Valparaiso is a crazy place. We travelled here by bus from Santiago. A pleasant journey in comfortable seats. After a short game of musical chairs, that is. Alison thought she’d lost the ticket. It had our seat numbers on it. We sat in the wrong place. We had to move. I was sitting on the ticket. You know the sort of thing.
Warm day and brilliant blue sky. Until we got within a few miles of Valparaiso. Thick cloud wall to wall. Like California we said, cloudy near the coast. It looked rough on the outskirts, cities always do. It looked just as rough towards the centre, maybe rougher. We got out. Heavy grey overcast. Everything seemed a bit grimy, a bit run down, a bit broken. Even the people. A few guys touting for taxi fares. We took one of them up on it.
Off through the centre. Some big grand old buildings now shabby. Busy streets, loads of fast traffic. Lots of horn blowing. Very Latin. Ancient shabby trolley buses. We get a bigger view of the town. It’s built on high hills, the clouds are down on the tops. Hills teeming with houses disappear into the clouds. Like San Francisco, we say.
Big houses, small houses, tin shanty houses, smart houses. There’s a green one and a red one a blue one and a yellow one. All these colours at once and more. They seem to be covered in graffiti. Everything from scrawled initials to big well painted murals. Some are guerilla work. Some look to be commissioned by cafe owners, shopkeepers.
We see how steep the streets are. Really steep, San Francisco and then some. The whole place looks like Haight Ashbury. But gone to seed, run out of money, flaking., breaking down. We drive on squeezing past other traffic, pedestrians all mixed up. We go up and up and up.
We reach the Casa. It is graffiti free outside, inside it is quiet, calm, orderly. There are tiles, textiles, polished wood, old maps. Even ships figureheads. ‘A nautical look’ ‘I say. ‘Yes, but the owner is from the South’ says Jorge the manager. He is small, neat, quiet. Speaks good English with a strong accent. He thought I said ‘nordical’. Our apartment is great, the living room has a view over the whole city and the bay. Wow. It’s like, Wow.
We take a walk. Down the steep, steep hill. We can’t get our heads round how, like, weird it is. Everywhere you look it’s steep. Like San Francisco, we keep saying. Yes, but more so. Houses piled up on top of each other. Graffiti in a million different styles. Wires strung everywhere. Tangled in knots and rolls on the concrete posts. The people look much like they did in Santiago. But this place is crazy.
We’re hungry. Go into the Cafe de Pintor. It has a colourful sign. Inside music that sounds Andalucian is playing. The fittings are dark wood. The place is clean and neat. We go for the fixed price menu. It’s good. the lady is friendly. She takes time to make her Spanish understood by Alison.
We walk back through town to the bus station. We need a ticket back to Santiago for Friday. The streets are full of school kids now. Big confident teenagers many in uniform. iPhones, laughing, snogging. The usual teenage thing anywhere.
The traffic is fast and noisy with horns blowing. The buildings are chaotic. Big grimy pink and yellow and blue colonial ones with fancy fronts. Smaller grimy newer ones. All the interiors though are smart and modern. The tangle of wires everywhere above our heads. It would be like a bad dream except everyone’s cool with it. They’re chatting, laughing, joking. Having a ball really. Just go with the flow in the crazy town.
We get our ticket, the señorita is patient, smiling. She makes it easy and pleasant. We head back. The road should take us to the sea. It has huge palm trees along it. The traffic tears along past the big buildings. Horns blare all the time.
At last we get to a quayside. It’s where the Armada de Chile and the customs hang out. Big smart buildings. Lots of little boats in the harbour. Big warships further out. The navy’s in town. Always. We look back up the hill. Thousands of coloured houses disappear into the clouds.
We make our way up the steep weird multicoloured hill. Crazy. Back to our wide big view. The lights are coming on. We open the windows look out. Lights on ships. Strings of headlights on the roads way down in the centre. Lines and clumps off lights going up the hills forever. A crazy place but awful pretty now.
