Newcastle’s Grainger Town

Newcastle has a boom and bust history and nowhere is the boom of the 19th century more apparent than in its city centre, Grainger Town.

Grainger Town
Grainger Town

Having made their fortunes in coal and shipping and having earned Newcastle a place of prominence on the British as well as the world stage, the city fathers of the time were inspired to build a new Newcastle, to reflect their golden age of wealth and power. As their model, they chose ancient Rome in its golden age and appointed the architect Richard Grainger to realise their dream.

When finished in 1842, the area was described as the city of palaces. Recently regenerated, it is a precinct of elegant Victorian and Georgian neo-classical buildings which now house cafes and restaurants and offer fantastic shopping. It includes the splendid Central Railway Station, with its monument to George Stephenson, the Novacastrian who invented the steam locomotive. Grey Street, the city’s “main” street remembers Earl Grey, a name which resonates with tea-drinkers the world over. The focal point of the area is Grey’s monument, at the top of the street, which features the great teaman himself and was built to commemorate the Reform Act of 1832, drafted when Grey was Prime Minister.

Running off Grey Street is the Central Arcade which, with its triple domed glass and steel ceiling and tiled walls, is reminiscent of those beautiful, 19th century Parisian “galeries”. It was built in 1840 for Richard Grainger and is believed to the work of the architect John Wardle. It was originally a commercial exchange, then later a newsroom later still an Art Gallery. It was rebuilt in 1906 after a fire and today houses a number of retail outlets, a Starbucks café and the Newcastle Tourist Information Centre.

To walk in Grainger Town is to walk in another world, a world which is a monument to wealth, power, vision and beauty, a world which has carefully preserved the past, brilliantly harnessed the present and judiciously keeps a window open to the future.

Newcastle in the blink of the eye

Coal, Geordies, ships, the River Tyne and hardy natives, known as Novacastrians, who brave glacial winter temperatures in t shirts – this was the extent of my knowledge of Newcastle until chance took me there on a whirlwind trip.

Millenium Bridge
Millenium Bridge

Determined to make the most of the one day I had to explore, I began with the City Sightseeing Newcastle-Gateshead Hop On-Hop Off bus tour.

The tour is a comprehensive look and commentary on Newcastle as it is today – a city of contrasts, where old and new sit side by side, the juxtaposition of ultra-modern and ancient structures highlighting its long and still unfolding history. It takes in all those reminders of the past, like the Roman city walls and the Norman Castle Keep. It covers the houses of the Mediaeval Merchants who grew rich on coal and ship-building. It passes through the opulent 19th century inner city area of Grainger Town, the neo-classical masterpiece of Richard Grainger which, now discoloured by time, is like sepia-tinted print of ancient Rome.

The bus paused at St James Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club. With a history stretching back for over a century, today St James Park is a gleaming modern structure which seats over 53, 000.  The tour  crossed the river by the old Tyne bridge, giving spectacular views of the regenerated area along the banks and of those stunning and innovative landmarks, like the gently pivoting Gateshead Millenium Bridge, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Sage Gateshead Music Centre, which shines like a great geodesic dome in the light.

The City Sightseeing Gateshead Newcastle Hop-on Hop-off bus tour was gave an excellent overview of the city as well as a potted and lively history. It was a good indication of the size and scope of the place (walkable!) It highlighted places worth a re-look. It was cheap (7 pounds per adult ticket valid for 24 hours) and it fitted perfectly (with hops on and off) into a morning, leaving the afternoon free for rambling at will and exploring galleries and museums.


San Cristobal, Santiago

Rising 300 metres above the Santiago and surrounded by the stunning, 722 hectare El Parque Metropolitano, Cerro San Cristobal not only offers heavenly views ( the city, the countryside and even the Andes on clear day) it is, itself, a piece of paradise.

Vergen de la concepcion immaculata
Vergen de la concepcion immaculata

The original people of Chile called the hill Tupahue because of its resemblance to the native head dress but the Spanish conquistadors, who used it as landmark, renamed it San Cristobal in honour of the patron saint of travellers.

