Five women embark on personal pilgrimages into the bloodstream of their country’s identity and tell us how the story of Peru is entwined in its stones, songs, rituals and feasts. For the second chapter of our “Talking Points” series, Peruvian-British author Karina Lickorish Quinn plots Lima’s history in painterly hues.
Lima was once known as The City of Kings. The capital of Peru was given its name by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who claimed the metropolis for the Crown of Castile in 1535. Yet, it was not honouring the Spanish king but rather ‘The Feast of The Three Kings’, a religious festival that takes place in January. Today, only the historic centre (a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988) bears that regal title. And it is impossible not to be enchanted by the grandeur of her Renaissance Plateresque and Baroque churches and palaces, watched over by Lima Cathedral where Pizarro’s remains lie. The plazas are a festival of colour – the watermelon pink of the Palacio of Torre Tagle, the soft yellow Basílica of San Francisco with its catacombs, and the lucuma gold of the Municipal Palace.
The rest of this magical, mercurial, urban sprawl is known by a mispronunciation of the name it has borne since before the Spanish arrived – Limaq. Some say that it derives from ‘Rímaq’, a Quechua word meaning ‘the one who speaks’, also the name of the Rímac River (‘the talking river’) in whose valley it is situated. If the historic Lima could talk, what secrets would she share? Would she tell of the pre-Hispanic communities that thrived here? Or of the pre-Inca temples, like the Huaca Pucllana in Miraflores and the Huaca Huallamarca in San Isidro, two age-old adobe brick pyramids that still stand among the high rises? Would she sing the nostalgic criollo waltzes that speak of cinnamon flowers, beautiful women and the early Republic’s golden age?
Nowhere does this romantic past feel more present than in Barranco, the bohemian district of the capital where extravagant mansions and parks with vibrant murals overlook the sea. Here is the Puente de los Suspiros, the Bridge of Sighs, that Chabuca Granda sang of in her famous waltz. And the Museum of Pedro de Osma, a dazzling white casona, housing collections of colonial artworks and masterpieces from the Tiwanaku and Inca cultures. Here, too, are some of the city’s chicest restaurants, which have given Peru the title of the world’s leading culinary destination more times than any other country. Thanks to the confluence of the many traditions – Japanese, Chinese, and diverse African and European cultures – the food is colourful, unique, innovative and our world-class chefs are always experimenting.
Among the galleries and malls of the coastal districts, it is easy to believe that this place is and has always been an elegant and colourful idyll. But a short walk up the Malecón, the buzzing esplanade that meanders along the seaside cliffs, is the concrete Lugar de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to remembrance, tolerance and social inclusion, commemorating the war that ravaged the country from 1980 to 2000. Peru carries – like any nation, especially any post-colonial – her share of traumas.
Although often known as Lima The Grey, due to the ocean mist that settles as a fog, I think of Peru’s capital as a colourful flower that blooms in the desert. She is, after all, located in the Peruvian Coastal Desert that stretches along the Pacific coast of South America. But her gardens and parks are carefully curated, not least in Miraflores whose name literally translates as ‘See, flowers’. The word ‘Lima’ comes not from Quechua but from an Aymara word meaning ‘yellow flower’, apt because in winter the northern slopes are ablaze with daffodils. Even in her darkest times, Lima always finds a way to clothe herself in colour and blossom again.
Karina Lickorish Quinn’s debut novel is ‘The Dust Never Settles’ (Oneworld Publishers). Her essay was originally published in the “Talking Points” pages of Belmond’s in-house magazine, Mondes.
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