Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Many Faces of Dolores Hidalgo


Yesterday Todd and I visited Dolores Hidalgo, a fairly typical Colonial village about 25 miles from San Miguel de Allende. It was not our first visit, although it has been some time since our last one. While we were building our house in Patzcuaro we made many many trips back and forth between the two towns, our little black Escape filled with the famous Dolores Hidalgo tile and Talavera pottery.

Dolores Hidalgo is said to be the birthplace of the Mexican War of Independence but despite it’s history and legacy to all of Mexico it is not a large tourist destination. However  those who take the time to wander the quiet streets of this Pueblo Magico, are rewarded with an interesting and very diverse experience.

Of course the main claim to fame of the town that was once just called Dolores, is the call to arms known as “El Grito”. Made by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo in the early hours of September 16th, 1810 from the balcony of his home and church, it was the beginning of the 11 year long War of Independence. This cry is reenacted each year, by the mayor, in almost every city, town and village across Mexico on the eve of September 15th.



Statue of Hidalgo with his church in the background

Photograph by Todd McIntosh


Hidalgo, along with Ignacio Allende, a captain in the Mexican army who became a sympathizer of the independence movement, amassed an army of Indians and Mestizos, which eventually numbered 90,000, and marched on the cities of San Miguel el Grande, now San Miguel de Allende, and Ceylaya. Ten months later both Hidalgo and Allende were executed in Guanajato City, but the damage had been done and the war for independence was well under way. 

Another aspect of Doroles Hidalgo’s uniqueness is the production of Talavera pottery. This is a type of majolica pottery which is distinguished by a milky white glaze. Majolica pottery was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish in the first century of the colonial period and it’s production became highly developed in Puebla.


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Miguel Hidalgo arrived in Dolores in 1803 at the age of 50. After obtaining the parish there, he turned over most of the clerical duties to one of his vicars and focused on his European studies and humanitarian activities. Hidalgo used the scientific knowledge that he had gained from his studies to bring economic improvement to the rural people of his parish.

He taught them grape cultivation, the raising of silkworms and beekeeping. He trained the indigenous people in the making of leather and taught the poor to use the natural resources of the area to create commercial value. He also established factories to produce bricks and pottery. Talavera pottery, and this practice continues to support a large percentage of the population of Dolores Hidalgo to this day.


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According to Wikipedia, authentic Talavera pottery only comes from the city of Puebla and three nearby communities because the types of clay required and history of the craft are both centered there. The pottery must be hand-thrown on a potter’s wheel and the glazes contain tin and lead, as they did in colonial time. This glaze must also be porous and milky-white, but not pure white. The only colours permitted are blue, yellow, black, green, orange and mauve, all of course, made from natural pigments.

The base of each piece is not glazed, exposing the terracotta underneath, and is required to show the logo of the manufacturer, initials of the artist and the location of the manufacturer in Puebla. In the late 20th century some new designs were introduced and a law, Denominación de Origen de la Talavera, was passed to ensure that all Talavera pottery is produced using the original 16th century methods.



Talavera Tiles

Photograph by Todd McIntosh


This has become a huge, very restricted business. Yet here, in the little town of Dolores Hidalgo the people have been making this pottery, unaware of all the rigmarole, for 210 years, and will likely continue to do so for the next 210. As the Talavera of Dolores Hidalgo is not defined by the ‘Denominación de Origen de la Talavera'”, it is considerably less expensive while equally as beautiful.




Photograph by Todd McIntosh


Still, Dolores Hidalgo is not distinguished solely by war and pottery. It is also the birthplace of soccer great Adolfo “ El Bofo”  Bautista Herrera, who has done his country proud on several Mexican teams, as well as singer, songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez.

Jiménez was an amazingly prolific songwriter, having written over 1000 songs that have become an integral part of Mexico's musical heritage. Sometimes called “El Rey”, The King, he is the author of my own favorite Mexican song, also entitled “El Rey”, as well as hundreds of other Ranchero style songs that we hear every day on the radio, in restaurants and bars or in El Jardin where we love to sit in the evenings and listen to the mariachis.

Beloved by the Mexican people, his songs have been recorded and re-recorded by artists all over the Spanish-speaking world. Sadly the world lost José Alfredo Jiménez at the young age of forty-seven when he died of complications resulting from hepatitis. Shortly before his death he released his last song,“Gracias”, thanking the public for it’s support and affection throughout his career.



José Jiménez was laid to rest in the cemetery in the town of his birth, Dolores Hidalgo. And what a sendoff they gave him! He is memorialized in a huge gravesite with a giant sculpture of his ever present  serape and sombrero. He is still visited there regularly by a never ending stream of fans. Each stripe of the serape is engraved with one of his hit songs.



Photograph by Todd McIntosh


The last reason one should not miss visiting Dolores Hidalgo is that it is just a lovely, little town with charming people reminiscent of small town USA or Canada in the 1950’s…… with some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had!



