San Miguel. The shopper's heart almost skips a beat
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
CLINGING to a mountainside 6,000 feet up in the Sierra Madre, San Miguel de Allende is a jewel in Mexico's colonial necklace of cities, made gloriously rich in the 18th century by the discovery of silver. Prosperous Spanish landowners built mansions and haciendas in elaborate combinations of French, Italian, and Spanish Baroque styles. Many of these old beauties now house the restaurants, hotels, art galleries, and shops of San Miguel. Just a few hours from Mexico City by car, bus, or first-class train, the town attracts weekenders and tour groups, crowding the narrow cobblestone streets around El Jardin, the tree-lined main square, dominated by a towering mass of rosy-pink carved stone, the pseudo-Gothic cathedral, La Parroqu'ia.Skip to next paragraph
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Tourists come for the dependably good weather, the sightseeing, and, not least, the shopping.
Before setting off on the sometimes steep and often slippery stone sidewalks in search of Mexican handcrafts and objets d'art, shoppers are advised to change out of sandals or high heels into rubber-soled shoes.
A walk around El Jardin turns up a scattering of souvenir stores and art galleries. Galleria Atena, which ships artwork to an international clientele, has the town's most sophisticated collection of paintings, prints, and sculpture. Atena represents Bustamante, the flamboyant Mexican, with his surreal papier-m^ach'e and ceramic sculptures, and the work of Ed Osmanjanovick, a 30-year San Miguel resident and celebrated portrayer of Mexican landscapes.
The gallery's cool, vaulted entryway leads into a courtyard blooming magenta-bright with bougainvillea and hibiscus. Patrons are greeted by Senorita Garc'ia, a little dark-haired bird of a woman who speaks perfect English, provides personal restaurant reviews, and gives directions about town. Art collectors on a budget will find the definitive poster of San Miguel for $6, sold only here at Galeria Atena.
Nearby, one of Mexico's most magnificent examples of late colonial architecture, the Palace of the Counts of Canal, holds down the corner of El Jardin on Canal Street, a boulevard chockablock with shops and adorned with sumptuous fa,cades, coats of arms, and filigreed iron balconies. Casa Maxwell at No. 14 Canal is a warren of alcoves, patios, and high-ceilinged, tile-floored rooms crowded with ceramics from the famous artisans' village of Tonal'a, embroidered dresses, Guatemalan purses, ``trees of life'' from Matamoros, black pottery from Oaxaca, leather from Guadalajara, brass and tin from San Miguel, majolica from nearby Guanajuato, antique and reproduction Spanish-style carved wood furniture, hand-woven cotton bedspreads, table linens, and window coverings.
Not to be missed here are the watercolors by Senor Maxwell, an American expatriate, painted over several decades and hauntingly evocative of romantic old waterfronts along Mexico's Pacific Coast.
Farther down Canal Street is Cambias Regalos Anguiano, a veritable emporium of reasonably priced local and Central American-made goods - serapes, rebozos, striking Guatemalan fabric, alpaca sweaters from Bolivia, smiling suns in terra cotta for the garden wall, blown glass, dollhouse furniture, and more.
On the corner, across from Las Monjas, a 200-year-old convent and church with a monumental Corinthian-columned, two-story dome, Casas Coloniales is an interior decorator's delight. Weathered brick floors and white plastered walls showcase heavy cotton bedspreads, pillows, and draperies, locally woven in tropical colors and accented by fat tassels, fringes, and braids. Orange trees on the patio make a shady spot in which to sit and negotiate an order.