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Valparaiso, the ‘City of Art’


Valparaiso, the ‘City of Art’ consists of a beautiful, natural deep water harbour guarded on all sides by hills on which the town is built. For many years it was an insignificant fishing village famous only because the pirate (as the Chileans refer to him) Frances Drake sacked it twice on his travels, stealing the gold and communion wine from the church. Now it is an obligatory cruise ship port of call and the headquarters of the Chilean Navy. Lately, it has become a holiday satellite for the better-off residents of Santiago which has encouraged many areas of the town to smarten up but, it still has unique characteristics thanks to its steep terrain.

Valparaiso actually exists of two completely different cities. The lower part has narrow streets along the bay, while the upper part boasts great colourful mansions and houses, a complete jumble of multicoloured clapboard homes and weathered Victorian mansions that cling to the sheer cliffs and unusual spaces separated by zig-zag streets that serve to give the place a bohemian flair lacking in overdeveloped seaside towns. Frankly, it is wonderous that any of these buildings are still standing given that the area is in an earthquake zone that suffers small tremors every few weeks as well as the occasional big one, the last of which was in 2010. The spindly little stilts that prop up many homes do not look as if they could survive a decent storm let alone an earthquake and it can only be that the fact that the hills are made from granite rock that has enabled these shelters to survive for so long.

The upper city can be ‘easily’ accessed by one of many original ascensores, or funiculars, clickety clack trams that climb up some of the 42 hills of the town. I say ‘easily’ with some sarcasm as the wooden carriage only hold about 8 people that creaks and groans as it is hauled up the tracks by wire rope, constantly changing shape as it negotiates bumps and hollows. Scary.

But when you arrive in the upper town, a completely different world awaits you: bright colours, artistic buildings, narrow backroads.

The beauty of this part of the city is the art - bright murals that lend a more modern feel to the old district and are a reminder of the artistic character of the city. These murals, along neglected side streets, winding and dilapidated roads epitomize the city's character and would be so easily missed if you are not walking around.

Some of the best examples are scattered among the streets and staircases of Cerro Bellavista. The first large murals were painted by art students from the Art Institute of the Catholic University of Valparaiso in 1969 then the burgeoning museum was added to by famous artists like Roberto Matta and Matilde Perez. The collection of murals have since been made into an official site which you can negotiate alone, but it is highly recommended to take a map to lead you through the maze of Bellavista, so you don't get lost or miss a mural.

Even though this is one of the defining sites of the city it is quite possible to be completely alone for much of your walk as you wander between the public masterpieces staring up, and sometimes down, in awe.

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