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In Patagonia Day 28

March 18th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 28
Castro—Nercón—Castro

Castro has real charm but only after some wandering. Yesterday, while hurrying down a sidewalk in the rain while the street venders pulled their wares under the buildings’ overhangs, I passed a round, pudgy boy no more than two, perched on a ledge eating sushi with clear gusto. Later, when I bought a container of mussels and pulpo at the fish market, the woman laughed heartily after I accepted all the offered toppings which included cilantro, onions, and a good dose of fresh lemon juice. Near that market are decrepit stuccoed Deco buildings which makes me wonder if there was a time when the waterfront sparkled rather than moldered. What has struck me most is how grim people seem to be on the street, but how they come alive when I speak to them. Quick to smile and ready to laugh, they are interesting folks.

The morning was sunny so I walked up the harbor into the upper reaches of the Castro bay to perform my tourist duties by photographing the Costanera, a tidal basin where the houses are up on pilings. Much of the walk out was by houses similarly situated though you can’t really tell from the street unless you catch a glimpse between. The area is littered with boats in various stages of repair or decomposition, usually beached but floated by the tide. The deco influence here is interesting, with curved building edges but instead of masonry or stucco they are tabbed wood shingles, also in various stages of repair or decomposition. I stopped for coffee and was given a slice of pound cake and a folder of historical photographs to pass the time—the narrow gauge train when it was still running, buildings in the 30s, and the effects of a 1960s flood. Stuck in the sheaf was a picture of a fox. How is it that I could be over 60 years old and only now realize that a the name for fox is Zorro? Later I stopped to watch two men fishing in the bay, one young, the other very old and wearing a straw fedora. Each had a line with weight and a few baited hooks coiled in an old coffee can. They would cast by spinning the weight and line in a circle over their heads (as I imagine one would throw a bolo). The younger man cast and pulled in rapidly; the old man would cast and hold the line in a gnarled hand, fingering it lightly and with patience. Soon he had a small fat fish, which he let flop on the shingle beach while baiting and casting his line again.

My father, who grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, would have liked today as my walk took me past boats of all types—wooden rowboats, fishing boats of various sizes, and several double-ended wooden sailboats. In the afternoon I decided to walk to Nercón, a village about 5 km down the coast which has one of the UNESCO Jesuit churches. The path took me past more stilted tidal houses, but also by the fairly new Enjoy Casino and a small airport. The best parts besides the church were two wooden boat yards. The first had a very large hull mostly finished, but at the second all I could see from the road was a few ribs laid out on a template. What was exciting there was to see their sawtimbers—several logs from trees grown at a particular angle which they were sawing out as ribs. Using naturally bent timbers preserves grain continuity throughout the rib (no cuts across the grain) which multiplies overall strength to weight. Dad would have been fascinated to see old-style wood working in current practice.

The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Gracia de Nercón was built in 1887-1888 by those shipbuilders’ ancestors. A stunning structure not just because of its proportions but also its joinery. The columns outside use the same barrel construction as the Castro Cathedral, while the flying buttresses are simple exterior diagonal bracing with heavy wooden beams. The most important feature though is the wooden barrel vaulted ceiling, running the length of the chapel. The light, sound, and the air itself are reflected, focused, concentrated onto the pews below creating an aura throughout the space. You feel your heart rate change as you enter the nave. Restored in 2012, there are ladders up to the bell tower which lets you see the joinery—adze shaped knee braces, heavy mortise and tenon joints, and, above the barrel vaulting, ribbed bracing looking very much like an inverted ship. Suspended on strings from the ceiling into the chapel are three small model fishing boats.

On my way back, I had a late lunch in a shed near a boatyard which had two large old-fashioned wood-fired ovens where they baked the small round flat bread most commonly served. I had coffee and two buns stuffed with local cheese, playing peek-a-boo with a small Chilean child unused to foreigners. In the evening after a wander about the harbor where I talked with two different couples with whom I had crossed paths earlier on the trip, I found myself back at my current favorite place—Barra Cerveceria—an unassuming craft beer pub with a long list of Chiloe brews, a laughing staff, and a balcony out back looking out over the fish market and the bay. Good ending to a fascinating day.

T. Hugh Crawford

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