Valparaiso – Queen of all the World’s Coasts

The coastal city of Valparaiso has to be South America’s most unique and fascinating city. Row upon row of brightly-coloured, ramshackle houses cling precariously to near-vertical cliffs, forever looking as if one shake of an earthquake

The coastal city of Valparaiso has to be South America’s most unique and fascinating city. Row upon row of brightly-coloured, ramshackle houses cling precariously to near-vertical cliffs, forever looking as if one shake of an earthquake could plunge them into the sparkling blue waters of the busy port below. One wonders how any city could even come into existence in such mountainous terrain, but such a city does exist – one that sits atop a lofty mountain looking down on her subjects: a ‘Queen of all the world’s coasts’ (Pablo Neruda).

In the late 19th Century, Valparaiso served as an important stop-over for merchant ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Magellan Strait and the city became a popular settling place for European immigrants, leading to a Golden Age that lasted from 1848 until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The success of Valparaiso’s Golden Age relied initially on its role supplying the California Gold Rush, a time of wealth and excitement for the city. It is this Valparaiso that Chilean author, Isabel Allende, describes in her novel ‘Daughter of Fortune‘.

Valparaiso’s literary connections do not end with Allende: after a tumultuous life, Nobel prize-winner, Pablo Neruda, found his dream house – a place where he could ‘live and write in peace’ – in La Sebastiana, high on the craggy hills of Valparaiso. The house, containing many of Neruda’s prized artefacts, is now a popular tourist museum in the city just as Neruda once hoped it would be.

In honour of Neruda’s genius, and because I can never hope to emulate the spirit of Valparaiso in words as eloquently as he does, here is the first section of his poem: ‘To Don Asterio Alcarcon, Clocksmith of Valparaiso‘, alongside some of my own photographs of this stunning city.

Smell of a crazy seaport,
Valparaiso has,
smell of shade, of stars,
a suspicion of the moon
and the tails of fish.

The heart takes to shivering
on the tattered stairways
up the shaggy hills.
There, squalor and black eyes
dance in the sea mist
and hang out the flags
of the kingdom in the windows –

the sheets stitched together,
the ancient undershirts,
the long-legged drawers
and the sea sun salutes the emblems
while the white laundry waves
a threadbare goodbye to the sailors.

Streets of sea and wind
of the hard day swaddled in air and waves
alleyways singing upward
in a winding spiral, like shells –

Such is the genius of Neruda’s extraordinary talent, the city was just as I imagined it would be.

Have you ever visited a place because you read about it in a book, or saw it in a movie? Where was it? Did it live up to your expectations?  Please leave a comment below. If you enjoyed this post maybe you could come over to my FB page and give me a like?

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