Even the trip up to the summit of San Cristobal suggests an ascent into heaven. The funicular glides away from La Chascona in Bellavista, leaving the heat and glare of the city behind, into a shady tunnel of overhanging trees; birds sing, animals call and chatter from the nearby Zoologica nacional and often  a busker leaps on board to serenade the travellers.  It bursts into the light again on Bellavista terrace. An old stone chapel stands to one side and stalls selling souvenirs and fast food to the other. A man offers rides on a meek little donkey

But the eye is immediately drawn to the summit where a radiant white figure, stands with arms outstretched, stands against the sky. She is la Vergen de la Immaculada Concepcion, a statue donated by the people of France in the 1920s. Pilgrims trudge the steep path that wind through tiered gardens to her feet. Here mass takes place every Sunday and in 1987 thousands gathered to   celebrate it with Pope John Paul II.

Like Brazil’s Corcovado with its famous Cristo, San Cristobel with its Vergen is a place that gives pause. It’s not just the magnitude of the monument, nor is it simply the magnificent view nor even the beauty of the parkland that wraps round it – it’s the majesty of the place that seems to reduce you to a mere speck.

The descent from San Cristobel on the telepherique is another celestial experience. You swing through the sky in a glass bubble with a thick carpet of forest at your feet and alight among trees on the lovely leafy fringe of El Parque Metropolitano.

Other attractions in El Parque Metropolitano include the Japonese Gardens, two swimming pools Tupahue and Antigen as well as numerous hiking and cycling trails through stands of indigenous and exotic forest.


Bella Vista, Santiago

Bella Vista
Bella Vista

Clustered in the lee of San Cristobel Hill, Bella Vista looks down across the river to the city of Santiago beyond. Bella Vista is a place apart and not just by virtue of its position.  Its low, brightly painted buildings and small sunny squares are in sharp contrast to the neo-classical stone grandeur, towering concrete and vast plazas downtown.

Bella Vista is a place of artists and artisans. It was here that the poet Pablo Neruda made his home in the beautiful La Chascona, which today is a museum.  The haunting music of the Andes echoes through streets redolent of rustic Chilean fare and lined with theatres, cafes, restaurants and tavernas. It’s a lively, yet laidback, slow-paced place.

Most mportantly,  Bella Vista is the heartland of the rare blue-green stone, found only in Chile and Afghanistan – Lapislazuli. Here, in dozens of tiny workshops, craftsmen shape, fashion and set this semi-precious jewel into exquisite and unusual, yet very reasonably priced pieces.

Mercado Central, Santiago

Constructed as part of the remodelling of Santiago towards the end of the 19th century, the Mercado Central, on Puente Street, reflects the wealth generated by the nitrate boom in Chile at this time.

Mercado Central
Mercado Central

The turreted, towered, neo-classical building with its vaulted ceilings and grand entrances was originally intended as an exhibition building for local artists. However in 1872, President Frederico Errazurriz Zanartu, decided that it would be the Santiago’s Central Market and so it has been ever since.

Today, the Mercado Central is a landmark in the city. It flourishes as a fresh food market which showcases Chilean Seafood and traditional Chilean dishes like seafood stew and Conger Eel Broth.

Like markets the world over, Santiago’s Mercado Central is a kind crossroads, where farmers, fishermen, vintners and orchardists from all over the region mingle with locals and tourists and where there are faces from every race and languages from every corner of the globe.

La Moneda, Santiago

Old Santiago is a many-splendoured city. A stroll back from Santa Lucia Hill, with its baroque fountain, neo-classical sculptures and terraced gardens, takes us through streets of magnificent buildings, like the grand old Biblioteca Nacional, the Teatro Municipal and the Bolsa de Commercio. Again, like the edifices of Santa Lucia, they are testament to what, in the 18th and 19th century, new world wealth could make of old world inspiration.

