December 18, 2011: La Sebastiana

Today, I slept in a tad, and then started tackling the backlog of Argentina blog posts. I am at once intimidated by how much photo-sorting and post-fiddling I need to do, and excited about how much interesting (to me) content I will soon be able to share.

T. and S. were in town for another afternoon, so we met for coffee and then decided to go to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s Valparaíso house (he also had one in Santiago and one in Isla Negra, all of which are now museums). Since Neruda inspired my initial interest in Chile, many years ago, his houses were one of my definite must-sees. Still, I’d been putting off my visit to La Sebastiana: a combination of delaying gratification (wanting to save a special trip) and of ensuring that the day I visited was perfect and sunny (since the vista is said to be one of the best parts of the tour).

We arrived by colectivo, and then sat in the entry garden for a few moments, admiring the jacaranda and araucaria trees. There was a bench shaped like Neruda’s silhouette, which was fabulous.

Nerudan silhouette.

We purchased our museo tickets and ventured closer to the entrance, but were sidetracked by a large deck with one of the fullest vistas I had seen in Valpo. Behind us, we could see the entirety of La Sebastiana: a glorious, nautical-seeming creation of five differently-shaped levels. I liked it already.

Vista, vista, over the bounding main.
La casa de Neruda.

Here’s a quick video I took, a 360º view from the deck at La Sebastiana:

Nearer the entrance of the museum, there were a variety of plants and cacti, the cacti in garish red-yellow bloom (hoorah for betalains!), beside flowers with red bells on succulent stems. These were arranged around paths decorated with quartz-like mosaics.

Mosaic compass rose.

On a tree trunk, I spotted one of the most stunning lizards I’ve ever met: an improbable creature with a lime-green front half and a turquoise rear half, all speckled with black. Shortly after, a similar lizard popped up; this one had a yellow front and a tan back. A cursory Google search suggests that they may be jewel lizards, or Liolaemus tenuis.

How is it that you exist, little lizard?

After having basked in the sun for a while, we headed inside to the museum-house. We each received an audioguide: a large telephone-like contraption, with different numbers that we could press to hear different audio commentaries, for whenever we reached a new part of the house. We also received a beautiful hand-drawn map of the contents of the house, showing the layout and even the furniture of every single room.

The entrance to the museum.

The first floor was devoted to a progression of posters, bearing bilingual information about all the stages and important events of Neruda’s life: his youth, his exile, his politics, his women, his Nobel prize, &c. There was also a comfortable viewing room, where slowly-panning footage of his three houses played on a video screen.

As we climbed to the second floor, one of the uniting themes of the house became apparent: the ocean (one of Neruda’s great loves). There were portholes installed as windows, a full-wall mosaic devoted to mar del sur (sea of the South), and endless technical paintings of ships (which Neruda collected obsessively from antique shops).

Cracked porthole, with a view of the garden.
Iris stained glass window, in the stairwell.

The second floor was the original entrance to the house, with an entrance hall flanked by two golden angelesque women. There was more art arranged on the walls, including a framed scientific print of a butterfly that I fancied.

An appropriate way to greet your guests, at least if you're Pablo Neruda. (You can see the Mar del Sur mosaic in the background.)

The third floor included the dining room, living room, and bar. I passed through a red-and-white striped hallway (hung with maps and odd prints), and entered into a magical sunny room, filled with amazing details. However, as I started to take my first photograph, a docent stepped forward and told me I couldn’t take photographs. I asked if he meant just in this room, and he said no, in the entire house. Darn, and just when we had arrived at the coolest room so far! I will have to recount the rest of the tour mostly only through words.

Stripey hall, moments before entering the Room Where They Told Me No Photos.

From the ceiling of the dining room, there hung a clear oval case with a taxidermied pink bird inside. The dining room table was set for a meal, with thin china cups and green water glasses. The audioguide informed me that Neruda always drank water from either red or green glasses, as he thought it tasted better.

