I haven’t blogged for a while because I was away, trying to soften the blow of turning sixty. It worked, and the trip was every bit as diverting as I’d hoped. Actually the age thing ended up being totally unimportant and what mattered most was discovering a completely new part of the world.
We started in Antarctica, which has become such a tourist draw in recent years, and then travelled around different parts of Chile and Argentina. So, in the spirit of travel blogging, I’d like to share a few random thoughts and observations of the Awfully Big Adventure, as I like to think of it.
Antarctica is dedicated to peace and science, at least for the next couple of decades. It’s hard not to fall into clichés – surreal, dreamlike, majestic – but it was certainly all of those things.
It was extraordinary to land at the Vernadsky Research Station, which was built by the British and then handed over to Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke up and Russia snaffled the best sites. Young scientists live here most of the year, and you could tell how excited they were to show the place off. We inspected their offices, heard about their projects and sampled their homemade vodka. It was a glorious still evening, the sun slanting over the ice, and despite the noise of the gentoo penguins wandering among the buildings, it felt utterly tranquil. The end of the earth.
Being on a Norwegian ship meant that we heard a lot about Roald Amundsen beating Scott to the Pole but there was also plenty about Shackleton, and it was moving to see the narrow shelf of land on Elephant Island on which Shackleton’s team sheltered for months while Shackleton went off to get help in South Georgia. One afternoon, our ship pushed its way through the thick sea ice and stopped, enabling us to get off and walk around it. In 1915, Shackleton’s ship Endurance had been surrounded by ice not very far from where we were and it was eventually crushed and sunk – Australian photographer Frank Hurley captured its final days in photographs and film that are still captivating to watch.
Before we left Australia, I loaded my Kindle with books, imagining days at sea or trapped by rain in mountain lodges when I might snuggle up for an immersive read. It was a seven week trip and I figured I’d have so much time to read. There was something for every mood and yet I didn’t finish a single one, not because they were unreadable but because, on those days when I had time to sit and read, I preferred instead to look out of the window. I know I’m a dreamer but even I was surprised by my love of just gazing outwards.
That wasn’t surprising in Antarctica where the ever-changing landscape was so precious I didn’t want to miss a thing. Given it was nearly midsummer and therefore rarely dark, there was always something to see, from penguins leaping out of the water like flying fish and black-and-white dolphins riding the bow wave to giant petrels following the ship and icebergs appearing like ghostly castles in a sublime frozen landscape. But even on a rainy day, weeks later, sitting by the fire in our rented cottage beside an Argentine lake, my Kindle lay in my lap as I watched the ibises (bandurrias) squabble in the garden and the rain drift and smear the mountains, momentarily throwing up rainbows. The clouds in Patagonia are different from any I’ve ever seen – spectral, alien and always intriguing. It was all too magical to miss.
On long bus journeys in Patagonia there was the vastness of the landscape to contemplate with the sudden appearance of guanacos, the llama-like animal of the region, and flocks of emu-like rheas. And then there were the wild-looking but stylish gauchos in berets and boots and brandishing whips as they drove huge herds of rust-red cattle from place to place.
That idea of books being such a precious retreat holds good when I am in my normal life – on a train into the city or in bed at the end of the day. Here, in landscapes so new and so captivating, I had no desire for books. That was an odd revelation to me.
I’ve always viewed cruise ships as all bling and bloat. But the moment I boarded the Roald Amundsen I realised there was nothing I would change about its interior design. For someone who can find fault with anything, this was something. The floor of the shower, for instance, was covered in slate. On a practical level this meant it was never slippery with soap but it was also emblematic of the way natural materials were used throughout, from pure linen table napkins to chairs upholstered in soft plain wool. There was lighting just where you wanted it. Even the cutlery felt just right in the hand. Someone had noticed this was important. That kind of thoughtfulness is sheer luxury, much more than marble and sparkle.
