Saturday, June 28, 2008

San Miguel de Allende, #4 of 4 parts: Religious architecture and the Jardin Botanical

Templo del Oratorio welcomes the sunrise. There is much more to San Miguel Allende’s religious architecture than the great Parrochia church for which the town is known (see part 3 of this series). Sometimes it seems there is a beautiful religious structure around every corner. I took this shot at sunrise from the mirador (roof garden) of the Casa Calderoni B&B where we stayed (see part 1). The soft morning rays gradually lit up the splendor of the steeples, domes and turrets of the Templo del Oratorio, Templo de Nuestra Senora de la Salud, and the Ex-Convento de San Francisco de Sales.

Quiet devotion. Many Mexicans, particularly among the poor, are deeply religious. I found this elderly Indio woman seated on the floor in a dark corner of Templo de San Francisco, quietly and fervently praying. Surrounded by the opulent splendor of the church, it is likely she owned little more than she was wearing. This is Carole's favorite picture of mine. She thinks it has the feel of a painting. The corner was very dark and, since I couldn't use a flash in the church, I had to greatly increase the exposure to create this effect.

Templo de la Immaculada Concepcion from the Centro Cultural courtyard. The dome of the Templo (also called Las Monjas) is seen here looming above the lush courtyard of the Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez, itself a former convent now turned into a center for music and the arts.

Los Monjas dome interior. I took this shot looking straight up at the interior of the dome of Los Monjas, which gives the impression of an immense mandala. The spidery looking object in the middle is the crystal chandelier suspended from the peak of the dome. The craftsman who built this dome created the illusion that the dome is higher than it actually is by using smaller bricks as he approached the peak.

Los Monjas corner detail. Painted on each corner of the mandala dome is a religious scene. As is often the case, only by mounting a tall ladder or possessing a telephoto lens can one appreciate the full beauty and detail of the paintings set in the forks between the graceful arches supporting the dome.

Sunrise over Templo de San Francisco. Seen from the roof garden of our B&B, the dome of the Templo de San Francisco rises above tall battlements which themselves rise approximately 60 ft. vertically from the street, giving the church a castle-like appearance.

Madly ornate. The façade surrounding the entrance of the Templo de San Francisco was built in an artistic style called Churrigueresque. Extremely elaborate, almost exploding with minutely detailed figures and designs, this style was popular in late 1600s to mid-1700s Spanish Mexico. However, it was very expensive and Church leaders could only afford to complete the façade in this manner, giving a stark contrast to the huge walls of plain stone surrounding it.

Jardin Botanico preserves lovely high desert plants

Just landed from Mars? Looking like some exotic, multi-tentacled monster, this cactus plant is native to the high desert region of the Bajio plateau overlooking San Miguel. The Jardin Botanico, located at the top of the bluffs overlooking San Miguel, turned out to be much larger than we had expected. A trail looping through it took three hours at a leisurely pace, with occasional stops for photos. And that was only one of the trails! We have been pleasantly surprised that Mexico seems to be increasingly interested in preserving its natural heritage as well as its historical heritage.

Under construction: wetlands and island. In this photo you can see the rolling high desert country on the plateau behind San Miguel. In the middle ground is a wetland, mostly mud at the moment as the seasonal rains approach. This will become a shallow lake in a few weeks. The circular dark mounds topped with vegetation are man-made islands. The hope is that this will attract birds that will then begin to restore more of the ecosystem as they spread seeds with their droppings.

Water power through the ages. The Spanish constructed the original dam to catch water for their town below. The dam sits at one end of the wetland, just where the gorge begins to drop through the bluffs above San Miguel. In the 19th Century, the Fabrica Aurora textile company built a factory just where the gorge opens up to the town, and piped water from this dam down the length of the gorge to power their mill. Rusting sections of this old pipe can still be found. When the summer rains come, the dam turns the wetlands into a shallow lake

Cactus flower. If one looks closely, the desert in this area abounds with flowers. This lovely bud was just opening on the tip of a cactus plant.

Caution! Look, but touch at your own risk. This pair of multi-colored barrel cactus contrasted nicely with the cool, lily pad-covered pond next to them. The amount of color and wonderful textures in the high desert always amazes me, making it one of my favorite types of country to visit.

