Thursday, 6 August 2015

Shake, Rattle and Roll

After our trouble-laden journey, it was bliss to arrive at the hotel in Antigua (a short drive from Guatemala City), have a shower, grab a bite to eat (our first black beans of the trip) and then exit out into the warm air to explore. 

Picturesque is an understatement for the town, Antigua, is the former capital of Guatemala, with cobbled streets, charming colonial architecture and an easy-going, cosmopolitan ambience. We followed the crowd down the grid of streets towards the main town squares, churches and cathedral.

Antigua is nestled in a broad highland valley with the surrounding slopes covered in pine trees and forest. Its apparent calm belies a turbulent past – both socio-politically and as a result of its location. 

Huge cones of three volcanoes overshadow the town and they have played an active role in its history. Volcán de Agua destroyed the first Guatemalan capital and even now there are shattered remnants of once-stunning edifices destroyed by earthquakes, mud-slides and eruptions. Volcán de Fuego is still active today – snorting small puffs and plumes of gas and smoke into the sky, a constant reminder of the potentially devastating impact of Nature.

People have learned to live with the threat and the architecture reflects this – buildings are surprisingly squat 

with hard cores concealed within pillars to absorb shocks, buttresses and tapered arches to withstand quakes and resist collapse. 

(They remind me slightly of coping strategies used by people under repeated stress – relying on support from friends and becoming entrenched and immovable in the hope of remaining strong and undamaged). 

Our first stop was the church of La Merced – a fantastic example of Antiguan Baroque. Buttermilk yellow - with exquisite, fine white plasterwork decoration like the most elaborate of wedding cakes – some of the ornamentation exemplifying the need of the Spanish invaders to connect with the local community. For example the maize cob and cocoa pod (both sacred to the Maya) are shown under the Virgin Mary, above the doorway, on the glorious façade.

The church was constructed by the Mercedarians (the Order of Mercy was the first religious order to establish a monastery in Guatemala) – they must have been a stoic and determined group of men, as three temples or churches were constructed on the site, and each destroyed by quakes or lahars, before the current building. The first church, completed in 1583 was destroyed in an earthquake in 1749 and La Merced as we know it was completed in 1767. There was a wedding occurring at the time that we visited – with an elaborate banquet and decorations around the famous fountain and under the Mayan-style arches.

We were welcomed inside the church, but tiptoed around and tried not to disturb.

There is a famous figure of Jesus Nazarene, sculpted by Alonso de la Paz in 1650, with noticeably dark skin that appeals to the local community - it is paraded through the streets during Holy Week with thousands paying for the honour of sharing the burden.

I was interested to see the faux mosaic decorations on some of the pillars – these have been created out of small pieces of paper cut from magazines by prisoners.

The church helped sell similar artworks to the public, thereby raising funds to support convicts’ families – the pillar decorations were a gift to the church from the prisoners by way of saying “thank you”.

After La Merced we ambled down Antigua’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue, lined with boutiques selling jade jewellery, art galleries and a surprising number of western-style restaurants and cafes. We passed under the Santa Catalina Arch – inspired by the Corridoio Vasariano above the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, it enabled the nuns to cross from their secluded convent on one side of the street to their buildings on the other without having to come into contact with people.

Just beyond the arch a group of children were re-enacting traditional Mayan dances.

The dance we watched incorporated a Spanish style bull fight – a legacy from the Conquistadors and subsequent colonisation. 

Their costumes and movements reminded me of a combination of Morris Dancers and Pearly Kings and Queens

(a picture of Pearly Kings had bade us farewell as we departed the UK).

British Pearly Kings and Queens
Annual Harvest Festival, Guildhall, London Sept. 2012
We made our way to the main square, the Parque Central. 

This has always been the heart of Antigua – a pleasant place to sit, stroll or observe. It is surrounded on four sides by significant buildings – the Church represented by the Cathedral; 

the State by the Government buildings; 

the Armed Forces by the ancient army barracks and military headquarters (the Palacios de Los Capitanes Generales); and 

Photo by jRo

on the fourth side Commerce, with shops and restaurants hidden under shady arches. 

In the centre of the square is a famous fountain depicting mermaids with water spewing like milk from the breasts – a risky subject matter when it was initially conceived in the 1730s (a time when women were shrouded from head to toe). 

A local story goes that there was a man with four daughters who were very vain. They all decided that they did not wish to marry as pregnancy and childbirth would ruin their good looks (especially their breasts during lactation). Their father berated them for refusing to provide him with grandchildren and told them they had hearts of stone. The following day when he awoke he discovered each of them petrified in their beds and these girls were then placed as the figures on the fountain.

Certainly each girl is slightly different from her peers and the fountain, which is a 1936 replica of the original, is used as an example to the would-be wives and mothers of Antigua.

We explored Saint Joseph’s Cathedral on the edge of the square. Originally the main entrance was up the steps from the square, but most of the building was destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1773 and what now functions as the cathedral was once one of the side chapels. I have never been into a cathedral in which you have to turn sharply to the right on entering in order to enter the nave. The original aisle and former cathedral has been blocked up and the ruins behind are awe inspiring

It must once have been one of the most impressive cathedrals in all Central America but Nature is supreme. Pillars built to withstand tremors lie shattered on the ground 

and the sky can be seen through the remains of the dome.

Only the crypt, with its two crematoria ovens, remains 

as well as the former underground chapel, where the Spanish nobles worshiped in seclusion. 

This cave-like place of worship has subsequently been retained as a shrine by the locals, with Mayans introducing a carving of the concubine of Pedro de Alvarado (the brutal Spaniard who conquered and ruled Guatemala). Luisa de Tiaxcalaa became in effect the third wife of Alvarado and bore him three children (his other marriages were barren). The complexities of Alvarado’s private life in some ways depicts the complications of Guatemalan history, but more of that to follow…

Don Pedro de Alvarado
We wandered back to our hotel, past smart bakeries (one housed in the former home of Luisa de Tiaxcalaa) 

and sweet shops.

When we got back to our hotel we discovered that another wedding was being celebrated and we were serenaded by the punctuating sounds of  firecrackers and the marimba, being played on the roof whilst a talented local pianist competed with “Au Clare de la Lune” in the dining room. 

Marimba player

A complex mix from various cultures, at times inspired and often discordant – in many ways a good metaphor for Guatemala.

Views of Antigua

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