Isla Negra, Photo by Silvia Viñas
Whether escaping to a suitable place to write his “Canto General,” or searching for the tranquility that busy Santiago could not offer him, Neruda found inspiration and solace beside the Chilean coast.
When the pollution in Santiago reaches its peak in winter or suffocates in summer, you can follow Pablo Neruda’s footsteps west and escape to his atypical houses-turned-museums to fill your lungs with fresh air, and your mind with a greater understanding of his celebrated poetry. And if you can’t manage the trip out of town, escape the crowds at Neruda’s city dwelling in Bellavista.
On top of Cerro Bellavista in Valparaíso, La Sebastiana overlooks the ocean and the bohemian city below. The name La Sebastiana is Neruda’s tribute to the Spanish architect Sebastián Collado, who unknowingly built Neruda’s dream home in Valparaíso. Now the house has turned into a museum, maintaining Neruda’s finishing touches to the home he made his own.
The tour of La Sebastiana begins with a narrow set of stairs leading to the original main entrance. Immediately, bright-colored walls, orange and pink, stand out as one unusual key characteristic of the house. Colorful stained glass is also a dominant feature throughout the rooms.
Almost every piece of furniture in the house has a story well worth hearing about. Neruda’s varied choice of furnishings reflects his many trips around the world, and the many experiences that came with them. If the eclecticism in decoration overwhelms you or you have questions, personnel from the Fundación Pablo Neruda are strategically waiting in every room to help you.
With your ticket in hand you are ready to enter La Sebastiana. You can purchase audio-guides before entering the house, but, if you’d rather keep your money for some Chilean cuisine or a Pablo Neruda souvenir, you can still enjoy the tour by reading the numerous sheets of information placed around the house. Unfortunately, because of copyright laws, pictures may not be taken once inside the house.
Additions to the house make a visit to La Sebastiana a complete outing. A small blue house that serves as a café sits to your left as you walk onto the premises. Here visitors can relax and take a small bite to eat before or after the visit. A store filled with Pablo Neruda souvenirs, ranging from books, DVDs, mugs, posters, postcards, ceramics, aprons and t-shirts, is located only a few steps from the café. The store (conveniently, and temptingly) is also where you buy your tickets to enter the house.
A tour takes around an hour. To get there, follow the map that Fundación Pablo Neruda provides on their website (http://fundacionneruda.org/mapa_sebastiana.htm), but don’t be fooled by the deceptive short distance: the house is on top of a steep hill and, unless you want to arrive out of breath, walking is not your best option. You can easily take a taxi or a colectivo (shared, routed cab) from Plaza Ecuador or Plaza Victoria.
About one hundred kilometers separate Santiago from Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. Isla Negra is now a town dedicated to Pablo Neruda, with menu items in restaurants bearing his name and fairs selling souvenirs with his poetry and picture. But when Neruda first arrived, Isla Negra was a scarcely-populated fisherman's town.
Pablo Neruda found an ad for a piece of land with a small house that overlooked a rocky Pacific coast. This was the precise location Neruda was looking for. Through the years, Neruda remodeled and added rooms to the house, making it his own just like he did with La Sebastiana.
A navigational motif dominates the house; a ship’s steer with a glass over it becomes a round dinning table, and a whole room is dedicated to female ship figureheads. Neruda even placed a small ship in the garden overlooking the ocean. He loved the ocean and thought of himself as an amateur sailor of the sea, sailing from land.
Neruda saw this house as a place where he could play; he collected items he called his toys, like colored bottles, shells, pictures, insects, clocks, and many others. Every room shows a different aspect of his innumerable interests.
Tours of Isla Negra must be arranged in advance, so be sure to make a reservation before visiting. Before the tour you are assigned a number, and before your number is called you can visit the souvenir store or eat at the restaurant opposite the house. The tour lasts about half an hour, but afterwards you can linger beside the rocky sea, where Neruda’s grave lies, for as long as you wish.
Isla Negra is where Neruda spent his last days. The house was broken into by the military just days before his death in September, 1973. After his death, the military took over the house and closed it; it was opened to the public again in 1990, and is now a destination outside Santiago not to miss.
You don’t have to leave Santiago to experience Neruda’s passion for the sea. Tucked away at the base of Cerro San Cristobal sits La Chascona, a fragmented house that also simulates a ship. The library floor, for example, was set on a tilt to give the feeling of being at sea. La Chascona, however, does not share the tranquility of the seaside houses; it neighbors Santiago Zoo. The tour guide mentioned that the smell, and the sound of monkeys, is something Neruda and visitors have always had to battle with.
The various rooms are connected by a maze of cobbled stairs and characterized by secret doors, tiny entrances, winding staircases and low roofs. The secretive style matches the purpose of this house: Neruda and his lover, Matilde, hid their love affair here for five years, until Neruda left his wife at the time and married Matilde.
Further examples of Neruda’s unusual collections crowd the shelves. What is unique to his Santiago residence is the combination of paintings by Diego Rivera, Roberto Matta and Jose Caballero, amongst other artists, which adorn the walls, and a range of pop-art furniture that was part of Matilde’s own style.
The house can only be explored as part of a tour; tours in English, Spanish and French begin every 15 minutes. Visitors can browse for books and merchandise, or have a coffee in the café while looking out at the bustling Bellavista from the balconies before heading back out to join the Santiago crowds with a taste of Neruda’s secret inner-city hideaway.
Ferrari 692, Valparaíso
General price: CP$2,500
Students and seniors, except weekends: CP$1,000
For reservations: 56-32-2256606
Poeta Neruda, Isla Negra
Tour in Spanish: CP$3,000
Tour in English: CP$3,500
Students and seniors, except weekends: CP$1,500
For reservations: 56-35-461284
Fernando Márquez de la Plata 0192
March–December 10:00–18:00, January and February 10:00–19:00
Tour in Spanish: CP$2,500
Tour in English or French: CP$3,500
For reservations: 56-27-778741