Episode 41 – ¡O Pablo, O Rene!

If today’s excursion set the standard for what is to come, then this cruise is going to be an amazing experience.

Today, we followed “On The Trail of Pablo Neruda”, visiting 2 of his 3 homes: Isla Negra and La Sebastiana. After touring the homes, I think the word that perhaps best describes both the man and his houses is “eclectic”. Neruda was a Nobel Literature Prize-winner, an international diplomat, a political figure in Chile (he was a Communist Senator, and was touted as a candidate for President before putting his support behind Salvador Allende, continuing to act as Allende’s advisor until the US/CIA funded coup that put dictator Augusto Pinochet into power), and a passionate collector.

He wrote poems, novels, and political manifestos. He collected all things ship-related, but especially ships’ mastheads. He also collected butterflies, beetles, shells, glassware, unique items of furniture, and paintings. It seems he may also have collected women, including 3 wives. Like many famous artists, he was a strange mix of admirable and not; he apparently loved entertaining and being surrounded by friends, and as Special Consul for Immigration in France in 1939 he arranged for the transport of 2200 Spanish refugees to Chile, but he abandoned his only child because she was born hydrocephalic.

The world loves him for his poems, though, and his houses certainly reflected his passions.

Isla Negra is situated on what was once an isolated stretch of land directly on the Pacific, where the waters crash onto jagged black rocks. Every room of the house – half of which is built to look like a ship, and the other half like a train) has large windows facing the water that was the inspiration for so many of his poems. Some of the exterior windows and doors have stained glass panes, so the he could see the ocean in different colours. Interestingly, he also had a large collection of coloured glasses from which to drink, because water “tastes better” from coloured glass.

The most interesting room to me at Isla Negra was the living room. We were not allowed to take pictures in the interior of his homes, but try to imagine a fairly large open space with a wooden loft above one half, a floor reminiscent of a ship’s deck, and walls and fireplace of large rounded grey rocks. Now fill that room with a white canvas couch and chair, a couple of large worn leather armchairs, and a low table made of a ship’s wheel. Add half a dozen full size ship’s mastheads standing around the room, each more than 6 feet tall. Suspend 2 human-sized wooden angels from the ceiling. Add a Medusa masthead looking out the window. A cabinet full of coloured glass goblets. A couple of large model ships. Shelves full of navigational instruments. A sundial on a pedestal. The images I found on Google couldn’t do it justice. The dining room carried on the nautical theme, with a masthead that looked like Captain Morgan at one end of the room , and a brightly painted one of Jenny Lind at the other.Apparently Pablo’s plan was to have the two of them fall in love as they stared at each other forever, but Jenny was more interested in looking out the window at the ocean.

The exterior of the house was also artistic, with a line of mosaic fish halfway up the walls, and a set of ship’s bells on the flagstone lookout.

The Pacific and rocks reminded me of Ucluelet on the southwest of Vancouver Island

La Sebastiana, by contrast, was an urban home on La Florida, one of Valparaiso’s 45 hills. To take advantage of the steep hills and the incredible view of the city and harbour, the house was built 7 stories tall, with only a couple of rooms on each floor. As was the case at Isla Negra, when the walls are plaster, they are painted in vibrant colours, each room a different intense hue. Again, every room was filled with eclectic collected items. The bright pink mummified Venezuelan caracara bird hanging in a clear oval bubble in the living room was particularly weird.

One of the incredible views from the house

Both houses had full bars for entertaining, where Pablo apparently liked to take centre stage, dressing up as a pirate, often changing costumes several times in one night, and mixing his special cocktail of champagne, cointreau, cognac and orange juice (“just enough for amusement”) for his guests – even though he preferred whiskey.

Walking the hill leading to the house, we noticed not only lots of street art but also the many mosaics. We were especially impressed by the ones on the stair risers. Note the funicular depicted on the second step from the bottom!

Our tour consisted of only 10 people, which meant there was lots of opportunity for interaction with our excellent guide, Rene (roll that first “R” – he sure did!) Rene’s English was great – he had been an exchange student for 2 years in the Okanagan Valley in BC, and then in California for a third year while getting his degree in Tourism. Although the Neruda house tours were done with audio guides, on the bus ride to each house Rene shared lots of information about Pablo Neruda, Chilean history, and current Chilean politics.

He also knew a lot about Chile’s wine industry, which made a nice segue to our lunch at Casas del Bosque, one of Chile’s newer (1985) boutique wineries. We learned, among other things, that since the mid 1970’s Canada has been the second largest importer of Chilean wines in the world, and the LCBO is the single largest distributor (bigger than any of the individual importers in the U.S.). The winery itself was stunning, but so was lunch: a salad of organic greens grown at the vineyard, with heirloom tomatoes, charred leeks, avocado, and freshly made ricotta; Angus beef over sweet polenta puree; and panna cotta with fresh berries and berry coulis. On the way out of the fields, we noticed that the roadway was made from crushed walnut shells – using the waste from another of Chile’s agricultural export products.

As I said, if this is setting the standard…..


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