Thursday, May 30, 2013

Valpariso and Vine del Mar: Opposites Attract

From the 16th deck of our docked ship we could see the hills surrounding Valparaiso. Our first view was before daylight, and the city sparkled with its salmon-colored street lights that twinkle, glimmer, and glitter from the hills. Then, as the sun rose and bathed the hills in a warm glow, we spotted the Esmeralda, a replica of a Chilean battleship used in the War of the Pacific, when Chile fought and defeated Peru and Bolivia.

Near the Esmeralda was a replica of the Santiaguillo, the tiny Spanish bark which was the first ship to anchor in Valparaiso Bay.

The view from our ship gave us a great look at Muelle Prat (where the Santiaguillo is located), a pier from which launch tours of the harbor depart.

Hugging the shore are numerous fishing boats (50 to 100 at least) whose activity support the Chileans vast consumption of seafood.

Valparaiso, Chile, is Chile’s second-largest city, and it is known locally as Valpo. It is a busy port, and the ship comes into a container area, and we were shuttled to the passenger terminal—a ten-minute ride. Once in the terminal, we easily located our checked baggage—two large bags set off by the colored straps wrapped around them.

For Valparaiso and Santiago we have booked a six-hour private tour that emanates from the terminal area. We did this for several reasons. First, we have had two sensational private tours previously, one in Beijing, China, and one in Rio de Janeiro, so we have a positive precedent.

Our second reason for booking a private tour is a simple one as well. In general, we don’t like the scheduled excursions because there are too many people involved. It complicates sightseeing, often prevents you from hearing essential information, and makes taking pictures whenever you want to, difficult or impossible.

The third reason is that on scheduled excursions, the availability of bathrooms can present problems. Then, when they occur, often the lines are long and valuable tour-time is jeopardized.

Our private tour began at the passenger terminal with Sebastian Parada H. As our guide, and we began where the ship came in—in Valparaiso, the most important port on the west coast of South America. Founded in 1536, it has a population of 340,000 with a high population of young people because the universities in Valparaiso are cheaper than in other places. What truly distinguishes the city are the 52 hills that surround the bay where 90% of the population lives.

Because the hills are high and steep, the Chilean government provided easy access to them via ascensores—a series of elevvators, cable cars, and funicular railways. These, too (along with the hills) are another of the city’s distinguishing features.

In the 1940s there were 40 ascensores; today, there are 15. We drove to the high point of Concepcion—the first ascensor constructed in Valparaiso (1883) and which is still powered by a steam engine.

We drove around the entire city of Valparaiso, thus, we saw the Anibal Pinto Plaza and its Neptune Fountain—a war trophy stolen from the Peruvians in the wake of the War of the Pacific. We saw Plaza Sotomayor—Valparaiso’s most impressive square where the main headquarters of the navy is located with its neo-classical style.

We toured the old government part of the city where we saw the Turri Clock— Valparaiso’s version of Big Ben—El Congreso, the Congressional Building, to where Chile moved Congress from its quarters in Santiago and stirred up a hornet’s nest of complaints.

Other sights we were fortunate to see were the Plaza O’Higgins, Lat Matriz—the oldest church in Valparaiso (built in 1559 and reconstructed in 1837) which sits at the foot of Santo Domingo Hill, the Naval Museum, and La Sabastiana.

We stopped at 692 Ferrari Street on Bellavista Hill and had the opportunity to walk to the concrete espalanade in front of La Sabastina. There, we could look back on this jumbled, five-story house, with outstanding views of the entire bay—and which helped to inspire the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda won the Nobel Prize in 1971.

From La Sabastiana we virtually drove around the bay on a crowded (we had to ppull over and slow way down each time we met an oncoming car or bus) street until we came to the boulevard (Avda. España or Avd. Errázuriz—it changes its name) that leads from Valparaiso to Viña del Mar.

As Valparaiso is to the class of poor working men Viña del Mar (which every Chlean calls Viña) is to the rich and wealthy. Although they share the same bay and are a mere 6 miles apart, they are as different as night and day. Viña has a municipal casino, elegant hotels and restaurants, flower-bedecked condos, homes and villas, wide beaches along a scenic, rocky coastline, grand avenues, and chic boutiques.

Before our tour we provided our driver and guide with things we wanted to see in each of the three cities we would be visiting. For Viña we wrote down only two things: 1) the central square, and 2) some of the city’s stately mansions. For a city that is Chile’s main tourist attraction, that isn’t much, however, once on the tour of Viña, you quickly realize what a jewel Viña truly is.

One thing that strikes you immediately is all the greenery. Yes, there are carefully landscaped, wide esplanades, well-groomed parks, gardens, and lawns, but one of Viña’s best-known landmarks, the Flower Clock (in the Plaza del Reloi), which we saw as we entered, reinforces the popular designation of Viña as "the Garden City"—a well-earned, well-deserved title.

The famous Flower Clock has brilliant, multi-colored floral decorations. It is centered around a huge time-piece donated by Switzerland in 1962 during the world cup of soccer held in Chile that year. It was designed by Oscar Martinez Amaro, and the arms of the clock are over 9 feet long.

Flower clocks aren’t unique to Chile or Viña del Mar. In fact, the idea for the flower clock was brought over from Europe. However, the temperate Mediterranean climate means something is almost always in bloom in this coastal city.

I will continue this Valparaiso-Viña essay in a second installment.

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The description and pictures of Valpariso, Chile, at this website are excellent:

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Copyright May, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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