Flashback – Meeting Toller Cranston in Mexico

Our sailing cruise in Mexico introduced us to many wonderful people, and while we were traveling inland to visit the colorful city of Guanajuato, I had a chance to spend some time with my lifelong idol and mentor-in-spirit, figure skater Toller Cranston, at his amazing home in San Miguel de Allende.

This post is a departure from the normal fare found on this blog. However, it is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I just couldn’t find the words. The shock of Toller Cranston’s death over this past weekend opened a floodgate of emotions for me when I learned about it yesterday, and suddenly the words were there. So here it is.

San Miguel de Allende Mexico Street Scenes

A street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Toller Cranston’s home for two decades

San Miguel de Allende Mexico street musician

A street musician in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende Mexico Cathedral La Parroquia

San Miguel de Allende Cathedral — La Parroquia

Mexico window flower box

Flowers and window boxes on a house in San Miguel de Allende

Emily skating

I spent my childhood and youth on the ice.

As a child and young teenager, figure skating dominated my life, and I competed at a high level. At the time, spending six to seven hours a day on the ice seemed perfectly normal, because all my skating friends and rivals were doing the same thing. You couldn’t stay competitive with anything less.

It was only decades later that I realized that from age 13 to 16 I had put in over 40 hours a week learning to master the ice, to skate with abandon and grace, and to perform. It was a huge effort, but I loved it. I treasured every minute of being a skater, especially when an unusual Canadian skater, Toller Cranston, showed up in the world class competitions and opened my eyes to the vast potential of the sport.

Competitive skating is very conservative and is largely made up of cute little girls in pink dresses and the dour middle aged judges in heavy coats and sweaters who rank them.

Skaters pay their coaches big bucks to help them determine exactly what the judges want to see and then learn how to do it. The judges are not paid for their time but are reimbursed their expenses, and the skating we see on TV is a perfect reflection of what they have rewarded throughout skating’s ranks with good marks on their score sheets.

Little girl competes in Sun Valley Figure Skating Championships

A little skater shows me her medals.
I was like this nearly 50 years ago too!

If the judges want jumps with tight rotations, the skaters deliver. If it’s dizzying spins with many changes of position, they’ve got it. Fancy footwork — done.

Skaters learn very young not to let a single hair be out of place, and by age 12 the most elite among them are seasoned “professionals” that are well accustomed to being stars, signing autographs, dealing with fans, and receiving ovations.

Figure skating as an institution is slow to change, and it’s a world that is highly averse to rebellion. The judges can squelch any renegade with the flick of a pen. And they do.

So it was with total shock that this insular community witnessed Toller Cranston coming into his own in the mid-1970’s. He took on the Establishment in ways that the Hippies, who talked of such things, couldn’t possibly imagine. Brash, bold, outspoken and charismatic, Toller introduced drama and passion into skating to a degree that had never been seen before.

Figure skating judges at a competition

The judges call all the shots in skating. I was a judge at one time!

I was mesmerized. On the cusp of adulthood myself, I watched this man in awe as he battled for all he was worth to show the world his vision of what skating could be. He did moves no man had ever done, and no man would dream of doing at the time. Prancing on his toes, swooping his body into wildly rounded and angular shapes, and leaping into the air with total glee and nary a rotation, he was exotic, exciting, thrilling.

I don’t have any pics of Toller skating, but there are two wonderful pics here and here.

Competitive skating is a tiny world too, one where skaters know and “know of” each other even if they haven’t met. When my own skating career came to a screeching halt after I developed spondylolisthesis (probably from too many double axel attempts), Toller wrote me a letter of encouragement and sympathy.

Toller Cranston's House Front Gate

We arrive at Toller Cranston’s imposing front gate.

At the time, he had started “The Ice Show,” a fabulous new style of skating entertainment, and in his unique hand-written scrawl, he said he wished I could have been part of the group. I was blown away, unbelievably touched and absolutely crushed at the same time. I was 17 by now, and living away from home in a new life at a unique high school trying to come to grips with giving up skating. If I could have, I would have run away to be a part of anything he was doing in a heartbeat.

That thoughtful letter and those few words have stayed with me throughout my life.

Toller Cranston leads us through his garden

We follow Toller through his garden

Toller went on to take on far bigger worlds beyond skating, and I lost track of his many projects.

But the essence of what he did on the ice — his fearless pursuit of his passion, his daring moves that flew in the face of everything the skating world held dear, his steadfast commitment to doing what he believed in, and his utter whimsy and charm — continue stay with me to this day.

I’ve always wanted to live my life with a fervor and soul that is just as deep and just as free.

While our sailboat Groovy was anchored in Zihuatanejo, I became friends with Pamela Bendall who, at 57, was completing a 5-year solo voyage from Vancouver to Peru and back aboard her 47′ steel yacht, Precious Metal.

I discovered she was an Olympic alternate gymnast for Canada in the early 1970’s. We had a rare connection with each other as two women who had spent their girlhoods training to become top athletes, dreaming of perfectly executed tricks and polished performances under pressure.

As we sat on the bow of her boat eating potato chips together (an absolute no-no in our past lives), I casually mentioned that her countryman Toller Cranston had been my idol. What a surprise it was to find out that she grew up in the same town as he did.

“You know, he lives in San Miguel de Allende here in Mexico now,” she suddenly said.

Where? I’d never heard of the place. I made a mental note, but thought nothing of it since it was nowhere near the coast. A year later, however, Mark and I found ourselves exploring Guanajuato, just an hour away.

