San Miguel de Allende - Paradise Mexican Style!
By Sandi Durell
The historical City in the State of Guanajuato, Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, (www.internetsanmiguel.com/gethere.html ) is a small colorful town sitting in the mountains at an altitude of 6400 feet. The quaint little City of culture was founded in 1542 by a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Fray Juan de San Miguel. It is referred to, by many, as a ‘magical place.’
It was in the 18th Century that the heroes of the independence movement were born. Ignacio de Allende y Unzaga, a revolutionary, born on January 21, 1769, joined forces with Father Don Miguel Hidalgo leading the famous Cry of Independence speech in September 1810 and the resulting insurgency. But Spain was too strong and the patriots were defeated. Both Hidalgo and Allende, along with others, were executed, their heads hung in cages outside a Guanajuato granary. On March 8, 1826, in recognition of Allende’s heroism, the state government changed the name of the town to San Miguel de Allende.
In 1926 SMA was declared a National Monument, preserving the historical aspects of the town which is why the town is free of traffic lights today. With the opening of the Instituto Allende Art School in the late 1930’s, the foreign population began to grow and today retired Americans and Canadians make up much of the expat community, numbering between 2000-4000, depending upon season. I couldn’t wait to experience the magic and spent an extended period of stay during the winter months where the weather is spring-like most of the time.
San Miguel is a physical daily exercise in itself with its hilly cobble-stoned streets, narrow sidewalks and winding side streets. Every turn is a discovery of interesting little shops, boutiques, jewelers and artisans¸ art galleries and restaurants. The streets are very clean as the morning routine for shop-keepers is to sweep and wash the stone pavements. It is rare to see a piece of paper strewn on the streets. Crossing the street is unique, unlike New York City where I live, as traffic comes to a halt to allow pedestrians the right of way. There are no traffic lights in SMA. All the near traffic misses as automobiles pull up to corners, sometimes with only inches to spare as they turn and move about, does quicken the heartbeat.
Walking down and around the winding streets, one wonders what could be behind some of the large old wooden Hacienda doors and I was afforded the opportunity to find out on several occasions. Each time my surprise was broadened by the spectacular gardens, fountains and beautiful homes within; many with three living levels, high 14 foot ceilings, skylights and roof top gardens. True architectural wonders. The town is alive with the creativity of artists, writers, theatre people and musicians and includes a large population of Gringo public service groups who work tirelessly to benefit many Mexican charities. The weekly “Bible,” the newspaper Atencion (written in Spanish and English), lists every conceivable activity and happening. One would need an excessive number of hours or a clone in order to participate in everything. The central focus of all cultural activities is the Biblioteca, where concerts, movies, lectures and theatre abound and where the intelligencia usually hang out engaged in serious discussions on all topics.
Depending on one’s lifestyle, choices are innumerable when it comes to accommodations: hotels, B &B’s, apartments, villas, condos, and private homes….all available for rent. To be in the heart of it all, one would probably prefer the area known as “El Centro” where most everything is within walking distance. And if it’s not, then a taxi ride can be had for 25 pesos (a little more than $2.00) to any location within the main city of San Miguel. There’s also a bus available for 5 pesos.
“The Jardin” is the central meeting place in town, around which are many restaurants, stores and local street hawkers. At the Jardin in the Plaza Principal stands the beautiful 18th Century Parroquia (Church), constructed of rose colored quarry stone. The Church bells ring each morning beginning at 6:30 a.m. and if per chance you didn’t hear them, a repeat performance follows at 7:00 a.m.
The Jardin is the place where everyone congregates (especially on weekends) to exchange information about who’s doing what, where, when and with whom, and anything new and happening. It’s also a place to sit, read, make new friends and people watch. It’s Peyton Place Mexican style! On any weekend evening there are three or four different kinds of musical groups playing and singing, people dancing in the streets, lovers holding hands and embracing while swaying to the romantic sounds of the Mariachi bands.
If you crave lots of activities, you can brush up on your Spanish at one of the many Spanish schools; play Bridge at the San Miguel Bridge Club at the Hotel Real d’Minas.( www.hotelesrealdeminas.com.mx/ ) attend gallery art show openings that include cocktails and meeting new friends.
Aside from art classes offered at Bellas Artes (www.experience-san-miguel-de-allende.com/bellas-artes-el-nigromante.html ) and the Instituto de Allende,(www.instituto-allende.edu.mx/ ) many of the galleries hold classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry making. I decided it was time to explore my inner artist (if I had one) and this was my golden opportunity. I signed on for Expressionist Life Drawing. My teacher was artist, Henry Vermillion, who has a gallery in town and is also an actor, director and set designer. The norm in SMA is the wearing of multi-creative hats! Guess what? I discovered I actually had a little talent.
Lest I forget, there are also cooking schools, yoga classes, zumba classes…you name it and it probably is happening in San Miguel. Even Arthur Murray has opened a studio with classes in Latin and Ballroom instruction!
My other activity of choice was tennis, which I’ve played for many years. Lo and behold, there were several tennis facilities available and I wound up at Weber’s red clay tennis courts where I hooked up with some other players and we enjoyed games and each other’s company several times a week. Playing at 6400 ft. above sea level with pressurized tennis balls surely added a new spin to the game, creating interesting challenges.
