A House Made of Air – Pablo Neruda’s Retreat in Valparaiso, Chile

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“I built the house. First, I made it of air. Then, I raised the flag in the air and left it hanging from the sky, from the light and the darkness.”

– Pablo Neruda (excerpt from “To La Sebastiana”)

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Breathing heavily in the slanting sunlight of a cool, bright winter day, I hiked the steep hills to where La Sebastiana is perched. When I got to the house the climbing didn’t stop. I ascended each floor, my breath taken away by views of the harbour as well as the steep stairs.  

This five storey home was built by the iconic Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda. Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez called him the “greatest post of the 20th century in any language” and Neruda also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. As well as writing, he also worked as a diplomat and served a term as a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party.

Neruda built this house on Mount Florida after growing tired of the noise of Santiago. He designed its expansive windows for gazing out at a panoramic view of the sapphire Pacific. The home is unusual in design and his personal quirks are reflected in the brightly coloured glassware, nautical decor elements and the writing room on the highest floor where he would compose his poems (exclusively in green ink) while looking out at the sea.

Neruda's writing room.
Neruda’s writing room.

La Sebastiana overlooks the steep hills and brightly hued street-art-covered houses of culture-rich Valparaiso. Many years after Neruda lived here, the disheveled seaside town is still a magnet for artists, writers, poets and creative spirits from all over the world. This port city is located within two hours of Santiago and is a popular day trip from the Chilean capital. In his Ode to Valparaiso, Neruda called the city the “patched prow of a small brave ship.”

The nautical motif shows up throughout the house in a collection of ship’s figureheads, old marine maps and round porthole shaped windows. I mumble the lyrics to “Simple Song” by the Shins as I run my fingers along the polished wood and round edges of this ship-like home, “My life in an upturned boat/marooned on a cliff.”

When he was searching for the perfect location to build this coastal retreat, Neruda described what he sought to his friend Sara Vial. “I wish neighbors were invisible. I wish I did not see or hear them.” This he achieved – the house juts out vertically from the cliff and the views are of the horizon, the presence of nearby houses is rarely glimpsed. The decor and design of the house gives you an intriguing insight into the spirit of this fascinating writer. You can see his love of the sensual reflected in the odd and mismatched serving ware and the long dining table, which would have been filled often with laughter and conversation.

Valparaiso street art
Valparaiso street art

During the military coup d’etat in 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet, La Sebastiana was ransacked because Neruda dared to speak out in support of the previous regime. Neruda was hospitalised with cancer at the time and died in September of 1973, although it is suspected that he was killed by a doctor’s deadly injection ordered by Pinochet.

Neruda’s funeral was blocked from being made a public event, but thousands of Chileans disobeyed the curfew and crowded the streets to grieve the dead poet. After being ransacked the house was cleaned up and restored thanks to public and private funding. It has been lovingly transformed into a museum and interpretive center, which opened to the public in 1991.

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A beautifully designed haven of colour and light perched high on a hill, the “house made of air” is infused with the personality of this playful, romantic and sensitive poet.

Information:

Calle Ricardo de Ferrari 692, Valparaíso, Chile

CH$7,000 per person

Closed on Mondays

Open from 10am until 6pm March to December

10am until 7pm January and February

 

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About the Author: Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word. She and her English boyfriend Lee run Global-Goose.com, packed full with guides, stories and inspiration for those who dream of travel. They have been location independent and travelling the world digital-nomad style since 2011, with no address, no car and no fixed schedule.

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