Well, I had an interesting and busy weekend recently. I had a minor housing emergency, where I was advised on the Monday that I had lost an apartment that I thought I had secured and was due to move into on the Friday! I was left frantically trying to find a new apartment before the weekend. Thank God for good friends, and I was able to stay at Natacha’s place for the week while I hit the Internet, and pounded the pavement inspecting properties. After viewing up to 10 apartments, on the Thursday, I finally decided on an apartment just outside the city centre, close to my favourite market, La Vega, close to the metro, and with a swimming pool. It’s on the 22nd floor though so, although the view is good, I’m not looking forward to that first tremor!
I moved into the new apartment on Saturday, just in time to receive my first visitor! Cheryl, who I met in Buenos Aires, was passing through on her way to Lima and my decision to stay put here meant we had a couple of days to catch up.
Cheryl arrived on Saturday afternoon and we spent the night sitting on my new balcony, enjoying the mild Santiago evening, the view of the city and surrounding mountains, a delicious cheese platter, and a nice bottle of Marques de Concha Pinot Noir.
We decided to stay in for dinner and followed up with a salad of fresh La Vega produce, and some more Chilean red, this time a peppery Cabernet Franc from the Colchagua Valley, a housewarming gift from Natacha.
We caught up and hatched plans for the remainder of Cheryl’s time here. It was good to have someone to explore with and, after a sleep-in and breakfast on Sunday morning, we set off to discover Casablanca.
The Casablanca Valley is west of Santiago, on the road to Valparaiso, towards the ocean. Like a lot of wine regions in Chile, instructions on how to arrive are usually based on the assumption that you have access to a vehicle, which isn’t always convenient when you plan to sample their product. Still, I figured we could get to Casablanca on the bus that goes to Valparaiso, then find our way from there. I called the winery to make a reservation for lunch and a tour, and they gave me clear instructions on where to get off the bus and assured me we’d be able to find a taxi there.
We took the metro to the main bus station, and bought a ticket for the next bus, leaving at 12.30pm. Buses to Valpo are leaving all the time so we had no problems getting tickets. We had been told the trip was 45-50 minutes, but the driver told us it would be just over an hour. When I asked him about the difference, he shrugged and laughed and explained that the theory and the practice were two different things! He had a fool-proof system for making sure he remembered to let us off in Casablanca – he wrote it on his hand! He also told us the landmarks to look out for so that we knew when to get off, and we hoped he would actually stop, or at least slow down.
True to word, a little over an hour later, he stopped (bonus) and let us off the bus at a tiny bus stop on the side of the highway. There was an overpass that obviously led into town but we’d been told we’d find a taxi at the stop. We just didn’t see how!
Thankfully, another bus stopped and let some bus company staff off the bus, and we were able to ask them how we could get a cab. One of them walked over to an old dilapidated car parked under a tree and, sure enough, it had a taxi sign in the window! It was driven by an equally old dilapidated man not a day less than 80 who said he could take us to the winery for CLP2,500, a little over 5 bucks.
For a few minutes there, I didn’t think we were going anywhere as the car didn’t seem to want to start. When it did start, we “took off” in a cloud of burning oil, down the emergency lane of the highway at about 30 kms per hour. We turned into the town of Casablanca, and the driver pulled into a service station to put fuel in the car. What? We thought we’d never get there and were already late for our lunch reservation.
About 5 minutes later, we finally chugged up to the winery gates where we assured the driver we would happily walk the last hundred metres to the restaurant.
We had chosen Casas del Bosque, and the setting was beautiful. The restaurant has an outdoor, sand-floored, undercover terrace looking over green lawn towards umbrella-shaded beach chairs and, beyond, the vines. We sat outside, and barely looked at the a la carte menu, deciding to go straight for the five-course degustation menu, each course accompanied by a taste of a different wine from their premium Gran Reserva range.
We started with prawns marinated in ginger and garlic, paired with a crisp sauvignon blanc with a punch of passionfruit on the nose. You can tell the winemaker is a Kiwi!
