The good life

Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
Trip End Dec 04, 2008

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Flag of Argentina  , Cuyo,
Saturday, November 1, 2008

All the good stuff in Argentina seems to come from Mendoza, like the best wines, mineral water, olive oil and other produce. Wherever we went, whether it was a supermarket or a restaurant in the south or in Buenos Aires, we spotted the name 'Mendoza' printed proudly on the labels. So we arrived in this small city at the foothills of the Andes with great anticipation. To add to the suspense, I couldn't get us a room in any hotel in the city (we later found out that our visit coincided with a big congress in the city involving 3,000 gynaecologists) so we had to settle for a lodge somewhere outside the city and I had absolutely no idea where or how far away it was. When we got into the taxi at the airport, I showed the driver the address and asked him how far it was, he said, "Ohhhhh, very far. Very far...maybe 200 kilometers". You have got to be kidding, I thought while Frits glared at me. Then the driver started to chuckle and said, "I joke, I joke...maybe 30 kilometers". Phew! We drove in a southerly direction past the suburbs of Mendoza. The city is situated at the foot of a range of low, barren mountains (about 2000m high) which quickly make way for the magnificent snow-covered peaks of the Andes, the highest of which is more than 6,500m high, providing a pretty spectacular backdrop. As we drove on, the suburbs gradually ceased and switched into row after row of vines: wine country! The landscape here is flat and barren but thanks to a wide network of irrigation channels carrying water down from the Andes, this whole dusty region has become an important agricultural centre in Argentina. From the air, it looked like a giant oasis at the edge of a massive desert. After about 20 minutes, we turned off the highway towards a village called Chacras de Coria. It's a beautiful area with large ranches (estancias), vineyards and gated communities (with some gorgeous houses). Tall poplar, sycamore and oak trees provide ample shade everywhere while the little irrigation canals that run alongside the roads gurgle cheerily.
Our lodge, Postales, is situated in an oasis-like setting with the handful of cabanas surrounded by well-groomed lawns, trees and flowering shrubs. That afternoon, we went for a walk around the village. Little did we know but we soon discovered that the village is Mendoza's centre of gastronomy! It's really small but its streets are lined with some of Mendoza's best restaurants. Fancy that! :-) We sat down for lunch at a small restaurant at the edge of the village square and I ordered a sirloin steak; even after our previous steak experiences in Bariloche and BA, I still refused to believe that the steaks here are that mediocre. And...OMG was I proven right!!! The steak was pretty huge (at least 400g), juicy and incredibly tender. The big salad that came with it (organic lettuce, tomatoes, palmhearts and aragula) was superb. I don't know how I did it but I totally cleaned both plates! It was THAT good! Finally, a mind-altering Argentinian steak! Awesome! OMG factor: 9+.

The next morning, we took a taxi into town (about 15 km away). We asked to be dropped off at the bus terminal where we purchased tickets for our trip to Valparaiso (our next stop, over the Andes into Chile and down to the Pacific Ocean). From there, we explored the city's downtown area. Mendoza is a pleasant city: its grid of streets are all shaded by beautiful sycamore trees and there are five town squares arranged pretty much like the 'five' on a throwing dice which provide a welcome retreat from the heat and the noisy traffic. My favourite square was the Plaza Espana with its gorgeous tiled floors, benches and fountains. We also walked through the Plaza Independencia which had a large fountain as its centrepiece - the water of the fountain was a bright pink, probably because of the nature of the congress (pink is the colour of the worldwide breast cancer awareness campaign). As we strolled around the city, it struck us that we couldn't see much of any of the buildings due to the large sycamores. They provide much needed shade (it's currently about 25 degrees during the day and about 18 degrees at night - gorgeous spring weather - though in the summer, temperatures here can hit 40 degrees) but they also block the view of some of the supposedly stunning colonial buildings. There were also the ubiquitous sidewalk terraces and restaurants: great spots to just lounge with a glass of wine and watch the world go by! We stopped for lunch at Trattoria Tomasso. What do you order at an Italian restaurant when you're in a region that's renowned for its superb beef? Carpaccio!! And it was indeed superb! :-)
The following day, we got up early for our full-day wine tour. We were picked up at 9am and were driven to our first winery: Achaval Ferrer, about 15km from our lodge. The location of the winery was just stunning: surrounded by expansive vineyards while the terrace offered an unobstructed view of the mighty Andes. We were taken on a private tour of the estate; it's a relatively new winery (most of the wineries here are about 10-20 years old while only a handful were founded in the late 19th century) so everything looked spanking new. This winery offers barrel-tasting, i.e. tasting wines taken straight from the barrel. We got to taste wines that had been in the barrel for a month and other wines that had been in the barrel for a year. I found it quite fascinating to taste how the complexity and structure of the wine develop over a period of time. The wines themselves were good, but not great enough to warrant buying some and lugging the bottles back home. After two hours at Achaval Ferrer, we headed for the next winery: Ruca Malen, another winery in a gorgeous location. This is another 10-year-old winery and we were given a tour of the estate, the grounds, the production area and the cellar. We were then seated at the winery's patio, which had sweeping views of the vineyard and the mountains, where we were treated to a five-course lunch/wine-tasting. Sitting there, with a plate of grilled beef sirloin topped with a subtle black pepper and rosemary sauce, and a glass of first class Malbec in front of me, and surrounded by such astounding scenery, I couldn't help but wonder what a great lifestyle one could have here in Mendoza (provided one had sufficient resources and finds a quiet life enticing). I mean, the beautiful meats and the fresh produce combined with the great wines and brilliant scenery, the laidback pace, and the fact that Argentina is relatively cheap (EUR 10 gets you a great bottle of wine at a good restaurant; add another EUR 15-20 per person for a fabulous three-course meal) make this a bon vivant's dream really!! After lunch, we moved on to our final winery: Weinert. Founded in 1890, Weinert is one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza. The main building was a very stately mansion and the cellars underneath were quite spectacular. We were taken about ten meters under the ground and the (very ancient-looking) vaults were breathtaking. In them were row upon row of huge wooden barrels, most of which were between 40-60 years old, that contained up to 60,000 liters of wine! A fascinating winery steeped in history.
We didn't have anything planned for the next day so we slept in and had a late breakfast. There are various wineries within walking distance of our lodge but they only accept visitors by appointment so we tried to make some appointments but, believe it or not, they were all full. I guess visiting wineries is a favourite activity of the Mendocinos on a Saturday afternoon. We then decided to go for a walk around the village. Apart from the restaurants and cafes, there's a quaint church and a variety of handicraft stores. We stopped for lunch (just a simple salad this time!) at the village square, then headed back to the lodge where we spent a lazy afternoon in the garden (well, I was busy blogging).
We're off to Valparaiso (Chile) tomorrow. I hope the weather will be clear as the bus drives through a stunning mountain pass and the views of the mountains, including Mt. Aconcagua, is supposedly phenomenal. It rained here in Mendoza this afternoon which probably means there's a fresh layer of snow up in the mountains. I'll be saying goodbye to Argentina for now but I'll be back in about ten days' time. Frits leaves for home on Tuesday and I'll be a solo traveller again. After two nights in Valparaiso, I'll head to the airport with Frits, then continue on my own to Santiago where I'll be staying for several days before flying to the north of Chile.

Hasta luego,
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