An orange-fringed Lion's Tail plant blooms along the arroyo, San Miguel de Allende

Walking in San Miguel-The Arroyo: a Photo Essay

I took a walk today in San Miguel de Allende. Walking in San Miguel is always a joy… as long as you watch your step to avoid a missing cobblestone, or a broken curb. Your walk can take you past 400+-year-old buildings, elegant Colonial churches, houses painted in jewel tones. The sun will more than likely be pouring down from a crystal blue sky. And you’ll pass many an interesting person, both Mexican and foreign, who are all part of the show.

A foot path runs beside the arroyo in San Miguel de Allende

The footpath beside the arroyo in San Miguel de Allende is calm,
an overgrown bit of peace.

But sometimes you want a quiet walk, just for a few minutes, and a bit of nature. And you don’t want to drive or taxi all the way up to El Charco, the town’s Botanical Garden, which is one of its ecological gems.

So when I took my walk today, I headed to the northeast edge of town. There, water comes down from El Charco and gathers in the Presa del Obraje reservoir. It spills over and through the dam into an arroyo. The stream threads its way through the lower part of town before spilling into the Rio Laja. In the rainy season, it pours and races. In dry times it’s barely a trickle. In 1991, when one of the upstream earthen dams burst in heavy rains, it raged, overflowed its banks, and wiped out several houses and part of the market at the bottom.

For much of its length, the arroyo is spotted with trash. As it flows down to meet Calzada Guadalupe, where it edges the San Juan de Dios mercado, it sometimes resembles an open sewer. The city talks a lot about cleaning it up. They’ve been talking about it for years. But so far, that’s mostly all it’s been—talk. One day it will happen. Land along the arroyo will shoot up in value when it becomes a popular and pretty “River Walk.” But not yet.

Beside the upper arroyo is nice for walking in San Miguel de Allende

The upper arroyo that runs through the northeast corner of town is a peaceful spot for walking in San Miguel de Allende.

However, there is one lovely spot for walking in San Miguel, near where the stream first enters the town on the east side. There it is still mostly fresh and cleaner where it first emerges from El Charco and heads down into town. Beginning near Calzada del Obraje, just below Calzada de la Presa, it runs alongside the Jose Vasconcelos School and beyond.Just here, the town has made a footpath, perfect for walking in San Miguel on a brief and peaceful afternoon stroll.

There’s a Path, and Then There’s Wildness

It’s not a long walk, perhaps two or three city blocks, mas o menos. And it is lovely for those who have eyes to see it.

An orange-fringed Lion's Tail plant blooms along the arroyo, San Miguel de Allende

The”Lion’s Heads” are putting out the orange fringe flowers that give them their name

The banks of the arroyo are wildly overgrown here, cluttered with Lions’ Tails, just now flowering their orange fringe. They are really a garden plant but have apparently self-seeded here from somewhere in the city. There are giant castor plants, growing wild like they do all over the countryside. Their clumps of spiny seed pods poke the air like upright grape clusters above large umbrella leaves. There is that particular rushy bamboo that grows everywhere here, and other weeds and grasses I can’t identify.

A clump of the spiny seed pods of a large castor plant is silhouetted against the San Miguel sky

A clump of the spiny seed pods of a large castor plant is silhouetted against the San Miguel sky

Nopal cactus, succulents and grasses grow wild along the arroyo banks.

Nopal cactus, succulents and grasses grow wild along the arroyo banks.

Down below me, where the water still runs, the banks are carpeted with a confetti of wild marigolds, the dependable gift of the rainy season’s end. Their golden prettiness softens the scene.

San Miguel is not a particularly quiet city, with its traffic and its roof dogs and its endless fireworks celebrating who knows what at any time. Sometimes walking in San Miguel can mean dodging cars, and almost always stopping to chat with a friend encountered along the way. But here along this little path, it is quiet. I seldom see other people on this walk, although today a schoolgirl passed me with a cheerful “Buenas tardes.” Her backpack full of books looked heavy.

This path was teeming with life today. A brown squirrel scampered across the path and over the rocks, heading down to the water. He was too quick and too shy for my camera to catch. Ferns and grasses waved in the light breeze, painting the banks with a palette of every shade of green. The water inched slowly by.

Water pools and runs at the bottom of the arroyo, past ferns and cactus and wild marigolds.

Water pools and runs at the bottom of the arroyo, past ferns and cactus and wild marigolds.

I counted half-a-dozen butterflies. There were small, flittering buttercup ones, like yellow hearts against the green growth. Another was black and gold, like a Monarch, but that makes no sense. They are well away int he far north now, storing up summer energy for their long flight back to Central Mexico come winter. I watched it a long time for a better look. I hoped it was not a stray somehow left behind or lost. I watched and waited for it to alight on a leaf, so I could study it further and maybe even snap a quick photo. It did not oblige and eventually headed off for whatever it was in search of.

