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I’M IN FABLED SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, waiting for the magic to happen.
This central Mexico town of 80,000, made wealthy half a millennium ago as a way-station between the silver mines to the north and the capital 200 miles to the south, has been a favorite winter destination for North Americans since at least the 1930s, when the famous art school, Instituto de Allende, was founded.
The Beats loved it in the ’50s — Jack Cassady died and was buried here — and it has since had a reputation as a haven for writers, artists and all manner of eccentrics.
I first heard of San Miguel in 1969, on a trip to the then-USSR (I was a college Russian major working as a translator). I befriended a woman whose nickname was Sis — she was in her 40s, an artist from the NYC suburbs, divorced. She was my first “adult” friend and possibly the coolest person I’d known up to that point. We exchanged addresses, and Sis sent me a postcard a few months later — from San Miguel de Allende. She’d gone down for a vacation, met a man, fallen in love, and was moving there for good.
Sadly, I forgot Sis’s real name, and we lost touch. But I never forgot that postcard, full of exclamation points and little hearts. I’ve wanted to visit San Miguel ever since.
Now, I’m more interested in gardens and historic houses than anything else, and that’s fine, since San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its intact 18th century architecture, from the rose-colored Parroquia cathedral, which calls to mind the excesses of Gaudi, to the modest one-story buildings, painted every shade on the warm side of the color wheel, that line the hilly cobblestone streets.
I’m here with two friends, each of us for a different length of time (me for two weeks). I’m staying at a 3-star hotel, Quinta Loreto, in a $29/night room with spotty WiFi and no heat. It’s clean, simple and very Mexican; white amaryllis bought this morning at a plant market in a park makes it home.
At the moment I’m wrapped in a wooly scarf, hand-loomed here in SMA and purchased yesterday, as I sit with a Corona on the long terrace of the hotel.
With just one full day to go on, it’s something of a mystery to me what people do here for two weeks, a month, two months, the whole season. After last winter’s whirlwind tour of Europe, I’ve grown used to spending two nights in a place, making a quick study of it, and moving on.
I’ve already wandered the most historic streets of the compact historic center and crisscrossed the Jardín, a perfect square planted with lime (?) trees pruned flat across their lower branches, several times. It’s pleasant, to be sure, and I hope to cultivate the ability to relax on one of its wrought iron benches soon.
I do love peeking through archways into courtyards, many of which are cafés or shops. We’ve had some fine Margaritas and a few meals. The best was Peruvian — sea bass ceviche and cold lime mashed potatoes at the New York Times-recommended La Parada last night. I am optimistic about finding Mexican food as good as that you can get in NYC.
Tonight there’s an art walk and tomorrow the weekly Sunday morning house and garden tour. And next week, by sheer coincidence, is the 11th annual San Miguel Literary Sala, a writers’ conference that casts a wide net — it’s “for everyone,” with a focus on personal expression, according to an interview with the director that appears in the local English-language weekly.
I’m signed up for one workshop, a photography walk and a “cantina crawl.” I’d love to find yoga classes and an introductory walking tour of the historic center (surprisingly difficult).
More to follow, as I explore, discover and hopefully, relax.
Above: Hotel Quinta Loreto
I’M HALF HOME in Brooklyn; my other half is still down south somewhere. Coming home from a vacation, even one of six days, always makes me wish I appreciated being away even more when I had the chance. Certain patterns and behaviors associated with “real life” — lousy sleep, money anxiety, word-game addiction, uninspiring routine, eating out of deli containers — reassert themselves only too quickly upon my return.
Happily, I’ll have the opportunity to test my vacation appreciation skills again, when I go to Mexico — the arty city of San Miguel de Allende, in the country’s heartland — in two weeks’ time.
Meanwhile, I’m not done with Savannah. Can’t let my photos of beachy Tybee Island, below, Savannah’s Hamptons equivalent, go to waste.
The last day’s urban wanderings included the Regency-style c. 1819 Owens-Thomas House, designed by William Jay, a 23-year-old architect from Bath, England, with early indoor plumbing, doors to nowhere and orange and blue stained glass windows. (No photos allowed inside, unfortunately.)
More Savannah street sights:
A local sent us to check out Alex Raskin Antiques in the Noble Hardee Mansion on Monterey Square, below, five floors of genteel decrepitude filled with 18th and 19th century furnishings and objects. Not a stick of mid-century modern to be found!
AFTER CHARLESTON, Savannah, Georgia, two hours to the south, seems busy, noisy and touristy. Parking and restaurant reservations are hard to come by, probably because we’re here on a weekend.
But Savannah’s historic district, which forms the heart of the city and is centered on 22 lush public squares, of an original 24 first laid out in the 18th century, is a stunner.
Many of the houses are from the mid-19th century and reminiscent of Brooklyn’s flat-fronted, three-windows-across row houses, though with shutters and sometimes wrought iron balconies. Free-standing mansions abound, in a variety of styles, and everything is fringed with palms and other greenery.
The early part of our visit was a washout. It was pouring rain and we couldn’t find a guided walking tour (only trolley and horse-drawn carriage tours, which I rejected as embarrassing). Instead, we picked up a book and did a self-guided one, taking in classic sites that included Forrest Gump’s bench in Forsyth Park and the terracotta-colored house featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, above, as well as the only Gothic style synagogue in the U.S., below, built in the 1840s and still going strong.
