Friday, 16 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 2: Boarding the UFO

Here's the next instalment from my recently unearthed diary entries about a visit some years ago to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia...

Across a bridge above a busy highway, a quick right... and suddenly I’m transported back centuries to the Old Town.

The narrow laneway leading to Michael’s Gate is an effective filter between the two worlds, funnelling me through an archway onto a gently sloping cobblestoned street.

Not far from here I find Čokoládovňa pod Michalom.

Up to now I’ve been noticing the similarities between Poland and Slovakia... but now I’m reminded again of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna just 60km away with its tradition of coffee houses and cakes.

It’s too hot to sit inside, so I sit under the canopy that’s been erected in the middle of the street, one of a series of mini ‘beer gardens’.

The first page of the menu has dozens of varieties of hot chocolate, more fanciful as you get down the page. They range from Grand Cru (70% cocoa with a touch of vanilla) to the fanciful Sudanese (coconut, orange, honey, whipped cream).

I request a slight alteration to the Grand Cru, adding orange. When it arrives, it’s a revelation. Not only is the chocolate so thick and rich you need to eat it with a spoon; but the orange is actually pieces of orange. Delicious. Some might say it’s too hot for hot chocolate, but not me.

I also notice a lot of whipped cream in the menu items, something I always think of as an Austro-Hungarian emblem. Then, because I’m curious about the non-chocolate items, I order a heated apple juice, with absinthe, cinnamon and lemon (see photo above). Wise?

Beyond the compact splendours of the Old Town, I’m dedicated to exploring the wonders of the communist era. The first stop is, naturally, the ‘UFO’ atop the New Bridge.

It’s extraordinary. I mean, it’s one thing to build an observation platform, but to decide to build it on top of a bridge, its saucer-shaped platform supported by two tall beams that lend it the name ‘UFO on a stick’?

As always with the communists’ more extreme flights of fancy, what were they thinking? It’s as if even anything frivolous, like a viewing platform, had to be attached to something functional, eg a bridge.

I approach from the Old Town, crossing the defiantly green Blue Danube along the pedestrian walkway slung beneath the traffic. Then it’s up up up via a lift inside the eastern support pillar.

From a rather swish modern foyer, one then climbs a few flights of stairs to the open area on the top. And it’s here that you get a good understanding of the different facets of Bratislava.

Stand facing north across the river, and the orange-brown tiles of the Old Town beckon, with hints of its winding alleys interrupted by the spires of churches. The castle, of course, is dramatically poised on the hill to the west.

Turn around and face south, however, and it’s a different story. Beyond modern offices and shopping malls stretches the Petržalka district, a vast collection of huge concrete boxes that look identical.

On the hazy horizon just beyond them are the unmistakeable pipes and vents of industry. It’s like heaven and hell, dramatically speaking; certainly I’ve never seen such immediate contrast in any city, even the Polish ones.

After I’ve had my fill of the view among the gaggle of German tourists, I descend to the bar off the foyer.

There’s nothing communist-era about this; it’s been renovated to cutting edge 21st century standards: stylish low chairs, a lot of white, a gleaming well-stocked bar. And as is inevitable with these places, a fairly steep drinks list.

The place also quivers slightly in the breeze, but not too alarmingly. I drink a $5 doppio, enjoy the view, watch the beautiful people drinking at the bar, then descend once more to the bridge.

It’s a hot day in Bratislava, well over 30 degrees with a dash of humidity, which means the covered beer gardens down here at human level are doing a good trade.

Next post:  The strange statues of Bratislava...

Friday, 9 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 1: Castle to Clocks

Browsing old files on my laptop, I came across notes I'd written about my visit a few years ago to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. 

I'd intended them to be the backbone of an article, but sadly I never wrote about the city.

So here they are, with but a light edit to preserve their immediacy. Join me, just arrived by train from the Tatra Mountains on the Polish border...

So here I am in the Slovak capital. Hadn’t intended to come, but my schedule was a few days ahead in the end and it made sense.

