Sunshine, Wine and Bicycles.

26 10 2008

Arriving in Mendoza, we checked into Hostel Laos. As with all of our hostels so far, this had been recommended by friends; and true to form we were not disappointed! It was rather strange being back in a city after what had seemed an age spent in smaller towns surrounded by lakes and mountains; however Mendoza is very different from BA and a world away from Cordoba.

For a start it is much cleaner, the streets are wider and lined with trees, and there is a much more relaxed feel to place.

At Hostel Laos we were treated to more hammocks, two crazy dogs and a ´swimming´ pool (Plunge pool…about enough room to lie flat out in, but plenty big enough to cool down in). The latter being much appreciated. The first thing we noticed was the sudden change in temperature. Mendoza, especially since arriving from Patagonia, was incredibly hot and sunny. It is perfect conditions for growing grapes, which is very handy, as one Mendoza’s biggest sources of income, is from WINE! Barrels of the stuff are made on the numerous Bodegas surrounding the city, something which we would later see firsthand.

We had around a week again to spend in Mendoza, before hopefully my passport would arrive and we could continue at our own pace. As with Barriloche, one afternoon was enough to decide that one week here would not be much of a struggle. The poster on the wall of the hostel advertising free wine every night was near reason enough! Settling down in a hammock, the rest of the day was past without incident. The only thing I had to move for was to throw the stick for Astor… Astor being an incredibly large affectionate, Alsatian, who had an addiction to the ´stick game.´ No matter where you sat, you were never safe! Sitting in the hammock he would actually drop the stick in, and then continue to push the side with his giant paws until you gave in and threw it. Like the slogan of a well known crisp… once you ´pop´ the stick….

With time to kill in Mendoza, Claire decided to enrol herself at a nearby Spanish school. Her Spanish had come on leaps and bound since arriving, but as we had time, a crash course was deemed time and money well spent. The school was near the hostel, and the next morning I walked up with her, as she carried her books in one hand and an apple for the teacher in the other, and waved her goodbye for her first day at school. Then I went back and lay on my sun lounger and camped there for the rest of the day! When she came back I was ´verbally abused´… rather I sat there whilst she listed off one after the other, all the verbs and their ends that she had learnt that day. The school certainly does throw you in at the deep end: from the moment you go in you are instructed to speak nothing but Spanish, but miraculously it seems to work. Claire was thrilled with what she had that day, even if she did have to get up at 8am.

The next followed in pretty much the same suit, with the exception that I didn’t get up in the morning, and instead headed down the sun lounger at a slightly later and more leisurely time of 11am. When Claire got back this time from her lesson though, I was informed that I was invited on a class exercise – a guided tour around the city, in Spanish! It was remarkably interesting – having not seen much of the city we walked around for most of the afternoon in the sunshine. Whilst it was quite hard to understand at first, I’ve found if you persevere and really tune you ear in, you can really pick up a lot.

Mendoza lies on a major earthquake zone, and there have been numerous earthquakes. In 1985, some 23,000 homes were destroyed or condemned, though the actual number might have been larger. Estimates vary between 50,000 and 100,000 people left homeless. The city is built around 5 main plazas – the largest, Plaza Independencia lies in the middle, with the remaining four in each corner. We learnt on our tour, that not only were these Plazas designed as place to relax with a book, or as a aesthetic feature, but they are in fact primarily there as large evacuation zones. Each plaza has a number of trees, which have been especially chosen for their deep roots and to provide shelter. If you look around, and particularly up, you see that there are only about 2 high rise buildings in the whole city. All the roads and pavements are very wide so as to keep the roads clear for traffic in the even that a building does collapse. The whole city has been amazingly thought out, and a lot of care has been made to keep it clean and beautiful. I was especially taken with long streets lined with tall towering trees, casting the street into a cool shadow, so as to escape the midday sun. There are also a number of old fashioned trams that tour round the city.