Pamela Bendall aboard Precious Metal

Former gymnast Pamela Bendall aboard her cruising sailboat Precious Metal

I checked the internet to see if Toller’s address might be somewhere online and discovered he had his house for sale. When we rang the doorbell at his estate’s imposing gate a few days later, a maid gave me a slip of paper to write my name on so she could give it to him before letting me in.

Then, suddenly, there he was at the gate, his hair slightly disheveled and his pants spattered with paint. We exchanged greetings, and he gestured for us to follow him. I asked if he remembered me. He turned back, with a theatrical swoosh, and looked at me pointedly. “I know all about you!” he said.

Mark was totally impressed, but I know drama when I see it, and this was obviously mostly for effect — and the effect was awesome.

Toller Cranston's House Outside-2

Wonderful outdoor seating by the garden.

We followed him through a lush garden that was utterly overgrown and stuffed to the gills with outdoor art pieces. Once inside his home, we discovered we had arrived right in time for a big Sunday brunch he was hosting, and his guests began arriving. He invited us to stay and have brunch too, and in no time a large circular table was packed with about 10 guests.

We found ourselves in impressive company, including Nat King Cole’s daughter and the parents of a halfpipe snowboarding Olympian. Mark and I were speechless listening to a fast repartee between everyone about art, art collections, art collectors, art history, and other highbrow things we know little about.

Paintings everywhere

There were paintings and artwork everywhere.

Suddenly, Toller announced to the table in a loud voice, “You know, Emily and I have a past…”

I froze as everyone turned to look at me.

“A skating past,” he went on with a sly smile.

I loved his sense of timing and flare — it was impeccable, even here at the breakfast table.

The conversation turned to skating, and more lightning quick conversation sailed over my head as they discussed skating champions of the last two decades that I don’t really know.

I stopped watching TV regularly in 1994, and have managed to catch only a rare glimpse of one skater or another since then, if I happened to be in a place with a TV when a skating event was on.

But when they turned back to discussing the skating greats of the 1970’s, I was right there with them, reminiscing about Janet Lynn‘s charm and John Misha Petkevich‘s soaring jumps.

Eventually, the brunch guests left, but Toller invited us to tour his estate and stick around a while.

He has made his living as an artist since his early teenage years when he attended art school, and every corner of his mansion was crammed with artwork, both his own and others’.

Our conversation turned to skating again, in bits and spurts of questions and answers, and slowly the quest I had been after when I first decided to knock on his door in San Miguel de Allende began to be answered.

Who was this unusual artist? How did he dare to be so free? What made him tick? What did he think about all day? And where had life taken him since he stood on the podium at the Olympics?

Toller Cranston's House Inside-4

Every seat in the house was surrounded by art.

In a few short hours that day and the next, a heavy cloak of sadness slowly wrapped itself around my heart as I listened — between the words — to what it took for this man to change the direction of the institution of men’s figure skating.

Toller came into skating at a time when all the flamboyant beauty of free skating counted for only 40% of the overall score. The other 60% of the score came from circular etchings on the ice called “figures” (and which took 75% of my practice time and every one else’s).

Toller Cranston's House Inside-5

Toller collected the pottery work of local artisans in Mexico

Wild passion and figures don’t mix well. Even worse, figures can’t be seen by anyone but the judges who walk around on them in rubber boots after the skater is done, as they study each tracing and take notes on a clipboard.

Toller developed a reputation for being “bad at figures,” although no one but he and his coach and the judges who saw them will ever know for sure. At the same time, he was up against a rival from England, John Curry, who, like him, sought to do more with free skating than merely jump and spin.

Rivalries drive us all to exceed our highest expectations, and the rivalry between these two men was a thrill to watch. John Curry was the ultimate technician, completing each trick with textbook precision, dead-pan expression, and exquisite grace. Toller Cranston was pure emotion in action, effortlessly grabbing the hearts of those who watched him. With every move in his many performances, he held a gasping audience in the palm of his hand.

Toller Cranston's House Inside-6

Artwork, artwork everywhere!

In the end, John Curry took all the big trophies and Toller was lucky to get third spot on any major podium, something I didn’t remember at all until he shared his memories with me. To my surprise, regret hung heavy in the air around us as he talked about his past.

He recalled with horror how the first figure in the Olympics was a right forward outside rocker, a beautiful figure that involves two very cool twisting turns that tie three circles together. Bad luck struck as he pushed off on the first half circle. His eyes filled with tears and he couldn’t see a thing.

That’s like totaling your car on the first half lap of the Indy 500.

Toller Cranston's House Inside-7

Every wall and surface held artwork

He had other tales of torment at the hands of ruthless, narrow minded judges, some of whom had judged me too. He wore a wry smile as he talked of a former skating star from the 1950’s who had visited him in San Miguel and had become openly emotional as he apologized for zealously and publicly slamming Toller’s skating vision and style when he was at his peak.

But did Toller know how much he was loved by his fans? I wondered.

Our conversation, which was really just stutters of comments thrown to the wind towards each other, turned to his art. We were flying through his mansion on this crazy whirlwind tour as we talked, seeing room after room after room. Huge canvasses and sculptures and unique decorations were everywhere.

Mark and I chat with Toller

Mark and I pause our tour of the art-filled estate to chat with Toller a bit.

We sat down in his living room to talk a little more in depth, and vignettes of his past gradually took shape before us as he talked.