Slid into the main station yesterday and immediately had a taste of the crumbling architecture of the communist years. The station is a bit shabby, as are the trains, but there’s a splendid mosaic in the main hall featuring folks in shirtsleeves watching Sputnik pass overhead – a sort of a modern Bayeux Tapestry.

Tram to apartment passed some fairly hideous concrete government buildings, then deposited me on crumbling pavement in residential district just outside city centre. Rented apartment has all the usual amenities: hard sofa bed to sleep on, dodgy hot water, not enough furniture. Handy for tram though.

It was a Sunday so I decided on an initial walk from heights of the castle down through the Old Town beneath it; a logical route followed by many in the old days, I’m sure.

But it was 30 degrees by mid-morning – no way was I walking up that hill if it could be avoided, so caught a bus.

This landed me on the quiet western side of the castle, and as I walked back toward it, my attention was caught by a modern white building on the right, its concourse promising lofty views.

I walked to the edge and was rewarded by a view down over the UFO, a strange circular observation deck built high above the structure of a 1970s bridge. But more of that later.

Turning back, I noticed a number of Slovak and EU flags fluttering above an artificial waterfall in front of the building, along with a statue of a woman handing out flowers as if she were Eliza Doolittle.

I realised this was the Slovak parliament, the seat of government for a Slovakia independent for the first time ever.

I felt warmly toward it, its fluttering flags and statue, as I’d felt warmly toward the compact presidential palace I’d spotted from the bus stop earlier, probably the haunt of some minor Austro-Hungarian noble in the old days.

I like these small Central European countries, they remind me of Tintin's Syldavia.

To the castle, less decorative than usual but still rather impressive – a big brown rigidly geometric number on the hilltop, with four towers holding together a square with absolutely straight walls.

Wandered around inside the attractive grounds before beginning my descent, met some Malaysian guys on the way, had a chat about the heat. Finally put on sunblock.

The way down was via impressive castle gates leading to narrow winding streets on the side of the hill.

I stopped at the Blue Star, a tavern on the way whose menu boasted centuries of intrigue: politicians and nobles of the imperial days, meeting here to chew things over. After a Zlatý Bažant beer I felt looser, relaxed, able to keep going.

Stopped at the Clocks Museum, within a tall, narrow house on an intersection, in what was the Jewish quarter in pre-WWII times.

Incredibly dangerous stairs, but led up to small rooms filled with intricate timepieces. There were some intriguing pieces from an age mixing gilt baroque angels with then-new technology

They included a clock with the four stages of life carved on its surf, ending with a skull indicating death. Something to cheer you up on those cold winter evenings.

Next post: I ascend to the UFO...

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Visiting the Russian Woodpecker near Chernobyl, Ukraine

An article featuring my 2016 visit to the derelict Duga-1 radar base in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was rewritten when the publisher wanted a different focus. So here’s my original description of the former Soviet radar base, for your enjoyment…

The eeriest moment on our overnight tour of Chernobyl happens not at the infamous reactor site, which exploded in 1986 and spewed radioactive waste into the sky.

Instead it’s at ‘Chernobyl 2’, a code-name used by Soviet authorities to hide an even more sensitive facility. For hidden within the forest was a huge radar installation guarding against an incoming missile launch.

It’s just one of several strange places visited on the tour, all abruptly deserted after the 1986 accident.

Clearly, this is not the itinerary of your average tourist jaunt. However, in recent years the Ukrainian government has allowed tour companies to take small groups into the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the doomed reactor complex.

The company that’s hosting me, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by one of the emergency workers who helped clean up the site in the 1980s. Most of its customers visit on a day trip from Kiev, two hours away; but there’s the option of a two-day tour, which means a sleepover and more sites to visit.

The exclusion zone contains more than the radar base and the reactor complex with the ruined Reactor 4 under its protective shelter.

Numerous villages were also abandoned, along with the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat. In many ways the villages are the saddest places to explore, with their collapsed houses and empty schools, still scattered with belongings including children’s toys.

The radar complex, formally known as Duga-1 but nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker for its endless clicking sounds when operational, is another memorable site.

It’s a spooky place, reached by turning off the main road past a dilapidated bus shelter painted with cartoon animals – part of its Cold War cover as the supposed location of a children’s holiday camp.

At the end of a bumpy road of concrete slabs is a huge radar array. Over 150m high and stretching for 800m along a forest clearing, it’s a complex structure of metal girders and components.

And it creaks in the wind, a creepy sound in a dead-quiet grove in the middle of nowhere. The sounds of the paranoid past, haunting the present.

Tim Richards was hosted by Chernobyl Tour. You can find details of its tours and make bookings at

Friday, 23 February 2018

Mysteries of French Island

I was recently hosted on a tour of French Island, in Western Port Bay southeast of Melbourne. This was a test run for a new series of tours being offered in conjunction with the ferry service which links the island to the mainland.

This was an intriguing invitation. Though it's long been possible to reach the island by ferry, there was no way to get around once there. There's no public transport on French Island, and its road surfaces aren't ideal for cycling.

I knew only a little of the history of the island; specifically that it was named in 1802 upon the visit of the French ship Naturaliste, part of the Baudin expedition to Australia. Other than that, it was a closed book to me.

The first thing I saw after disembarking the ferry was this impressive 4WD vehicle which Naturaliste Tours had purchased to penetrate to the most difficult parts of the island, which is largely a national park:

There's a lot of interesting wildlife on French Island. On our way to its southeast corner we passed this difficult to see echidna, shuffling along in the grass by the side of the road:

Then we broke out from bush into this large open space, an abandoned farm which had an eerie desolate air, with its empty farmhouse and old (but recently re-roofed) chicory kiln:

Near a nearby rocky beach, our guide pointed out many discarded shells, remnants of millennia of Aboriginal use of the foreshore:

On our way to French Island Vineyards, we spotted a koala up a tree:

The winery was a decorative contrast to all this wild nature, and we sampled some its wines while having lunch:


We finished our tour with a visit to the striking wetlands at the other end of the island, proof of the variety of its landscapes:

Then it was onto the return ferry to Stony Point on the mainland, and two trains back to Melbourne's CBD. Well worth the trip, and a fascinating insight into a lesser-known island on the city's doorstep.

Details of Naturaliste Tours' French Island tours can be found by visiting its website.

Friday, 16 February 2018

A Travel Reading Holiday in Lorne (Part 2)

Every couple of years I take a short summer holiday in the seaside town of Lorne (see above photo), and do a lot of travel reading.

Last post I talked about two travel books I read there in late 2017, each regarding Africa. Now here are two more reviews of travel books among my holiday reading, set in South America and Europe...

1. Turn Right at Machu Picchu; by Mark Adams

The basic premise here is that Adams, an adventure travel magazine editor who rarely gets to do anything adventurous, decides to conquer the Inca Trail. in fact he goes much further than this, seeking to replicate the exploratory quests of Hiram Bingham a century ago.

It was Bingham who visited Machu Picchu and popularised its existence in the West, but he also explored several other significant sites over the following years. In the course of the book Adams visits these while detailing Bingham's expeditions, providing us with parallels between then and now.

It's an entertaining set-up, particularly as the writer is no hardened hiker; it makes it easy for us to identify with him when he struggles with the journey's demands.

The most entertaining element by far is the Aussie guide enlisted by Adams, an eccentric hardened bushman who seems like a real-life version of Crocodile Dundee; just as Bingham was said to have inspired Indiana Jones.

This was a thoroughly good read about a destination I'm not familiar with.

[see this book at Amazon]

2. Border; by Kapka Kassabova

Finally I struck a book with a style of travel more in tune with my own.

Kassabova is a Brit who was born in Bulgaria during the Cold War. In this book, she flits along and over the borders between three Balkan countries: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Along the way she explores the history and folklore of the region, as much at home with relating ancient myths as detailing 20th century events.

This work had much less of the driving linear narrative that was present in the other travel books I read on my Lorne getaway. Instead, the author moves here and there, back and forth, sometimes staying in one village for an extended time.

As a result the book reads like a series of vignettes based on specific villages or border sub-regions, with local people and landscapes at their heart.

It's not as much a page-turner as a traditional travelogue, but Border does lend a lot of insight into the far southeast corner of Europe and the cultural and historical forces which have shaped it.

[see this book at Amazon]

That was my Lorne reading list in 2017. What should I read on my next tech-free travel reading holiday? Feel free to make suggestions in the comments section below.

Friday, 9 February 2018

A Travel Reading Holiday in Lorne (Part 1)

Every couple of years I take a short summer holiday in Lorne, on the Great Ocean road here in Victoria, Australia.

It's always a few days about two weeks before Christmas, as that's a period before the festive season rush; when room rates drop while everything in the seaside town opens.

As I've done before, I made it a tech-free break, putting the phone in a drawer once I'd checked into the hotel. The objective - in addition to swimming and walking - was to read as many books as possible.

So here are some reviews of my travel-themed reading, starting with two books about Africa...

1. Walking the Nile; by Levison Wood

There's something slightly irritating about this adventurer who decides to walk the entire length of the Nile, from Rwanda to the Mediterranean. He exudes a subtle air of outdated British imperial folly, perhaps, though he is good mates with the Africans he employs as guides along the way.

There's something meaningless about the goal, though it does lead him through an interesting variety of landscapes and nations, and into difficult encounters which make for dramatic reading. One specific episode within this true story is shocking in its outcome, and nearly brought the walk to an end.

In fact the Nile is never fully walked, as Lervison is forced to skip a section of South Sudan after civil conflict comes too close for comfort. And Egypt, the final country, is something of a damp squib as his progress there is so closely monitored and regulated by the authorities.

Having said that, it is an entertaining journey which reveals a lot about the cultures encountered and landscapes crossed.

[see this book at Amazon]

2. The Last Train to Zona Verde; by Paul Theroux

Some people aren't fans of Paul Theroux's travel writing, as they detect a cold misanthropy in his on-the-road observations. I'm not sure about that. It seems to me he is fact deeply invested in the places and people he encounters, but has a naturally detached way of relating them.

He also has a knack of getting people to speak to him, which seems the opposite of misanthropic.

In this follow-up journey to an earlier book about an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town, he travels from Cape Town to Angola and talks to plenty of people along the way: shanty dwellers in South Africa, elephant handlers in Botswana, San tribesmen in Namibia, random strangers in Angola.

What Theroux doesn't do is suffer fools gladly, and if he takes a dislike to someone or something you know it. He's not a fan of Western culture in its incarnations as mass tourism or rapacious capitalism, and he's particularly scornful of international aid agencies.

He doesn't mind giving African people a serve over their societal shortcomings either, which can make for uncomfortable reading; though he's just as scathing of Europeans who fail his measures of decency.

The journey itself is fascinating, especially since Angola in particular is little visited by Westerners; partly because of its dependence on its misused (in Theroux's eyes) oil wealth. Indeed, it's in Angola that the trip - originally aimed at reaching the Mediterranean - falls apart and is abandoned.

Theroux, as if feeling awkward about not completing his stated quest, spends far too much time justifying himself at the end of the book. It didn't bother me; the journey as it was was intriguing, and I would've myself dropped out after the first difficult Angolan day.

[see this book at Amazon]

Next: Two more reviews - one of a hapless hike through the Andes, the other about the mysteries of a three-nation border region...

Friday, 2 February 2018

Clifton's: LA's Retro Cafeteria Lives Again

From 1935 to 2011, Clifton's Cafeteria served meals on Los Angeles' Broadway as the LA Downtown went from boom to bust, then gradually became fashionable again. 

I visited the legendary eatery in 2015, when I was being hosted by Discover LA. It had just reopened after extensive renovations, intended to update it for the 21st century while not losing too much of its retro appeal.

