By Jim Ferri
We continued our tour of Ecuador with a visit to Quito, the capital, arriving during Semana Santa (Easter week). We had originally hoped to see its spectacular Good Friday procession in which men carry large crosses through the old city, preceded by other devotees wearing purple hoods and tunics. Unfortunately, though, we had to leave on Friday morning to catch a flight to the Galapagos (more about that adventure next week) so we missed the whole thing.
That picture of the guy in the purple hood above is actually a mannequin in the museum of the church of St. Francis (take a look at those glass eyes!) a beautiful church in the center of the old city. If you visit, ask someone to show you the stairway to the choir loft (it’s off the courtyard) for a magnificent view of the church, although you’re not supposed to take any photos in it. I’ve never been anywhere in the world where it’s forbidden to take photos in so many churches.
But the most interesting experience we had in Quito wasn’t in St Francis, nor in the beautiful St. Augustine (totally painted from floor to ceiling) with its wooden altars covered in gold, but in the courtyard of St. Augustine Monastery. It’s something you can do also if the funding doesn’t run out.
Our guide took us inside the courtyard where we found a small group of artistic restorers working on the restoration of 42 huge paintings that had been severely damaged over time due to neglect. What they were doing was exactly what Sony had done in its restoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
My wife Marjorie and I spent a fascinating hour alone with Veronica, the head conservationist, who showed us how her team was doing the restorations. She allowed us to freely wander about the work area, up very close to the paintings and the ongoing restoration work, showing us her xrays of different fragments and answering our many questions. The team is working on several massive paintings but have only finished one at this point and are concerned that their government funding will run out. If you’re in Quito you can do the same thing we did at the St. Augustine Monastery – the cost is only $2 for the “tour,” $1 if you’re a senior.
Nearby is the Presidential Palace, which we walked over only to see its toy-soldier looking guards, quite unlike any others we’ve ever seen.
Along with the church of St. Augustine, there seem to be more churches in Quito than you can count, including an out-of-place looking gothic basilica whose gargoyles are Ecuadorian animals such as huge tortoises, jaguars, giant sloths and crocodiles. It’s all pretty strange. And weird looking. And they wouldn’t let me in because I had a camera in my pocket.
Quito is a Old-World colonial city whose actual name is San Francisco de Quito since it was named after St. Francis. Like its Californian counterpart it’s also a very hilly city but there the geographic resemblance ends. Quito is at an elevation of 9600 feet on a high plateau that’s only four or five miles wide and more than 30 miles long.
It’s also a city where just about every inch of sidewalk seems to be bordered by a shop, many selling food. In the old city those same sidewalks are filled with indigenous people who are colorful, industrious and don’t beg as they often seem to do in other countries.
On Thursday of Semana Santa we had planned to have dinner in a well-known restaurant not far from our hotel. It was closed for the holiday though, and the only other good place we could find open was a French restaurant in the nearby Hotel Plaza Grande. We were seated at the widow overlooking the Plaza de la Independencia and it was a great little dinner, complete with a mid-meal fireworks display a block or two over.
Towards the end of our meal two actors in costume came out and serenaded us with arias, which along with dessert and espresso was the perfect way to end the evening.
If you go:
St. Augustine Monastery
Adjacent Plaza de la Independencia
Open Monday – Friday 9am to 12:30pm and 4:30pm to 5pm; Saturdays from 9am to 1pm.
Church of St. Francis
Plaza de San Francisco
Hotel Plaza Grande
García Moreno y Chile
Tel: 593 + 2 2510 777
Basilica of the National Vow
San Juan, Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +593 2-228-9428