A plethora of restaurants fill the tiny streets. Aside from the obvious Mexican cuisine, ethnic foods prevail at every turn featuring Italian, Asian, French, American with outdoor dining in magical gardens of flowers, plants and fountains while the sounds of guitar or piano and romantic songs in Espanol and English enhance the flavors. And, needless to say, there’s also a Starbucks.
There’s good jazz and occasionally Doc Severinsen comes to town. There are several hot spots for music and dancing.
As for theatre, three Brits called “The Literary Cabaret”, have been stopping in SMA for the past 16 years offering up their brand of satirical humor of clever skits, poetry and songs featuring anything from Shakespeare to naughty Noel Coward and rock n’ roll.
The Teatro Santa Ana at the Biblioteca serves as a movie hall and also has a full season of theatrical productions with a roster of local talent from the SMA theatre community. St. Paul’s Church is a place for concert music with its ProMusica Series, bringing wonderful classical concerts to San Miguel. There is also opera¸ folk and flamenco.
The Play Readers are part of the theatre scene performing at St. Paul’s Church where rotating directors choose plays that are read on book by a cast of actors, accessorized with some scenery and costuming. I spent a highlight evening at the Biblioteca watching an award winning documentary “In a Dream.” The story is about Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar and his wife Julia. In the bohemian South Philly neighborhood, 50,000 square feet of concrete have been covered with tile and mirrors, all created by Zagar who shares his torture, torment and unusual lifestyle and family with audiences around the world. Their younger son filmed Isaiah and Julia’s day to day love story, subsequent betrayals, an older son’s drug problems, all captured and documented for the thousands who have viewed this remarkable film. The story can cause great discomfort at times, but that’s what makes great art. Isn’t it? The realities were enhanced when Isaiah and Julia appeared on stage post film showing, submitting themselves to audience questions and participating in a cocktail reception afterwards. It is a not-to-be missed film should one have the opportunity.
Speaking of films, there is a place called The Market Café where, approximately 15 years ago, a Frenchman named Daniel Sirdey cleverly started showing foreign and classic films. It happens in a small room that seats around 22 people who watch the films on a large screen, seated in large comfortable chairs. The price of 60 pesos also included a drink of choice (wine, beer, margaritas) and a bag of popcorn. What a deal!
I had a one time experience attending the small bullring in SMA where a famous Portugese rejoneadore (a bullfighter on horseback) namely, Pablo Hermosa de Mendoza, renowned for his skill, grace, genius and beautiful horses, was appearing. I was told he appears once every 3 years and I knew I had to have the experience. Rejoneo means using a lance and is the oldest form of bullfighting, an activity for the nobility - the Arabs in North Africa and later the Moorish in Spain. Matadors, using capes and swords, became prominent in the early 19th century.
A general admission ticket entitled me to a seat above the first four rows of reserved seats on a concrete slab. As the ring filled and excitement mounted, so did the cigarette and cigar smoke along with the cries of hawkers selling chips and hot sauce, beer, tequila and margaritas. People were jammed together, some on cushions others on the hard concrete. Three ladies sitting nearby shared some tequila, cap by cap, brought in a vitamin bottle passed between then.
Bullfighting is a gory business and not for the faint of heart. The poor bull doesn’t have a chance. But it is traditional pomp and circumstance and part of a cultural harmony. After seeing three animals slaughtered, I’d had enough while the crowd continued to yell “oh lay.”
SMA is the kind of town where total strangers stop and talk on the streets as everyone is anxious to get to know others, especially if you’re a newcomer.
In case you haven’t heard, SMA attracts many ladies from the States seeking beauty ala plastic surgery and such, at a third of the cost or less. There are a few fine surgeons (trained in the best USA hospitals) but do your research and get recommendations.
Don’t miss a visit to the historic Fabrica Aurora, an old cotton mill, (www.fabricalaaurora.com/welcome.html ) on the outskirts of town turned into gallery and studio space, where home furnishings, jewelry and antiques are plentiful. There are multi shops and spaces to visit, along with two delightful cafes when you get hungry.
Day trips and overnights are plentiful. I spent a wonderful day in the City of Guanajuato (it means the mountain place of frogs), a charming European style City and the capital of the State. It is a multi-colored, twisting cobblestoned wonder with a subterranean through which to drive and where visits to the Diego Rivera Museum and the Museum of Mummies can be highly enlightening. It houses the prestigious University of Guanajuato, considered Mexico’s finest school for music and theater. A ride on the finicular to the very top (about 6600 ft.) is a must for 360 degree views of this beautiful and colorful City which, in 1988, was declared a World Heritage Zone by UNESCO.
San Miguel is a favorite with retirees on fixed incomes as it provides a wonderful lifestyle at approximately one-half or less the cost of living in the States. It’s not for everyone as walking and getting around can be challenging to many. Most of the locals speak English which is a plus for those who know little to no Spanish. The bottom line, however, is that if one is active, somewhat rugged with a sense of adventure and loves a cultured, artistic environment….this is the place for you.
Here’s a quote I’ve heard repeated many times: “people go to Florida to die, but they come to San Miguel to live.” And, yes, I’m going back. Hasta luego amigos!