CITY OF THE DEAD

Culture Tourism

Read Time: 6 min 27 sec

 

I love cities. The streets full of people, traffic, colour and noise. The vibrant energy, the endless possibilities, the promise of the future. Cities are so alive. When I travel I'm attracted to cities that offer new and exciting experiences. Yet, at some point during my stay I always find myself drawn to a place full of quiet souls. A place where I can wander through unfettered by the demands of urban life. A cemetery, a necropolis, a city of the dead - these are such places.

What is it about cemeteries that I find so alluring? Certainly the sense of peace and quietude is rejuvenating after the buzz of busy streets. The cemetery becomes a sanctuary as the din of traffic fades into the background. These moments of solitude allow you to read the tombstone epitaphs and consider all the people that lived here in days gone by. Those who came to this place, who lived and died here, their successes and failures, their dreams and desires. But what I feel most while gazing at the crumbling tombstones and the faded epitaphs, are the fleeting moments of life and that nothing lasts forever except time. Cemeteries allow me to collect my thoughts and ponder existence. What is life? Who am I? Do I really want a pizza for dinner tonight?

Pere Lachaise in Paris, Highgate in London and Arlington near Washington, DC are some of the more famous cemeteries and are certainly worth a visit if you find yourself in those cities. A few of my favourites are Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzi overlooking the tropical Atlantic in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The gloriously overgrown Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where feral cats roam amongst the tombstones of Keats and Shelley. And, of course, the most magnificent one of all - Recoleta - the divine necropolis in the center of Buenos Aires. Truly a city within a city.

(Flickr; Deensel)

Located in the upscale neighbourhood of La Recoleta near the center of Buenos Aires, the cemetery was inaugurated in 1822 and remodeled in 1881. What is remarkable about this particular cemetery is that there are no graves or tombstones per se. Instead, there are almost 4700 vaults and mausoleums constructed all above ground and packed into an area of 5.5 hectares. Looking down at the site from the surrounding neighbourhood, the cemetery appears to be a densely packed miniature city. Many of the mausoleums are elaborately decorated and designed in array of architectural styles, including Baroque, Neo-Gothic and Art Deco. It's an incredible feast for the eyes.

(Photo by Michael Shea)

After entering the cemetery through the grand main entrance marked by Doric columns, the bustling metropolis of 16 million quickly becomes a memory. Stillness descends along the tree-lined main walkways and narrow passageways that traverse the cemetery. The wind rustles dead leaves as cats slumber on cool marble steps. Many of the vaults and mausoleums are owned by wealthy families who keep the memorials of their loved ones clean and polished. Others appear forgotten, covered in dust and cobwebs and littered with trash and broken glass.

(Photo by Michael Shea)

Many people visit the cemetery to pay homage to one of its most famous "residents" - Eva Peron, lovingly known as Evita. She rests in Recoleta along with many well-known Argentinians from presidents to actors to academics. Her family tomb is well-maintained and often covered in fresh cut flowers left by devoted followers. Evita lies five meters underground in a heavily fortified crypt to protect her remains from obsessive Peronistas

(Photo by Michael Shea)

Much less well known is the story of Rufina Cambaceres, a beautiful socialite who died at 19 years old and is buried in a striking Art Nouveau mausoleum. Legend has it that she collapsed without warning, apparently of a heart attack. A few days after the funeral, a cemetery worker found the coffin had moved and the lid was cracked. Fearing that the damage had been done by grave robbers, the worker discovered scratches on the inside of the lid and Rufina's hands and face bruised. Had she woken from a coma to find herself trapped in a coffin? Was it her screams that workers claim to have heard after the funeral? Chilling thoughts to consider while gazing at Rufina's beautiful yet sombre resting place.

(Photo by Michael Shea)

Recoleta is full of fascinating tales which reflect the people and culture of this captivating city. Regarded as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, a visit to Recoleta is highly recommended. Wander down many of its quiet passageways, immersed in the history of Buenos Aires. Ponder these moments in time, and think about the pizza you may have for dinner that night.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Cover photo by Pato Gastón (Instagram: @palermeando)

 

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