Chile's Capital Santiago: A Box Full of Surprises
Chile's Capital Santiago: A Box Full of Surprises
I’m beginning to fear Santiago might be a bit bland when three things happen. We stop at some traffic lights, I watch the changing of the guard and I dine at Borago.
The traffic lights are on one of the main tree-lined avenues and ahead of us is the gleaming symbol of modern Chile - the Gran Torre tower block, at 64 storeys the tallest building in South America.
As we pull up a couple of youths spring into action and start juggling – with stools, hurling them into the air in a great display of virtuosity while still managing to collect coins through car windows in the time it takes to change from red to green. It is an example, my guide tells me, of the ingenious alternatives which arose when squidgee merchants were banned.
The changing of the guard takes place at Moneda Palace, the fine early 19th century neoclassical seat of the president. In the square in front are some pretty fountains and various statues of significant figures including one of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Marxist president ousted in a military coup by Augusto Pinochet. Under his 17 year dictatorship, opponents were ruthlessly disposed of, some thrown out of helicopters into the sea; others, maybe as many as 3,000, simply became los desaparecidos, the disappeared.
Today though the military presence seems entirely benign, all glossy horses and dazzling white uniforms. It’s commanded by two slender young women and at the finale of the ceremony, the band launches, not into something stirring and martial, but into the Tom Jones hit It’s Not Unusual.
And just to add a final flourish, two street dogs decide to play a part. These are not the wretched curs of many foreign cities but reasonably healthy looking individuals who run out with tails wagging to greet the guardsmen before settling to sleep in the middle of the parade ground. No-one shoos them away and when the soldiers march off they simply wheel neatly round them.
On to Borago, the brainchild of Rodolfo Guzman, Chile’s answer to Heston Blumenthal but with movie star looks. In his restaurant, which regularly finds its way onto lists of the world’s 50 best, I eat one of the strangest meals of my life.
The themes are foraging and the fusion of the cooking techniques of the country’s indigenous peoples – Guzman is half Mapuchean - with modern methods. So I eat pickled sea snails, conger eel in squid ink and veal cooked for 40 hours and various other dishes from the tasting menu which rather get lost in translation.
Nothing comes on anything as ordinary as a plate. It comes on slates and on moss, in paper bags and in little buckets filled with hot coals and for some courses you need guidance on what you can eat – those flowers – and what you can’t – those twigs. Almost every mouthful is delicious but the experience is beyond just having a fine dinner: this is food as theatre, as conversation piece, as surreal experience.
Back at The Aubrey, the boutique hotel fabulously restored from an old mansion by its British and Australian owners, I fall into conversation with the mother of one of them, the Israeli barman and two American orthodontists, fellow guests. It’s the last touch to a day of realising that Santiago has a great deal more to offer than it might at first seem.
Santiago's setting at the foot of the majestic Andes is, of course, spectacular but the city itself is often overshadowed by its showier, more glamorous Latin American sisters Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero.
One reason is that the country is the most earthquake prone on earth with the result that for a capital established in 1541 by the Spanish conquistadors it has relatively few historic buildings. Some exceptions remain – notably the Plaza de Armas with the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Royal Court Palace on different sides – but the city lacks the long architectural perspective of many other old capitals. It’s also meant vast urban sprawl as everyone wanted low rise, less risky buildings.
Modern anti-seismic construction methods mean buildings can now grow upwards, hence the civic pride in the Gran Torre and other high rises of the new financial district Las Condes, symbols of the city’s growing prosperity, and the dozens of shopping malls which have sprung up in recent years.
Visitors looking for something a bit more atmospheric though tend to be drawn towards the bohemian Bellavista district with its cafes, bars and craft shops selling lapis lazuli jewellery – the semi-precious stone only found in Chile and Afghanistan - or the Mercado Centro with its piles of colourful produce and animated stallholders.
Here is the place to sample the Chilean equivalent of shepherd’s pie where crushed corn replaces mashed potato and try mote the local soft drink of wheat in a syrup flavoured with dried peaches.
There is a great overview of the city from the top of the San Cristobel hill which also has a zoo, a Japanese garden and a park and is crowned by a huge statue of the Virgin Mary her arms spread in an embrace of the 6.7 million inhabitants below,
From here on a clear day – the authorities say they are winning their battle against the Santiago basin’s notorious smog – the snow capped Andes seem within spitting distance and indeed the foothills start barely ten miles away with ski resorts within an hour or two’s drive.
Santiago is similarly handy for the sea and for visiting many of the country’s famous vineyards. We take in two for tours and tastings: the Vina Cousino Macul, now run by the sixth generation of the founding family, and the Vina Santa Rita which also has a free and fascinating museum of pre-Columbian artefacts.
On another day we drive down to the sea, again only an hour or so away, to Vina de Mar, a popular resort with yet more high rises but also with the drama of the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean – this is somewhere to surf rather than swim – and the novelty of seeing seal lions and pelicans on rocks just a few yards out from the promenade.