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.
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.
Zacateros Street starts here at Las Monjas and runs south; almost every building is a shop, most specializing in the brass, copper, and tin objects produced in town.
At No. 6 Zacateros, Josephina and Juan Macouzet stock one-of-a-kind handcrafts, clothing, art, and jewelry from all over Mexico and Central and South America in their shop, Veryka, Galeria de Arte Popular. The store, often thronged with delighted treasure seekers, is museumlike, with vibrant multihued tapestries and serapes on the walls, Nahuatl Indian feather headdresses, and Yucatecan huipils (traditional dresses embroidered in brilliant pre-Hispanic designs), which are one of the few handicrafts to undergo little change since the European conquest. Veryka sells castillos, too - small corn-husk copies of the building-size structures used for shooting off fireworks at frequent fiestas and feast days in San Miguel.
A number of artists and craftspeople sell exclusively to the Macouzets. Ferm'an Rodr'iguez, for instance, travels from his home in Guerrero, sets up a temporary studio at the Macouzets', and makes his stylized paintings of tropical scenes crowded with villagers, palm trees, and flowers. Later, when the paintings have all been sold, he comes again.
Farther down the street, massive carved doors and a fanciful fa,cade catch the eye at La Casa del Diseno, the House of Design. Dozens of bronze, copper, and terra cotta garden ornaments decorate the garden patio; interior rooms are richly atmospheric, with stone floors, brick and tile ceilings, huge brass chandeliers, and a vast inventory of decorative accessories, giant wooden bowls, gaily painted Christmas ornaments, woven bedspreads, tall mirrors with gold leaf frames, and ceramics of every description.
La Casa del Diseno has a taller (workshop) of metalworkers who produce the extraordinary sterling silver serving pieces displayed on antique tables and chests throughout the store.
Across the street, a spectacular high doorway topped with a niche containing the madonna of Loreto is the entrance to the former home of Don Manuel Tom'as de la Canal y Bueno de Baeza, the Count of Canal. Open to the public, the enormous building is now an art school and an echoing monument to the lost days of Spanish colonial grandeur. Rows of carved stone columns support arched loggias around a lushly planted courtyard cooled by a splashing fountain. One of the most spectacular views of San Miguel's glorious cathedral-spiked skyline is gained from the school's back terrace.
Walking back toward El Jardin, dedicated shoppers will spot Ono, at No. 2 Calle de Codo; it looks like a toy store. Owners Evelyn and Jaime Goded Andreu design and make wooden toys in San Miguel, for export all over the world. They also sell the artwork of several locals, plus an eclectic inventory of contemporary clothing, silk-screened fabrics, tightly woven Yucatecan hats to roll up in a suitcase, embroidered satin blouses, and luxuriously fringed San Luis Potosi ``rebozos de Santa Maria.''
Inveterate treasure seekers will make another find along the way, Tonatiu Maetztli, at No. 24 Umaran. The walls here are covered with old and new Indian masks in wood, clay, and papier-m^ach'e, some of them rare museum pieces.
Church bells from all directions herald day's end in San Miguel as shoppers look for the landmark of La Parroqu'ia to lead them back through winding streets to El Jardin, past antique shops, jewelry stores, and boutiques, waiting to be discovered another day.