their now deplenished peoples left the tops of the mesas (a mesa is an isolated flat-topped hill with steep sides; you've seen them a million times in a million cowboy movies) and started building the cliff houses of Mesa Verde.
What led them to hunker down in the canyons remains anyone's guess. Some of the cliff houses have loopholes, allowing sightlines to be taken overlooking the trails leading into the canyons. Did arrows ever rain out of these loopholes?
They're obviously defensive buildings. Why else would you move your family - your old people, your infant children - from an expansive wooded mesa top into a brick terrace clinging precariously to the side of a cliff, hundreds of feet from the canyon floor? And why would you spend 20 years in a Herculean effort to haul thousands of bricks up from that canyon floor, haul tonnes of clay and mortar up the cliff to build supporting walls and level floors?
By counting the number of hearths used in the 150-room construction, archaeologists estimate that only 120 people at a time lived at the Cliff Palace. All that effort, all those granaries, all those living rooms - for just 120 souls? Who on earth were these people?
And here's the rub: just 80 years after building the structures at Mesa Verde, the Puebloans fled - mid-meal, it seems, in some sites. High-status goods abandoned, no sign of looting, just ghost estates high on the canyon walls.
After the Puebloans left, their villages remained abandoned - but they were not entirely forgotten. The Navajo peoples moved into the area, and of course they knew of the existence of these stately homes - but they were wary of ancestral spirits who they said loitered about the place, and so they steered clear.
In fact, it was not until the hard winter of 1888 - a full 500 years later - that a pair of cowboys out grazing cattle on the high mesa rode out along the dense juniper forest at the edge of the adjoining canyon and saw through the blowing snow what they thought was "a magnificent city" hidden under the sandstone cliffs.
At the time, the popular idea of Native Americans was of nomadic tent-dwellers, and the idea that weatherproof brick-built houses - still filled with intricately pattered pottery, picked out in black and white designs - pre-dated European settlement by hundreds of years must have caused consternation. After all, US policy at the time was (and remained for many years) to corral Native Americans onto reservation lands and deny them their cultural heritage.
Tourists flocked to see the site, and, of course, being tourists, they wanted souvenirs - so they bent down and picked them up. In fact, one early archaeologist, a Scandinavian called Nordenskiold, picked up so many that today the largest collection of artefacts from Mesa Verde is to be found in the Museum of Finland.
In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt gave the go ahead to the creation of the Mesa Verde National Park and passed the Federal Antiquities Act in an effort to "preserve the works of man". By any reckoning, the greatest gift that can be given to succeeding generations - and by extension, to tourists like us - is exploring the wonders that Colorado state has to offer.
We had touched down in Denver a few days earlier, flying from Dublin through Washington DC, where our feet barely touched the ground before our connecting flight brought us to the Mile High city. That's the first thing that people tell you about Denver: it's exactly 1,610 metres above sea level - but such factoids obscure the charms of this city.
A quick look at the most recent stats tells its own story. These days everyone in the US wants to live in Colorado - the city has grown massively in recent years, with wannabe Coloradans attracted by its high standard of living, its proximity to the outdoor playground that is the Rocky Mountains, and the lure of easy-going Coloradan attitudes. And the Denver Bronco's triumph in the Superbowl earlier this year only served to seal the deal.
Feeling peckish after our long travels, we stopped in to The Source, just one of the latest additions to Denver's arty nightlife scene, which centres around the former industrial centre of River North area (RiNo for short). The traditional redbrick warehouses and factories just a 10-minute drive from the city centre are being re-kitted as the up and coming urban central - and The Source is the jewel in the crown.
Based in a former iron foundry, the converted warehouse is now home to restaurants, a craft beer brewery, a bar, a butcher, a baker, and (vegetarians look away now) perhaps the best steak that you're likely to eat in the entire US - the 18oz cowboy one-in ribeye that they serve in Acorn. It took three of us tucking in to that beast before we could make any headway. No wonder, after typically generous American portions of shrimp and grits in Tabasco and white wine, and wagyu beef tartare with parmesan and celery on the side.
