TRAVEL: The ways of Santa Fe

Since D H Lawrence came in the Twenties, Santa Fe has been known as a p eaceful community of apostles of the arts. At 7,000ft above sea level, the heat here is dry, the air clear, and the sun unfailing
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"FOR GREATNESS of beauty I have never experienced anything like New Mexico," wrote D H Lawrence, who settled briefly in the mountains above Santa Fe in 1922. He was less sure about the people: "There are some American artists, sort of colony, butnot much in contact," he added casually in a letter home. These neighbours whose society Lawrence did not cultivate were in fact none other than a newly arrived elite of the East Coast avant-garde, including the painters Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, as well as the photographer Ansel Adams, and their spiritual descendants are still in residence today. Ever since Lawrence's sojourn, bands of disgruntled Ameri-can idealists have been trickling into this idyllic desert city, bringing their paint brushes and manuscripts with them. Nowadays, it is the better class of voluntary Hollywood exile - Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard among them - who gets the attention as they drive their station wagons to the supermarket and play at being normal.

The celebrities come to Santa Fe, as everyone always has, for its perfect summer: at 7,000 feet above sea level, the heat here is dry, the air clear, the sun unfailing. They come, too, out of an innocent snobbery: Santa Fe retains its reputation as a peaceful community of apostles of the arts, a place with tradition and continuity and a long, deep history. The city shows lineaments of Christian civilisation as old as anything in America, for the Spanish were here busily disenfranchising the native Anasazi Indians before the Pilgrim Fathers had even landed at Plymouth Rock - the Palace of the Governors, now a museum, contains walls dating back to 1610. A lot else in Santa Fe "dates back": it is all very picturesque, but restoration makes much of it phoney.

The ubquitous adobe brick, New Mexico's architectural vernacular, has been scrubbed down and coated with sealant; any hint of Hispanic quaintness is preserved in the pickle of plastic. The pots and figurines sold by the sullen Indians in the main plaza are mostly mass-produced kitsch or crude imitations of once vital religious artefacts. New Californian money has pushed out old Texan money, and the long-dominant Spanish aristocracy is dwindling. "Forty years ago," one English resident told me, "you could have compared this place to whitewashed St Ives. Now it's more like tarted-up, corporate-owned Bath."

Yet Santa Fe still fosters much genuine cultural life, and nowhere I have been in the US holds the arts in such general high regard. At the centre of civic pride is the privately owned opera festival, which takes place this summer from 26 June-30 August.Founded in 1956 by the conductor-impresario John Crosby, who still rules with a baton of iron, it boasts a glittering list of patrons and sponsors. Inevitably, its glamour and seasonal nature have led to the festival being labelled the "American Glyndebourne", despite its being housed in an open-roofed stadium spectacularly perched on a hill overlooking a vast expanse of desert that could hardly be further from the bovine lushness of the South Downs. For most of the audience, the cultural reference point is more likely to be the drive-in movie: there is a huge tarmac car park in which you set up your picnic table, and the auditorium contains an enormous standing-room concourse for those who can't afford seats. The dress code is shirt-sleeve.

Standards of performance are very high, however, and what the institution does share with Glyndebourne is a commitment to the nurturing of young talent, much of it British, and a fine record for exploring byways of the operatic repertory and commissioning new pieces.

The 1995 season will include both Kalman's rarely heard operetta Countess Maritza and the premiere of David Lang's Modern Painters, alongside those old favourites Le Nozze di Figaro, La Fanciulla del West and Salome. Be warned: tickets can be hard to come by (call 0101 505 982 3855 for booking details). In tandem with the opera jamboree runs an equally celebrated chamber music festival, with concerts held in several of the city's finer Catholic churches (0101 505 983 2075).

Music crowns Santa Fe's summer, but its year-round infatuation is visual art. In a city half the size of Oxford, there are more than 150 galleries, feeding a market that has been estimated as the biggest in the United States outside New York and Los Angeles. To fill all those miles of wall space, what started as an art-world colony has expanded to become something more like a massive refugee camp. Streets such as Canyon Road are lined with the canvases and sculpture of thousands deluded by the charms ofSanta Fe into thinking that they have some talent: their vomited splurges of abstract expressionism, idiotic pop-art trivia and clumsy aping of Anasazi and Hispanic styles are hard to distinguish from the work of those with real invention or even a smattering of plain, honest skill.

Whatever a work's qualities, there is no shortage of takers: one of the city's major dealers, Elaine Horwitch, started off selling the stuff from the back of her station wagon. "We used to give art parties in people's houses," she told me. "Like it was Tupper-ware." Ah, America! Reassurance may be had from a visit to the attractive Museum of Fine Arts, on Palace Avenue. It contains some fine examples of the work of O'Keeffe and Hartley, who would surely be turning in their graves if they could see what they were unwittingly responsible for.

Most visitors to Santa Fe fly into Albuquerque, about an hour's drive south. Avoid the latter's sprawling and faceless city centre at all costs, but don't miss out on the many other minor delights which encircle Santa Fe. Here is a series of towns and settlements rich in cultural history and association of a specifically American kind. Remember Young Guns? That was filmed at Cerrillos; Tucumcari was immortalised in Frank Zappa's song "Willin'"; Shirley Maclaine's New Age guru, Chris Griscom, is based atGalisteo; Buddy Holly recorded "Peggy Sue" in Clovis - every hamlet seems to have had its brush with greatness.

Finally, there is Taos. Even those who mourn Santa Fe's loss of innocence will admit that its smaller, similar neighbour (an hour's drive north) maintains much of its pristine magic. Don't miss D H Lawrence's bizarrely erotic paintings in the hotel La Fonda de Taos, the beautiful Indian ceramics in the Millicent Rogers Museum (north on Highway 68), or the massive adobe church of San Francisco de Asis.

But most of all, try to strike up conversation with one of the older residents. On a visit to the Taos pueblo, least spooky and depressing of the local Indian reservations, I had an unforgettable encounter with an elderly lady of imperious dignity and (she claimed) Habsburg blood, who turned out to be one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Her reminiscences of O'Keeffe and Frieda Lawrence (who returned to New Mexico to queen it after her husband's death) were hilarious, and her views on the current state of New Mexican culture unprintable in their reckless political incorrectness.

She drove me down Highway 68 to Espanola and we had dinner at Rancho de Chimayo, New Mexico's finest restaurant. On the way back we stopped in the moonlight at the Santuario de Chimayo, an astonishing adobe church of sinister baroque intensity in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. If you ever thought American culture was just a toss up between Disneyland and McDonald's, it was an experience to make you think again.! TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: STA (071-937 9962) has flights to Albuquerque for £272 until the end of March. From there, there are train and bus connections to Sante Fe. Ring STA for details and prices. Trailfinders (071-938 3232) flies to Santa Fe via Denver for £386.

GETTING AROUND: Avis (081-848 8733) provide basic car hire, picking up from Sante Fe airport, from £132 per week.