Published: August 21st 2011August 5th 2011
Serene La Serena
Serenity is all relative; I'd arrived in La Serena on a hot, crowded overnight bus from the wonderful, wild, colorful madness of larger Valparaiso, and indeed, La Serena seemed a serene dream of a city. Yet I'd soon enjoy true peace (though some rowdies would say rigor mortis) in the little pueblo of Vicuna. It's all relative.
La Serena, with its population of 160,000 was perfect in many ways--busy, but not mad like Valpo, yet big enough to have a municipal theater (where I saw a wonderful evening of operatic love arias and duets), a cinema (which unfortunately only showed American action films), several museums, a charming Japanese garden, beaches that swell the population to double its size in the summer, lots of shopping for those inclined, a camera-repair shop for me, and best of all, a unified colonial revival style in its elegant downtown, making it one of the most beautiful cities in Chile.
City of Colonial Churches
La Serena is the second-oldest city in Chile, founded in 1544 as a stop-over between Santiago, its first city, and Spain's colonial headquarters in Lima, Peru. It's been called "The City of Churches" for its 29 exquisite churches
and ex-convents, some which date from the colonial period.
Most days when meandering around the city, I made sure to visit some of these architectural gems. My favorite was the 18c Santo Domingo with a lacy, filigreed belfry, atop which there was sometimes a red-headed buzzard eagle. Inside, it had the simple lines of an early Roman basilica church with a wooden ceiling. Outside, there was a peaceful plaza with one of the town's many fountains.
One Sunday evening, I joined parishioners in a candle-lit procession from Santo Domingo's sweet plaza through the downtown streets to a mass in the 19c, neoclassical stone cathedral on the main Plaza de Armas. While not Catholic, I still like the feeling of joining in a communal celebration, especially when candles and music are involved.
Two other fabulous limestone churches were San Francisco, early 1600s and San Augustin, 1755, both of which were decorated with the carving style I'd admired on Baja California's colonial Jesuit churches. I often visited other churches, including one near my pension which had an old wooden tower and a neon Maria inside. I'd seen many of the neon Marias and Jesuses in middle Chile, even in
some very staid stone churches.
Unified, Neocolonial Downtown
Through the centuries, La Serena had been destroyed by indigenous groups, pirates (including Sir Francis Drake, who was feared all along Chile's Pacific Coast), and earthquakes. Thus, it was a miracle that the churches and convents had survived.
In the late 1940s, Chile's President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, who had been born in La Serena, instituted a building plan for the city's downtown with height limits and requirements that new construction be in the neocolonial style of its ancient ecclesiastical buildings. In my native Santa Barbara, we have similar height limits and a regulated Andalusian colonial revival style. This uniformity makes both cities extremely attractive and elegant.
Not only was the downtown beautiful, but also it was pedestrian friendly with wide walkways and a curious lack of curbs which gave it a wide-open feeling. There were lots of leafy plazas, full of welcoming benches and gardens. There were many fewer street dogs than in other Chilean cities, perhaps partly because the parks had thorny branches around flower beds on which dogs often liked to snooze.
The downstairs of the large, covered La Recova Market sold local treats such as dried
papaya, pecans and pisco (grape brandy), the ubiquitous woven goods of Chile and Chilean fast food--empanadas and hot dogs; upstairs, there were charming, outdoor tourist restaurants selling fish caught in La Serena's bay. I gave the fish the old college try, but once again, I was sure that veggies were tastier.
The Archaeological Museum had outstanding artifacts, explanations and time lines (I especially like these) of the indigenous people who lived all up and down Chile. My favorite was that devoted to the Diaguita who lived here in the North Chico region, which is generally inhospitable desert,, but also includes some fertile valleys. A large group, they also lived across the Andes in Argentina. I'd seen their intricate, geometric pottery designs, reminiscent of our pueblo people, in a couple of museums in Santiago, and it was exciting to be in their homelands.
The museum also had a Moai from Rapa Nui or Easter Island. I'd seen these in Santiago and Vina del Mar and wondered how many others had been taken from their original sites. Worse still, the one in Santiago was in the middle of the long planted median of the alameda with four lanes of
traffic on either side. I bet it wished it were still home among the trade winds instead of in the midst of belching fumes.
Here, the Moai was given a niche of honor with exhibits on the people, traditions and geography of the island. There were many Japanese in my Santiago hostel who had round-the-world tickets and were going to Rapa Nui. For me, the cost of the 3700 km flight to the island was prohibitive--I would be going only in spirit.
The Japanese Peace Garden is the largest of its kind in South America and was filled with paths winding past ponds with koi and waterbirds, including the black-necked swans I'd been trying to photograph since Patagonia (unfortunately, once again, my camera wasn't working). Waterfalls, pavilions, stone lanterns, a rock garden, the traditional arched red bridge--all were there. On my visit, we were also treated to a traditional tea ceremony in one of the pavilions as the conclusion of a week of activities celebrating Chilean-Japanese friendship.
The beach that draws the hordes in the summer was a few kilometers from the town center. To get there, I walked along the central gardens of tree-lined Calle
Francisco de Aguirre, the alameda
. In the city, the trees were winter-barren jacarandas which would be purple in the spring. Near the beach, stately palms drew me toward the city's crenelated lighthouse (unfortunately unclimbable).
On that nippy, gray Sunday, there were only a few families and groups of young people playing soccer or walking along. Further down, I could see that there were horrendous high-rises, so I avoided that part. Still, it was fabulous to listen to the waves and feel that this beach connected to my home in Santa Barbara. I've been gone a year, and I suspect all my meetings with the Pacific are going to tug at my heart a bit.
Videla, for Better or Worse
One of my favorite types of museums is the home-museum. Here, in a republican-era mansion had lived Videla, the president who instituted the city's neocolonial building project that I loved. The home had been used for many purposes between his time and the present, so unfortunately, no one knew each room's original use. Still, it was attractive and had great exhibits.
Downstairs, it was a monument to the Videlas with lots of photos of his family and political achievements
and great artifacts, such as his gleaming medals and the evening clothes with exquisite embroidery, sequins, beads, pearls and feathers. Upstairs, there were exhibits on the indigenous groups of the area, the colonization by and the winning of independence from Spain, and the difficult life of the early settlers. All quite wonderful and informative. However, there was no mention of his dirty doings.
Videla had been a Radical and had the Communist poet Pablo Neruda as his campaign manager. After being elected by a coalition of these two parties in 1946, Videla came under the sway of the rabidly anti-communist US and turned on his former allies, outlawing the Communist Party, arresting its leaders and sending many like Neruda into hiding and exile. I'd learned of this in a great exhibit on Neruda and his epic poem Canto General
(which I'd heard sung in Santa Barbara) in Santiago's National Library.
On this leg of my journey, I'd visited the huge metropolis of Santiago, then the smaller, but still teeming Valparaiso. Now, I felt finished with mid-sized La Serena and was ready for the crickets of the countryside--off to Vicuna in the Elqui Valley.
There are more photos below