What's Tony Thinking

The Courtyards of San Miguel


One of the words most commonly used words to describe San Miguel de Allende, the central Mexican hill town where were are living for two months, is “magical.”

While many aspects of San Miguel can fairly be described as “magical,” I find the courtyards of San Miguel to be especially so.

When you walk along one of the cobblestone streets that date to the 16th century, what you see to each side are walls, periodically interrupted by doors. While the stucco and stone walls are often brightly colored, and the heavy wooden doors are many-grained and some elaborately carved, what the doors open onto are courtyards that take your breath away.

You walk through one of the wooden doors, then perhaps pass through a small darkened passage way, which opens up into a place that is both filled with light and shadow. It that may be expansive or cloistered, usually some of both.

Shrubs, flowers, trees, fountains and stonework at various levels and angles both hide and reveal. They beckon you to come further, but to do so quietly with a certain wonder. To me passing into one of San Miguel’s courtyard’s feels as if you’ve passed through C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) to an altogether different reality.

Many courtyards open to the sky above. Almost all seem full of nooks and crannies to explore while strolling or sitting. In contrast to the busier and sometimes noisy street you have left behind, the courtyards are quiet and calm. They are sanctuary spaces, some overtly religious, most not. Yet all, in their way, sacred spaces.

I read that the courtyards of San Miguel have their roots in the Moorish gardens of ancient Spain, which were themselves inspired by the earlier courtyard gardens of even more ancient Persia. One writer tells us that “the word ‘paradise’ itself means ‘walled garden.'”

I imagine that the courtyards had more practical purposes as well. Safety was likely one. You and your family were protected behind heavy walls and massive doors.

Or maybe it has to do with a warmer climate. The stone and stucco walls are famously effective at holding the cooler air as they offer protection from a sunlight that is, at times, strong to the point of blinding.

A central fountain is a common feature, one that adds to the sense of a cooler and shadowed refuge from the intense sun, but also providing the music of cascading water, itself a calming sound. Often the corners of a courtyard are accented with a larger tree, while flowers and shrubs fill stone-walled garden beds.

To me the courtyards suggest a richness of interior life. Instead of everything being right out there, visible, even in a sense on display, these are hidden places.

While not inaccessible, they are not too accessible, perhaps like the inner life of a person. As a person who himself tilts toward the introvert side of the scale the courtyards of San Miguel are a beautiful and attractive refuge for the soul.


Categories: Uncategorized