Thursday 21 March 2019

Eccentric Orbit: Santiago’s Barrio Bellavista

In Santiago, Chile, some years ago, Narrelle Harris and I enjoyed the vibe of the lively Barrio Bellavista district. The story I wrote about it for a newspaper is no longer online, so I've republished it here...

Princess of my feelings
Butterfly of my flowers, of many colours
That I find now in my garden
Birdsong reminds me of your laugh

It’s amazing what 2000 Chilean pesos ($5) will buy you. Walking through the night-time streets of Barrio Bellavista, a district of Chile’s capital, Santiago, Narrelle and I are accosted by a smooth-talking man.

He claims to be a poet, supplementing his high university fees by selling photocopied examples of his work in Spanish and English to passers-by.

He blames his plight on ex-dictator General Pinochet, and asks if I know him. I nod. Then we discuss his uncle's time in Melbourne, he comments on how tall Australian women are, I give him some money for the above poem, and we part the best of friends.

And the night is yet young. There’s never a dull moment in this bohemian entertainment area just to the north of the city centre, across the Mapocho River. It may be pushing midnight on a Tuesday, but it's all happening at the Barrio.

Restaurants are serving food to patrons sitting outside in the balmy spring air, bars are doing a brisk trade, helped by resident solo guitarists, and yellow-jacketed officials keep the peace by sorting out visitors’ parking problems.

Along the street, two young men play the drums and juggle, with a view to extracting financial compensation from passing motorists and pedestrians.

Barrio Bellavista does a good line in perky black-clad waitresses, along with energetically mad beggars, folk who loom over your outside table or harangue you with a smile as you try to use a public phone.

It's all part of the local colour, and we take a tolerant view of their unscripted interventions.

The only real danger lurks in the cholesterol content of the parillada we order from the Galindo, a haunt of the late Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda. Promised to be tipicamente Chileno (typically Chilean) and indicated as a meal for two, the dish turns out to be a mixed grill of gigantic proportions that would keep a vegetarian gibbering for a week.

The pan it’s served in contains two chops, two steaks, two chicken breasts, three sausages of various descriptions, and several steamed potatoes. This is a meal you could share with your extended family, with everyone satisfied by the end.

But maybe the locals need to fuel up to keep pace with Bellavista’s non-stop energy.

While Santiago has often been seen by travellers as one of South America’s less interesting destinations, and certainly one of the most polluted, this neighbourhood is the focus of much that is worth seeing in the city.

Behind its attractive grid of narrow, tree-lined streets filled with theatres, bars, and eateries, looms the Cerro San Cristobal.

This middle-sized mountain is home to a funicular railway, zoo and the sprawling green parkland of the Parque Metropolitano.

At its summit there’s a lookout under the benevolent gaze of a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched, resembling an opera singer about to burst into an aria.

But the major drawcard of the district is Neruda’s former home, La Chascona. As eccentric as its owner, the property is a riot of separate rooms cascading down a lush hillside, linked by walkbridges.

Each is oddly-shaped, brightly painted, and full of curious objects collected by its owner: bottles, Toby mugs, paperweights, ashtrays, dolls, ships’ figureheads, and representations of horses, watermelons and fertility gods. Much of it was smashed after the coup in 1973, not long before Neruda died, but now it’s been restored and is much-visited.

Gonzalo Iturra, a guide employed by the Pablo Neruda Foundation, is fond of the great man’s quirks.

“The house is important because it is very much like him,” he says. “It reflects his obsession with ships, and with hidden things like secret passages. One of the steps in the staircases was made from a sleeper from a railroad. That’s a reference to his father, who used to work at a train station.”

And the dining room filled with luridly coloured glassware?

“He believed that coloured glass would make things taste better,” says Iturra, smiling.

La Chascona seems like the anchor of the district which surrounds it, a bohemian refuge never conquered by the yuppie invaders who are the kiss of death to such suburbs in the West. But are its days as an alternative hangout numbered?

Iturra doesn’t think so.

“When you make money in Chile, you don’t want to live in a bohemian neighbourhood downtown where things are happening; you want to go where no-one else is,” he says. “Bellavista can be hip and cool, but can also be very unpretentious.”

Neruda, as an ardent communist and a poet who immortalised the mundane objects of everyday life, would no doubt be happy to hear it.

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