Pablo Neruda’s Houses – Part One

Pablo Neruda’s Houses

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Pablo Neruda had three houses in Chile. He was able to buy and pay for these houses from his earnings as a poet, no small achievement in any age. Neruda’s three residences form the cornerstone of the Fundacion Neruda which now curates the poet’s legacy in Chile.

Our journey begins in the fabulous port city of Valparaiso…… 


The Valparaiso docks are huge and the streets of the city are tight with shoppers going about their daily routine like any other port city in the world.   In the harbour a United States warship sits in the distance, a modern reminder of the power of the North and the brooding shadow which the USA has cast over Chile for the best part of the 20thcentury.

Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, installed with CIA backing in 1973, Chile has been struggling towards a form of democracy. Not one with the mass backing of the poor and the downtrodden, which brought Allende to power in 1970, but one which remains acceptable to the USA and the corporations which continue to dominate the economy.   Although recent demonstrations by students, over access to education, suggest that things may be stirring in Chile once more.

For those shopping in the streets of Valparaiso on the bright Autumn day of our visit their concerns are those of working people the world over; keeping a job, paying the rent and providing for the future of their children. The dreams of socialism, equality and an economy free from corporate domination are for many a distant memory, for others a dream they have yet to dream.

Before arriving in Chile I had been walking in the Andes in Peru to fundraise for UNICEF. I met my wife in Lima and after three days in the strange little bohemia of Barranco, living in the house of artist Victor Delfin, we left Peru and landed in Santiago.

At the airport my wife was smothered in embraces by friends she had not seen for many years. Inés and her family had been émigrés from the Pinochet dictatorship who had ended up in the West End of Newcastle, forced to rebuild a life shattered by the march of leather boots and the clunk of the assault rifle. That was in 1975; they did not see Chile again for nearly twenty years.

The coup d’etat of 1973 shattered many of the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Many were imprisoned, tortured, murdered by the regime. Many were forced to flee in fear of their lives.

Driving from the airport to Inés home in the coastal town of Vina del Mar, the snow on the distant mountains shone brightly in answer to the evening sunshine. My wife and her friends talked incessantly of places they had been, people they had known, friends and family, a shared past born from adversity. I made the occasional polite comment. Looking out across the vast plain I wondered how anything as brutal as the 17 year dictatorship of Pinochet could ever have happened here.

The CIA inspired coup d’etat took place on the 11th September 1973. Pablo Neruda died only twelve days later on the 23rd September.

We return to Valparaiso……

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Valparaiso is a city built on hills.  From the dockside the only way is up, up and further up into the warren of small streets that eventually untangle themselves as a network of cafes, jewellery shops, artists’ studios and galleries. The daily work of the city unfolds below, awaking in the early hours to provide the city with the bread, fish, milk and tea which are essential to its smooth running. The hills of Valparaiso however betray another side to the city’s life, a creative heartbeat which ticks gently during the day but begins to pound as dusk falls when the streets are awash with musicians, poets and artists.

With Inés as our driver we set off on the short drive from Vina del Mar to Valparaiso.   We gradually made our way upwards from the bustle of the port and main city into the steep streets and hills above.   After several twists and turns, fuelled by much good advice from the local residents, we reached our destination.

Neruda’s house, La Sebastiana, sits amongst the hills in a quiet residential street in Valparaiso, unassuming and discreet. Here I was, finally face to face with the great man and his legacy.

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The house itself is quite colourful with spectacular views across the Valparaiso harbour.

Visiting La Sebastiana was a powerful experience, being the first of my visits to Pablo Neruda’s Houses. The visit is the only one which is unguided, so you can wander at leisure and absorb the atmosphere of each room, every space. It seemed apt that it should be the first visit, with Valparaiso being such a magnificent port, the starting point for adventure. I hope that my own poem in response to the visit captures some of that mood.

a) La Sebastiana

Valparaiso’s vastness lies
Prostrate and panoramic at your feet.
Is the watchmaker, Don Asterio, still there,
Enveloped by the washing lines
Of flag draped winding streets?

In the low season mist
We wander into the garden
Having negotiated the twisting roads
Of the Valparaiso hills,
Navigated with good intention,
But inexpert sense of direction
By Inés, helped out by passing locals.
Garrulous South American Spanish
Adorned with wild gesticulation
Has brought us through your gates.

Posing with your seated silhouette
I half expect conversation
But settle for the semblance
Of speech, camaraderie and contact.
This is no séance and you are no ghost
Yet the space exudes your presence
Like the vibration in an empty room
A loved one has vacated.

Stairs spiral skyward,
Tight doorways tease and entice
Into unfolding rooms of antiques,
Memorabilia and the makeshift.
A rocking horse makes haste,
Unbridled and fairground free,
The bar sign claims, ‘Don Pablo est ici’.

The deskroom invites adventure,
Shaped like a ship and fully equipped
With maps, globes, books and whiskey
Enough to ease most journeys.

The bedroom affords the finest views
The mists part, the harbour beckons,
An ancient neighbour waves a welcome
To the clutch of curious gringos.
The wardrobe door, slightly ajar,
Reveals Matilde’s slippers,
Mixing domesticity and desire.

Unguided, allowed a second look,
I retouch the surface of your life
Absorbing inspiration, empathy, illumination,
Invisible energy at my fingertips!

Steve Bishop

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