Friday, November 28, 2014

Chillin’ in Chiloé, Chile

Visiting the archipelago of Chiloé, about halfway between Santiago and Patagonia in the long string-bean of Chile, was like stepping a century back in time. Driving to our hotel we crossed a soft, rolling, green countryside not unlike New Zealand dotted with fluffy sheep and yellow gorse. A farmer was turning his field with two oxen yoked to a plow, seagulls flocking behind.

The island, I discovered, is an exotic place of subtle appeal. In Castro, the main town, we saw palafitos (houses on stilts), fishing boats unloading salmon and shellfish, and a man building a large wooden boat using a chainsaw and hammer. Entering the market, the aromas of
strange spices, meats and cheeses enveloped me. Another section displayed a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts. The rolling Rs and sibilant Ss of Spanish filled our ears. I was surprised by the amount of seaweed being sold, especially bull kelp, which was tied up in box-like form. And potatoes of many strange shapes and colours reminded me that Chiloe is where the world’s spuds began. It has about 400 varieties.

A favourite memory is of the approximately 75 churches dating from the18th and 19th centuries, made of native timber and found in even the tiniest village. Many of the domed roofs look like ships’ hulls, reflecting the local talent for ship-building. Sixteen churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Best … the indigenous people, the Huilliches, believe in trolls, ghouls and mythological lore. Although mostly Catholics, they often visit shamans, instead of doctors. Witches are powerful and deal with many disputes. And there are enchanting legends. The Trauco, for example, is a forest dwarf who covers himself in bark becoming irresistible to virgins, a scenario often used to explain unwed pregnancies in villages.

We entered the Chiloe National Park on the west
coast, a land of wind-blown wetlands and bright green forests. A penguin colony lives near here and blue whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea otters swim offshore.

That evening we recounted the day’s adventures over glasses of full-bodied Chilean wines while savouring a traditional gastronomic treat, the curanto. A hole in the ground is filled with layers of mussels, clams, beef, pork chicken, sausage and potatoes between large nalca (rhubarb) leaves and cooked over hot rocks for hours. Yummy!

Chiloé was fascinating, and I loved its slow-paced way of life. I didn’t, however, wander into the forest at night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Santiago in 24 Hours

I faced a challenge: to explore Santiago, the capital of the 6,000-kilometre-long shoestring of Chile, in only 24 hours.

My travel group raced up San Cristobal Hill to the gleaming white statue of the Virgin, a focal point of the city. Surrounded by parkland, the site is popular, and I loved listening to rolling Rs and sibilant S sounds of Spanish. Panoramic views of the city and Andes foothills lay before us with the 64-storey Costanera Centre skyscraperthe continent’s tallest edifice—sticking up like a sore thumb. A slight haze hung over the valley, for Santiago is known for smog.

We lunched at an outdoor patio in the fashionable Lastarria district. Platters of ceviche, fried Conger eel, and pulmay, a stew of mussels, pork, potato and lamb were accompanied by fine Chilean wine. Unusually, the chairs had clips to prevent purses and backpacks being snatched.

At Santiago’s historic centre, the balconies and columns of Spanish architecture reflected the city’s long history (founded in1542). In the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, I gazed at the vast ceiling and ornate design while enjoying the dark coolness. A short walk led to La Moneda Palace (the president’s place) fronted by an expansive parade ground and guarded by soldiers in crisp uniforms, who eyed us suspiciously.

Next was the Central Mercado, one of the world’s best according to National Geographic. I wandered amongst aromas of exotic spices, meats and cheeses; in another section a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts were displayed.

We stopped at the Park Forestal, one of many green spaces lining the Mapocho River. I strolled along the tree-lined walkways, admiring the statues donated by other nations to honour Chile’s 100th anniversary of independence.

From my hotel window, I could see Providencia Avenue below. A mariachi band blared as businessmen in dark suits and ladies, chic and attractive with dark, sensuous Spanish features, flowed to and from the subway entrance. I could see why Chile’s economy is considered the most dynamic in South America.

My best memories are of fine Chilean wine and superb cuisine. We arrived at W Santiago Hotel’s
Noso Restaurant after 9 pm. Excellent Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Sauvignons flowed during a dinner of salmon ceviche, pumpkin soup with prawns, and ribs dripping with succulent barbeque sauce.

