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Spanish-Colonial Colombia

Celebrating 200 Years Of Freedom And Memories Of Things Forgotten In Santa Fe De Antioquia

It’s a big year for Santa Fe de Antioquia, the small but almost perfectly preserved Spanish-colonial town tucked away in the Colombian Andes some 50 miles from Medellin.

On Aug. 11, Santa Fe celebrated the 200th anniversary of its unilateral declaration of independence from the Spanish crown, when the town’s fathers, inspired by the French and American revolutions and Napoleon’s victories in Spain, proclaimed that they had “ceremoniously thrown off the yoke” of Spanish rule and were “free forever.”

True up to a point. Three years later, after the Iron Duke had put the kibosh on little Bony at Waterloo, the Spanish Monarchy took a lash to the back of this rebellious enclave. The President of independent Santa Fe was duly marched before a firing squad, defiantly proclaiming that ”to live today is a disgrace. Man does not exist only to live.” It was not until the 1830s that Santa Fe and the rest of modern Colombia got true independence.

These stirring events were duly celebrated this August with long speeches; parades of dignitaries, scouts, clergy, handicapped children, police, bands, and majorettes; men in dunce caps carrying heavy statues like in Seville; mounted and foot soldiers plus four army tanks; to say nothing of an electronic Te Deum and music fiesta in the airy Cathedral and singing and dancing in the main square after the hot sun subsided. The fun and games will go on through the end of the year.

In the meantime, between the art exhibitions, the photography shows, and the celebrations of the town’s suspension bridge (the first in Latin America, completed the year the Eiffel Tower was built), little Santa Fe snoozes on peacefully, encircled by its cloud-encrusted mountain peaks.

For not much has changed here since that glorious bid for independence two centuries ago. The town is still no more than a cluster of cobbled streets amid rows of low houses with flower-decked balconies, tall wooden doors, and shuttered windows encased in elaborate iron-work. Cars are few, motor bikes and bicycles more plentiful, but horses far from unknown. Busy, bustling Medellin, with its metro system, its funicular railways, and skyscraper clusters, is the region’s unquestioned center; Santa Fe is a mere memory of how this country once looked.

The little town has one absolutely first rate place to stay—the Hotel Mariscal Robledo, right in the center and named after Jorge Robledo who founded the place in 1541. Its 36 rooms open onto deep, shady verandas overlooking a swimming pool and hung with flowering creepers. While a portion of the ground floor is kept permanently air-conditioned (for Santa Fe can get very hot), the dining room and bar flow naturally into a garden with pools and streams.

A curiosity of the hotel is that just about everything moveable bears a price tag and turns out to be for sale. You can buy the chair you are sitting in, or the bookcase standing near you, even your bedside table. And as if this were not enough, displayed around the public areas are piles of old leather suitcases, ancient scrubbing boards, vintage bicycles, old typewriters, kitchen tables, and similar bric-a-brac—all for sale, usually at quite high prices. What kind of guest would buy such things? Or do the locals regard the hotel as a second-hand furniture shop from which to furnish their homes?

The town boasts two museums, both in the same street behind the Cathedral, one secular the other religious. In the Museo Juan del Corral, you can see the table, made locally to a British Queen Anne design, on which that famous declaration of independence was signed by the three leading revolutionaries of their day—Juan del Corral himself, who held the office of “President-Dictator,” and the town’s Secretaries of “War and Foreign Affairs” and “Mercy and Justice.” Proud titles for such a small place.

A few yards away, the former headquarters of the Jesuits (before they were expelled) is today a rather successful religious art museum. Here, to a background of soft plainchant, are displayed paintings, statues, and other religious objects from the town’s once flourishing religious life, all in the rather gaudy, extravagant style favored by the Spanish Church. Of particular interest are some fine vases and ewers fashioned from local silver that serve as reminders that the region was originally favored as a mining center for precious metals. There is also an exhibit about Colombia’s first native-born saint, Mother Laura, MA, who was canonized in his first month on the job by Pope Francis. Mother Laura was an independent-minded and seriously educated early-20th-century missionary to the local Indians who gave up the wimple and rode a donkey to reach their villages.

Apart from this, there is not much else to see or do in Santa Fe. The Cathedral may be large but contains little of interest apart from an optimistic row of 12 confessional boxes. Modern shops and stores have grown up inside many of those low 18th-century buildings, while others have set up bars and restaurants in their cool interior courtyards.

But gastronomy is not up to much in Santa Fe despite the steady growth of weekend tourism from Medellin and an explosion of weekend cottage developments on the town’s outskirts. The inhabitants of Santa Fe have a taste for heavy stews washed down with beer, for inexplicably Colombia produces no wine of its own and what little is available comes from Chile, Argentina, and Peru.

To visit Santa Fe today above all is to marvel at the stamina of those first settlers who crossed so many miles of uncharted country to found a tiny town next to nowhere and dream of making it an independent state.

Paul Lewis

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