Villa de Leyva

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Just the drive is worth the trip. Parts of the scenery remind me of Ireland, with its different-toned and delineated plots of farm soil and lush emerald hills. Other stretches look remarkably like Colorado – colossal peaks covered with only the toughest, brittle and brownish-green vegetation. About three hours, if you leave early enough to miss the weekend rush out of the city (we didn’t, and thus sat bumper-to-bumper on Bogota’s northern end for upwards of forty minutes. 6:00 AM, it’s no exaggeration. That’s how early you need to go).

I worried about roads before we moved here. Uribe’s biography mentioned the danger of Colombia’s highways, multiple times. Of course, the country is different now. But man, first impressions do linger. Several friends, coworkers and whatnot had to go, report the excellent and completely safe quality of the highways, and extol the many wonders of Villa de Leyva before I felt comfortable enough to leave Bogota in non-aviation mode. I can confidently report, the highways were fine. Very well kept-up, actually. And the natural landscape is stunning.

So the town itself, charming Villa de Leyva. Founded in 1572, it’s old, and wondrously little-changed in its 400+ years. You see the uniform white buildings with Spanish-tiled roofs from a distance, and then the overwhelming sensation of original cobblestone takes over. These rocks are huge; more accurately, these are boulders. I didn’t get the sense the place had been planned on a grid. It took us half an hour, multiple turn arounds and five strangers providing guidance before we arrived at our hotel. We rocked and rolled in the backseat, these ancient roads vehemently fighting the arrival of automobiles. I padded the little ones cheeks with my hands to keep her head from knocking about on the carseat.

They’re pretty difficult to walk over, too. As Lucas pointed out, this is the first place we don’t see a single Colombian woman in towering heels. Impossible here. You’d also be embracing folly to drink more than one, maybe two beers at the corner restaurant. Villa de Leyva actively discourages drunkenness. There’s no way you’d make it from one side of the plaza to the other without effecting serious injury.

We paid attention, even being stone-cold sober (pun!). I love these plazas, imported from Europe. I love how old towns gave everyone somewhere to gather. Because the surrounding mountains are so dang tall, and the structures here rarely exceed two stories, Villa de Leyva looks built for a shorter people. The sky is so tall and heavy, it seems to press the city down a bit. It’s the same illusory feel of Marfa, Texas: a wild nature so expansive that anything manmade becomes more and more obviously inferior of scale.

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Being there just one night, we really committed to plain, old bumming around. We had a half-decent meal at a nondescript diner just off the plaza and then peeked in the main church there (Iglesia Parroquial), where wedding preparations were in full swing. We wandered over to the other church (Convento del Santo Ecce Homo), which was closed, and thus spurred our  unplanned tour around the El Carmen Museum, located just next door.

No one touches the Italian masters where religious art is concerned; not in my book, and not in most. But I always find spiritual themes in art compelling, especially as I count myself a Christian, if not Catholic specifically. After two rooms of paintings and sculptures, almost all anonymous and native to Colombia, I remarked on just how dark most of these pieces were. There’s so much blood and torture, what with depicting the often gruesome ends of Christ’s followers and Catholic saints. I do get that, and it’s struck me as odd and grotesque at times. But my favorite European pieces seem to capture the beauty, love and noble sentiment within – and perhaps even spurring – these moments of suffering. This was not so much the case at the El Carmen Museum, where the focus falls mightily on the anguish side of things. Like the brutal history of Cartagena, and its subsequent reflective artwork, you get a real hit of reminding of how the New World settlements were so intertwined with suffering.

I did like this piece though, the Coronation of the Virgin. There’s a lovely, sweeping lightness to it:

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Interestingly, the El Carmen Museum is supposed to have one of the best collections of Colombian religious art in the country.

From there, we walked back to the plaza and up behind the Iglesia Paroquial, and stumbled upon Cafe Van Gogh, a hip little outdoor coffee shop with quirky furniture, kiddie activities and delicious cheesecake. Just like a little piece of South Congress Austin. The best? Chatting with a few Colombian couples, swapping parenting tips and best sightseeing in the city. You know, I’d heard often that Colombians were easygoing, friendly and kind before I came to Bogota. When you talk to other South Americans, that fact – along with the “proper” Spanish spoken here – are the two most often commented-upon features of the country. Since I finally understand enough of the language, I can attest that the Colombian accent is indeed pure, in the sense that it has few if any quirks of pronunciation. Cristian, my long-suffering tutor, and I laughed quite a bit at the Spanish (from Spain) recordings accompanying our textbook. The “th” sound is atrocious. But anyway, I’ve been much more aware, and much more often aware too, of how relaxed and approachable Colombians are. The rumors are true, fortunately.

For dinner, we went to Chez Remy, a French place recommended by some friends. Delicious! I love that Frenchies – who portray themselves as sophisticated gourmands, lovers of dainty main course servings with a heaping dessert of nicotine – can do comfort food so darn well. My plate was massive, beef and vegetables and baked potatoes in a salty, brown sauce. Wow! Lucas had some French Onion soup and an appetizer. Maybe he’s following in my dad’s footsteps and taking on the eating habits of a middle-aged woman half-commited to dieting. Ha! I don’t know, but he seemed to like it, so everyone’s happy.

The plaza mayor at night is beautiful, particularly with the added blessing of a full moon.

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Also, the afternoon-wedding preparations came to fruition, and while the bride and groom readied their exit, I got a nice evening peek at the gold and gaudy altarpiece. Ooh, it’s very impressive, very rich:

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The next morning, we walked to La Panaderia and had some coffee, eggs and (for Lucas) a cream-cheese brownie. The diet was short-lived. Once again, let me state: I’ve yet to taste a bad cup of coffee here. They’re more consistent than the Italians, which is heresy, I know, but also: it is true. Then, we hit the road back to Bogota.

Look, there’s tons more to do. Villa de Leyva has dinosaur fossils and four-wheeling day treks and horseback excursions and tour guides and everything else. Believe me, we will partake at some point. But it’s also a great city to just wander.