“I paid for all my skating myself with my art.” He suddenly blurted.

My jaw dropped. That is unheard of. Not only is it nearly impossible to make a living from fine art, but Toller had done so as a young art school student, and he had funded an extraordinarily expensive skating career in the process.

What’s even more amazing is that, generally, every elite figure skater is sponsored. Even I had a sponsor, I told him, or I would have had to quit at age 12. His expression was haunted as he said, “No one ever sponsored me. I paid for it all myself.”

My respect for this man shot up a thousandfold.

Crazy art and toy horse in the bedroom

As the hours passed, we resumed wandering through his many bedrooms, through the corners of his home where he liked to read and watch TV, and into his brilliantly lit studio that was lined from floor to ceiling with windows. My emotions became a blur of confusion as I listened to him and took in his life experiences and overlaid them on my own.

“The world only remembers the winners,” he said grimly at one point. “They only remember the names of the champions.”

I was completely taken aback. Didn’t he realize that he had single-handedly changed men’s figure skating forever, regardless of whether his name was etched on an Olympic trophy? Didn’t he know that the people who change the course of history are the ones that are remembered?

Sculpture of a head with wild hair

A sculpture he was working on.

We were walking through his past, and my past with it, and there was so much I wanted to say and to share, but the words just weren’t there, and I’m not sure he would have listened anyway. I was elated to have a chance to be with him at last, but so frustrated for not having more time and more peace.

The household was abuzz all day long. Maids and neighbors wandered in and out at will, art students and art assistants zoomed by us repeatedly, intent on their missions in and around the estate. I marveled that Toller could think straight in all this chaos. Perhaps he thrived on it, but I wasn’t sure.

He was intrigued by our travels and asked us a lot of questions about the places we’d been and where we were going next. At the time, Mark and I were wrapping up our sailing cruise, a nearly four year voyage that had opened our lives up in ways we never dreamed of.

Toller Cranston's House Inside-3

We see room after room of fantasy artwork and even some elaborately decorated eggs.

We were just months from moving off our boat permanently and putting it up for sale. As we filed away precious memories of our voyage, we knew we were embarking on an exhilarating new phase of life as bigger, stronger and more experienced people.

Why had we started traveling full-time six years prior? Toller wanted to know. To change our lives and have an adventure was my quick reply.

“I need to change my life too,” he said wistfully. “I want to have an adventure.” He sounded eager. He talked of wanting to sell his estate and buy land nearby to build a new home.

00 651 Toller Cranston Studio

Works in progress in the studio

Eventually he bade us goodbye from somewhere in the middle of the mansion, and we left his home on our own, wandering through the maze of gardens in a stunned stupor, and making several wrong turns in the process. The encounter stayed with me for weeks as we prepared our boat for its final 1,000 mile journey, the Baja Bash from Puerto Vallarta to San Diego.

I couldn’t help but feel that the cost of being a maverick, of striking out against tradition to do something bigger and better and more exotic than the norm, had been very high for him. Because of the sport’s rules in place at the time, and his fierce determination to pursue his own vision, Toller was never rewarded with the most important gold medals that are the badge of success and acceptance in sport.

Nevermind that many of the moves we see skaters doing today were his inventions. That doesn’t doesn’t put your name on the roster of history’s World Champions.

Doors from the studio into the garden

Glass doors to the garden from the studio

Yet, at the same time, I was bemused that a free spirit who turned his back on convention would have the slightest interest in being rewarded conventionally. Would the accolades of the Establishment, of judges who couldn’t see or accept his brilliance, really have meant something to him? Sadly, the pain of his losses in the highest levels of competition seemed as raw and as fresh to him now, in 2013, as they had been in the mid-1970’s.

It was agonizing to see that a man who had so bravely followed his own heart didn’t find the fulfillment of his vision to be satisfaction enough in itself, without the approval of the very people he scorned. I realized later that I had wanted my hero to have believed in his dream at all costs, no matter what, because heroes are larger than life and they don’t fall prey to the mortal foibles of things like wanting to be accepted and approved.

Glasswork in Toller Cranston's Garden in San Miguel de Allende Mexico

Elaborate glasswork decorated many charming corners of the garden.

Two days ago, we got the news that Toller died unexpectedly of a heart attack, at age 65, in his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I was devastated. Of course, his timing was spot on once again. He died on the day of the men’s competition at the Canadian National Championships, which was also the rest day between two riveting performances by Jason Brown (who seems, for all the world, to be channeling Toller’s essence) at the men’s competition at the US National Championships.

Glass ornaments in an arch over Toller Cranston's garden in Mexico

Glass ornaments form an arch over the garden.

In pondering Toller’s life and death, I kept thinking of Steve Jobs’ quote about how we all have nothing to fear because we are already naked. I looked it up, and found it comes from the commencement speech he gave at Stanford in June, 2005, shortly after he learned he had pancreatic cancer:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Paints and paint brushes and decorated eggs

Paints and paint brushes ready for use on an egg decorating project.

I don’t think that when Toller opened his day planner for the week of January 18th, 2015, he skipped down to Saturday, January 24th, and penciled in “Exit This World.” But that is what happened. And I couldn’t help but think:

If you are nurturing a dream — to break whatever bonds hold you, to get a boat and go sailing, or to run off in an RV and explore for a while — go for it. You have nothing to lose, except time. Your dream is yours, and yours alone, no matter who applauds or condemns the idea. Give it wings with your own faith.

