This is the third of a 3-part series written by Gordon Cope who has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Gordon has offered to give us an “insider’s look” into the writing conference held annually in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
THE CITY OF SMA
The city of San Miguel de Allende has experienced tremendous wealth, virtual abandonment and a phenomenal rebirth. Established as a mission in the 16th century, it grew prosperous as the midway point between silver mines to the north and Mexico City to the south. It reached its heyday in the 18th century, when merchants and hacienda owners built impressive mansions and commercial buildings in the Baroque and Neoclassical styles.
But the Mexican War of Independence that broke out against colonial rule in the early 1800s was the beginning of a century of decline. Although the city itself was one of the first municipalities to throw off Spanish rule, it was not devastated by fighting. Instead, protracted hostilities saw the closure of silver mines in the state of Guanajuato and the decline of agricultural trade. Citizens abandoned their sumptuous homes to the elements, and SMA became a virtual ghost town.
Several factors contributed to its recovery. In the early 20th century, the Mexican government established regulations to help the municipality retain its colonial appearance. Expats also began to discover the town. Attracted by its charm and gentle winter climate, artists and writers flocked to its inexpensive environs. Stirling Dickinson, an American, established the Instituto Allende, an art and cultural school that was attended by US veterans studying under the GI Bill. Enrollment in the Instituto, and the Escuela de Bellas Artes encouraged the establishment of hotels, restaurants and venues that complemented the lively cultural environment.
Today, the UNESCO World Heritage City is an international crossroad for culture, art and social engagement. It was recently named the Number One City in the World by Condé Nast Traveler’s 26th Annual Reader’s Choice Awards, beating out Budapest and Florence.
How did it warrant such a prestigious accolade? Although it has grown tremendously over the last decade, the city retains the charm and intimacy of a Mexican village. Farmers still travel to the town on firewood-laden burros, bands play music in the main jardin, and indigenous people journey to the Saturday market to sell their wares. The people of SMA exhibit warmth and hospitality to strangers. Although the city has over 10% expat population, it is still very much a Mexican town, retaining its rich traditions and leisurely pace of life.
On any given day of the week, you can attend concerts of traditional Mexican music, European baroque ensembles and American Jazz. Broadway plays compete with street religious festivals for your attention, and fireworks light up the night on a regular basis. Or, one can simply sit in the main jardin and gaze upon the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, the 19th century parish church with a facade that evokes memories of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona.
One of my favourite pastimes in SMA is sampling the cuisine. There are over 200 restaurants, and each one is unique. Hecho in Mexico, housed in an ancient stone building, serves traditional Mexican fare, as well as North American platters and rich, sumptuous salads. Hanson’s restaurant in the Guadalupe neighbourhood cooks some of the finest prime rib to be had anywhere, and Ma Mansion, open only on Sunday afternoons, serves up a three-hour, multi-course meal in a stunning mansion located on the hill above the centre of town.
During the SMA writer’s conference, there are several extracurricular events organized, including a Fiesta night in the Instituto Allende that features live music, dancing and fireworks. There are also excursions to some of the sites around the city, including colonial homes and the best bars. But the city abounds with so many sensory stimuli that simply walking the cobbled streets and gazing into art galleries, artisan shops and lively cantinas is a treat in itself. Most of the homes and hotels have some form of terrace where you can sit out in the evening, gazing at the million stars that grace the clear skies, sipping on a glass of red wine, and waxing philosophical with your friends.
SMA truly is a place of magic, and a city that I look forward to going back to year after year.
For more information about the conference, visit their main website.