Medellín Illuminated: The Marvel of Antioquia Lights Up the World
The 21st century has ushered in an explosive and exhilarating boom for the City of Eternal Spring. In the last 15 years, Medellín has re-established itself as the capital of the Department of Antioquia, tucked away in the Aburrá Valley, at the foothills of the imposing Andean Mountains that have been integrated into the urban landscape. Medellín has asserted its image as the seat of arts, cutting-edge museum exhibits, world-class universities and research institutes, innovative transportation systems, and most significantly, the City of the Mountain has also secured a title as one of the most liveable cities in South America and in the world, side by side with Santiago de Chile, Barcelona and Lisbon. Owing to entrepreneurial initiatives and smart public and private investment ventures, Medellín has also attained the moniker “South America’s Silicon Valley” – successfully competing in its innovation and start-up undertakings with such old-timer giants as New York City and Tel Aviv.
The story of Medellín, at least in its name, starts with the story of the European discovery and conquest of South America. Medellín is also a tiny village in the north of Spain that developed out of a Roman military outpost and remained known as the birthplace of Hernán Cortés and a few other Conquistadors, who were resolved to pull administrative strings towards the end of the 17th century and have San Lorenzo de Aburrá renamed as Villa de Nuestra Señora de Medellín, thus symbolically replanting their portable heirloom in a new soil. From the very start, Medellín distinguished itself as different and separate from the rest of Colombia and South America. An intriguing factual detail that might have become irrelevant or even forgotten in the march of centuries, assumes a fresh and puzzling significance when reiterated in the textures of our 21st-century world, globalized and yet provincialized. As Alejandro Echeverri, the eminent architect and city planner in charge of Medellín’s reconstruction, defiantly points out, Medellín was “colonized by Basques rather than Spaniards; [and] people here call themselves Paisas” setting themselves apart from other Colombians (Vulliamy, “Medellín, Colombia,” 2013).
The philosophy and public spirit shaping the development of 21st-century Medellín has perhaps most succinctly been captured by Federico Restrepo, a former director of the Empresas Públicas de Medellín (E.P.M.) and a city planner for the mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007). As Restrepo’s remarkable observation goes, “[T]he larger point is that the goal of government should be providing rich and poor with the same quality education, transportation and public architecture. In that way you increase the sense of ownership.” (Kimmelman, “A City Rises”, 2012). Indeed, Colombia, and notably Medellín, embarked on that visionary journey towards architectural regeneration and linking communities already in the 1920s, with the trailblazing launch of modernist construction works that innovatively bound art with social activism. The story of Medellín in the 20th century was plotted along the trail of the vibrant relationship between architecture and urban planning, on the one hand, and public art, urban culture, community health and safety, on the other hand. Recently, it has ben precisely the aforementioned E.P.M. that played the critical role as a state-owned utility company that not only provides clean water, electricity and gas to all citizens, but also invests in public infrastructure, spaces, and buildings (schools, hospitals, parks, metro, and a major public plaza).
Urban transportation binds the communities and neighborhoods, and also provides exciting and novelty forms of trip-style commute for visitors eager to get to myriads of Medellín’s museums, galleries, libraries, parks and gardens, theaters and restaurants. Unlike the frequently adventurous if not straight out seedy stretches of public transport routes in such romanticized European metropoles as Paris, Medellín boasts a pristinely clean metro system, in addition to a Jules Vernesque range of cable cars and escalators connecting the city’s hubs with crowded neighborhoods huddled up the mountainsides of the hills enclosing the city. A few of Medellín’s countless architectural marvels include the León de Greiff library park (exemplary of the unique conceptual space “parque biblioteca” pioneered by Medellín architects), the Point Zero Bridge ornamented with a plumb-bob and gracefully stretching across the city’s highway hub, the Arví Ecotourism Park that strikingly blends in nature pursuits within dramatic urban settings, and the renovated Botanical Garden that emblematizes the city’s meeting points and connections in the past and the present.
In no way is Medellín the cliché destination obligatorily found on tourist maps and predictably charted as a network of sights, sounds, flavors and moves. While some of the more obvious local and visitor haunts include a variety of neighborhood and upscale salsa bars, and craft beer hangouts, the more unexpected but typical Medellínense (and Antioqueño) venues and activities revolve around the local traditions of rumba, street festivals and paisa cuisine. Rumba à la Medellín actually comprises a cluster of gatherings, entertainment and social interactions that together make up the city’s lively and pulsating weekend nights that unfold sprawlingly and gregariously in clubs and bars, parks and squares. A more formalized variation on rumba as the heart of city life can be discovered in the annual festivals and parades which showcase the nexus between Medellín’s local customs and interactions with other regions in Colombia, South America, and the world. Two of the most spectacular and singular festivals are the Festival of Flowers, and Christmas Lights. The Festival of Flowers (Feria de las Flores) coincides with celebrations of the Independence of Antioquia held in August, and features a mesmerizing pageant of gigantic flower arrangements (silletas) carried by their growers (silleteros), as well as horse and automobile parades. The social event that most powerfully and movingly expresses the communal spirit of Medellín citizens is the Christmas Lights of Medellín (El Alumbrado Navideño de Medellín), creatively executed and funded by the E.P.M., as it befits the story of Medellín communities and connections. The month-long festivities develop around the core of light installations and light shows on the Medellín River and La Playa Avenue, attracting equally locals and visitors, and involving participation by museums, parks, and music venues. Unsurprisingly, the Christmas Lights of Medellín has been declared one of the world’s top ten destinations for Christmas celebrations. Unlike the artful sophistication of street festivals and hi-tech lights displays, the typical paisa cuisine consists of hearty, wholesome dishes fixed from simply prepared foods and deftly arranged to highlight home-made ingredients. Medellín bids the perceptive visitor with layered aromas of la bandeja paisa, and the irresistible crispness of parva pastries.
As the local saying goes, “Vivir va más allá de solo respirar.” Medellín, Colombia, is where one must experience the delightful paradoxes of the Basque Spanish in South America, the jungle and the highlands embracing around an Art Deco city, and the Caribbean and Pacific currents running towards each other but probably never fully mingling.
Alexander, Harriet. Inside Medellín. The Telegraph. 17 May 2014.
Kimmelman, Michael. A City Rises, Along With Its Hopes. The New York Times. May 20, 2012.
Vulliamy, Ed. Medellín, Colombia. The Guardian. 9 June 2013.
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