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The Keys To San Miguel De Allende

Author: Bruce D.
Date of Trip: January 2012

Early morning roosters yodel in our return to San Miguel, a charming Mexican town where it's eternal spring. From our condo patio, high on a hillside, I snap pictures of colorful hot air balloons appearing like gigantic fruits in the fog. Sleepy-eyed tourists peer over the edges of the baskets dangling beneath the fruits for an aerial view of a town chock full of history. Squadrons of long necked white egrets beat their way north. Riots of bougainvillea perfume the air, mingling their fragrance with delightful aromas from neighborhood tortilla factories. Thirty-two tortillas, made from either corn, flour or whole wheat cost fifty cents. Church bells toll fifteen minutes to Mass to hurry up the faithful. San Miguel yawns. It has heard it all before.

There are many San Miguels in Mexico but there's only one San Miguel de Allende, founded fifty years after Columbus wet his boots in the surf of the new world. The town is named after Saint Michael and General Ignacio de Allende y Unzaga who was born in San Miguel and became a heroic patriot in the fight for independence from Spain. It's a smart move to name your town after a saint and a general if you want to cover the important bases.

San Miguel is four hundred and sixty-two years old. It sits at 6,400 feet in the central highlands of Mexico on an enormous fertile plateau, called, "The Bajio." This ancient colonial town, in the state of Guanajuato, is considered a crown jewel of Mexico. "Gringolandia," that giant country to the north, is but a toddler in comparison.

I love to watch San Miguel awaken. Shop keepers slosh buckets of water on narrow sidewalks, sweeping them clean. Mexicans thread their way along sidewalks of great slabs of stone worn smooth by generations. They pick their way on cobblestone streets that have been bathed in the confetti of happiness during thousands of festivals as well as the blood shed for independence.

Mexicans head for work or school. My wife is off to visit one of the two hundred and seventy-eight churches and chapels in the municipality. We've been inspired to visit them by Robert de Gast, author of The Churches and Chapels of San Miguel. Robert lives here, is a writer, teacher, photographer and the author of eight books. Don't miss Robert if he's giving a lecture.

Later we'll meet at the main mercado to buy mangoes, limes, pineapple and papayas. Around the corner from the mercado we'll buy chicken breasts at our favorite poultry shop. A sleepy-eyed fat cat hangs out on a high shelf keeping a squint on business. If you don't see the cat on the shelf, you're in the wrong shop.

It's Friday so I'm off with other expatriates and savvy tourists to the Jardin, or garden, to buy a copy of Atencion, the weekly English language newspaper. It's one of the three essential keys to unlocking experiences and pleasures in San Miguel. It will be our bible for a month.

The Jardin is a shady square-shaped park with stout black iron benches sprinkled about. A white gazebo in the center of the Jardin serves as a year round stage for a variety of entertainment. Vendors mill about selling balloons, dulces, or sweets, cotton candy, roasted corn on the cob, and soft drinks. On weekends a huge magnificent chestnut colored draft horse with a happy personality pulls an enormous ice cream wagon up alongside the Jardin. Children and adults line up for ice cream cones and then pose for pictures with the horse.

Indian women wrapped in hand woven serapes lay out bouquets of dried flowers for sale under the eves of shops bordering the park. In the evening groups of mariachis and trios gather here to be hired.

The mariachis and trios play music for all occasions. There are tunes for wallowing in the sorrow of a lost love, suffering is a fine art here, and I'll suffer if I want to, or spirited tunes, like The March of Zacatecas to set you to dancing a polka in the street. But the specialty is strumming romantic ballads designed to telegraph your love and melt her heart.

I purchase my Atencion from the barrel chested black bearded hawker who sells newspapers from a low wall bordering the Jardin. He projects his booming voice like opera star Placido Domingo. I join the early bird readers on the benches in front of La Parroquia, the parish church, to catch the first warming rays of sunlight. Those in the know remind you La Parroquia isn't a cathedral.

Construction on La Parroquia began in 1683, with the facade formed in 1880 by Ceferino Gutierrez, a self-educated Indian. It's alleged Gutierrez was influenced by the post cards of European churches.

La Parroquia dominates the town. On special nights the church is breathtaking when a switch is thrown and its towering spires, festooned with lights, resemble columns of fire flies spiraling up in to the midnight blue. The light switch is in the police station. Nobody knows why.

The Jardin serves as the primary meeting spot for the two to five thousand, depending on the season, expats, foreign cognoscente and wannabes, as well as for knowledgeable tourists passing through. This is where you share information on how to get the most out of your visit. You may notice the expats have a pecking order. Full time residents trump all except those who have lived here for thirty or more years. They're the royals. But everyone, Mexicans and foreigners, go out of their way to help you enjoy your stay.

As the morning warms, the benches facing La Parroquia fill. Many readers pour over Atencion. It has city, national and international news as well as articles on the arts and entertainment, lifestyles, and a calendar of upcoming events, and the goings on at the other two keys to the city, the Instituto Allende and the Biblioteca, or library.

I read South Korea will buy five million dollars worth of mezcal, a type of Mexican tequila. Mezcal is much appreciated by the South Koreans who are among the many non-Mexicans who consider the worm in the bottle to be an aphrodisiac. Mexicans know better.

Interesting, but my primary reason for reading Atencion is to gather information for our visit. In San Miguel we can cram every minute with activity or just loll about in a culture that rejuvenates body and soul.

San Miguel is awash with nearly free concerts. Most cost five dollars and often a margarita is included. Back to back festivals and parades vie for attention. There are classes galore, in English and Spanish, including cooking classes. We recommend taking cooking classes from chef Maria Laura Ricaud, at Tamales del Convento. Maria speaks English well and will share her old family recipes. There are language classes, ceramics, paper making, etching, painting and photography, to name a few.

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