Bustling Bogotá boasts something for everyone, including a thriving art scene for the aspiring artist. But it can sometimes be a little too bustling for an easily distracted wannabe writer, and so I decided to escape for a few weeks in search of a refuge where I might finally write that elusive novel.
A writer needs inspiration and Villa de Leyva is inspiring. Dinosaurs and colonialists have both left their indelible marks on this remote little town, and lush green mountains provide a suitable backdrop to such historical splendour. But I came not for the famed Spanish architecture or freakish fossilised feet. I came to play artist, I came to play bohemian, and I did not leave disappointed.
Conforming to non-conformity, I abandoned the razor and comb at home in Chapinero and set off to Boyacá with nothing but a few parchments and a fresh quill. Actually, a laptop, but I do live – somewhat reluctantly – in the twenty first century, and when not in use I did conceal the computer in my hand woven woollen mochila.
If I fancied myself as something of a Hemingway drifting around the art cafés and writing, then I would need some artist friends to help me drift. Villa de Leyva is not Paris, but some of its bohemian cafés do have a somewhat 1930’s Parisian appeal about them, or at least I suppose they do, for I’m some seventy odd years too late and on the wrong continent to fully verify this.
I asked Mateo Medina, a twenty nine year old abstract drip-and-splash artist in the style of Jackson Pollock, why there is this cluster of artists here, in Villa de Leyva. He answered with a nonchalant ‘look around you’ kind of gesture as he again removed the busy bottle of rum from its little portable cooler. Not withstanding we were squatting in our hammocks in his gallery-cum-studio. And then he elaborated: its pristine time-warped Spanish architecture with its cobbled wobbly streets, its fossilised history, its attraction to local tourists, its artisan culture, its virulent soil with its flourishing mushrooms (not all of which are appreciated merely for their nutritional value) – this is what attracts artists and assorted bohemia to Villa de Leyva.
Mateo’s little shop and studio is annexed in the La Guaca gallery on the Calle Caliente, a block north from the imposing Cathedral of the Plaza Mayor. La Guaca is also home to former Bogotá resident-turned Villa de Leyvan, Carolina Restrepo and her Arte Interior workshop where you can admire her glazed pottery creations. The broad open doorway of Mateo’s studio, half obstructed by his larger canvasses, looks out onto the quaint little quad with its indoor garden and stone fountain.
Half a block closer to the plaza is another commercial arts center, the Casa de Juan de Castellanos. César Narváez owns the impressive upstairs gallery DekoArt. There is an Enrique Ramírez painting here – eerily elongated dancers silhouetted against a violent fiery backdrop, a nightmarish parody of what would have in blue been a conventional scenic landscape. And he has a few paintings by Rafael Muñoz, of course – the local fossil painter. The colours are thick and vibrant and the featured fossils are magnified and twisted through the deep hues. Sometimes they seem menacing and alien, sometimes passive, but always strangely alive.
Cesar, the eccentric owner who always appeared dressed ready for safari, showed me a painting he himself had painted. With his of entourage of restless Spaniels at his feet, he excitedly exhibited the small acrylic with the gigantic mushroom at its centre, seemingly exploding fire at all angles as numerous half moons lazed on the surrounding landscape. Suitably psychedelic.
I continued to drift, write and drink, much I’m sure like Hemingway and Fitzgerald had done in Paris, but sensibly substituting absinthe for fruit juice, at least until the evening. I suspected there might also be another slight difference between us: they wrote some of the great American novels and one of them was a Nobel Laureate, and I…I did most of my writing in El Tintero, an art café owned by the silver-haired soothing-voiced Ivan, a lawyer from neighbouring Chiquinquirá.
This magical café, situated two blocks from Plaza Mayor is Ivan’s little hobby. The architecture is typical of quaint Leyva and El Tintero is nestled amongst several antique shops. You can smell the age. But his café is something else. Not only is the coffee good, there is an array of art books to be read at the reader’s coffee-doused leisure and the walls are lined from the ceramic floor to the wooden-beamed ceiling with original paintings by Leyva artists. A live band on a Saturday night stoked the inspiration, not that any stoking was needed. This is the almost fictional place where the wannabe writer might want to spend his time writing and being ‘arty’. I just hope it worked on me.
Getting there: Villa de Leyva lies in the La Candelaria desert near the Valley of Samacá. It can be reached by regular micro-bus service from both Chiquinquira and the capital of Boyacá, Tunja. There is direct bus service from Bogotá’s main bus terminus. The trip to Villa de Leyva can be done in 3 hours and it’s a very safe.