For years, Mike and I have been indiscriminately mangling languages all over the world. We are especially adept at making up Spanish words, referring to them as ‘distortiones de español’. Sometimes the words we “make up” turn out to be correct. Sometimes we are very wrong.
After living in Florida and out west, and traveling in several Spanish-speaking countries, I’ve had a pretty decent exposure to the language. I never had formal classes in Spanish but I know there are similarities to the French I took in high school. And part of my job has been to proofread graphics and subtitles for video projects in 16 languages so I pick up things here and there through repetition. A lot of times I can understand more than I can speak.
Mike’s a bit better at Spanish than I. Years ago, he worked in bakeries in California so he knew “kitchen Spanish.” That includes the words for flour, sugar and water plus all the available swear words.
His snippets of Italian, German and French derive from singing opera and choral music and, in a former life, being an announcer on a classical music station.
Somehow we’ve managed to survive in other countries with our limited language skills. It seems internationally consistent that most locals appreciate foreigners who at least make an effort, so we always try to learn to speak, read or recognize at least a few words in the local language even if they don’t use our alphabet.
A few years ago, we decided that it was time to correct our distorted tongues and bad grammar. We would buckle down and take a Spanish class.
In spite of our “knowledge,” we would start with the basics. The best way to tackle learning a new language is to study in a country where it is the native language. Everybody knows immersion’s the best method, right?
While in my mid-teens, my mom was seriously considering moving to San Miguel de Allende, (SMdA) Mexico. She was an artist and lots of creative types live there. She was ready to move sight, unseen (hmm, like mother, like daughter). I don’t know why she decided not to go, but the intrigue of that possibility always stuck with me.
At the time, San Miguel kept popping up in conversations. One of my forever friends, Susan, has a cousin who owns a house there. Susan and her husband went down for a vacation and their stories intrigued me even more.
I had also been in contact with a photographer who shares my maiden name, Jill Genser. I was born with the name, she married into it. She’s based in Tucson but has a place in SMdA so I contacted her and asked if she could give me any tips.
Since San Miguel kept coming up, it seemed like the obvious choice to dive in for some language immersion. I found the Centro Bilingüe de San Miguel Spanish School and booked a basic Spanish class for a week in January. Our class would be from 3:00 pm-5:00 pm Monday through Friday.
It just so happened that the other Jill Genser was going to be in SMdA when we were there so we planned to finally meet face-to-face. We could have flown into Leon (BJX) or Queretaro (QRO). Both are closer, but I found a less expensive flight to Mexico City (MEX).
Our adventure began with a quick, 2 1/2 hour, non-stop flight on US Air to Mexico City from Charlotte. The round trip tickets were reasonably priced at $320 each.
Before we left home, I booked a night at the Embassy Suites Mexico City – Reforma so we would have a destination when we arrived. When we landed, we went to the taxi booth and bought a ticket and went outside to get an authorized cab from the airport. We had read all of the warnings about taxi safety and took them seriously – and this was 3 years ago, before all of the drug wars really heated up.
It was a fairly long trip to our hotel through heavy traffic. Once there we dumped our stuff in our room. We were hungry and ready to explore.
The concierge sent us to a wonderful little restaurant called Los Girasoles located within walking distance of the historic center. The food was a delicious welcome after a day of traveling. For about $60 with drinks and tip, we scarfed down the fabulous corn tortillas with pork, freshly made salsa and other vittles. Yum!
We decided to walk off the late lunch and check out the Zócalo or central square. The Aztec Templo Mayor archeological site and museum sits on one corner of the massive city center. It was getting late and we were running out of steam so we didn’t go inside.
The square had a few street vendors selling souvenirs. Most were burning incense for good luck. That was not good luck for me.
The plan was to spend two nights there but within 6 hours of landing, I had a nose bleed from the smog, incense and elevation. As a former resident of the Mile High City, I never expected it to be so difficult to breathe.
Mexico City is situated at 7,350 feet above sea level, 2,070 feet higher than Denver, with 21 million people jammed into the metro area spewing seemingly unregulated pollutants into the air.
This was when I realized that I can no longer tolerate smoggy cities for any length of time. Yes, a few years before I couldn’t wait to exit Cairo, Egypt’s thick air and escape to sun-dappled, breezy Alexandria on the Mediterranean.
But, Cairo didn’t have me gasping for breath the way I was in Mexico City. Even sealed in our room on the 5th floor, I was thinking that I was going to need an oxygen tank to survive.
Motivated by the need to breathe, we decided to leave a day early and head out to Guanajuato. It’s about a three-hour ride from Mexico City.
