Picture postcard perfect

As you approach San Miguel de Allende, winding down one of the numerous hills that surround this pretty colonial town, it is the pink spires of La Parroquia (the parish church) that stand out. The fa├žade was added to the original 1683 church by local stone mason Ceferino Gutierrez in 1880. With no formal training as an architect, this is Gutierrez’s idiosyncratic interpretation of a gothic tower. Legend has it that the illiterate mason would sketch out his instructions with a stick in the sand and his builders would follow these drawings.

It is just another example of Mexican ingenuity, a memorable piece of architecture, and I love its kitchness.

San Miguel is a picture-postcard town in Mexico’s central highlands and since the 1940s it has attracted many foreigners (mainly American) to make their homes here. Following World War II, American GIs came to the town to study at the art school run by Sterling Dickinson. Later, others followed and when McCarthy began his witch-hunts in the late 1940s, San Miguel also attracted American political expatriates seeking a refuge.

In the sixties, Beat writer Neal Cassady famously died just outside San Miguel after a wedding party in town – it is not known whether his death was as a result of exposure or because of a lethal cocktail of drugs. Cassady, together with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and, later, Bob Dylan, helped immortalise San Miguel’s most down-at-heel cantina, La Cucaracha (the cockroach) which still stands today.

Although the town has inevitably lost some of its bohemian edge, San Miguel remains a vibrant centre for aspiring artists. Within five minutes of arrival I found myself sipping wine at an art exhibition. San Miguel even has its own PEN centre and often hosts writers’ events. The first time I came here was for a writers’ conference in 2002.

Then, on one surreal evening, a few of us stole away for a dip in La Gruta, about five miles outside the town on the road to Dolores Hidalgo.  A popular spot for bathers, the three pools are fed by thermal springwater. Lit by starlight alone we groped our way through bushes, over a fence and into the first hot pool. We then waded through a pitch black tunnel until we came out in a cave with warm water cascading from its domed roof and down the walls. There are a number of these balnearios close to San Miguel and the experience is truly sublime.

As well as its narrow cobbled streets and slow pace of life, so different from Mexico City, I love the friendliness of the locals and the diversity of things to do and see. After the art exhibition, I was invited into the courtyard of a hotel to hear Casa Verde (GreenHouse) who were going to play original Latin tunes with a hint of reggae. When I arrived, this rather motley, seven-strong crew, were sitting around having a drink together. I had no idea they were to be the evening's entertainment. But when they wandered onto the tiny stage and took up their instruments the end result was phenomenal. They metamorphosed into a disciplined group of musicians who played with real passion and energy.  There was an Argentinean on trumpet,  the female vocalist was French, a young Mexican girl was playing the congas and the guy who accosted me on the street played the requinto ( a miniature, more highly pitched, acoustic guitar commonly used in serenades) and employed a credit card as a plectrum.  They were hugely generous to one another – taking it in turns to introduce the songs and to sing lead vocals. It is always when you least expect it that something magical happens and I spent the rest of the night listening to this extraordinarily talented group.

The shops in San Miguel are full of interesting wares, that you are actually tempted to buy, from silver and pottery to sarapes and pretty handwoven blouses. This used to be a stopover for traders, en route from the silver mines of Zacatecas and Guanajuato, and is still predominantly an agrarian region, so it is no surprise to see men and children on horseback trotting down the streets. I had wanted to visit one of the nearby ranches to try and beg a bareback ride in the hills, but we did not have time.

The numerous church bells and firecrackers that wake you at dawn may bother some visitors but they evidently remain part of the town’s charm for the American retirees and wealthy expats who spend their winters here.

San Miguel also a bloody past for it was here that Mexico’s bid for independence from Spain first took root. Ignacio Allende, an army officer based in San Miguel, and a priest, Miguel Hidalgo, were among the conspirators to be captured and executed. The heads of Allende and Hidalgo and two other rebel leaders were brought back to Guanajuato and hung in cages outside a granary for ten years until 1821 when Mexico finally gained independence.  San Miguel el Grande was renamed San Miguel de Allende  in 1826 and his statue overlooks that of San Miguel’s founder the Franciscan Friar Juan de San Miguel. There can’t be many places were revolutionaries and friars are honoured side by side, but they often fought in the field together and it is the country’s most rebellious priests that have helped to make Mexico what it is today.