Tuesday was a day for more to visit some of the Santiago sites on my own. Before I left I found out that you could tour the Presidential Palace (Chile’s version of the White House known as Palace de La Moneda). Reservations had to be made a week in advance and because all of the email communications had been in Spanish (thanks Google Translate for the assist), I really wasn’t sure what to expect. However, the reviews on TripAdvisor had been very good so with fingers crossed I set out for the Palace just few blocks from Plaza de Armas.
The Palace,which dated to the late 16th century was surprisingly accessible. Traffic flowed past the front entrance a mere sidewalk away. Sure there were concrete barriers dividing the road and the sidewalk, and there were low rise metal fences preventing the riff raff from accessing the gardens and sides of the building, but there were no high walls and only a handful of armed guards stationed at each doorway at the front, back and each side. I walked past the front entrance and around to the back where I was supposed to present my passport. Unfortunately, the guard at the back side entrance did not got the memo (and also was no comprende for my English and lousy, limited Spanish). He insisted that there were no tours on Tuesday – only the weekend.
Finally, someone who worked in the Palace came by and told me there were tours today, but I had to go the front entrance. Uh OK (although that’s not what I believed the instructions had said, but what did I know since they were in Spanish). I wandered back around to the front only to be told by a guard who spoke limited English that I was in fact supposed to go through the back entrance. The guard radioed the original guard I met at the back and by the time I got to the backside of the Palace, the guard was A-OK with letting me pass through the metal fence. Once through, I met a guard at the back entrance who advised me to wait and someone would be coming to collect my passport.
There were a handful of other people waiting, but not another English speaking tourist in sight. At 9:20, a female guard came out and collected our passports, walked back inside and a few minutes later came out with our passes. We were divided into two groups: Spanish speaking and me. Turns out I was the only English speaking tourist and so they had gone to the trouble of providing me with an English (uh that would be limited English) speaking guide named … wait for it … FRANCESCO!
Now anyone who knows me well, understands my deep and undying loving of the movie ELF. Once Francesco introduced himself to me, all I kept thinking about was “ohhhh Francesco that’s a nice name. Francesco. Francesco.” It was all I could do to control my laughter.
And it turned out that Francesco was as equally fun as his name. Friendly and anxious to improve his English, Francesco was a wealth of information about the Palace.
He initally explained to me the layout of the Palace, which was comprised of two square sections built around two open air courtyards connected by four porticos. The first portico was the front entrance, from which you entered into the “canon courtyard”. If you walked through the canon courtyard you would pass through a second portico into the second courtyard known as the “orange courtyard”. Once you walked through the orange courtyard you passed through another portico where the security screenings took place and finally through one last portico to the outside back entrance.
Since I entered through the back portico I would be entering the “Orange courtyard” first, once I passed through the security screening, which was a typical government building screening – metal detector and bags through a conveyor screening.
Francesco explained to me that the Palace was originally used as a government mint. In the early 1800s the Palace also became the official Presidential offices and later include the Presidential residence. Today, the Palace only houses the Presidential office, as well as the offices of her four cabinet members (yep only four: Interior, Secretary of State, Communications and the other one escapes me).
The orange courtyard was used for official receptions and was named for the orange blossom trees that were planted throughout the courtyard. The courtyard was surrounded on four sides by offices, including the office of the President (who happened to be on summer vacation).
We moved through the next portico into the cannon courtyard, in which there were displayed, a number of cannons (obviously). The cannons were original and had apparently been used in Chile’s war of independence.
Before moving on, Francisco wanted to know if I was interested in watching the changing of the guard, which apparently occurs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays. Uh yeah! And because I was inside the Palace, I would have a station of “privilege” to view the action. Wow. We walked through the front portico to the outside of the Palace and stood behind the concrete barriers where a line of guards were already standing in front of the square courtyard, which was now blocked from traffic. Pretty soon I could hear a band playing and a line of soldiers in their royal dress preceded to march past followed by another line of soldiers on horses. They all took their places in front of me and pretty soon there was a lot of yelling of orders, stomping, royal trumpeting and horses standing smartly. It was all pretty cool and a mere stones throw away from me.
After the changing of the guard, we went back inside where I was shown two more small side patios and then lead inside to see three rooms, including the Ohean room (an official greeting room), the waiting room (where heads of state wait to greet the President, and the communications room (where press conferences are held).
Throughout the tour, Francisco was a wealth of information about the history of Chile, the bombing of the Palace that occurred on September 11, 1973 (oh the irony of the date) when Pinochet and the military took control of the government, and the present workings of the government today. It was a thoroughly fascinating way to spend an hour and half and all without charge. WOW!
After the visit to Palace de La Moneda, I walked towards the Plaza de Armas and stopped at at a Cafe Haiti a very famous coffee shop that has been around since 1947. Turns out I know why it is famous. While the latte I had was quite good, it was readily apparent that the place stayed in business because the women serving were either beauty queens or models. My GOD!
