15 December 2010

San Miguel de Allende

I first heard about San Miguel a dozen years ago when a customer at the bookstore came looking for literature related to colonial Mexico. He had just returned from a Spanish immersion class there and raved about the city. Soon after, I discovered a beautiful little book, The Doors of San Miguel, which captures the essence of this small city that resides largely behind wide ornamental doors along cobblestone streets and narrow alleys. BTW, I met the author there on this trip, promoting his third book about his adopted home.

He is among an estimated 15 thousand ex-pats who have relocated to San Miguel, many after a study holiday there, as there are several Spanish schools, also art schools, as the area is home to many artists. Once a center of silver mining and craftsmanship, most of the mines have been closed, but the city feels, still, like an overgrown pueblo, trapped happily in history. While there is sufficient infrasture to maintain a modern lifestyle, gentrification is slow and constrained in some measure by residents, Anglos and Mexicanos, who wish to sustain the old-world charm.

The pace is slow, an easy ebb and flow like the steady rhythm of breathing, as locals, expats and visitors meander through town. There is hardly a traffic light or stop sign: instead, at every corner, cars slow down to permit pedestrians to pass or to politely allow another car to turn. The pattern is facilitated by stone speed bumps every half a block or so that keep the pace intact. I never heard a car horn blare, neither a siren nor a harsh word.

Behind the many colorful doors are courtyards overflowing with bougainvillea and punctuated of course by water fountains. Winter is a lot like the desert climate it is - cold mornings and nights, very warm sunny days - the spread was roughly 30 degrees each day. Winter lasts barely three months, so few homes have heat, and even our lovely 2-BR flat, upgraded and with modern comfortable furnishings, had one space heater in the wall that barely touched the surface. We slept comfortably under many blankets, but morning showers were a chilly affair, all the better to conserve water. Waste not want not might be the Mexican motto - I was told that few locals have refrigerators, as they prepare fresh foods daily and only what they need, the few scraps saved for their animals, who wander the streets quietly in search of an extra morsel. Mexicans believe that keeping animals indoors in not hygienic. Nor do they believe much in baths, strictly showers, and they wash clothes in old-fastioned scrubbers or at the lavanderia [laundromat.]

Along the wider sidewalks [most are quite narrow] local farmers bring in fresh fruits and vegetables every day and sell them to passers by in plastic containers or bags, cut up on the spot and fresh for feasting [reminded me of Thailand.] Large open air markets cater to the locals and there is a huge daily artisans market where people work and sell lovely wares. Ton't think that the food or handicrafts are unsophisticated - quite the contrary. Dana and I had wonderful meals and some restaurants as elegant as one might find in Europe, and we bought beautiful jewelry and a few crafts. There is also a very elegant design center housed in an old factory, as impressive as anything you might find in a trendy city in the US.

San Miguel feels small, we walked most of it in our travels, centered by El Jardin, which is less a garden than a plaza with the obligatory and beautiful churches. Provincial in the best sense of the word, but you don't feel it when you're up on a rooftop terrace gazing at colorful hillsides and steeples. Many galleries are tucked along downtown streets, there are several local theater groups, late-night bars, some interesting nouveau cocktails [talk to Dana] many yoga and wellness centers. [Dana connected day-one with the local naturopathic community, which includes organic markets and cafe's, and many state-of-the-art practioners - the best of which seems to be LifePath, utterly gorgeous place and filled with the highest level practitioners and programs.]

I see why so many have settled there, and many are retirement folks, so there is a real sense of a mid-life community. The locals at worst tolerate Anglo's, at best appreciate that they bring money and business to their community. We discovered several cafe's and restaurants owned by Americans, as well as galleries, but they employ locals to keep the peace. Small ghetto-like areas have sprouted where many American/Canadians live, others choose to integrate, and we encountered more than a few Europeans as well.

Besides my daily 4-hour study and homework [by week's end I thought my head would explode, but I learned a lot] we wandered, took a guided historic walk, went on the famous Sunday house-tour which benefits the Biblioteca, enjoyed a staged radio-style theatre production of "It's a Wonderful Life" and a couple of group dinners with fellow students and our ex-New Yorker neighbor. We listened to a flamenco guitar, conversed with many waiters and restauranteurs, made friends with the owner of a new wine bar, and I attended a Hannukah party sponsored by the local Jewish group, which included a half-dozen Mexican families who are converting.

We ate lots of avocadoes and fruit, drank local wines, and enjoyed the quiet sounds of city life beyond our gorgeous wrap-around patio above a busy but not noisy street, as well as fireworks in honor of the Fiesta of Guadalupe. We spent a day in beautiful Guanajuato, the capital of the state, an hour's comfortable bus-ride away, where there is a large university, museums, the Cervantes theater, and an elegant central plaza as anchor; a city constructed above ancient tunnels once meant for water and now used to circulate traffic in and around the city. Beautiful place, few Anglo's there, much more developed and sophisticated, but we preferred the simplicity and spirit of San Miguel.

Although we had access to the internet, we had no television and no phones and instead mostly walked in the evenings or relaxed after full days and warm sun. I think that if you visit this city for a day or two as a tourist, you might find it lovely, but its true charms are in staying put a while and getting the feel of it, which is perhaps why so many settle there. It's a long journey, but worth being there, and I plan to return some time soon - the Writer's Conference is in February and seems to be calling to me!

Enjoy photos at: http://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/SanMigueldeAllende#