Trail of the Unexpected: Frida Kahlo

Get closer to the real Frida Kahlo by staying at her holiday in Mexico

By Rhiannon Batten
Saturday 08 March 2003 01:00
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The floor-sweeping skirts, the striking facial hair, and a taste for dramatic jewellery – the UK is currently caught up in Frida Kahlo fever following the opening of Salma Hayek's long-planned film, Frida.

If you want to get an original insight into the Mexican artist's life in her home country, though, you're unlikely to find it while queuing up with the crowds beside the indigo walls of Kahlo's one-time Mexico City home, the Casa Azul. Or by joining the line next to the cacti that form a fence round her – and husband Diego Rivera's – onetime studio. For a more off-beat picture of the woman whose surrealist self-portraits are soon likely to be replacing Che Guevara on any self-respecting student's wall, head instead to Mexico's mountainous south, and the hacienda where she used to holiday.

The sprawling Casa Na Bolom, on the edges of San Cristobal de Las Casas, was built in 1891. Translated, it means House of the Jaguar but it is also a pun on the name of its last owners, the Swiss-German couple Trudi and Franz Blom. They established it as a charitable foundation in the 1950s, in an attempt to protect the area's indigenous Lacandon people – and the jungle territory in which they lived. Since their deaths, the brightly painted hacienda and the educational schemes the Bloms set up are kept going by an ever-changing rota of volunteers.

The quick rundown on the foundation's history that you get on a guided tour is interesting enough, if a little dubious. The idea that the last spiritual leader of the Lacandons still had the energy to be fathering children at 117, as you're told, is hard to believe. But it is the motivation and methods behind the Bloms' life mission that really unsettle. While Franz had a degree in archaeology, he was also an alcoholic who came to the area looking for oil. Trudi, an exile from Nazi Germany, arrived there in 1943 to interview Zapatista women. Meeting – and subsequently marrying – Franz, Trudi became fascinated by the Lacandon and started taking photographs of them – 50,000 by the time she'd finished, some of which are now on display at Casa Na Bolom. Taken in the days before the idea of passive anthropological observation, the images show women posed in boats and men curling smoke at the camera.

Interesting, then, that these were Kahlo's close friends. So close that Frida and Diego would spend some time here every year – a fact recognised by the sculpture one visiting artist has left of La doble vida de Diego Riviera. One side shows him sitting piously with his grandmother, the other being pickpocketed during a drunken bout. The Kahlo connection is even more obvious in Trudi's room. The Lacandon nicknamed Trudi "Queen of the Jungle" for her extravagant sense of style, but it's likely that her style was, in effect, a homage to Kahlo – as evidenced in the collection of studded saddlebags, Mexican jewellery, Frida-esque costumes, and ornate mirrors now on display in the room.

That the two women should have become friends is not, on one level, surprising. Here were two fiercely independent, middle-class women, who were both politically active (while Frida embraced Communism, Trudi fought to protect the Lacandons). What is surprising is the fact that Trudi had any friends at all, considering her general unpleasantness.

Apparently, Trudi liked to be called "leader". So domineering was she that people tried not to sit next to her at dinner in case she hit them with her stick. Even the chair she once sat in to eat (at the head of the one long, wooden table at which Casa Na Bolom's guests still sit) has been removed – following her screeching instruction that no tourists were to sit on it after she'd died.

The irony is that, today, Casa Na Bolom is one of the country's most peaceful places to stay. Open to visitors either just for dinner or for overnight visits, there are rooms in the main building and cottages in the garden. The cottages are by far the best, surrounded by unkempt flowerbeds and much neater rows of vegetables and herbs, and looking out over forested mountains on the other side of the valley. Here you get to lie on antique Mexican beds, propped up on the kind of homely cushions that look like they were hand-embroidered in the days when Kahlo used to come here.

And if the thought of Trudi's ghost putting in a stick-brandishing appearance at the breakfast table puts you off, don't worry. It's all run with a much more light-hearted approach these days. As a gentle reminder of the local surroundings, you start your day by deciding which archaeological site you'd most like to visit; Palenque gets you muesli and yoghurt, yaxchilan the same with eggs.

Casa Na Bolom is at 33 Guerrero, San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico (00 52 967 678 1418; www.ecosur.mx/nabolom). En suite doubles cost from 550 pesos (£30) per night

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