Desert flower with bee. As we looked down from high above at the muddy wetland, I noticed what I thought were white birds feeding in the mud. As we got closer I found it odd that they didn’t move. Finally, I realized they were large, beautiful, white flowers with delicate purple veins. An industrious bee was busily pollinating this one.

Sun Worshipers. These cacti seem to be raising their arms to welcome the rays of the early morning sun. We picked a good time to visit, about 9:00 am, and encountered almost no other visitors. In addition, the golden morning light and cool air were ideal for strolling several miles of the nature paths.

Plaza of the Four Winds. Located on a rise overlooking the gorge that bisects the botanical garden, this plaza offers a mixture of Indio and Catholic religious symbols. Intricately designed plazas go far back into Mexico's history. The plaza was very quiet when we visited, with only the wind and the occasion buzz of a curious hummingbird breaking the silence.

This completes our four part series on our visit to San Miguel Allende. The number of visitors these four posts received over the last month indicates that our new strategy of shortening the posts was successful. Thanks for coming along with us to enjoy San Miguel de Allende. If you have time, please take the opportunity to visit other pages in our archives!

Hasta luego! Jim & Carole

Sunday, June 22, 2008

San Miguel de Allende, #3 of 4 parts: Parrochia and the Art Scene

Sun's last rays bathe San Miguel de Allende's Parrochia church. The Parrochia is truly spectacular, particularly at sunset, as the light plays over the ornate façade creating gradually deepening shades of yellow, then orange, then pink and rose. Started in 1689 and completed in 1730 in the baroque style, the Parrochia occupies most of the south side of the Jardin Principal. In 1880, the Bishop of Leon ordered a new facade and commissioned an Indio, Serefino Guiterrez, to do the work. Gutierrez designed the facade based on postcards of cathedrals in Europe. His work is now internationally recognized, a major factor in San Miguel's coming designation as a World Heritage Site.

A bell for the ages. This ancient bell in the Parrochia tower is attached to a rough-hewn beam, hardly more than a thick tree branch. The bell swings from a tangle of old hemp ropes. The white ropes are those that the priests pull from below to sound the bell. No fancy recordings on loudspeaker systems here, this arrangement been used since the founding of the church, and is similar to those used in Europe for thousands of years.

Bell tower detail. The architect Gutierrez set this statue of San Rafael high on the bell tower of the Parrochia, facing the San Rafael Templo seen in the last post. I am always amazed at the fine detail on decorations set at a height difficult for the human eye to appreciate. Thank goodness for telephoto lenses. What may appear to be a pattern of check marks on the stone is actually chicken wire aimed at foiling the pigeons.

Parrochia interior ceiling. Everywhere one looks in the church, the eye is startled by beautiful designs.

Baptismal room. Our guide pointed out that whether you were the highest aristocrat or the lowliest Indio, you could be baptized in this ornate room just inside the entrance of the Parrochia.

A Jesus made of cornstalks. Two things are remarkable about this figure of a crucified Jesus. First, it is made of cornstalks and leather, an ancient technique perfected by the Indios to give a truly human appearance. The statue is very old and was traditionally carried throughout the city from church to church during fiestas. Because of its fragility this is no longer done.

The second remarkable feature is the inscription “Senor De La Conquista”, the Lord of the Conquest. The Spanish enlisted the Prince of Peace in the bloody and rapacious conquest of the native populations. In fact, the Catholic version of Christianity was used as the ideological basis for rape, murder, and plunder throughout Latin America, much as the Protestant version was used to justify genocide and slavery in the US.

The result was the wholesale destruction of native civilizations and cultures and the creation of a system of near slavery for the Indios, which lasted from 1521 to the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1921. Given the complicity of the church in all of this, with some notable exceptions, it is not surprising that there is a strong strain of anti-clericalism in Mexican history that is still evident today.

San Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Juan Diego, a poor Indio who was later sainted, kneels before the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe after receiving from her a bouquet of roses to use as proof for church authorities skeptical of the validity of his vision. They finally accepted and the Virgin became the patron saint of Mexico and especially of its Indios. Viewed another way, Church officials saw the wisdom of adapting Aztec beliefs to Catholic purposes. Significantly, the place where Juan Diego encountered the vision was the site of a ruined temple to an Aztec goddess. Giving the Indios their own Virgin to venerate helped bind them more closely to the Church and by extension to Spanish rule. Actually, their action in co-opting an Aztec goddess was quite similar to co-opting the beliefs of tree-worshiping German pagans by creating the Christmas tree.

