Antigua's Hidden Charms

December 22, 2015  •  Leave a Comment
Maybe because it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was expecting something dramatically beautiful when I got to Antigua, Guatemala. Initially, I was disappointed. Gradually I found that Antigua indeed has its splendors. They just reveal themselves a little slowly. 
 
At first sight, Antigua looked stony, cold, almost ugly. I walked from a hotel on the outskirts of town toward the central plaza. The streets were made of cobblestones, rough and uncomfortable underfoot. Riders on bicycles and motor-scooters, or perched in back of pickup trucks, vibrated as if molded from gelatin. The streets and sidewalks, already narrow, are crowded by stout stone walls, usually eight to ten feet high with a fading veneer of painted stucco. There are no softening trees beside the streets. Windows in the ubiquitous walls are usually covered with iron security bars. Flower boxes are rare. Sometimes, one can walk an entire block on a rough little sidewalk, one shoulder scraping a blank wall, its facade broken only by an occasional wooden gate, padlocked shut. The affect, on an empty street, is as warm as a prison.
 
Much of this design, I suspect, is due to Antigua's history. Spanish colonizers founded it in 1524. Within two years, the indigenous people showed their feelings about becoming part of the Spanish Empire: they burned the place down. When the colonizers rebuilt, they put their houses and their wealth behind high stone walls, hard to get over, impossible to burn. The design of necessity over time, I suppose, became the design of tradition.  (And there may still be some necessity involved. Guatemala, like most of Central America--and increasingly, like the United States--is a country of vast income inequality. It may well be imprudent to flaunt wealth.)
 
The walls couldn't protect the Spaniards from nature, however. Earthquakes essentially destroyed Antigua a couple of times in the 18th century. The location was deemed so dangerous that the Spanish government moved Guatemala's capital 25 miles to the east, to what is now Guatemala City. Antigua very slowly revived,  but it remains a low-rise city, with no occupied building taller than two stories. When the earth shakes, one- and two-story buildings are less likely to fall down.
 
Indeed, the highest structures in Antigua today have already fallen down. They're church ruins. Though the campaniles and facades of these churches still stand, the roofs are gone, as are the statues and the furnishings. Inside, centuries of rain have scrubbed the walls free of frescoes. Wooden barriers block the doorways. There are laws, imposed by both Guatemala and UNESCO, against the demolition of Antigua ruins and their replacement by modern buildings. It's even hard to build something new in their vicinity. But neither are they rebuilt and restored. Even if they could be, the undertaking would be prohibitively expensive for a poor country.
 
So that is the first impression Antigua gives—cobblestones, stone walls, padlocked gates and bare, ruined choirs, as Shakespeare might have put it. The ruins stand as reminders of Spain's determination to impose its religion on a new land and the land's resistance.
 
But slowly, in my walks around town, I started finding, and looking through, gates and doors that were not locked shut. My impressions of Antigua began to change.
 
I got glimpses of private courtyards filled with lush tropical plants, trees, and because it was the Christmas season, potted Poinsettias. (The garden at left is in the courtyard of a hotel, the San Rafael.) Antiguan courtyard designs are perhaps in part a product of the climate. When it's hot most of the year, and there's no air-conditioning, you build in a way that allows cross ventilation whenever there's a breeze. The interior courtyards seem often to have shady galleries for sitting outdoors.
 
The school where I studied Spanish was like that. It occupied a building that once was a clinic. The building had a small garden with a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Along the courtyard's perimeter was a kind of gallery covered by a roof. The students and teachers sat at small tables, under the roof, in the open air but sheltered from rain and sun. 
 
Antigua is noted for having one of the New World's first street grids, a concept the Spaniards adopted from Italy. And indeed on a map, the city's blocks are regular and rectangular. The streets have named like "1st Avenue South" and "3rd Street East." But I came to think of the city more as a hive, with much of its life and activity taking place within these courtyard structures, each discrete and private. The courtyards of the poor may be small. They probably have dirt surfaces instead of flagstones, a worn wooden bench and perhaps a small dog, or a cat, or a couple of chickens. The wealthy have topiary bushes, carefully cultivated flowers, sculptures, and a pool, a fountain, or both. But the Guatemalans all live around courtyards, behind walls, hidden from the streets.   
 
It's a contrast to the streetscapes of the United States, lined by trees, with front yards and porches or stoops open to the world. I don't think Americans are warmer and friendlier than Guatemalans. We're hardly commune members by culture. But maybe there's a bigger zone of privacy in Guatemala. There's an interior space that is private and protected. You can see the contrast in the picture at the top of this post, which shows the exterior wall of an old Jesuit college, which is now a cultural center supported by the government of Spain. Below left is the interior, which can be seen only by those admitted through a portal.
 
Antigua does, of course, have its public spaces. To begin with, there's the Parque Central, or central plaza. Topiary trees dot the square, a burst of natural green. Children play by a fountain. The city's working cathedral, built next to the ruins of the original, occupies one side of the plaza, and its facade is dotted with sculptures of saints.
 
This park is a very active place. Mayan women and men walk about, dangling blankets and shawls, beads and necklaces from their arms. In soft voices, they offer to sell them. As darkness approaches, the peddlers emphasize little plastic toys of one kind or another that light up. Their baskets of wares look like glowing plastic bouquets.
 
At least in the Christmas season, the square and the streets around it are entertainment venues. One afternoon, some kind of kids' gym demonstrated dancercize and Tae-Bo. A woman jumped up on a platform, wearing a Santa hat, and led an exercise class for anyone in the park who felt like participating. There was a singing contest that sounded like a bad karaoke night. Another night, an orchestra from the local arts school played Christmas music. I saw a Nativity ballet performed by little girls from a local dance school on a small stage erected under an ancient arch that once allowed cloistered nuns to go from one convent building to another without being seen by people in the street.
 
On a Saturday night, another orchestra, along with a choir, played classical Christmas music inside the ruins of the old cathedral, lit up by candles for the occasion. The concert was called “Under the Star of Bethlehem” because, of course, the venue had no roof. For some reason, the music was punctuated by the sound of fireworks going off. It almost seemed as if Antigua was under siege by an invading army, and the performers were determined to finish their concert before heading to the barricades. But when I left the cathedral ruins and walked into the plaza, all was well. Yet another orchestra, this one a big jazz band, was in the middle of a concert that featured American classics of the 1940s. A beautiful Guatemalan women was singing, in English, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Then the band did a Glenn Miller medley, and a few couples jitterbugged on the park's flagstones to the tune of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
 
I was bemused. My first impression of Antigua could not have been more wrong.
 
 

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