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Published: April 30th 2009
A photographer´s dream
I only hope our pocket digital camera did it justice.
When we found ourselves in the small colonial town of Barichara in the heartland of Columbia, we were so utterly charmed by the friendly atmosphere and scenic setting that we decided to stay a week longer than planned (really sticking to the plan of no plan!). Barichara is a photographer´s dream. Set high on a sloping hillside, whitewashed buildings line stone-paved narrow streets. The red roof tiles and blooming flowers give the town a Tuscan feel, but the lush sweeping gorges on either side make it distinctly Colombian.
Plus Semana Santa was fast approaching and we had heard enough about it to know that it was a really really big deal. Of all the religious festivities on the Catholic calendar, Semana Santa (or Holy Week, or the week before Easter for all those who missed out on a Catholic education) is the big one.
The Palm Sunday procession before 11am mass was our first taster of what was to come. Barichara has a population of about 4,000 and it seemed to me that all 4,000 took to the streets. Well the poor palm trees of Barichara must have been stripped bare! No modest leaves here, full branches were being
Appropriately enough, in Spanish, Palm Sunday is called Domingo de Ramos, which literally means "Sunday of the branches".
waved about. One fellow even carried a potted plant into church! There was a full house inside the church, the pews were packed and those without a seat, like us, stood at the back or in the aisles.
Almost two hours later, mass ended and the congregation filtered out of the standstone church onto the main plaza. We rushed back to our small guesthouse which also happened to be the most popular lunch spot in town. If we didn´t get there before 1pm, they had usually run out of food. We were fed like kings for a price a pauper could afford - three courses plus fresh fruit juice for 2 euros each. Our humble room in the Posada Chia-Ty even had a television (luxury!) with about ten Colombian channels. That evening we watched Mel Gibson´s ´The Passion of Christ´ and fell asleep spiritually nourished.
The best thing about small towns like Barichara is being able to dump the guidebook and wander aimlessly around the streets. We stumbled upon handcraft shops and quirky art galleries. The time flew and we barely made it back to Chia-Ty for our daily bread.
Most of the diners were regulars and
sharing a table over lunch we got to know a few of them. There was Juan who wore a Panama hat (which are actually made in Colombia, not Panama) and who kindly drew us a map of the town with all the best restaurants pointed out. There was also Marta, a lady of few words who like the stare at us while eating. A little unsettling but harmless. Then there was Mario who was delighted to discover we were from Ireland as he proudly bore the surname McCormick, thanks to his Kilkenny grandmother. Mario was a ceramicist and he invited us to his pottery studio the next day.
Mario doesn´t do the usual pottery fodder of plates, cups and bowls. His style is fairly unique - he sets ceramic tiles onto a painted canvass background to create a landscape inspired by the local scenery. His trademark is a 3D textured sun. To pay the bills, Mario also handmakes more commercial offerings such as napkin or wine bottle holders. By the end of our time in the studio, we had an invitation to a famous Colombian painter´s opening exhibition, the email address of Mario´s daughter who lives in Boston and
a business proposition to sell Mario´s work in Ireland.
Mario also highly recommended the walk to the village of Guane along an old Spanish trail. The next morning we rose early and trekked 10km - a kind of lenten penance. From start to finish the landscape was beautiful. We slowly descended into the deep valley, crossing trickling streams to reach Guane - a much older, much smaller and much quieter version of Barichara, but somehow not a charming. It was getting pretty hot at this stage with the sun overhead, so we cheated and hopped on the bus back to Barichara.
(By the way, wandering unguided through the Colombian countryside was not a wreckless or dangerous thing to do. I can guarantee that unless you have actually been to Colombia, your perception of the country is completely wrong. Between Barichara and Guane we had more chance of seeing a gorilla than a guerilla. Admitedly there are some very dodgy areas in the country still controlled by the FARC, but given the size of the country that´s like not going to Paris because someone was kidnapped in Athens. As always throughout our trip, we asked local advice. Mothers worry
As we returned too late for lunch at Chia-Ty, we pulled out Juan´s culinary map of town. A place named ´Color de Hormingas´ (Colour of Ants) sounded interesting. Interesting was an understatement. We found out the answer to the restaurant´s name when James was served his main course. Brown. Yes, James ate ants! Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside apparently. Unexpectedly for a restaurant that served insects, the chef was a veggie delight. He had a quick check in the cupboards and then presented me with two meatless antless options.
On the tv that night, ´The Passion of Christ´ was on again. Even in Aramaic with Spanish subtitles, the story tells itself. It was a good refresher course for the weekend ahead. In fact every channel was showing either a religious film or had a live feed from the Vatican.
Thursday came around quickly. By now the streets of Barichara were beginning to swell as tourists arrived. Not gringos but Colombians, urbanites from Bogota and campesinos from nearby villages rolled into town for the Easter celebrations. The procession began at 2 o´clock. Religious statues mounted onto wooden platforms were hoisted onto the townmen´s
shoulders (I didn´t see any ladies taking the weight) and one by one the statues emerged from the church. Coordinated by a microphone wielding priest hooked up to a jeep rigged with loudspeakers, the platforms were carried up and down the hilly streets accompanied by a guitar and the reciting of prayers. It was quite a sight - the religious devotion, the statues and the music, young and old worshipping together on the streets.
Back in our room later, yes you guessed it, ´The Passion of Christ´was half way through, Jesus had just fallen for the second time. Mel must be doing well off the royalties from Colombia alone.
The most dramatic procession of the week took place on Good Friday. This time the statues were carried in absolute silence, to allow quiet reflection as the priest explained. Outside the church on the central plaza, Jesus´body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in white cloths and placed in a clear glass coffin. As darkness began to fall, the procession continued and reached a chapel set higher up in the hill from the main church. Here, Jesus´body was left in front of the altar which was dressed to
look like the tomb. There he remained that night and all the next day for people to pay their respects.
Easter Sunday we were woken early by fireworks (pointless in the daytime surely?). We flicked on the television. Surprise surprise ´The Passion of Christ´was on again. I was starting to pick up a few Aramaic words. But on the next channel we were amazed to see the mass from inside Barichara church. We even watched our staring friend Marta receive communion.
Of all the place we could have found ourselves, I´m delighted we were in Baricahra for Semana Santa. But even without the processions and endless re-runs of ´The Passion of Christ´, we were smitten. I can understand why so many artists have flocked to Barichara - it was a truly inspiring place.
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