San Miguel is also a center of secular art and culture

Rope tricks with the Devil. The Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez, also known as the Bellas Artes and El Nigromante, is one of several schools for the arts in San Miguel. While great masters such as David Alfaro Siquieros created some of the murals on walls of the Centro, the students also painted many. I have often noted the offbeat humor prevalent in much of Mexican art. Here, valiant Mexican cowboys seek to lasso a demon threatening their womenfolk.

A cool and inviting courtyard at Centro Cultural. Like many public buildings in Mexico, the Centro Cultural has a religious background. Built in 1775 as a nunnery called the Convento de Concepcion, it surrounds a central courtyard planted with a lush garden. Murals cover many of the walls behind the portale arches. It had been a hot day, and the cool passageways and inviting greenery were a welcome relief. The Centro Cultural is a branch of the Palacio Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and students pursue painting, photography, music, dance and many other forms of art.

Men at work. The Centro was a hotbed of political art during the 1930s and Socialist Realism was the rage. The mural crowning the top of these stairs depicts workers in a textile factory. In fact, the Aurora Fabrica textile factory was a major employer in San Miguel at that time. The workers and their union played an active and vital role in culture of the city. The Aurora Fabrica shut down in the early 1990s, a victim of global trade treaties. Arts and crafts shops now occupy the factory buildings. Our guide told us that Siquieros got into a furious political argument with the Director of the Centro and threw him down these stairs. Siquieros then resigned and stormed out, followed by most of the students and teachers.

Centro Cultural vault mural. This arch-roofed vault, approximately 50 feet (17 meters) by 15 feet (5 meters), was once a dining hall for the art students and their teachers. The mural shown on the walls and ceiling is an unfinished masterpiece by Siquieros.

This completes the third of my four-part series on San Miguel Allende. I certainly haven't done justice to the complexity and pervasiveness of the art scene, but then I guess you'll just have to visit and see for yourself! My last San Miguel post will focus on more of the remarkable religious architecture and explore the wonderful desert botanical garden on the plateau overlooking the city. See you again in about a week!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

San Miguel de Allende, #2 of 4 parts: Jardin and Street Scenes

The Jardin Principal. The central plaza in San Miguel is called the “Jardin Principal”, meaning principal garden. Usually it is referred to as simply "the Jardin." As usual, it is the heart of the community. In San Miguel, stately old buildings with arched portales surround it. Many of the buildings used to be the mansions of wealthy Spaniards. The former mansion shown here now houses a bank, a youth hostel, a tour agency, and—just up the block—Starbucks. The town is justly proud of its beautiful Jardin and mounted lights flush to the ground in the sidewalks around the edge to highlight the buildings at night. The effect is enchanting. Just in front of the car you can see a group of mariachis taking a break. Multiple mariachi bands played in the Jardin every night we were there, sometimes several at once.

Under the portales. This scene, on the east side of the Jardin opposite the bank, is typical of the activity under the portales in many Mexican plazas. The cool shady spaces are occupied by diners at Rincon de Don Tomas, a popular restaurant, and by Mexican shopkeepers chatting with their friends and relatives. Looking through the archway, you can see north up Calle Reloj (clock street), one of the narrow old cobblestone streets found throughout the old city.

Restaurant San Francisco. Carole and I ate an excellent dinner our first evening at the Restaurant San Francisco, which occupies part of the north side of the Jardin. We sat at the table now occupied by the man in the checked shirt. The people-watching was great and the Jardin across the street (from which I took the picture) created a never-ending show.

A door built for grand entrances. This huge and fantastically ornate carved wooden door is located on a side street just off the Jardin. To appreciate the size, it is helpful to know that the two small doors at the bottom are each over seven feet tall (see also the next picture). These portals allowed the wealthy owners to bring their carriages directly into the interior courtyards of their mansions so that the aristocrats and their ladies could be conveyed without the possibility of stepping into anything unpleasant on the street.

