Chile’s Nobel Prize poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) may have been a committed Communist, but that didn’t keep him from enjoying bourgeois comforts - including spacious, idiosyncratic homes in the capital city of Santiago, the beach community of Isla Negra, and the port city of Valparaíso. Today, all three of them are open to public visits under the auspices of the Fundación Neruda, a non-profit that controls the poet’s legacy. In the absence of official statistics, I would guess that Santiago’s “La Chascona” (pictured below) is the most visited, followed by Isla Negra and Valparaíso’s “La Sebastiana.”
That’s a pity because, in at least one sense, La Sebastiana is the best of the bunch, the place where visitors can feel the poet’s presence most closely. Because demand is so high at La Chascona and Isla Negra (pictured below), visiting them means taking an organized, even regimented, tour. At La Sebastiana, by contrast, visitors are free to roam around the five-storey house, just as Neruda’s own guests might have done (the poet was legendary for his hospitality and informality).
High in the hills, La Sebastiana (pictured below, courtesy of nostalgiaportena) may have been Neruda’s favorite, if only because of the scenic port city’s own informality and spontaneity. Valparaíso, he wrote, “grabbed me, she subjected to her will, to her absurdity: Valparaíso is a mess, a cluster of crazy houses.” On the slopes of Cerro Bellavista, with a view to the harbor, it was an ideal site for watching the city’s legendary New Year’s Eve fireworks, but it’s nevertheless a more orderly place today.
So orderly is La Sebastiana, in fact, that it has recently opened a 2,500-volume library specializing in Chilean poetry, including Neruda’s own works, those of fellow Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral, and lesser known figures - to non-Chileans at least - such Vicente Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha. For literary pilgrims, La Sebastiana bids to become an even more obligatory stop on the tourism circuit.
Meanwhile, Valparaíso got another shot in the arm with the announcement that the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation will provide a grant of some US$140 million to repair damage from February’s massive earthquake (which, however, hit other cities, such as Talca and Concepción, much harder). Valparaíso has been a World Heritage Site since 2003, and the money will go to repair and rebuild “culturally significant buildings” that were damaged in the quake. Unfortunately, Valpo didn’t get all the money it had hoped for but, at the very least, it’s a good start.