Surrounded by volcanoes, a multitude of ancient buildings bear witness to the architectural heritage echoing the colonial past of this great urban museum.
Taking a leap into the past is made a reality not only because of the cobbled paths, the horse-drawn carriages or the ancient religious buildings – some in ruins and others embellished with Renaissance and Baroque art – but rather because many natives, most of them women, can be seen flaunting colourful traditional dresses and native Indian blouses.
The city appears stuck in time. Here, the archaic seat of the University of San Carlos of Barromeo – now the Museum of Colonial Art, where paintings and sculptures summon up images of graduation ceremonies in this prestigious academic establishment – is preserved.
The tourist guide repeats aloud an inscription etched into one of the exhibition room walls: “The Doctorate graduation ceremonies were spectacular events held in the Ancient Cathedral.”
The graduates, he notes, would parade the streets grandiosely on horse back, amongst a procession of trumpets and kettledrums, whilst mace-bearers, other doctoral graduates, members of authority and the public announced upon his appearance that no greater honour could be bestowed upon an individual, nor bequeathed his lineage, than to be hailed a graduate.
Historians maintain that Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (“the City of St. James of the Knights of Guatemala”) – under its original name – competed in terms of its growth and development with Mexico, Pueblo de Zaragoza, Lima and Quito and Potosi. The eruption of the Volcano Agua (“Water”), one of those which can be sighted from its present geographical position, destroyed La Antigua (“The Old City”), and then located in the so-named valley of Almolonga. And so, the city was moved to the valley of Ponchoy where it remained established – and where the most valuable examples of Central American Baroque architecture were erected – despite the damage caused by the earthquakes of 1717 and 1757 when it was rebuilt.
However, the powerful earthquake of 1773 caused significant material loss that forced the powers that be to move the old capital to its present settlement, now home to the new Guatemalan capital (some 10 km to the East). For this reason it was re-baptised Antigua Guatemala or simply “Antigua”.’
Today’s central park offers a refuelling stop before embarking on the tour. Here, people can take in the pleasant surroundings, have a chat on a comfortable bench in the shade afforded by the dense canopies of the trees, listen to classical melodies played by live groups, take a stroll with the family or read a newspaper or good book.
La Fuente de las Sirenas (“The Mermaids Fountain”) is in the centre of this square and is covered with purple petals during Lent (from February to April): the colour of penance is a friendly reminder of this time of the year when Catholics pay to carry an effigy of Christ aloft in the many frequently held processions.
It is a measure of the honour felt by these devout Christians, a Guatemalan points out, that they are willing to pay for the privilege of carrying a picture or sculpture of him who died on the Cross for mankind.
From the park you can marvel at the perfectly white San Jose Cathedral (“St. Joseph’s Cathedral”), which was transformed in 1680 to the grandiose cathedral it is today, one of the most splendid in all of Central America.
After crossing the famous Arco de Santa Catolina (“Arch of St. Catherine”), you come across the Church of Merced (“Mercy”), opened in 1767, and which the passer-by can admire for its polished Baroque façade wherein its decorative plasterwork demonstrates painstaking workmanship.
Similarly, the ruins and the restored part of the one-time seat of the Jesuits – an order founded in Rome in 1542 by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in order to fight heracy – still survive to this day.
But, this urban space with a population of 45 million inhabitants – declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979 – contains much more. The Museo del Libro Antiguo (“Museum of Ancient Books”) is home to a print made from the first Guatemalan press which arrived in 1660, and the Casa del Tejido Antiguo (“House of Ancient Textiles”) houses a treasure-trove of traditional dress from the different regions of Guatemala.
Every few steps you take some commercial establishment or other looms, or a walking vendor insists tirelessly on demonstrating to you how his product is the best in the word and it would be a good idea to take the plunge and buy one. Haggling is a ritual and the buyer must oblige.
If the buyer does disagree with the price offered by the vendor then the equitable solution is to suggest you will buy the item from another vendor further on. This approach is sacrosanct for those seeking a memento at a relatively moderate price.
The visitor may savour traditional dishes such as “pepian” (a steaming thick chilli sauce), meat broth, and spices and meats such as chicken with hot corn tortillas – a culinary classic handed down by the Mayan wise-men.
Those with a sweet tooth will take their hats off in wonder, all the while salivating, at the host of traditional goodies on show: milk candy sticks, coconut sweets, guava shavings and tamarind balls.
Tourists order tea, coffee or hot chocolate on the terrace of La Casaca restaurant which is perched on a third step higher up where, down at the foot, a part of the bustling metropolis is overlooked. From here, the rooftops, park and trees can all be enjoyed.
Some of them, armed with laptop and headphones take advantage of the wifi coverage provided and with their Skype connexion they defy distance, relaying to mum and dad their impressions of this place, and even showing them portions of the landscape via the computer camera which their parents then comment on from thousands of miles away.
Others tap away furiously on their BlackBerry’s sending messages to family and friends, presumably with reference to this great metropolis, visited by Jose Marti in 1877, and about which he bequeathed memorable passages in his book entitled Guatemala, edited in February of the following year.
In similar fashion, Antoine de Saint Exupery, having endured an aeroplane accident in 1938, recovered in this town which – according to the opinion of the university professor Jorge Carrol, who had put down roots in this country – furnished the author with the inspiration to write his famous book El Principito (“The Little Prince”).
According to one of Carrol’s studies, Exupery recovered in a large house in Antigua, which was strangely enough surrounded by the volcanoes Agua, Fuego (“Fire”) and Acatenango: three, just as with the Asteroid B612 (mentioned in “The Little Prince” and discovered by a Turkish astronomer in 1906) and on which the little boy with the golden locks was supposed to have lived.
In referring to this supposed coincidence, the academic recalls a section of the volume which has been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects: “Wow! My planet is not especially interesting, it’s tiny! Here, I’ve got three volcanoes – two active and one inactive – but you never know (…) I’ve also got a flower which has four thorns to protect it from the world.”
For the doctor of Philology it is obvious that this plant was a rose from Antigua, “the city of eternal roses”, with “three volcanoes: one the Volcano of Water – which is inactive, but you never know – and the other two volcanoes, Fire and Acatenango, which are both active.” (PL)
(Translated by Nigel Conibear – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)