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WALLS THAT TALK

Paint & poetry

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It's been called South America's most under-rated city. Visitors to the Chilean town of Valparaiso will be blown away by stunning murals, quaint alleys and innovative dining options.

Wandering through the mural-lined lanes of the Chilean port town of Valparaiso, one cannot help but notice poetry and prose in every nook and corner. Every house that lines the cobblestone alleyways in the 10-odd cerros (hills) that make up Valparaiso, or Valpo as its residents call it, has a story to tell. Reds, yellows, purples and greens grab you by the eyeballs and force you to stop and listen to the story that the bold brushstrokes tell. It's not surprising then that even Pablo Neruda (tourists can visit his house) was hugely inspired by these walls and courtyards. How crazy/a crazy port/what a head with hills/ dishevelled/you don't finish combing your hair/you never have time to get dressed, Neruda wrote in "Ode to Valparaiso".

Murals, graffiti and street art make Valpo a jaw-dropping experience for tourists. The city is a UNESCO-protected world heritage site. And nobody values the cultural inheritance of the city more than the artists and illustrators who contribute to it. Take Jeske who has been working as a graffiti artist for the past nine years. To earn a living he works for various galleries but for his artistic "satisfaction" he paints graffiti - both at home and outside. He lives in an old dilapidated apartment, where everything from the walls in the dining room to the refrigerator in the kitchen is covered with his work.

When I met Jekse he was sitting in Casa Verde Limon, a house built in 1925 which he and a few other artists helped restore and redecorate. With Raghupati raghav rajaram playing in the background, he loudly explained graffiti production in Spanish to a translator whom I had taken along. "We cannot just start spraying on a wall. We need permission from the owners and the police. I never do any work illegally. My work involves so much detail that I have to do it in the day. So it is always better to seek permission, " he explained.

Unlike in other parts of the world, where graffiti is seen as defacement and even vandalism, in Valpo it is an art form. Artists are pitted against one another, making any available wall in a good spot a much fought-for canvas.

Jekse and some other artists run a group called Un Kolor Distinto. Apart from their own neighbourhood, they also paint in Cerro Carcel. They are inspired by the works of Salvador Dali and Brazilian artist duo Os G?meos but they take pride in their originality as well. Jekse, for one, has his own distinctive style. His repertoire of work, on display in Argentina, Peru and Bolivia and, of course, Chile includes landscapes, letters and organic art but his main flourish lies in oblong-faced characters, with suspicious looks on their faces, engaging in a multitude of interesting activities. "I respect this art form so much that I would never copy something from the Internet, " he says.

Jekse's group is working towards creating an open air museum in their neighbourhood to attract more tourists. Most tourist brochures mention Cerro Concepcion, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Bellavista as the "must-visit" hills but not Cerro Miraflores, where Jekse lives.

The entire city of Valpo is working hard to conserve and restore historical buildings. Apart from the graffiti, Valpo's ascensores are also unique. They are like funicular elevators that go diagonally upwards and help people beat the steep climb up the hills. Some of these ascensores offer spectacular views of the ocean. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund declared Valpo's ascencores one of the world's 100 most endangered historical treasures. Valpo has 15 of them and all are more than a 100 years old.
The Spaniards who came to Valparaiso almost 200 years ago called it "Vale of Paradise, " not because of the ocean but also because of its fine weather. Valpo may have had an advantage in terms of its natural setting but what makes it an unforgettable experience is the general feel of this quaint port.

AT A GLANCE

HOW TO REACH |
The best way to travel to Valpo from Santiago de Chile, the capital city, is to take a bus which takes 90 mins to cover the 120 km distance. Within the city use the local metro or taxis.

MUST DO |

Go to ascensoresor inclines which are also a practical way of reaching higher parts of the town without taking long pedestrian routes.

AVOID |

Hanging your bag or purse on the back of your chair. Valpo is not considered a safe city in Chile.

EAT | Chorrillana

, a high-calorie meal which is a heap of french fries topped with steak, onion and eggs.

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