Here's what I found...

Clifton's attractive retro exterior gives way to a wild interior. Simple wooden tables are set on four cascading levels, tiered as if placed on a hidden hillside.

Each of these terraces has a rough-hewn look, with massive timber logs holding up the roof and criss-crossing each other.

This faux forest look is enhanced by murals of more trees, and pot plants scattered between the tables. There's also a big fake bear above the entrance, captured in mid-growl.

Facing the bear is a rough castle facade, and a staircase leading up to a bar area.

All this cheesy splendour is backed up by the soundtrack, a selection of mid-20th century popular songs: All of Me, You Ain't Got That Swing, various jazz tunes.

The bar area is impressive, the void in its centre dominated by a hollow tree trunk rising up several storeys.

Beyond the crazy tree there's more of the feel of a Western saloon, with waistcoated bartenders pouring drinks to customers seated on bar stools, or lounging in armchairs.

The downstairs cafeteria is the prime focus, however.

In addition to its outlandish decor, Clifton's was famous for not turning anyone away, subsidising the meals of those who couldn't afford to pay.

There's still an original water feature by the entrance with a plaque asking people to toss in coins to help the needy.

Past the tables, diners enter the kitchen area, which is laid out like a food hall with separate counters serving burgers, roast meats, salads, deli-style sandwiches and desserts.

You collect what you fancy, then pay for the lot at one of the tills on the way back to the tables.

If the tray is a bit unwieldy or too heavy to carry up the stairs to a table, one of the energetic resident busboys in their striped shirts will take it there for you.

Even when I call in on a Monday afternoon it's extraordinary how much energy there is in the place - from the lively music, the busboys hurtling to and fro, and the buzz of conversation from diners stimulated by the over-the-top decor.

Attempting to assemble a vegetarian meal (not so easy, considering the meat-heavy menu), I select three side dishes from the burger counter - a bowl of sauteed vegetables, a serve of mac and cheese, and a serve of fries.

Not entirely healthy, but tasty in combination, with a sachet of hot sauce drizzled over the mac and cheese.

This is teamed with a large, chilled glass of lemonade, a drink the Americans do inordinately well. It has just the right balance of sweet and sour, with a refreshing crisp chill. Perfect.

And the whole thing costs me just US$11.98. Fine by me.

Clifton's is located at 648 S Broadway, Los Angeles, USA. See

Friday, 26 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Glacier Cruise (Part 2)

Last post I described the beginning of a glacier cruise I took in southern Chile in 2006. Now the adventure continues...

On the second morning of the cruise we awoke to find the Pio XI glacier right outside our window. This is the largest glacier in South America, stretching back some 70 kilometres into the mountains.

If you saw this in a movie, you'd assume it was a special effect. Filling our field of vision is a cathedral of ice, ranging from pure white through blue shades to almost indigo depths.

Great vertical cracks resemble caves, promontories look like spires.

On its upper surface are projections like great crystals, and gigantic cracks hint from where the next giant chunk of ice will fall into the sea as the glacier makes its way down from the heights.

After a run in the ice-filled fiord in the excursion boat, we return to the ship and stand on the top deck as the Skorpios cruises parallel to the glacier’s cliff-like surface.

Every so often a chunk of ice breaks away and hits the water, with a deep crash and ensuing waves.

Standing there with a quiet sense of reverence, we all feel we’ve seen a major highlight of our travelling careers.

"Just look at it," says one of the Australian women. "Forget about photos. Look at it and carry it in your mind".

So we put down our cameras for a moment and just look.

And as we look, a barman sidles up with the inevitable brightly-coloured cocktails on a tray.

And so to Eden. Puerto Edén that is, a fishing village set in the middle of this chilly beauty.

It's strange to come across a settlement after travelling for days through areas with no evidence of human activity.

There are no roads in this part of Chile, and not even any streets in the town; instead, it has a series of raised boardwalks which lead around the village and up to a nearby lookout.

It's an attractive place, even in its obvious poverty. Fishing boats lie high and dry on the shore, brightly coloured with hand-painted names; fishing nets sit piled, ready for use; and the different coloured roofs are pleasing as they follow the curve of the bay.

The locals supplement their incomes by selling handcrafted souvenirs to visitors, mostly woven baskets and model boats made of wood or hide. We buy a few to pay our way.

Back on the ship, afternoon tea is served as Puerto Edén slips away in our wake, disappearing from sight as if it were never really there: like a South American Brigadoon.

Over the next few days we see more ice than you’d ever hope to meet, in an assortment of breathtaking glaciers. Each has its own distinctive formation: one even looks like a giant frozen meringue.

The mix of onboard treats and external adventure continues, typified by the Captain’s Ball whose buffet features animals carved from butter

Then for our final excursion, we go ashore and walk right up to the face of a glacier.

This seems to be the hallmark of the cruise: a neatly-judged balance of comfort and adventure.

Aboard we have pleasant cabins and plentiful food and drink, which are contrasted by frequent excursions to the rugged, primal wilderness outside.

Although the passengers are mostly a middle-aged bunch, I think it would work well with a family group, as there’s enough activity to keep kids occupied. And there are no unexpected costs, as the tariff includes all food and drink, even the alcoholic variety.

But that special glass of Scotch we had earlier - chilled by 50,000 year old ice from a glacier - may have spoiled me. Where’s the fun in drinking whisky with day-old ice, when you’ve had the really old stuff?

Information about Skorpios cruises can be found at

Friday, 19 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Glacier Cruise (Part 1)

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

This article was first published in 2006, so some details may have changed, though the destination is still spectacular. For we're heading south to the glaciers of Patagonia...

Salud, dinero y amor! (To health, wealth and love!)

This is no idle toast. We’re on the third day of a cruise through the glaciers and fiords of southern Chile, and have left the comfortable confines of the ship to get among the ice.

Passengers are lined up on the long benches of the open-air excursion craft, lifejackets on, as the boat grinds through the small floating bergs.

Without warning, the pilot sails up to an iceberg, rams into its flank, and extracts a large chunk with the aid of an ice-pick.

A few minutes later we’re milling around, clinking glasses as we toast each other - with 12 year old Scotch containing 50,000 year old ice.

Sure, it’s a gimmick - but what a gimmick.

Not that southern Chile needs any help to be impressive. Beyond the warm central portion of the country, where most Chileans live, the landscape changes dramatically.

The roads run out, and the terrain breaks up into a rugged collection of islands, mountains and glaciers, jumbled together in an almost uninhabited part of South America.

Beyond this, the land becomes flat again, home to grazing herds of domesticated sheep and wild llamas, as it approaches Antarctica.

This southern region is known as Patagonia, and is still one of the great frontiers of tourism.

But the journey needn’t be too hard. We’ve booked passage on the Skorpios III, a cruise ship which plies the inland waters and ice fields of Chilean Patagonia, offering one of the few ways to explore this glacial wilderness.

Arriving at the Skorpios dock by road from the southern city of Punta Arenas, we meet our fellow passengers at dinner.

There are Chileans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, and a big contingent of Brazilians among them, with Australians, French, Germans and Spaniards making up the numbers.

This diversity means the cruise lacks the sterile feel of a package tour conducted for Westerners only. All tour commentary is conducted in both Spanish and English.

But before the ship leaves the port town of Puerto Natales, we’re taken on a coach trip to the Torres del Paine National Park, one of Chile’s great natural treasures.

The Paine Towers that give the vast park its name are a spectacular group of craggy volcanic outcrops among distant snow-capped mountains. They’re an unlikely backdrop to the green tones of springtime which appear below the snowline.

On the way through the park, we have frequent sightings of local wildlife: nandus (South American ostriches), guanacos (cousins of the llama) and most impressive of all, black condors.