And behind this door... The ready availability of highly skilled, and very inexpensive, Indio craftsmen allowed the aristocrats to decorate their mansions in such opulence. By the late 19th Century, silver mining in the area declined and San Miguel became a near ghost town. Perhaps because of this, details like this door were spared from “modernization” and when the Mexican government finally discovered what an architectural treasure house the city contained, they protected amazing works like this.

Templo San Rafael. The Spanish built this Gothic-style church in 1564, by order of the first Bishop of Michoacan. The province of Michoacan included the modern state of Guanajuato at the time. The church is also known as the Santa Escuela de Cristo. Many churches and other religious structures seem to have more than one name, not surprising considering their age.

Restaurant with a view. The Terraza Restaurant sits in front of the Templo de San Rafael, which itself adjoins the Parrochia church on the south side of the Jardin. The Terraza’s location makes it a prime spot for viewing activity in the plaza, but we hear that the food is not all that great. We were told “better have a coffee there after dinner somewhere else and just enjoy the view”.

A peek through the arches. The Parrochia, or Parish church, seen through the arches of portales lining the east side of the Jardine, is the dominant structure in SMA, visible from many parts of the city.

Old San Miguel. This is a walking town, and I strongly encourage visitors to park their cars in off-street lots and enjoy the narrow cobblestone streets with their many shops, galleries, and interesting human vignettes. This street is typical, with multi-hued pastel buildings, casual strollers, and an Indio woman in the distance, seated on the stone walk, surrounded by her bags of wares for sale.

Friendly cop. As usual, the traffic cops were the friendliest. Many of them get around the narrow streets by bicycles. This one was kind enough to stop when he saw I was about to take his picture.

Keeping an eye on things. This Dalmatian seems to be taking a relaxed attitude toward his watchdog responsibilities. Since the sidewalks are very narrow and the walls begin at the edge of the sidewalk, I came eye-to-eye with this fellow as he snoozed with his eyes open on the ledge of his master’s open window. He seemed somewhat unimpressed with me.

Chasing pigeons in the park. Children are often the most photogenic of all subjects. This boy was energetically pursuing the pigeons at the base of a stern statue of Ignacio Allende. The markings on his t-shirt are in English, a common occurrence in Mexico. I often wonder whether Mexicans wearing some of the more provocative t-shirts know what they are broadcasting.

Directing traffic, San Miguel-style. While wandering the streets, we encountered a parade of traffic cops and small children, apparently meant to publicize traffic safety. Mexican whimsey once again came to the fore with uniformed officers marching gaily along wearing animal heads, and other officers performing acrobatics on their motorcycles. You never know what's around the next corner.

I hope you enjoyed the second of my four posts on San Miguel de Allende. The next post, in about a week, will focus on the Parrochia and on the culture and art scene.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

San Miguel de Allende, #1 of 4 parts: Overview, History, Casa Calderoni

A jewel set in silver. Beautiful scenery, history, art, and culture intersect at San Miguel de Allende, one of Mexico’s loveliest, most cosmopolitan small cities. It is a jewel set along the old colonial silver trail from Zacatecas to Mexico City. Carole and I visited San Miguel at the end of May. Since May is usually one of the hottest months at Lake Chapala, we decided that a visit to a cooler, high-altitude location was in order.

Important note to blog viewers!
San Miguel is such a photogenic city that I simply took too many beautiful shots to incorporate in one posting. In fact, Carole has been chiding me that my postings have grown far too lengthy and that I should give folks a break. Looking over my selected photos and script, I decided to break the story into four separate postings, covering different aspects of San Miguel. I will put up the postings about once a week, so people will have time to digest each and (hopefully) have their appetites whetted for the next. As always, I am very open to feedback and constructive criticism about any aspect of my blog. Please let me know what you think by posting comments or emailing me directly at

First, an overview.

View from the bluffs overlooking the city. San Miguel lies on rolling high desert foothills in front of a steep bluff. The town itself has about 62,000 people, with another 80,000 living in many small towns and villages within its “municipality”, a term which roughly corresponds to a US county. About 11-12,000 of the residents are expats and perhaps 7,000 of these are full-timers. 70% of expats are from the US, 20% from Canada, and the other 10% from elsewhere.

