John Bills Sings the Praises of San Miguel de Allende
Between 1977 and 2004, tenor John Bills sang in more than 5,000 performances at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City as a soloist and chorister, appearing in hundreds of radio and television broadcasts with virtually every major singer and operatic conductor of his day. He can be heard on CDs and DVDs with such colleagues as Plácido Domingo, Renata Scotto, and Luciano Pavarotti. He sang with Mr. Pavarotti in New York’s Central Park before an audience of 75,000. He was a founder of Concurso San Miguel in 2008 and was named Artistic Director of Ópera de San Miguel in 2011. Under his direction, Concurso San Miguel has grown from a small regional contest to a musical event of national significance in Mexico. He and his wife, chef/restaurateur Shari Alexander, who doubles as chief fundraiser and event planner for Opera San Miguel, live six months each year in San Miguel de Allende, and own and operate The Red Maple Inn in Massachusetts.
Where do you go in San Miguel de Allende for an authentic cultural experience?
Concurso San Miguel, a national contest for young Mexican opera singers held in March each year. As the artistic director of Ópera de San Miguel you may think this a subjective choice, but I can honestly say it’s the most exciting cultural event of the year. It’s grown to an event of national importance and significance in Mexico. Out of more than 200 applicants, 12 are invited to San Miguel de Allende for a week of musical, dramatic and language coaching by major figures in the International opera world, culminating in a Final Round and Concert. The atmosphere at the finals resembles championship soccer match more than a staid opera event, and nothing beats witnessing these remarkably talented young artists. For details: visit www.operasanmiguel.org
What do you regard as San Miguel de Allende’s greatest hidden treasure?
Tucked away at the edge of the Colonial Centro is San Miguel’s Mercado, where you can find everything and anything including fresh fruit and vegetables, meats and poultry, flowers, clothing, jewelry, furniture, pottery and much, much more. Here you can watch mujeres (women) making fresh tortillas and trimming the thorns from cactus leaves for fresh nopales (a vegetable made from young prickly pears). The back of the main building opens onto a long double-sided extension of individual vendors that stretches out for several city blocks — you can spend hours and never see everything.
In your opinion, which is the most significant church in San Miguel de Allende?
La Parroquia is the current parish church of San Miguel and the emblem of the town. Its spires are the well-known symbol of San Miguel de Allende and it has become one of the most photographed churches in all of Mexico. Its pink sandstone Neo-Gothic towers can be seen from points all over town. The interior of the church still has the original 17th century layout and interior design and the sacristy contains a painting depicting the founding of San Miguel in 1542. There is a small crypt under the altar which contains the remains of former bishops of the church and other dignitaries, including a former president of Mexico. Not to be missed.
If you were to take a day trip to an area outside of San Miguel de Allende, where would you go?
Located just a short twenty minute drive from San Miguel is the remarkable pre-Columbian archaeological site, Cañada de la Virgen. The site features pyramids, temples and monumental buildings, as well as artifacts discovered during its excavation. It’s not just an opportunity to explore pre-Hispanic Mexico; it also makes for a relaxing day exploring the beautiful San Miguel countryside.
Where is the best shopping in San Miguel de Allende?
Housed in a converted turn-of-the-century textile factory, Fabrica La Aurora has become the most important center for arts and design in San Miguel de Allende. Plan on spending several hours browsing and shopping, and eating too. There are nearly 30 art studios and galleries, as well as furniture and interior design shops, linen and home accessory stores, jewelry boutiques and antique stores, as well as three restaurants.
Is there a special vantage point in San Miguel de Allende to watch the sunrise or sunset?
This is easy…almost anywhere! San Miguel de Allende, with its flat-roofed architecture, offers literally hundreds of spots to watch the spectacular sunsets over the reservoir and the distant mountains. Dozens of restaurants offer roof-top views where you can sip a margarita while the sky changes from pink to purple. Many homes of Sanmiguelenses boast views of the sun setting over La Parroquia, so make friends with some of the locals and you may be lucky enough to be invited by for a sunset cocktail.
What and where has been your most memorable night on the town?
There is nothing that compares with New Year’s Eve in San Miguel. Sure, most restaurants offer a special dinner, and some are very memorable indeed. But in the spirit of “the best things in life are free,” the whole town becomes a fiesta on New Year’s Eve, with the heart of the celebration taking place in the Jardin, right in front of La Parroquia. Mariachis, food vendors, giant sparklers, balloons, entire families strolling and laughing. Then midnight comes and there is an incredible fireworks display over the spires of the Parroquia. This town celebrates more holidays than any other in Mexico and New Year’s Eve is the standout.
What do you like to do when it rains?
What rain? I spend most of my time in San Miguel de Allende from November to May, and the fact is rainy days are so rare we don’t even think about them. San Miguel is located at about 6,500 feet above sea level and has a perfect climate: warm days, cool evenings and no humidity. Yes, it does rain in the summer, but usually just for an hour or two in the afternoon, so there is very little problem planning outdoor activities. And summer in San Miguel is much more moderate than in the southern and western U.S., so the town fills up with Floridians, Texans and New Mexicans escaping the heat and humidity. It may not be Paradise, but it’s the closest I’ve found.
What is your favorite way to end the day?
The Rosewood roof-top bar Luna offers the greatest 360 degree views in San Miguel. From Luna you can see from the spires of La Parroquia and other major churches to the reservoir, with the mountains in the distance. The restaurant features delicious and authentic tapas and fabulous cocktails (try the Tamarindo margarita). Go early so you can watch the sunsets, then stay on as night falls and one by one the lights of San Miguel come on to give you a magical view. Add in a full moon and clear, star-studded sky and you will want to stay forever.
What is the best scenic drive in San Miguel de Allende?
The Road to Guanajuato is Central Mexico at its most beautiful with rolling hills, mountain vistas, mesquite trees and desert cactus. Guanajuato is a 90-minute trip from San Miguel de Allende and worth the drive. Hire a driver to navigate the twisting road, spend an afternoon at the Cervantes museum (more Don Quixote-inspired art and sculpture than you ever knew existed!) You can go to the birthplace of the Mexican art icon, Diego Rivera, which now houses a wonderful collection of his art. Try the local molé, but be sure to head home in daylight; the only light on this road at night is provided by the moon.
What is San Miguel’s most famous local icon?
It’s not only iconic — El Jardín Principal is the heartbeat of San Miguel de Allende. This is where you feel the pulse of the city. There are balloon sellers, horse-drawn ice cream vendors, shops and restaurants. We love to take a sidewalk table at El Rincón Don Tomás, order a cappuccino or cold cerveza, and watch San Miguel pass by. Street sellers include men carrying five-foot-tall stacks of straw hats, women with their arms loaded with turquoise and coral necklaces, children selling home-baked goods. Weekends are family days, when the whole town comes out to stroll, shop and greet friends. There’s usually a wedding on Saturdays, with beautiful brides parading with their families.
What’s the best place to take a neighborhood stroll in San Miguel de Allende?
San Miguel de Allende is a walker’s paradise. Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Historic Center (Histórico Centro) is a museum in itself with cobblestone streets, Mexican Baroque architecture, colorful facades and interior courtyards. Start at the Jardín, go into the Parroquia, cross over to the Museo Allende (the home of Ignacio Allende and the birthplace of Mexican independence), walk two minutes to the church of San Francisco, then another block to the Plaza Civica, the original gathering place of old San Miguel, dating from the early 1500s. Across the plaza is the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Salud with its 18th Century facade. Step down the stairs to the Templo del Oratorio to see its ornate chapel. Then stroll back to the Jardín for a café con leche and watch the day go by. Perfecto!