Sleepless in San Miguel. (San Miguel de Allende)
(includes travel information)
Author/s: David Lansing
Mystical, vibrant, surreal: This Mexican village turned national monument can fire a person's soul
It is dawn, just. A cool morning full of clanging church bells and muffled fireworks. The last day in September. Senor John Kay and I sit slumped in equipales, those peculiar Mexican curved-back chairs, on the patio of his small but elegant hotel, La Puertecita. I am unshaven, my eyes watery and red. Senor Kay doesn't look half as haggard, but then he is used to this. He lives here. Except for the briefest of afternoon naps, neither of us has slept in two days. It is safe to say that in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, only babies and village dogs sleep this time of year.
It is the end of the Fiestas del Santo Patrono San Miguel Arcangel - the Feasts of the Patron Saint Archangel Saint Michael. It began two days ago with a dawn candlelight procession through town to Mexico's most famous neo-Gothic church, La Parroquia, and ended this morning at 4, when half the town, Senor Kay and myself included, gathered in San Miguel's central square - called, simply, the Jardin, or Garden - wearing cardboard boxes over our heads.
It is difficult to explain, but to understand why we were standing in the Jardin with boxes over our heads two hours before dawn is to understand much about the complex nature of the Mexican spirit. We were standing in the garden wearing boxes because the church, La Parroquia, was shooting rockets and fireworks directly into the crowd, and without the boxes over our heads, we might be burned. But why, you might wonder, as did I, does the church shoot fireworks at the crowd? It is clear, Senor Kay says, shrugging: to fire a man's soul.
An age of riches
Located in the vast central highlands northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is as surreal as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and as vibrant as a Frida Kahlo painting. During the colonial period, when thick veins of ore in the nearby hills made the town as rich as the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, palatial mansions and ornate churches exploded across the Hill of Moctezuma, to which the town still clings, like Roman candles on a dark night.
It was an age of riches. Elegant residences fronted the Jardin, the town's communal living room. On Saturday evenings, young men in embroidered shirts and high-waisted jackets wooed beautiful, dark-haired women. Ancient women sat next to small carts with kerosene lamps selling roasted corn dusted with cinnamon, and charros, or Mexican cowboys, admired silver trim on belts and boots sold in the markets.
The thing is, it is still that way, though now the young men are more likely to wear crisp Polo shirts and the women prefer skintight black dresses to the long, gathered skirts and colorful rebozos of their ancestors.
Much of San Miguel, though certainly not all, has been frozen in time. In 1811, to be exact. That is the year the town's hero, General Ignacio Allende, was executed before a firing squad for leading the war for independence against Spain. His head was displayed for 10 years in a cage on the corner of a granary in the capital. During those same 10 years, the town was sacked by Spanish soldiers, and a thriving population of 50,000 was reduced to a small cadre of caretakers. As one historian writes, San Miguel became a city of "custodians of churches and palacios of colonial splendor lacking both devotees and merchant princes ... left to itself, the seasons and the sun."
In other words, a hundred years of solitude.
In 1926 the federal government, recognizing the beauty of this colonial gem, declared San Miguel de Allende (the town had added the general's name to its own in the 19th century) a national monument. The cobblestone streets, churrigueresque facades, and mansions were to remain as they had for decades. But what strikes one visiting San Miguel for the first time is not only what has always been here but also what has never been here: no neon signs, no modern glass buildings, no traffic lights, no golden arches.
A small joke told by Robert Somerlott in his book about the region: "There are no fire hydrants [in San Miguel] and if you ask an elderly native what they do if a fire breaks out, they reply, 'Mostly, Senor, we remember it.'"
Old and new
One of the many contradictions evident in San Miguel is that the town looks much as it did a hundred years ago but is also pervasively modern. Behind the centuries-old colonial walls are computer stores and upscale art galleries; cobblestone streets were recently torn up so workmen could install new utility lines and TV cables; beyond the historic district are flower-filled courtyards opening onto slick restaurants like L'Invito, serving osso buco alia milanese.
Yes, Indian men from the nearby pueblitos, the Chichimecas, still bring their burros into town every morning to sell firewood door-to-door. And along the banks of the Rio Laja, mothers and their daughters slap laundry against well-worn river rocks while younger children bathe. But the town is also home to the largest and most vibrant English-speaking arts and crafts school in all of Latin America, the venerated Instituto Allende, as well as the beautiful Bellas Artes, once an 18th-century convent, where one might listen to the Tokyo String Quartet perform Mozart during the annual Chamber Music Festival in August or take cello classes or ballet lessons during the rest of the year.
"San Miguel has a very old soul," Kay said a few days earlier, relaxing on a wrought-iron bench in the Jardin. "But it also has a very young spirit. And nowhere will you find a more civilized city."
Which is perhaps why John Kay and many other expatriates have established new lives in San Miguel. The town is filled with people like Dianne Kushner, a former psychotherapist from the San Francisco Bay Area who moved here three years ago and decided to open a B & B, Casa Luna, whose rooms look like embodiments of Kahlo's flamboyant, brilliant paintings. And Silvia Bernardini, from Florence, Italy, who speaks multiple languages and recently founded an Italian restaurant in the town she calls "magical and serene."
Then there is Kay himself, a hotel developer from Hawaii who came to San Miguel with his Mexican-born wife, Claudia, to retire. While they were looking for a small house, a clever real estate agent showed them the opulent residence of the former mayor "just for fun." The Kays found its extensive gardens lovely, as were the rooms with hand-painted tiles and boveda ceilings of distinctive, locally crafted impossibly domed brick. "It was much too big for just two people," says Kay, smiling. "But I could see that it would make a grand little hotel." And so their retirement ended almost as soon as it had begun.
