Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Wine Por Favor

Success at last! The third time really is a charm. Alas, Chile!

Getting across the border was uneventful, after maybe seeing Cerro Aconcagua ("was that it?" X 10), only an hour wait and an extensive bag check for fruits and veggies. What does Argentina have that Chile doesn’t want, besides the beavers that are destroying Patagonia (oh, I forgot to mention that in the Argentina post--- so much trash talk about the beavers, how could I forget?).

Good thing I got across or Harry would have been wandering around Chilean vineyards all by himself. He had a very ambitious (wine) plan after all.

My first night was spent in the hip, artsy area of Bellavista with Richard (a Quebecois I met on the bus) and a $2 liter of beer on a very lively street full of plastic chairs and street drummers (and teenagers).

The next morning I headed over to the Hotel Orly in Providencia to meet Harry, fresh off his flight from snowy Philadelphia (he was so happy not to be shoveling).

I found a leaflet for a free walking tour like the one in Buenos Aires so we spent the entire afternoon learning all sorts of whacking things about the city, including my favorites:
  • They love this drink made with a peach, it's juice and wheat- not really my thing, but Richard forced it down.
  • On Independence Day citizens are fined if they do not hang the Chilean flag-- as if there is nothing better for the police to do.
  • Gabriela Mistral, a famous female poet was described as "not the best looking lady".
  • At a few coffee shops waitresses wear bikinis and take them off for one random "happy minute" per day. Still waiting on cousin Steve’s business plan for a US model!
  • Nuts 4 Nuts first started in Santiago, but didn't catch on until successful in NYC.  They are much better in Chile.
Of course we also saw the main attractions as well:
  • The Plaza de Armas, founded by the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, is a lovely spot for some chess playing with the old men or just sitting around, if you can find a bench in the shade as you wait for the walking tour (we were an hour early, oops, my fault).
  • Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, a well-reviewed museum full of artifacts from various regions. Harry didn’t seem all that interested, but I was pleased to charge my camera battery on the sly.
  • New York Street and the Stock Exchange housed in a lovely French-style 1917 building
  • The often reconstructed Cathedral Metropolitana with the opulent (aka tacky) alter
  • La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s many bazaar homes resembling a boat. I will admit that neither Harry or I had any idea who this Nobel Prize-winning poet was and didn’t really care about the quirky home.
  • Palacio de Moneda, the Presidential office and site of the 1973 Pinochet-led coup that ousted Salvador Allende (it used to be the mint, hence the name)
The day ended with some traditional Chilean food, for me the pipping hot corn casserole- pastel de choclo, while waving away the cigarette smoke. Then of course the standard argument with the taxi driver- I am not getting screwed this time!

We had another day in Santiago to hit the sites we missed on the walking tour, like the old post office and former railway station chock full of copper (Chile is the world's leading producer of copper).

For lunch we stopped by the 1868 Mercado Central for some mystery fish and I bought some jumbo straw- berries (that soon liquefied in the summer heat) for the long walk to Cerro San Cristobal.

The Andean peak rises to 2,820 ft. with great views over the city (if not for the smog you could see the mountains that surround the city) and a 72-ft. high statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción.

The1925 funicular delighted Harry on the way up, mostly because the Papa (aka Pope) took our car. Too bad the teleférico was long closed (teleférico es cerrado!?!?!), but good thing we realized it before we walked too far downhill.

In fact we might as well have walked all the way down since we ended up walking the whole way to the hotel for some odd reason--- it was far! Thankfully I got a balloon along the way to distract me.

We were then distracted by a couple of Pisco Sours, the drink of Chile (and Peru). We knew one was enough, but then got one free that put us over the edge. The waiter at the restaurant we arrived to late asked if we were “going to sleep there?” as it was getting so late. Too late for the dog that looked dead on the street—it was the pisco that made it seem a good idea to prod it with my flip flopped foot (it was indeed alive, but didn't react).

Overall I would say Santiago is a much nicer city than I expected as no one really talks of it very fondly. It has lots of nice parks, is clean, has some decent restaurants and some nice buildings, even if most of the old ones have been destroyed by their frequent earthquakes. It doesn’t have the energy of a Buenos Aires, but I still really liked it.

Another thing to like is that you can take the metro to vineyards in the Maipo Valley! Sure, we left the hotel with no addresses or phone numbers, so no surprise it was not the smoothest excursion, but we made it.

Cousiño-Macul was our first Chilean vineyard and coincidentally the first vines to be planted in Chile in 1546. The grounds of the family owned vineyard were lovely and the tour good, but the tasting was a little miserly for the price. I hate when they talk up their good wine and then serve you something else.

At Concha y Toro, Chile's largest and best known winery, we blew off the tour and just had a couple glasses and a cheese plate at their restaurant. A much better idea!

Harry really wanted to go to Almaviva even though the guards said it was far and the taxi would be expensive. Of course we knew better than the locals and found a driver ourselves who took us there and really tried his best to get us into the CLOSED winery. He talked us through the first gate, but couldn’t get them to open for us. We then drove through the vineyard (which appeared to be in the midst of a ghetto) to the metro--$20 poorer and now car sick!

