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Published: October 23rd 2014
Alta Gracia--Cultural Treasures
Alta Gracia is the biggest city, 45,000 people, that I visited in the mountains surrounding beautiful Cordoba. Like the other towns, it was built along a gurgling, shady river, perfect for strolling. However, it also held several cultural treasures such as one of the region's well-restored, UNESCO-designated, former Jesuit estancias
/ranches, as well as the house-museums of the adolescent Che Guevara and the elderly Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, a clock town erected in 1938 to celebrate the city's 350 anniversary, the1903 Sierras Hotel which was Argentina's first casino, and a lovely urban park built around the former Jesuit reservoir. Moreover, it was September, spring, and the town was filled with brilliant, purple-blooming jacaranda trees.
I'd come from little Mina Clavero on a local bus that wound through the mountains. As we entered Alta Gracia, I asked around on the bus where I should disembark. The other passengers consulted among themselves and directed me to get off on a certain corner. After a bit of wandering and getting lost, I arrived at the hostel, where I'd have a noisy, street-side dorm room with some friendly, long-distance, Argentine bike riders. I dropped my things
and went off to explore the charming town (see four panorama photos above).
The jewel of the town is its well-restored, Jesuit estancia
(ranch), established in 1643, and adjoining mid-18c, colonial Baroque-indigenous church. While in Cordoba Province, I toured three of its five UNESCO World Heritage Jesuit estancias
, visiting La Caroya (1616) and Jesus Maria (1618) with Lali, the friend with whom I would be staying in big city Cordoba.
The Jesuit estancias
were large rural estates founded by the order to support their evangelizing of the indigenous populations and can be found in eastern Argentina where I'd visited the beautiful San Ignacio Mini in sub-tropical Misiones Province San Ignacio and Red Dirt Roads
, as well as ones in Paraguay and Bolivia. Here, the estancias also funded the many Jesuit educational institutions in Cordoba, including Argentina's first university founded in 1613. Many of the activities and crafts they introduced in the 17th and 18th century, like wine making and agriculture, still form the basis of the local economy.
generally had only 3 priests who oversaw the operations, 300 African slaves brought in through Buenos Aires who did the heavy agricultural and
cattle work, and a large indigenous population that was trained in the artisan crafts,
such as ceramics, weaving, candle and soap making and wine production. The estancias
also served as trading posts for the settlers and indigenous people in the rural areas.
In 1767, after 150 years in the New World, the Jesuits were expelled from the Americas, and their rich lands and holdings passed to the Spanish crown. The Spanish viceroy freed the slaves, but pressed them and their sons into service as cannon fodder in the many wars for independence and civil wars. Thus, there aren't many Afro-Argentines left in the country. The indigenous population seriously declined once they no longer had the protection of the Jesuits.
themselves, sold by the crown
to private individuals, also went into a long period of decline and deterioration, until the 20c when Argentina declared them national monuments and began to renovate them. In 2000, UNESCO gave World Heritage status to the five remaining Cordoban estancias
and the city's Jesuit Block of educational and religious institutions. Today, they are a great magnet for tourism.
Alta Gracia's estancia
, like all the others,
was built around a courtyard in the European monastery style, with a grand courtyard bordered by the church, and arched cloisters with housing for the priests and passing visitors, kitchen and one of the first indoor toilets and sewage systems in the country. A second courtyard housed workrooms, and further away was the housing for the slaves and indigenous workers.
Some of the rooms had historical displays, while my favorites were refitted with original style furniture; all had explanatory notes in Spanish, English and French--very civilized. I love seeing the hand-built constructions--tongue and groove woodwork and the hand-forged iron hinges for the doors. Those being Counter-Reformation times, there were also displays of the monks' whips and spiked belts for personal torture and contrition.
One of my favorite rooms was the kitchen where two long-held questions were answered involving fire and water. I'd often seen these colonial kitchens with long, bricked banks with hollows underneath, and finally learned that they built fires on top of the bank with the pots on the fire and just stored wood in the cavities under them. There was also an original water-purifying system in which water passed through a
large, porous soapstone bowl that filtered the water as it dripped into the container below.
In 1659, the Jesuits constructed a dam, the oldest in the province, to create a reservoir both for drinking water and for running their flour and textile mills. From the reservoir, they snaked little, stone-lined canals to water agricultural fields. The city has grown up around the estancia,
and the reservoir, La Tajamar, is the center of a fine urban park. The reservoir/lake boasts a high-spouting fountain, ducks and other water fowl and kids trying their luck at fishing. The former fields are now grassy parks with shade trees, picnicing families, kids playing ball and lovely spots to sit and read where I passed lovely afternoons.
The Museo Che Guevara was the house where Ernesto (Che) spent his early and adolescent years. His family had moved there hoping the dry climate would alleviate Ernesto's asthma. I stood outside with a couple of French Canadians mulling over the 75 pesos/$20 to see old memorabilia, a replica of the motorcycle he'd ridden from the excellent film, The Motorcycle Diaries
, and his last diary. In the end, we all
decided it wasn't worth it and grumbled that a museum of a revolutionary socialist would be too expensive for all but the elite to visit. Humph!
The Museo Manuel de Falla (of Three-Cornered Hat fame) was in the home where the Spanish composer spent the last years of life with his sister who cared for him. He'd moved to Argentina after the Spanish Civil War when the fascist Franco came to power, and de Falla had heart-breakingly tried and failed to prevent the assassination of his good friend, the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.
The De Falla Museum, in a beautiful, Craftsman style home, was also too expensive for me. Fortunately, I ended up getting to waft through and really sense it by myself and for free after I'd arrived early and helped set up folding chairs for an evening choral concert. Sweet reward! The concert was a rather mixed bag of regional choirs, but still it was so wonderful to hear live music, some of it quite good, under the stars.
From Alta Gracia, I headed to the hub of lovely Cordoba for a couple of weeks with my
friend Lali, interspersed with visits to smaller and smaller mountain towns. Next up, a couple of adorable German towns and a UFO hub.
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