I walked past many giant agaves, some solid blue-green and others playfully striped with yellow. I love how the unfurling fronds leave their imprint on the ones beneath. For so long, they were so tightly curled together at their birth that they can never now be truly apart. They will always carry the mark of those that opened to the world before them. They are a whole family in a single plant.

A green and yellow striped agave

Some agaves are blue-green in color. Others, like this one, are a gaily striped green and yellow.

It's easy to see the impression left by one agave leaf on the one below it, where it was tightly furled before opening.

The impression left by the outer agave leaf onto the one below it is clear, from being tightly furled before opening.

When Walking in San Miguel, You See Both New and Old

A tiny young plant, its leaves no bigger than a penny and its green juicy new, grew low at the base of an enormous tree. The tree is a pirule, a Mexican pepper tree. Planted on the other side of the fence, its thick main branch has leaned over the top, as if reaching for the water far below. It is old, gnarly and slowly being overtaken by ball moss, the gray-green air plants that clog its outer branches and hang down like moss. Unless someone climbs up and pulls them down—an unlikely thought—they could eventually cover the whole tree, choking off its air and light. But that will be the work of many years—probably many decades—and in the meantime, the tree offers its hosting for free.

A think branch of a pepper tree leans over toward the arroyo.

A pirule, or Mexican pepper tree, leans over the fence, offering its branches as a home for air plants.

Near the end of the path, almost to the Fabrica Aurora Art & Design Center parking lot, the path is edged by a chain-link fence. Beyond that fence is the Fabrica’s duck pond. Today the white ducks busily paddled about, pecked about or serenely floated about. A pair of them had climbed up onto the pond’s center islet, tucked their yellow beaks under one wing, and were enjoying a siesta in the shade.

A white duck paddles by on the Duck Pond at the Fabrica Aurora in San Miguel de Allende.

The duck pond at the Fabrica Aurora Arts & Design Center is always full of life… and quacking.

My phone dinged as I watched the ducks, a signal telling me I’d stepped back into WiFi range from the nearby café. The overgrown world of the arroyo path was behind me, and I returned to my more organized and human-made one. I was back in the controlled world.

I headed to Geek & Coffee, the café in the white building overlooking the duck pond, which was my intended destination all along. I sat there eating quiche stuffed with rich goat’s cheese and whole cherry tomatoes so plump they popped in my mouth when I bit into them. I drank a café latte. I opened my journal and began to write about walking in San Miguel de Allende, strolling along the quiet and overgrown arroyo.

The easiest way to enjoy a walk along the upper arroyo is to begin at the Fabrica Aurora, where my walk ended. Go to the far end of the parking lot, away from the entrance, and take the path to the right of the duck pond. It’s easy to walk along for a short distance, enjoying the wildness and the quiet, then turn around and walk back to the Fabrica Aurora again and a good cafe latte.

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands: The Power of Silence

In Holland, Liberation Day is for celebration. But Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, “Dodenherdenking,” is for the silence of deep and painful memories, the solemnity of “We Will Never Forget.”

Liberation Day is celebrated in the Netherlands on May 5th. It marks the day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Holland and the occupation of the Netherlands officially ended, and with it the long nightmare of World War II for the Dutch people.

Liberation Day, Bevrijdingsdag, is marked by celebration. It’s a national holiday, a happy day, a day for fun and picnics and laughter and parties. Everyone gets the day off from work. There are music festivals throughout the country. The day’s festivities end with a major concert on the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The people celebrate their freedom, democracy and joy.

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

British soldiers from the 49th (West Riding) Division—the Polar Bears—attached to 1st Canadian Army,
liberate Utrecht, the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands Comes First

But for the Dutch, the rule has always been, “First commemorate, then celebrate.” And so the day before all the fun and festivals, May 4th, is the day to remember all those who died or were murdered in World War II and in every armed conflict since. Remembrance Day ceremonies are still taken very seriously and are held throughout the country, with the major one taking place at Amsterdam’s Dam Square, where wreaths are laid by the King and Queen.

Wreaths laid in Dam Square for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. One has flowers in red, white, and blule, for the Dutch flag. the other has orange flowers for the Royal House of Orange.

Wreaths are laid at a memorial ceremony at Dam Square. The red, white, and blue flowers reflect the colors of the Dutch flag. The orange ones are the national color of the royal House of Orange.

Remembering My Remembering

My own memories of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands are smaller, more personal than the pomp and royalty on the city’s main square. But perhaps the more powerful for all that.

It was 1971 and I had been living in Amsterdam for only a few weeks, but I was already in love with the country and the people. I was not on Dam Square that day. I didn’t see Queen Juliana lay a wreath or hear the bugles play. I didn’t watch any of the pageantry or hear the solemn speeches—which I would not have understood anyway as my Dutch was non-existent at the time. I was not part of any crowd. But what I saw was much more meaningful to me.

