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AS IF TO MAKE SURE I would leave San Miguel de Allende thoroughly in love with the place — as if to hammer home the point that it is spectacularly deserving of its perennial spot among the top few on Conde Nast Traveler‘s annual Best Cities award (#1 in 2013) — the sunset on my final night was a breath-taker.
As my friend and I rounded the corner where Calle Relox opens up to the Jardín on our way to my last SMA dinner, we both suddenly gasped and groped for our cameras.
The day had been balmy, and the cloud patterns produced the most dramatic sunset of my two-week stay. And they do know how to light those monuments.
I had spent my last full day, finally restored to gastro-intestinal health, wandering the streets with no essential purpose but to absorb the atmosphere, have a last cup of coffee at Zenteno, a pleasant café where American boomers while away many an hour, grab a few final photos (such as that of David Kestenbaum’s brass bull in front of the cultural center known as Bellas Artes, below, which had become as much a symbol to me of SMA as the Parroquia) and pick up a few more gifts and souvenirs.
A woman in Zenteno’s happened to mention an exhibition of antique Mexican blankets at Bellas Artes, below, so off we trotted to see it. It was illuminating to compare the geometric designs of the locally woven blankets one sees in the markets with their more intricate antecedents.
Adios, San Miguel, but not forever.
MY TWO-WEEK VISIT TO THE MEXICAN FANTASY-VILLAGE of San Miguel de Allende is coming to an end. I have only good things to say, except in one regard: the drinking water.
It’s true what they say: don’t drink it. And I didn’t mean to, but there it was on the table in a restaurant frequented by American tourists, where we’d been before. Without thinking, I picked it up and drained the glass. At least, I think it was that glass of water that caused me to spend more than 30 precious vacation hours in bed, a plastic wastebasket by my side. BOTTLED WATER ONLY.
Fortunately, the bed is comfortable, the internet only went down for an hour, and today I’m feeling human again.
My release from stomach misery, today’s perfect weather and my impending departure have made me appreciate this place all the more.
The Spanish-style historic architecture, long vistas to the western mountains from the tops of hilly, stone-paved streets, rooftop gardens filled with thriving plants, the sophisticated Mexican modern aesthetic in certain galleries and restaurants — all that I was bound to like.
Other things have been more of a surprise. At first I was put off by there being so many North Americans present, and thought maybe there was something exploitative about it. Now I think it’s probably the best thing that could happen to a Mexican town, and I’m guessing most locals would agree.
San Miguel still feels thoroughly Mexican, at least to me. But there is a sort of comfort factor in there being so many Americans here. This entire hotel is made up of us, mostly 60’s and older. We meet in the lovely circular garden, and they’re Democrats, I can tell. How? The hotel’s community room hosts meetings of the Occupy SMA group and shows films about climate change. (The Texans who build mega-mansions up in the hills? Probably not Democrats.)
I haven’t seen so much hippie-style clothing on women since 1969 — oversized earrings, fringed shawls and scarves, floppy hats, long skirts.
How to spend the days hasn’t been a problem. After the photo workshop, there was an event billed as a “Beat” cantina crawl, and I feared hokum. It took us into places I’d have been afraid to go on my own: Gato Negro, the second-oldest bar in San Miguel, from 1929; El Cu Cu, the most attractive of them, from 1955; and La Cucaracha, a fluorescently-lit, scary-looking place where some seedy characters were already hanging around the bar when our group entered.
It is to their credit that I didn’t realize they were actors, about to impersonate and read the poetry of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Diane di Prima with great bawdy spirit (not all of them actually spent time in San Miguel, but… poetic license). At each stop, we drank mezcal, which I now think of as smoother tequila. Need I say it turned out to be loads of fun, and more authentic than hokey.
A word about the shopping here. It’s varied and abundant. Not just the high-end galleries under the arches of old haciendas, which are reasonably priced for the quality of their textiles, furnishings, pottery, metalware, etc. But also (my bailiwick) the street markets. They are sprawling — they just go on and on — and open every day under corrugated tin roofs. Even what may look at first like schlock bears scrutiny. Many of the vendors, like Patricia, below, who sells silver jewelry, design and make their own wares.
Market-shopping here is stress-free. The vendors are not pushy; in fact, it’s sometimes hard to get their attention. I’d buy more — rugs, blankets, pottery — but don’t want to acquire more than I can take on the plane.
The food, it seems, can be excellent or mediocre. My favorite so far: La Mezcaleria, a chic little place, for both food and design. But you’d have to be in San Miguel a lot longer than I am to run out of places to try. And with those American dollars, we can try the most upscale places in town.
Bottom line in San Miguel: you need do nothing but walk the streets. There’s aesthetic pleasure at every turn.
La Mezcaleria on Correo, with their cucumber and cilantro margarita
El Gato Negro
El Cu Cu
La Cucaracha, left to right: “Neal Cassady,” “William Burroughs” (in hat), bored bartender, the director, “Jack Kerouac”
MY TIME IN SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE IS FLEETING BY and I have nothing to complain about. Certainly not the weather, balmy compared to New York’s (though my white pants and tank tops remain in the closet).