Kay's hotel provides a shuttle service to town for guests, and I asked a driver, who claimed to be distantly related to the patriot Ignacio Allende, how he felt about all the Americans who had come here in the last 20 years to open restaurants and hotels, bookshops and art galleries. "Is it not like a second invasion?" I asked him. He looked perplexed. "The Spanish mined the silver and took it with them," he told me. "The Americans mine dollars from the tourists and the money stays here. It is a good arrangement."
In the gardens of La Puertecita are bronze sculptures by Kay, who claims that until he came to San Miguel "not only was I not artistic but I wasn't particularly interested in the arts." If time permits, he's happy to give novices a few tips on painting watercolors (art supplies are available from the front desk).
Groggy but hungry, we order breakfast as the last of the fireworks peter out and a herder moves his few cows along a narrow path in the wooded canyon below the hotel. The headwaiter, Chema, elegantly dressed even at this ungodly hour in a double-breasted suit, pours us steaming cups of the slightly sweet Mexican coffee as we dig into huevos rancheros and a platter of perfectly ripe mangos and melons. It is a glorious morning. A morning to inspire thoughts of new beginnings, of future possibilities. A morning to fire a man's soul.
RELATED ARTICLE: Splendors of San Miguel
Aeromexico, Mexicana, American, and Continental airlines fly into Bajio Leon Guanajuato international airport, a 90-minute drive to San Miguel. You can rent a car at the airport, but some roads are unmarked. Most hotels will arrange for a car or van to pick you up at the airport; cost runs about $75 each way.
While crimes against tourists have certainly risen in Mexico City and other specific areas of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende has not seen any corresponding increase. All the expatriates I talked with said they felt safer here than in their hometowns stateside. Petty crimes like pickpocketing and theft do occur, but violent crimes against tourists are almost unheard of. For more information about San Miguel, call the Mexican government's tourist information line, (800)446-3942. For information on art or Spanish language classes at Instituto Allende, call 011 52 (415) 20190. For other international calls, dial 011 52 (415) and the local five-digit phone number listed.
LA PARROQUIA. Inspired by European Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame and built by a self-trained Indian stonemason, this pink-and-tan parish church is the Eiffel Tower of San Miguel. Open 9-8 daily In the Jardin.
BELLAS ARTES. The town's cultural center is in the 18th-century Convento Real de la Concepcion, with a full-room mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Hernandez Macias 75; 20289.
MUSEO HISTORICO DE SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE. Birthplace and home of Mexican independence hero Ignacio Allende is a Spanish colonial residence next to La Parroquia. The museum focuses on local history, Allende, and the independence movement. Free; open 10-4 Tue-Sun. Luna de Allende 1; 22499.
MERCADO IGNACIO RAMIREZ. Indoor stalls full of fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers near a craft market where Indian women pull needles from cactus paddles to embroider rugs. Open 7-6 daily. Near the Jardin.
ANTIQUES SHOPS. Hand-painted retablos and estate jewelry are available at a number of antiques stores around the Jardin. One is Casa de los Milagros at Hidalgo 4 (open 9:30-2, 3-7:30 Mon-Sat, 10-5 Sun; 20105).
BUGAMBILIA. Everyone's first pick when you ask "Where should we eat?" The lovely courtyard is matched by the terrific Mexican food, particularly the chiles en nogada - poblano chilies stuffed with ground beef and covered in a walnut sauce with pomegranate seeds. Open 12-11 daily Hidalgo 42; 20127.
EL PEGASO. Across from the post office. Makes a great pork shank with pineapple in a mild ancho chili sauce. Open 8:30 A.M.-10 P.M. Mon-Sat. Corregidora 6; 21351.
MAMA MIA. Not the area's best Italian food, but its location near the Jardin and its lantern-lit patio make it a popular spot. Open 8A.M.-1 A.M. daily Umaran 8; 22063.
RESTAURANTE LA PUERTECITA. Go Sunday for the elegant brunch or Thursday afternoon for the Tex-Mex barbecue. The margaritas may be the best in town. Open 8 A.M.-10 P.M. daily. in La Puertecita Boutique Hotel (address and phone below).
Hotels are basic but cheap. B & Bs and small inns are a real bargain. Rooms can be hard to get during fiestas (including mid- to late September), High season is January and February.
LA PUERTECITA BOUTIQUE HOTEL. In the hills above town, one of San Miguel's best hotels features 24 rooms and two pools. From $120. Santo Domingo 75; 22250 or www.unisono.net.mx/lapuert.
CASA DE SIERRA NEVADA. Elegant Spanish colonial-style hotel in what was once the residence of the archbishop of Guanajuato. Its 37 rooms are spread out over several courtyards. From $168. Hospicio 35; (888) 341-5995.
CASA LUNA B & B. Eight beautiful, creative rooms in a restored 300-year-old Spanish colonial home close to the town's center. Owner Dianne Kushner and her dog, Fabio, will make you feel at home. From $75, including full breakfast. Pila Seca 11; 21117.
CASA MURPHY. Patricia Murphy is one of the great expatriate characters in San Miguel, and her five-room B & B, with private baths, is popular with returning guests. From $65, with breakfast. San Antonio Abad 22; 23776 or (210) 680-0934.
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