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Published: September 5th 2006
Chile is an exceedingly long country, apparently the same distance from top to bottom as Scotland to Nigeria (thanks Barney), so before facing the long bus journeys again we decided to ease ourselves into it with a short skip over to Valparaiso. The city used to be a major port, used by European and American ships on the route from Cape Horn to California during the gold rush, but went out of favour early last century and fell somewhat into disrepair. However, the city is reviving itself now, as the cultural capital of the country and is certainly a unique place, with the lower town and port area ringed by 42 cerros (hills) crowded with multicoloured houses and beautiful restored mansions, interspersed with more ramshackle dilapidated ones.
We'd forgotten that it's also the second largest city in Chile, so were somewhat surprised by the size of the place on arrival, having expected a small seaside town. We were staying up on Cerro Alegre, one of the most picturesque hills with great views over the city and the bay, so after quickly checking in we set off to explore and took the opportunity for a ride down to the lower town on one of the 'ascensors' which the city is known for. Because a large percentage of the population live up on the various steep hills, over the years 14 funiculars were built to ease their ascent and descent, making it surely one of the most fun commutes to work in the world.
Our first mission of the day being lunch, we reckoned the area around the market was the place to be and soon found a place heaving with friendly locals, where we stocked up with good ol' fish 'n' chips, with the waitress insisting we have a Jaegermeister-esque (for the soul) shot afterwards, to aid digestion. The market was in a fairly run down area, but was fine during the day and again, there were numerous sea-urchins on every stall. Japanese visitors must be in heaven. We had however been warned to avoid the area at night, and one of the hills beyond there wasn't recommended at any time of day, although the rest of the city felt perfectly safe.
A walk after lunch took us through the lower town, but somehow managed to miss most of the interesting streets until we started to head back, feeling somewhat let down by the place. Of course, then we finally found the plazas and shopping streets where all the locals were hanging out on a sunny Saturday afternoon. However, the nicest and most atmospheric areas are to be found on the various cerros, such as Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion which are buzzing with independent shops, bars and cafes - one of which we spent most of Saturday evening in. It even had a huge collection of vinyl, so we befriended the barmaid and treated the rest of the customers to the likes of the Smiths and the Cure.
The famous poet and Nobel prize winner Pablo Neruda lived in the city for many years. Having studied him at uni, we decided to visit the quirkily decorated house he had specially built there, which had great views. However, I have to admit I still can't remember much of his poetry.
We'd heard the city had a number of interesting murals in the 'open air museum' on Cerro Bellavista, but to be honest found them pretty uninspiring. The non-commissioned murals and graffiti closer to where we were staying were far more interesting and merited more than a few photos. After all, who could deny the need for a homeage to pies?
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