- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico

Most people think a trip to Mexico is about beach resorts, tequila and archaeological ruins. Places such as Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. Or Chicken Itza.

Interesting, pleasant places, and all are nice to visit, but if you want to get a much better feel for Mexico, to experience the real Mexico, you will find what you are seeking in one of the Spanish colonial towns or cities that has retained the flair of Old Mexico.

The best, many agree, is San Miguel de Allende, a small colonial town in the Bajio Mountains of the state of Guanajuato, about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City. This is almost the middle of the country.

San Miguel de Allende doesn’t merely look historic — it genuinely is historic. It became known as San Miguel after it was founded in 1542 by a Franciscan monk, San Miguel el Grande, who was beloved for his work among Indians in the area. At that time, this part of the world was not yet called Mexico; it was part of New Spain. During the war for Mexican independence from Spain in the early 1800s, the city was a center for the opposition, which explains why it was renamed San Miguel de Allende — to honor a great hero of Mexican independence, Ignacio Allende.

Much sets San Miguel de Allende apart from many of the other places that fit into the Old Mexico category — and that’s not accidental. The town’s distinctive and colorful facades still look as they did at their finest moments, unblemished with intrusions of a more contemporary appearance because in 1926 the government of Mexico made San Miguel a national monument, placing restrictions on alterations in the town’s historic central district. No new building and no renovation has been or will be allowed unless it retains the city’s historic colonial characteristics.

This explains why you can almost sense the history as you walk about San Miguel. No matter if you have no particular fondness for history; this is a great place where it’s a pleasure simply to walk.

Not only has the history been preserved, but the charm of Old Mexico has been captured. That’s unusual and very special. Lots of cities and towns have historic-preservation districts, but generally they capture just a little bit of the atmosphere, usually enough to make visiting a pleasant experience but never quite enough to make visitors feel as if they’re back in time. Walk about the historic Centro district here, and all the little things make a big difference — or the lack of some little things preserves the feel of Old Mexico.

There are no neon signs, billboards or traffic lights — not even so small a sign of our more modern days as a stop sign.

What visitors enjoy is San Miguel’s charm, and it’s here in abundance. The Greater San Miguel area may have a population of about 80,000, but Centro truly has the look and feel of a very small town in Old Mexico.

Our visit centers on enjoying a wonderful hotel just a few blocks from the town square. Each day we set out on different walks to get to know this small town that enjoys such a large reputation.

Casa de Sierra Nevada, an Orient-Express Hotels property, perfectly reflects its Old Mexico location in every way except for offering its guests all modern conveniences. It’s a small boutique hotel — just 33 rooms and suites — spread among nine 16th- through 18th-century colonial mansions, with each casa and each room different from the others. The smallest casa has but two rooms; the largest has just six.

Our room is in Casa Principal, an official historical landmark that was the residence of the archbishop of San Miguel de Allende in the 1580s. Breakfast is a short walk down the stairs and into the open-air courtyard; this dining spot also is one of the best places in town for dinner. A couple of evenings we sat out on the private walled rooftop patio attached to our room and enjoyed views of the sun setting over Old Mexico.

Almost anytime is a good time to be outdoors in San Miguel. It is in the middle of sunny Mexico at an altitude of 6,400 feet, so the town enjoys a year-round temperate climate that is often appropriately described as “idyllic.” It varies little and features low humidity and cool mountain breezes, but there are hot days.

Wealthy residents of Mexico City, mainly actors and political figures, have long come to this mountain town to escape the heat and frenzy of the big city. The great climate also has drawn people from much farther away. A surprisingly high percentage of its residents — about 15 percent — are Americans and Canadians who have settled here because of the weather, the pleasant pace and the affordable living. “It’s just such a charming town,” one ex-pat told us, “and the people here are so very nice.” The ex-pat community is very active in local charities, even running house tours from which profits are earmarked for good causes.

Some of these American and Canadian ex-pats have roots here that trace to the days following World War II when polio scares led many returning GIs to search out healthy spots in which to live and raise their families. Others were attracted here in the 1950s by the burgeoning artists colonies, including the renowned Instituto Allende. In recent years, San Miguel’s reputation has influenced American and Canadian retirees to flock here.

Although San Miguel is in the middle of Mexico and has an authentic colonial look, it has plenty of art galleries, craft stores and antique shops run by second-generation American and Canadian residents. In one gallery we visited, the owner hailed from our hometown in North Carolina.

This mix of colonial charm and sizable American and Canadian presence is very appealing to tourists. The language barrier is considerably less an impediment here than in other Old Mexico spots, and running into so many English-speaking people seems to raise the comfort level. Also adding to the comfort is that San Miguel enjoys a reputation as one of the safest towns in Mexico — day and night. All those Americans and Canadians would not be moving and staying here were it otherwise.

WALKING DISTANCE

One of the things that made San Miguel de Allende so appealing to us was that we could walk fairly easily from our room at Casa de Sierra Nevada to everything we wanted to see. We say “fairly” for several reasons: The streets are cobblestoned; sidewalks are narrow; curbs are high; and there are inclines, as in most mountain towns.