Toller Cranston and me - we share a past

We share a past…

After we got the sad news about Toller’s death, we went out to do some errands. As I climbed into the truck and turned on the radio, my thoughts couldn’t leave Toller’s lively breakfast table in his home, his crazy art-filled estate, and his darkness as bits and pieces of the stories from his past escaped his lips, soaked in bitterness.

Suddenly the radio erupted with the bright, energetic sounds of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, the music I had skated to when Toller had had his greatest influence on me. It was the music that had carried me to Nationals forty years ago.

I sat back in shock. What a coincidence! I rarely hear that music on the radio. As my soul followed the high spirits of the piece, I felt chills running up and down my spine. I was covered in goose bumps. Without warning, tears suddenly began to stream down my face and I dropped my head in my hands.

I didn’t have a coherent thought in my mind, and I was overcome as I cried openly and the tears flowed freely down my cheeks. This music, thoughts of my mentor-in-sprit, Toller, and memories of that visit to his home that I been so fortunate to share with Mark all swirled around me in an overwhelming vortex.

In that moment, I have no doubt that Toller was reaching out to touch me — as he swung by on his way out.

 

Some clips from YouTube —

“Totally Toller” —

“I Pagliacci” (No one skated to Opera back then… good heavens!) —

Related Posts:

 
Although I wrote this post in January, 2015, it fits into our June 2013 travels right between our visit to Guanajuato, Mexico, and our stay at Casa Maguey on Mexico’s Costalegre.

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Guanajuato – Full of Song and Spirit!

Guanjuato has colorful streets

We were captivated by Guanajuato’s beautiful streets.

Early June, 2013 – Guanajuato continued to enchant us. The beautiful cobbled streets wound in and out and up and down, and all were lined with colorful buildings.

There was a cheerfulness about the place that was infectious.

As we were walking down a crowded street one afternoon, it seemed everyone we passed either gave us a nod, or a smile, or was laughing in conversation with a friend.

Incredulous, I said to Mark, “It’s just a happy city!” Behind me I heard a man’s voice say, “Si” I turned around and he grinned at me.

 

A colorful hillside in Guanajuato Mexico

Every time we looked across at Guanajuato’s hills,
we were amazed — again — by the colors.

We couldn’t walk ten steps without stopping to photograph something, and we both kept wandering off, attracted by some fantastic image that took us down an alleyway or up a staircase.

Guanajuato is truly photogenic, and we had beautiful sunny days to enjoy it.

Street photography in Guanajuato

Guanajuato is really fun for photography!

 

 

 

 

 

I think it is the colors of Guanajuato that will stay in our memories forever. Primary colors and pastel colors — they’re all there, making the hillsides look like they’ve been spattered from a rainbow paint can.

Plaza de la Paz Guanajuato

Even plaza de La Paz is colorful.

Everywhere we turned, the buildings were done up in vivid shades.

University of Guanajuato

Spiky roofline of the University of Guanajuato

 

 

 

But one building stood out against the crowd: the enormous and rather grand University of Guanajuato in the very heart of town. Imposing, yet ornate, it is bright white and has a series of spiky decorations around the top.

Nuestra Senora de Guanjuato

Inside the Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato basilica.

The city’s most impressive architecture dates back to the 18th century when the region was the world’s leading silver producer.

Since the indigenous silver miners were slaves, there was plenty of profit for the mine owners to spend in whatever way they liked, and the ornamentation in the churches, mansions and former government buildings reflect that immense wealth.

Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato

Teatro Juarez – a lavish theater at the center of it all.

Silver production continued to support sumptuous lifestyles in Guanajuato into the 20th century, and the stunning Teatro Juarez theater is a central landmark dating from that time. It was a thrill fto watch it light up in the early evening.

In front of the theater, the Jardín de la Union is the local hangout. Most Mexican cities have a town square, or “Zócalo,” where everyone can kick back with a beverage and a book or enjoy a conversation with a friend or just sit and people watch.

Jardin de la Union Guanajuato

Shade trees and shiny tiles surround the Jardín de la Union
— thetown square (or triangle!).

But this square is unique. For one thing, it’s not a square. It’s a triangle! Also, rather than cobblestone or paved paths, the wide walkways that encircle it are made of shiny, decorative tile laid in pretty patterns.

A stand of trees arches over this waking path. The trees are planted so close together and their foliage is so thick that they make an incredible shade cover for the whole place.

They looked like ficus trees to us. We’ve kept ficus trees as houseplants, but for us they haven’t done very well in a pot. Their leaves always seem to begin to yellow and then slowly drop off, one by one, until the tree is nearly bare.

Vegetable sellers in the street

Selling vegetables street-side.

Not these trees! Their vibrant green leaves are so tightly packed that in mid-day the whole area is dark under their shade, and it makes a great place to escape from the heat of the sun. We kept coming back and back and back again — as did everyone else in town!

But daily life is always humming in the streets beyond the Jardín. And in this town, you just never know what you’ll see.

Scooter carrying lilies

Delivering flowers…

 

Wandering around, we came across the many scenes we’ve become accustomed to: juice vendors selling fruit juices from rollable carts and people offering veggies for sale on makeshift tables and chairs they’ve assembled from shipping pallets and plastic buckets, or whatever is handy.

