Chile – Santiago
March 15, 2008
(February 27, 28, 29 and March 1). After centuries of being under Spain’s thumb and then decades of oppression, Chile will soon be a force to be reckoned with. Blessed with natural resources a hard-working and well-educated population, the country is making up for lost time. Santiago is now a city of six million people, spread out over a large “bowl” between the Andes and the Coastal Mountain Range.
Neighborhoods, while named, don’t seem as distinct as in other cities; but all of them are bursting with new construction. The rich are moving east into spacious and lushly planted apartment buildings and single-family homes.
The “Fifth Avenue” is not in the downtown but way east, well north of the end of one of the new and quiet metro lines. Somewhere between this shopping area and downtown is the new Ritz Carlton, a hotel that is just what one expects from this brand and where we stayed.
Of course, there has always been wealth in Chile because of the copper, coal and silver. Nowhere is it more in evidence than in the now city-owned Palacio Cousino, former home of the merger of coal and silver families by marriage in the late 19th century.
Built between 1870-8, this city palace not only rivals its peers in Europe, it is even more opulent than most. Each of the bedrooms had a private bathroom with hot running water. There was central heat, electricity since 1884 and an elevator. Everything, from the marble to the hand-embroidered fabrics came from Europe, primarily France, the country to which the wealthy here have always looked for their inspiration.
Fresh fish, meat and fruits and vegetables abound. On a walk through the Mercado Central, which now offers mainly fish, as well as a gigantic restaurant, we saw giant mussels, baby scallops and all sorts of familiar and unfamiliar fish.
The vegetable, fruit and meat parts of the market have all moved into other structures, stretching many blocks to the north.
Chilean cuisine, quite naturally therefore, focuses on the freshness of the ingredients rather than the sauces.
At Tierra Noble, one of a new breed of high-end restaurants, we ate some of the best oysters ever, served with nothing but lemon slices. Neither our shrimp nor our tuna had any embellishment, but were outstandingly cooked.
To get more complex tastes, there are Peruvian restaurants, notably Astrid y Gaston where the $60 tasting menu was both interesting and varied. At Akarana, the tastes may be Asian but the basic ingredients are pure Chile.
On a one-day excursion, lasting about 7 hours including an 1½ hour drive from Santiago through the Casablanca wine valley, we were able to walk around some of the funky neighborhoods of Valparaiso, reminiscent of San Francisco and its hills. And just down the road we took a spin through the manicured park and lawns of Vina del Mar, where all the rich of Valaparaiso seemingly have moved.