Comfortable walking shoes are a must. A popular purchase here among both locals and visitors is a woman’s sandal that was inspired by the town. The sandal is called the San Miguel, and it has a well-cushioned insole, a lug outer sole and a wide stretch band that helps stabilize the ankle. They are extremely comfortable and considered very fashionable.

The cobblestone streets made us feel as if we were walking through a sort of open-air museum. On each side of the narrow street are palacios — old mansions — mostly from the late 1500s through the 1700s. Behind the stone or adobe walls are a great mixture of structures. At one spot behind the facade might lie part of a fine hotel such Casa de Sierra Nevada or an elegant private residence. Many of the boutiques and art galleries and even some restaurants have pleasing and distinctive San Miguel facades.

The architecture is fascinating and in a sense comforting. Visitors feel safe in the relaxing environment, where there is time to stop and smell the roses or just to pause often and let the eyes feast on the beauty of the place.

Doors and window treatments are often magnificent sights. So are the colorful buildings around them. The Mexican people love colors and have a flair for using them to great effect. Pause and look at a door or a window area and the color that surrounds it, for in this town, that often is like looking at a painting.

Further enhancing the beauty of these scenes is the detail work. Many of the doors are elaborately carved. Some doors have interesting carved figures above them or contain eye-catching door knockers; sometimes a gargoyle is above a door. Near some doors is a niche holding a sculpture, often of a saint.

Sometimes it looks as if someone has imbedded a shell into a wall. These are inverted scallop shells, the symbol of St. James, reminiscent of the shells in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and along the pilgrimage routes leading there. Spanish Catholic missionaries brought this touch to architecture in the New World.

FOUNTAINS EVERYWHERE

Mexicans love the sight and sound of fountains and, like their fondness and flair for color, this creates a pleasant street ambience. Fountains are everywhere. Simple ones. Great tiered ones. Standing on street corners, in the centers of parks and recessed into walls. The town has more than 40 public fountains and far more private ones.

The town also is known for its fine displays of three other ingredients that go into the making of an attractive Mexican town — churches, columns and courtyards.

By the town square is one of the most famous churches in Mexico, La Parroquia, the Parish Church of San Miguel Arcangel, a landmark whose pink-toned Gothic spires can be seen from most areas around town.

Walks about town also reveal plenty of attractive uses of columns of various materials to support balconies and patios and help give San Miguel de Allende its distinct Spanish colonial aura.

Also close by but most often not visible to passers-by are all sorts of beautiful courtyards. They blend perfectly with the colonial buildings and the delightful climate. Because of their love of courtyards, many Mexican families can enjoy the outdoors within the privacy of their home.

There is a way to see a selection of the courtyards, for at noon each Sunday, American and Canadian residents operate a house and garden tour that begins at the main library, preceded by local musical entertainment. The proceeds benefit an educational charity for local children.

A good place to get the feel of the town — and also just to sit and relax — is the small main plaza. Locals gather here to chat, get a shoeshine or buy small gifts from roaming vendors. Sometimes men lead burros along the plaza, their backs laden with firewood; police officers in colorful uniforms ride by on horses.

Relaxation brings travelers to a place like San Miguel de Allende, where the gentle pace is aided by the daily siesta from 2 to 4 p.m.

Shops are closed during siesta, but the middle to late afternoon — after lunch — often found us stopping at a small restaurant, San Agustin, for a treat that we have been fond of since our first visit to Spain years ago: hot chocolate served with churros, delights of fried dough. Here the beverage is offered with a choice of Spanish, Mexican or French chocolate.

Good restaurants are plentiful in this pleasant town, and it has a variety of cuisines, but we feel that when in Mexico we should enjoy Mexican food at every opportunity.

In San Miguel, it is a waste not to do some shopping, a highlight of coming here. Mexicans are known for quality workmanship in their ceramics, weavings, wooden toys and carvings, metalwork and jewelry, lacquerwork, basketry and textiles. There is no difficulty finding plenty of nice shops — and it’s a bonus that this is the center of Mexico, providing an outlet for artisans from every region of the country.

MANY HOLIDAYS

Some sort of cultural event seems to be happening throughout the year, especially with the many festivals such as Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) with its colorful parades; the festivities leading up to Independence Day (Sept. 16); the Winter Classic Music Festival; Wool & Brass Fair; International Hall Music Festival; Jazz Festival; the Sanmiguelada in September, a local version of the Spain’s running of the bulls. Actually, there may be more religious festivals and civic holidays — 75 — than fountains.

Visitors to San Miguel de Allende also may take adult education lessons in such subjects as Spanish, cooking, painting and photography.

It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant town for a nice, long visit. Or even a few days.

• • •

For information about Casa de Sierra Nevada and visiting San Miguel de Allende, visit www.casadesierranevada.com or call 800/701-1561.

The nearest airport for San Miguel de Allende is in Leon, a 11/2-hour drive. Casa de Sierra Nevada makes arrangements to pick up guests at that airport or at some airports farther away.

The section on San Miguel de Allende in “The Rough Guide to Mexico” is a very good introduction and contains good recommendations. “The Best of San Miguel de Allende,” a self-published work by a former American journalist now living there, is, at times, silly and arrogant, but it is comprehensive and contains helpful ratings of restaurants and shops.

U.S. citizens need a passport for travel in Mexico.

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