THE SECRET CANADIAN ENCLAVES OF AJIJIC AND SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
BY LAURA GOLDSTEIN
Sequestered behind a maze of cobblestone streets, hidden by twenty-five foot stucco walls aflame with fuchsia bougainvillea, are the secret enclaves of Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende. Private oak and wrought-iron doors guarded by playfully grotesque gargoyle knockers open into a Mexican Shangri-La of exquisite gardens and sumptuous homes.
Both towns have bewitched a growing number of Canadian residents, most of whom arrive for a vacation and are so enraptured that they buy a home within a few days! Ajijic, (it sounds like heehee and is how the locals like to pronounce it), slumbers on one of the most beautiful lakes in Mexico – Chapala, about 30 minutes from Guadalajara. Colonized by the Spanish in 1531 and decendents of Moroccon invaders (hence the Moorish architecture of many homes), the town was immortalized by D.H. Lawrence in the final pages of The Plumed Serpent, based on the author’s brief stay in the area. In the 1950’s Ajijic became a haven for Bohemian transients, especially after Life Magazine profiled a piece on one of its devotees, the infamous Timothy Leary. The town is not only a popular resort get-away for wealthy Mexicans but a very close-knit community to about 5,000 Canadians who are enticed by its breathtaking scenery and magnificent year round climate.
Decorator and bon vivant, Harold Babcock is a most witty and down to earth sultan in his Moorish style home, once owned by a woman who spent many years in Marakesh. The coral stucco and cement facade , a chameleon of colour as the light dissipates at day’s end, seems an extension of the surrounding Sierra Madre mountains. Small Arabian keyhole-shaped windows outlined in turquoise blue tiles are a beguiling foil to the spacious multi-terraced and sunken sanctuaries within.
“Canadian arts philanthropist, Joan Chalmers talked me into coming down here because of the glorIous climate. I actually saw this house twenty-five years ago and fell in love with it then,” confides interior designer, Babcock, “but we thought it was too large.” He is a former partner with Robert Dirstein and co-owned Babcock/Zanner in Toronto. Now retired, though still ‘dabbling’, he and friend, Minor Halliday kept coming back to the area but rented. “Finally this house came up on the market and we couldn’t resist.”
The sweet scent of papaya is a calming aromatic balm as one enters the spectacular loggia, a comfortable open-air seating area common to most Mexican homes. In the Babcock-Halliday version, the 50’ by 13’ covered gallery boasts five intricate floor to ceiling wrought iron Moroccon arched gates that the original owner, an artist herself, arranged to have copied from those in the Alhambra Museum in Spain. This allows the loggia to be bathed in light from the adjoining sunken courtyard and swimming pool while herbal breezes circulate to keep the room refreshingly cool during the hottest times of the day.
“What I was trying to achieve in this room,” explains Babcock, was a terra cotta colour that I had actually brought down from a colour chart from Toronto. I took it to the local paint ”guy and he mixed quite a brilliant orange and put in on the walls of the courtyard. I came down one morning and I said no – it needs more brown, and then went out for the day. When I came back, I really liked it! It looked so Mexican. In fact I loved it so much I brought it inside to the walls of the loggia.”
Bringing the outside in goes beyond just a decorating caprice shared by all of the Canadians H&H visited in Ajijic. It is almost a melding of spiritual and cultural lifestyles that is dictated by a reverence to nature and the innate creativity of the Mexican people. So when Babcock refers to ‘the local guy’ he is not being flippant. His home is filled with the most elaborately carved armoires and exquisitely forged wrought iron tables and chandeliers, sculpted stone pedestals and hand painted tiles all made by Mexican artists. Some are well known but others arrive with their children who apprentice and have worked for generations in these trades.
Perforated tin lanterns and sconces in a myriad of shapes are hung or sit on tiled floors in the loggia and dramatically surround the pool area when Babcock is entertaining, casting a firefly ambiance in the evening.
The pool in the sunken L-shaped courtyard is an obelisk of monumental proportions. A 20-foot high blue – tiled backsplash (Babcock dryly refers to it as ‘the Jolly Green Giant’s urinal’), is built into a retaining wall and immediately draws the eye skyward to the U-shaped rooftop widow’s walk. Private terraces lead from upper bedrooms where clay and stone bird finials perch amid the cascading bougainvillea.