The weather is perfect: clear blue skies and uninterrupted sunshine. Not for the first time, I'm amazed by how warm it is here at 52 degrees south.

Then we stop for lunch, and get our first taste of this company’s catering arrangements. We’re expecting a stale sandwich and a soft drink. What we get is a waiter shaking cocktails, then serving them from a tray in real glassware, followed by a full-scale barbecue and Chilean wine.

Returned to the ship, we set sail through attractive, tree-covered green hills giving way to rocky slopes at the water's edge, with massive icy mountains beyond. As we progress toward the glaciers, chunks of ice float past us.

Picturesque though it is, I’m struck by the lack of human activity - there's simply no-one here. There’s something very relaxing in that thought. Not the first time, I'm glad I didn't bring my phone along...

Next: Much more ice, a remote village and the Captain's Ball...

Friday, 12 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Bohemian Santiago (Part 2)

Here's the next instalment of my previously published print articles about Chile, South America.

Last post, I toured the former residence of poet Pablo Neruda in the company of guide Gonzalo Iturra. Now I find out more...

Gonzalo is so obviously fond of Neruda, and so knowledgeable about his house, that I arrange to meet up with him later over a beer to learn more about the poet and his neighbourhood.

Narrelle heads off to the riverside craft markets, while I kill a few hours hanging around the Barrio’s main drag, Pio Nono.

As it’s now late afternoon, the street has come to life, with university students filling the plastic chairs in the sun outside the corner pub I choose. Chileans love their outdoor drinking and dining, and it’s pleasant sitting among the good-natured crowd.

A waiter appears and I order cervezas (beer), to which he responds “Chico?” (“Small?”). As I’m considering this, he vanishes, to return with a half-litre stein of the amber fluid, obviously feeling that this large gringo had not got that way by consuming chico amounts of anything.

In due course I meet Gonzalo at Venezia, another long-term Barrio Bellavista survivor and a famous Pablo Neruda hangout.

It's so old and unrenovated that the dining room's floor is bowed down in the middle, just managing to bear its load of tables with sky-blue tablecloths, and straight-backed wooden chairs.

By now I’ve figured out that Neruda is a huge deal in Chile; but coming from a country where sportsmen matter way more than poets, I wonder why.

“He was the man who finally put Chile on the map,” explains Gonzalo. “Chile was a very isolated country, and people thought of us as a geographical accident.

"And then Neruda came and started thinking about the rivers and the mountains and the people and the workers and the fruit. He took small things from a poor background, and made them so big.”

What was he like as a person?

“He was a big kid in many ways, says Gonzalo. “He never took himself too seriously.

"When you met him, you were expecting this really important figure, and he’d be wearing a nightdress or something. He was an eccentric, and he knew that. He enjoyed it and people forgave all.”

As Gonzalo emphasises, the maintenance of his house is important not just as a memorial or museum, but as a glimpse into the poet’s mind.

“The houses are very much like him. They reflect his obsession with ships, and hidden things like secret passages. One of the steps in one of the staircases was made from a railroad sleeper. That’s a reference to his father, who used to work at a train station.

“He even believed that coloured glass would make things taste different; and when he ate, he should have lots of friends there, and never eat alone. That’s why there are lots of dining rooms in his houses.”

The reason we’re talking about more than one house, I discover, is because Neruda had three of these creations dotted across Chile.

In addition to La Chascona in Santiago, there’s La Sebastiana in the coastal port Valparaiso, and Casa de Isla Negra on the island of Isla Negra, each as colourful and unique as their former owner.

By settling in the Barrio and acting as the hub of its arty transformation, Pablo Neruda created a unique neighbourhood that symbolises the passion and energy of Chile and South America.

“The mix of people is what I like about this neighbourhood,” concludes Gonzalo. “You have people walking their dogs, TV celebrities, writers and intellectuals, and experimental artists. It’s like a bohemian oasis.”

La Chascona is located at Fernando Marquez de la Plata 0192, Santiago, Chile. Find ticket prices and entry times at

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...