Anyway, after the quick coffee break, I crossed the Plaza de Armas and took the subway back to the stop near my hotel (I’m getting good at this subway thing). Anyway, my next stop for the day was to visit Casa Museo La Chascona (one of poet Pablo Neruda’s three homes in Chile).
Pablo Neruda was Chile’s most beloved poet and literary artist, writing about love, politics, history and life in the 20th century. While he was alive, Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature and was at one time ambassador to France. Neruda had a VERY interesting life and loved as hard as he lived. Every time he took a new mistress he built a new home for his lover. La Chascona was one of those residences built for his favourite mistress, Matilde Urrutia, (La Chascona means woman with unruly hair and judging from the pictures in the residence, the name fit the bill.)
The walk to La Chascona took me through the Bellavista neighborhood of Chile, which is home to the University of Chile as well as some savory and not so savory bars and restaurants. During the day it was a fabulous walk. At night my guess is not so much.
Anyway, I reached La Chascona, paid the entrance fee, donned some headphone and proceeded to walk through one of the most thoroughly intriguing homes I have ever seen. First the residence. It was built almost like a treehouse with tiny rooms and secret staircases extending here and there. The rooms were small and felt like you were on a ship with porthole windows and arched ceilings (which was the architect’s intent). The windows were huge so at the same time it made you feel like you were living in the outdoors. And the décor was something else. Neruda was a well traveled man and he collected art and artifacts from every country he visited. There were dolls from Russia and Poland, colourful glasses from Portugal and Mexico, a table from Paris, a bar from the France, plates from various countries in Europe, art from from France, books from all over the world and on and on. His Nobel Peace Prize award was even on display.
In 1973 when Pinocet took over, his home was ransacked by the militsary (Neruda was an avowed communist). Shortly after that, Neruda died of cancer (although many Cbileans believe he was murdered). All in all, it was an absolutely fascinating hour long visit.
After La Chascona, I wandered around the Bellavista neighborhood and contemplated lunch. It was 1:30 and right about the time Chileans take their largest meal of the day. (Lunches can last up to two hours here and drinks are usually part of the plan.)
I wandered the neighborhood and found a restaurant that was packed and displayed some words and a date of 1968, I figured it must have been founded then and so that it it must be all right so I wandered in, took a table and proceeded to try and order from the Spanish menu. Uh, should have tried to find someone who spoke English. Now while I got the spicey shrimp in a broth correct, the other item I ordered was not even close. I thought I was ordering bite sized pieces of grilled beef, lamb and sausage with salad. Instead I got a humongous plate of fries with grilled beef, lamb, sausage and ham. It was large enough to feed 4 people. Seriously. And the bad part was that I do not eat fries as a general rule.
I was so surprised at what they brought me, I just sat and stared at it. The couple beside me were cracking up. As it turned it, it helped break the ice of the Chileans around me and I proceeded to have this awesome lunch shared with a bunch of folks who spoke little English, but somehow we all managed to communicate and have a great time. One of the many reasons why I love to travel. You never when those unexpected awesome moments will just happen.
So after sharing a glass of wine with my neighbors, I said “adios” and left the restaurant. By now it was almost 3 and I wanted to get in one last site before I headed back to my hotel to get ready for my trip to Punta Arenas (and a God forsaken 6:00 a.m. flight…. YUCK!)
Anyway, the last stop of the day was Metropolitano de Santiago. Santiago’s largest park covering San Critobal hill. I have a view of the park from my hotel and I had planned to visit it during my stay. The park includes a myriad of bike paths, a swimming pool, a zoo, Chilean gardens, and a statute of the Virgin Mary at the top of the hill with arms outstretched (much like Christ the Redeemer in Rio).
The trip to the top was by funicular and fortunately, this finicular was in far better shape than the finicular in Valparaiso. The finicular was built in 1925 and made stop on the way up the hill at the zoo and at what appeared to be a walking path. All I wanted to do was take the funicular to the top and see the view and Virgin Mary and call it good.
Unfortunately, once at the top, it was another 100 plus steps to the top. Are you freakin’ kidding me. It was 30 degrees celsius, I was boiling and I had to hike a steep staircase. Not to be defeated by architects, I set off, but not before grabbing two cold bottles of water, both of which I drank before reaching the top.
But … I made it. Once at the top, I wandered around, took pictures of the Virgin Mary “Redeemer”, the surrounding city and called it good. By now it was 4 and I was exhausted. I had been going nonstop since 9 and I had a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call. It was time to say goodbye to Santiago for the time being (I would be back next week for 2 days before heading on to Easter Island).
There are a number of observations I can make about Santiago, but I think I will save them for my blog on my return. (Plus I still need to take a video of the “walk” sign and the running man.) In the mean time, I am off to Punta Arenas for a day (in the Patagonia region of Chile) before I fly to Antarctica. Can’t wait!!!!