Acorn's cocktails are in a league of their own and as I merrily sipped on a virgin cocktail - the Acorn agua fresca, with peach, watermelon aloe, fresno chilli, clove, vanilla, ginger beer and lemon - herself indulged in a compatriot (beefeater gin with absolut elyx vodka, benedictine, luxardo sangue morlacco, lime, tepache, ginger beer and angostura bitters - after which it's goodnight Irene).
Rising fashionably late the next day we wandered down 16th Street to Union Station - former railhead of Denver ever since the days when the city was the currency capital of the States, with billions of dollars worth of silver and gold being dug out of the earth every year.
En route we stopped in at the Tattered Cover bookstore (which covers a whole block), only to find that we'd missed a book signing by Mike Love of the Beach Boys by 30 minutes. Cue four-part wailing and a gnashing of teeth that was only calmed by a visit to Snooze diner for the best eggs benedict I've ever had anywhere - the 'Benny Goodman' (lox-style salmon and cream cheese over toasted rye with a caper relish on the eggs). America really does the best breakfasts in the world.
Later in the day, as we slipped in and out of the excellent Wax Trax record shop, and then wandered down to the dive bar meccas of South Broadway, I found myself recalling one of Denver's biggest fans - writer Jack Kerouac, whose On The Road chronicles nightlife in the Mile High City in the Fifties.
The book's hero - Dean Moriarty - was based on Denver native Neal Cassady who haunted the bars of then run-down Larimer Square. You won't see a seedy side today - Larimer has gone upscale, with some of the city's best restaurants and most chic shops replacing the dark pool halls. But the atmospheric Victorian architecture remains - and as I half closed my eyes to psychically visit Kerouac's world, one line from On The Road came back to me: "Here I was in Denver…I stumbled along with the most wicked grin of joy in the world..."
He hit that nail on the head.
* Getting to Colorado is cheaper than you think, with return flights little more than €70 over the cost of flying to the US east coast - and for that you can combine a metropolitan shopping trip in Denver with all the wonders of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. United Arlines got Shane there from Dublin for €570 return. For more information on Colorado see Colorado.com.
* While in Denver Shane stayed at the Renaissance Hotel (rendendowntown.com). It's central and has efficient, wonderful staff.
For more information on Denver see VisitDenver.com.
Aspire Walking Tours run informative walking tours of the city. Tell them John Denver sent you and watch them laugh at such an original joke.
* You'll find more information on Colorado's national parks including Mesa Verde at nps.gov. And in Cortez Shane stayed in the White Eagle Inn (whiteeagleinn.com).
The Rocky Mountains are under an hour's drive from the centre of Denver, home of Superbowl winners, the Broncos.
TAKE THREE: Top attractions
Robert Frost wrote about the road not taken, and if I could go back to Rioja restaurant in Larimer Square I would take the menu choice not chosen (or rather, only chosen as a starter). I would ask for the artichoke tortelloni. It’s tortelloni filled with artichoke mousse, queso de mano (a soft white Venezuelan cheese) and chervil and is served in a creamy white truffle brodo (or broth). Then I would die happily, having left all my worldly goods to the chef. That is all I can say. See riojadenver.com.
Denver Art Museum
Housed in a suitably impressive building near Capitol Hill is the Denver Art Museum — and while there are genre-shaping works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Burchfield and Thomas Hart Benton (I’m not even mentioning the European works — the Picassos, Monets etc), my two top tips are the collections of pre-Columbian artefacts and its Spanish colonial rooms. I guarantee you will not have seen collections like these before, and the range and depth of the pre-Columbian collection will stun you. Set aside a couple of hours at least. And after that, check out the Clyfford Still Museum next door, which features the world’s biggest collection by the abstract expressionist. Nice.
There’s a time on every holiday when the desire for a top-of-the-range hotel trumps every other roadside attraction in town. When that mood hits in Denver, you hit the Renaissance Hotel. It’s the best-located hotel in town, situated in what used to be the Colorado National Bank — built in the former Colorado National Bank. It still has the massive steel vaults, from where miners could lodge their gold and silver ore and be paid in US currency. Yes, it’s luxury — but you deserve it. See rendendowntown.com.