But it was the unexpected and whimsical sightings that kept us on our toes and laughing. We just never knew when we might glance up and see something unique, like a scooter rolling past. loaded with bouquets of yellow lilies. What a fun way to deliver flowers!

Horses and donkey in the street

We look up and see these guys coming down the street!

Traffic on the streets can be quite heavy, especially at rush hour, so we were astonished when we were out looking for a bite to eat and suddenly saw a pair of horseback riders and a donkey clip-clopping towards us on the cobbled streets. Was this for real? Yes!

We followed them back towards the town square but quickly lost track of them in the throng of activity. The crowds in the square had grown so jam-packed that when we stood on tip-toe and looked down the street, all we saw was a sea of heads, hats and the occasional waving hand.

Ballerina on Teatro Juarez railing

There’s a ballerina dancing on the theater railing!

Looking past all that, Mark’s jaw suddenly dropped and he pointed, “There’s a ballet dancer on the railing up there!’ I followed his gaze, and sure enough, a dancer in a leotard and toe shoes was posing on the stone railing in front of the majestic columns of Teatro Juarez.

Balloons released above Teatro Juarez

A group of people release a bunch of white balloons from the theater steps.

We made our way through the crowd and discovered she was in the middle of a photo shoot of some kind.

A photographer was nearby, and she assumed one graceful pose after another on the railing while he took a stream of photos.

As this gal was dancing on the side rail of the theater, a gathering of people holding white balloons had assembled on the front steps. What could this be? Who knows!

All of a sudden, they all let go of their balloons at the same time, and we tipped our heads back to watch the little white bubbles disappear into the sky. Then the group of people on the stairs broke up and everyone vanished into the river of humanity flowing around us.

Mariachi band walking

Mariachis doing the Abbey Road walk.

Guanajuato is not just a visual delight. It’s soul is steeped in music too. Everywhere we went around town we heard music.

Mariachi trumpet player

Music is the heart and soul of Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Jardín, in the center of town, a myriad of outdoor cafes lines the square, and each boasts a mariachi band. These weren’t the little wandering three-piece bands we were used to seeing on the beach. These were full-on 8-member orchestras, complete with trumpets and violins in addition to the usual guitars.

The town square’s cafes are crammed together side by side, with no space in between. Music springs up from one cafe and then another, and frequently from a few of them at once. Periodically, a band takes a break, and the musicians take a load off and chat together under the shade of the trees.

Jardin de la Union bandstand

A band does a lively rendition of ?Stars and Stripes Forever.”

There is a bandstand at the center of the square, and one afternoon we noticed the crisp white shirts of a band sitting up there as they tuned their instruments to a clarinet’s A-note. Oooh – fun!!!

We found seats on a park bench and were amazed when the conductor tapped his baton on his music stand and the cacophony from the mariachi bands around the square suddenly stopped.

 

Kid running at the bandstand

Weeeee – two kids zoomed round and round the bandstand.

The band began to play a string of familiar pop tunes, and I found myself transported to my childhood when our town band would play in the bandstand on balmy summer nights. I started telling Mark about how all of us kids would get so wound up at these things, running round and round the bandstand, skipping and leaping and doing cart-wheels.

Suddenly, just as the band started a rousing rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a little brother and sister began to tear around the band stand at top speed. They ran in opposite directions, and each time they met, they’d stop and high-five each other and then take off again, laughing giddily as they ran.

Street musician in Guanajuato

People make music in every corner of Guanajuato.

Out on the streets of Guanajuato the music continued to fill the air, day and night.

Street musician in Guanajuato

There were street musicians everywhere.

Street musicians of every variety strolled up and down, playing for themselves and playing for tips. It is hard to find a street corner in this city where you don’t hear music.

guitar player on the bus

We were even serenaded on the bus!

Even when we clamored onto a city bus, a guy suddenly broke into song behind us. We turned around to see him standing in the middle of the bus strumming his guitar.

Musician statue at Jardín de la Union

A sculpture depicting the famous Callejoneadas.

But the most famous musicians in Guanajuato aren’t the mariachi bands or the bandstand band or the street musicians. It is the Callejoneadas.

The what? When I first heard this word I had to have the person repeat it three times. “Cah-yay-hone-ay-ah-das.”

An alley is a “callejón” (cah-yay-hone), and although most cities in the world have lots of alleys, they are often kind of dark and scary places sandwiched between the good stuff. In Guanajuato, the alleys are celebrated, and they harbor the lively soul of the central neighborhoods.

We watched in amazement our first night Guanajuato as a collection of men in renaissance garb gathered in front of the Juarez Theater. Carrying lutes and mandolins and stringed instruments of all kinds, the men mingled with the crowd, urging them to sit on the stairs and watch them perform.

 

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato

A wandering minstrel.

Suddenly they began to engage the crowd with crazy antics and songs. We couldn’t really understand what stories were being told, but when they persuaded two couples to come in front of the crowd to dance, we laughed with all the rest.

As the couples swung about, everyone around ua began to sing along. Everyone knew all the words to all the songs! Sadly, we didn’t know any, but we sure wished we did.

The callejoneadas start their nightly song-walk through the alleys.

The callejoneadas start their nightly song-walk through the alleys.

After a few songs and stunts, the medieval men in black began to walk out of the town square, strumming their instruments and singing as they went. The crowd of people on the stairs got up and began to follow behind, singing heartily in their wake. Then they disappeared into the alleys.

Donkey carrying wine for Callejoneadas

A donkey carries bottles of wine.

