Friday, December 11, 2009

Last stop - San Miguel de Allende

I had wanted to travel to San Miguel for years - it's been designated a national monument  - no neon, no modern buildings - since 1926.

Warning: Located in the Bajio or "low" region of the state of Guanajuato (despite being at around 6,500 feet), it is far from flat but not quite as steeply hilly as the city of Guanajuato.

Once called San Miguel de Grande, the city was founded by a Franciscan monk in 1542 and became an important stopover on the silver route from Zacatecas. What 18th century Spanish nobility built, Americans saw and appreciated so much they stayed. Most of the 85,000-plus residents are Americans and Canadians.

With English as much a "native" language as Spanish, San Miguel is a Mexican city for Americans and tourists love it - which explains why it's higher on travelers' bucket lists than Guanajuato. 

First-time visitors start with La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel (San Miguel Arcangel Parish), the pink-stone, Gothic church completed in 1730, and El Jardin Principal, the square that fronts it. La Parroquia's distinctive tall tower was part of an 1880 remodeling project by master builder/mason Serefino (or Zeferino - I've seen it both ways) Gutierrez who, they say, based his design on images he saw on postcards from Europe. In more recent history, a mayor mistakenly thought pink paint would jazz up the church's towers.

Outside, feast day decorations and offerings were displayed while inside, the aroma of lilies permeated the hushed church when I visited.

Oh, and those men on horseback costumed as Mexican revolutionaries? They're the local police.

 Tip: This large area is blissfully flat. Just behind Parroquia to the right (as you face it) is a nice public bathroom that has a change-making machine (for pesos)!

Casa de Allende, the mansion immediately across the street from Parroquia, is an outstanding example of 18th century architecture and the birthplace of Don Ignacio de Allende, the hero of Mexican independence whose name the city adopted. It is now a museum with a collection of artifacts, historical documents and contemporary art.

Facing Parroquia across the square is the historic City Hall.

Directly behind Parroquia is La Capilla, an excellent restaurant with a grand rooftop view.

Tip: Bugumbilia is another restaurant you ought to try. Don't miss the Chiles en Nogada if they are on the menu. (You can find the recipe at my other blog, Food Afar - Recipes from a Travel Writer,, but your eyes can't show your mouth how good these are.

Shopaholics will be in heaven in San Miguel. Each store seems more enticing than the next, with good collections of fashions and decor plus the usual tourist fare. Sit at a sidewalk table anywhere around the square and vendors will bring merchandise to you. They can be pesky but if anything catches your eye, look it over and keep saying, "No, thank you," and you'll eventually be offered a true bargain. Cappuccinos and cervesas are good and cheap, too.

The first art school in Latin America was founded here and San Miguel is a haven for artists of all kinds - theatrical, musical and visual. The great Mexican entertainer Cantinflas spent time here and brought other thespians and movie stars along. A week does not pass without concerts, plays and exhibitions of some kind.

Writers have been attracted here, too - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs and Ken Kesey among them. 

Missed the week's plays and concerts but I have two recommendations for the visual side.

Centro Cultural 'El Nigromante,' the National Institute for Fine Arts, is housed in what was a 1754 convent for the Templo de la Concepcion's nuns hat is two relatively flat blocks west of El Jardin. Exhibits of contemporary art and classes in painting, drawing, sculpture, music and dance fill its high-ceilinged rooms and landscaped courtyard. There is a striking contemporary mural by David Alfaro Sequeiros.

Farther away - Tip: Take a cab - is Fabrica la Aurora, an art and design center that is one of San Miguel's most interesting destinations. A former, turn-of-the-century textile mill has been transformed into a rambling display of eye candy. Working artists have studios here as do architects and designers and there is a cafe but most of the space is filled with painting, sculpture, furniture, jewelry, antiques, linens and high end accessories.

Festivals are almost as common as the sunshine; www.whatshotinsanmiguel/festivals is a good place to go for info on what and when.


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