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Published: September 18th 2009
After leaving the wilderness of the Los Glaciares national park behind, we arrived 3 hours later in one of the most populated cities in the world. Buenos Aires is home to more than 12 million people and is the financial and political centre of Argentina. Our first glimpse of the city was from our taxi window as we drove down the massive Av 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world with no less than 14 lanes of traffic! Along the avenue, we passed the famous Teatro Colón (unfortunately closed for refurbishment at the time of our visit) and the symbol of Buenos Aires, the Obelisk.
We were staying in San Telmo, the city's oldest neighbourhood, full of cobbled streets, antique shops and beautiful old colonial mansions. This barrio is home to writers, artists, poets and musicians but it's perhaps most famous as the tango heart of Buenos Aires. After dumping our bags at the hostel, we headed out to Plaza Dorrego for a bite to eat and came across a restobar called Todo Mundo. As we walked in, we noticed the exposed brick walls adorned with vintage Fernet Branca posters, black & white prints of classic movie stars
Che Guevara mural in San Telmo
If you look really closely, you might be able to make out a tattoo of Maradona on his arm (Maradona has a tattoo of Che on his!)
and old 1960s film posters. But we couldn't believe our luck as we sat down and saw a couple tango dancing on a stage just feet away from us! What a perfect start to our visit!
Microcentro, Recoleta & Palermo
Over the next few days, we went on a mission to uncover some of the country's history by taking in as many of the city's sights as we could. We started by visiting the downtown square, Plaza de Mayo, which has been the site of many significant events throughout Argentina's history including the 1810 revolution, the Peronist movement of 1945 and the economic crisis in 2001. The square is still very much the focal point of political life in Buenos Aires today and every Thursday, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo congregate here to demand the return of their children who disappeared during the years of Argentina's Dirty War (the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983). It's also frequently the site of protests by the Falklands War Vets. Facing the square is the presidential palace, La Casa Rosada, with its famous balcony where Evita gave speeches to the adoring crowds in the 1940s. Some of BA's major civic
buildings surround the Plaza, including the Metropolitan Cathedral which houses the tomb of Argentina's liberator, General San Martin.
We then took a taxi to Recoleta, Buenos Aires' poshest neighbourhood. This part of the city reminded us of Paris with its elegant architecture and yuppie types walking around in designer gear. Many of Argentina's most influential figures are buried in the cemetery here, including several past presidents. But the most famous grave is undoubtedly that of Eva Duarte de Peron (Evita) and her family. The day we visited was shortly after the anniversary of her death (26th July 1952) and her tomb was covered in flowers, notes and drawings. The cemetery was a fascinating place to explore, full of marble mausoleums of every shape and style and the stray cats lounging around the tombs like guardian angels were a calming presence! After leaving the cemetery, we made our way to the nearby Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) which houses Rodin's famous sculpture "The Kiss" along with works from many other celebrated French artists. As we were leaving, we spotted a professional dog-walker in the street with 10 dogs on a leash!
After that, it was on to
the Evita museum in Palermo. This excellent museum displays the life of Argentina's number one heroine along with some of the dresses and handbags she wore. We were particularly amazed by the video footage of her funeral
(which neither of us had seen before). But, when we learned about the extent of her work to promote social justice for women, children and the elderly, we began to understand why she was so loved by the Argentinean people.
Castelar, La Boca & San Telmo
Buenos Aires is big into coffee culture and its oldest cafe, Cafe Tortoni, has seen some famous clientele over the years including literary, scientific, and political icons from Carlos Gardel to Albert Einstein. We went along to meet up with a friend of Lorna's who had recently moved back to Buenos Aires from Dublin. Javier and Lorna had worked together in the kitchen of Hartley's
restaurant Dun Laoghaire and she had been really looking forward to meeting up with him while we were in the city. So, after catching up over a cafe con leche, Javier drove us out to his home town of Castelar in the west of Buenos Aires province. There, we met his
Av 9 de Julio
The widest street in the world (with the obelisk in the background) - this is only half of it!
parents, sister and nephews and shared some amazingly good empanadas with them! We also had a taste of his favourite drink, Fernet Branca & coke. Fernet Branca is an Italian liquor made from herbs & spices but it has become so popular in Argentina that it's practically the national drink! To us though, it tasted more like cough lozenges - sorry Javier! 😊
The following day, we decided to visit the barrio of La Boca situated along the Riachuelo River near the city's old port. La Boca is one of BA's poorer neighbourhoods and is famous for its colourful tin houses which were built and painted by the resident dock-workers using leftover materials and paint from the ships. Many of the best examples line the pedestrian street Calle Caminito where artists exhibit their work and life-size caricatures stick out of the windows and balconies. Football is a religion in this neighbourhood - the local team Boca Juniors is one of the most successful football clubs in South America and was also where a young Diego Maradona began his football career.
Back in San Telmo, we spent several afternoons enjoying the tango on Plaza Dorrego. Winter in Buenos Aires
The marble city of mausoleums
is incredibly mild (while we there it was 18C and sunny!) and this tiny little square was the perfect spot to enjoy lunch at one of the outdoor restaurant tables. On Sundays, San Telmo really comes to life with the huge Flea Market stretching from Plaza Dorrego all the way down Defensa street to Av Belgrano and beyond. It's mind blowing! Street performers, photographers, samba drummers, antiques vendors, tango orchestras, painters and craft stalls line the streets and the atmosphere is buzzing. All kinds of interesting antiques are for sale, including gramophones, soda siphons and army helmets. And the local artisans sell mate gourds, tango hats and leather goods along with a million other things! As the market winds down and the sun sets, Plaza Dorrego hosts an outdoor milonga (tango party) where the locals dance the night away and mingle in the friendly ambience.
Buenos Aires is an amazing city, brimming with culture, history and old-world charm. But it's also a city of contradictions. It combines stunning European architecture with an unmistakeable South American flavour. And the opulence of a first-world city with the poverty of a third-world country. For us though, it was a bit like an
La Casa Rosada
The presidential palace where Evita gave her speeches to the crowds in the 1940s
aging Hollywood actress - full of charm, sophistication and faded glamour - and it definitely stole a piece of our hearts.
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