The concierge at the Embassy Suites booked a room for us at the Camino Real Hotel in Guanajuato. The hotel was built from the ruins of a 17th century estate and is a World Heritage Site. Our room was good but the hallway was stone so every footstep from anyone walking nearby echoed and resonated.
The hotel itself is a bit outside the main part of the city, up on a hill, but that didn’t stop us from getting around. Guanajuato is in a narrow valley and many roads run underneath the city through a patchwork of tunnels. Instead of trying to navigate by car, we took inexpensive taxis summoned by the hotel.
The cabbie dropped us off in the center of town at the main square, Jardín de la Union. As is our recommended custom, the first thing we do in a new city is to get the lay of the land.
We headed for Funicular Panoramico that ascends to the top of the hill to take in the views at the feet of El Pipila, a local hero immortalized as a giant statue. El Pipila provides an outstanding view of all of the colorful buildings and the angular trees covering the main square.
Various landmarks help to put everything in perspective. Didn’t we walk by that church there? The must be the city square over here.
Our view from the top over, we took the funicular back down to catch a cab. We had one more thing on our to-do list before we called it a day.
Mike and I always seek out the macabre, the weird, the wacky whenever we have the opportunity, so the no-brainer, must-see stop was the Museo de los Momias, or Mummy Museum. Due to a quirk in the mineral make-up of the soil, bodies are mummified after burial.
The poor people displayed in the museum were dug up because they no longer had family who were willing or able to pay the grave tax.
The first withered corpse was exhumed in 1865. As the mummies stacked up, they became a curiosity. People would pay to get a glimpse of them so it made sense to exhibit them. The museum opened in 1894. It accumulated over a hundred mummies before the grave tax was abolished 1958.
A visit to this museum is akin to a real Day of the Dead. Some of the mummies are still wearing the clothes they were buried in. Some have shoes and socks. There are numerous babies in christening outfits and other fine clothing. One mummy died in childbirth, that moment forever preserved in time. Even the souvenir kiosk out front sports three mummies wearing the latest fashions for sale. Yikes!
Back at the hotel, we decided to walk to a restaurant we spotted down the street. The lovely atmosphere of El Jardin de los Milagros was enough to shake off the heebie-jeebies of the leathery mummies. The food was upscale and service was attentive.
The next morning we had some time to kill before our afternoon bus to San Miguel so we returned to the center of town. I wanted to explore the area around the square and check out the main market.
We walked around the main square under the box-shaped trees but didn’t stop at any of the outdoor cafes. Some are attached to hotels but we decided we were happy to be in a hotel off the square. People party until 2:00 am at some of the bars. We would rather that it was our choice to stay up that late rather than have a rowdy crowd decide for us.
Across the street, we discover an open door at the Teatro Juárez, one of those fantastic, ornate theaters. There wasn’t an English tour while we were there but they let us in without paying to use the bathroom. We snuck in a quick peek of the theater where a Spanish tour was going on. We didn’t pretend to understand anything they were saying.
Next door to the theater is the Mercado Hidalgo. Situated in an old train station, this market has everything from food to toys to entertainers. Heaping mounds of chili peppers were everywhere. Hungry? Pull up a bar stool at one of the many kiosks serving food.
Slipping out a side door, we found ourselves part of a crowd gathering as a group of performers trooped in. In addition to dancers with feathery headdresses, there was a cowboy, a cow and the devil. A battle ensued and the cowboy lost his whip to the devil. It’s times like these, when we really wish we could speak the language so we could understand the story.
When the battle ended, the dancers took off their giant feather headpieces and went to an upstairs cafe and sat down for lunch.
That was the signal that it was time for us to collect our luggage and get to the bus station. The bus ride is just over an hour to San Miguel de Allende. The countryside is pretty desolate, brown rolling hills and not much between the two cities.
San Miguel de Allende
Before we left home, I had booked us a room at the hotel Villa Mirasol in San Miguel. It was a nice place in a good location. The people who worked the front desk were very helpful and eager to please. We were put in an upstairs room with a small sitting area on a balcony. It was a cozy room with a nice view of a garden below.
Once we got settled, we went in search of food. The front desk pointed us to Hecho en Mexico, a ten-minute walk. We sat at a table in the bar. The food was okay, nothing really special. The place was filled with American ex-patriots so it didn’t really have the Mexican feel that we were looking for.
While we were out, we picked up a copy of Atencion San Miguel, It’s an English weekly newspaper that is a must-have to know what’s happening in town.
We walked to El Jadin – the main square that is flanked by the spectacular Parroquia or the pink church. This Gothic style church was the vision of an architect that had only seen pictures of Gothic churches in Europe. His interpretation is stunning. Outside in the square, we found more native dancers in feathery headdresses entertaining the crowd.
