Friday 12 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Bohemian Santiago (Part 2)

Here's the next instalment of my previously published print articles about Chile, South America.

Last post, I toured the former residence of poet Pablo Neruda in the company of guide Gonzalo Iturra. Now I find out more...

Gonzalo is so obviously fond of Neruda, and so knowledgeable about his house, that I arrange to meet up with him later over a beer to learn more about the poet and his neighbourhood.

Narrelle heads off to the riverside craft markets, while I kill a few hours hanging around the Barrio’s main drag, Pio Nono.

As it’s now late afternoon, the street has come to life, with university students filling the plastic chairs in the sun outside the corner pub I choose. Chileans love their outdoor drinking and dining, and it’s pleasant sitting among the good-natured crowd.

A waiter appears and I order cervezas (beer), to which he responds “Chico?” (“Small?”). As I’m considering this, he vanishes, to return with a half-litre stein of the amber fluid, obviously feeling that this large gringo had not got that way by consuming chico amounts of anything.

In due course I meet Gonzalo at Venezia, another long-term Barrio Bellavista survivor and a famous Pablo Neruda hangout.

It's so old and unrenovated that the dining room's floor is bowed down in the middle, just managing to bear its load of tables with sky-blue tablecloths, and straight-backed wooden chairs.

By now I’ve figured out that Neruda is a huge deal in Chile; but coming from a country where sportsmen matter way more than poets, I wonder why.

“He was the man who finally put Chile on the map,” explains Gonzalo. “Chile was a very isolated country, and people thought of us as a geographical accident.

"And then Neruda came and started thinking about the rivers and the mountains and the people and the workers and the fruit. He took small things from a poor background, and made them so big.”

What was he like as a person?

“He was a big kid in many ways, says Gonzalo. “He never took himself too seriously.

"When you met him, you were expecting this really important figure, and he’d be wearing a nightdress or something. He was an eccentric, and he knew that. He enjoyed it and people forgave all.”

As Gonzalo emphasises, the maintenance of his house is important not just as a memorial or museum, but as a glimpse into the poet’s mind.

“The houses are very much like him. They reflect his obsession with ships, and hidden things like secret passages. One of the steps in one of the staircases was made from a railroad sleeper. That’s a reference to his father, who used to work at a train station.

“He even believed that coloured glass would make things taste different; and when he ate, he should have lots of friends there, and never eat alone. That’s why there are lots of dining rooms in his houses.”

The reason we’re talking about more than one house, I discover, is because Neruda had three of these creations dotted across Chile.

In addition to La Chascona in Santiago, there’s La Sebastiana in the coastal port Valparaiso, and Casa de Isla Negra on the island of Isla Negra, each as colourful and unique as their former owner.

By settling in the Barrio and acting as the hub of its arty transformation, Pablo Neruda created a unique neighbourhood that symbolises the passion and energy of Chile and South America.

“The mix of people is what I like about this neighbourhood,” concludes Gonzalo. “You have people walking their dogs, TV celebrities, writers and intellectuals, and experimental artists. It’s like a bohemian oasis.”

La Chascona is located at Fernando Marquez de la Plata 0192, Santiago, Chile. Find ticket prices and entry times at

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