Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mendoza, Argentina

Leaving the white wine capital of Argentina, I headed southwest to the red wine capital of the country. There I would get the bike serviced and excise the broken bolt from the engine.

I am not sure how, but I had somehow picked up a negative image of Mendoza somewhere along the way. I had nothing to base this image on other than subjective hearsay from other travelers. I knew that it was the wine capital of Argentina, but that was the extent of my research. Upon my arrival, my preparedness consisted of a page of hostel listings ripped from my Footprint guidebook tucked into my left chest pocket.

The terrain approaching Mendoza was dry and arid with a patchwork of green irrigated crops - grapevines mostly. Once into the city’s core, I suddenly found myself under a canopy of mature hardwoods – anomalous to the treeless countryside from which I just came. The temperature dropped. It seemed quieter, calmer. At a stoplight, a guy in a restored mid ‘60s Peugeot sedan leaned over and shouted in English if I wanted to sell my bike when my trip was over. I have no intention I tell him. “Of selling?” No, of ending the trip.

From my guidebook page, I found the location of my hostel of choice, or at least a vacant gap in the row of buildings where the hostel should have been. I ask. The hostel has been razed to make way for a new construction project. Back on the bike I locate my second choice, which was neither the value the book professed, nor with parking. That nursing home smell didn't help much either, so it was back to the bike.

Stepping out from the revolving doors, my stride stuttered a bit when I saw a uniformed policeman waiting by my illegally parked motorcycle. Oops. To my surprise, he didn’t seem to mind my disregard for lawful parking etiquette. Instead, he was there standing guard over my bike for me until I got back, mentioning something about it not being safe to leave a loaded bike like this unattended. He proceeded to tell me of a hotel close by that had secure parking and gave me directions to the BMW dealer. My impression of Mendoza was rapidly changing. An hour later the bike was unpacked, I had made arrangements to drop off the bike in the morning and I was climbing into the shower. By the end of the second hour, I was outside a vibrant sidewalk cafĂ© overlooking Plaza Espana with a frosty mug and a plate of baked empanadas. It was summertime in Argentina and the twilight hour made it ideal for people watching.

Over the next few days, I became more and more intrigued with the fourth largest city in Argentina. Mendoza was indeed old, founded in the middle 1500’s just like most of Spanish South America, but the structure and planning of the city seemed much more modern and, well, smarter. The current population is roughly 120,000, but after a devastating earthquake in 1861, the city was almost wiped out. 5,000 residents perished while most everyone else left out of fear of more quakes. Disastrous at time, it was an opportunity for “modern” city planners to re-invent the town, with a focus on protecting itself from future seismic hiccups.

The city’s grid is now laid out around Plaza Independencia, a green space encompassing a full city block, with fountains, free modern art museum and outdoor music venue - the city’s heart. The grid branches out incorporating wide streets and sidewalks – the widest in Argentina. Most buildings are limited to two stories, and an impressive irrigation system, first initiated by pre-Spanish tribal people, was improved upon and incorporated into the new plan. Now, a nearby reservoir feeds a network of stone-lined trenches and under-street canals that irrigate the trees that line every street in the grid – an arborist’s dream. The plan also included a sizeable Central Park like, San Martin Park that houses the local zoo, running trails, and soccer stadium. All of this is very walk able, going from city edge to city edge in about 40-minutes.

The result is a very comfortable and livable city with public spaces that are well utilized by the populace. In fact, it seems like the only time the townspeople are indoors, is during their three-hour daily siesta, which they take very seriously (the streets are dead from 2-5:00pm). I was informed several times of the scientific evidence available proving that people who nap live longer. "Hey, I am not arguing".

Call it an early experimentation into genetic engineering, but in order to create a livable city you have to have people, so the leaders at the time decided to market heavily to the people of Italy, offering incentives to establish themselves in their newly rebuilt city. Therefore, the city is largely made up of Spanish and Italian bloodlines (read: beautiful women), and cultural habits. If that’s “playing God” then "Hallelujah Brother!"

Currently, the two most important industries of the area are wine and olive oil. With resources like this these, food plays an important role in the daily lives of residents. They take pride in not only preparing their food and beverage, but also in consuming it. The sidewalks are filled with bustling cafes and restaurants. People can be found sipping espresso until the early evening hours, while restaurants do not open until 9:00 for late night dining. Again, I was really starting to like Mendoza.

I was to meet my friend Adam, who was flying in from LA, in Santiago on November 11th, to celebrate our birthdays together. As a precursor I decided to celebrate my actual birthday on the 8th with a wine tour of the area. I splurged a bit and went for the upscale tour, which included a five-course lunch at one of the wineries mid-tour. Waking up alone on your birthday is not the best of feelings, but tasting wine by 9:30am surely helps numb the pain.

It has only been within the past 10-15 years that Argentine wine has made the move from quantity to quality. Many of the old high volume vines have been replaced with quality varieties. Historically, wine was safer to drink than the water, but all that was available was the cheap quickly made “swill”, sometimes transported in cast iron pipes (e.g., winery to train station) or stored in cement vats with cracks repaired with tar. Even today you see Argentines, usually the older crowd, mixing their white wine with 7-up or Sprite and red wine with soda water or ice cubes – anything to make it palatable. I witnessed this several times before I knew what was going on – old habits die hard I guess.

It was my experience on the tour, and during my time since, that it was the blends that performed best. I have always appreciated Malbec (Argentina’s signature grape), but I have never spent real money on a good aged bottle. This proved true on the tour, most of the pure Malbecs tasted young, and a bit harsh, but complex with a lot of potential. Still very much drinkable, but perhaps more enjoyable in a few more years. So, as far as drinking today, the Argentine blends proved to be the most pleasing to me. Sort of like the bloodlines I guess.

The only good thing about leaving Mendoza, was knowing that I had to come back through there on my way back up to Bolivia.

Peckhammer Video:

Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. His goal is to reach the top and the bottom of major land masses, while experiencing the people and culture along the way. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unravelling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. Michael discusses the route, and the logistics of shipping a motorcycle.

1 comment:

  1. Mendoza is a great city to visit. Last year in my trip to Argentina, we decided to stay a couple of days in BA and had an actual apartment rental buenos aires and then we headed to San Rafael. I remember that when I went there with my boyfriend we rode horses up to a mountain, we rafted in the river (not too dangerous), we rowed with a boat through a lagoon to a rather wild place. There was so much adventure going on, and we used to end up tired as hell! But it was worth it, I simply loved it!