Published: December 31st 2011December 29th 2011
I had no idea how much I would love my time in Buenos Aires. What a city! It consists of countless grand buildings with distinctly western European architecture, gastronomic delights in the form of Italian food and coffee, Spanish speaking locals and to top it off, all of this is combined with the Latino passion emanating from the tango dance halls. There is so much character that it seems to be ready to burst, which may explain the protest rallies that number in excess of five per day on average in one of the main avenues (Avenida de Mayo). The city has also retained some of its old charm, avoiding modernising the original underground line, where you still ride in the original wooden carriages. Other places, like Café Tortoni, also feel like you have stepped back in time, akin to the recent Woody Allen film ‘Midnight in Paris’. The café opened in 1858 and still has the charm and grandeur of a former era, with even some of the staff appearing to be stuck in a bygone decade. Others would possibly remember its glory days, as they were relics in themselves.
On my first day in the city, I found myself having a tango lesson prior to watching a show, which included all the wine I could drink whilst the show was on! The dancing was terrific, although when I was invited to dance by one of the performers, I forgot everything from my lesson and shuffled around like someone who has just stepped out of their wheelchair whilst recovering from invasive surgery. I obviously need to take a leaf out of the book of an Italian guy I met who was in Buenos Aires for two weeks purely to study tango with a private teacher.
The following day I went on a guided walking tour of the city with most of the people I had been trekking in Patagonia with. It was a great way to get my bearings in a city that houses millions upon millions of people, along with seeing some renowned sites, like the balcony which Evita made so famous. The other bonus was learning about the history of Argentina, much of which I alarmingly and shamefully didn’t know. In particular, I was startled upon hearing of the military regime that controlled the country from 1976 – 1983 that completely shattered the nation’s psyche. Over 30,000 people went ‘missing’ during that time and there are memorials and reminders all around the city regarding this horrific time. In fact, the following day I saw a mass grave in the heart of the city that was a confronting wake up call for me. I quite obviously knew precious little about Argentina’s history before I arrived, but I am learning quickly (like when I referred to the Falkland Islands once and was met with looks of consternation. Islas Malvinas is all I shall be calling them from now on!).
One of my favourite parts of the city is the San Telmo district, which is typified by cobble stone streets, markets, outdoor restaurants and street art. In fact, I spent an entire afternoon on a walking tour of the street art in San Telmo, which was quite interesting. My favourite was a Dali-esque surrealist piece by an artist who was commissioned by a local restaurant to adorn their most prominent wall. We even went into a hostel that asked local graffiti artists to use their rooms, corridors, bathrooms and outdoor spaces as a canvas. I really love cities that embrace artistic expression and my mind was taken back to my visit to colourful Valparaiso last year, which has a similar approach to supporting artistic endeavour.
The one time I didn’t go on a guided walk, I found myself aimlessly wandering the dangerous, yet colourful backstreets of the poor La Boca district. It clearly has a different feel from other parts of the city, but I’m glad I went for this stroll, as I gained a more complete insight into the make-up of the city. The fact that I didn’t get mugged or held at gunpoint was obviously a good result too, although I wasn’t aware of such dangers until later that day when I was informed by my street art tour guide about the regularity of such occurrences. Maybe I was in luck because it was my birthday! I celebrated by going out for dinner down at the port to a really upmarket restaurant with my friends from my Patagonia trek and had a steak of the superb quality that Argentina is famous for serving up. By the time an unexpected birthday candled crepe was brought out to me, we were all feeling rather jovial thanks to the attentive waiters who never once let any of our wine glasses become empty. If a different variety of wine was ordered, they simply procured new glasses and had them filled by the time our current glass was starting to run the risk of not having any wine within it. Naturally, we found a bar on the walk home and had a few more drinks before I sensibly went to bed so that I wouldn’t miss my flight to Iguazu the next morning. Am I finally learning with age? Doubtful.