The old man and the sea

In front, the vast Pacific. Behind, the towering Andes. And in between, clinging to the Chilean coast, the straggling settlement of Isla Negra. Here the poet Pablo Neruda lived and is buried, his rocky, boat- shaped grave a place of pilgrimage in the wilderness

'The Pacific Ocean was spreading right off the map. There was nowhere to put it. It was so big, untidy and blue that it wouldn't fit anywhere. So they left it outside my window." Thus did Pablo Neruda, one of Chile's Nobel Prize winners for literature, explain the siting of his house at Isla Negra, 80 kms south of Valparaiso. Neruda himself died a few days after Augusto Pinochet's putsch in September 1973; but they left the window there and haven't yet bothered to collect the ocean.

The house, which is built of stone, glass and wood, is a quirky edifice put together in fits and starts by Neruda after he bought it in 1935. It stands on a small eminence and overlooks what is, as anyone who has flown over it will attest, the world's loneliest and most frightening stretch of water. Beyond a little wicket gate the Pacific stretches away thousands of miles to New Zealand and Australia, with precious little in between.

This is no warm-water paradise with golden beaches, Pamela Anderson and a hot sun. The water is stone cold and not often very blue, and the beaches are meagre and rock-strewn - good for shellfish, bad for sunbathing. Behind the house are the first steep rolling hills, rising to the east like the knuckles of a giant. A hundred miles on, they have risen a sharp 7,000m to become the highest mountains in America - the Andes - cutting Chile apart from the rest of the world. Half-way between them and Isla Negra lies Santiago, the capital.

The vastness of nature is seldom better captured than by the views eastwards and westwards from Neruda's house. This stretch is the most tractable in Chile's thousands of miles of coastline that stretch from the desert north to the Antarctic south, where glaciers imperceptibly fall into the ocean and freeze it for miles around.

Isla Negra, the Black Isle, is, like its namesake in Scotland, neither black nor an island. It is a straggling settlement between the main road and the sea, a place of unpaved roads and modest shops where the houses of intellectuals from the country's capital, Santiago, mingle with the humbler dwellings of country folk. A few miles north is Algarrobo, an unpretentious watering place, and an hour's drive further on is the port city and naval base of Valparaiso and its glittering seaside neighbour, Vina del Mar, all cocaine and gambling and film festival.

Isla Negra is not like that: it is for those who are fascinated by the ocean, the rocks and the hills. It was here that the poet recharged the batteries of his inspiration and it is here that Neruda now lies buried beside his last wife, Matilde, in a boat-shaped grave among the rocks, flowers and cactuses in the garden.

Over the years, the house and the grave have become a place of pilgrimage, not just for the lovers of Neruda's muscular, granitic poetry but also for those who supported the ideas of this left-wing diplomat whom President Salvador Allende appointed as his ambassador to Paris in the early-1970s.

On the afternoon I was last there, a young engineer from Chile's copper mines was sitting by one of the boulders. "When we go abroad, foreigners who read the newspapers ask us about Pinochet," he said as the sun went down over the ocean in front of us. "But those who want to learn about our country ask about Neruda." The palings of the fence that surrounds the garden are covered with the affectionate graffiti left by visitors. "The Brazilians admire you." "Life invites us. Let's do something for it." "Pablo, Chile remembers you." It has also borne other slogans such as "Pinochet, murderer of the people", a sentiment that Neruda would have wholeheartedly supported.

Beside the grave of the poet lies a great anchor, the largest visible manifestation of his love of the sea. "In my house," Neruda wrote, "I've brought together toys big and small without which I couldn't live. I've built my house, too, as a toy, and I play in it from morn to night." Indeed, there is hardly a room which doesn't have a figurehead rescued from some long-dead sailing ship. La Cymbelina, Morgan, La Sirena, Micaela, Maria Celeste, Medusa, Jenny Lind, the bare-bosomed Guillermina. Their sightless wooden eyes stare out from every corner. There are, too, cabin trunks, ships' wheels, maps, engravings of fish, ships in bottles: enough marine equipment to make you seasick.

There is also an ancient agricultural steam engine, standing silent outside the front door, and oriental objects that recall the time he represented Chile in distant Rangoon. The collection is that of a true Chilean, conscious that he is living at the end of the world and therefore all the more anxious to keep in touch with other inhabitants on the planet, however distant they may be.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the time he spent in Burma, once part of the British Empire, Neruda was something of an Anglophile. There is a touch of Jordan's Yard in Cambridge about his house. There is a British army drum brought to him by Professor Parry of Bristol University, a photograph of him in academic robes taken after the University of Oxford had awarded him an honorary degree in 1965, and last year the Yorkshire painter Peter Griffin had a show of 30 of his works inspired by Neruda in the poet's other house in Santiago.

Neruda himself was frank about his magpie tendencies. He wrote: "I'm a lover of the sea and for years I've been collecting pieces of knowledge which are of little use to me because I sail my ship ashore." He loved this place. There are pictures of him, for instance, with groups of friends here in fancy dress. My friend Milka, a neighbour and the wife of a high official at the foreign ministry, talks of how at the end of his life he would not move though he was very ill and could no longer stand.

He did not want to show his weakness to a group of distinguished people that he had invited to a meal. "He told me to introduce people to him as he was seated," Milka said. "Then he told me to take them out into the garden. While they were outside and couldn't see him we carried him to the dining table and sat him down there." He had to be almost dragged away to die a few days later in a hospital in Santiago amid the horrors of the first days of Pinochet's rule.

In the house, there remains the spirit of a great poet. Speaking in Santiago on the 10th anniversary of his death, Matilde attempted to sum her late husband up, "For me he was the poet of love. There's so much passion when he sings to his beloved, there is so much love when he sings to nature, there is so much love for the people when he attacks the tyrants. At a meeting with young poets his only piece of advice was 'Fall in love with each other'." I prefer one of Neruda's epigrams: difcil es ser otono fcil ser primavera. It's very difficult to be autumn, it's very easy to be spring.

Fundacin Pablo Neruda is at Fernando Mrquez de la Plata 0192 Barrio Bellavista, Comuna de Providencia, Santiago, Chile (00 56 17 778741) and Calle Vecinal s/n, Isla Negra, Chile (00 56 35 461284). British Airways, Iberia, KLM and Avianca are among the airlines which are offering return London-Santiago fares for little over pounds 300 through discount agents such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) and South American Experience (0171-976 5511).

There are cheap, direct, frequent and reasonably comfortable buses from the Santiago bus station, near the Central Station in the Alameda Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins in Santiago. These take a little over two hours and cost a pound or two, whisking you through two mountain tunnels and past a fair selection of vineyards.

In the village is the Hostera Santa Elena, a modest boarding house, but a greater range of accommodation is to be found in Algarrobo, such as the Hotel Costa Sur, Alessandri 2156, (00 56 35 48 1035).

Or you can take a day tour by bus from the Plaza de Armas in Santiago for around pounds 15, (00 561 232 2574)

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