Afterwards, we stayed in a variety of places which were superficially luxurious – a marble bathroom, an abundant flower display, a cluster of little bottles in the bathroom with a famous name stuck on their labels – but were often so generic. To me, luxury is quietness and softness and in the tiny details that mean so much. Like the hotel that had a great selection of homemade jams and the best eggs I’ve ever tasted (from the neighbour’s hens). I’ve developed an aversion to all those little plastic bottles and sachets in bathrooms. One hotel gave us a new soap each day although each soap bar was quite large, and individually wrapped. I had to ask them not to do that, it seemed so wasteful. Waste is not luxurious but it seems care about recycling is.
I knew I would love this city and it didn’t let me down. Its glory days may be behind it but it has such energy. It’s a handsome place, too, with plenty of parts that reminded me of Paris or Madrid. There’s poverty, too, and a distinct edginess to some areas, particularly close to the river. The older districts, like Recoleta, with their tree-lined streets and grand apartment buildings felt instantly appealing, as did the newly hipster’d barrios of Palermo and Chacarita. It felt like a city which would keep rewarding you the more you delved into it. I was there for a week but needed much longer.
I didn’t realise until I got to Buenos Aires that I knew practically all the words to the musical ‘Evita’. How could I not sing “I want to be a part of BA, Buenos Aires, Big Apple” almost the moment we landed at its ridiculously convenient airport. I bought the album as soon as it came out in 1976 and saw the London production twice. Much later, I enjoyed the film and bought its soundtrack, too. So I was intrigued by the esteem in which Eva Peron is still held in Argentina. Of course I visited her tomb in Recoleta cemetery, interested to find a young couple in silent, tearful reflection in front of it. And then later, we met friends for dinner in the excellent restaurant of the Evita Museum, which occupies the building that she had turned into a women’s refuge (“never been a fund quite like the Foundation Eva Peron!” as I sang to myself on the way there). The food was excellent but the setting, with its photos of Eva in her various cheerful guises, was fascinating. And, of course, I walked past the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, with THAT balcony (and you know exactly what I was singing to myself). The fact that the square in front, the Plaza de Mayo, was being set up for the presidential inauguration the following day made it even more special. Evita was everywhere, even emblazoned on the side of the Ministry of Health skyscraper.
We flew from Sydney to Santiago, a little nervous about reports of the country’s on-going protests. There was plenty to see, with every bank boarded up, graffiti everywhere but especially daubed across churches, and broken windows all over. Tourism has obviously been hard hit and in Valparaiso, for our first few nights, we felt as though we were the only tourists. At night there was the sound of speeches in the main square below us. In nearby Viña del Mar we watched students protesting peacefully but saw statues in its lush parks that had been destroyed or daubed with political graffiti. We didn’t feel at all unsafe. Even when we stayed close to the epicentre of the protests in Santiago, the Plaza Italia, and could hear the sirens and the roar of a crowd and smell the tear gas in the air, it felt very localised.
In Punta Arenas, in the deep south, as our ship set off for Antarctica, the sky was blackened by plumes of dark smoke. When we returned some weeks later, we found several charred sites where buildings had once stood. The next group of passengers had a grimmer experience – the truck loaded with their luggage was hijacked in Santiago and everything stolen. With the police so focussed on trying to contain protests, there are obviously opportunists. City pavements in Santiago were lined with people selling all kinds of things, from second-hand clothes to basic housewares, knowing that the police would do nothing to move them on.
We spoke to many Chileans and the response was always the same, that the protests were often commandeered by anarchists eager for total change, forcing a more violent response. But everyone seemed fed up with the corruption at the highest levels, and a president who didn’t listen. People will only put up with so much and it was impossible not to sympathise with the energy driving the protests.