Near the large window, there was a squishy old armchair, which Neruda had referred to as La Nube, “The Cloud.” He would sit there and watch the ocean, and occasionally spill green ink on the footrest (still visible). A few feet from La Nube, there was an enormous curved fireplace, in the perfect center of the room. There was a carousel horse mounted beyond that, and an intricate flowered porcelain cow on a wooden table.

In an adjoining room, there was a bar, scattered with more art and oddments. Apparently, during parties at La Sebastiana, Neruda would arrive dressed in a disguise, and then would man the bar and tell rambling jokes, and then would occasionally disappear, only to reappear in a brand-new disguise. I can’t tell if he would have been a real pain or a real joy to know. Probably both.

The fourth floor contained Neruda’s bedroom, shared with his last wife Matilde, and their bathrooms. More art adorned the walls here: a decorated Asian ornamental screen, a painting (French?) of a very young girl clipping her toenails on the morning of her wedding, a scene depicting the Chinese legend of the dog who swallowed the moon, and so on.

I snuck a photo of Neruda's bed. It seemed very important.
Then, the bedroom-docent told me that I *could* take a photo out the window if I wanted. Brilliant! So this is the view from Neruda's bedroom window, the lucky man.

The top floor was also the smallest floor, devoted to Neruda’s study. It had low shelves full of books: his own books, an array of detective novels, and other miscellany. There was a life-size photo print of Walt Whitman on one wall; Neruda called him his father in poetry. At his old writing desk, there were a few copies of Neruda’s poems, including one copy of a handwritten draft he had done, in his handsome scribbly writing. With one last gaze out at the unsurpassable whole-Valpo view, I headed back down the four flights of stairs, and reemerged into the world.

I stopped at the gift shop, and picked up a tiny mug with Neruda’s face and signature on it, as well as a photo-postcard of him with a bird on his head. I refrained from shopping for new books of his, planning to do so whenever I visit another of his houses. (Also, there are ten more La Sebastiana photos on Flickr.)

Then, I rejoined T. and S. in the garden, and we walked from La Sebastiana to my house, chatting about our perceptions of the museo. Afterward, I walked with them to their hostel, and bade them farewell for now (they’re heading south, but may be back in Valpo for New Year’s).

I loved La Sebastiana. I want to live there. I’m tempted to go back one more time before I leave Chile, as it is a peaceful and intriguing place; I am certain I could visit many times and still always find new details. It also stirs up in me a strange longing, like a nesting instinct: even if I can’t live in Pablo Neruda’s house, I yearn to start building a permanent, light-filled Mollian home of my own.

4 thoughts on “December 18, 2011: La Sebastiana

  1. If you do, let me know. I’ve been considering that this mythical off-the-grid place to retire that I’ve been fantasizing about might be situated outside the U.S.A.–I just need to learn of its existence and name.

    Parenthetically related, I repeat my fanboi self: OMG OMG OMG!!!!! I make a promise now to drink only from red and green glasses the rest of my life. I shall break that promise, most likely, but I will be dramatic about it when I do, and dressed in confusing costume.

    1. What I hope for is to own my own place, and I suspect that is many, many years away still. Ah well.

      I was in the very same fangirly space. I declared at least seven times that I wanted to marry Mr. Neruda and I didn’t care that he was dead. And I’m definitely investing in a few red and green glasses when I get home, although I already had an affection for red ones.

  2. As I thought about it, your insightful question about whether Neruda would have been a pain or a joy seems to apply to everyone who matters to me. Neh? I’m excited for you that you had a brush with your hero. Perhaps you can tell the Powers That Be of your passion for him, and maybe on another visit they’d give you an extra peek. Actually, your unillustrated photos didn’t suffer the least for their dearth of photos. My imagination had fun. I don’t want to have a painting of a girl clipping her toenails. Sounds like something Dad would have liked.

    1. I agree! It covers most of life, really. But tell me, am *I* a pain or a joy? I suspect I know the answer.

      I plan to have at least one more brush with him, and possibly more. It was awfully cool. I still have to visit the house that most people say is the coolest (Isla Negra), so that’s exciting.

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