La Sebastiana: Neruda’s Whimsical Valparaíso House

Looks shipshape to me! (Image from travellersplaces.wordpress)

Neruda’s houses are some of the most whimsical national monuments you’ll see in most countries.  It is very fitting that amidst collections of shells, coins, bottles, whosits and whatsits galore, La Sebastiana’s living room boasts the poem “Oda a las cosas,” or “Ode to Things.”

Amo las cosas localocamente,” says Neruda.  Some roughly translate this to, “I have a crazy, crazy love of things.” …But I prefer, “I’m cookoo for Cocoa Puffs!

Pink and Azure Walls that Dance for Neruda

When Neruda began looking for a house in Valpo, he said he was looking for something that was not too high up, but not too low down; private, but not completely isolated; and obviously, it needed to have a view of his beloved ocean.

Something about the view says “Write a Nobel Prize-winning collection” … (Image from )

When his friends found him the perfect house, an abandoned, four-story tower of sorts, he set about to remodel it immediately.  After three years, it had adopted the ship-like qualities of a Neruda house, along with his collections of things, a writing desk with a phenomenal view, and a huge picture of Walt Whitman.  (Neruda was a great admirer of Whitman, who he claimed was the most influential poet in his life.  For a little more information on this, check out this article.)

But the best addition to the house, in my opinion, is the crow’s nest that served as Neruda’s office, pictured above.

“Entonces la pintura llegó también lamiendo las paredes, las vistió de celeste y de rosado para que se pusieran a bailar.”

He later wrote a poem about the house, in which he describes the house as a growing, dancing, and generally living entity, with pink and blue walls that fit perfectly in the context of Valparaíso’s vibrant hills and views.

It is evident that Neruda wanted the house to be filled with life.  Whenever he threw a party, the view that La Sebastiana offered couldn’t be beat.  Moreover, the house features a small bar meant only for Pablo so that the poet could serve drinks to his guests.

And the La Sebastiana museum continues to be the most exciting and stimulating Neruda house to visit.  It’s the only house that you can explore at your one pace.  In La Sebastiana, you can wander from room to room and linger as long as you want, guided by an audio tour that you can pick up when you enter.  In Isla Negra and La Chascona, on the other hand, you must follow the guided tours in order to see the house at all.

Getting There

As with most trips in Valparaíso, visiting La Sebastiana is best done on foot.  The website shows a map of one route you could take.  You can also arrive via public transportation, either on the ‘O’ bus or on a colectivo (it’s a shared, cheap taxi) from the Plazuela Ecuador.

We, of course, walked, taking a long route to enjoy the beauty of Valparaíso.  Along the way, we experienced all the best that Valparaíso has to offer: phenomenal views, statues of famous poets, eclectic architecture, and stunning graffiti.  (And, of course, parks of outdoor exercise machines.)

We were fortunate enough to go on Neruda’s birthday, July 12, which meant free admission!  Wooohooo!  Otherwise it’s 4,000 Chilean pesos; 1,500 for students with IDs.

Just do it…

Valparaíso is the perfect city for the poet’s quirky side—the side that loved to host costume parties and collect bizarre bits of the world wherever he could.  La Sebastiana is a must see if you are anywhere near Valparaíso, as far as I’m concerned.  (Just remember that museums are closed on Mondays!)

If you’re interested in more about Neruda, check out some of my other posts on him and his houses: La Chascona: Neruda’s Santiago House and Rumors around Neruda’s Death.

For more posts about Valparaíso check out Valparaíso: A Canvas of Hills and Walls and Palacio Baburizza: Valparaíso’s Museum of Fine Arts.


There’s death in Neruda’s bones, but is there poison?

Ever since Pablo Neruda died suddenly only twelve days after Chile’s 1973 coup d’état, the public has speculated as to the real cause of his death.  The influential Nobel Prize winner, who had withdrawn from the 1970 elections as the Communist Party’s presidential nominee, supported Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende.

Last Friday, for the first time in 40 years of speculation, we had new information to consider: Neruda’s remains show no signs of foul play.

Death of the Poet

According to the official report, Neruda died from “cancer cachexia” while being treated for advanced prostate cancer in the Clínica Santa María hospital on September 23, 1973.  This was just days before he had planned to flee to Mexico.

Around the same time, Chile was in violent upheaval—people were killed, arrested, and sequestered during the dictatorship following the coup.  The Chilean military ransacked or occupied all of Neruda’s three houses, and many of the people who attended his funeral, which was overseen by police at the Cementerio General, were taken into custody afterward.

Nothing could be done at the time to further investigate Neruda’s death.

