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San Miguel: Don't hate me because I'm beautiful

sunny 28 °C

We love San Miguel de Allende. There...got that out of the way. Sure, SMA has a reputation for being overrun with gringos (yes) , for being expensive (can be - you gotta know where to look) and for being "not quite Mexican". Well that's news to all the Mexicans we've spoken to so far. As they represent the overwhelming majority of citizens here, they certainly regard this city as their own, and carry on in spite of whatever benefits or challenges the ex-pat community have brought to bear.

San Miguel is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful. There is good reason that so many artists have located here - the light is clear and soft, the architecture is inspiring, the churches are over-the-top in scale and magnificence, cobbled streets twist and wind up hill and down, creating fresh sightlines at every turn, and the landscape is filled with ancient gnarled trees, bougainvillea, monstrous cactus and agave, and my favourite - the luscious purple blooms of the jacaranda trees.


Here, a view of the city and mountains beyond. San Miguel is quite small - about 140,000 people, and the centre (the area surrounding the churches) is compact and walkable.


Parks and plazas are dotted throughout San Miguel. Parque Benito Juarez is filled with quiet corners and shady paths like this one. We walked through and sat on a bench, listening to the birds, and feeling a million miles from the city.


And then we walked out and discovered Toller Cranston's home and gallery, just on the corner; already looking abandoned and a bit run-down since his death just two months ago. (It is the entire red building, in three sections). The very mention of Toller's name provokes a very interesting, smelling-poo sort of reponse. We're not sure why - he was flamboyant, to be sure, but that attitude is not in short supply here in SMA. "He didn't leave his affairs in order," sniffed one bitchy gallery-owner, as though dying suddenly, unexpectedly and without a will was somehow a blight on the entire arts community. It made us sad to see the lights out and doors shuttered at his lovely home.


We're staying at a quite spectacular apartment we found through VRBO. In some cases, the units are entirely self-contained; in others, you rent out part of someone's home. Ours is a delightful mix of the two - our hosts Rhonda and Al have a beautiful home with two separate wings, and they rent out the smaller one - bedroom, bathroom, living room and courtyard - for $50 a night. We are ending our trip in style - languishing in a suite outfitted with Egyptian cotton sheets, silk draperies, European antiques and spa toiletries. As with so many Mexican homes, the unassuming outside entrance gives no hint to the beauty behind the door.



We went out for dinner with them last night, and got an insider perspective on the ex-pat community here, which is estimated at being about 12,000 - 14,000 people, or roughly 10% of the population. As is the case with many other Mexican ex-pat communities, the folks here do a lot of good in terms of volunteering and raising money for social services that otherwise might not happen. There can also be a lot of alcohol and drug abuse; a lot of gringos gone native - as there is in any Mexican destination with an agreeable climate and a two-buck cerveza. There are events happening every hour of the day, every day of the week - gallery openings, readings, jazz, blues, chamber music, movies, theatre, lessons in everything from tango to astronomy, language classes, cooking classes - all in English. There is even a synagogue and an Anglican church. The photo below is St. Paul's Anglican.


San Miguel is filled with courtyards - in hotels, restaurants, stores - anywhere one might want to sit and rest for a moment. The courtyard will have a fountain, a garden, benches or tables and chairs and pillars to frame the scene. This is the courtyard attached to Starbucks!


This courtyard is part of a sweet boutique hotel - the dining area circles a central fountain. In the one minute I stood there to take a photo, all I could hear was birdsong.

And this courtyard is part of Institute de Allende, built in 1736. The Institute has had many incarnations, including a private home, a convent, and an art and language school. Now it is multi-purpose - it is an event venue, holds countless interest courses and houses a café.


This is the back area of the Institute that overlooks the city, and is often rented out for weddings.


The artistic community, which developed shortly after the Second World War, transformed the town. As is the case of artists everywhere, their once-cheap digs paved the way for more well-heeled travellers and prices have risen steadily over the years. The city itself is a work of art, with little surprises painted or sculpted in the most unusual places. And the art! There are dozens and dozens of galleries, both public and private. There are jewellery stores that are mind-boggling in their innovative design and use of metals and native stone. They're not merely stores - they are small galleries. Textiles, fabrics - these are borrowed from indigenous design, but made modern. It is simply sensory overload, and you need several days to take it all in.

One of our favourite places for sheer esthetic appeal is Fabrica la Aurora, which is an old textile factory that has been converted to showcase artist studios and shops. The building has been meticulously restored, and it and the grounds around it, are a visually stunning backdrop for the dozens of stores inside. During its century in operation, it employed over 300 people and was a social centre for its employees as well - an important part of the San Miguel landscape. Unfortunately, in 1991 it closed its doors, as free trade flooded the market with cheap imported textiles and it could no longer compete.


This is the entrance to Fabrica la Aurora. The grounds outside, the entryway and a sculpture by one of the featured artists, Rodrigo de la Sierra.



Have a look at the link - http://fabricalaaurora.com/ It gives the full history and tells how the current incarnation came into being. The design quality of the buildings and grounds alone is flawless - a perfect complement to the artwork inside.

Galleries offer paintings, sculpture, ceramics, clothing, leather, jewellery, and furnishings, both modern and antique. This incredible store, called "Antiquities" was filled with items we will never own - such as a small desk for $25,000 US.

This painting was more our speed - an homage to one of Mexico's big exports.

Or this - a stylized bicycle - this is a foyer piece. Alas, our front hall (we can't really call it a "foyer") is too small.

I loved this display (would it be art imitating art?) of a sculpture contemplating the paintings. The red chair is probably part of the installation - I felt too self-conscious to try sitting in it.


A young sculptor from Mexico City, Rodrigo de la Sierra, has an entire hall devoted to his work.


This piece is called "Pillheads" - reflecting his consternation with our approach to problem-solving.


He has created a rotund little character called Timo, and many of his pieces deal with Timo's fear of death and his ability to vanquish his fears, and go toe-to-toe with the Grim Reaper.



Here are some of the walkways through the building, and to the outer studios.




I could have stayed there for hours just admiring the beauty. At some point, the $16 napkins, and the $400 necklace and all the other things that were beyond my price range started to depress me , so I caught up with Stephen, who was resting up by one of the factory artifacts.


I'll leave you with this photo of our favourite little breakfast place, called Medio Naranja. It is up a flight of stairs, with windows looking out over the street - and fantastic food. We've been craving simple eggs and toast - not always that easy to find in Mexico. For the past three mornings, we've been enjoying freshly squeezed orange juice, scrambled eggs, toasted whole grain bread with fresh jam, and excellent coffee for about $4.


I'll send off another SMA blog posting in a couple of days. Churches are up next, and a bit of history, and hot springs, and wonderful food.

Posted by millerburr 15:03 Archived in Mexico

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What a well-written entry, starting with the title. Now I want to go!

by Patrick Ward

That's it, it is the third time I hear of the wonders of SMA, we need to organize a month long artist retreat!

by Laurence

Your pictures are breathtaking! SMA is on our radar now as a result of this entry. You're better than any travel agent we've ever come across!

by Heather

Well, now you have really gone and done it. I know I'm supposed to turn up my nose in that "smelling-poo" kind of way, but I unabashedly love SMA. I love the smells, the sounds of the birds in the jardin in the evening, the raucous colours and balloons. Semana Santa in San Miguel -- heaven. When I lived there for six months I worked for the english weekly newspaper. I did some writing for the paper, but mostly I did the layout! Oh, I am going to be conjuring up Mexico all day long. Fresh tortillas, jugo, ...

by Nicola Ross

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