This actually turned into a trip saving experience since Harry had originally envisioned us busing/cabbing everywhere (which would have been a disaster). The next day we had a nice rental car delivered to the hotel and hours of 80’s music to keep us entertained (perhaps Pinochet banned western music in the 80's?). Harry really wanted more of Train’s "Hey, Soul Sister" (aka the national anthem of Chile) which really did play non stop.

When I saw the refugio in Cajón del Maipo I was baffled that we ever considered taking the public bus to El Morado National Park in the Andes. We avoided a lot of bitching.

Don’t misunderstand, there was still a lot of bitching since we embarked on our trip around Chile with no map! Amazingly we managed to find our way through a detour and eventually onto the dirt road that led us to Refugio Lo Valdés and a warm greeting by the manager, Andy.

Andy in fact was a total jerk and cause of many laughs. He was flat out insulting at times and refused to show us the Southern Cross telling us to look up, that it would be obvious. It was not!
We had a great time with Brad, Ilyana and Todd, over a lot of wine (we learned red wine pairs perfectly with girl scout thin mints, but not the “superb” pork chop), prompting Andy to ask what brought us there.

Perhaps we were a little louder than most of their climber clientele, but Todd’s story of the $240 fine they were charged for bringing in an American apple was too funny!
Andy also sent us on a hike that he must have known was too late to start, but I don’t think Harry was too upset when the park ranger turned us away.

Our drive to the refugio was on a Sunday, so the mine was closed. Not as lucky on the way out, we drove much of the way in a giant cloud of brown dust caused by the trucks.

We were headed to Rancagua, which we again amazingly got to despite the lack of map (just a bit of confusion). Of course the hotel staff was completely useless and couldn’t tell us anything about the area.

Once we got to Anakena, which was super easy to find (the hotel staff must never leave the hotel), we had a fabulous, long tasting and learned that Chile had misidentified the Carménère grape as Merlot for years, only discovering the error in 1994. Our guide even took us out into the vineyard to show us how the leaves look slightly different. Good thing they rediscovered the grape since it may be my new favorite variety.

All this driving required us at some point to get gas-- what a debacle. We had no idea how to ask for it, nor did we know how to open the gas cap-- the worker rightly laughed at us. Good thing we were better at ordering McDonalds—the golden arches guided us through the night sky.
Next up, the drive to Santa Cruz and the Colchagua Valley. In my opinion this was the best valley with some good tastings in really beautiful wineries. 

First up was Viu Manent for a tasting and then later lunch overlooking their on-site equestrian club (our "stalkers" from the refugio happened to be boozing it up here too! ;-)

Clos Apalta was amazing pricey, but well worth it to see the stunning $10-million, gravity-fed winery and a taste of delicious Syrah.  We also met a couple from Savannah who we'd continue to run into for the next few days.

We stopped by Montes for some wine and cheese and were denied by some ninas at Las Ninas before we called it a day.

Maybe not the best idea to try to find the hostel after the wine tasting, especially since now we barely recalled the name and definitely did not have the address or map.  Harry circled the main square of Santa Cruz (whose roads are a mess post earthquake) while I tried to get directions from the woman at the info booth (why are there no maps in Chile?).

The night was capped off with a fabulous dinner outside at Vina Bello where we ran into the Savannah couple for the third time that day.
Another adventure in the car and we arrived in Valparaiso, but had a much harder time finding our way around once in town with the tiny, maze-like streets.

We walked all over the city checking out the colorful buildings that climb the hill, hopping a funicular to get us back uphill.  And yes, another chance run in with the Savannah couple.

Since we kept running into them, we figured it best to meet for a drink overlooking the harbour.  Oddly a cat jumped on my lap almost instantly and slept there for the next hour or so-- it seemed to confuse me for an animal lover.

We tried a new restaurant Bijoux which had an interesting concept of interviewing you to get a sense of what you might like--- the fish with chilies and golden berries was pretty tasty.  This led us to spend a lot of time trying to figure how this concept was really sustainable-- not convinced. 

We had one more valley to hit on our drive back to Santiago and much more success navigating Valparaiso and the gas station.

Casablanca Valley was the end of our Chilean wine tour, a white wine region. This valley is most like Napa in that no reservations are required allowing you to hop from one to another (and potentially into oncoming traffic when trying to backtrack to Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana).

I was delighted when I learned that Veramonte is affiliated with Quintessa in Napa.

We also sampled some food and wine a Casas del Bosque before my shortcut which turned into a giant loop around the area on route to Matetic where they have two winemakers that they pit against eachother (imagine there is a lot of animosity).  Matetic is also organic and uses alpaca and sheep to help maintain the vineyard.

I think we about exhausted all the vineyards in Chile and had a great time doing it.  I look forward to drinking lots more Chilean wine when I return to the States, especially since it is a total bargain!

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