May 17, 2019
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
1. a person who travels for pleasure, usually sightseeing and staying in hotels
2. a person on an excursion or sightseeing tour
We can spot tourists a mile away. The Barefoot Diary definition of a tourist is not quite so tame as Webster’s cited above. Come on, you know what I’m talking about. Tourists are those people, clad in flowery shirts and big hats, cameras in hand, that wander around the world in flocks taking selfies, slowing down and meandering against the flow of foot traffic, spilling food and drinks because they can’t keep up, while exclaiming loudly, “Wow! Will you look at that…we’re not in Kansas any more!” In fact, nowadays it’s not a good idea to even look like a tourist. Not only are they a nuisance, but they are often the targets of pickpockets and petty thieves.
Phooey! We never, ever want to be labeled as tourists. EVER! This is why no matter how lost we are, we always try to “look” like we know where we are going. It’s why I don a carefully concealed fanny pack (that John hates) rather than a purse or back pack. It’s why we generally never run with “herds” of people and never do guided tours. We consider ourselves, uh, sophisticated travelers…globetrotters…experience creators…adventure junkies…anything but tourists!
At the suggestion of our house sitting friends, Sue and Dave (whereverweare.com) we came down off our “sophisticated” traveler pedestal and did a real “touristy” thing. We took a walking historical tour of San Miguel. Actually, we did three of them. And you know what? We learned the fascinating history of ordinary things we’d never noticed before. We went to places we didn’t know existed right in our neighborhood. We met some really cool, knowledgeable folks (guides and facilitators). And, finally, we helped the children of Mexico with some much needed medical care. We loved the historical walking tours of San Miguel de Allende. Thank you Sue and Dave!
Here are the three tours offered:
I am not a big-time history nut, but I do enjoy seeing old things and discovering how they got there, as well as learning about the people that built and inhabited the place. San Miguel de Allende was the cradle of Mexican history, and somehow, by walking through the streets and exploring buildings, it all came alive for us. Here’s a few places we experienced on our tours that really wowed us:
This is the really big, multi-spired landmark church that you see on most travel flyers for San Miguel. It’s the hub of the city, and it is breathtaking both inside and out. The church was first constructed at the beginning of the 16th century (that’s the 1500’s folks!), it was added to and redone several times. In 1880, Don Zeferino Gutierrez, was the city’s quarry master and was hired to design a new façade for the church. Although he never traveled to Europe, he was inspired by European cathedrals, like Notre Dame, that he had seen on postcards. Guitierrez was self-taught and did the remodel with mestizo craftsmen who could neither read nor write. He drew stick figures in the dirt to show the workers how he wanted things to look.
The result is a massive compilation of spires, turrets, pink pilasters and windows that, if you look closely, have a slight lean to them. There are eight bells in the towers and each one is named. The largest one, La Luz, was cast in 1732 and still rings out every day and night.
Many architectural gurus have criticized the Parroquia, calling it a grotesque structural abomination, but we call it absolutely
Two blocks from the church is Belles Artes, which was originally constructed in 1755-65, as the cloister area of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception (Las Manjas). This former place of prayer and worship is now what you might call a “chapel of art,” offering classes in drawing and painting, dance, ceramics, weaving, music, photography and printmaking. It houses an art gallery and concert hall as well. The courtyard is beautifully landscaped with bamboo, huge poinsettia bushes, orange trees, rubber trees, palms and ferns all centered around a fountain with a Lamb of God on top. Surrounded by all types of art, galleries and murals, it’s a great place to calm your spirit or excite your creative juices.
In one of rooms of the Bellas Artes is a very famous, unfinished, mural done by artist David Siqueiros. Actually, the room was formerly where the nuns ate. Because the order had a vow of silence and because the acoustic echoes of the space make you feel like you are in a cave, it’s easy to imagine the clinking of dishes and silverware as the sisters dined. But the unfinished murals on the ceiling and walls are phenomenal. The mural was supposed to be a tribute to the life and work of General Allende, for whom the city is named. Siqueiros was teaching at the art school in the 1940s, when he began the project. Late in the ’40s, Siqueiros had a political disagreement with the school administrators. Siqueiros was a passionate Communist and entwined his leftist views into all of his work. He was often jailed and left many of his works incomplete. He wrote a book called How to Paint a Mural about this San Miguel artistic treasure.
The Plaza Civica (Civic Plaza), built in 1555, was and still is a major hub of activity for San Miguel. The large statue of Ignacio Allende, on a horse, dominates the area. Color me dumb. I was not aware about the significance of horse hooves in statuary. Here’s the scoop. If the sculpted hero’s horse has both of its front legs in the air, it means the rider died during a battle. If one leg is up it means the rider was wounded during battle and died after the conflict. If all four legs are touching the ground, it means the rider survived all battles unharmed and died by other means. Am I the only one on the planet that didn’t know this?