Ready for a break, we plunked ourselves down at an outdoor table at Rincón de Don Tomás coffee shop across the Jardin and savored the atmosphere over tasty cappuccinos. Even though this seems to be a pretty touristy place, it’s prime people watching property.
There are so many opportunities to take classes in this energetic town. Whatever the interest, there is an available class. The music school is divided up by instrument. The art classes are divided by medium. Jewelry classes are so much more than beads. The whole place is alive with answers to almost any curiosity.
That creativity spills over into the architecture. San Miguel has the most ornate collection of doors. Like most people who visit, I was smitten. Combined with the cobblestone streets and the vibrant colors, I spent the rest of the week taking pictures of every door or building facade that caught my eye.
That night back at the hotel, we fell into a bed that was hard as a rock. It did not give a bit. So much so, that I tried to sleep on the equally uncomfortable loveseat. Needless to say, it was not a good night.
The next morning, there was a problem with the toilet and the plumber wasn’t immediately available so we were moved to another room.
The second room was on the first floor. It was dark and lacked the charm of the first. Plus it had two double beds instead of a queen or king. The prospect of spending the week sleeping in separate beds wasn’t working for us so we decided to find another hotel.
First though, Mike wanted to check out El Santuario Golf Course about thirty miles away. I went along for the ride and figured I would drive the cart while Mike played.
Our cabbie didn’t speak much English so we were left to comment between ourselves about the countryside. There was a billboard announcing a future huge housing development and the Ventanas de San Miguel – a golf course by English pro golfer, Nick Faldo.
On the phone Mike was told it would be $20 to play El Santuario. When we arrived, we were appalled. The course was a mess with flags askew and scrappy fairways and greens. No one was playing golf at this dump.
We gave it the benefit of the doubt because it was a Monday in January but when it turned out to be a 9 hole Par 3 course, and the lone guy in the clubhouse, (or apparently the property) told Mike it would be $30 instead of the $20 he was quoted on the phone, Mike said no. We turned around and went back to town.
When we got back, we spoke to the other Jill Genser who suggested we move to a bed & breakfast down the street, closer to the main square called Casa Luna – Pila Seca. (This location might be closed but there is another nearby location that is just as wonderful.) The owner is a friend of hers. It was more expensive than Villa Mirasol but it was well worth it.
We happily moved into the Yellow Room of this renovated, rambling old colonial house. It was eclectic with incredible food and a resident dog named Fabio. Squared away in our new home, it was time for school.
For the two of us, we paid about $215 for a week of classes from 3:00 – 5:00 each afternoon. Centro Bilingüe de San Miguel Spanish School was a twenty-minute walk uphill from Casa Luna. We were the only students in our class.
The first night there, we went to the very non-Spanish Harry’s New Orleans Cafe. Skeptical about having Cajun and creole food in the heart of Mexico, the reviews from a few sources were good. We did not agree with those accolades. We had mediocre food with bad service for a tab of $65. Scratch that one off the list.
The next morning, my golf addicted husband was itching to get out and play. He had lugged his clubs all over Mexico and was determined to use them. He got a tee time at the Club de Golf Malanquin.
A caddie was required. This was new to Mike but he quickly learned to enjoy the tips. He liked it so much that he spent the next few days getting up early to golf while I slept late and indulged in the unbelievably wonderful breakfasts and some shopping.
The most memorable breakfast was a mushroom frittata with romesco sauce. This was more mushrooms than eggs otherwise, me, the non-egg eater, would never have tried it.
The sauce was so incredible I had to have the recipe so I could make it at home. Casa Luna sells a cookbook with stories and recipes of favorite meals and drinks. Well worth it and on their website, it looks like a new edition is out called the Tortilla Papers.
One morning, after breakfast, I went to a shop on the corner and fell in love with two ceramic sinks. I really, really wanted them but didn’t have a place to use them. That didn’t stop me from pining for them all week long.
When Mike got back from golf, we walked to the main square and decided to get a bite to eat before class. The atmosphere of the Cafe San Francisco drew us in. The place was almost empty but the setting was stunning. We ordered snacks of bruschetta, a salad and a corn pudding. We were in the mood to graze. But realized anything heavier and we would be too tired to think in our Spanish class.
The nice thing about taking the afternoon class was that we had the morning and most of the afternoon to play. We didn’t have to jump out of bed to get to school. After class, we fell into a pattern of walking down the hill and stopping for a drink or coffee while we did our homework. It was a lovely way to learn.
