In the Air

If one had to judge the culture and sophistication of a city by the aroma level of stale urine in the air then Valparaiso in Chile would not rate very highly. It would also fall down on the amounts of rubbish and dog shit littering the cobbled streets. However, that would be to do Valparaiso a disservice. Scruffy, dirty and pungent it may be in many corners but it has a self-styled charm that rises above all its slovenliness. A gloriously haphazard concoction of houses, churches, shanties and plazas sprawl across the forty two steep hills scored by multiple ravines that line the bay. A vast majority of the buildings are constructed of Oregon timber used as ballast and corrugated iron used as a packing material in the ships that flocked here in the 1880s.

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This Industrial Age architecture offers up bungalows, Italianate mansions and French balconied townhouses that once housed the huge numbers of European immigrants. Valparaiso, known to many as little San Francisco, was for a period, the first and most important port on the sea coast of South America linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Strait of Magellan.

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But good times come and go and the Panama Canal, opened in 1914, signalled a decline for the port and the city. ‘Poverty spills over its hills like a waterfall’ wrote Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who had a house in the city from 1959 until his death in 1973. But artists, always looking for an even cheaper garret in which to starve and paint in, were drawn here in the 1960s and began a project of rejuvenation using a palette of fluorescent colours.

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At times it seems as though not a stone, piece of corrugated iron or timber has been ignored by the mural makers and graffiti artists. Valparaiso is not a city for those with ‘pastel loving’ sensibilities. It is a full on assault of the visual sense with murals, many based on important political and social events in Chile, at every turn. There is also a huge amount of tagging, that, whilst never straying onto the murals, appears on almost every other free canvas. So come, hopefully on a bright sunny day, and wander the narrow alleys and streets at a slow pace. Stop often, turn slowly, return again when the light is different. Valparaiso, or Valpo as it is known now, will work its magic on you.

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I lived for 20-years in Bristol, England: a city known for Banksy and Massive Attack and found Valparaiso to be a mashup of all the best parts of my home city – think St Werburghs meets Montpelier meets Windmill Hill. But later I came to see that it was bigger than that: it was Bristol meets the Mission District San Francisco meets Havana. And what did I ultimately feel about Valparaiso? I liked it a lot, the colour, the music, the food and the energy. Even its scruffiness had a raffish edge to it, like an old roué, Valpo is a hard-drinking and womanising Peter O’Toole of a city, a place you can’t help but be intoxicated and fascinated by.

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But on my last stroll around Cerro Alegre – the Happy Hill – a dog (one of many roaming the city) jumped onto the pavement in front of me to urinate against a lamp post. It recalled to mind a friend in Bristol saying that tagging is the human equivalent of dogs pissing in the street. It is a marking of one’s territory. I don’t actually mind dogs pissing in the street. I do not like tagging.

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