Valparaiso, Chile’s Hot Number
Sprawled across a half-Colosseum of leaping hills that rise from Chile’s Pacific shore, frisked by a sea breeze, Valparaiso has become the country’s cultural cauldron, a hubble-bubble of creative energy, vitality, and itchy spirits out to bend the rules. It feels like a Latino Berlin, with sunshine. Temperamentally as well as topographically, there are two Valpos, as residents style their city. El Plano is the plank of the city surrounding the port, a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood better left to its own devices. Rising steeply from El Plano is Cerros, 45 hills that are accessed via ascensores, clanking, creaking, Victorian-era funiculars that hoist passengers from the grid of streets on the city’s ground floor. Where they leave the well-informed visitor is the writhing streets of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción, furnished with a mad and chaotic tangle of Frenchified manor houses, Swiss-style cottages, turreted mansions and creaking iron shanties with Romeo-and-Juliet balconies. Built when Valparaiso was a key player in the maritime trade of the Americas, these were once the houses of merchants, entrepreneurs, shipwrights and mariners. Many constructed their houses from corrugated iron carried as ships’ ballast, tacked onto timber frames, with fanciful touches as their imagination dictated, and painted in Popsicle colours. Chromium yellow, turquoise, pink, lime – no colour was too outlandish. Hard times came Valpo’s way when an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, closely followed by the opening of the Panama Canal, effectively short-circuiting Valparaiso’s importance as a port. Anyone who could left town, but cheap housing, a sunny climate and the louche, anything-goes style of the portenos proved a magnet for writers, artists and musicians. Among them was Chile’s Nobel-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, who celebrated its mad, disheveled spirit in his Ode to Valparaiso, and whose former hillside residence, La Sebastiana, is now one of the city’s prime attractions. However it is only over the last few years when rehabilitation funds have poured in and the city notched up a World Heritage listing that Valpo has undergone a rags-to-recherche renaissance. Signs of urban renewal are everywhere. The outrageously florid Palacio Baburizza, an art nouveau pile built by a Croatian immigrant made good, has now become the Fine Arts Museum. Nearby, the French-colonial Palacio Astoreca, teaming a lipstick red façade with white-rimmed window frames, cuts a fashionable figure in the smart hotel lists. The city’s former prison has been repurposed as a cultural centre in an edgy design by marquee Santiago architects HLPS. Threaded through the cultural landmarks is a piquant, raffish assembly of galleries, restaurants, boutiques and bars with the international boho arts brigade a prominent feature. Some of these artists have taken their brushes to the streetscapes, decorating the houses with huge murals that celebrate, criticise, inflame and entertain. A distinctive South American voice emerges in the narrative works that spread wings as they abandon mundane reality – magic realism transported from print to walls, paint instead of pen.