I don’t think there are many, if any, buildings representative of modern architecture around the Jardin area of San Miguel, but the structures represent more than 400 years of building styles. San Miguel is a UNESCO city, so the rich architectural history is more or less frozen in time with laws to protect it. Here’s a slideshow, that John put together, so you can feast your eyes on some of the incredible edifices that make up the San Miguel city area.
There are over 42 churches in the San Miguel area. We got to tour inside the four main churches in San Miguel during our tour:
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
Iglesia de San Rafael
Templo de Inmaculada Concepción de las Monjas
Nuestra Señora de la Salud Iglesia.
All four have rich histories and design and we learned A LOT about the various saints that are represented beautifully within each church. Here are a few whose stories really wowed us.
n 1531, Juan Diego, a poor Aztec peasant had a vision where Our Lady of Guadalupe instructed him to tell the priests to build a shrine to her on the spot where she appeared, Tepeyac Hill, which is now a suburb of Mexico City. Juan Diego obeyed her missive, but the bishop demanded a sign before he would approve the construction of the church. Diego went back to the spot of the first vision and Our Lady appeared again and told him to collect roses around the place. Diego opened his cloak and scooped up all of the flowers and presented them to the bishop. As the roses fell to the floor they left an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the inside of the cloak. That was enough “sign” for the bishop. The church was built and the cloak is still on display at Basilica of Guadalupe, outside of Mexico City. Every church we have visited, during our travels in Mexico, has some sort of representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Pope John Paul II declared her the patroness of the Americas.
It really surprised us to find a statue of St. Patrick, clad in green, right in the middle of a Mexican cathedral! What? Here’s why he’s a prominent figure. During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the United States hired the San Patricios, a group of Irish rebel mercenaries, escaping the Irish potato famine, to help them fight the Mexicans. As battles progressed the group began to feel the religious bigotry of the U.S. Anglo-Saxon Protestants, when the they were denied the right to hold Catholic religious services. So the Patricios defected and began fighting for the Mexicans who offered them land, pay, food, and the right to worship they way they chose. The group of defectors became known at St. Patrick’s Battalion, marching under green flags bearing the emblem of Ireland.
So today, because many soldiers of the battalion decided to stay in Mexico, they married local senoritas. Thus there are many Mexicans with Irish roots and surnames. Isn’t history fascinating?
Each church that we visited had a statue of St. Martin de Porres, the patron saint of Mexico’s mixed-race people and those seeking interracial peace. In 1579, St. Martin was born in Lima, Peru, and was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed African slave. His father abandoned his family and Martin grew up in poverty. At that time, descendants of Africans and Indians were not allowed to become members of religious orders, so Martin volunteered to perform menial tasks at a Dominican monastery. After many years, the racial rules were dropped and Martin was accepted as a priest and nurse who practiced indigenous herbal medicine. St. Martin’s statues and paintings sometimes depict him carrying a broom to represent that all work is sacred, no matter how menial.
In contrast to St. Martin’s meager roots, St. Clare grew up in a very wealthy family, in Italy, during the 13th century. At age 18, she ran away from home to join a Benedictine convent. Her father and brothers stormed the church in rage, but she refused to leave, clinging to the altar of the church. As a nun, she lived a simple life of poverty and at age 21, she became the abbess of the nunnery. Near the end of her life she became too ill to attend mass in person and through prayer was able to view the services in a vision on her the wall of her room. Evidently Clare was the first person to view a “broadcast” mass and in 1958, Pope Pius XII declared St. Clare the patron saint of television! Since Clare is the saint of everything “screen related,” and because we spend a lot of time in front of computer screens, it thrilled us to find her statue in a San Miguel church.
As awesome as each of the San Miguel volunteer tour guides are, they conduct the outings for much more than to help tourists truly know an amazing city and get a little exercise. All of the money for tour tickets goes to a wonderful non-profit group called Patronato Pro Ninos. The group is committed to providing medical and dental care to the children of San Miguel and the surrounding areas. And they have been at it for 49 years!
Through mobile clinics, each year, Pro Ninos provides dental care to over 9000 children, and medical care to 2500 children who are not covered by insurance or social security benefits. Each morning the Pro Ninos medical vans travel to hundreds of small villages and communities around San Miguel. In a typical day they dispense 25-30 treatments and return to each village for as long as it takes to serve every child.
By experiencing all three tours: we chalked up a lot of steps on our Fit Bits, we learned “up close and personally” the intriguing history and faith of a beautiful group of people. We experienced, first hand, the artistry of buildings that are almost 500 years old and finally we helped the children of Mexico to receive some much needed dental and medical care.
We’re so over our “tourist” stigma. With our cameras in hand, flowery shirts and big floppy hats, we’d sign up to do it again…and again…and when you visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, you should too! Tourists rock!
2019, Destinations, Mexico, San Miguel de Allende
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