Charleston, the city i n South Carolina where I live for most of the year, used to be known as “the best-kept secret in the United States.” Once one of the three wealthiest port cities in North America, the city went into decline after the Civil War. But the riches amassed over five centuries, and lost in just two centuries, bequeathed a legacy of grand public buildings, handsome churches and elegant mansions. A few tourists came to Charleston to admire the architecture, because there was little else to do, but Charleston for the most party was virtually forgotten, a secret known only to a few.
That was until Charleston was chosen to be paired with the Italian city of Spoleto for the Festival dei Due Mondi, by the Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Known today simply as The Spoleto Festival, it was the spark of imagination that led to the revival of the old city. It helped to put Charleston on the world map as a centre of international culture and a major international tourist destination, selected by Travel + Leisure magazine as America’s top city on seven occasions. In 2016, Charleston was rated the top city to visit in the world, even above Paris. That caused a few sniggers, but many Charlestonians have always seen their city as on a par with Paris.
Menotti saw that historic Charleston was the perfect site for a festival of the arts that would bring in artists from all over the world to perform, allowing people both near and far to see them and hear them. A resident of Charleston, the Uruguayan pianist Enrique Graf, had the same inspiration when he founded the Festival Internacional de Colonia last year in his native land.
There are a few similarities that link the two aforementioned cities. Colonia del Sacramento was founded by the Portuguese in 1680; only 10 years after the English established Charleston. Both colonies were strategically settled on a peninsula. The architecture of the two cities, however, could not be more dissimilar. Charleston is probably the best-preserved city dating back to the 17th century in the world. It is a museum of classic styles from Colonial through Georgian, Federal, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, all the way to Art Nouveau. Colonia del Sacramento’s historic district is on the UNESCO World Heritage preservation list and the city reflects its Portuguese-Spanish past. In both cities the importance of preserving historic buildings for future generations dates all the way back to the 1920s.
Graf, who travels the world as a concert pianist and teacher, resembles Menotti, who kept his Italian nationality and infused Charleston with Italian culture. Enrique is an ambassador extraordinaire for Uruguay – the arts festival he founded is opening up his country to the world, while simultaneously bringing the world to Uruguay.
Last year my wife and I took a break from Buenos Aires to bask in the restorative calm of the old city of Colonia del Sacramento and revel in the music, theatre and other arts that were celebrated there. It was just as exciting as the launch in Charleston of Menotti’s festival in 1977.
The second, expanded festival in Colonia, which runs from November 13 to 17, promises to be even better this year. A stunning opening is guaranteed thanks to the Philharmonic Orchestra of Montevideo, performing under the direction of Brazilian conductor Ligia Amadio, performing Bach’s concertos for two, three and, yes, even four pianos. Graf will be among the soloists, which include several of his former students. Five different countries are represented by the eight pianists. Also making his debut in Uruguay will be the Korean orchestral conductor Jooyong Ahn, who has been acclaimed in Argentina for his work with Venezuelan musicians living in exile. He will be directing the Camerata del Festival Internacional de Colonia. Musicians and artists from eight countries will be performing.
Also new this year is a cabaret performance, but rather than list everything, it would seem more appropriate to point you in the way of the full programme, which you can see at festivalcolonia.org.
As for getting there, the Buquebus ferry company is offering packages that include travel, hotel and tickets to the festival on their website at www.buquebus.com/promociones/festivalcolonia.
Colonia is no longer a secret. In the words of founder and director Enrique Graf, it is now home what promises to become a cultural event of international significance.