After a short while, the space that this throng had cleared was taken up by another group of musicians and the whole thing began again. The groups of singers gathered in several different areas around the town square, and it seemed there were dozens of these groups.

As they all made there way out into the streets in the early evening, we could hear their songs faintly wafting back to us from various corners of the city.

Donkey with wine on his back

His load will be completely empty in a few hours!

Now we understood why we had been seeing so many men in tights around town. These guys were the Callejoneadas!

We also discovered what all the donkeys we had been seeing in the streets were for.

Wandering through the alleyways on our way back to our B&B, we came across a group of minstrels and followers in front of a neighborhood church.

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato at night

The callejoneadas entertain a group in front of a church.

The minstrels were performing a skit, and every so often a roar of laughter would go up. A donkey stood off to one side, and the pack on his back was quickly becoming lighter as the singers grabbed bottles from the pack and poured wine into special little flasks that the followers were carrying with them!

What a hoot!! We found out later that this whole thing started back in the 1970’s, when a group of people from the university occasionally gathered in the alleys and wandered up and down the streets in the evenings singing songs. Someone would bring along drinks to share, and the participants would contribute a few pesos to whoever did the buying.

Juarez Theater Guanajuato

The Juarez Theater looks very grand at night.

Nowadays, this once impromptu event is a regular nightly party, hosted by university students and faculty.

The whole thing is very well organized, so it is not as spontaneous (and unruly) as it probably was when it first started forty years ago.

A ticket to participate in the festivities is 100 pesos ($8 USD), and along with great memories, you get a very cool souvenir wine flask.

What we loved about all this, though, was that the little B&B where we stayed was right on one of the most popular Callejoneadas routes.

Don Quijote statue

There are statues of Don Quijote
all over the place.

Every evening, if we were back in our room, we’d hear the troupes come by. I don’t know who was singing with more gusto, the wandering minstrels or their followers!

Fortunately, there must be some kind of agreement between the singers and the neighborhood residents, because all the noise and mayhem stopped before 10:00 each night!

Don Quijote statue

Don Quijote, like Mr. Magoo, stumbled in and out of trouble, quite oblivious to it all.

We soon discovered that Guanajuato has an affection for medieval things that goes beyond (or was inspired by?) this nightly music event.

All around town we kept running into statues and references to the Spanish medieval author Cervantes and his famous hero, the rather misguided — and Mr. Magoo-like — Don Quijote (or as my little kid’s ears always heard it: Donkey Hotey).

 

Don Quijote impersonator

This Don Quijote impersonator mingled with the callejoneadas in the town square

Why Cervantes and Don Quijote? Well, around the time that the wandering minstrels started serenading folks in the alleys of Guanajuato in the 1970’s, another group of university students began doing spontaneous performances of Cervantes’ works in the same neighborhood squares and church steps.

This blossomed into an annual event, and now Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino is known internationally and includes operas, drama productions, film showings and live music with invited guest luminaries from all over the world.

The festival wasn’t going on while we were there, but we did see a fellow dressed up as Don Quijjote who mixed it up every night with the callejoneadas singers.

We were loving the free spirit of Guanajuato, and our curiosity about its origins soon led us to the edge of town and down into the mines where the silver was — and still is — mined in abundance.

 

 

 

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Guanajuato – Colors, stairs, tunnels and characters!

Guanajuato Mexico Artits's pallet

Guanajuato is a true artist’s pallet of colors.

Early June, 2013 – We had been in Puerto Vallarta for over two months, loving the fancy shore-side resort life, but the beautiful colonial cities in the interior of Mexico beckoned. Back in Zihuatnanejo, our friend Francisco (1/3 down the page), who sells pretty painted plates from a folding table on the street, had told us he had lived all over Mexico. When we asked him which place was his favorite, he instantly said, “Guanajuato.”

Colorful houses of Guanajuato

No one is bashful here about using bright colors on their homes!

Where? He repeated the name and then spelled it for us (a rough pronunciation is “Whanna-Whatto” ).

Even though Francisco is usually quite a jokester, he went on very seriously to say this was a place we absolutely should not miss. He explained that the city was built on several hillsides and there were lots of colorful houses, old cobblestone streets and alleyways, and that there was a community of artists and musicians that gave the place a special spirit. It sounded wonderful. Even though we had never heard of it, Guanajuato zoomed to the top of our bucket list.

Guanajuato Pipila Overlook

The bright colors of Guanajajuato make an awesome backdrop at the Pípila Overlook.

Guanajuato Cathedral Domes

The domes of Guanajuato

The bus from Puerto Vallarta to Guanajuato is a very easy and comfortable 10 hour ride (it goes direct with just one stop), and we arrived in the late afternoon just in time to see the breathtaking views from the Pípila overlook. Wow! Francisco was right. This place was incredible.

Every house was a different color, and no one was shy about painting their home lavender or turquoise or pink or emerald green. Several yellow and red church domes rose above the houses, and the grand University of Guanajuato building was a dazzling white in the center of it all.

We quickly discovered that Guanajuata is all about climbing up and down stairways. The heart of the city is in a valley on the ground floor, but the buildings rise up along the sides of hills, and the fantastic Carretera Panorámica (or Panoramic Road) encircles the entire city up above.

Funcular Cable Car Guanajuato

The funicular cable car makes it easy to get up and down.

