Sunday, May 1, 2011

Piria - Utopian pioneer

Francisco Piria

There are characters in history whose gifts of intelligence, tenacity, vision and timing work together to produce a life blessed with good fortune.  Francisco Piria, born in Montevideo in 1847 to Italian parents, was one of those determined and lucky men.  Educated in Genoa by an uncle who was a Jesuit monk, Piria acquired a lifelong interest in ancient mysticism and alchemy along with a strict Christian upbringing.

He returned to Uruguay after completing his studies and found employment with an auction house in the Old City Market, selling clocks, watches, overcoats and boots.  When the market was destroyed by fire in 1870, Piria decided to re-establish himself as a real estate auctioneer.  His business grew and prospered as Piria bought and sold land for upscale neighbourhoods in Montevideo, Rosario and Buenos Aires.

In 1890 Piria acquired 2700 parcels of land in an undeveloped coastal region 100 kilometers east of the city of Montevideo.  His trips to the French Riviera had convinced him that this location, with its white sand beaches, granite hills and virgin forests had the potential to become a successful seaside resort town.  The site also had metaphysical qualities that appealed to him, falling in line with harmonious magnetic forces that he claimed existed in a triangular connection with Salto, Uruguay and Cordoba, Argentina. It was an excellent area for positive energy and healthy living.

Castillo Piria
 Piria wasted no time in getting an infrastructure in place for his proposed settlement.  He built a seven mile long boardwalk along the beachfront, a port and a railway. Workers were hired for mining granite and planting a vineyard. Piria financed the construction of a church, a bank, a bodega and a hotel.    The layout for the town he named "Piriapolis" incorporated geometric principles of alchemy, with significant points in the terrain marked by sculptures and fountains.   By 1897 the construction of  his own grand residence at the top of a hill overlooking the town was completed.   The house was also situated in a strategic spot, surrounded by granite cliffs, with a view of Piria's empire,  the nascent town nestled between Punta Fria and Playa Grande.  The railway was conveniently located just steps from his own back door.

Castillo grounds, with statuary and exotic trees
We visited Piriapolis and toured the Castillo, to see how pioneer Piria lived and to experience firsthand the mystical environment which inspired him to take on the challenging project of building his own Utopian community.  The castle was designed by Piria as a replica of an Italianate villa.  The park-like grounds are full of exotic trees which he imported from Spain and Italy.

Dining hall, with Limoges dinner service

The interior of the castle has high ceilings, dark woodwork, tiled floors and medieval style furnishings. The museum guide took us upstairs to tour the private living quarters of the Piria family and admire the stunning landscape from the walk-out terrace.  It seemed as if the view from each window of the house had been carefully planned to frame basic elements of nature - rocks, water and woods.

Interior view with chapel

The Castillo's atmosphere is contemplative and soothing, and one can imagine Piria seated at his desk working on his writing, (articles to be published in his own newspaper "La Tribuna") looking up from his manuscript now and then to enjoy the magnificent vista of the "Pan de Azucar". A flock of parakeets chattering in the garden's lush palm trees reminded us that the secret codes of alchemy, Kabbalah and Renaissance magic were known as "the language of the birds."

Argentino Hotel 
The aging but ever-ambitious Francisco Piria embarked on the construction of an impressive resort hotel in Piriapolis in 1920.  The Argentino Hotel took ten years to build and boasted that its facilites were the most sumptuous in South America when it opened.  Piria promoted the resort as a healthy vacation destination with an excellent climate, and did not hesitate to mention that visitors should consider investing in a piece of land in Piriapolis.   That opportunity is still available in 2011, with lots in subdivisions on Cerro San Antonio and Pan de Azucar being sold by real estate developers.

Lobby of the Argentino Hotel
 The hotel is still operating today, with 300 guest rooms, health spa, casino, banquet and convention facilities centrally located on the Rambla de los Argentinos overlooking the Playa Piriapolis.  The original details of the interior have been preserved, retaining the charm of the 1930s.

A monument to Francisco Piria stands next to the hotel

Piria died in 1933 at the age of 86, but local legend tells us that he simply disappeared and his body was never found.  A large cross was erected in honour of Piria at the top of the Pan de Azucar hill.   Some believe that Piria found the philosopher's stone and achieved immortality.  Others believe that the place called Piriapolis - the lasting legacy of a man who was a remarkable blend of visionary, eccentric, pioneer, entrepreneur, and socialist - is magic itself.

The boardwalk, Piriapolis


  1. Uruguay is definitely blessed with natural beauty and a star is added to its beauty with the collection of vintage houses and big apartments & buildings...
    I think it will be great if anybody own a piece of land here.. I think it is really difficult to find Real Estate in Uruguay, and for this we have to hire any agent...

  2. I appreciate your blog as I have learned a lot about Uruguay and I share your concerns for preserving those vintage buildings. In Toronto, the past has been largely bulldozed and what went up in its stead is not always interesting. Hope the Uruguayans get it right.