Monday, January 21, 2013

Grease, graffiti and good times in Valpo

We enter the alley and walk to the end.  My friend pushes her way through brown double doors and I follow.  There’s no signage and to an outsider like myself, nothing to indicate that there is anything remotely interesting through these doors.  But inside is another story.  There are dozens of long tables squished together so as to fit the maximum number of people in what is a fairly small space but the people here don’t seem to mind.  We take a seat in the corner of the room at the end of one of the tables.  A couple already seated at the table moves to let us in.

The walls are covered in all sorts of kitsch and truly bizarre paraphernalia.  A large white plastic dog hangs from the wall opposite where we’re sitting and a large khaki bomb hangs from the ceiling fan above our table.

We’re in the city of Valparaiso, about 120 kilometres northwest of Chile’s capital, Santiago.  The city of 270 000 people, used to be a popular port with ships crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans but when the Panama Canal was opened in 1914 there was a huge decline in the number of ships docking here.  The city has seen a revival since the Chilean government decided to move its Congress here and tourists are discovering this UNESCO World Heritage Listed city.

The waiter approaches our table and asks us what we’d like to drink.  There’s no menu, they only serve one dish so the waiter simply confirms that all three of our party will be eating.  He hurries back with our drinks.  Around us groups of friends banter in Spanish and families pick from large plates in the centre of the table.

Our meal appears on one large plate with three forks.  My arteries clog instantly on seeing the plate.  It’s piled high with steaming hot chips, topped with greasy scrambled eggs, onions and chunks of pork served with white bread and chilli sauce on the side.  The ultimate hangover food but for once, I'm not hungover!  It’s part of the culture here I tell myself, particularly here in the port town of Valparaiso, where this deep fried goodness called “chorrillana“ is a local staple.

Just like the inconspicuous restaurant down the small alley where we ate our first meal, Valparaiso looks like just another port city, that is until you get into the “cerros” or “hills” that represent the different neighbourhoods.  Each neighbourhood has its own identity, some are more dangerous and poorer than others and most are totally self-sufficient because of the time it can take to get to the city centre.

The most charming neighbourhoods are easily walkable and a photographers paradise.  The walls of houses, businesses and parks covered in colourful murals.  There’s an unwritten rule here that it’s forbidden to deface a mural, so the locals who don’t want their properties defaced with ugly tags commission artists to protect their walls with bright coloured works of art.

Climbing the various hills can be hard work on a hot day (but probably necessary after eating chorrillanos) so the city came up with a novel mode of transport, “ascensores” or furniculars.  Built between the late 1800’s and 1920’s, 16 of these furniculars once served neighbourhoods in the city but these days only 5 of them work.  So unique are the ascensors, that the World Monument Fund declared them one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures in 1996.  They cost as little as 100 Chilean pesos (about AUD $0.20) and although they don’t travel far they’re not for the faint hearted.  The large gaps in the creaking floorboards as our cabin was being pulled up the hill had me hoping the rusty cable wouldn’t give out and send us hurtling down the hill.  We made it and the view over the port and coastline from the top made the ride worth it.  Soon enough there will be more funiculars operating in Valparaiso, as more businesses and charities make money available to repair and operate them.

We dig into what can only be described as a "heart-attack on a plate" in front of us and it tastes surprisingly good but who am I kidding, anything this bad for you is going to taste good! Locals tell us the restaurant we’re eating in is where the dish originated and it’s obviously popular with the port workers of Valparaiso. The young couple at the end of our table are visiting from Santiago for the weekend and the woman tells us the dish is her favourite and insists they come here every time they’re in town.
Soon enough, what looked like an incredible amount of food for just three people is gone. This meal should really come with a health risk warning label like those on cigarette packets back home! We all feel dirty on the inside but it’s late and we will sleep well with bellies full of grease.

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