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My Own Private Christopher Burke

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Villa de Leyva, Colombia

I am happy to share with you that my book Colombia, Observations is now available on iTunes in Colombia and in 8 other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador. Additionally, Colombia, Observations is immediately available in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and other Central American countries. How great it is that the book is finally available at the source, so to speak, in Colombia!

On this particular morning at a shaded table on the enormous Plaza Mayor, the central square that forms the heart of Villa de Leyva, you can almost hear the carriages of the Spanish Viceroy arriving from the capital.  Carriage doors open, burgundy starched silk brushes against the cobblestones, and the morning air bustles with the whoosh of arrival.  The New World in all its difference and excitement is within earshot.  Magic.

Another sip of coffee as the trunks of leather and tapestry are hoisted through the doorways of the whitewashed residence of the Viceroy.  Local women with their baskets of eggs and vegetables stand and watch as the tall Europeans are enveloped by the quiet of the Boyacá morning.  The large green painted wooden doors of the villa close and we are left with the heavy breathing of the carriage horses.

This plaza in Villa de Leyva is the largest open square in South America, they say, and recently released from car traffic, it is quite simply the cobblestone reliquary of the past for the present day tourist in Colombia.  Sit for a minute and let your imagination do the work.  It is easy to do here.

Leyva rhymes with Ava, as in Gardner, and this colonial town of Villa de Leyva has the quiet rhythm of Antigua, Guatemala, or San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, of decades past – before the influx of tourists en masse.  Even now in 2010, Villa de Leyva, a town of only 4,000 people, greets the sound of English with an unaccustomed ear.

Empty grandeur is here for the asking.  As is fresh pressed olive oil.  And local wine, gourmet cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh baked croissants.  It’s the smell of the croissants that surprisingly fills the air on Carrera 10 right off the south side of the Plaza Mayor where the local cognoscenti line up on cue for their French bread as it exits the oven on any given day at the well hidden French bakery.

Wander for a bit off the Plaza, and experience the charm of Villa de Leyva’s colonial walls and doorways painted the solid green of a Ralph Lauren photo shoot.  The town is uniform in its colors (except for a few renegades), and the side streets are home to artisans and knitters and cafes and tourist tsotchkes and antique stores and surprises aplenty.  If you choose to walk at twilight, the magic is complete.

Villa de Leyva does quiet very well.  Unless of course, this being Colombia, it is the weekend of some gathering of rhumba, when large groups of young people from Bogotá fill the Plaza with music and drinking till the wee hours of the morning.  Check on any planned boogie merengue before checking in to a hotel on the Plaza for a weekend of R & R.  The town offers many options away from any fray, and it’s good to remember that any fray is short lived.

Step past the sleeping dogs, and sit in the 17th century parish church on the Plaza Mayor.  Close your eyes.  The starched soutane of the bishop glides past as he greets the Viceroy and Vicereine in their sedate blacks and crimsons, their children church quiet by their sides.  The organ starts up, and the centuries fade away.  The mind has ample time to explore the residues of colonialism and the stamp of Spain in this almost forgotten corner of South America.

In contrast to the rest of the town and to the other days of the week, on a clearing sloping up toward the Hotel Duruelo, the Saturday market reverberates with radio interviews and requests broadcasting live, with the comings and goings and mumblings of farmers and shoppers, with continuous cooking and eating, with bargaining over papayas and mangoes, with raindrops, with full color and uninhibited Colombian vibrancy.  I love the mammoth Ford trucks still in everyday service after 40 or 50 years.

Villa de Leyva sits in a geographic area rich in Mesozoic and Cretaceous (mostly marine and shell) fossils.  The cobblestone streets used to be full of these fossils, but these days they are harder to come by.  They are, however, still around here and there, and you can spend hours walking the streets of Villa de Leyva looking for these pieces of centuries past.  Various houses in the village have incorporated these fossils into their facades and walls giving you another reason to peek and investigate as you wander the town.

Bring books, rent a house, and plan to be surprised by the depth of the local cuisine – organic Italian, Middle Eastern, and you’ll figure it out!  Bring time on your hands, and wake in the morning to push open the wooden shutters and lie back in bed to let the warm (if lucky!) Boyacá breeze tell you that you are somewhere very special.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Gale, Cengage Learning’s Speaking Globally blog:

Saturday Market Villa de Leyva

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