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Travelling with poetic licence in Chile

Press Association logoPress Association 6/04/2017 Sarah Marshall

A controversial character, who divided opinion with his socialist beliefs and flamboyant lifestyle, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was one of the 20th century's literary greats.

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, his fame spread worldwide, yet appreciation for his love poems, historical epics and simple odes to everyday life, is still limited in English-speaking countries.

An adventurous, fantasy biopic by lauded filmmaker Pablo Larrain will no doubt redress that imbalance.

"I was raised in a country where Neruda is in the air, the water and the trees," says Chilean Larrain. "Our identity and character has been shaped mostly by our poets."

Gael Garcia Bernal plays a supporting role in the semi-imagined story of an episode in Neruda's tumultuous life, when political differences forced him to live as a fugitive.

His character, fascist police investigator Oscar Peluchonneau, engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the defiant artist, and develops both a fascination and respect for him in the process.

Bernal shares those feelings: "He's such a big person, who can build worlds and create landscapes. He would write about things with an emotional perspective, which is so needed. For example, he would have written about this horrendous victory of Donald Trump!"

Although work as a diplomat carried Neruda across the globe, his heart always lay with Chile and the Pacific Ocean, so "big, unruly and blue".

Take a tour through Santiago, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, to discover the colourful backstreets and wild coastlines that inspired his life's work.

THE SECRET LOVE NEST

Where: La Chascona, Santiago

Buried at the base of San Cristobal Hill, in the bohemian Bellavista district, Neruda's landlocked house still has a strong connection with the sea. Fish motifs decorate the walls, and the building itself looks ready to set sail.

Built in 1953 as a retreat for secret trysts with his mistress Matilde Urrutia, the property is named after her wild, unruly red hair.

Neruda would regularly host dinner parties for friends here, although only he was allowed to serve drinks from behind The Captain's Bar - normally in colourful glasses, because they tasted better that way.

A hoarder with a sense of humour, he amassed unusual trinkets and fancy ornaments from his time spent overseas as a diplomat. Look out for a secret stash of playing cards displayed beneath a staircase in The Lighthouse Living room, and a giant shoe once used as a cobbler's shop sign, now propped in front of the outdoor summer bar.

- Tickets STG8.50 ($A14) . Closed Mondays. Visit fundacionneruda.org

THE MEAL OF POETS

Where: Venezia Restaurant and Mercado Central, Santiago

Caldillo de Congrio, a warming fish stew made with the "snowy flesh" of the conger eel, was Neruda's favourite dish. He loved it so much he even dedicated a poem to the sworn hangover remedy. "In this dish you may find heaven," he wrote in Ode to Caldillo De Congrio.

One of his favourite places to blissfully indulge was the El Venezia Restaurant at Pio Nono 200, a five-minute walk from La Chascona. Black and white pictures of Neruda float between paintings of gondolas on the peeling walls, and Italian football commentators squeal from TV screens. The food is so-so, but the atmosphere certainly makes up for it.

A better creation of the dish can be found at Santiago's Mercado Central, a 19th century fish market where restaurants serve seafood beneath a wrought-iron ceiling.

- Try La Joya del Pacifico (open daily from 6am), where the stew costs from STG7.

A SAILBOAT IN THE SKY

Where : La Sebastiana, Valparaiso

Nothing really gets going until midday in this free and easy, graffiti-splashed seaside town, a 90-minute drive from Santiago.

Once a vital trading port for the Americas, until the Panama Canal arrived in 1914, it's now favoured by hippies, students and stray dogs.

The counter culture way of life fits perfectly with Neruda's own unorthodox sentiments.

Eschewing the pretty aristocratic hub of Cerro Alegre (where bars, hotels and restaurants now flourish), he chose to build a five-storey house higher up in one of the town's 45 hills, amid a hotchpotch of colourful immigrants' houses. Take one of the town's trundling 100-year-old funiculars to get there.

The view alone is worth the journey - surveying the inky blue bay, it's the perfect docked crow's nest.

In keeping with Neruda's eccentric tastes, the house is brimming with oddities styled with a smile. A man and woman in matching Edwardian ruffs glare longingly at each other from gilt frames hung on opposite walls; Neruda purchased the paintings as a pair, fearing they might otherwise get lonely.

- Tickets: STG8.50 ($A14). Closed Mondays. Visit fundacionneruda.org

A PLACE OF REST

Where: Casa de Isla Negra, Isla Negra

"I need the sea because it teaches me," mused Neruda in his poem The Sea. "Until I fall asleep, in some magnetic way I move in the university of the waves."

Throughout his life, the poet had a great reverence for the ocean, and this coastal home, perched on a rocky headland a two-hour drive from Santiago, quickly became his favourite.

After searching for a place in resort town Cartagena (now a sorry shadow of itself), Neruda moved into the property in 1945 and lived here with Delia del Carril.

A steam engine on the front lawn nods to his father's work as a railway employee, and collections of exotic shells and boats in bottles cram the shelves.

A ship's wheel has been repurposed as a coffee table and a telescope sits neatly at Neruda's bedside. He once used it to spy a piece of driftwood floating in the ocean, which eventually became his most treasured desk.

It was upon this shipwrecked cellar door that the prolific poet composed some of his greatest works (always in green pen) including historical epic, Canto General.

Mystery surrounds the cause of Neruda's death in 1973, which coincided with right-wing dictator Pinochet's coup d'etat, but his body now lies peacefully alongside his two loves, Matilde and the ocean.

"Friends, bury me at Isla Negra, before the sea I know, before each wrinkled stretch of stones, and before the waves my lost eyes will see no more."

- Tickets: AGBP8.50 ($A14). Closed Mondays. Expect queues from 10am in high season (Nov - Feb). Visit fundacionneruda.org

* Neruda releases in Australia on May 25.

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