After the end of the dictatorship, on December 12, 1992, Neruda was finally exhumed and buried at his house in Isla Negra.  There, next to his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, he had rested until April 2013.

Graves of Pablo Neruda and Matilde Urrutia

“Death comes to shout without a mouth”**

The world has continued to question the cause of Neruda’s death, until finally, in 2011, the Chilean Communist Party decided to open a lawsuit based on the claims of Neruda’s ex-chauffeur, Manuel Arraya.  Araya claimed that Neruda had been injected with a lethal substance, which led to his death.  And so it was decided that the great poet’s remains would be reexamined in April of 2013.

On Friday, November 8, 2013, a statement was released asserting that the team of 13 experts—from Chile’s Medical Legal Service, the University of Chile, the United States, and Spain—had found no chemical agents that could have caused Neruda’s death.

There was evidence of the advanced prostate cancer he had been suffering and the presence of typical medications used to treat such cancer.

Restlessness and Continuing Controversy

While many organizations, including the Pablo Neruda Foundation, stated that these results confirmed their beliefs about Neruda’s death, other parties, including Neruda’s nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, insist that the examinations were not exhaustive and that there are still tests that need to be run before ruling out assassination.

To this, Fernando Sáez, director of the Neruda Foundations, says that those who wish to believe that Neruda was assassinated will continue to speculate.

At the end of the day, it is still up to the judge to take all of the results into account and release a verdict.  But what will it take to have a definitive answer?  And how will that answer change how we understand history and Neruda’s life?  Time will tell.

**Take a look at an interesting poem in which Neruda discusses death and bones: “Solo la muerte

La Chascona: Neruda’s House and Favorite Pelirroja

*Update: La Chascona now has audio tours!

Pablo Neruda is a big deal.  Redheads are a big deal.  Being on a boat is sometimes a big deal.  And so it is no surprise to me that Neruda brilliantly combined this trifecta in his Santiago house, La Chascona.

Get it?  Because I'm a chascona?

When I first visited La Chascona in 2010, I instantly became fascinated with it.  A couple of weeks ago, my friend Emily, an accomplice in many misadventures of 2009,  made her way back to Chile, and I seized the opportunity to shamelessly pull out my camera at every Chilean-flavored photo op—considering the fact that we exude gringonda, I might as well embrace looking like a tourist while we’re together.  To Neruda’s houses we go!

Peeking into Matilde's Dining Room Window

Stealth picture: you’re not allowed photos inside the house, as in all Neruda’s houses.

Here’s what you need to know about La Chascona:

  • Chascón/chascona: a Chilean adjective to describe tousled, messy, crazy hair; also, anyone with a habit of keeping unkempt hair… i.e. your friendly pelirroja peligrosa.
  • The Two Faces of Matilde Urrutia: Diego RiveraThe house was built and named for Neruda’s third wife, Matilde Urrutia, who was a Chilean singer and writer with a crazy mess of red hair.  Oh, also, she was eight years younger than Pablo… anything sound familiar?  The house displays Diego Rivera’s famous portrayal of Matilde with two faces: her public persona and her private self, the woman who shared her life with Pablo Neruda.  While her relationship with the poet was still hidden at the time of this portrait, Rivera found a way to hide the outline of Neruda’s profile in his lover’s tousle of hair.
  • At the time it was built, Matilde was Neruda’s mistress, and so the house served as a hidden love nest for the two.  In 1955, Neruda left his second wife and moved into La Chascona with Matilde.
  • La Chascona: looks like a boatNeruda was a passionate man who loved many things, but probably top on his list were collections and anything nautical.  As in Neruda’s other houses, most notably Isla Negra, his collections are displayed throughout.  More intriguing is the house’s unique construction: it is made to look like a boat.
  • Not only does the house look like a boat structurally, but Neruda took the added trouble of directing a stream through the middle of the yard so that guests would feel they were actually on a boat as they ate in the dining room.

    La Chascona patio

    A path replacing where a stream once was

  • Unfortunately, during the military coup of September 11, 1973, the military raided the house, destroying the contents of Neruda’s library and causing damage to the building.  After Neruda’s death, which was two weeks after the coup, Matilde began restoring La Chascona, bringing items to the house from Neruda’s other two houses.

Pablo designed a sort of trademark for La Chascona.  Pablo and Matilde’s initials are imposed over waves, a symbol which covers all of the exterior windows.La Chascona SymbolLast but not least, the precious view that Pablo had in mind when building the house… oh, wait… that hideous building in the background was built to look like a cell phone.

Stay tuned for posts about La Sebastiana and Isla Negra!Neruda's words outside of the house