Everyone loves an Argentinian malbec, that luscious red wine that is popular throughout the world, but I fell in love with the carmenère wine of Chile. Rich and fruity and peppery, it reminds me of the simple but delicious Cotes du Rhone wines I encountered in Provence. Our last dinner in Santiago was at Bocanáriz, a wine bar with an immense wine list. You can sample a flight of three different wines at a time, each glass holding 50ml. We ended up trying three flights/nine wines, which exemplified the finest, the most iconic and the best bio-dynamic wines of Chile. Carmenère still won me over. The food was excellent, too.
Pisco sour was everywhere. Pisco is a lightish brandy and the Chilean pisco sour is simpler than the Peruvian version, which has eggs whites in it. With loads of crushed ice, fresh lemon or lime juice and a generous slug of pisco, with probably a soupcon of sugar as well, it was the perfect aperitif, especially on a warm evening. A cocktail I could really embrace.
In Argentina and Uruguay, every café serves limonada, freshly made lemonade with a dash of ginger and mint, and icy cold. Served by the jug or in a tall glass, it’s a fantastic thirst quencher. But it was always a toss-up between that or a fresh juice. The most common was strawberry mixed with orange juice but there was also strawberry with basil, and raspberry with mint. Utterly delicious.
We spent a few days walking in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile and then doing the same in its counterpart over the border at El Chaltén. Perhaps it was because the weather was better on the Argentine side but I enjoyed that more. Torres del Paine is one of South America’s top attractions so staying there is expensive. Walking to the base of the famous pinnacles meant joining a queue of fellow trekkers and made me think of those pictures of climbers queueing for the summit of Everest. We saw a puma in Torres, which was a thrill. Mighty Fitz Roy at El Chaltén was so stunning I could hardly keep from staring at it. It’s like the opening image for Paramount pictures, something so CGI’d that you pinch yourself that it’s real. And the walks all around were utterly lovely, with distant views over turquoise lakes with icebergs in them (calved from glaciers) and crimson-headed woodpeckers attacking trees in the lovely forests.
Later, we stayed in the Patagonian lake district further north. It was much less wild, with pretty towns with chocolate shops and a sense of the passeggiata before dinner. The streets of San Andre de los Andes were overflowing with roses, and further on there were remnant forests of monkey puzzle trees around the base of the spectacular Lanin volcano. I was familiar with these trees from my childhood, where they were often planted as specimen trees in the gardens of spooky old Victorian houses. To see them in their natural environment was special.
We took the famous day-long voyage from Argentina over the Andes to the Chilean lakes, using boats and buses to get to the Llanquihue lake and its two volcanos. It was rainy and damp on the way and humming birds flitted around the fuchsia bushes. The area around Puerto Varas has a strong German atmosphere, thanks to the settlers of the 1860s. It’s bizarre to pass such sturdy farmhouses, their walls hung with shingles, their roofs so steep and deeply-eaved, as though straight out of Bavaria. The land felt rich and fertile and it’s not surprisingly that it’s becoming a popular place for families tired of the bustle of Santiago as well as a tourist hotspot.
You think South America and you think meat and empanadas. And of course we ate both, of varying quality. Order Patagonian lamb and you get a huge pile of four different cuts of lamb taken from a carcass that is roasting over an open fire, often in the window of the restaurant. You could build a house with the thickness of the steaks in Argentina. Thankfully, you don’t need to eat meat all the time. Chile is famous for its seafood and its fish, like king crab from the Chilean fjords, as fresh and delicious as that sounds. In Uruguay, I loved the fish called corvina which was incredibly succulent, a little like sea bass.
If you see food as theatre then you’ll love Aramburu in Buenos Aires. Tucked down a side street in Recoleta in a dark, dark room with only the glass-walled kitchen for entertainment, the degustation menu verges on the ridiculous. Bright green pea soup was served in a dish like a hollowed-out river stone. A single carrot confection was so intensely and lusciously carroty that you had to laugh when it burst in your mouth. It’s a procession of dishes of equal invention and the whole place reeks of a chef asking a simple question: How can I best express a pea/ a mushroom/ a fish? My mistake was not having the matching wines, although the two I chose were utterly divine. This is indulgent eating, all about flavour, and you want to applaud at the end, which I think would probably go down quite well.
