Saturday Night in San Fancisco

San Francisco

Should you find yourself on an unexpectedly warm Saturday afternoon somewhere in the gray and grimy center of this city laid to siege by smog and feel a bit lost, do not lose heart. Nearby, nearer than you think, is Cerro Santa Lucia (Santa Lucia Hill; Avda. B. O’Higgins 499)) at the foot of which Santiago was founded on February 12, 1541. It has evidently fallen on hard times (the victim of municipal parsimony?) since 1872 when it was transformed into a public park by an important personage bearing that all-too-familiar name, Vicuña Mackenna. And so, perhaps the indigenous Mapuche weren’t terribly wrong after all when they called it Huelèn ("the accursed one"). At any rate, though, the view from the top does provide a distinct perspective on the heart of this metropolis and, if you feel up to it, you may like to return the following day just before noon to hear the cannon being fired as the clock strikes twelve.

Walking up the avenue from Cerro Santa Lucia, and dodging the gypsy women who will fall upon you eagerly in a bid to read your palm (that's just for starters), you will pass the imposing edifice, built at the turn of the last century, that houses the central offices of the local Catholic University and, more importantly, its extension center (tel. 222 4516) - the site for English and Spanish films and video, plays, exhibitions of sculpture and painting, and an excellent cafè, besides.

Should you decide to walk past, you will soon reach Cine Arte Alameda on your left, which, apart from screening critically acclaimed works on celluloid, also has, on the second floor, Santiago’s first Cafè Virtual. The name, however, is somewhat misleading as this young establishment does not extend the bounds of reality for the patron. Its claim to being "virtual" lies solely in the array of computers that lines the far end of the hall and looks down on the busy Alameda from behind glass walls. Their presence is soon explained: you may happily surf on the Internet for an hour, with or without guidance, for less than $3,000 pesos while munching on your pastry or guzzling your drink. The second hour of intrepid cyberspace travel comes gratis, at least for the moment.

But you may not reach Cafè Virtual at all, if you decide to turn left at a quiet street, just across from the Catholic University on Avenue O’ Higgins, that goes by the name of Josè Victoriano Lastarria. As you stroll down Lastarria you will pass the Iglesia de la Vera Cruz . A national monument, this church, so small and unassuming as to almost pass unnoticed, was built on neoclassical lines in 1858 by the French architect Brunet de Baines. It guards the relic of the Vera Cruz that was donated by Carlos V, Emperor of Spain. On the right is a tiny playground - a rare sight in Santiago's city center - with trees, benches, swings and see-saws, the site for many a cozy family scene.

Equally cozy and inviting are the two restaurants that you pass on the left, Don Victoriano and El Gatopardo, which offer a variety of beverages and samples of Chilean and Bolivian cuisine. A few steps further and tucked away to the right is the El Biògrafo cinema named after the cinemas of yore. Like Cine Arte Alameda, it too offers samples of art cinema, at a reasonable price. And round the corner, where Villavicencio meets Lastarria, is a cafè of the same name, a good place to meet afterwards and discuss the movie just seen.

But the real find of the afternoon is undoubtedly the Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro (Lastarria 305-307). Designed in 1982 in houses dating back to early this century, this cultural center was named after a late 18th century lover of the arts, Josè Gil de Castro who was also known as "el Mulato". This Peruvian sea captain painted the original portrait of the national hero, Libertador Bernardo O’ Higgins. The square exercises an almost magnetic attraction, drawing one closer, as much due to its Bohemian air as to its cobblestones.

The short corridors arranged around the small square represent almost the entire gamut of this city’s cultural and artistic activities, with an art gallery, a literary workshop, a school for engravings and sculpture, a bookshop, a restaurant and shops selling handicrafts and other bric-a-brac. It is said that the late national poet, Jorge Teillier, used to come and sit in the square. On the second floor lies the Museo Arqueològico de Santiago which houses an archaeological and ethnographic treasure of more than three thousand pieces drawn from various private collections. Entry to the museum is free and worth a visit, if only to see the mummy of a new-born child belonging to the Chinchorro community that dates back to the period 5500-1500 B.C.

 

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