Vendimia in Mendoza

Well, the fruit harvest has at last been gathered – that we can attest to from the number of ancient lorries we passed on the road to Mendoza, laden down to the axle stops with tons of blushing ripe grapes on their way to the wineries for pressing. A beautiful thing to overtake, as they are slow and their sweetly scented succulent cargo wafts through our helmets making our mouths water. So now is a time for celebration in this lovely Italianate city at the foot of the mountains – it is Vendimia, the annual celebration of the wine harvest. The wine festival, as it has now become a huge event with celebrations lasting from 29th February, with the Benediction of the fruit, right through to 7th March when the grand finale takes place on the Sunday evening. 150 – 200,000 people throng the streets of the city to enjoy the party and we were 2 of them! Accommodation was a bit of a nightmare to find as the event has reached such celebrity that rooms are booked up for months in advance. We decided to have a mooch around the city in the hope of finding a spare room with Plan ‘B’ to camp somewhere in the outskirts if this failed. After 4 or 5 ‘completos’, fortune favoured us and not only did we find a room, but a small apartment with cooking facilities in ‘Apart Hotel Los Andinos’ – all for 80 pesos a night (around ₤15) including garage parking for the bikes and a small breakfast in the room included. We then booked tickets for the ‘Acto Centrale’ – the main event, which takes place on Saturday evening in a huge open-air amphitheatre, with music, dancing and fireworks.

Mendoza is a fairly big city of almost 1,000,000 inhabitants and the streets, like San Rafael, are lined with trees making it pleasantly cool and shady outdoors. It is not a particularly attractive place with little evidence of any fine colonial architecture. According to our Lonely Planet Guide, a lot of the old buildings were destroyed by earthquakes and replaced by more modern, utilitarian earthquake-proof dwellings. Still, the area is in a beautiful location, close to the mountains for all manner of outdoor activities and the region produces 70% of all of the wine in Argentina, hence the big celebration. During this Vendimia period the streets were certainly alive and bubbling with happy Mendocinas giving the city a wonderful atmosphere. There is also a BMW dealer in town (corner of Moron & the main drag, San Martin) where we bought some oil filters & replaced the broken mirror mounting on Maggie’s bike – the last damage repair required after her accident on the Ripio. Bikes are horrendously, almost prohibitively expensive here. To buy an F650 would cost US$11,000 as compared to about US$7,500 at home (mainly due to import duties & taxes) but the F650 is used here as a Police bike, so there were some parts available.

Tonight, we trotted off for an early dinner in time to see the first of the major celebrations – the Via Blanca – a carnival procession through the main streets of the city due to start around 10 in the evening. Dinner in both Argentina & Chile is served late. Most restaurants do not open until 9pm and it is not unusual to see diners appearing at 11 & 12pm for an evening meal. So when we turned up just before 8 we were the first people in the restaurant and obvious tourists! By 9:15 we were fed & watered and standing in amongst the thousands of well behaved spectators lining the Avenida San Martin waiting in the tree speckled illumination of a full moon for the action to start. At just after 10 a light cavalry band, resplendent in their dark blue Napoleonic uniforms, heralded the start of the proceedings. They were followed by a troop of ceremonial lancers, a police band and then some ex-servicemen marching stolidly along like elderly clockwork soldiers. Then the action started as the main pageant arrived. The whole thing is a celebration of wine, harvest and beauty consisting of huge floats pulled by monster tractors & articulated lorries, each one representing a different area or wine producer and decked with various themes associated with the grape. They were manned by a vast array of stunning young ladies, all of them competitors for the titles of regional beauty queens. The winner of this year’s regional Queen dominated each of the floats, standing aloft from the runner-up beauties. These regional queens would all be competing tomorrow for the supreme title of ‘Queen of the Vendimia’ for 2004.

The first display contained a number of queens from previous years and we were amazed at how many blondes were amongst them. We chatted to a lovely local woman and a young lass from Buenos Aires who were in the crowd in front of us and they explained all of the procedures, keen that as foreigners we should understand the significance of what was going on. The fun began when the floats with this year’s crop of competing queens arrived. Their main function is to look stunning on the brightly illuminated floats, which they managed quite well, tottering on high heels on the wobbly trailers, all decked out in formal evening gowns & tiaras. At the same time they have to distribute small gifts to the eagerly expectant onlookers – small bunches of grapes and newspapers from some of the sponsors. It was all a great laugh – there were all the girls, trying to look poised and regal, whilst chucking out sticky messy grapes from huge buckets concealed about each float, flinging them with a limp-wristed girly action (they were probably terrified of breaking a nail for tomorrow!). The result was that the air was filled with grapes – heading everywhere but the intended direction from their pretty launchers. A little later some of the girls, fed up throwing small clumps of grapes and keen to discharge their messy cargo, started hefting whole bunches into the crowds where they exploded with spectacular consequence in the upheld hands of the catchers – Mags was hit in the head 3 times by juicy shrapnel! Some of the girls were also launching apples and plums but we took cover when a float containing football-sized melons opened fire.

