Faded former glory


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South America » Peru » Lima
August 14th 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: -12.0931, -77.0465

It was recommended to us, that if we wanted to visit the colonial centre of Lima, we should avoid taxis from Barrano and instead, take the local bus. We were a little apprehensive, having seen them rattle past us on the road, people crushed up against the windows, spilling out of the doors each time it stopped. Fortunately, the bus we actually caught was not one of the city buses that prowl the streets, belching out could a of black smoke, but more of a tramway system, the buses careering along purpose built traffic lanes, stopping only at stations with electric doors. It was what, I suspect, the guided busway system in Cambridge was designed to be like (but successful, and economical - it cost 50p for us to do a half hour journey).

It was, however, a tight squeeze, elbows and knees jostling for position, more and more people cramming into the already over-full carriage at every stop. Fortunately, we soon arrived at St Martin's square, a pretty provincial plot of land, surrounded by old colonial buildings, not least the faded grandeur of the Gran Hotel Bolivar, once a wonderful, decadent hotel and now more than a little scuffed around the edges. It was, however, a quaint place to stop and find our bearings. From here, we walked down a wide street, lined with huge ornate balconies above us, but faceless shops at eye level. The uppermost part of the buildings were painted in a variety of bright paintbox colours and gave a real South American flavour to the street.

We heard the hustle and bustle from the main square, the Plaza de Armas, before we saw it. At the presidential palace, we were just in time to catch the changing of the guard ceremony, lasting over half an hour, the guards goose stepped across the courtyard in a huge pack, accompanied by a huge brass band which was blasting out regal-sounding tunes throughout the entire event. After we had been entertained for a while, we explored the rest of the square, the huge baroque cathedral imposing as it looked over us. On the other sides of the square, beautiful, but faded colonial buildings were covered in beautiful Moorish balconies, the sunlight filtering through the ornate woodwork onto the floor below.

We found a recommendation for lunch in the Lonely Planet and found ourselves in a beautiful converted mansion, two rooms with lovely period furniture and the place to ourselves. Within five minutes of ordering, there was a queue out of the door, I'd love to say it's because they saw the patrons of the restaurant, but I believe its reputation precedes it. We feasted on a simple menu of stuffed potatoes and a delicious pesto-based minestrone and then followed the starters with a tender chicken con champigones for Stacey and an interesting, but beautifully flavoured lomo saltado-based lasagne.

Hunger satisfied, we braved the melee of the streets, entering once again into the bustling pavements, people barging into one another and past one another with no regard for personal space. Street sellers hawked their trades, while traffic whizzed past us at breakneck speed, stopping for nothing - even red lights proved to be no obstacle. Eventually, after taking our lives in our hands, we arrived at the museum of the Inquisition, housed in the former senate building, the much grander, modern home of which is situated directly to its right. Here, despite understanding nothing of the Spanish language exhibition, we were able to glean information about the torture methods used by the colonial Spanish in the building we stood in. Grotesque waxworks showed prisoners hung up by their ankles, being stretched on huge racks and cooped up in foetal positions in tiny cells. There was a path leading you through excavations, old rooms that would be able to tell many a tale of the horrific events that took place there.

The natural next step for our tour of Lima was the crypts of the Franciscan monastery a shot walk away. In the courtyard of this impressive building, a stunning frontage looming over a vast entrance yard, we disturbed huge flocks of pigeons that had come here to be fed by tourists clutching boxes of seed. Feeling very much like we were in a Hitchcock film as the small birds beat their wings ferociously around our heads, we ducked inside the large atrium and waited for our tour.

Our tour guide led us out of the main hall, past beautifully decorated walls and up a sweeping wooden staircase, a huge ornate Moorish dome arching above. Carved out of Nicaraguan cedar wood, its vast diameter loomed over us, imposing, yet beautiful. From the top of the stairs, we were led into the library, a stunning room decorated with paintings, the walls coated in ancient texts, no longer read because of their fragility. One either side of the room was a huge, wooden spiral staircase that stretched almost from floor to ceiling, seemingly leading nowhere. Four huge books were displayed at the front of the library - ancient Latin texts that would have been set on oversized lecterns in the choir for the monks to sing from. In the Harry Potter-esque room, the musty smell of academia and religion intertwined, and added to the magical atmosphere.

From here, we ventured into the choir, giving us sweeping views from the balcony, with its intricately carved chairs, where the monks would have sat, out over the huge church that makes up the majority of the monastery. After admiring the view and the grandeur of the church itself, we were led into the covered courtyard - long corridors decorated with beautiful, imported Mediterranean tiles brought from Spain, and beautiful murals, accidentally discovered in the most recent earthquake, when simple white plaster that was covering them fell off. The floors, walls and ceilings of each of the four corridors, arranged around a simple quadrangle, were decorated in these beautiful paintings, representing scenes from the life of Francis of Assisi. The serenity of the place lent itself to the rooms above the courtyard, where the monks would have resided originally. Since damage following the last earthquake, and the danger this poses, they have been moved to a new wing within the grounds.

After visiting grand rooms, dripping in works of art painted by the scholars of Rubens, and a huge representation of The Last Supper, with a cuy (guinea pig) as the centrepiece in place of the traditional food, we descended steep, uneven stairs, ducking under low ceilings, into the eerie and claustrophobic crypts. Here, as we crept along narrow corridors, huge chambers opened up to either side of us, piled high with bones, blackened with age, arranged according to type and size. Over 25, 000 people were buried here at one time or another, their skulls, lining the graves were staring, unblinking at us as we passed by. The bones, were constantly being moved from place to place. As each body rotted away, the bones were swept into different chambers, their families never visiting after the first interment, and so being no wiser about the fate of their ancestors' remains. This resulted in 3 floors of these deep pits, the skeletons heaped one on top of another for eternity.

We meandered back through the historical centre of the city, through a pretty handicraft market, which sapped all of our self restraint, and then folded ourselves back on the local bus back to Barranco, where we enjoyed one last pis onsite before heading to bed, ready for our adventure into Ecuador and the beautiful Galápagos Islands.

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