On our first cool Sunday we took the subway into town and strolled about the Plaza de Armas. Every town and city in Chile has one. It was the first thing drawn out by ye old Spanish town planners to be the civic and social heart of the colonial city grid. Santiago's Plaza de Armas is exceedingly venerable, dating back to 1548, only eight years after the Spanish arrived and declared the country west of the mountains a colony. The buildings that face onto it are equally venerable - all the big bits of architectural history are represented: the rather baroque-ish Santiago Cathedral (1745), the Municipalidad de Santiago (1785) (slightly more renaissance, in a middle-classic solid sort of way), the Palace of the Royal Audience (1804) (not quite with the neoclassical program) and the historic Central Post Office (1882) (French Second Empire, very up to date).
Regardless of what fronts it, a Plaza de Armas always has fountains and palm trees, heroic statues of military men and horses, and most importantly, benches under the trees where you can sit and watch the people of the pueblo pass you by.
Santiago's plaza is full of tourists, but it is very much still a living city square. The benches are occupied by tarot readers and balloon sellers, theater students reading poetry, gaggles of teenage girls giggling and painting their nails, and around them babies are running through the fountains, old men play chess in a band shell and in one corner of the plaza Art is happening, painters selling copies of every painting known to classically-educated man.
Artists sit on high stools, painting from photographs, the paintwork getting thicker with every iteration. Diego Rivera? Pay by the lily. A Venus by Botticelli? Or only her left breast? Any way you like her – on canvas and driftwood and even wire netting, if you want it that way.
Choosing serenity over art, however worthy, we walked into the Cathedral. It's quite a building. To quote my father every time he passes - “Such an Ugly Cathedral! What an ugly cathedral!”
I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as he seems to think. Granted, it has no great aesthetic appeal, with the all grace and soaring elegance of a tool shed. But it’s not ugly. It’s just nondescript. The acres of marble facing are painted onto the stone and the paint needs a good scrub. The columns are lumpy and graceless, the frescoes are chipped, the gold leaf is covered in cobwebs, and a century or more of smog and dust and city grit has tinted everything a dull, matte shade of faceless grey.
And the tinkly cut glass lighting fixtures on every column have got to go.
But it’s not that bad. Give it a good scrub, take out the altars and as Dad has pointed out, it would make a great dance hall.