on July 3, 2007
The Convent of Santa Catalina is the must-see sight of Arequipa. Occupying over two hectares north of the Cathedral, the Convent is a veritable city within a city. Founded as long ago as 1579 (only five years after the last Incan stronghold was crushed by the Spanish) the convent stood in seclusion for four centuries, its grey sillar walls presenting a forbidding face to the town. Once through the gateway, and beneath the imperative 'Silencio!' stencilled above another world is revealed. The nuns of the convent came from aristocratic families. As 'Brides of Christ', they came with their dowries, the administration of which kept the convent independent. At its peak 450 nuns lived, worked, and prayed within its walls, following the rules set down by St Catherine of Sienna. Their most famous member was Sor Ana de los Angeles, who was reputedly blessed with miraculous visions. Nowadays the sisterhood is much reduced in number, and the remaining nuns have decamped to a distant corner of the site. The remainder of the convent was opened to the public in 1970, after almost four centuries of privacy. The harsh Peruvian light suits the colours of the stucco walls. Everywhere you will see walls painted in deep blue, dazzling whitewash, and a red the colour of jungle earth after a storm. Flowerbeds further brighten up the place. A network of courtyards, cloisters, and cobbled 'streets' named after Spanish cities leads you into the heart of the labyrinth. It really is a gift for photographers. You have the opportunity to inspect the nuns' cells - plain, but considerably nicer than the habitations of the majority of the subjects of the Spanish viceroy I would wager. The rooms have fine furniture (such as kneeling stools for prayer), and are often equipped with paintings in dark oils. The noble nuns would also bring their servants, who had separate quarters. Past the laundry you reach the chapel and refectory, both in dark wood, and a small museum detailing the history of the convent (in English). You can climb to the roof of the citadel for a view over the roofs of Arequipa.The convent opens every morning at 9am, and I would recommend an early start. The site is big, and you can easily spend an hour or more wandering its twisting ways. By midday the sun blazes directly down on you, making walking a sweaty effort. Last entry is at 4pm. Entry is 25 soles, and there are guided tours in a number of language (free, but donation expected). I did not bother with a tour, and found the printed guide and signs sufficient for me to both find my way around, and also understand what I was looking at. You do not even have to have an interest in religion to get a lot from a visit.See www.santacatalina.org.pe for more details.
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