Friday 5 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Bohemian Santiago (Part 1)

Over January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles about Chile, South America.

This article was first published in 2009, so some details may have changed, though the destination retains its allure. For first up is the capital city of Santiago...

Que aventura! 

This simple Spanish catchphrase – What an adventure! – has been our signature expression since entering Chile.

We've applied it to all the usual traveller’s misadventures: missed buses, delayed luggage, queues at airports, language difficulties.

But now Narrelle and I are gazing at an amazing sight through the window of a central Santiago lunch bar.

Among the plastic replicas of its many dishes is the jaw-droppingly huge sandwich called lomo completo, a vast roll crammed with mounds of beef and various other ingredients.

It’d have to be almost 20cm across. This is clearly the place for a budget-friendly, value-for-money, throw-the-diet-out lunch.

It’s also frantically busy within. Sitting down at one of the dozens of small tables placed cheek-by-jowl is like taking part in a lively theatrical work.

Waiters dash rapidly along the narrow channels between tables in the vast interior of this ‘Restaurant Fuente de Soda’ (literally a fountain of soda, but actually a cafeteria), diners make their frequent entrances and exits, and the occasional near collision or dropped plate adds suspense.

Despite the pace, our waiter, like everyone else we’ve interacted with in the Chilean capital, is friendly, helpful and extraordinarily patient with our dodgy Spanish.

Forewarned by the window displays, we order a single Via Italiana sandwich stacked with chicken and guacamole, to share. The sandwich’s name is something of a mystery, guacamole being very un-Italian... though very South American, as avocado is a New World fruit. In any case, it’s only 2300 pesos, about A$5.

Replenished, we head for Barrio Bellavista, the city’s famously bohemian district, a humming zone of restaurants, theatres, bars and live music by night. By day it has a different atmosphere, quieter but scenic, with narrow streets housing compact, attractive homes and shops.

Behind the Barrio looms the Cerro San Cristobal, a mountain with a funicular railway running up to the peak, passing a zoo on the way. The funicular has been running since 1925, and has the old-fashioned air of a weekend attraction for families wondering what the hell to do with the kids. As you ascend, however, Santiago opens up beneath you.

At the summit is a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary, as no self-respecting South American city could be without a giant Biblical figure on a hilltop. We're standing at the base of the statue, when the outline of huge mountains emerges out of the haze, rising dramatically from the plain to extraordinary heights.

Smog makes the Andes difficult to see in the morning, but they usually appear more clearly in the afternoon, quite oblivious to the astonishing backdrop they create. But mountains this majestic need have little concern for the affairs of ants like us.

Back down at street level, near the foot of the Cerro, lies a museum devoted to the late poet Pablo Neruda, national icon and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The street it’s on is a tiny, serene cul-de-sac lined with colourful houses, including La Chascona, now housing the museum but formerly the poet’s home until his death in 1973.

The area in front of it has been turned into an attractive minimalist fountain, with narrow channels carrying water between blocks of burnt orange stone to a circular structure embedded in the street.

We’re taken through the house by tour guide Gonzalo Iturra, a man with an impressive moustache and smooth colloquial English. Neruda's house turns out to be delightful jumble of oddly-shaped rooms sprawling over different levels of the hillside, separated by cool, shaded sections of garden.

This disjointed home is filled with a most curious assortment of odds and ends. The great poet had the collector mania at its most acute: among his many objects of desire, he collected bottles, ship’s figureheads, paperweights, Toby mugs, dolls, ashtrays, and images of fertility gods, horses and watermelons.

Above all this, he was fascinated by the sea, and the house is peppered with items taken from ships. One room even has an angled floor especially constructed to creak, to imitate life aboard ship.

La Chascona is charming and colourful, reflecting a man with an extraordinarily creative and active mind. That he also liked to stroll around the house dressed as a sea captain, or even a nun, is neither here nor there - great men must be allowed their little foibles.

I suggest to Gonzalo that Neruda could be regarded as eccentrico, and he replies: "Si... or maybe loco." But he says it with a smile.

Next: I buy Gonzalo a beer, and learn more about Neruda and his 'hood...

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