Santiago Day 1: La Chascona, Cerro San Cristóbal & Plaza de Armas
“We need to sit on the rim
of the well of darkness
and fish for fallen light
~Pablo Neruda, The Sea and the Bells
There’s something uniquely wonderful about walking through a house where someone we’ve admired once lived. Passing by the table where they ate, the desk where they wrote or the window through which they viewed the world makes us feel more connected to their work, almost as if we were visiting a friend. That’s exactly the kind of table he would have had in the dining room…I just knew it! It’s an experience that is both interesting and insightful and at the same time a bit like reading someone’s off-limits journal, as if we are trespassing through their memories.
And so it is with La Chascona, house of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Tucked away on a quiet street in Santiago’s Bellavista neighborhood, the quirky house offers an intimate look into Neruda’s personal life. La Chascona was where he lived from the early 1950s until his death in 1973, the home he created with his secret lover Matilde Urrutia, who became his third wife. The house’s name is from a Quechua word meaning tangled or unruly hair, in honor of Matilde’s curly red tresses.
It was almost noon when Herb and I arrived at La Chascona, after traveling an hour-and-a-half from Valparaiso, where our cruise had disembarked. We picked up our audio-tour headsets and headed to the first of eleven designated areas. Photography was permitted only in the exterior spaces.
The tour began in the bar and wove through three separate structures, up and down staircases and in and out of terraces. There was a dining room, living room, bedroom, library, map-filled “France Room” and a summer bar dedicated to poets, especially Walt Whitman. There were displays of Neruda’s medals and awards, including his 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. There was even a “secret passage” through which, according to the audio guide, Neruda would dress up for parties and magically appear to surprise his guests.
Neruda was a passionate collector – a “collector of curiosities,” as the audio guide called him – and each room was filled with interesting items from his travels. Paintings from China, colorful glassware from Mexico, bistro tables from Paris and matryoshka dolls from Russia decorated various rooms in a sort of hodge-podge, yet organized way. The house was as romantic as a Neruda poem, filled with so many personal things it was impossible to take it all in.
After the tour, we headed down the street and around the corner to the Bellavista funicular for a ride to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, Santiago’s highest viewing point. The funicular is housed in a building with a castle façade that looks like it’s right out of Disneyland. As we got closer, it was clear that the line for the funicular also looked like it belonged in an amusement park, snaking out the door and down the stairs. We waited about half-an-hour before reaching the ticket office inside, only to discover more queues. It took another 30 minutes before we arrived at the boarding area.
The funicular dates from 1925 and has open-air windows and a covered top. There are two green cars – appropriately labeled 1 and 2 – that meet on intersecting tracks about mid-way to the top. It’s a quick ride through forested scenery, with one stop at the National Zoo before reaching the summit.
We walked around the viewing platform and climbed to the second level which houses a chapel, outdoor stage, terraced gardens and stairs leading to the Statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the hill. Forest fires outside of Santiago had resulted in hazy views of the city the day we were there, but it was still an impressive vantage point for getting a feel for Chile’s capital city.
Our last destination of the day was the Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s main square and the original city center. On a weekday afternoon, it was packed with locals and tourists, a veritable heartbeat of the city. There were fountains, statues, benches and palm trees – elements you’d expect to find in an old Spanish square – but to me the real standout was the architecture surrounding the plaza.
At the northwest corner is the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, constructed between the late 1700s and mid-1800s. The original structure had been destroyed three times by earthquakes. It’s a magnificent space reminiscent of the great cathedrals of Europe, filled with frescoed ceilings, gilded columns and a charming aqua dome dotted with golden stars.
Across the street from the Cathedral is another grand building, the Correo Central, Santiago’s main post office. With its Belle Époque exterior and skylit lobby – complete with chandelier and wrought-iron balcony – it’s one of the most elegant places in the world for mailing a postcard. There’s even a convenient separate office for purchasing stamps – first door on the left, labeled “Filatelia” – which Herb discovered while I was waiting in the very long line at the main counter!
It was almost closing time when we walked into the Museo Histórico Nacional, next-door-neighbor of the Correo Central. In addition to featuring exhibits of Chile’s history, the museum offers tours of its tower, which overlooks the plaza and the city. We were too late for the tour, the guard told us, but we could return tomorrow. We thanked him, not having the heart or the Spanish words to tell him that we didn’t have tomorrow. Tomorrow we would be touring Santiago’s wine country before heading to the airport, the last day of our travels.
That evening we had dinner at Bocanáriz, a wine bar on José Victorino Lastarria Street. I had thought a wine tasting would be a fun preview for our upcoming day in the Casablanca Valley, but it turned out that the food at Bocanáriz was as much of a standout as the wine.
It can be challenging to get a feel for a place when you only have a brief amount of time there. Major sites, off-the-beaten-path experiences, special cafés and the chance to just “be” all mix together to create an impression, a feeling we carry with us long after we’ve moved on to the next destination. It had been a wonderful whirlwind of a day in Pablo Neruda’s town, and I couldn’t wait to see what the Santiago wine country would bring.