After, we headed to Bocanariz, a wine bar in the trendy Lastarria barrio, which reputedly serves every Chilean wine. While sampling their best seller, a Pinot Noir Refugio 2012, produced by Montsecano y Copains, we pondered the places we didn’t have time to visit.

The Casa Blanca Valley wine region, for example, is only 40 minutes away. With about 20 wineries, it produces Chile’s best white wine. You can sample cool chardonnays beside green vineyards marching like military platoons up the dry, brown slopes.

We could have visited Valparaiso, a UNESCO heritage city situated on the coast, a mere 1.5 hour drive away. Famous for its multi-coloured houses, numerous art galleries and coffee houses, it enjoys a bohemian, laid-back pace of life.

Leaving, my head was spinning. In spite of a Herculean effort I had only seen a fraction of the exciting, vibrant Santiago.

Currency: 1 $ Canadian = 521 Chilean pesos
Electricity: Chile uses 220 Volts. Bring a transformer & plug adapter.
Chile Information:
Santiago Information:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Welsh Coastal Trail – A National Treasure

A few days after a proud, celebratory Canada Day, I think back on the hiking trail that circles the entire country of Wales, and which I was able to happily sample. Much of the trail lies along an extraordinary coastline, consisting of bays, headlands and estuaries sculpted into rugged cliffs. Now and again the trail passes through villages and towns visiting ancient churches, pubs and harbours guarded by looming, crenellated castles. The coastal path is 1,400 km (870 miles) long, well maintained and accessible to all.

When I stayed in St. David’s at the southwest tip of Wales, I hiked to the trail along grassy, flower-blessed fields lined with hedges and walls lush with growth. Part of the Pembrokeshire National Park, the coast is wild and rugged. Waves crashed onto the rocks far below forming caves and stacks. Two hikers were silhouetted against the distant sky. I walked alone and pensive along the twisting trail, climbing stiles and enjoying the wonderful feeling of being part of a grander scheme.

Next day I hiked northward until I reached the village of Porthgain. The ruins of a castle, which once guarded a thriving port that now has passed into quieter times, rested on one side of the harbour. On the other side was my goal, the Sloop Hotel. Soon I was inside, nursing a foaming pint of best bitter.

I marvelled at the intelligence that has created the Wales-encircling trail, a national treasure enjoyed
by everyone. I lamented that in Canada, private ownership trumps the common good. Even the Bruce Trail, the longest hiking trail in the country, is broken in many places by objecting landowners. And the thought of a national hiking trail that follows, unbroken, a major fraction of the coastline is laughable. It’s time for our politicians to take a hike.

And if you want to extend your enjoyment of the magical Welsh coastline try coasteering, invented at St. David’s, Wales. You squeeze into a wetsuit, don
a helmet and bob in the swell among rocks, seaweed and seals. There’s a primal feel to floating up and down with the heartbeat of the sea.

If You Go, You Gotta Know
In St. Andrews, stay at:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Welsh Castles and Other Fine Rock Piles

In Wales road signs are bilingual and locals – even many young people - speak Welsh, an ancient Celtic language. Reminders that this is an old, old land are everywhere. I visited Pentre Ifan, a 5,500 year old
megalith (like Stonehenge), closed my eyes and pressed my hands against a giant boulder. Spirits soared and whispered in the wind, the voices of those buried here long ago.

Other monuments to ancient culture – castles – are found around every corner for there are an astonishing 641 in Wales. These old walls, where battles raged to preserve language and culture, come in many shapes and forms. Some of my favourites are pictured here. Caerphilly, surrounded by a vast moat, is the largest in the country, second in size only to Windsor in the UK, and home to the ghostess called the Green Lady. You can walk through the battlements, imagining the sieges, jousts, music and voices that echoed there. Laugharne anchors the town of
the same name. At one time, Dylan Thomas worked in one of the turrets. In Brecon, the old fortifications have been incorporated into the more modern (1836) Brecon Castle Hotel. And, of course, there is Cardiff Castle, with its stolid walls and colourful clock-tower set right in the heart of the city. It dates to Roman times and includes lavish apartments and an interior Norman keep.

There are many, many more castles. If the old walls could speak, they would tell wondrous tales of haunting beauty, as can only be told in the lilting Welsh language.

If You Go, You Gotta Know
Wales Information: