Guanajuato twists and turns, soars and plunges. Callejones empedradas – cobblestoned laneways – descend into plazuelas and teatros. Tunnels, once rivers, convey the newly-arrived visitor on an old green boneshaker from the bus station through improbably narrow calles, past a statue of what looks like Don Quixote, and into the crowded pavements of the centro historico. A university, out of place in its architectural modernity, emerges suddenly off a narrow street, crowning a steeply-stepped plaza. This is a university town, which gives it a completely different feel from another of our new favourite towns, San Miguel de Allende, which it otherwise resembles in a lot of ways.
We’ve been in Mexico ten days now. We left our base in Ciudad de México (CDMX) last week to take a tour of some of the main towns in the northern central highlands: Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, and, for the past two days, Guanajuato. We found a place right behind an iglesia in faded red and yellow called San Roque, which has two Frida pictures on its walls: one, the standard headshot; the other, a black and white photograph (her scarf and headband have been colored red) of her kissing Diego. Her right arm is wrapped up and around his shoulder, no mean feat given his bulk, and her left hand, at the bottom right-hand corner of the picture, elegantly holds a cigarillo. I’m no great fan of her work, but I like the way she holds men and cigarettes.
One of Guanajuato’s claims to fame, we found out, is its Festival Cervantino (that explained the Don Quixote statue), so, as the resident bibliophile, one of the first things I did was to check out the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote while Tina took the kids for a helado. The story of how the young Eulalio Ferrer came to swap a packet of cigarettes in a detainment camp during the Spanish Civil War for a tiny copy of Cervantes’s great novel, his subsequent absorption with the book, his flight to Mexico, to Guanajuato, his obsessive accumulation of every artistic representation – painting, sculpture, literary – of the doomed hidalgo of Cervantes’s novel, all that moved me, and I rashly bought a version of the four-hundred-year-old book, which they call the first novel ever, a special version only available here in Guanajuato, one which I had difficulty justifying to Tina and the boys, and which, given my progress with Ulysses and Moby Dick, which at least are in English, I will probably never finish. I don’t care though. To have visited this museum and not have bought a copy of Don Quixote de la Manche, Edicion Guanajuato would have been inadecuado.
Back in our apartamento behind Iglesia San Roque that evening, I continued with my reading of Under the Volcano, one of the great English-language novels set in Mexico. It’s no easy read either, especially when one is distracted by the passing callejoneadas, the walking serenades this town is famous for. It felt like there was a mobile party passing right under our window. I got out of bed, got dressed, and followed the revellers, singing and telling jokes, for a short while, before returning to Tina and the kids. There was vivacious, laughing music in the streets, and I fell asleep to the sound of it receding towards the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, the old granary building, scene of the first military victory of La Guerra de Independéncia two hundred years ago.