La Moneda
La Moneda

The most imposing of Santiago’s buildings stand around Plaza de la Constitucion and the most important among them is La Moneda, seat of the Chilean Government. Designed by the Italian architect Joaquin Toesca and constructed between 1784 and 1805, it is Chile’s finest example of neo-classical architecture. It was originally built to house the Royal Mint, hence the name, La Moneda. In 1846 President Manuel Bulnes appropriated part of the building as his quarters and it served as the Presidential Residence until 1958. Since then, as the Presidential seat and centre of government, it has seen many historic moments, including the suicide of President Salvador Allende after the 1973 Coup d’Etat.

In 2006 President Ricardo Lagos’ administration opened the Moneda Palace Cultural Centre in the basement of the building. The aim was to create a modern civic centre for the people of Santiago and Chile. Its broad range of exhibitions, concerts and theatre reflect not only the national heritage and culture, but also provide a window to the rest of the world through many international shows and events.  Free or low cost entry ensures easy access to all. 3811

Santa Lucia, Santiago

With the Andes as a backdrop, with architecture ranging from fine old sixteenth century churches to sleek modern commercial centres, with stunning squares, gardens and monuments and with a vibrant indigenous culture as well as a dozen different European representations, Santiago, the capital of Chile, is one of South America’s most fascinating cities.

On the summit of Santa Lucia
On the summit of Santa Lucia

The first settlement, Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura, was established on February 12, 1541, by the Spanish Conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, at the foot of the Huelen Hill. Now known as Santa Lucia, this hill is one of the city’s most significant and most visited sites.

The neo-classical monumental entrance at the foot of Santa Lucia was completed in 1902. It reflects a city which, at the time, enjoyed considerable wealth and liked to flaunt it.  At the centre is a statue of Neptune, god of the sea, surrounded by fountains and flanked by curving staircases which lead up to a terrace with a triumphal arch topped with a dome. The hill is threaded with winding, and somewhat challenging, paths which lead through pretty, sheltered little gardens and rest areas.

The views over Santiago from all sides of Santa Lucia, and most particularly from the summit, are spectacular.

Buenos Aires shopping

In general, and circumstances as well as finances permitting, Portenos (the people of Buenos Aires) like to look their best. Needless to say then, this is a city with a wealth of great shopping options. Sao Paulo Argentina, 127

Via Florida
Via Florida

At the top of Buenos Aires’ hierarchy of shopping houses is the glamourous Patio Bullrich on Avenida del Libertador in the Retiro district. Once an auction house for livestock, its three floors now hold big name boutiques like Versace, Dior and Chanel as well as a food court with elegant eateries and coffee houses. This is the place to make those exquisite and unmentionably priced purchases or, simply to dream and watch others do so.

Much more accessible, slightly more affordable and just as beautiful, is Galerias Pacifico on busy Via Florida in the city centre. Built in 1889, in the French style, the enormous building which occupied an entire block, was to give the Buenos Aires shoppers of the day the ultimate shopping experience. Unfortunately, an economic crisis in 1890 saw Galerias Pacifico sold off for offices to the Ferrocarril Pacifico (Argentina’s railway company) which gave it the name which endures today. In the Peron era, when the railways fell into the hands of the state, so did the Galerias Pacifico.  In 1945 the Nuevo realism/ social-activist muralists Antonio Bern, Juan Carlos Castiagnino, Manuel Colmeiro, Lino Spilimbergo and Demetrio Urruchia were commissioned to decorate its vaulted ceilings and cupola. Despite this grand public art project, the building languished without a purpose and was finally abandoned.

Finally, in 1992, Galerias Pacifico was rediscovered and restored by a joint Argentine/ Mexican enterprise. Since then it has lived out its original purpose as one of Buenos Aires’ premier shopping centres. All the big brand names are represented – Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfigger et al – but there are also some great boutiques, homewares and local art and craft boutiques, selling all kinds of unusual treasures. There is a wonderful food court and then, of course, there are those beautiful murals all around and above.