Mendozais also home to a massive and very beautiful park. There a large number of large fountains, which I spent many an hour mesmerised as the water, changed heights and patterns. Not quite as amazing as the Bellagio Hotel display, but none the less praise worthy! At the centre of the park, which was a good 25 minute walk from the hostel, is a huge lake, sports and rowing centre and a large rose garden. We spent quite a few afternoons there, watching the world go by and pouring over a book (or homework!) Everybody is so amazingly healthy and good looking in Mendoza. The park was alive with people running, cycling, rowing, yoga-ing… even when lying down, people would throw in a few sit ups for good measure!

Not wanting to be undone or let things slip too much, one afternoon we headed down the park with a couple of Aussies who had an aussie football. Along with them, was Claire, Myself and Jake (A fellow Brit) and Ryan (U S of A). Having psyched themselves up to show us ´Poms´ how to play ´a real mans´ sport, the game commenced… within two minutes of Jake handling the ball, he had hoofed it (John Smith style) straight into the lake. We had to wait 30 minutes for some passing canoeists to fish it out for us, by which time it weighed more than a medicine ball. Game over… or in words of Peter Kay, ´Av it!´ The rest of the afternoon was spent, drinking a few beers, eating a few sandwiches and soaking up the sunshine. Old habits die hard!

 

Mendoza also has a great nightlife. Most nights began in a similar fashion, after cooking a steak or some other red meat; we would settle down with some free red wine, which was normally followed by a few more bottles of free red wine! German and Andreas, who worked in the Hostel, were absolute legends. Not only were they the suppliers of red wine, but they also did a fantastic job of making sure everyone was happy and content. They made the whole stay absolutely fantastic, and were especially helpful in finalising the arrangements for my passport. They even came out for few beers with us and when they didn’t, they recommended the best places to go. Straight out from the hostel was the main street of bars. Mendozais also a thriving student city, and they are certainly catered for very well in the way of night time entertainment. Many nights were spent sampling the selection. One in particular, the staff didn’t have the heart to tell us that they were closing and allowed us to buy more beer and wine, then unbeknown to us (quite a few units accumulated by this point…) all waited inside for us to finish our drinks so they could go home! Now that’s service! Pub owners of the UK – take note!

The hostel also had one of the best Asados that we had had so far, or rather one particular night for one certain reason – Claire and I volunteered (as was the way each week) to make the salad! The night we arrived we were ´treated´ to a rather limp looking green salad, so we decided to spice things up a bit. Not only did we make a large bowl of potatoes, drizzled in olive oil and herbs, we also had a large amazing coleslaw. On top of that, there was as always, copious amounts of cow and free wine! That night we must have consumed well over a bottle each, it just kept flowing. Plus at the end of the night, my first bottle of Fernet was produced. I had never heard of the stuff before, and for those that also haven’t, it’s a herby spirit, usually mixed with coke, that most resembles dentist mouth wash. It also produces the worst handovers ever as I discovered the next day!

Groggily getting out of bed the next day, I headed down to my usual spot in sun. After an hour or so of soaking up some vitamin D, I heard a ring at the door, followed by German walking in with a large yellow envelope. Squinting through my alcohol tinted eyes; I could make out three letters on the side… D…H and the last one… L! I summed up enough energy to bound over, to discover that my hopes were confirmed – I was again the proud holder of a shiny red British Passport! Travelling South America was back on!

Claire was at her last lesson so celebrating was placed on hold! We decided to do so by calling the legendary Mr Hugo and hiring bikes to go and tour around the Bodegas! We had heard about Mr Hugo from numerous people who has passed this way, and were definitely excited to meet the man behind the legend. Arriving we were quickly sized by an elderly man (Mr Hugo) and provided with two red bicycles and a map with the local vineyards marked on it, and instructed to be back by 7pm. It was not till later that we learnt the true secret of Mr Hugo success!

Off we went on our bikes, the wind blowing in our hair… and angry lorry drivers trying to run us over… after a while though we left the main road and found ourselves cycling along a lovely tree lined avenue, with groves in every direction. We had been instructed to head to the furthest bodega first, and then head backwards. Sound advice if you plan on drinking at each, and cycle ´safely´ back! The first placed we stopped off at was an Olive Oil factory. We were taken on a very interesting tour about how they make the olive oil before being taken around the trees themselves. Pub Fact: Black and Green olives are in fact from the same tree, the difference being in that Green olives are younger! After the tour we were treated to some delicious focacia bread, sun dried tomatoes and of course, some olive oil!

