The Three Houses of Pablo Neruda

Posted by on November 15th, 2017

He who does not travel, who does not read,

who does not listen to music,

who does not find grace in himself,

she who does not find grace in herself,

dies slowly.

“Die Slowly” by Pablo Neruda

In Chile, Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904-September 23, 1973) is a beloved poet, politician, and personality. He started writing poetry at just 10 years old, and developed his writing in a variety of styles, eventually becoming the voice of the Chilean Communist Party. He had a love of travel and culture, serving as a diplomat and a senator. When communism was outlawed in Chile in 1948, Neruda went into months of hiding in a friend’s basement in the city of Valparaíso, eventually escaping to Argentina. In 1952, as the political tides turned to socialism in Chile, Neruda was able to return to his home again where he continued his career as a writer and political supporter. He was diagnosed with cancer in early 1973 and died in September of that year. (While his cancer is Neruda’s officially-reported cause of death, it has long been speculated that he was, in fact, murdered for political reasons. This supposition is supported by recent forensic tests.)

Neruda’s character remains larger than life in Chile, evidenced by the variety of street art with his image, the frequency with which his work is quoted or written in public spaces, and the preservation of his three homes as museums. These museums are located in Santiago, Valparaíso, and Isla Negra, and well worth a visit as they provide a vivid depiction of who the man was. Neruda was an entertainer and a collector. He enjoyed the element of surprise, and also relished tradition. He had a love of the sea, but a fear of water. He was also quite passionately dedicated to his country.


La Chascona (the Tangled-Haired Woman)

Located in the Bellavista neighborhood in central Santiago, La Chascona is the house that Neruda dedicated to and named for his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, who he called the Tangled-Haired Woman. At the time of purchase and construction (1953), Urrutia and Neruda were engaged in a secret affair, but within two years he had separated from his wife and moved in with his true love. One of the most important pieces in the house is a painting by the famed artist Diego Rivera, who painted a two-headed portrait of Urrutia with the image of Neruda hidden in her tangled hair.

The audio guide describes not only the physical pieces in the house, but also their significance to Neruda himself while telling stories about the man and his quirks. This house demonstrates Neruda’s love of the element of surprise, as it has a few secret passageways that allowed him to pop out and surprise his guests at the start of his house parties.


La Sebastiana

This is the most vertical of Neruda’s three homes and it is located in the port city of Valparaíso. La Sebastiana was constructed so each level has picture windows looking out towards the sea. The tour begins with the original entrance to the house, at the lower level, and travels upwards through his home, ending on the top floor.

At the bar on the third floor, you can see Neruda’s love of entertaining over a cocktail alongside his cheeky humor. The bar itself, though in a small space, has an ornate collection of glassware from all over the world. The bathroom is not for the timid, as the door is latticework, offering a full view of its occupants for whoever is at the bar. At this point, the audio guide will give you the recipe to one of Neruda’s favorite cocktails that he named El Coquetelón, the big flirt. This cocktail is made with Cointreu, cognac, orange juice, and champagne, all of Neruda’s favorite ingredients.

The tour ends at the top floor, which was Neruda’s writing room. Here, he spent much time looking out towards the ever-changing water. On his writing desk, you can read a poem in Neruda’s handwriting dedicated to the ocean.


Isla Negra (Black Island)

This was the third house of Neruda’s that I toured, and I had unknowingly saved the best for last. This house was designed specifically with the geography of Chile in mind. The house is long and narrow, and the tour starts in the living room at the north end of the house, which is filled with collections from later in Neruda’s life. The most striking of all of his collections is in this room: ship mastheads strung up around the room and facing the picture windows overlooking the sea. The audio guide discloses that every winter one of the mastheads would weep tears from her eyes. Neruda told his guests that she was crying for her love of the sea and her desire to be back out in the water; however, the true culprit was most likely a combination of the heat of the fire, and condensation in her ceramic eyes.

Progressing through the house, the tour details the origin of Neruda’s collections, stories from Neruda’s life, and eventually you reach the southernmost point of the house, Neruda’s writing room, which is filled with artifacts from his childhood. This is fitting as he spent his youth in the south. One of the biggest pieces in the house is a large leather horse which used to be outside a tannery in his childhood hometown. He had admired this horse while growing up, and purchased it decades later from the owner after the tannery was burned down in a fire.

The museum house in Isla Negra also has a restaurant. The first page of the menu has a list of Neruda’s favorite dishes, and I recommend ordering off that page. I ordered the Reineta stuffed with shrimp in a parmesan cream sauce and was delighted with my choice. The man had a fierce love of travel and culture, with a strong loyalty to his beloved Chile, and he certainly had good taste.

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