(Yes, I think every blog needs an obligatory ’70s music reference at some point or another. Consider it a nod to all the fantastic classic rock they play here.)
There are certain assumptions we make about Paradise, depending on our own tastes and inclinations. Perhaps it is warm, maybe even hot enough that anything but sleep is uncalled for between the hours of noon and 5. Perhaps it abounds with flowers and leafy trees to shade weary travellers as they wander its sun-dappled streets. Certainly, it is comfortable, a place with king-size beds, faucets that shower water of even temperature and pressure, and pleasant aromas inside and out.
So it is with Mendoza. I will admit to having had lingering concerns about how I would find Argentina and its people, bourne from some unfortunate incidents in ’82 and ’86, but, unsurprisingly, they proved unfounded, as everyone was both incredibly friendly and easily understood (another concern). An enormous fresh fruit salad appeared minutes after our arrival at our delightful B&B at noon on Christmas Day, courtesy of the friendly proprietor who had interrupted a several-hour-long lunch with friends to let us in. And what a B&Bit was: an ultra-modern oasis of polished concrete floors, air conditioning, and soothing tribal music playing at low volume in a common area I would immediately move into as my own condo if given the opportunity. And the stylish surroundings were no match for the people, who all appeared to have walked out of a fashion magazine. Even the taxi drivers wore collared shirts, and women everywhere were in sparkly sandals and dresses with plunging necklines.
If Chile is North American, Mondoza is European enough to serve as the setting for the Italian parts of a Godfather movie. Outside the city, row upon row if grape vines stretch into the distance, broken up only by the occasional olive tree marking the boundary line of one finca from another. Restaurants augment their fabulous meals of stuffed pasta and gigantic steaks with house-made preserves, wines, and olive oils, the latter often stored in large barrels behind the bar. I’ve not been to Italy or to Paradise, but I imagine they look, feel, and taste a lot like this.
After a 6-hour bus ride through the Andes, with switchback after switchback, we spent two days dozing intermittently and exploring the city’s massive pubic park and many public plazas (named after important friends, founders and neighbours like Chile, Italia, Peru and San Martín). On day 3 we explored three ultra-modern wineries in the nearby Uco Valley – with 6 other tourists and a guide company, as numerous private security firms and local custom prevent Napa Valley-style exploration by individuals or couples on their own, whether by car or bike. Each bodega was less than 10 years old, and each was owned by wealthy foreigner who had invested significant cash to turn what was essentially desert into microclimates suitable for many varieties of grape. The wineries themselves were towering concrete monuments to efficiency of production and the power of modern science in vinticulture – all sterilized labs and no romance here. It seems that Mendoza is quickly becoming a hotspot for wine tourism, and its winery guides, fluent in English and with pleasant (if slightly indifferent) hospitality, show that the people know it. Being by far the least experienced wine tasters in our half-American, half-Canadian group, we drank our 12 (!) tasting glasses with increasing delight but little in the way of critique.
Our best evening was spent at a small finca (the term for the kind of property on which grapes and other Mediterranean-type crops are grown here) at a cooking class with a lovely young chef who had returned to Mendoza to raise her two daughters after a stint in one of Santiago’s chic restaurants. Sitting outside, under a walnut tree and a sky full of stars, drinking the finca‘s own red wine (made exclusively for guests of the attached lodge and cooking class participants), we had our best meal to date in South America. It consisted of empanadas (folded meat pies) in the local style, grilled vegetables, a giant steak (of course; this is Argentina), fruit cooked in a clay oven, and – best of all – chimichurri sauce made from fresh herbs and oil. Finally, spice! I’ll admit that even my tastebuds, so inclined toward bland meat-and-potatoes types of foods, were crying out for some kind of flavour (even pepper, which South Americans don’t seem to believe in). It was heaven itself, for despite all the talk of ubiquitous, 21-ounce steaks (and it was not exaggerated), we have found that many places serve cuts inferior to what we’d find at home, and many are fried instead of grilled. They seem to value quantity over quality in many places. And bread and fries seem to be the only accompaniments worth getting, as the salads are vegetables are all quite sad looking.
Our first Andes crossing had been beautiful, comfortable and easy, and we had arrived in a kind of paradise that could be similarly described. We left Mendoza thinking it couldn’t possibly get better than this. And looking back a week later…well, I’ll save that for my next post. (Foreshadowing! Dun dun dun!)