We happened on one of the few historic houses open to the public, the c.1841 Old Sorrel-Weed House, below. It had been used as a boarding house and had some tacky retail shops on the ground floor from the 1940s through 1990s. Then it was bought by a private individual who spent a few million trying to bring it back to how it looked when it was a social hotspot for such guests as Robert E. Lee.
The owner ran out of funds before completing the restoration (modern plastic chandeliers are still in place), and gifted the house, still far from finished, to a foundation. They call it Greek Revival-Regency style, which is new to me, but I love the deep colors of the rooms (similar to the originals, discovered under 30 layers of paint) and the moldings, doors and other details that survived because of what our guide called “inadvertent conservation.” The ceilings had been dropped, fireplaces boxed in, etc., during the house’s years of debasement, so the original details remained mostly intact.
We are lodged at the River Street Inn, below, a former cotton warehouse and one of several surviving early 19th century brick industrial buildings, constructed of ballast stones and built on a bluff, that have been converted to riverside hotels.
The Savannah River is right outside our window. Barges loaded with containers pass by with regularity, and the sounds of foghorns and music from the clubs below waft in at night.
Best meal so far: a genteel Southern-style lunch at the c.1789 Olde Pink House, below, where I had my first-ever Hoppin’ John (rice with vegs and black-eyed peas).
Enjoyed an afternoon latte at the Gryphon, below, a tea room operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design in a turn-of-the-century apothecary shop.
As I write this, the blare of a trumpet from a busker on the riverfront walk is penetrating the closed windows and balcony door of our river-view digs. Louis Armstrong he’s not. But the sunset over the Savannah River is making up for it.
FOR A CITY that has endured wars, hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, the historic architecture of Charleston, South Carolina is amazingly well-preserved (or well-restored). An old-house enthusiast like myself has plenty to see: eight major house museums, beautiful churches and public buildings, and the rice plantations in the surrounding low-country, which provided the wealth that grew the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the backs of enslaved Africans.
I flew down here to join a friend who is driving from New York to Florida. We spent three nights at the comfortable and central Kings Courtyard Inn, below, a converted 1850s commercial building whose open-air atrium reminded me of Spain.
My head is stuffed with impressions from three days of walking tours, house tours and museum visits. Charleston is a city of ‘firsts’ and ‘oldests,’ of complicated and intertwining family trees. I took no notes, and you’ll forgive me if I gloss over historical details.
My stomach is stuffed too, with she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits.We couldn’t get into the two Anthony Bourdain-recommended restaurants, FIG and Husk — the former because it’s closed for renovation and the latter because it’s booked weeks in advance. But we didn’t have a bad meal at any of the restaurants we tried along East Bay Street, including Slightly North of Broad, Magnolia’s and Amen Street, and Poogan’s Porch on Queen.
Day 1 began with a two-hour group walking tour with Charleston Strolls, an intelligent introduction to development of the city at the tip of a low-lying peninsula where two rivers meet, a meander through narrow stone streets lined with houses modest and grand, ending at the mansions along the Battery.
Later, on our own, we visited the city’s main synagogue, a true temple in Greek Revival style, built in the mid-19th century; spent a little time in the Charleston History Museum (skippable) and then took the last of the day’s tours at the Joseph Manigault House, below, an early 19th century Federal brick building owned by wealthy planters that later became a tenement home to 10 families and served as Army housing during WWII, before being restored, appropriately furnished, and opened to the public.
On Day 2, we drove half an hour out of town to Middleton Place, a onetime rice plantation owned by a family whose members signed both the Declaration of Independence and the South Carolina Declaration of Secession. The house that remains is simple; Union troops burned the main building in 1865. But acres of formally landscaped gardens were restored by heirs in the 1920, and now the waterfront site is full of live (evergreen) oaks dripping with Spanish moss and banks of camellias in full January bloom.
This morning we ambled around parts of the historic district we’d missed and squeezed in one more house museum, the 1828 Edmonston-Alston House, below, from whose verandah (called piazzas in Charleston) Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War took place in 1861, is visible. I loved the Greek Revival moldings and the proportions of the rooms, not dissimilar to Brooklyn brownstones of the era — long and narrow, with a high-ceilinged second floor for formal entertaining, more modest family rooms downstairs.
Did I mention Charleston is a very pretty town? It’s not because of the pancake-flat topography, and even the harbor, sparkling as it is, lacks drama. (It was surely more interesting when filled with hundreds of boats, as it was in its heyday.) It’s the charm of the streetscape, lined with mostly three-story brick and stucco houses, nearly all with shutters and verandahs, impeccably tidy plantings, and, of course, historical plaques.
IT’S BEEN CALLED the ‘crown jewel’ of New York City’s public gardens: see why. The plantings at the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street — different every year — are exuberant. Their unrestrained color combos feel like the tropics; the attention to textural variation makes nearly every spot an arresting visual. High summer is the time to go, though this garden — made up largely of annual plantings, with a backbone of hedges and perennials playing a supporting role — will be fabulous through frost. Combine with a visit to the Folk City and Paul Rand exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York across the street for an ideal midsummer outing.