Continued from Part 1
The two-hour bus ride from Santiago in the interior to Valparaíso on the Pacific coast is an experience in itself, snaking through (and sometimes tunneling under) beautiful mountain ranges and past the wide green vineyards of the Casablanca Valley where some of that famous Chilean wine originates. It was a nice payback for the hassle of finding our bus – Santiago’s main bus station is a warren of confusion. But the ride is cheap and they run all day long.
Valparaíso is built on several steep hills around a bay. It’s one of those places where the map shows some named “streets” that are actually just stairways from a real street at one altitude to another at a very different one. Some areas are so steep they’re connected by ascensors, ancient elevators that slide slowly up and down hills like miniature funiculars and charge small fees to ride.
In one spot, just for fun, there’s a slide too.
Often the steps are painted in bright colors.
Valparaíso has been a major commercial port since the early 1800s, and as such it has a history as international as that of Santiago. It has been the seat of Congress since 1990, though the rest of the government remains in the capital.
It has also long been a naval port. In the 19th century Chile won a war with Peru and Bolivia over access to the sea, and it prides itself as a naval power. The country stretches 4,300 km (2,670 mi) from north to south, just about all of that length along the coast, so maintaining a status as the region’s preeminent naval power only makes sense.
We stayed at the art gallery-like Hotel Da Vinci on steep Cerro Alegre, and from this headquarters we did all our sightseeing on foot, as this is a fairly compact city. A well-developed street art tradition makes the hilly quarters, including the touristy Cerro Conceptión and Cerro Alegre, very colorful neighborhoods to walk through.
Valparaíso kicks its street art up a notch with the Museo a Cielo Abierto, a warren of steep twists and turns so decorated with art you could say they’ve actually become art. It is described as having 17 murals, but climbing around here gets so confusing it’s hard to tell where you are, what you’re seeing, and what’s actually part of the “museum.”
Another place that doesn’t seem to get too much tourism traffic is Cementerio No. 2, a historic cemetery on the slopes of Cerro Cárcel. The names on the tombs and the memorial societies that sponsor some of them reflect the international nature of the city’s founders and its commercial barons and strivers.
One place most people don’t walk to, as it’s a long steep climb, is La Sebastiana, the Valparaíso home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, now a busy tourist attraction more heavily trafficked than La Chascona, his house in Santiago.
Despite the hotel clerk’s recommendation to take a taxi, we walked it. After a long hot trek up a hill that began to seem endless, we arrived with relief at La Sebastiana.
Photos aren’t allowed inside the house, which feels like a warren of mini-buildings, each small section or room with its own decor and flavor as well as purpose. My favorite room was the study at the very top, where Neruda’s poem “La Sebastiana” about building the house was laid open in Spanish and English for all to read.
Cement, iron, glass,
were the fable,
worth more than wheat and as much as gold
Neruda prized his home’s high elevation for the view of the harbor it gave him. Today Valparaiso’s harbor is a churning port for container ships. On our way to the Naval and Maritime Museum, we took the Ascensor Artilleria up to the Paseo 21 de Mayo, where an overlook offers a great view of the harbor and the containers being loaded and unloaded. We must have spent an hour watching this oddly fascinating activity, not caring that there was nothing Chilean about container shipping.
Housed in a former naval academy, the Naval and Maritime Museum consists of a lengthy sequence of large galleries surrounding a large landscaped courtyard. The exhibits cover in impressive detail the whole history of maritime Chile – the wars, the heroes, the peacetime activity – told in portraits, murals, ship models, memorials, artifacts, uniforms and so on, most with explanations in English as well as Spanish.
An enthusiastic English-speaking docent hovered around us a good part of the time offering detailed explanations and lessons in Chilean history. We even learned about the Hermandad de la Costa (Brothers of the Coast), a Chilean-founded international maritime club with chapters all over the world. Who knew?
In the courtyard we spotted what looked from a distance like a piece of playground equipment, but is actually one of the Fénix capsules famously used to rescue the Chilean miners after the Copiapó accident in 2010. Not exactly maritime, but an intrepid vessel nonetheless.
If any more proof were needed of the importance of naval power to the Chilean national self-image, here is perhaps the grandest building in Valparaíso, and it’s the Navy (Armada) headquarters at Plaza Sotomayor by the harbor.
Belowdecks – that is, in the lower part of the city, a bit east of the hilly touristy area where we were staying and the historic part of the harbor – we walked along busy commercial streets packed with locals looking for bargains and everything else.
Just off Condell, one of the main drags, we made a point of stopping for lunch at J. Cruz Malbrán, which the Rough Guide says is the home of the local dish known as chorrillana. Thinking we’d try this odd-sounding concoction of steak strips, scrambled egg, onion, and French fries, and order something else too in case it proved unappetizing, we took a table and asked to see a menu.
No menu. They serve only chorrillana.
Something to drink? White wine? No, only red.
Choices? No, only this (very good) red, an Emiliana if I recall correctly, though I may not.
Fortunately, as we dug into the giant plate-for-two of chorrillana, and the oniony juices soaked into the other ingredients, the dish grew on us, and before we realized what was happening we had downed almost the whole thing. And there might be another secret ingredient, because it put me in a really good mood.
As we left I tipped the local musician who had wandered in to sing and play his guitar for the patrons, and then set the camera on a timer to take a photo of us outside. The camera obliged beyond the call of duty by capturing a cat as well.
Almost more than any of its individual sites or attractions, Valparaiso’s great pleasure is the atmosphere, including, which includes colorful houses as well as street art.
There’s some remarkable architecture too, including the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valparaíso, housed in the Palacio Baburizza, designed by Arnaldo Barison and Renato Schiavoni and built in the early 20th century for a nitrate baron. Until the invention of artificial nitrate, nitrate mining (for fertilizer) was enormously important to Chile’s economy. Today, mining centers on lithium (for batteries for our energy-hungry electronic devices) and copper. We didn’t come across any references to the stately homes of lithium barons.
A few more points of note:
- For a fantastic Italian-inspired gourmet meal, make a reservation at Pasta y Vino. The sea urchin ravioli and the fettuccine with gorgonzola, mozzarella and mushrooms served in paper were dishes to remember.
- We had a nice lunch at the French-style Le Filou de Montpellier, just up the steep hill from the Hotel Da Vinci.
- The Parque Cultural Ex-Cárcel is an interesting re-use of a former prison and prison yard. But there’s nothing much to see there.
Just in case I haven’t mentioned enough times how hilly this town is, here are two reminders: an ascensor mechanism and a gargantuan staircase – which we went up because the ascensor wasn’t in operation, and then down because it turned out it was the wrong hill.
Continued in Part 3, about the island of Chiloé, home of the palafito and the trauco.
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