When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in this area, in the early 16th century, there was a small village. A Spanish priest, Juan de San Miguel, built a chapel near the village and dedicated it to the archangel Michael. The mission was to colonize and convert the natives. The natives did not like that very much, so the Spanish relocated nearby and, in 1555, founded a village named San Miguel. During the Mexican war of Independence, local heroes, including Ignacio Allende, raised an insurgent army and fought off the Spanish, making San Miguel the first Mexican town freed from Spanish rule. In 1826 the town was declared the city of San Miguel de Allende in his honor. The city dwindled and prospered over time until 1926, when it was declared a “Historic and Protected Town”. The city was then “discovered” by artists and writers, who established schools, which attracted students and tourists.
Our exploration of the city starts in the historic city center, the Jardin Allende. This is the town square, set between the two pillars of life in the city, the Church and the State. The Municipal Palace on the North side has been all but destroyed several times over the centuries and little remains except for drab little offices. The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel is the town’s parish church. It was built in the 17th century and towers over the South side of the square. Its unique neo-gothic towers can be seen from the all over the city. Next to it is the Santa Escuela Church, which was founded in 1742 and was the first church in the city.
The Jardin is where the people of the city come together to stroll, to people watch, to eat ice cream, to sit in the sidewalk cafes and linger over a glass of wine or beer. Festivals occur here. Mariachis play to the crowds at dusk. A wedding procession gathers in front of the Cathedral then parades around the block, following large Bride and Groom figures and a boisterous mariachi band. Vendors ply treats and balloons and toys for the kids. The manicured laurel trees provide shade to the many wrought iron benches throughout the square.
The best place for a tourista or expat to get information about the city is at the library, the Biblioteca Publica. They have meeting rooms where movies, lectures, classes, and concerts are given. A very pleasant courtyard has a restaurant and often features free classical guitar music during lunch. Tickets are on sale for the city’s many theaters, museums, and tours. A bilingual newspaper has calendars, ads, editorials, and feature articles about the city.
Exploring San Miguel de Allende can be a bit challenging, especially for a wobbly-kneed senior citizen who has still not adjusted to the altitude. The streets are very narrow, hilly, and lumpy, but the sidewalks are even worse. Most are only wide enough for two people, shoulder to shoulder, and steps, windows, and other obstacles intrude into the walking room enough so that extreme caution is needed to navigate them. A person yields to oncoming pedestrians, but not into the street, because you may get smacked by a passing rear view mirror.
Roaming the streets around the historic downtown is a never-ending surprise package. Looking down a block, you see mostly concrete and plaster, painted in earth tones. Here and there are large decorative doors and windows barred with wrought iron. Small, shabby-looking, hand painted signs outside advertise what turn out to be fine restaurants and cantinas inside.
People often remark about Mexico, “don’t drink the water”. As it turns out, that is both true and false. The water here flows out of mountain springs uphill from the city. Even in the driest spell, there is water trickling down the streets toward the reservoir and fields downhill from the town. A lot of this water gurgles out of the many fountains in the city. The city takes the water from the springs, filters and purifies it, then sends it out to the public. The trouble is, most buildings, homes and businesses, have rooftop cisterns where the water is stored. The quality of the water for any building depends on how well and how often the cistern is cleaned. Newer homes and better restaurants add filters for the water. To be prudent, never buy food from a street vendor. When buying fresh fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, be sure to soak them in a water and antibiotic mix before using them. Otherwise, enjoy the food and drink the water. Or better yet, drink the beer and margaritas.
Next up: more exploring San Miguel de Allende