City guide Santiago
- Sunday 1 April 2001
The first thing to hit you about Santiago will probably be the car behind. The Chileans subscribe to the Mediterranean theory that the accelerator and the brake pedals only work when jammed on full, though their own brand of Americaness means they are likely to be driving a Dodge or Chevrolet pick-up as opposed to a little Seat or Fiat. When you make it to your hotel the obligatory and complementary pisco sour will probably be quite welcome. Santiago is home to nearly half of Chile's 14 million population and distances are big, so you may have to trust yourself to another taxi driver. It's just as well they don't expect tips. There is an efficient metro system with three lines – one, two and five (they ran out of money for three and four) – or the other way around the city is on one of the 10,000 buses. Mind you, trying to work out the route can be tricky as stops are few and far between and most Santiago dwellers seem just to flag the buses down at the side of the road.
Wine tourism brings travellers flocking here, and many of Chile's vineyards are not far from Santiago. Indeed, since it was founded in 1865, one winery, Cousiño Macul, has been engulfed by the expanding city, although this does make it easy to get to. Plans are underway to build a new winery on the other side of the city, but the old estate, winery and gardens will remain, along with a patch of old vines. Guided tours of the cellars and winery take place daily from Monday to Saturday at 11am and could be your only chance to see rauli (native Chilean wood used for casks) in action. There is a tasting at the end costing US$2, and a shop too. To get deeper into wine country you have to go a little further afield. One of the best geared-up areas for touring is Colchagua,
The initial temptation in any city is to set off for the main square, and in Santiago this is as good a place as any to start. Downtown, many of the bars are 'zincs' in the old-fashioned style, serving passable lomo vetado (supposedly sirloin steak, but often indescriminate), riñones al jerez (kidneys in sherry) and substantial sandwiches such as carne mechado (thinly sliced beef). This is traditional Chilean food, especially when topped with green beans and plenty of palta (avocado). Wine tends to come in big bottles and gets topped up with coca cola, so maybe a cold beer (Escudo or Cristal are good) is a safer bet. It's not all sandwiches, though. A new generation of moneyed Santiago folk are becoming more interested in good food and wine and a stack of new restaurants has opened up to cater for them. The best areas to head for are Las Condes, around Avenida el Bosque and Bellavista, and on and off Pio Nono.
Las Condes is the well-heeled part of town, although the real money is still moving further and further out, into the Andean foothills. Here you get the wide, tree-lined avenues and big but elegant apartment blocks, plus a fair sprinkling of four- and five-star hotels. Avenida el Bosque, lined with restaurants and pubs, is the place to go to eat and drink. There is much here in the traditional, seafood and grill-centric style, but there are also other cuisines vying for attention. Gernika has a Basque theme, but some Chilean fare, such as machas a la pamesana (clams topped with Parmesan cheese) is on the menu, and main courses include the highly recommendable, but unfinishable pernil (shin of pork). The wine list covers a lot of ground, from basic wines from upwards of £3 to top-end Chileans at £70+, although there is little by the glass. Gernika, Avenida El Bosque Norte 0227. Tel: +56 2329 954. Not far away is La Maison de France. As the name suggests, this is a French restaurant with a fairly fixed menu but also a number of specials, depending on what took the chef's fancy at the market that morning. The wine list is Chilean, again, with a few smaller and lesser known producers such as Casa Rivas.
La Maison de France, San Crescente 451, Las Condes Tel: +56 2 233 7988.
Bellavista is the antidote to the Las Condes towers. It's the old Latin quater of Santiago and has low, brightly painted buildings. The main drag, Pio Nono, is packed with bars, restaurants and clubs, all spilling out onto the street.
The best treat for wine hunters is just around the corner at the Sommelier restaurant. It's decked out like a very big, airy cellar and the wine list is as close as you can get to encyclopaedic. It features wines from every major Chilean producer – a good mix of standard and premium offerings – with prices from about £4 upwards. All, staggeringly, are offered by the glass, including a selection of Chilean sparkling wines. The menu is modern Chilean/European and includes excellent ceviche (seabass marinated in lemon juice) – this does tend to murder most wines, though. Sommelier, Dardignac 0163, Providencia, Tel/Fax: +56 2 732 5548.