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The ‘magical city’ at the heart of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende thrives on art and stunning vistas

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My first day in San Miguel de Allende, I awoke to bells ringing at Santo Domingo Church a short distance down the hill. Fortunately, there was scant need to know the time nor heed current events in this ancient colonial city.

Its year-round, sunny and crisp weather routinely touches 70 degrees with only occasional bursts of rain. Magenta-hued bougainvillea vines clamber over stone walls and drape antique cedar doors. Everyone smiled to greet me: “Buenos días.” A blissful timelessness characterizes this Magical City, founded in 1542 and often referred to as the heart of Mexico.

After taking two connecting flights from New Orleans to Dallas and then to Leon, Mexico, and a 90 minutes shuttle, eating only pretzel snacks, I was ready to devour some authentic Mexican food.

I had made arrangements to stay with a friend, Gail Perry, who intends to live half-time in San Miguel, joining its legion of expats. We ambled down several blocks to dine at the popular rooftop restaurant El Pegaso. I was later to learn San Miguel’s hilly terrain resulted from volcanic eruption 10,000 years ago, providing rich agricultural soil and hard rock for cobblestone streets and 12 types of limestone.

To take the edge off, I quickly ordered a spicy Mezcalita cocktail made with Mezcal, pineapple and lime juices, Serrano pepper, garlic and tomato with tamarind along the rim.

'magical city' at the heart of Mexico

Chiles en Nogada is believed to have been created in 1821 by Catholic nuns, honoring a Mexican general and displaying the tricolors of the Mexican flag.

I sampled Chiles en Nogada topped with pomegranate seeds, believed to have been created in 1821 by Catholic nuns, honoring a Mexican general and displaying the tricolors of the national flag.

San Miguel’s historic district

To get the lay of the land, we registered for a sightseeing tour, visiting colonial churches, mansions and parks with many similarities to New Orleans’ Vieux Carre.

San Miguel was named for the 16th-century friar Juan de San Miguel and Ignacio Allende, hero and martyr of the 1810-21 war for independence. Allende’s home where the revolt was plotted is now a museum. The historic district is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Shaded by Laurel of India trees, the city’s delightful center, El Jardín, is continuously filled with dog walkers, children playing, elderly residents chatting, millennials checking cellphones, gentlemen getting shoes shined and people eating ice cream.

'magical city' at the heart of Mexico

A street vendor in San Miguel de Allende

In years past, El Jardín was the place where chaperoned boys and girls promenaded in opposing, concentric circles before deciding to become formally acquainted.

Most houses are two-story, constructed for Spanish-American Criollos who profited from farming, cattle ranching or silver and gold mining.

The plaza’s centerpiece is the pink sandstone parish “temple,” built in 1620, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel (St. Michael the Archangel), originally built in Spanish colonial style, but redesigned in 1880 with neo-classical Baroque motifs by self-taught, indigenous architect Zeferino Gutiérrez.

European-inspired murals

The ceiling’s European-inspired murals were removed to reveal beautiful Bóveda Catalán brick arches, but the Parroquia’s most outstanding artifact, Señor de la Conquista, is a statue made from corn stalks and orchid bulbs, depicting a dark-skinned Jesus on the crucifix.

'magical city' at the heart of Mexico

The centerpiece of San Miguel’s plaza is the pink sandstone parish ‘temple,’ built in 1620, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel.

Brought to San Miguel by Franciscan friars, hoping to convert Chichimeca to Catholicism, the icon was altered by Indigenous artisans to be in their own image. Cristo Jesus wears a gold, embroidered cloth and mirrored crown, resembling an Aztec god.

Next morning, we booked a tour with naturalist and cultural historian Arturo Tirado Morales to explore Guanajuato. Driving 61 curvy miles across the semi-arid highlands of Guanajuato, 400 feet above the Bajio’s fertile plains, he explained that Mexico is one of the world’s five mega-biodiverse ecologies with 17 species of oak and 150 species of birds.

We stopped to view El Pipila, a monument overlooking Guanajuato, depicting a miner and hero of the Independence movement. I then enjoyed hot and spicy Aztec soup, accompanied by a Libertad craft blonde ale.

In 1555, gold and silver were discovered in metamorphic rock. The Spanish wanted to appropriate and conquer territories of Indigenous people, igniting the 50-year Chichimeca War.

Throughout the 18th century, New Spain was the world’s most important producer of silver, even shipping it to China. We explored underground stone tunnels that used to carry river water, now serving as thoroughfares, and saw Teatro Juárez, built in 1903, once Mexico’s most prestigious theater.

'magical city' at the heart of Mexico

A mariachi band in San Miguel

Morales extolled the multi-ethnic heritage of San Miguel. “In the end, what is the root of happiness? It is all about community,” he opined.

Artists’ colony

San Miguel was at risk of becoming a ghost town when a wealthy Chicagoan arrived from the train station in 1937, transported in a mule-drawn cart. Stirling Dickinson was instantly enchanted.

Purchasing a tannery, he opened an art school catering to World War II veterans benefiting from the tuition-sponsored G.I. Bill. An estimated 40,000 Americans graduated from his schools, firmly establishing San Miguel as an art mecca.

Among our tour group was Jennifer Susan Fanning, a Mexican-American planning to return home.

Fanning’s 107-year-old grandmother was born in Mexico and her mother, Marina, was a secretary at the U.S. Embassy. Marrying an American soldier during the Vietnam war, her mother transferred to Washington, D.C., after the divorce where she learned four languages and founded the International Development Institute.

Now, having created her own healing spa in D.C., Fanning longs to return home. She invited me to practice yoga on the magnificent grounds of the Rosewood Hotel.

“I’ve always been looking for this Mexico,” she commented as we relaxed beside an aqua lap pool, surrounded by native landscaping and sampling chilaquiles. “Here, the problems don’t exist or they get right-sized.” I could not argue; San Miguel seemed refreshingly carefree.

“February through April, the purple Jacarandas bloom. The beauty is mind-blowing,” Fanning added.