Welcome to the first post in a series I’m writing about my adventure in South America. This time, instead of travelling with my husband, I went with Mother Metal – who has dreamed of going to Machu Picchu since she was a wee girl. We’d been talking about going together since I was at university, and finally decided to make it a reality. We booked our tickets last year and ever since have been planning and plotting, and finally it was time to get on the plane!
We started our adventure in Santiago, Chile – a one-day stopover on the way to Bolivia. By the time we’d changed some money and found our hotel, we didn’t have a lot of time left for exploring. There was only one thing on my list to do, and that was visit La Chascona, the Santiago residence of Pablo Neruda.
Alongside Edgar Allen Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Pablo Neruda is my favourite poet. He is a beloved poet in Chile and often called one of the greatest poets that ever lived. One day I hope to learn enough Spanish that I can read his work in its original language (currently I only read English translations). Here’s one of my favourites:
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
Ah vastness of pines, murmur of waves breaking,
slow play of lights, solitary bell,
twilight falling in your eyes, toy doll,
earth-shell, in whom the earth sings!
In you the rivers sing and my soul flees in them
as you desire, and you send it where you will.
Aim my road on your bow of hope
and in a frenzy I will flee my flock of arrows.
On all sides I see your waist of fog,
and your silence hunts down my afflicted hours;
my kisses anchor, and my moist desire nests
in your arms of transparent stone.
Ah your mysterious voice that love tolls and darkens
in the resonant and dying evening!
Thus in the deep hours I have seen, over the fields,
the ears of wheat tolling in the mouth of the wind
As well as his poetry, Neruda was a diplomat and was even a Senator in the Chilean Communist Party. When communism was outlawed, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Neruda’s friends hid him in basements and smuggled him into Argentina, where he remained in exile for a few years. He was later an advisor to the socialist president Salvador Allende. He was in hospital with prostate cancer during Pinnochet’s coup de’etat, and died a few days later. Pinochet forbade Neruda’s funeral to be a public event, but despite this, thousands of grieving Chileans broke curfew and crowded the streets.
His home in Santiago, La Chascona, retains Neruda’s signature quirky style. He started building the house for his secret lover, the singer Matilde Urrutia, in 1953. Originally, Matilde lived in the house – named after her wild hair – alone, a secret while Neruda continued to live with his wife, Delia del Carril. In 1955, Matilde became his third wife, and they extended the house, adding the library, kitchen and bar. They lived and entertained in the house together until his death in 1973. Matilde lived there on her own and helped to repair the house after it was damaged during a military coup.
The house is spread over several separate buildings that are linked with walkways winding up the side of the San Cristóbal Hill. It’s easy to find, unless you are me, and you read the map upside down and end up walking for over an hour in the wrong direction. But we did get there eventually.
Neruda had a great love of the sea, so the dining room and bar area (near the bottom of the hill) are inspired by a ship’s galley. The dining hall had a secret passage through which Neruda liked to appear to surprise his guests. The passage led upstairs to bedrooms and offices for Matilde. Drinks were set out in multi-coloured glasses – Neruda believed that drinking from coloured glasses improved the taste of the wine – although if you weren’t a friend of his, when you came to dinner you’d be served in a clear glass!
As we moved up the hill, we entered more private rooms, including a stunning lounge/living room with wrap-around windows and a tree growing through the centre. It is this room that houses the famous painting of Matilde by Diego Rivera. In the portrait, we see a two-faced Matilde – one face is the public face that she shows when she sings, and one is the private face that is her relationship with Neruda. Nestled within her thick mane of unruly red hair is the hidden profile of Neruda.
This room also contains many artefacts collected or given to Neruda, including statues from Easter Island – eyeless since Neruda pried out the eyes after the indigenous people informed him that whoever the statues gazed upon after being removed from the island would be cursed.
My favourite room of all was, of course, the library where Neruda worked and relaxed. A case in the room displays his Nobel prize and many other awards. Sadly, Neruda’s exquisite collection of books is much depleted. When Pinochet came to power, Neruda was exiled and his home was trashed. Most of his immense library, one of the finest in South America, was torched and only a few items were saved. Beside the library was a bar area, and a beautiful stone mosaic over which water from a stream used to pour, giving the sea-loving Neruda a constant sound of water running. Sadly, the stream runs no more – when the house was trashed, the soldiers diverted the stream to flood the house, and now it runs in an underground culvert.
I could have stayed in the house all day. It had such a quirky joy about it – a place where a great mind could feel free to play and imagine. Neruda’s love for Matilde is evident in every room, every blossom. I took about a million photos of the gardens for inspiration for my own.
Sadly, you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the museum – only outside. The museum is 5,000 Pesos (about $7US) to get in and is absolutely, 100% worth it. Sadly, the gift shop’s english collection of Neruda books was sorely lacking, but I did buy a set of quirky salt’n’pepper shakers (they say “Marijuana” and “Morphine” instead of “Salt” and “Pepper”), modelled after a set in Neruda’s house.
After La Chascona, we found a place for dinner (a bit lacklustre) and went back to the hotel to sleep. We had an early flight the next day to get to our next stop – Bolivia. I’ll write another post about that next week!
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