Where in the World Wednesday

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Paracas, Peru; April 9, 2014

Paracas, Peru; April 9, 2014

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The Museum & Catacombs of Lima’s San Francisco Church

Some sightseeing places are famous not for their original purpose, but for an added-on bit of architecture or discovered hideaway. Think of Southwark Cathedral in London, which has a Roman road underneath it that people find much more interesting, for example. The Church of San Francisco in Lima is another such place. The church itself is nice enough–a yellow colonial structure that warms in the light of the setting sun–but here, as with inspirational posters the world over, it’s what underneath that counts.

San Francisco Church, Lima

San Francisco Church, Lima

The catacombs of the church are the main tourist attraction. In the early days of the city, people were buried under the church as a matter of course; this was like churchyard cemeteries, but under the church instead of next to it. I couldn’t get good information from my guide on whether the bodies were always buried in mass graves, or whether that happened later.

I’m also not sure whether the particular arrangement of the bones happened before or after the rediscovery of the catacombs in 1943. It’s a strange thing to see, though; some of the bones are piled up all higgledy-piggledy, some are grouped by type (tibia, femur, etc.), and some are arranged in geometric patterns. Those are the creepy ones, and you think, someone decided the best resting position for these skeletons is in a design not unlike a psychedelic sunburst, but with bones. A central circle of skulls, surrounded by a circle of leg bones, skulls, arm bones, skulls. Who were these for? I can’t find any information on whether these designs were made specifically for tourists to gawp at; let me know in the comments below if you know more. (No photos allowed in the catacombs, sorry, but check the link earlier in this paragraph.)

Catacombs are a standard part of large churches, of course, and I’ve been in some before, but this is the first network of catacombs I’ve seen filled with bones. I know these people were buried on consecrated ground and at least some of this was what they wanted for their skeletons, but just the imagery of piles of bones was far too close to what I saw in Cambodia for me to not shudder.

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I visited the doors on the left, never the main church door

After the catacombs, I visited the museum aboveground. Just as in the catacombs, no photos were allowed here.

One of the main features of the museum, which is attached to the monastery, is the massive staircase, topped with a Moorish-style cupola. The staircase leads to the library of the monastery, which is a lovely long room full of light and polished wooden shelves lined with old books and ancient scrolls. I was horrified. All that southern light just streamed in on these delicate papers! It’s an archival nightmare! I comforted myself with lies that these were just replica books, and all the real ones are safely stored in climate-controlled rooms with dim lights.

The cloisters are lined with murals depicting various biblical scenes. One particularly grating American on my tour took a look at the third mural our guide showed us and said, “These guys were really religious, huh?” Yes, the monks who lived and worked in this monastery attached to a church were really religious. Good catch.

The final mural our guide showed us was the famous Last Supper by Diego de la Puente, which shows Jesus and the apostles eating Peruvian foods, including roasted guinea pig. I believe there are similar Last Supper paintings throughout South America, but this is the only one I saw.

I never did go into the church itself, instead visiting its varied museum and fascinating catacombs, but two out of three ain’t bad.

A Gastronomic Indulgence in Lima

Bienvenida, señora. Welcome to Astrid & Gastón, the flagship restaurant of Lima’s most famous chef, Gastón Acurio, and one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. We’ve recently moved to this hacienda in the wealthy San Isidro district, and we now offer cooking classes, a room for the tasting menu, a bar area for a la carte dining, and even a vegetable garden that children can access to learn about food and the environment. Right this way.

I even like the clean, elegant font they use

Ignore the weird spray paint effect, and you have a clean, elegant font that matches the rest of the restaurant

Here are some starters of bread and olive oil, as well as nuts encrusted in cumin and other spices. We’re sure you’ll like–oh, you’ve eaten them all. You did like them. Now our sommelier will help you choose a wine. You’re embarrassed to say that you want to eat fish but you prefer a red wine? That’s fine, how about this crisp red wine from Argentina.

Starters and an Argentinian wine

Starters and an Argentinian wine

Cumin-encrusted nuts

Cumin-encrusted nuts

Now, for your first course, may we recommend a cold dish. Try our deconstructed causa, which is a mashed local potato dish with egg, a chili called aji amarillo, and lime juice; we’ve also added raw fish and onions, which makes it like a combined ceviche and causa dish. Ah, you find it absolutely delicious, all the textures and flavors coming together in just the right way, and now you want to try ceviche all along the coast, excellent.

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Fancy causa

Here’s your second course, a warm dish. Just to mention that it’s a little spicy–uh oh, what’s that look on your face? It’s too spicy? Your mouth is about to explode and you can’t possibly finish this expensive dish? Oh dear, I’m so sorry I didn’t warn you when you ordered, that’s fine, we’ll take this away. Here’s my manager, who wants to be sure you’re taken care of. Can we interest you in something else? May I recommend a black quinoa dish (quinoa is a major crop here and in neighboring Bolivia; we are at the forefront of the superfood movement in the Andes)? This particular mix of quinoa and tubers is a house invention. I can see you’re politely not telling me that it’s a little flavorless for you, and a little too much like eating something healthy, but I’ll pretend I didn’t notice. Oh, Americans.

Black quinoa dish

Black quinoa dish

Can I interest you in a dessert? No? Well, then, here’s your bill, when you’re ready. Yes, it’s 150 soles, including a service fee. That’s about $50 in US money. We hope the food and experience have been worth the indulgence. What’s that? With the airy room that somehow didn’t have the echo-y acoustic problems many modern restaurants have, the attentive but not pushy service, the simple and elegant aesthetic, and of course the delicious food, it was worth every penny? We’re pleased to hear it, gracias. Enjoy the rest of your time in Lima, one of the gastronomic capitals of the world.

Light as air dining at lunchtime

Light as air dining at lunchtime