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 fundacionneruda.org.

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...