While the expats, and the wealthy Mexicans who have also "discovered" it, have helped give San Miguel its sophisticated, cosmopolitan atmosphere, their presence has also driven up prices in sectors such as housing and restaurants, and has done much to attract unsightly horrors like Big Box stores and McMansion housing tracts to the city’s edge. Fortunately, the Mexican government declared the heart of the city a national monument in 1926, and the large center area retains its historic character.

High desert country around San Miguel can be rugged. A deep narrow canyon cuts the bluff creating an ancient arroyo (stream bed) which leads to a present-day city reservoir seen in the previous picture. On top of the bluff lies a plateau in an area known as the Bajio (low place), primarily because it is surrounded by mountain ranges. However, at 6140 feet (1870 meters) San Miguel is anything but low. The altitude gives the city cool mornings and evenings, with warm sunny afternoons. This was just what we were looking for after the scorching days we had been enduring during May in Ajijic.

Biblioteca Publica mural tells the story of Mexico's Indios. Originally known as San Miguel de la Chichimecas, the city has had a long relationship with the native people who were here when the Spanish arrived. The local people were nomadic hunters and gatherers in the high desert plains. Because they didn’t worship idols like settled Indios, Church leaders considered them too primitive to even have a religion. But, for a nomad, possessions must be few since they must be carried everywhere. Idols had little utility. Later ethnographers found a rich cultural life among the various tribes called Chichicmecas.

Stained glass window in the Biblioteca Publica. The local Indios did gain respect as fierce warriors during the Chichimec Wars, fought from the mid-1500s until well into the 19th Century. They were so tenacious that the Spanish sometimes found it easier and cheaper simply to buy them off. This made sense, since the route from the silver mines in Zacatecas and Guanajuato passed through the area on the way to Mexico City, and the Indios had a fondness for raiding the bullion caravans. Finally, the Spanish sent Father Miguel in 1542 to set up a mission in the area to help settle the Indios, and thus founded the city of San Miguel de la Chichimecas. The Miguel in the name is San Miguel the Archangel, not the Father.

Art work adorning the Instituto Allende art school. Chichimec is a common term used to describe the original inhabitants of the area. The term is not actually used by the local Indios to describe themselves, and is considered derogatory. The name is made up of two words from the language of the Nahautl Indio allies of the Spanish who came from the Mexico City area. The words are dog and rope (or line) meaning the people who come from a line of dogs. There were actually several related tribes, including the Otomies, Jonaz, Coras, Huicholes, Pames, Yaquis, Mayos, O'odham and the Tepehuánes.

San Miguel and the War for Independence.

Independence hero gave San Miguel its final name. San Miguel played an important role at the beginning of the eleven-year struggle known as the War for Independence from Spain. Two of the early figures who became national heroes were Father Hidalgo, the Parrish priest at the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, and Ignacio Allende, an aristocrat born and raised in the town by then known as San Miguel el Grande. General Allende is shown here in a dramatic 19th Century pose, complete with pigeons. He was one of the initial plotters, and a general in the early battles.

A classic mansion for a second-class citizen. Ignacio Allende was born and grew up in this classic mansion (now a museum), located on the west side of the Jardine Prinicipal (the central plaza), only a few yards from the magnificent Parrochia church. The house location gives an indication of his wealth and prominence in the local power structure. However, he was second generation Spanish, full-blooded it was true, but not actually born in Spain. Nothing he could do would make him anything other than a second-class citizen in this society, despite his wealth, education, and prominence. Of such is born a “revolutionary”.

The Indios formed the bulk of the rebel armies during the War of Independence. With some notable exceptions, Spaniards or their second-generation offspring led the Indio troops. Far from being a revolution, the War for Independence was a struggle by one part of the existing power structure against the part which supported continued dominance by Spain. Although Father Hidalgo is seen as the liberator of the Indios, few the local landowners and gentry who supported independence had any thought of ending the serfdom of the Indios and it remained in place for a hundred years until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Similarly, slave-owning aristocrats like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led the American side of the War of Independence against the British and the last vestiges of serfdom in the US didn’t end until the 1960s.

The independence plotters lair. On the north side of the plaza, another former mansion still stands where some of the independence plotters met just before the war started. This historic site now hosts a restaurant/bar named Dolphy and some shops. Note the beautiful work around the upstairs French doors and the wrought-iron railing.

