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Come to one of the most eccentric hotels in the world: Casapueblo

Come to one of the most eccentric hotels in the world: Casapueblo

Posted by José Peralta on September 10, 2014

The Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, who died earlier this year, was an inveterate traveller. Born into impecunious circumstances in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, in 1923, he crossed the River Plate to Argentina at the age of 16 to find work as an artist in Buenos Aires. His first paintings portrayed the drudgery of working in a factory but also, by way of contrast, the tango-illuminated nightlife of the Argentine capital.

In the late 1940s he returned to Montevideo and recorded, in his trademark bold, bright colours, conditions in the mainly Afro-Uruguayan sector of Mediomundo. By 1956, Páez Vilaró’s paintings and murals had begun to garner interest beyond Uruguay. He exhibited his work at the Modern Art Museum in Paris, where he met and became friends with Pablo Picasso, with whom he stayed in southern France. On a visit to Tahiti he painted murals for Marlon Brando in the actor’s’s first house there, and was invited to Egypt by President Nasser. He made the acquaintance of Fidel Castro, John F Kennedy and Sophia Loren – and, displaying a lifelong penchant for associating with beautiful women, became friendly with Brigitte Bardot.

Yet despite the globetrotting and his role on the international art scene, Páez Vilaró’s most extraordinary and beautiful legacy lies closer to home – the enchanting, eccentric pile that is the Casapueblo hotel on the southern coast of Uruguay. He began to construct Casapueblo as a home in 1958 on a remote stretch of the sunny, cliff-fringed coastline at Punta Ballena, 80 miles east of Montevideo. Initially it was a modest wooden lodge that acted as his living space and studio. But over the course of 30 years, with the help of local fishermen, he gradually built on the humble beginnings with whitewashed concrete in a strange style influenced by the oven-like mud nests of the local hornero birds.

The resultant “living sculpture”, hanging off the cliffs and built without any plan, developed into one of the man-made wonders of South America, resembling, in some ways, the cave dwellings of Cappadocia in Turkey. Over time Páez Vilaró built extra rooms for guests and friends and, with the support of a consortium of artistic and business contacts, opened parts of the sprawling complex to the public as a beautifully tasteful hotel, museum, gallery and studio that has become a leading tourist destination in Uruguay. It’s an extraordinary, peaceful place with myriad quirky aspects – rooms are identified not by numbers, but by symbols drawn by Páez Vilaró himself – and while there is plenty to see and do roundabout, most visitors will undoubtedly find themselves drawn simply to hanging about the place.

Páez Vilaró lived and worked in Casapueblo right until his death at the age of 90, using subtle devices to imbue the place with an almost magical atmosphere. Shortly before sunset each day a sound system plays a carefully choreographed mix of spoken word and music that consists of Páez Vilaró’s mellifluous voice, reciting a self-penned ode to the sun, over the haunting Spanish guitar of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The beginning of the spectacle is timed so that the climax of poem and music, echoing across the cliffs, coincides with the exact moment when the sun disappears below the horizon, coaxing ripples of applause from visitors who come nightly to witness the spectacle.

The peace and tranquility of Casapueblo stands in stark contrast to the feel of nearby Punta del Este, a peninsula resort nine miles east along the coast that garners far more international attention and has been the holiday haunt of rich Brazilians and Argentinians since the 1960s.

With its yacht harbour, white sand beaches, expensive restaurants, swish bars and an extensive array of nightclubs, Punta del Este is one of South America’s most fashionable holiday destinations. A quiet, sleepy place of 10,000 souls in the winter, it expands out of all recognition from Christmas to Carnival as its high-rise hotels and upmarket apartment blocks fill with wealthy visitors for the summer season, swelling the population dramatically.

They come for the sunbathing, jet-skiing and swimming on the calm, sand-duned River Plate side of the peninsula, or surfing on the rougher Atlantic aspect, where the Playa Brava beach features one of Uruguay’s best-known landmarks, La Mano en la Arena – huge sculpted fingertips rising out of the sand that were created by the Chilean artist Mario Irarrazábal in 1982.

But Punta del Este is also about the nightlife, the eating, and the opportunity to preen and pose. Over the years it has become a regular relaxation spot for a host of celebrities, including, in recent times, Shakira, Naomi Campbell and Zinedine Zidane. Many use it as a base for exploring the quiet coastline, headlands, forest and lagoons of eastern Uruguay, a more hilly area than much of the rest of the country and one that has a distinctly Mediterranean feel.

While Casapueblo is often presented as an attraction of the Punta del Este area – and it has a postal address that might back up such an assertion – it is entirely separate both geographically and in ambience. There is, however, one thing the two places have in common: both have a special charm in the cooler off-season, and can be considerably cheaper to visit then, too. They are also great spots to catch the sun, whatever time of year.

Fittingly, the sun was a recurring motif in Páez Vilaró’s artistic life. His other main themes were folk culture, the sea, women, and poverty. Although of European origin, he had long been fascinated by African culture and, in Mediomundo, began to study the local Candombe music, becoming proficient both at playing and decorating congas and bongo drums, while composing musical pieces for his own comparsa carnival band.

Páez Vilaró’s travels helped him amass what he described as “a briefcase full of colours” that he put to great use in decorating Casapueblo. He returned to his home frequently, adding rooms, crafting its strange, Gaudí-like shapes, and waging what he characterised as his lifelong “struggle against the straight line”. His sea studio also became “a trunk to store memories” and a haven from a sometimes troublesome private life.

These days the wonderfully cool, tiled rooms adjoining the studio sell prints and originals of his vibrant work, while another area shows film of Páez Vilaró discussing various aspects of his past, including the desperate time in 1972 when a plane on which his 18-year-old son, Carlos, was travelling from Montevideo to Chile, crashed 11,800ft up in the Andes. Carlos was one of 16 passengers who survived, partly by resorting to cannibalism, and was eventually rescued. The tale of the crash and its aftermath became the basis of the 1993 feature film Alive, but the anguish of the incident haunted Páez Vilaró for many years afterwards. He increasingly retreated to the sanctuary of Casapueblo, which had by now won for him the title of architect as well as artist.

He spent most of his later years in the mild climes of Punta Ballena, invariably working on some new project as abstract artist, painter, potter, sculptor, muralist, writer, composer or constructor, while at the same time pottering and chatting to guests. “Working is my major rest,” he said. “It is a formula for feeling very young.” He died at Casapueblo, and was working there in his studio on the day before he passed away. A visit to the hotel is not just a magnificent holidaying pleasure but a moving insight into his colourful life.

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