It was a grand celebration and lasted until midnight, when all of the floats had passed. We went for a cool beer and then wandered up through the craft market set up on the main square – ‘Plaza Independencia’. The Mendocinos were out in force enjoying this wonderful night. A rock band appeared on the huge stage in the centre of the Plaza and began playing at around 1 o’clock. We sat on a wall in the park to listen to them for a while, playing a number of rhythm & blues songs that somehow suited the evening. Throughout the whole evening we were amazed at how well behaved everyone was. There was no trouble and we never saw anyone drunk or misbehaving (in fact come to think of it, we haven’t seen this behaviour anywhere since we left home!). The police were a visible presence but they were mostly good-natured, staying in the background, enjoying the party like everyone else. At a quarter to 2 we finally wandered back through the dim tree lined streets to our little apartment. Outside, Mendoza partied on.

The streets of Mendoza were once again thronging with people this morning, when last night’s big parade was repeated in daylight (this act is called La Carrousel) starting at 10am. It was a little early for us, so we just caught the tail end of it. No, for us today’s celebrations would take us to the huge open air spectacular – the Acto Centrale at the Teatro Griego Frank Romero Day. The setting is in a massive Greek amphitheatre set in a natural bowl with an enormous stage shaped like a 4-leaf clover and the lot surrounded by hills. It was a superb venue for any entertainment. To get there we took a thrilling 20-minute taxi ride. Sorry, for ‘thrilling’ read ‘scary’! The cab was an old Peugeot 504 and had all of the components normally associated with a motorcar. The difference was that whereas in a normal car these items – the wheels, suspension, brakes, engine etc, etc – all act in harmony to provide the passengers with a smooth ride, in our taxi they had at some point (about 20 years ago I’d say) had such a serious falling out that now each component was acting independently, happy to do it’s own thing and trying desperately to break away from the others. To make matters worse, I seriously pissed off the driver when I slammed shut the paper-thin back door. So we set off, the driver avoiding our attempts at reconciliation, the car components doing the same with each other. Although all the bits were doing their own thing the net effect was that the whole assembly obtained a forward motion, in a roughly straight line and the manic fairground thrill ride began! Oh did I say too that the driver was a complete nutter? He had his hand almost permanently on the feeble horn, driving like baby Maggie at the start of ‘The Simpsons’, minking his way along the road, pecking & puffing at the other drivers who wouldn’t get out of his way. ‘Lane discipline’ where 2 words missing / blanked from his vocabulary and we carved our way out of town, his head down, elbows raised as he sought to peer out of the obligatory cracked windscreen. We got there with white knuckles still intact, gratefully paid the 12 pesos fixed fare and headed off to relax and unpucker at the show.

The show itself started under another full moon at around 10pm. We arrived around 9 to get settled in and had the great joy of participating in our first ever ‘Mexican Wave’! It was brilliant fun, watching the ripple approach from our right and then standing with upraised hands to join in as it reached our section of the crowd, sitting down again as it passed and watch it lap on round to the end of the audience to our left. At the end of each wave, everyone had a good chuckle and gave themselves a big round of applause before the next wave started. It was a lovely example of spontaneous mass self-entertainment and great fun! The show itself told the story of the wine year and its traditions through the medium of song & dance. The impressive cast consisted of around 700 artistes dressed as Gauchos & pretty Senoritas performing boot stomping routines that covered the whole spectrum of Latin American dance. Tango dancers lent an element of grace to the proceedings but for us the star of the show was the stray dog, who managed to somehow get on stage between 2 acts. He was a scruffy old black mongrel with lollopy ears & tongue and he just walked on stage to the huge amusement of the crowd. Once he reached centre stage he stopped, looked up at the hundred odd thousand people watching him, decided it wasn’t a good place for a doggie to be and left the way he came plodding slowly of the stage. The organisers were brilliant, just letting him do his thing, knowing that he would leave and with no one chasing him with a big stick or anything because he shouldn’t be there. It is said that everyone has their 5-minutes of stardom – well it was that wee doggie’s big night!

At the end of the evening this years Reine de la Vendimia was elected from the beauty queens we’d been introduced to at the previous entertainments (Miss Rivadavia won for your information!). Once the Queen was crowned, the night ended with a grand fireworks spectacular – launched from the surrounding hills to a series of appropriate oohs and ahhs from the crowd (these expressions are universal and don’t require translation from Spanish to English!). The whole thing was amazing to behold – we haven’t enjoyed such an entertainment since going to see ‘Riverdance’ years ago in London (it really deserves to be in the same league) and this show will go down for us as one of the real highlights of our trip.

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