Next we headed to our first Bodega. Called Carinae, the owners, a delightful French couple have named and designed their wines and vineyard, around another one of their hobbies, astronomy. The tour was very informative in how the wine was produced and our tour guide was very passionate about wine. After the tour we were taken inside and sampled three wines. The first was a Rose, something which I don’t usually drink, but this was served very cold and was very dry, and perfect for the heat of the day! We also sampled one of the best Malbecs we had drunk so far. This place would definitely take a lot to be beaten! But always one for a challenge, we got back on our bikes and headed off!

The next stop was Tomasso. This was an old traditional family run vineyard. The no longer made their wines on site, as the place was a listed building. The brick casks had been preserved wonderfully and we had a great tour seeing how the wine used to be made. Heading down into the cellar, we were also instructed on the importance of brand placement and how the same wine usually has a different sleeve in every country to attract a certain audience in each. Again we sampled a number of wines (none quite as good I hasten to add as the first place, but nice none the less!) The tour had taken longer than expected, so rather than head to more (each tour was quite expensive) we decided to order a large anti pasto (complete with lots of cheese and cured deer!) and sit with some more wine, looking out across the vineyards!

Eventually it was time to head back to Mr Hugos. Once we handed our bike back, we were presented with yet more free wine and instructed to sit down and put our feet up, along with the rest of the people who had hired bikes from him that day. We did as we were asked, and two hours later we struggled to get back up on those same feet. Every time our backs were turned, Mr Hugo would top our glasses up and those around us. We met 5 lads from Swansea who were big on surfing like Claire and me, and we settled down for a good long chat. Conversation flowed like the wine, and we discovered the reason for Mr Hugo´s legendary status!

 

The next day, after recovering from our hangover, we decided to finally catch a bus on towards Chile! First though we needed to pay the hostel. Heading to the cash point, I put in my card (as you do), put my pin in and selected the amount. The machine then proceeded to make a lot of noise, the cash part opening and shutting repeatedly, before spitting a receipt at me, minus the cash, saying that I had withdrawn said amount. Heading into the bank to get it sorted, I was told to come back at close of day as it couldn’t be sorted till then. Not great news regardless of time, but even worse when it meant we would now miss our long awaited bus.

With an afternoon to spare, we decided to climb the nearby Cerro. The walk there took twice as long as expected, and the climb equally as long. Only 4 out of the original 6 ploughed on to the top. We were lucky to make it at all. Firstly, we had stupidly set out in the full heat of the day with 1 small bottle of water between us, and secondly we decided to follow Jake´s (not the Pom, but from the States) and Scott´s advise to forget the path and climb up the scree side. Not the best decision in a trainers, plain stupid in flip flops! It is by miracle that we made it to the top, emerging in front of a bus full of tourists (also a road up!), looking like escaped creatures from the zoo. We were dripping (or in Claires case – gently glowing) with sweat and panting through lack of rehydration. One large bottle of water and several lemonades later we were finally able to appreciate the view. It was… alright; slightly marred by several large big trees, but worth doing if you have an afternoon spare as a result of a non responsive cash machine.

We headed back down the same way (again not advisable!) and made our way back to the hostel, and free wine! We stopped off at the bank on the way, to be greeted by the manager who promptly, without a word, opened the door and handed me by wad of cash. One problem solved! Now just had to rebook the bus (easey peasey) and find a place to sleep! As we had checked out of the hostel, it was now fully booked. Luckily, German, always the legend, offered us the use of the hammocks at a reduced rate! Fantastic… or so we thought! What proceeded was the coldest night yet, with more insect bites than I care to shake a stick at!

Nevermind! The next day we got up, said our goodbyes (yet again) and finally boarded our bus, over the Andes and on towards Chile!

 

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