Second day we take the hotel breakfast. Plump young Spanish Carla is in charge. Everything clean. Everything neat. Everyone helpful and smiling. We take the cereal and peach yoghurt, huevos revueltos. Switched egg as mum used to call them. We speak to an Ausie guest. Friendly. But of course.
We set out and walk along the Alemaña. It winds along the side of the hill. Not up, not down. Graffiti, some good some bad. There are very smart houses with big steel fences and smart cars behind them. Security cameras with razor wire. There are grotty houses. Dogs here, there everywhere. There is crap on the street. From grotty to knobby with no rhyme or reason. Always houses piled at every angle, every colour. Looking down the hills makes you dizzy they’re so steep. Like San Francisco we say. Yeah, man, but crazy.
We do Le Sebastiana. Neruda’s little place overlooking the sea. Five floors all very individual. Full of his toys as he called them. His fairground horse, paintings, coloured glass. His bars and everything geared for entertaining. A big china cow to mix his patent punch. A bon viveur and practical joker. He had it made, that guy.
Before we went in spoke to a Mexican lady. A missionary if you please. She’d lived in the Cotswolds. She’s with her boy. He’s maybe ten. Self possessed. Articulate. Likes the house and has the postcards. Likes big creamy hot chocolate too. Reassuring in a ten year old.
We go to the poets square. Sit with a poet statue. Shake hands with a poet statue. Wonder why a poet’s statue has no hands. All under the palm trees. There’s an open air gallery. Just more murals but they’ve tried to tame them. Make them official, it doesn’t work. They’re tight arsed. Stilted. Getting graffitied over themselves, anyway.
Further down to lunch in Chilean style again. A nothing kind of place on the outside. Inside the look and feel is modern. Cosmopolitan. Cool jazz. Black tiles. Chunky polished wood. Smiling ladies serve us. The food is good. Presented prettily. The view blows you away. Then a yellow and red painted old funicular runs right past the window. Like Scarborough we say. But crazy.
Down the steep steep steps. People drinking on them. They move aside politely to let us pass. Back to the centre. Pink and yellow plaster and wire tangles. Catch a battered old trolley bus. The inside is worn, ancient. The driver efficiently decodes our needs. Collects the small fair. At our stop he calls to make sure we’re off OK. We go up a funicular as ancient as the trolley bus. Dark wood polished by a million hands. Old metal with the paint rubbed off. Even the tiles on the floor have the pattern worn away. Reminds me of places that were old in my childhood.
The naval museum is a big, smart house up a huge flight of steps. Everything’s brass and wood and shiny. Shipshape. The rooms are high. The pieces on display are well presented. Big model ships, bits of wrecks, weapons. Portraits of stiff uniformed men, old photos of the bay full of ships, charts, paintings of battles we’ve never heard of, wars from a different hemisphere and Bernardo O’Higgins statue in a heroic pose, ‘This way to the pub, me lads!’ The quad outside is decorated with torpedoes and the capsule the miners were rescued with. A navy job it seems. Museum fatigue sets in. We leave.
We walk home. Up the Avenida de Gran Bretaña. There’s an ornate house with a pyramid tower. It’s painted purple with white trim. San Francisco or what. We take the Camino Cintura, a sort of ring road. I underestimate the size of the place. The road winds, meanders gets lost itself. There’s plenty of traffic but the areas get rougher, grimier, more dog ridden. More rubbish, more dogs. This is exactly where Jorge told us not to go when he gave us the map. Here be gawd knows what.
More bends.The grey clouds close in. There is a constant chorus of dog barking. Everywhere the steep hills tumble with houses. Many of them falling apart. Some houses look to be falling down. Who cares. Nobody. Call them shanties, that’s what they are. It’s a favella, a slum a shitheap. We pass a group of people smoking dope. ‘Buenos tardes’ ‘Buenis tardes’ back. Friendly as you like. Then we come across a dirt bike track. There’s a notice about local action for a community park. Somebody does care.
Eventually we recognise a street we were on yesterday. Soon we’re home. A welcome cup of tea. We sit in our big space, reflect on our adventures in the crazy city. The lights come on. The old whore’s put her jewellery on again for the night. She looks gorgeous.