“Harold is a wonderful cook and loves entertaining especially dining under the stars,” enthuses a visiting friend, Trudie Nelson who also lives in the area. That’s what is so wonderful here – it’s such a relaxed and casual lifestyle and we all take turns having each other over.”
Babcock worked with landscape architect, Alejandro Trevino (who also designed Allan and Norine Rose’s garden) to create a spectacular courtyard oasis. Orchids and fragrant rosemary bushes are dwarfed by potted fish-tailed palms and towering halliconio that produce banana tree – like leaves and vibrant red bird-of-paradise flowers. While a few cacti inhabit the garden, most surprisingly require shade, contrary to desert varieties, and turn yellow in Ajijic’s intense sunlight.
“In October,” says Babcock, “the mountains, always a stunning backdrop viewed from the courtyard, are a mass of purple cosmos and 12-foot high sunflowers.”
Stepping up from the courtyard is a private terrace of diamond-patterned inlaid stones originally found at the beach. Red, pink and coral geraniums tumble over braided urns that border an intimate dining area. Babcock repeated this lattice effect on the surrounding retaining wall by training ivy to grow in large diamond shapes!
On the opposite side of the courtyard and pool are floor to ceiling doors (converting the original windows to doors was Babcock’s only major renovation) leading to a sunken living room. It is decorated in Spanish colonial furniture and some of Harold’s very eclectic conversation pieces from a rare full scale wooden horse used as a photographer’s prop and shipped in pieces from Germany to his collection of monkey etchings. The striking beamed 30’ ceiling made of Mexican petate matting is so intricately woven that it took over a year to complete.
“You know,” confides Babcock, “ I used to be madly in love with France and Italy but I prefer it here – the people are wonderful and you can still feel that you are getting away from civilization if you need to. I like that.”
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It was serendipity that led Collette Hume – Douglas to Princess Natasha’s home in 1989. “She was the mistress of the great conductor, Leopold Stokowski and the first to build up in the hills outside the town,” relates the charming Hume – Douglas. “My husband and I were just visiting friends in Ajijic when they asked if we would like to see the house. We had no intention of moving. The moment I walked through the door I knew we would buy it!”
The Mediterranean – style home with a panoramic view of the mountains clear across Lake Chapala from the front terrace, has a fascinating history that captivated the Hume – Douglas’. Formerly from Montreal, they had lived in Puerta Vallarta for twenty-five years before moving to Ajijic.
“Her real name was Natalie Bender, an American,” relates Hume – Douglas. But she was such an exotic person – so mysterious that people gave her the title ‘Princess’. She travelled all over the world with Stokowski and had wonderful taste. She was a painter and used to make little drawings in notebooks and incorporate them into this home. In fact, after we moved here I found several French and Spanish decorating magazines with the pages marked from where she had copied the designs. Her architect actually had to hold her back because she mixed too many ideas together,” laughs Hume- Douglas.
The expansive front terrace, perfumed by a mixture of magnolia, lemon, tangello and lime trees, is surrounded by intricately patterned stone walls and masses of orange and pink bougainvillea as translucent as tissue paper. It’s design was taken directly from a photograph of a Russian terrace that the Princess had marked in a magazine, much to Hume – Douglas’ delight.
The kitchen is both French (the three-tiered style of the fireplace and beamed ceiling) and Mexican and is large enough to accommodate Collette’s collection of 500 cookbooks. The blue, white and peach hand-painted tiles mix two motifs, not typical in Mexico: birds and an “s” (perhaps for Stokowski) and were made exclusively for the Princess in Guadalajara.
The cupola in the living room ceiling is typically Moorish however the undulating boveda ceiling is particularly rare because the bricks are miniatures.
“I watched them make the ceiling,” marvels Hume – Douglas,“ and it was amazing because the stone mason, called the maestro, works from two sides approaching the middle and uses nothing to hold them up but each other!”
“The Mexicans are such wonderful artists. One day the maestro and his little boy began work on a fountain in the courtyard. He asked if I had an old coffee can he could use. With just that and a knife he scored the most beautiful decoration and was so proud that he asked me to take his photograph standing beside it!
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“If the dust of Ajijic gets into your shoes, you will never leave”.
From a Mexican proverb
“We first discovered Ajijic on our honeymoon and were so enchanted that we kept coming back every year,” confides Norine Rose, wife of the Honorary Canadian Consul to Guadalajara, Allan Rose both from Toronto.
Like their friends, the Hume-Douglas’, a friend called one day to say that there was a house that the Roses would just love and maybe the owners might consider renting it to them.
“In 1985 we saw it and bought it the next day!” extols Norine. There is something in the air here plus the people are so congenial – we have been here for 10 years and just love it!”
Imagine fifty years ago, a wealthy hacendado riding up to this country home on horseback; entering a massive oak door to a sprawling L-shaped open-air estate; the loggia encircled by nine columns surrounding lush tropical gardens, completely concealed from the bustling village outside.
“An upper-class hacienda would be designed in a complete ‘U’ explains Norine. “The women would always be upstairs where the breezes blow. We made a few structural changes to the entrance as well as the wiring and plumbing, upgraded the bathrooms and the kitchen. People are always surprised when we tell them there are only two bedrooms. Upstairs on the roof I grow a vegetable garden of spring beans, onions and my own lettuce but everything is in pots.”
This is the Roses’ country hacienda – style home where the delineation between outside and inside is almost non-existent. All of the rooms open onto the vast stone terrace, a communal living area from which every aspect of the Roses’ lifestyle emanates: Eating and relaxing with family and friends; entertaining the largest expatriate Canadian community in the world outside of Florida through Allan’s work and fund- raising for Norine’s charity, the Lakeside School for the Deaf.
Pine beams intersect a striking boveda ceiling of bricks in the loggia, created in an unusual herringbone pattern not common to the area. It was made by a man who began work on it as a child and is now the maestro with his children apprenticing under him.
The garden is an exotic paradise by day – a dramatic nocturnal stage set after the sun goes down. It actually begins as you enter the loggia where a long expanse of night -blooming jasmine forms a fragrant leafy fence actually suspended by chains from the pillars to form a living wall complete with paneless window that overlooks the garden!
Like exploding fireworks, giant aloe plants, banana palms and rare white Persian bird of paradise, orange hibiscus and orchids of every hue surround the swimming pool. The cries of tropical birds and a fountain’s trickling waterfall create a lost civilization atmosphere.
“I wanted to have sculpture here too,” says Norine “and I asked some Mexican artists to reproduce a little souvenir Canadian totem pole that a friend brought us. As they interpreted it, it stands about ten feet tall and is brightly painted and if you look closely, the eyes are slanted differently and look very Mexican.”
Allan, who has two daughters and a son and Norine who has five sons, both by previous marriages, (plus dogs NAFTA and Pinata), spend a great deal of time entertaining, giving small dinner parties or hosting large fund-raising events. Although some involve Allan’s consular duties, Norine spends most of her time working on behalf of the Lakeside School For the Deaf, a charity very dear to her heart. It was begun by two Canadian women fifteen years ago who discovered a very high proportion of deafness among children in the area. Norine had a special affinity to the project because Allan’s son, Jonathon is deaf. The school has evolved from a chicken coop with a dirt floor to a three-room building staffed by teachers, complete with kitchen, arts and crafts room and playground.
“We organize garden and house tours every Thursday to raise money for the school and they are tremendously successful,” says Norine. “A reciprocal Canadian grant program enabled us to buy hearing aids for the 37 children taught there. Allan and I live a very fulfilling life here and it is important to us to give something back to the Mexican community.”
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San Miguel de Allende is the little jewel of Guanajuato state. Its mystical allure of sapphire skies, perfect mountainous climate (6,500 feet above sea level) magical light and lower cost of living have attracted about 2,000 Canadian painters photographers, sculptors and potters since the 1940’s. Art and music have flourished here since the 18th century when two art schools were established: the Instituto Allende and the Bellas Artes, both still engaging students from around the world. Although off the beaten track, (about three hours drive from Mexico City) the town’s Spanish colonial architecture, superb Mexican artistry in wood, metal, ceramics and leather together with its charming art galleries and restaurants make San Miguel de Allende a welcome refuge for Canadians.
As the black door in the twenty-foot high wall opens, one follows a serpentine passageway downwards into a garden of Eden that arouses all of the senses. Like an Impressionist painting, towering periwinkle blue jacaranda trees dotted with screeching egrets, tower over a jungle of twisted rose arbours, crimson bougainvillea and orange elephant trumpets. Trickling fountains and a swimming pool offer a cool respite from the hot sun. And like its flamboyant owner, painter, bronze Olympic medalist and six-time Canadian men’s figure skating champion, Toller Cranston, the property has undergone a metamorphosis in both philosophy and style.