Outside Galerias Pacifico a very different, but absolutely not to be missed Buenos Aires shopping experience awaits. Narrow, crowded and pulsing with noise and colour, the pedestrian precinct of Via Florida offers everything. Both sides of the pedestrian street are lined with shops; global chains, like H & M and local names like the popular Argentine outdoor clothing store Montagne, leading B.A. bookseller Ateneo and the fabulous Darcos, the specialists in tango shoes and costumes . Itinerant street vendors demonstrate all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff – like the tomate loco. Made of some indefinable, horrible to the touch material, it splats, sticks and spreads when thrown at walls or pavements, then assuming a life of its own it reforms as a tomato. Its cousin, the uove loco, is no less ghastly.

The centre of Via Florida is given over, especially on the weekends to street stalls or blankets spread with tango hats, Indian rugs, bags, blankets, jumpers, jewellery, art, ceramics and souvenirs. Any clear space on a weekend is seized by troupes of tango dancers.

It’s hard to look past Via Florida – but do.  There’s a wealth of other fascinating shopping to be had in Buenos Aires. Nearby San Telmo offers antiques, vintage and more local crafts by the mile, with equally interesting street life (Travelstripe’s San Telmo blog) If it’s avant-garde Argentine designer gear and chic furniture you’re after, then head down to Palermo. As it’s a mecca for the uber fashion conscious, it’s great for people watching too.

San Telmo

San Telmo is Buenos Aires’s oldest neighbourhood. It was originally the domain of the wealthy but in 1871 a yellow fever epidemic caused them to flee to fresher, uncontaminated ground on the city’s outskirts. Their grand manors were quickly filled by large immigrant families and the area fell from favour.

San Telmo Market
San Telmo Market

Nowadays, San Telmo is one of the most charming and popular quarters of Buenos Aires.  The lovely old houses are still standing, many of them impeccably restored, while others remain shabbily chic. Quaint cafes and restaurants line the narrow streets.  Over the years many “Porteno” artists, musicians and performers have settled and spread their influence through San Telmo. They sketch paint and busk in the streets. There are numerous galleries and studios, as well as a recording company, four museums and a cinema university. Some of Buenos Aires best tango spots are also found here.

But San Telmo’s most interesting corners are to be found in its antique and second hand stores and in its colourful and crowded market – The market building itself is a beauty, with wrought-iron arches and high, vaulted wooden ceilings. It is crammed, literally, with trash and treasure. Everywhere there are glimpses of Buenos Aires’ grand, and not so grand, past lives. Jewellery, china, silverware, religious relics, furniture, toys and books jostle for space with family photographs, tablecloths, rosary beads, statues, holy pictures and suitcases plastered with labels from old Europe. They are all on sale for a song.

In the same building is a produce market as colourful, crowded and cheap as its neighbour.

On Sundays the whole of San Telmo becomes a giant market. The streets are closed to traffic and hundreds of vendors set up booths. Tourists and locals alike pour in from all parts of the city.

A short and fascinating walk from the centre of Buenos Aires , San Telmo is not to be missed.

La Recoleta

If Buenos Aires’ founding fathers spared nothing in building the new world’s most beautiful metropolis, neither did their progeny stint in building its most beautiful necropolis.

A calle in La Recoleta
A calle in La Recoleta

Cementario de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires first public cemetery, was the brainchild of Governor Martin Rodriguez and his minister Bernardino Rivadavia.  It was opened on November 17, 1822 and the first person interred there was Juan Benito, a freed slave.  Since then it has been the city’s preferred and most prestigious resting place.

Historically it’s fascinating – all the greatest and richest of Argentina rest in peace at Recoleta. Artistically, it’s amazing – some of the most elaborate and ostentatious mausoleums in the world are here at Recoleta.

Every day thousands of people – tourists, as well as locals paying their respects to deceased relatives pass through the Doric portico at Recoleta’s entrance. Only the elite, however, those with great fortunes and even greater names, find their final resting places here. The most visited grave is that of Evita, Argentina’s most famous female, who lies with the rest of her Duarte family.

It’s an interesting and restful day (or two), walking the peaceful, pristine and shady calle of Recoleta.