photo by Thomas J. Story
People love San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They love San Miguel so much that when you tell them you're making your first visit, their love annoys you. San Miguel will change your life, they say. Yeah, right, you think. The architecture, the culture. I've seen old buildings, you mutter, I've seen lots of old buildings.
So you make the flight to Leon, in central Mexico, and the hourlong taxi ride, and you're in San Miguel. And just as all the annoying people warned you, you're in love.
Here, on the slopes of the Mexican altiplano, is a city that reminds you of parts - the best parts - of Santa Fe, of Siena, of Seville. But it's maybe more beautiful than any of them, especially now, in spring, when the clear, high air - the city stands at about 6,000 feet - is tinted violet by hundreds of blooming jacarandas.
YOU LAND AND YOU LOOK
"This is El Jardín, San Miguel's central square," says the guide on the 10 a.m. city walking tour. My gauge of how hard I've fallen for a place is how long it takes me to recover from the plane ride and start exploring: in San Miguel, about one minute.
"Once, all the teenagers did the traditional paseo here," the guide says, "the girls walking in one direction, the boys in the other, flirting." Now, she adds, "They're like North American kids, hanging all over each other everywhere."
Some things change. Others don't. In the 18th century, San Miguel thrived as a trading and textile center. Wealthy factory owners and merchants built grand mansions and helped fund even grander churches. Today much of that opulence remains.
From El Jardín, the tour crosses the street to La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the most prominent of San Miguel's many churches. A lot of Mexican churches are heavy, dour affairs, each stone cautioning you not to sin. Not La Parroquia.
"The man who designed La Parroquia was not a trained architect," our guide says. "One story is that he was inspired by postcards of European cathedrals." Or maybe by Marvel Comics: La Parroquia is a pink rocket ship shooting into the sky. The guide points to the church bell tower. "There are four bells. Each has a name. St. Michael, for the archangel Michael, is the oldest. But La Luz has the purest sound."
Once on your own, you learn to use La Parroquia both as signpost and clock. From every corner of the city, its rose tower guides you when you've lost your way. The clanging of La Luz and St. Michael marks the hours of the gently passing days.
You learn other lessons too. The most painful is "don't walk and look at the same time." Many of San Miguel's streets date from the 18th century: They're cobblestone, wildly uneven, brutal on the unwary ankle. One local shoe store promotes a San Miguel Shoe for women, allegedly engineered to prevent sprains. But, inevitably, you will walk and look and invariably twist your ankle. You will not care.