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Standing in the station, waiting for one of Santiago’s super-swish, super-efficient underground trains to whisk us into the city, the sound of piped Christmas carols took me by surprise. I was vaguely aware that it was December, but never having spent Christmas away from Ireland before, I had trouble reconciling the sunny, early summer days with the approaching festivities.

It seemed all the more bizarre, as the Northern Hemisphere’s “White Christmas” imagery had been transported here wholesale. Fake snow adorned windows, carols trilled of shepherds in snow-covered fields and all the while people in t-shirts slapped on the sun cream and tried to avoid doing anything in the hottest part of the day.

I wondered why the Southern Hemisphere hasn’t developed a Christmas imagery all its own – carols could sing of barbecues on the beach, shepherds tiring under the burning sun, and warnings to cover up and wear sun cream could be woven in. It would be more appropriate to the Middle Eastern home of the story too.
In our own bid to escape the heat of the day, we had elected to lunch in the bustling but airy Mercado Central. With a glass of crisp chardonnay and a dish of perfectly grilled sea bass, we surveyed our surroundings with some satisfaction. The Maitre d’s flamboyant flourishes as he saw us to our table, our waiter’s fawning and elaborate service, the high vaulted ceiling of the old Central Market, all were exactly what we wanted from a special lunch out.

A group of musicians roamed the market, stopping in front of tables to perform a song or two. The backdrop was pleasant, though still we hoped not to become the focus of their attention. Amused observation was our humour for the day, and we didn’t wish to be cast into the limelight.

Well dressed hawkers moved from table to table, selling an unlikely range of goods. The cheap toys were not surprising, but the large copper pans were. Across from us, a well-upholstered lady lunched alone, clearly relishing her meal. She seemed to be just the target the hawkers were looking for, and by the time she had finished her dessert it seemed that several nieces and nephews had little trinkets on the way.

We returned to spend a lazy, full-tummied afternoon lounging in our hostel’s courtyard. In fact, La Casa Roja seemed less like a hostel and more like a very classy squat. It had once been a beautiful old colonial building, but its coved and corniced lofty ceilings, spacious shady courtyards, delicately tiled floors and intricately carved door- and window-frames had fallen completely to rack and ruin.

The Australian owner was a man with a vision, and he planned to restore the building to something approaching its former glories. To cover the ongoing renovation costs, he had no option but to open the backpacker dorms as soon as he could be reasonably confident the building wouldn’t fall in on his new residents.

The first rooms opened were fairly basic, given this pressing need to pay the builders. The next few, though, completed while we were there, shared a level of opulence and style unheard of in backpacker dorms – gilt ceiling roses, polished hardwood floors and original doors. No doubt La Casa Roja will move steadily upmarket as more and more of the work is completed, but in the meantime the luxury-on-a-building-site is a novel experience for Santiago backpackers.

We’ve always found room for those little luxuries. Back in Dublin, when travelling the world was just a pipe dream, Caelen and I headed into the city centre one Saturday afternoon. Parking being the nightmare it is, we decided to cycle in, and took backpacks to carry home our purchases. We rarely did any serious shopping in the city centre, but it’s the best place to pick up treats.

Sheridan’s on South Anne St was our first port of call – home to a mouth-watering range of properly matured and full flavoured cheeses.
- Oh, what’s this one? Can I try a bit? I asked
- That’s Montgomery – it’s quite pricy though, the cheesemonger warned as he cut off a slice
- Yum! We’ll take half a kilo. And I’m looking for a nice, ripe, runny camembert
- Well, he muttered dubiously, this one here is the best but it’s really quite expensive
- We’ll take a small slice – no, about twice as much as that

The exchange continued in the same vein as we bought some goat’s cheese, olives and pesto. We were slightly bemused as we left the shop. Sure, we could buy cheaper cheese in the supermarket, but it hadn’t really been that expensive - and it was so yummy.

We wandered round to Mitchell’s Wine Merchants on Kildare St. We like our wine, and we didn’t get in to Mitchell’s much so we took the opportunity to stock up on half a dozen or so bottles that we couldn’t pick up locally. Enthusiastically taking on board the staff’s recommendations, not to mention sampling the wines open for tasting, we had our selections stacked on the counter when the cheesemonger walked in.

His jaw dropped as he saw us packing six bottles of wine into our backpacks. “Youse are the poshest pair of f**king backpackers I have ever seen!”

The penny dropped. Far from slightly extravagant cheese aficionados, he had taken us for penny-pinching backpackers who would eat all the free cheese samples we could and then, in real or feigned surprise, baulk at the expense and refuse to purchase.

As we relaxed in the colonial surroundings of La Casa Roja, digesting our sea bass and chardonnay lunch, we reckoned that if he could only see us, our cheesemonger’s reaction would be just the same.


Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Caelen and Sandro at Case Roja Santiago Chile Travelogues
Photograph of Barbara at Case Roja Santiago Chile Travelogues
Caelen & Sandro partying at La Casa Roja

Barbara in fancy dress