After ten days here, with just four to go, my attitude has shifted. Instead of ‘I’ve walked past this corner a dozen times,’ the complexities of the town keep opening inward — like little hole-in-the-wall shops I at first passed by, not realizing there were hand-wrought iron drawer pulls and hinges for sale beyond the religious artifacts and the woman shaving the spines off cactus leaves in front.
Instead of, ‘We’ve already tried that restaurant,’ it’s ‘Let’s go back again and get the [name of different dish] this time.’
Of four people whose names I was given by friends back home, I’ve only managed to meet up with one, and see the dream hacienda she built, with a courtyard garden, an art studio and two or three roof decks, and have a local lunch of chilaquiles (something like nachos but softer and creamier) at a corner cafe that would probably have escaped my notice.
There’s plenty to do here, after all, and I’m not going to get to do it all. The once-a-month architecture tour I finally found out about happens the day I leave; I’ll be on my way to the airport.
It was fortuitous that our stay coincided with the San Miguel Literary Sala, a conference that attracts writers, would-be writers and high-profile instructors from all over the English-speaking world. I did not sign up for the five-day event (what they call the “whole enchilada”), as I did not come to San Miguel to sit in hotel conference rooms, no matter how inspiring the speakers.
But I signed up for a few 2-hour workshops anybody can take, and they have proved terrific. The results of one — billed as ‘Mindful Photography’ — illustrate this post.
We didn’t get the lessons I really needed, like how to take a photo of San Miguel’s magnificent churches and bell towers without their looking like picture postcards, and how to photograph the ice cream man or the lady selling calla lilies without offending them or causing them to go all self-conscious.
Instead, a group of 20 or so simply walked out of the Hotel Real de Minas, where the conference is being held, led by Dinty Moore, a seasoned Ohio-based writer and photographer, and strolled slowly and mindfully down a typical local street, taking time to absorb colors and textures and frame our photos carefully.
Some people had fancy cameras and long lenses. I had my iPhone, and that was just fine.
DOWN JACKET. Thick wooly socks. Cashmere and corduroy. Hat, gloves. If you’re thinking of coming to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in mid-winter, put those on your list.
They’re on my list for next time — and the good news is, there might be a next time, despite the unseasonable chill.
This place is pretty great. Church bells tolling constantly, for what I don’t know. Friendly people, both Mexican (buenos dias, buenos tardes, buenos noches — got that down pat) and American (hi, hey, how are ya).
I love walking the stone-paved streets in the early morning on my way to Antonio’s yoga class at Lifepath, admiring the local habit of sweeping and washing down the sidewalks to start the day off right.
A 3-hour-long historical walking tour, mostly of churches and the haciendas built around the central park, or Jardín, in the late 17th and early 18th century, was a great orientation. We ended at Bellas Artes, a cultural center in a historic convent, admiring social-realist and abstract murals by David Siqueros, one of the great Mexican muralists (along with Diego Rivera).
I had my boots shined in a park by an old-school shoeshine man, after a morning of walking the dusty paths of El Charco, the 200+-acre botanical garden on a dramatic site atop a canyon outside of town, where native plants remain untouched and cacti and other plants from elsewhere in Mexico are brought to be ‘rescued’ when sprawl or construction threaten their habitat.
Eating out three times a day is entirely possible here on a budget of $25 (including margaritas). We’ve discovered some good restaurants and numerous casual cafes, almost all of which have courtyards for alfresco dining and some of which have fireplaces for warming our frozen hands.
The best for classic Mexican food so far: Hecho in Mexico, with Toller Cranston’s circus-like paintings and Chihuly-like glass chandeliers in five gilded rooms. The most sophisticated: Aperi, owned by Mexico’s Top Chef winner, where we sampled sensational Mexican wines that deserve to be better known in the U.S., and I had glazed tomatoes with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Other local spots where I could happily become a regular: Cafe de la Parroquia for breakfast and Lavanda for lunch.
As I type this, I’m sitting at Cafe Santa Ana in the open courtyard of La Biblioteca (the sun is shining and it’s warmed up a bit), a bi-lingual library that serves as a de facto gathering spot for the huge expat community. A guitarist is strumming unobtrusively, joined occasionally by a floating flute; the only other sounds are the stone fountain burbling and voices speaking American-accented English on all sides.
San Miguel de Allende is a bubble, as my travel companion put it. Though to outward appearances, it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, it was adopted by arty Americans after WWII, helped along by the fact that the Instituto de Allende, the town’s well-known art school, was accredited to accept the GI Bill, and both Esquire and Life magazines ran big spreads in the late 1940s (one featuring a nude female sunbather) that served as advertisements for the town.
And the weather, so they say, is warm and sunny.
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 — Neal 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 appeared in Atención, 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