In Cusco, the ancient Inca masonry is so supple you’d swear the stones were woven. The ten-, twelve-, fifteen-sided blocks fit together as though diced from plasticine. For good reason this improbably-finessed granite is known as “pillow masonry”. Keyed together, the massive, irregular blocks made formidable ramparts that have endured the upheavals of Andean time – earthquake, invasion and revolution.
The Spanish Conquistadors, who stomped uninvited into Cusco in 1533, built their own grandiose temples and palaces atop these invincible footings, having first demolished the existing Inca equivalents. The resulting architecture is a tale of two histories – Inca from the knees down, and Spanish to the crown.
The Seminary of San Antonio Abad was founded in 1595 on the site of an Inca palace. Today it is the five-star Hotel Monasterio, listed on the Peruvian National Heritage register. Step across its threshold – beneath the historic escutcheon of no less than Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain – and you brush against centuries when these colonnades shaded piety and intrigue, cruelty and riches. As you wander below ceilings marzipanned by centuries of whitewash, portraits of remittance men grandees and their collaborative friararchy gaze down from adumbral portraits to interrogate your presence.
Undaunted, indeed, relaxed by a quick, strictly medicinal snort on the oxygen cylinder in the hotel lobby and a belt of coca tea from the adjacent urn – it’s the 3325-metre altitude, y’know – you proceed through garden courtyards and flag-stoned corridors towards the Monasterio’s piece de resistance, its baroque chapel. Not so much a private chapel as a pocket basilica, its altar is an orgy of gold glittering by pale candlelight.
More portraits by the brilliant, anonymous Incan painters of the Cusquena School look down within the chapel. In one major painting (as a local author put it), “… celestial hosts gaze down on lurid infernos … a demon even dares to appear before Christ, whispering sulphurous advice into the ear of a Jesuit who is advocating the closure of this very seminary.”
An air-conditioned guestroom and cable television, plus fine ceviche and crème caramel in the restaurant (once the priests’ refectory) remind you that you haven’t died and gone to the 17th century but remain alive in a 123-room hotel. Still, somewhere beneath your feet –according to legend – is a subterranean passage that obligingly ran from this all-male seminary to the adjacent convent of Nazarene nuns. Sacred vows of chastity, as with those of poverty, were much observed in the breach. You can take coffee beneath a 300-year-old cedar in the inner quadrangle that has witnessed the building’s serial incarnations, as a seminary, a Royal Pontifical University and, from 1965, a hotel.
Taking a breather from all this cloistered pomp, you step out into Cusco and its nearby centre, Plaza de Armas. The seminarians and horny friars of San Antonio are long gone, but Cusco is still a university town. Its cobble-stoned streets are awash with students and raggle-taggle backpackers. The internet cafes, pizzerias and music clubs of Tecsecocha Street are pumping behind colonial portals that were already old when Captain Cook was still finding his sea-legs.
By night, the Plaza de Armas, flanked by World Heritage cathedrals and dished in an Andean valley of lights and stars, is almost other-worldly. High on the rim of the valley above the town, an illuminated white statue of Christ is caught like a brilliant bird in flight. All of which seems rich stuff until you step out even further beyond the town centre. The soft geometries of that Incaic “pillow masonry” reach monumental scale at the giant fortresses of Sacsayhuaman and, even further away, at Ollantaytambo.
The best is yet to come. Leaving Cusco on an early morning train you travel the narrow cleavage of the Urabamba River valley. Your destination is, of course, Machu Picchu. Its stones remain in almost perfect condition some 500 years after they were abandoned. The Incas often built with a sense of drama. In the case of Machu Picchu, high on its Andean spine, they made a city that resembles an altar of stone amid a temple of mountains. Or, as poet Pablo Neruda saw it, “a city raised like a chalice”.
Back at the Monasterio, an Inca harpist in the lobby maintains the transcendent theme. A few steps away is that chapel which makes this perhaps the only hotel in the world where you might seek in-house forgiveness for – should it be deemed one – the sin of your perpetual wanderlust.
©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.