We don’t exactly hit the ground running but fuelled by our combined appetites for culture, arts and shopping we strike out by astonishingly smart and efficient metro to downtown Santiago.
The modernity and uber-cleanliness of the stations and trains is momentarily alarming, used as we are to the rackety transport systems of New York and London, but not nearly as alarming for me as the fact that most platforms are furnished with multiple flat screen TVs regularly showing Susan Boyle giving us her rendering (here I remind readers that ‘rendering’ also means to melt down) of ‘Perfect Day’.
I am delighted that my Instituto Cervantes-learned ‘que bruja fea’ gets nods of approval from passing Chilenos.
First stop the Cathedral where we’re thrilled to find a Christmas Day mass in full swing and enjoy the wonderful flowers – immaculate white gladioli and lilies contrasted with bitter dark red roses - and casual atmosphere of a congregation enjoying itself. It’s a beautiful building with some lovely painted decoration but not as over-gilded and domineering as a lot of Catholic architecture, and when I find an order of service and am able to join in with ‘Silent Night’ in Spanish, it’s enjoyable for me for the music and the sense of theatre, and if the faith aspect seems to work for the locals, good for them.
Among the statuary is an elegant modern sculpture of a newly-canonised priest, installed in the last three months. The figure has his hand on the shoulder of a young altar boy and you feel that the distance between them and the lightness of touch has been carefully calculated to defuse the obvious charges.
We fan out to spot other important buildings but everything is closed for Christmas so we wander more or less at random and are pleased to sit down for a cooling juice in the Plaza de Armas just as a Peruvian marching band capers its noisy way past with the brilliant sunlight glinting off the instruments and costumes.
They're stupid beasts, does it say Plaza de LLAMAS ?
By late afternoon the sun has beaten us back to the hotel for some pool time and a siesta. In the bar Rhea spots one attractive half of a two-doctor gay couple from East Hampton, and since his partner is unwell, invites Dr Jim to join us for dinner. He’s a psychologist and perceptive company although as the evening proceeds and he gets further down the red wine the game becomes one of analysing the analyst since he has a tale and a half about a romantic adventure in London which climaxes with him being hunted down by the secret service and puts our various affaires truly in the shade.
Boxing Day and many more things are open so we subway again (Susan Boyle still at it in the stations) and enjoy the Las Domenicos craft village and funky bohemian Bellavista neighbourhood, before heading back to the hotel to brace ourselves for a ‘meet the tour group’ cocktail party.
We had been trying to ‘spot’ members of our tour party in the hotel on and off for two days but our hunting skills are poor and we don’t accurately identify either a promising looking middle aged gay couple or the most overweight man in the hotel who would certainly require two coach and aircraft seats.
We develop a strategy of not becoming too friendly too soon, as Curt had been buttonholed at breakfast by a female predator in polyester plumage asking if he were travelling alone, and among the routine fiftysomething couples from states with square corners there are a couple of more interestingly exotic families, one based on Czech parents and two attractive daughters one of which is married to an English boy, and another mixed American/Korean five piece troupe, which makes us a more cosmopolitan bunch than I’d feared.
Under the tutelage of our resolutely Costa Rican tour director - the looks-like-Lucy-talks-like-Ricky Carla - we have to stand in a semi-circle and introduce ourselves and when it comes my turn and I announce my name and provenance a diminutive couple pounces on it saying that they had been looking for me ... but don’t explain why so I am somewhat cautious.
The following day at lunch it turns out that he is an academic working between Oxford and Texas and that in a year or so they plan to relocate to London and would like some advice on where to live. This comes charmingly wrapped with an invitation to High Table at Balliol, so I am quite happy to help.
It also amuses me that the woman who styles herself ‘an educator’, an English teacher and vice principal of some institution which can barely spare her for the holiday is unaware of any of the Oxford colleges, or the meanings of ‘High Table’, ‘Dean’ and most glorious of all since I am impressed when George uses it in a casual sentence ‘subfusc’. Since despite her literary background she’s clearly never read any C.P. Snow, or G.K. Chesterton, or even Tom Sharpe, we explain it to her in Harry Potter terminology and feel very smug.
Dinner was pretty ropy, and we have to have one of those ‘conversations’ with management which is still paying dividends as platters of chocolates and macaroons and complimentary bottles of Evian keep appearing in our rooms, as well as free cocktails in the bar, and the staff try hard to bring us everything we need.
The tour began in earnest this morning and following a whizz round the city we’re taken to the Maipo valley and the boutique wine estate of Tarapaca with its handsome great house where after a short walk through the cellars with the equally handsome Diego we’re lunching al fresco under huge parasols and even more huge trees and I’m pinching myself to recall that it’s the Monday after Christmas when everyone I know is getting ready to go back to work, and I’m getting sunburned in a vineyard that could easily be Burgundy if it weren’t for the backdrop of the Andes.