GRAEME GREEN gets on his bike for a whirlwind sightseeing tour of mountain-framed Santiago
WE RIDE out with the early morning traffic across the muddy brown Mapuche River. As the sun battles to break through the smoggy haze hanging around the valley below the Andes, Santiago's drivers are on their way to work.
However, it's sightseeing, not jobs, that has made our gang of seven part of the morning commute. I'm on a three-hour bike tour, an increasingly popular way to explore the Chilean capital. Accompanied by guide Ricardo, we set off from near the Museo de Bellas Artes through the colourfully (and legally) graffitied Bohemian area of Bellavista, past the gastronomic centre of Concepcien and up to the former house of Chile's national poet Pablo Neruda.
From there we zoom across town to La Vega market, visit Mercado Central, where fish restaurants were frequented by Presidents Clinton and Putin on their visits, and pass through Plaza de Armas, the grand palm-tree dotted square at the heart of the city.
My whistlestop tour is an excellent introduction to Santiago, a mountain-framed metropolis that often gets short shrift from many travellers en route to Patagonia or the Unesco-protected Valparaso on the coast.
I stay at Bruno's B&B, a smart, friendly little place in Providencia, next to San Cristobal Hill. It is quietly tucked away but not too far from the action. As a big fan of the Nobel prize-winning poet Neruda, I head back for a look inside his house. The nautical-themed home demonstrates the poet's love of collecting things: glassware, Russian dolls, Pop Art furniture.
There are several bars inside the compact house; people and partying were clearly a big part of his life.
That love of the good life extended to food. Neruda enjoyed the Chilean dish caldillo de congrio (conger eel stew) so much that he wrote a poem about it. I have to try some so visit the popular restaurant Galindo nearby.
Shrimps and cheese-covered clams are washed down with fine carmenere (Chile's national wine) while the eel stew, in a peppery cream, white wine and vegetable broth, is indeed poem worthy.
I walk off lunch, filling in many of the gaps of my earlier tour. I loiter among artists on Plaza de Armas, walk down Londres Street (named in tribute to London for its jumble of architectural styles) and stop in at 16th-century San Francisco cathedral, the city's oldest building.
La Moneda is nearby, the palace of former president Salvador Allende which was bombed from the air in 1973, leading to his death in the coup d'etat that began General Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship.
Today, Chile is famous for its wine. A 30-minute drive from the centre and I'm standing on the lawns of Vi±a Aquitania, sampling its rose, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and a punchy and fruity carmenere.
Chile has 4,000 miles of coastline and the seafood is excellent everywhere. I find myself a date with a pretty Chilean journalist and we eat at the highly recommended Caleta Lastarria a short walk from Santa Lucia Hill. The salmon ceviche (raw fish) is very tasty and my Mero (Chilean sea bass) perfectly cooked.
Afterwards, we find Bar The Clinic, run by the people behind the political satire magazine of the same name.
I drink the local speciality Terremoto (earthquake), pineapple juice and ice cream with a strong kick of sweet fermented wine. It certainly left me feeling a bit wobbly on my feet.
No visit to Santiago is complete without a ride on the funicular railway up to the hilltop statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception who gazes out over the city.
Accompanied by the chatter of monkeys in the adjacent zoo, I glide uphill the next morning in the open carriage. There's a short climb from the last stop to the summit. The reward? Quiet gardens with views out across this modern, much underrated, capital city filled with good food, romance and poetry.
A second date isn't out of the question.
Journey Latin America (0208 747 8315/www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a nine-day trip to Chile from £3,238pp (two sharing), B&B.
Price includes return flights with British Airways (0844 493 0787/www.ba.com) from Heathrow to Santiago via S£o Paulo, two nights in Santiago, five nights in the Atacama Desert and two nights at Matetic Vineyard, transfers and excursions.
La Bicicleta Verde (www.labicicletaverde.com) offers city bike tours from £23pp. Chile tourism: www.chile.travel