SANTA FE, N.M. -- Strings of bright red chilies hung out to dry -- ristras, they are called -- are everywhere in la Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi), thankfully shortened to Santa Fe some years back.
The fresh chilies are brilliant, slowly darkening to the leathery black of worn cowboy boots as they hang against sandy brown adobe walls. They hang beside the traditional turquoise blue trim around doorways and windows -- a color chosen because the Indians believed it kept away evil spirits.
Ristras dangle from balconies and fences and mailboxes and, in their brightest red hue, from the arms of Santa Fe-smitten tourists decked out in new silver-trimmed belts and cowboy boots. Does anyone ever leave this place without taking home a ristra? Unlikely.
Even the movie ratings in the local paper are marked with chilies. Four mean the flick is hot, three signify tasty and films that could use more spice are given just one or two. If it's really a clunker, it's not good enough for even one chili; it gets an onion.
Not much else in Santa Fe rates an onion. This strikingly beautiful, surprisingly compact city of 56,000 in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is intense and colorful. Its air is unpolluted -- and a bit thin at 7,000 feet -- and the light is a photographer's dream.
From the curves of its adobe buildings outlined against the cobalt blue Western sky and its strong faces representing the Spanish, Indian and Anglo cultures that coexist with mutual respect, to the pottery, paintings, sculptures, rugs and elaborate jewelry as ubiquitous as the ristras, it is a city with character to match its beauty. No wonder so many films are shot here. The Mickey Rourke film "White Sands" is in residence, and the crew has been hanging around Santa Fe so long people hardly give the moviemakers a second glance.
Santa Fe has its idiosyncrasies, too. There has been no public transportation since the small Chili Line, a three-bus, one-route system, went out of business last year. Santa Feans without cars can take taxis to go beyond downtown, but they can pick up half-off coupons at the Public Library, which eases the burden somewhat.
Nor are there high rises. Merrill-Lynch occupies a two-story building, for instance. The fifth-floor Bell Tower Lounge at La Fonda hotel, where many visitors go to watch sunsets paint the sky with impressionist colors, is the highest point downtown, just beating out another five-story luxury hotel, the Eldorado. Because of their adobe-style construction, the hotels tend to look deceptively small, but the Eldorado has 200 rooms.
Three new hotels opened just this year -- the small, super-elegant and very expensive Inn of Anasazi (the Ancients), the Plaza Real and Hotel Santa Fe -- but it is impossible to tell them from the old. Hotel St. Francis, built in 1924 and recently spruced up with a $6 million renovation, retains a bit of the look of the Old South with its long veranda where guests sip afternoon tea in warm weather.
Also new within the year is Dos Casas Viejas, a wonderful bed-and- breakfast that its proprietors, Jois and Irving Belfield, prefer to call an inn. It has just three rooms in two historical 1860s adobe buildings with Mexican tile floors and bathrooms and wood-burning fireplaces. Each room has its own patio and separate entrance, and there is that Santa Fe rarity, a heated lap pool, behind the main house.
Another downtown hotel, the Inn at Loretto, its walls decorated with hand-painted designs based on 11th century pottery in lieu of conventional framed paintings, shares the grounds of the 1873 Chapel of Our Lady of the Light, no longer a place of worship but a tourist attraction. Its legendary spiral staircase, said to have been built by a mysterious carpenter who used only a saw, hammer and T-square, and who disappeared before he could be paid, makes two 360-degree turns with no visible support as it ascends to the choir loft.
There is so much to do in and around Santa Fe it would take many more days than the four and a half I spent there even to scratch the surface. One day was spent exploring prehistoric Indian caves carved into volcanic rock at Bandelier National Monument, in the rugged wilderness canyon country only 15 miles out of town, and stopping at the Santa Clara pueblo where the Indians make exquisite black pottery without the help of a wheel. Lunch that day was in the 1880s inn, Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo, in the quaint village of Chimayo, where lots of the group bought -- what else? -- ristras at an open-air shop run by the local woodcarver.
I was so taken with Santa Fe's street scene, the warrens of shops and galleries that beg to be discovered, the resonant Southwestern cuisine served by genuinely friendly Southwesterners (they are so happy to live here it shows in their attitude) and the sheer physical beauty of the place that I never found time to set foot in the museums.