Most of the early leaders of the independence war came to a bad end. Both Father Hidalgo and General Allende, after some early successes, were captured and beheaded. The Spanish did not take kindly to those who challenged their dominance, regardless of religious status or wealth and prominence. In the end, no matter how many heads they made roll, the Spanish lost Mexico, and ultimately all of Latin America. In 1826, the city was renamed from San Miguel el Grande (its second name) to San Miguel de Allende in honor of the general.

Casa Calderoni, our "base camp".

Kickin' back at Casa Calderoni. While we found quite a number of choices for places to stay, Casa Calderoni seemed to best fit our overall needs. Nightly rates for the off-season were $99.00US. Other possible choices range from youth hostels with posted rates of 100 pesos (about $10.00US), to small hotels at 350 pesos (about $35.00US) all the way up to B&Bs boasting movie star clients and charging several hundred dollars per night. The trick is to find a spot fairly close to the center of town where you can walk anywhere. Casa Calderoni is on the edge of El Centro, the heart of the city, and is only four blocks from the central plaza called the Jardine Principal. Taxis are plentiful and cheap (20-30 pesos or $2-$3 US) for those who don't want to walk. However, we encourage walking since you see so much more.

Luis, our friendly "concierge". An English-speaking expat couple named Calderoni owns the Casa. Carole and I had combed the Internet for a bed and breakfast with an English-speaking staff, since we would be visiting a new city where we had no existing contacts and our Spanish, though improving, is still limited. Luis, pictured above, was the Mexican equivalent of a concierge. He spoke excellent English and, like the rest of the staff, was warm, friendly, helpful and very efficient.

The Casa's patio was cool and inviting. Located on the third floor, our room overlooked this cool, beautifully decorated courtyard.

A lush view. Our window brought in light, air and color from the courtyard below.

The dining room staff served excellent breakfasts. We ate here every morning with expats from various countries as well as Mexican tourists. Food was good and plentiful with lots of fresh mangos and papayas and other fruit as well as other standards like eggs and French toast and some Mexican dishes. One of the Calderonis usually attended breakfast to answer questions about San Miguel.

A room with a view. Casa Calderoni's website boasts it has the best view of the city from any hotel or B&B, and they may be right. The “mirador” (look out point) on the roof of the B&B is a multi-level terrace equipped with tables and lounge chairs. From it you can view the rolling wooded hills of the city and the steeples and domes of the many churches. I came up here at various times of the day and was always rewarded with outstanding views in every direction, especially at dawn.

Casa bedrooms were full of artistic touches. Our room was comfortable, and beautifully decorated with the art of American Southwest artist Georgia O'Keefe. I used the cow's skull on our wall as my hat rack. We could have done without the unnecessary extra bed, which simply took up space and made things a little more cramped than we would have liked. But that was minor. Overall, Casa Calderoni was lovely.

San Miguel de Allende is a "walking" town. The Casa staff recommended a walking tour of the El Centro area of San Miguel, one of their best pieces of advice. There are several commercial tours available, but the Casa staff recommended the one operated by Patronato Pro Ninos, a Mexican non-profit organization that provides free medical help to poor children. The walking tours are a key part of the organization’s fundraising. Andrea, shown above with Carole (with the blue hat and large bag) and our three fellow tour participants, guided the two-hour tour, which cost 100 pesos (about $10.00US) per person.

Andrea was friendly, humorous, spoke excellent English, and was very professional, even though she was a volunteer. She takes great pride in her beautiful city, and feels deeply about the mission of Patronato Pro Ninos. At the end of our tour she gave us a brief overview of their work, and was momentarily overcome with emotion when describing one case with which she was personally familiar. We strongly recommend you use this tour service if you visit San Miguel. They are easy to find: just go to the Jardine Principal at a few minutes before 10:00 AM any day, and stand around in the area immediately between front of the Parrochia Church and the garden area of the Jardine Principal (the central plaza). Look for others also standing around expectantly and you will find your tour.

I hope you enjoyed this posting. Feedback is always welcome (see directions for comments below). In about a week, I will make my second of four postings on San Miguel de Allende, focusing on the Jardine Principal area and street life in San Miguel. Hasta Luego! Jim