 

 

 

 

After soaking in the magical view of the city from this overlook, we took the Funicular cable car ride down into the city center. How cool it was to creep down the mountain in this window-lined car and watch the buildings grow tall around us until we arrived in the throbbing heart of Guanajuato’s Centro.

Teatro Juarez Guanajuato Mexico

Artists’ paintings for sale outside the
stately Teatro Juarez

 

The main part of Guanajuato’s Centro is the Jardin de la Unión, a triangular city square that is lined with dense shade trees and park benches and has a bandstand at its center. A cacophony of music rises up from every corner of this park as costumed mariachi bands, sax players, classical guitar players and wandering minstrels serenade anyone and everyone within earshot.

One end of this park is anchored by the ornate Teatro Juarez, a stunning theater whose facade is defined by a row of elegant columns and a collection of sculptures on the roof. As we wandered closer to the theater, we noticed a street performer with a big clown nose entertaining a crowd on the steps.

Our cameras instantly sprang into action to capture his act and his audience, but this guy was even faster than we were. Suddenly turning his back to his audience, he wheeled around to face us and began to pose for us like a swimsuit model, contorting himself into all kinds of provocative poses. Everyone was laughing, but we suddenly noticed all eyes were now turned towards us!

 

Street performer mime at Teatro Juarez

A street performing mime with a clown nose plays games with us.

We played right along with him, encouraging him and shooting away, pretending to be high fashion photographers. The audience laughed and clapped — and then he rushed over to us with his hat out looking for a tip! The audience roared.

He’d pulled one over on us! Mark turned his pockets inside out in jest, but soon found a few pesos to reward his funny act.

The next day we saw him again. He instantly started miming and pretending to take photos of us! We responded by doing goofy poses for him. Suddenly, he rushed over to us, his wallet open as he fingered a dollar bill inside, as if to tip us.

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato

A Renaissance Man!

This was the spirit we found in Guanajuato. Fun-loving, free-wheeling and happy.

For the rest of our stay, all of our forays into town began and ended with Teatro Juarez as our main landmark, and the next day, just a few steps from the theater, we bumped into a man dressed in complete Medieval garb. What the heck? Out came the cameras!

Plaza de La Paz Basilica Guanjuato

Plaza de La Paz and the Basilica de Nuestro Senora de Guanajuato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We quickly learned that dressing up and wearing costumes is an integral part of Guanajuato street life. Wandering away from the city park a few paces, we came to Plaza de La Paz and the beautiful brilliant yellow Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. Talk about stunning! Not only did the vibrant yellow of this enormous building light up the whole plaza, but someone had decided to trim it in scarlet. What a combo – especially for a church!

Renaissance Man

Another man in tights!

I was just tipping my head back to admire this gorgeous cathedral when Mark nudged me and pointed. Right in front of me was another man in tights. What next? This guy was dressed a bit like Robin Hood. I whispered to Mark, “I bet he’s a drama student at the University.” Well, my whisper must have been just a little bit too loud, because the guy suddenly gave me a huge grin and a nod. “Yes!” he said in English. “We’re performing tonight at Teatro Principal. Come and watch!”

Plaza de La Paz Guanjuato

Plaza de La Paz

There’s nothing like a university town for action, energy, crazy stunts and the arts!

 

Mime in a fountain

A mime stays cool in a fountain.

Guanajuato has a whimsical soul, from performing clowns to men in Renaissance costumes to Crayola colored churches. So it was no surprise at all when we saw a man painted head to toe like a green copper statue rushing past us with a briefcase in hand. Whatever he was up to, we didn’t want to miss it! We quickly hustled along behind him to see where he was headed.

Bronze Mime

A bronze mime has a skull face under his sombrero

In no time at all, he had set himself up as a permanent looking water fountain statue. It was exceedingly hot in the sun, but he had a clever water pump setup where he perpetually poured a glass of water that dribbled into a pool at his feet.

The bronze statue a few doors down didn’t have it quite so good. He had baked in the sunshine so long that under his sombrero was a skeleton’s face with dark, sunken eyes. A little kid came over to him and giggled as he rolled his eyes at him.

Guanajuato's colorful streets

Beautiful colors on the streets of Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

Guanajuato was rapidly capturing out hearts. There was an excitement in the air here that was palpable, and everywhere we looked people were smiling. Our trip to Oaxaca last year had been our favorite inland tour to date, but just like Francisco-the-plate-painter in Zihuatanejo had told us, Guanajuato was special.

 

Street of Guanajuato

There are no straight roads here.

The city is made up of a zillion little curvy streets and alleyways, and we soon got lost as one beautiful street after another drew us in. There are no straight roads in the entire town, and nothing runs in parallel either.

We just poked our heads around corners and were invariably smitten by what we saw. Then we’d head off down the alleyways to see what might lie around the next corner.

We passed many happy hours this way each day, zig-zagging from one end of the city to the other, and we fell into bed utterly exhausted with aching feet each night. It was so much fun!

 

Doorways of Guanajuato

Many doorways.

The thing was, we just never knew what we might find. Turning one corner, we both stopped short when we looked up and saw a donkey, burdened with heavy sacks, standing in front of an Oxxo store.

Donkey at Oxxo

A donkey at Oxxo?

These convenience stores are similar to Circle K or 7-Eleven — not the kind of place you’d expect to see a donkey tied up with a huge load of sacks on his back!

Colorful hillside of Guanajuato

Whatever your favorite color is, put it on your house!

But what really got us was the color. There are no inhibitions in this town. If your favorite color is purple, then paint your house purple!