Photograph by Todd McIntosh


The center of town, of course, is the zocolo, a really large treed plaza with paths all leading to an ice cream vendor. There are six to eight ice cream kiosks all around the outside of the plaza and you can, literally, get just about any flavour you can imagine. Don’t believe me? Here are a few; shrimp, corn, roasted chicken, poblano pepper, pistachio, Hawaiian, guayaba, papaya, dragon fruit, tequila, beer, cream of whiskey, and on and on and on. And what better place to eat your cup of ice cream than on a bandstand right our of the movie “The Music Man”?

Right across the street from the ice cream is the aptly named Plaza Restaurant, where I had a filete mignon (which was not 1/4 inch thick), perfectly cooked to medium rare with an onion cream sauce, very subtle but so flavourful. Todd had arrachara, again perfectly cooked to medium rare and we washed those down with a couple of excellent Margaritas. I’m not sure why we’ve not been back to Dolores Hidalgo since we moved to San Miguel but it will definitely not be so long between visits the next time.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Well, That’s Just Crazy

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Yesterday, here in San Miguel, it was El Dia de los Locos, The Day of the Crazies. Like most other holidays and celebrations here it actually began in the 18th century as a religious observance, but has since morphed into something entirely different.

El Dia de los Locos is held on the first Sunday following June 13th, with the biggest attraction being the parade. However, it is an all day affair beginning about 5:00 AM with the sound of cohetes and the singing of the traditional mañanitas in honor of San Antonio de Padua, the patron saint of San Miguel. This is followed by mass at the church of San Antonio, the Locos parade, an evening of restaurant and bar hopping, street dancing and finally the release of about a million firecrackers from castillos, castles, built for that purpose, and of course, accompanied again by the thunder of the ever-present cohetes (rockets).

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This fiesta originally began as two separate holidays. The first was a celebration in May of the Spanish saint, Pascual Baylón, or Bailón as he is known in Mexico. Pascual Baylón was introduced to the newly Catholic Mexicans in the 18th century as the patron saint of field and kitchen workers and they celebrated his feast day by dancing in the streets to pagan music while costumed in the tools of the kitchen or fields. Many of the merry-makers dressed as scarecrows and developed dances deemed “crazy” by the onlookers.

The other holiday was in honor of San Antonio de Padua held in mid-June. This celebration also had dances, but the popularity of the Pascual Baylón dances and processions soon overshadowed those of San Antonio and the two festivities eventually became one.

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Clowns replaced the scarecrows and all manor of costumes eventually replaced the clowns until the current Locos Parade was born. Today we see men dressed as women, women dressed as men, parodies of television, movie and political personalities, and almost anything else that creative Mexican minds can produce.

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The parade unfolds from Colonia San Antonio and takes hours to wind through the calles of San Miguel to finish at El Jardin, the town’s principle plaza. People from many different neighbourhoods and groups of co-workers make up the “Locos” in the parade, and they dance through the streets, each group providing their own music, to create a cacophony of rivaling tunes.

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Trucks decked out as elaborate floats weave between the dancers and throw hundreds of kilos of candies into the throngs lining the streets, many of whom wait with umbrellas turned upside down to catch the dulces, sweets or candies.

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Thousands of people turn out to watch the parade and people watching in the crowd is almost as much fun as the parade itself.

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Next year this one will be in the parade!

In true San Miguel de Allende style the people here have taken an old tradition and reinvented it, once again incorporating the old and the new and creating something special, and most certainly unique!

 Sights and sounds of the Dia de los Locos Parade

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sticks And Stones


How do you find opals within mountains of rock, cactus and sage brush? How interesting that you should ask, as I recently found the answer to that very question, LOL. Last Tuesday my good friend Joan, Todd and I went on an opal expedition.

Joan makes wonderful silver jewelry with all manner of semiprecious gemstones. She recently gifted me with a beautiful silver pendant inlaid with amethyst and obsidian. One of the stones that she particularly likes to use to create her magic is the Mexican opal. Quite handily one of the best places to find these lovely stones is in the State of  Querétaro, just next door to the State of Guanajuato, where we all live.

I have mentioned before that some wonderful opal jewelry can be found in nearby San Sebastián de Bernal, but we were looking for loose, unset stones which can be purchased a little less expensively closer to the mines. Thus we set off early Tuesday morning for Tequisquiapan ( Te kees kee ah’ pan ). Located in southwestern Querétaro, Tequisquiapan is mostly a tourist town catering to folks from the City of Querétaro and weekenders from Mexico City.

Although it is another rustic colonial town, it offers several really nice balenarios, spas, such as El Oasis, Thermas del Rey, Fidel Velásquez and La Vega. It also has an eighteen hole golf course, an ideal respite for those hardworking folks from Mexico City. However, none of this was the reason for our visit to the area.