“I call it Villa Flora Montague. It sounds pretentious but those are the names of my two English setters!” admits Cranston, relaxing in paint- spattered shorts and polo top.
“My first impression of San Miguel was at the exquisite hotel, Villa Santa Monica that is located flush to a lovely 450 year-old-park designed in the French style but tropical,” says Cranston. “I tell everyone that Cortez watered his horses there! I began by renting but started looking at properties here way back in 1990. I must have seen about sixty of them by 1992 and it was exhausting . You know, there is a certain snobbery and a protectiveness about San Miguel. People think this is the most beautiful place in the world but let’s not tell anyone about it. Through a friend I heard about a house that was not officially on the market. I vividly remember standing on the cobblestone street looking into this winding tunnel. It really was El Paradiso (the property’s original name.) Strolling around the 2 1/2 acre property which was immensely derelict with not one but four houses on it, I had this instant sense of recognition that I belonged. And, the bottom of the property bordered the incredible park I had seen six years earlier! I knew I had found my heart’s desire.”
Once a 16th century tannery and later a private school for children of wealthy families, most of the locals did not realize that the property had a northern and southern entrance at two different addresses.
“I sold everything I owned to buy this place in San Miguel,” confides Cranston who is very candid about the intense pressure he was under to secure the property. (Canadians might remember his Cabbagetown home in Toronto filled with so many unusual objects d’arts that Waddingtons called it “the sale of the century.” )
Cranston’s San Miguel estate may surprise many people. “What I wanted in the main house was the complete antithesis of what I once had – which was (decorated like) a bordello/museum,” he says. “I wanted to live like the Mexicans- in nature, something I never had up until now. I want to live in a comfortable monastic way without alütering the rusticity of the garden or the interior design.”
This philosophy is certainly evident in the simplistic arched loggia, a striking open-air extension of his garden, shaded on one side by an elaborate wrought iron awning covered in vines. The loggia is the most frequented area in the house for eating, entertaining or just relaxing and reading a book. A four-sided fireplace can be used any day of the year as the mountainous air becomes cool in the evenings.
Painted white throughout the main house, Cranston allows the gardens and the natural light streaming in from the unusual design of the antique spindle windows , to take precedence over his furnishings. They never compete. This is most evident in the living room: a serene painterly still- life in which Cranston’s own vivid abstract paintings seem an extension of the tropical exterior.
Outside the main house, charming wrought-iron spiral staircases are a beguiling entrance to second floor guest rooms and Cranston’s collections of Mexican folk art and intricately carved armoires.
“The decor is not over the top,” he explains. “Certain things that impressed me no longer do. I’m trying to grow up in middle age.”
His private studio is in one of the other small houses on the property. He paints surrounded by white walls and although hundreds of artists are attracted to San Miguel because of the magical light, Cranston deliberately closes the curtains. “If you are bombarded with the colour from the garden it is a huge distraction while painting,” he says.
“You know,” he continues, “I have a very simple life here. Sometimes I’ll just fly in for the weekend just to relax. I get up at around 5:00 a.m. to paint, and eat breakfast at 9:00 a.m. and then go back to work. I have lunch with friends or go for a swim about 2:00 p.m. and then work again until 7:00 p.m. When the sun goes down here it’s dramatic beyond words and walking, especially in the park is de riguer. It’s quite normal for me to be in bed by 9:00 p.m.”
While Cranston maintains a small studio in Toronto he seems in perpetual motion working on several projects at one time: painting exhibitions for the Chicago Planetarium and the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland ; coaching the new Swiss wunderkind, Lucinda Ruh whom Cranston dubs “the world’s greatest spinner.” He is also “reinventing” the French Olympic Champion, Surya Bonaly, whom he is coaching in Toronto and working on his memoirs TC: Confessions From An Old Show Dog with writer Martha Kimball.
“You know, sometimes when I ‘m walking around my house with my dog and a cup of coffee, I just can’t believe how lucky I am to have this place in San Miguel. I’ll always remember it as the golden period in my life.”
The writer was a guest of Tourism Mexico