We joked that the town council meetings where these colors get approved must be quite lively. But we later learned from a cab driver that this isn’t far from the truth. Building owners must get city approval for their color choices.

 

 

Casa de Pita Square

Our B&B was right off this square.

On the flip side, the municipality pays for all exterior painting and repairs. This is apparently true for all of Mexico’s “Magic Cities” (Pueblos Mágicos). And the type of paint is carefully specified — no gauche glossy finishes allowed!

One afternoon we looked between two buildings and saw a stairway that went straight up to heaven. This wasn’t just a one story or two story staircase. This was a set of stairs that went up and up and up.

Callejones de Guanajuato

The narrow alleys are called “Callejones”

 

 

 

 

We started up the stairs, just to see what was beyond the highest stairs we could see. When we got up that point, the staircase continued, with as many stairs above us as there had been below.

Guanajuato Callejones

We zig-zagged all over town on these fun little streets.

We walked up these stairs in the company of a few other people for a ways. But they stopped at various doorways, took out their keys, and disappeared inside. Their lives are lived entirely up and down, carrying groceries and everything else up six or eight flights of stairs to get home.

We continued trudging upwards, turning every so often to compare our height against the mountain on the far side of the city. A quarter of the way up, then halfway… it continued on and on.

Stairways up Guanajuato hillsides

The stairs head upwards with no end in sight on either side.

Looking down the unending staircase, we saw a man climbing towards us carrying a huge propane tank on his shoulder. He climbed slowly up towards us, balancing the tank on his shoulder no-handed.

Escalera de Guanajuato

A strong and well balanced man carries a huge propane tank up the stairs on his shoulder, no-handed.

As he neared us, Mark said something to him about the tank being heavy and the stairs being long and the work of carrying the tank being hard. He huffed and puffed once or twice, rebalanced the tank on his shoulder, smiled, and said, “Pan comido” (“piece of cake”). Then he climbed on past us and disappeared around a bend.

Wow. I wonder how many deliveries he has to make in a day?!

Living with your home on a staircase rather than a regular street is one very different way of living!! As we continued on, the view behind us became ever more sensational, but we wondered where the heck we would come out.

Dog on Guanajuato rooftop

Woof! Instead of living in the backyard, the dogs here have rooftop terraces.

We stopped to ask a group of older men that were chatting among themselves if we were actually going to come out somewhere or if we were wearing ourselves out for nothing and would find a dead end at the top. “Oh yes!” they said, “There’s a great view at the top. Keep going.” We took a deep breath and carried on, secretly wondering if the joke was going to be on us or if those men had been sincere.

Suddenly we heard a dog bark and we whipped around to see a cute little face peering at us from a roof terrace. Because the homes on this steep hill don’t have yards, all the dogs live on the roofs!

Finally, we came out at the top and were rewarded with an easy stroll along the Panoramic Road looking out over the entire city below. What a sight!

Colorful buildings of Guanajuato

We emerge at the top to see a spectacular view.

 

 

 

 

A few days earlier, when we were prowling along a different staircase, Mark had discovered a wonderful mural that depicted the story of heroism that put Guanajuato in the history books. Guanajuato was a town that was built by the immensely wealthy Spanish mine owners who set up shop in the mid-1500’s to extract silver, gold and other precious metals from the mountains.

Pipila Wall mural

Protected from musket fire by a stone on his back, Pípila torches
the front door of the stone granary, making way for the
first big defeat of the Spanish.

The Spanish enslaved the local indigenous people for over 200 years to do the miserably hard mining labor for them (mining slaves lived an average of just 5 to 10 years after they were put to work in the mines). When the miners and other indigenous people rose up against the Spanish in the Mexican War of Independence, the Spanish citizens and soldiers of Guanajuato barricaded themselves in the local granary that served very well as a fort because it had extremely thick stone walls.

A young indigenous miner, who’s nickname was El Pípila, strapped a flat stone onto his back for protection and took a torch to the wooden door of the stone granary, leading the way for a brutal indigenous attack on the Spanish inside. This was one of the first major defeats of the Spanish in the War of Independence, and Pípila became a hero.

Pipila Statue Guanajuato

A monument to the brave miner Pípila.

Universidad de Guanajuato - University of Guanajuato

The ladder of success at the University of Guanajuato.

Up on a hill in Guanajuato, there is a huge statue to honor this brave man, and as we emerged from our very long walk upstairs from the bottom of the town, we found ourselves face-to-face with this statue.

 Tunnels of Guanajuato

Upstairs – Downstairs… Guanajuato has an underworld too.

Stone arches in Guanajuato

Stone arches over the roadway leading out of one of the tunnels.

Guanajuato has stairways everywhere, and the University is no exception. Rather than the usual ten or twelve stairs that lead up to most university buildings, this staircase seemed to be a true ladder of success with many many stairs to get there!!

Ironically, Guanajuato is not just a town of hills and stairs and steep alleyways. We soon discovered that there is an entire maze of tunnels that wanders below the streets of Guanajuato. This underworld of tunnels makes a wonderful diversion for car traffic and also offers walkers a way to get from place to place in total shade.

Whether going up to the sky or down into the “subterreneo” below the city, we were loving our stay in Guanajuato, and we hung around for quite some time.

Where is Guanajuato? Here is a map showing some landmarks:

Map of Central Mexico

For sailors, Guanajuato is most easily reached from PV but is accessible from other ports too.

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