On the outskirts of the city, in the municipality of Tequisquiapan, the little town of La Trinidad hunkers below steep red hills riddled with mines. With only 1579 inhabitants, pretty much all of the townsfolk are miners and vendors of Mexican opals. Driving through the quiet cobblestone streets we saw house after house sporting little signs claiming “ Se vende ópalos “, opals for sale!


The elders of this family in the above photo had sixteen children and twenty-some-odd grandchildren so I think they may have had a bit of a monopoly on opal sales. When we stopped to have a look other family members appeared from other houses in the area wanting to show us their wares as well. Competition is fierce in the La Trinidad opal trade!


Our next stop was at the home of a pretty young lady who was stuck out in the sun all day selling the family opals. If you click to enlarge the photo above, you may be able to see the pretty green opal in the center of the display which I purchased so that Joan can make me a ring. In the photo below, Godeta still had a smile for us in spite of the heat, which was hovering somewhere in the vicinity of 34 degrees Celsius.


This family also had some opals in settings for sale.


Finally we arrived at the home, showroom and workshop of Hector Montes. It was actually Hector that we had specifically come to see as he has a widespread reputation for having the finest Mexican opals.


An ex-miner, Hector worked the mines in their heyday, when opals fairly fell out of the walls of the mines. Back then there were hundreds of mines in the area, but due to over mining most of those mines have been closed for years. Now, that’s not to say that opals cannot still be found “in them thar hills”, but simply that it is no longer quite as easy to do so. Hector however, really knows his stuff and if anyone can find opals, it will be him.


To me it is fascinating how Hector knows which rock will contain opals, or for that matter, how he even knows when he has found them! The raw opals bear little resemblance to the finished stones that we see in his showroom. 


Joan asked Hector if we could see his workshop and much to our delight he agreed. A very kind and patient man, he not only showed us his work space but explained how the opals are formed over millions of years and how he can tell by the texture, the porosity and the look of the rock in the mines where he is most likely to find opals. 


Taking a small raw stone, he proceeded to scrape and polish it, under water, until it began to take on a smoother, brighter surface. He then continued to work the stone, explaining the process and answering all our questions, until it gleamed a bright cherry red. He then moved on to another area of the workshop to his finishing equipment.

Lighting a small alcohol lamp he heated some adhesive and stuck the little opal to a stick so that he could continue to smooth it with a sander and a leather covered tool that brought out it’s iridescence. He then carved a little “V” shape in the top shaping it into a heart, which he then gave to me. I was touched and delighted by his generosity and this beautiful little gift.

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Hector also works with several different types of stone as well, carving beautiful little animals, some with opals, and fabulous stone eggs of varying sizes. Todd bought a few of these to use in his magic. He is a very accomplished magician and likes to do magic illusions for kids. I purchased a lovely blue pendant with a ripple design, that I think he said was a kind of agate, that he had carved with the motion of the sea in mind.

Shannon with her new amigo Hector

Below is a short video of Hector at work.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What More Could You Ask?




What more could you ask of a Saturday afternoon in the beautiful town of San Miguel de Allende that is. The weather was spectacular, hot and sunny, with a lovely breeze. We packed up our little travel Yachtzee set and parked on the rooftop patio at Hansen’s bar and grill. That patio, of course was full, the people happy and the company good.




This was actually the first time I had dragged myself (and my walker) up the three flights of stairs to the roof. It was well worth the trip. Six cold Mexican beer awaited us in a bucket of ice and the view from the roof is wonderful. The sun sparkled off the windows of the multicoloured houses on the hill above the restaurant and the only thing that could have improved the view was if the giant jacaranda tree across the street had been in bloom.




Now that I have made my way to the roof, I know where the special Saturday prime rib is created. Hidden away in a tiled alcove on the roof are 3 ceramic ovens. They are so heavy that they require a pulley system to raise the lids. As you arrive on the rooftop patio you are greeted by the smell of slowly roasting prime rib.




Even though I am not a huge prime rib fan, that looks pretty good to me and the smell that permeates the air is incredible. We spent a relaxing afternoon drinking beer, chatting and playing Yachtzee. I won three games in a row. “neener, neener, neener Todd” Yes, I am channeling my inner child, and it feels good!





Our waitress Marina, who is as charming as she is beautiful, even brought me a crème brulee for winning the Yachtzee games. She always has my back. Usually the only special is the prime rib on Saturdays, with chicken parmesan until 5:00 PM when the prime rib is ready. Yesterday there was also Tuscan Chicken and Rib Eye Steak.



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My meal of chicken and pasta in a beautifully seasoned fresh tomato sauce, was wonderful and I will still get 2 more meals out of what is left in the fridge.




Rib Eye


Todd said the rib eye, which looked like it came from a mastodon, was perfectly cooked. The steak came with fabulous whipped sweet potatoes and was so huge even Todd couldn’t finish it.


You just gotta love San Miguel!