The next course was kingcrab with a mango salad, served with little melba toasts and paired with a buttery chardonnay.
The first of the main courses was a lovely tender piece of beef, resting on a bed of corn mash, a Chilean staple but a little sweet and overpowering for my liking. It was paired with our favourite wine of the day, a Pinot Noir with a decent body which reminded me of the Mornington Peninsula.
We had mutual agreement on the second main course too, which we both agreed was our favourite. A risotto of lamb ragu served with a parmesan crisp and some merken spice, and paired with a deep and fruity shiraz, also a very nice wine. Feed the Aussie girls lamb any day!
We both nearly had a heart attack when the waiter told us that the dessert was dulce de leche! After each having spent so much time in Argentina, we thought we’d put it behind us. Thankfully, our waiter had made a mistake and the dessert was a chocolate brownie with dark chocolate icrecream, and a white chocolate mousse with a berry coulis, served with a late-harvest riesling. I was too busy being relieved that it wasn’t dulce de leche, and didn’t think to ask for a non-chocolate option, so the dessert, though presented beautifully and probably a chocolate-lovers dream, went mostly uneaten.
As we’d arrived late for lunch, we had missed our 3.30pm tour but neither us was at all bothered. We decided on an additional glass of our favourite Pinot, and a relaxing spot on a shaded sofa to relax away the afternoon. A complementary tractor tour of the vineyard came and went while we enjoyed each others company, the lovely wine and the beautiful location.
Eventually, we thought it was about time that we made our way back to Santiago, and we had our lovely waiter call for a taxi. We had time to buy a bottle of Pinot each in the wine store before a “normal” taxi pulled up to take us back to our highway-side bus stop where we were assured a bus would pull up for us on its way back from Valpo.
Over the next 15 minutes, about 10 buses flew past us, either waving to indicate they were full, or ignoring us altogether. Some local girls turned up at the bus stop, and we checked our technique with them, and they confirmed we were doing the right thing and just had to wait for a bus to stop. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a bus stopped, only to tell us that he had one seat, and one of us would have to sit up front on the stairs next to him. We didn’t think twice, not wanting to be stranded on the side of the highway for any longer.
We paid the fare and I moved through the bus to the one spare seat, promising Cheryl I’d be back at the halfway mark to swap places with her. That was before I fell asleep! I woke up about 45 minutes into the trip, as we were entering the outskirts of Santiago! I went to swap with Cheryl who, thankfully, had kept herself entertained practicing her spanish with our driver, Manuel. Turns out, we were lucky to get the bus when we did because it was the last Sunday in February and the buses were full with everyone returning from their vacations on the coast!
It was a great day out, not short on adventure, and it was nice that I was able to discover this new frontier with a friend. Now that I know the tips and the tricks for getting to Casablanca, and when NOT to try to get back, there are many more wineries down there that I would like to discover.
We had a quiet night in, nibbling at a little cheese platter and enjoying one of the beautiful bottles of Pinot we’d bought at the winery.
The next morning, we had a lie in until the bright morning sun drove us out of our beds, then I had the chance to show Cheryl some of my favourite Santiago places. First, a tour through La Vega, Vega Chica, and Mercado Central. Then I took her to a favourite coffee spot at Cafeteria Santiago, and a stroll through the centre of town. We had lunch at BocaNariz, sharing some jamon bruschetta, and a main of peppers stuffed with lamb and served over amaranth. Delicious as always!
We had a bit more of a stroll through the beautiful Lastarria area, then bought an icecream from the best icecream store, Emporio La Rosa, and headed for Parque Forestal, where we sat on a bench and watched the world go by.
It wasn’t long before it was time to head home and for Cheryl to get ready for her trip to the airport. An eventful weekend, but great to have the opportunity to explore new places with someone, and to share some of my favourites. I look forward to more visitors and, besides, I still have that other lovely bottle of Pinot to share with someone!