Lonely Planet mentioned the stray dogs in South America and I was expecting flea-bitten and mangy mutts. So I was delighted to discover that yes, there were dogs roaming free everywhere in towns across Patagonia but they were rather lovely. They were usually large and shaggy but there were small terrier-types, too. Occasionally one would come and sit quietly next to you if you plonked yourself on a bench in a park. More than once I had to step over a sleeping dog in a shop doorway, or make sure I didn’t wake one that was asleep under the table in a café. There were bowls of water for them in the streets and they seemed perfectly happy, roaming so freely. It began to strike me that these dogs weren’t a problem. The towns seem to have accepted them and treat them almost as community pets.
I couldn’t go to Argentina and not visit the only building completed in South America by Le Corbusier, the Casa Curutchet. I’ll write about it in more detail another time but it was lovely, as always, to be drawn somewhere I would probably not have visited otherwise. The house is in La Plata, about an hour’s train ride from the centre of Buenos Aires. It’s an interesting town in its own right, not because it was briefly known as Eva Peron City in the 1950s, but because it was the first properly planned town in South America. Its avenues and streets follow a strict grid pattern overlaid with diagonals, which is then broken up with lovely little parks, one of which the Casa Curutchet overlooks. It has an immense neo-Gothic cathedral and a grand opera house but otherwise it has a laid-back vibe, a bit tatty but rather charming.
Old Corbu has taken me to so many interesting places in France and Switzerland so it was not surprising that he would do the same in South America.
You read that it’s a good idea to take American dollars with you but you can’t believe that there’ll be an issue with credit cards. Who carries cash these days? And yet, many hotels and restaurants prefer cash to cards in both Chile and Argentina and most will happily take American dollars; one café in El Chaltén told us we could pay with euros. Argentina’s economy is a teetering, tottering mess but it was strange how credit cards were so often viewed with suspicion. Occasionally a restaurant would advertise that it took Visa. I assumed that was shorthand for taking credit cards in general but no, it meant just Visa, not Mastercard or any other card. When our cash reserves got low, we had to make sure to ask if they took Mastercard before ordering.
Why our cash got low was that Argentine banks will only allow you to withdraw tiny amounts, and then they’ll charge you a fortune for that pleasure. Coming from a country where we rarely use cash and never write a cheque, it seemed mind-bogglingly odd. Argentine banks were always full of queues and people waiting, too, but I suppose that was better than the boarded-up banks of Chile.
I’m not sure what this tells you about the difference between Chile and Argentina. In Chile, even in the middle of busy Santiago, cars always stop to allow pedestrians to cross. Often drivers smile as they wave you across. In Argentina, you have to find a proper crossing or you’re mincemeat. And it takes forever to cross what is known as the widest boulevard in the world, the Avenida 9 de Julio.
I’ve never liked making a fuss about birthdays but maybe that’s changed. Blowing out birthday candles on a cake presented with a fanfare in a ship’s restaurant and then drinking my favourite champagne (Bollinger, since you ask) while the sun set over the south Atlantic and while wearing a specially printed tee shirt which had “Colin’s Party Crew Est.1959” printed all over it was utterly brilliant. This was organised by my dear friends, the Noonan family, with whom we were blessed to share the Antarctic bit.
The actual day of my birthday was much more low-key, waking in a pretty log-and-stone cottage by a lake in Argentina and gazing out at the snow-capped Andes. The day progressed with a beautiful walk through a magical forest of myrtles and southern beech trees and ended with dinner in a local parilla, where the 18-year-old waiter proudly informed us that it was his dream to become a Qantas pilot. It was as memorable as I wanted it to be.
But then again, being able to share the whole adventure with the man I love and finding places that fascinated us both, made it special. I don’t think the Colin of forty years earlier would have quite believed any of it.
And that, perhaps, is the essence and delight of growing older.
Have you visited South America?