It was a beautiful spring day in Amsterdam, I recall, with flowers spilling from every window box and a few flat-bottomed white clouds dotting an unusually blue sky. The windows were open in many of the flats, their so-Dutch white lace curtains ruffling slightly in a spring breeze.

I was walking along the Rozengracht near where it crosses the Prinsengracht. I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner at a favorite café and hoping we’d be able to find a table outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. The Dutch are such inveterate sun-worshippers, they were out in force, filling every available seat of every terrace café I passed.

People at a terrace cafe in the sun in Amsterdam

Today, as in 1971, Amsterdammers love sitting outdoors at a terrace cafe canalside on a sunny day in May.

A tour boat slid quietly up the Prinsengracht canal, leaving a small wake where the sunlight glistened off the water. Moms pushed strollers and prams along the cobblestones. A young couple bicycled past on their traditional old-fashioned Dutch bikes, each with one hand on the handlebars and the other clasped between them, in perfect balance. The café patrons laughed and chatted over their drinks—a koffee, a pilsje, a jenever.

And the World Stopped

The sky was still light at 8 pm, the sun sailing low in the sky when, almost as if the earth took a deep breath and held it…everything and everyone in the Netherlands simply stopped.
Cars pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A tram moving down the middle of the street slowed and rolled to a complete stop mid-block. Pedestrians stopped walking and stood like relaxed statues. People in the sidewalk cafés put down their cups, their forks, their glasses of pils.

A waiter stepped from inside to the doorway, looked out and stopped. A streetsweep stopped and leaned on his broom, looking down at the now-clean cobblestones beneath his feet. The pair of bicyclists back-pedaled to brake to a halt, still holding hands. On the humped bridge over the canal, a couple leaned on the railing, completely still.

My shadow across the pavement stopped too, as I took in the whole, still, surreal scene and its meaning.

Conversations stopped. Laughter stopped. The sounds of tires on cobbles and wheels on steel tracks stopped. The clatter of cups and glasses and forks stopped. Everything except the breeze, the soft ripple of water in the canal, and the cooing of pigeons just stopped.

For two minutes, no one spoke, no one laughed, no one moved. Instead, they stopped and they remembered. They remembered what their country had suffered.

In the silence, they remembered the ones who died—the Jews sent to be exterminated, the Dutch fathers and brothers and sons sent to become slave labor in the German munitions factories who never came home, the Dutch Resistance fighters who saved so many lives but could not save their own. They remembered the Dutch citizens who died in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. They remembered the Dutch children and the old people who died from hunger in the last brutal “Hunger Winter” of the war.

And they remembered every Dutch citizen who has died in armed conflict since World War II because the world has not yet learned to live in peace.

For those two minutes of silence, I stood there, feeling the low-angled sun on my face as I listened to the quiet lapping of the water. I realized I was only a two-minute walk from the very building where Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Gestapo for years until finally they were found only months before the war ended and sent to the concentration camps, where most of them would die. I realized what these people, this country—like so many others in Europe—had been through and how fortunate we in the US had been to escape so much of that suffering.

The tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, where the bells toll for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, along with all the other church bells in the city.

The bells in the tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam began to toll, like all the bells in all the churches in all the cities in the Netherlands for Remembrance Day.

When the two minutes of silence were over, the church bells began to ring. The sound seemed to come from every direction. I was less than a block from the Westerkerk, and those bells seemed to sound almost inside my head. All the bells from every church in Amsterdam tolled out the memory of their loss and the end of their suffering. It filled the air and it filled me, that sound of relief that it was finally over.

Slowly, the world around me woke up again. The tram began rolling down its steel tracks once more. The tour boat resumed its easy float along the canal, pointing out to people from all over the world the magic of this beautiful city. Cars moved, bicycles rolled again, people started walking. Conversations and coffee resumed in the cafés.

The ceremony of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands was over for another year. Normal life resumed and I continued on my way, off to meet my friend, hungry for my late dinner.

But I was not quite the same person. I never would be again.

If you are planning to visit Holland and your timing is flexible, consider planning your trip to coincide with Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, May 4th. The silence, the remembrance, the respect the people still show for those who died–and are still dying today from the idiocy of war–will leave you moved, and touched. Then stick around for the parties, the fun, and the pure joy of Liberation Day.

A World War II walking tour is a deeply enriching way to learn more about Amsterdam and the Netherlands during the war. I really enjoyed this one, which covers the story of Anne Frank and includes a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum. Or learn more about Amsterdam’s struggles during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940 and how people endured events like the February Strike and the hunger winter. Hear the story of Anne Frank, her family, and their strife during this dark period of time on this fascinating tour.

Pin it For Later: Pin image for Remembrance Dahy in the netherlands, showing floral wreaths at the war monument in Dam Square, Amsterdam.