On Wednesday, Mike did his normal golf thing. I walked around town, leisurely window shopping and photographing doors. Later that morning, we took a cab to Fabrica La Aurora, a ninety-year old textile factory that is now an art and design center. Besides the fabulous furniture there’s a lot of religious iconography on one end of the spectrum and paintings of naked cowboys on the other.
We finally got a chance to have lunch with the other Jill Genser. We had so much in common. She’s an excellent photographer, my father is a photographer and I work in video production. It was like we had known each other forever. We were sad to leave her, but the school bell was ringing.
That night we tried the Vivoli Cafe for dinner. For $60 we started with a couple of drinks and an appetizer of mushroom risotto. For our main courses, I had Chicken Marsala and Mike chose the grilled branzino, also known as European sea bass. Like most of the places we went to, the food was good but no restaurant stood out as serving a memorable meal.
We were starting to get into a routine with Mike golfing first thing in the morning. I would take my time getting ready, then walk and shop a bit. Some days I would go to the shop down the street and gaze at the sinks that I was in love with.
When Mike returned we’d grab lunch somewhere and wander around until it was time for class. On this day, one of the fabulous doors was open to a house for sale. We were dying to investigate another colonial beauty and this was our chance.
The door opened onto a courtyard with a little fountain in the middle.
There were lots of trees and flowers. A small open room had two stone walls with orchids hanging on one of them. A broom closet door was made of two weathered planks and a wrought iron handle set below a circular window for a bathroom. The wooden door to the bathroom was filled with frosted glass.
The architectural details were amazing. In the kitchen, an island covered in Talavera tiles served as the cooktop with built-in burners that are turned on with cactus handles.
The master suite was the most enticing. While the bedroom was a bit on the small side, the view through the arched window was enhanced with ceramic vases filled with flowers.
The master bath had two antique mortars that were used as the pedestals for the twin ceramic sinks. The faucets were lion heads made of stone.
The bathtub was lined with ceramic tiles surrounded by stone walls. Even the toilet was highly decorative.
On the balcony overlooking the pink church, there was a stone and ceramic hot tub. I could live here in a heartbeat. When we got home, I searched for the asking price. It turned out to be a little over 4 million U.S. dollars. I always knew I had good taste!
One of the highlights of the trip came that night. We had reservations for dinner at Bella Italia Ristorante. A minimum purchase of about $20 worth of food and drinks bought a table in the intimate dining room. The food was not great but the entertainment was the draw.
Gil Gutierrez is a star in his own right. Their drummer, a percussionist, really, was incredible and the music was phenomenal.
On Friday we went to the Mercado de Artesanias, a huge market that stretches for several blocks. It was an explosion of color. Part farmers’ market, part flower market with toys and ceramics thrown in for variety. Afterwards, we went in search of the public laundry. We never did find it and had to settle for a postcard instead.
What we did find was a charming chocolate shop called Sensual Chocolatiers where we bought a small gift for our Spanish teacher for our last day of school and treats for ourselves.
In ten hours our instructor gave us the basics to build on. When we got home, we took a beginning Spanish class at the local community college. Now I understand so much more than I can say.
On Saturday, Diane Kuchner, the owner of Casa Luna, was going to take us on a tour of her newest venture, Rancho Casa Luna. Mike and I had massages scheduled at Schoenste Spa and planned to go after that.
Schoenste Spa sounds much more luxurious that it really was. It was upstairs in an unremarkable building. Luckily, we were not put off by the location. We were supposed to have a one hour massage plus a facial for $35 each. I’m not wild about facials so I tried to tell my masseuse that we didn’t want facials. Through a language mix-up, instead of the facials, I thought she was tacking on an extra 20 minutes to our massages. It seemed much longer and when we were finished we ended up with two-hour massages for the same price. Heaven!
We missed our tour of Rancho Casa Luna but instead ended up touring their other property in town, Casa Luna Quebrada. I loved the line of ceramic vases that lined a rooftop. There are charming touches everywhere and this property even has a small pool.
Sunday morning before we caught the bus back to Mexico City for our flight home, I decided that I couldn’t leave without one of the beloved sinks. Mike and I went to the shop and I was having a hard time deciding which one to buy. Sarcastically, Mike said, “Why don’t you just buy both?” Guess what? I did!
For about $90, I brought back 2 ceramic sinks – one as carry-on luggage and the other carefully packed and checked. Three years later the red one is in the attic. The yellow one is used as a bowl to hold fruit. I still love it! One day we will remodel a bathroom and use the yellow one for its intended purpose.
Oh, and hablo un poco español (with the help of Google translate for proper grammar!)