Friday 3 July 2009

Valdivia: Retro Chile

Valdivia, Chile, is everything promised by the glowing description in the Lonely Planet guide, a very beautiful city on the conjunction of three rivers.

We've had brilliant taxi drivers here, and have felt pleased at being able to manage conversations on Australia, travel and Chilean politics, all in our basic Spanish.

The guy who drops us off at the Museo Historico is named Omar, and he agrees his name might have a connection with the Middle East - maybe through Spain’s medieval Moorish rulers? He asks for an Australian coin for his collection, but unfortunately they’re all in the hotel room. So he shrugs and drives off with a smile.

Because we’re too early for the museum, we walk down to the riverbank. The museum, on Isla Teja, was the 19th century home of a successful German brewer, and has a magnificent view of the city opposite.

And directly below us, on a derelict jetty, is a delightful surprise: a group of sea lions draped across the timber, taking a break from their usual practice of haunting the fish market opposite for a free feed. Their resemblance to aquatic Labradors is stronger than ever, as they loll about on each other, occasionally lifting a head and giving us a lazy, unthreatened glance.

Once open, the museum proves to be an excellent collection of items relating to various periods: pre-Spanish, first contact, early independence and German migration. It’s intriguing to draw together Chilean events and prior knowledge - the timing of independence with the Napoleonic wars, for example.

Another surprise is the weather: a real Melbourne-like spring day, with steady rain and a slowly lowering temperature. The prospect of a boat excursion to the Spanish forts nearby, eagerly promoted by waterfront touts, recedes in likelihood as the day becomes wetter. So we retire to the Bar Bomba, one of the few places open for lunch on a Sunday afternoon in the centre of town.

The Bomba is a bit of a dive, much like an Aussie country pub with its front bar and dining room behind, and much in need of a lick of paint. But the waitress is good value, trying out her limited English and going to great lengths to explain what’s available on the menu (Narrelle later hears the staff pointing out the gringa on her way out of the loo).

For my main, I order a dish of a dozen beef empanadas, assured by the waitress that they’re quite small. In fact, each is the size of my fist! Luckily it’s OK to have half of them wrapped up to take home for dinner. We also share a decent bottle of Chilean red (aren’t they all?), labelled “Gato” with a picture of a cat. We’re getting slowly drunk, the rain is getting colder, so the Spanish forts are definitely off the schedule today.

Instead, we set out to investigate the city centre - which turns out to be more interesting than we expected. Throughout Chile, especially regional Chile, I’ve been experiencing a strong sense of nostalgia, a feeling of places and practices still caught in the 1970s.

But the king of all retro remnants is the splendid Cafe Palace, a coffee house where 1974 never ended. Inside, rugged-up locals sip coffee from cups with gilt-edged saucers. The decor is brown - brown cushioned vinyl chairs, tables, tiles, and aluminium ceiling beams; and brown shag carpet on the walls, which clings unnervingly to my shirt as I lean against it.

This tan masterpiece is finished with mirrored pillars and light fittings resembling science class molecular models: shiny chrome rods ending in multiple spheres like mirror balls.

The retro decor is so complete that I smile with delight - it’s like a finely-detailed movie set. The menu extends the illusion. I have a toasted cheese sandwich which takes me back to childhood shopping trips with my mother to the one shopping centre in a Western Australian country town, where we’d stop for refreshment at the centre’s ‘coffee shop’ (well before the rise of Australian cappuccino).

I cap my visit with an insanely huge tip to the loo lady - 1000 pesos - because I don’t have change. But of course, it’s only $2.50. Valdivia’s prices are another welcome blast from the past.

As this article is based on personal experience from a few years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers’ reliance on the information within. Always check on the current retro cafe situation before travelling to Valdivia.


  1. Ah, as a Chilean I can tell you that Valdivia is an awesome destination, especially for young people since its considered an "university city", with lots of students, people to meet, things to do and fun to be had :)

    by the way, gato is one of the the worst of the (bottled) chilean wine, although is decent as every red wine made here.

    it's so nice to see people enjoying their visits to our country :D

  2. Thanks Esteban, we had fun in Valdivia at the end of a long trip. Nice city with a friendly atmosphere. Here's an earlier one I wrote re Santiago: