Arriving at Mendoza was a shock to the system. After the hazy sunshine of Santiago we were met with grey cloudy skies and rain. Torrential at that; it bounced off the runway tarmac on our approach and we could clearly see major pooling beneath row upon row, of vines, huge puddles on some roads and water coursing along the acequias, irrigation ditches. Essentially a desert town with max 20cm of rainfall a year, it was far from the welcome we were expecting.
On Easter Sunday morning the city was still very much asleep, with a handful of flowers vendors setting up their stalls for business and the odd proud home owner out sweeping and cleaning the grey and ochre tiled veradas in front of their property.
Mendoza, with it’s wide avenues, mix of historic and modern architecture, plazas and parques came across as a relaxed yet traditional city (Mendocinos do observe the siesta) full of flavour and culinary promise; Argentine, Italian plus the odd Middle Eastern cafes and restaurants line the streets of Av Sarmiento, Aristides Villanueva, Montevideo and Av Juan B Justo, to name but a few. We tried to imagine the buzz along these streets on a glorious sunny Saturday afternoon, or balmy evening; restaurants and cafes brimming with chatter and the smell of grilled meat, seafood, rich tomato sauce and fresh breads. Anything, rather than how they appeared on a cold wet Sunday mid morning!!
As we couldn’t check into our “one night only” hotel for several hours, we donned waterproofs and walked the quiet tree lined avenues, fallen leaves and rain making tiled veradas, slick beneath our feet.
With hardly a soul around it took us no time to figure out the ‘lay of the land’, the five plazas providing points of interest and reference; the main plaza, Plaza Indepencia, in the centre and four smaller ones, Chile, Espana, Italia and Plaza San Martin, but two blocks from the corners of the main plaza. They were all added when the city was rebuilt after the massive earthquake in 1861, each unique plaza with it’s fountain(s) and decoration offering something different, aside from a space to hang out and contemplate life. Our favourites; Plaza Espana with its traditional and pretty mosaic walls depicting life in Mendoza and numerous tiled fountains and Plaza Chile with it’s sturdy sculpture of the two liberation leaders O’Higgins and San Martin.
Surprisingly the city seemed to have suffered more than it’s fair share of juvenile tagging along benches, walls and the odd sculpture; the dioramas depicting Mendoza’s history on Av Las Heras having also fallen foul of vandalism too.
We took in the nearby Iglesia y Basilica de San Francisco, with it’s image of the Virgin of Cuyo and patron of the ‘Army of the Andes’, considered more miraculous than anything because both church and chamber survived the ’68 earthquake. Outside and inside the former Banque Hipocetario Nacional, modern art reigned supreme, with a mix of local and national art exhibitions.
Stumbling across a Carrefour superstore, we got very excited – like a couple of real saddos, we took time and great pleasure, peeking along the aisles, examining what was on offer; household, beauty products, not to mention the massive food section, price checking and looking for things we hadn’t seen before – eyeing covertly (or at least we tried to) trolleys and baskets to see what ‘the locals’ were buying, we stood out like a sore thumb in the checkout queue – all our basket offered up was empanada cutters, coffee ‘socks’, fresh ground Lavazza coffee, suntan lotions and mosie repellant. Hardly a gourmet meal in the making.
Like the rest of Argentina, the city really came awake post sundown, all around the grassy lawns of Plaza Indepencia, more stalls were being set up, selling souvenirs, carved bone handle knives, leather goods, jewellery and plenty of knick knacks. We walked along Av Sarmiento towards the eastern peatonal, the pedestrian section, awash with cafes and bars starting to spill onto the pavement and chose a cafe for its “wifi zonal” sign. Bad move. Although the wifi and service were both pretty good, the pizza was far from. In fact it was probably one of the worst we have eaten. Ever. Consoling ourselves with the upgraded Malbec we were offered, we checked our emails.
Thankfully our choice of dining establishments and lodgings improved over the next few days!!
We were recommended Maria Antonieta and for a good reason. Resembling a French styled version of Fergus Henderson’s ‘St John’, with an open kitchen, it offered the best bread we had tasted and incredible up-market cafe dining. The tarta del dia, pumpkin on the day I tried it, was huge, even by a navvies yardstick and totally divine. As was the mixta salad with the bitterest of arugula leaves and sweetest tomatoes. I polished the lot off.
Azafran, was so good, we actually returned for a second helping. This may have been partly because I had a classic case of food envy first time round. Matt had ordered the Costeta de cerdo, pork chops with a traditional lentil stew and sticky beer reduction, whereas I had gone for the simple langoustine salad with avocado and Parmesan galettes. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious – just not in the same league.
Did I mention that there isn’t really a wine list? Instead you can pop into the cellar and choose from the racks, sommeliers on tap to offer a guiding hand. The decor inside, if you can get a table (we did, second time around) is rustic shabby chic and quite a draw card by itself. And they served the meanest and poshest empanadas we had tasted to date; Molleja y champinion, Chorizo con cebolla and Morcilla y parmesano. A meaty mix of sweetbreads, sausage and black pudding versions with a tomato concasse.
What more could you ask for??