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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

Santiago Stories from Strawberry Tours - Day 457

A day in Santiago, Stories from Strawberry Tours of murder and intrigue, plus meeting a delightful couple; our kind of day.

At 10:30 am we, and 14 others met near the prestigious Catholic University for a walking tour around the historic city. These can be a bit hit and miss; we have been on excellent trips where the guide engaged us from start to finish or ones where watching paint dry would have been more entertaining. Thankfully this tour was one of the great ones. Our guide, Vanessa from Strawberry Tours was such a character, her face was full of expression and lit up when she shared various historical stories of Santiago, its people and buildings.

One of the first places we visited was the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, otherwise known as GAM. (Don’t worry, I won’t describe the full 3.5 hours of the tour). This building has a fascinating history in this 46 years of existence. In 1972, during a difficult economic time when unemployment was high, and inflation was more than 200%, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development was to be held in Santiago. President Salvador Allende wanted to create a good impression but didn’t have the money to build a new convention centre. Instead, he proposed to the unemployed Chilean people that he would provide food and accommodation for their labour instead of a salary. Thousands of people flocked to volunteer. The building called Diego Portales back then was completed in only 275 days! It just shows what people can achieve!

The building became a cultural centre until the 1973 coup d’ état when Pinochet turned it into the legislative and executive centre of the military regime after he had already bombed the existing one! He arranged for the colourful glass ceiling to be covered turning the building into an eyesore.

In 2006 and after the dictatorship, the building was partly destroyed by a fire. A public competition was held to transform it back into a cultural centre, completed in 2010 with the emphasis on transparency and community. A huge wicker fish was hanging from the ceiling representing how the building was first erected, through feeding the poor, and the name w changed to what it’s called today, after the first Chilean Nobel Prize winner, another poet.

Nearby was an area that used to be very affluent. Vanessa shared that this all changed in the 1950s. A military school was also there where the rich would send their sons or hope that their daughters would marry one of the officers. Then the school moved out of the district, and so the majority of the rich sold their houses to developers and followed the school, changing the face of the area. I love hearing stories like this, how one change can have a snowball effect, altering a neighbourhood so quickly.

We also heard how Pedro de Valdivia came across the large black rock, a remnant of a 15 million years old volcano. He could see the flat fertile ground surrounding the hill, (now know as Santa Lucia Hill) and founded Santiago (Saint James in Spanish.

We also admired many other buildings including the beautiful Stock Exchange, reminiscent of the French Renaissance architecture and Palacio de La Moneda. This used to be the Mint house and is now the seat of the President. (He has to provide his own accommodation) Outside was the biggest flag I have ever seen; 27m long and 18m wide on a flagpole 61m high! There was also a flag with a crest on, and Vanessa shared that this indicates that the President is in Chile; if he were elsewhere, then the usual Chilean flag would be flying.

One of our other stops was outside the Church of St Augustine where Vanessa told us an intriguing story of Catalina de los Ríos y Lisperguer who was born in the early 1600s. She was nicknamed La Quintrala; was this because of her flaming red hair or of her flaming temper? She was known to whip her slaves, bite a man’s ear off, stab one to death at a dinner party because he wasn't paying enough attention to her, and not acquitted because everyone was too scared of her; not a very nice character at all. Her parents bought a statue of Jesus on the cross for her to pray to. The legend has it that each time the figure of Jesus “heard” her confessions, wounds appeared on his skin and his face would turn pale. In the end, she donated the statue to this church, which was across from where she lived and also gave enough money for the church to pray for her soul for the next 2000 years, so she didn’t end up in hell.

When we visited the church, the statue of Jesus, with a wig of real hair (apparently he has three), his eyes open, the pale complexion and the wounds all gave quite an eerie impression.

Vanessa’s face was a picture when she was sharing all of this to us, and I am sure that she embellished the story for dramatic effect. I can’t think of anyone else that does that kind of thing, can you?

During our tour, we got chatting to a delightful couple from Oxford, Julie and Stuart. They are on holiday for two months and we compared notes of where we have been and going to. Due to coming out on a bit of a whim and not having much time to prepare, Julie arranged their trip through Responsible Travels. They sound amazing, organising the usual travel itinerary and accommodation but also things like sim cards! Julie gets a message every day from her “lady in Brazil” checking that they are ok. How brilliant!

After the tour, the four of us went to the nearby fish market for Machas a la parmesana (razor clams baked in their shell with wine and topped with cheese) and the Peruvian and Chilean alcoholic drink Pisco sour, recommended by Vanessa. Julie very quickly realised that I am a lightweight. In fact, 8 hours later I still feel a bit woozy! We had such a great chat, so easy to talk with as if we have known them for years.

What a wonderful day, learning about the history and culture of a place with an engaging guide and spending time with lovely people. Our favourite kind of day.

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