The eight hour bus ride through the Andes goes quickly as the scenery is so stunning. We appreciate the size of the mountains as the bus climbs higher. The Chilean/Argentinian border crossing takes over an hour while we wait in line in a large, cold shed. Only one kiosk is used for the exit/entry process for the whole bus, despite so many other border guards idly sitting around watching TV. As we near Mendoza the mountains disappear behind us and we enter the wine region. The scenery changes to a flat plateau of countless rows of vines running as far as we can see. We start drooling in anticipation.
We have booked accommodation through Airbnb again, but on arrival realise that the description on the website doesn't match what we see. It is basically a hostel and the private bathroom is across a landing. The decorative stained glass is, in fact, plastic stuck against the window and, apart from being large, the room has no frills at all. Nowhere to store anything and it is not particularly clean. We are shown another room with a bathroom, but the room is tiny, the bathroom grimy and it dosen't have much of a window. We opt for the first one with a bit more space. The main door is gated and only the owner can buzz us in and out but tells us not to worry as he is there 24/7. Strange then that he is never there each time we want to go in or out. Also, not a great idea in the event of an emergency, particularly in an earthquake zone. We also discover that we are in a less salubrious part of town, as we go to find all the many restaurants he mentions that are just around the corner - and of course are not. We wonder if we are being a bit precious, having come from the relative luxury of last apartment, but decide to pay for two nights only while we sort out a contingency plan. We contact our second choice of accommodation with Airbnb and, fortunately, Eleanora has availability for the remaining five nights of our stay in Mendoza, so we breathe a sign of relief and book with her.
We are in a private room in her house and it looks like she's given us her bedroom. The apartment is well furnished and very homely. It is on a leafy street, opposite a small square and has a terrace covered in pot plants with table and chairs. Eleanora is so welcoming and gives us useful information about the town and the more pleasant neighbourhood we are now in. She also tells us that she is away for three days, so we will have the place to ourselves. Result!
While in Mendoza we walk around the town, through the huge park, up a hill, visit a great wooden sculpture museum, a terrible modern art museum and some vineyards! Of course, Mendoza is famous for its amazing Malbec, amongst other stunning red wines so this chapter has its efforts focused on food and wine.
We go on a wine tour and immediately realise our mistake in going on a 'tour' and not a 'tasting' . Yes, we have seen the grapes coming in from the harvest,...and the big steel vats for fermenting,...and the 20,000-litre French-oak barrels for ageing. Enough already...give us the grog! When that did eventually happen, the pours were miniscule and the wine so so...(although not enough wine actually made contact with our taste buds to make a definitive judgement!) To make up for it, we went to a bar when we got back into town and drank lots of good stuff while listening to a great jazz band. The quartet did not commence their 90 minutes set until 10:30pm and the guitarist's 8 year-old daughter was sat at the bar next to us playing with her Kinder Egg toys and eating chips, chatting continuously to Suzanne throughout - how different time zones are even on school-night! The bar owners, two tax-lawyer brothers were on our other side, with their artist friend, generously brought us drinks as we chatted at the end.
We also hired bikes with the intention of cycling round many of the Bodega's of the Maipu Valley, However, as we chose to do this on a Sunday there were only two wineries open. The first was 12-km away and although not far to cycle it felt like the wheels didn't want to go round. This is the French-owned Carinae Bodega and a friendly girl from Cambridgeshire serves us. We try a Torrontes, which is an amazing local white with a powerful fruity bouquet that smells like a desert wine, but doesn't taste so sweet and the finish is dry. It costs us 100 pesos (£10) for six tastings and a bit more for the bottle we buy.
We then cycle to a vinoteca called La Botella and are disappointed to find it closed. As we are about to cycle away the man standing at the bus stop comes running over to open back up (presumably, he was trying to skive-off early as it was a slow day). This had a more homely feel and the guy was running around clearing tables, turning on the lights, putting on the music and bringing us bread, delicious olive oil, olives and bread sticks. Then, over the next hour, he poured eight huge measures of some really decent wine - all for 40 peso's (£4). He was very friendly and took our photo to put on his Facebook page. We bought a couple of bottles and he also threw in a bottle of extra virgin olive oil too. Where's the profit in that?
We also visited an olive farm, which also specialises in drying fruits. We are given a tour on the process of making olive oil and then got to taste a range of their produce. All very delicous. We learn that what makes extra-virgin olive oil 'extra' is the low acidity levels of the fruit, and not some additional purification processs. Still - looks great when entertaining (i.e. showing-off an over-priced Italian bottle from Waitrose to shallow friends at dinner parties).
We also went to a 'Closed Door' restaurant, called Los Chocos, which serves up to 12 people and is set in the chef's house. Its a five course degustation meal with paired wines, all being locally sourced - such travellers! When we arrive we see the table beautifully set only for four and learn there are two Americans joining us. Victoria is front of house and is chatty and friendly. Martin, the chef, looks like a better looking version of Eric Cantona and doesn't speak much English, but smiles a lot. Eventually, nearly an hour late, the other two guests arrive and we start dinner. The food, all home-made, is of the finest quality, painstakingly prepared and beautifully presented but the portions are too big to enjoy. Over five courses we eat things like candied beetroot carpaccio, grilled Argentian cheeses, blood sausage, 10-hour slow cooked goat, chicken pate on the lightest bread ever, poached fruits and a cake made from locally grown carob beans. The courses are delicious, but it's a shame the portions were so big, as we were struggling to finish anything. Sometimes less is more! At the end of the evening they also pulled out a large canvas covered in small drawings of varying degrees of 'art' by previous diners and asked us to finger paint something on it. Paint anything...absolutely anything they said....Suzanne was so releived that after so much good wine that the thirteen year-old schoolboy didn't come out in Steve and the painting remained respectable. It was a great evening of good food, good wines and good company.
Looks like we have a week of cooking at home next week to make up for it!
Overall, we enjoyed Mendoza. It is quite a modern town (much of this due to re-building from earthquake damage) and has some beautiful squares and leafy avenues. We enjoyed a couple of walks in the large park out to the west of the city. A scramble up a steep hill brought us to the city limits where we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon whilst Steve sketched a view of the Andes in the distance. A quick pen sketch of Suzanne was not so successful however and had us in fits of giggles that could be heard by the hikers and mountain bikers near and far. The would-be artist and would-be model managed to descend avoiding collison with teenage thrill-seeking BMX bandits flying through the air.