Chic and flamboyant panache: Buenos Aires

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South America » Argentina » Buenos Aires
March 14th 2012
Published: March 17th 2012
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The Paris of the South.

A city whose name, literally translated, means ‘good atmosphere’.

Envy writ large on the faces of friends who have been, or who yearn to go.

Buenos Aires had a lot to do to live up to its press...

…but it did. By the time we dragged ourselves away on a sunny Thursday morning, finally boarding the Truck to head south, I was starting to think of it as another one of my homes around the planet. We’d twice come and gone and come back again. We’d stayed in Microcentro and Palermo, and explored San Telmo, Recoleta, Congreso and La Boca. We’d taken the ‘Subte’ and the local buses, chatted to taxi drivers and shop-owners and waiters and tangueros, dined on steak and pizza and pasta and icecream, and supped our first several Quilmes and cocktails. We’d even been to “one of BA’s largest and most unique parties” , the sensational La Bomba de Tiempo. But now it was time to hit the road. Patagonia called.

Buenos Aires is an extraordinarily easy city to navigate. Its individual districts are, for the most part, safe and straightforward to wander around, requiring only the usual precautions for tackling any large city and its grid layout is relatively uniform. Provided the sun is shining – so you can tell east from west, and north from south – you can put the map away and turn corners at random. Most of its streets are one-way, with a few vast boulevards crisscrossing the city. It can even lay claim to the widest street in Latin America, the impressive Avenida 9 de Julio whose sixteen lanes – divided manageably into four-lane sections – run north/south down the middle of central BA. Many of the roads are tree-lined, echoing Paris. Buildings are tall, but there is an impression of few skyscrapers outside Microcentro’s business district. Colonial architecture seems to dominate, with wonderful old wrought-iron balconies and high ceilings, pillars and archways. Statues litter every plaza and Avenida 9 de Julio’s grassy reservations. And graffiti – or wall art, a more generous description – is everywhere, colourful and vociferous, shouting out from its bland underlying stone.

Porteños, as the city’s residents are known, are a classy bunch, chic and fashion-conscious, stylish and individual. I wouldn’t have noticed, but my voice from the world of teenagers pointed it out: young people in BA do not go in for a standardised fashion uniform, preferring to maintain their own distinctive statements. And the same seems true of other generations. Sartorial elegance takes priority over comfort; we were continually impressed by the height of the heels worn by women of all ages and for all purposes.

The city is the world in microcosm for dining. We ignored the Indian, the Middle Eastern and the Japanese, and deliberately hunted down a parrilla (literally, a grill or barbecue) for our first night so that Jo could get stuck in to her first Argentinean steak, but I was not going to go hungry. The extensive Italian influence means that pasta and pizza make even more frequent appearances on menus here than they do in the UK. But there are differences. Pizza seems to be cooked with the cheese lavishly layered immediately on top of the base and with only a dribble of tomato sauce decorating the top, meaning that your meal may well look more like a fondue than you’d expected. The pasta is universally properly cooked (i.e., al dente), rather than the somewhat soggier versions you can get in cheaper eateries in London. The icecream comes in a panoply of flavours that would have Haagen Dazs turning green with envy, and includes the local special, “dulce de leche”. Translated delightfully on one menu as “milk jam”, dulce de leche is the national indulgence, a caramel-like spread that comes on or in or beside just about anything vaguely sweet. I loved it, indulging myself to an extent I wouldn’t have done with anything equivalently naughty at home, hiding behind the guise of a traveller sampling local delicacies. Repeatedly.

San Telmo’s weekend “feria” (market) was a dozen or more blocks of buzz and colour, with stalls selling everything from handicrafts to tourist-tat lining both sides of Calle Defensa from the Plaza de Mayo to Plaza Dorrego where antiques took over pride of place on the stalls and in the neighbouring boutiques. There was a delightful atmosphere in the glorious clear blue-skied sunshine of a late summer Sunday. A Charlie Chaplin impressionist, stiff-leggedly in his oversized shoes, flirted with the crowd and silently greeted those putting money in his hat with a handshake or a courteous kiss on the hand. Further down the street, a Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow lookalike posed for photographs with the character’s careless panache. Round the corner a multi-piece band played under a conductor’s direction in the shadow of the fabulous Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Belén.

The following weekend, Palermo was more restrained, chic style replacing the crowds and panache. We dipped into its boutiques, me feeling self-consciously scruffy even in my cleanest T-shirt, and trying not to be too much of a practically-oriented killjoy with a Jo buzzed at the retail opportunities before her. We agreed on one thing, though: the indulgence of getting our feet nibbled by small fish. I’d first heard of this – ichthyotherapy, I suppose it should be termed – from Lorraine during her eighteen months teaching in South Korea. I’m not sure that I really felt any significant benefit afterwards, but it was a hugely entertaining – and occasionally ticklish – way to spend half an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

Recoleta is even more fashionable and exclusive than its neighbour, but this time we were only interested in a few functional shops, topping up our toiletries and buying more blank books for our journals, on our way to and from the superb Cementerio de la Recoleta. For me, the word “cemetery” conjures up an image of crumbling gravestones and barely-contained nettles. The Cementerio de la Recoleta is nothing like that. Think rather of a fabulous walled city with narrow streets, a necropolis in the true sense of the word with magnificent sarcophagi and mausolea cheek-by-jowl. Barely a blade of grass dare make an appearance. And goodness knows where anyone “new” goes; there simply isn’t room except down the middle of the wider “streets”. Many of the existing mausolea are for families. Through the wrought iron gates or glass doors we could see coffins piled up like an above-ground vault. Most poignant for us was a new edifice for a woman only a year older than me who had died the day before Jo’s 18th. But, of course, we couldn’t not go and visit Evita herself.

Neither Jo nor I are museum people, but the one museum I had wanted to see was the Museo Evita, a charming memorial of the life of the amazing María Eva Duarte de Perón. Whatever you think of her politics or the more controversial and repressive aspects of her husband’s tenure, you can’t but be incredulous at what this young woman achieved in her tragically short life. The wife of a president by the age of twenty-six (yet unable, under Argentina’s then constitution, to vote for her husband herself), she embarked upon an impressive and successful European and South American tour to promote her country and her husband’s presidency. Taking no formal role in government, she made the cause of the underprivileged her own, championing the “descamisados” (the shirtless ones, as she called the poor), and orphans, the elderly, and women’s suffrage in particular. By the time we got to Cementerio de la Recoleta, Jo was as keen as I to see the Duarte family tomb and pay our respects in person.

Interestingly, the Cementerio de la Recoleta doesn’t pander to Peronistas with any specific directions to Eva’s tomb. After all, there are a great number of erstwhile politicians, generals and others from the realms of the great and the rich buried here. Instead, you have to reply on a detailed A3 map handed out at the entrance, or do as we did: meander through the cemetery and rely on spotting an increase in the crowds or floral tributes. We missed it the first time, and caught the coattails of a collection of map-in-handed American tourists to take us back. It’s a comparatively simple black marble mausoleum, though I was bemused to see not one, but five, plaques to Evita herself. It’s almost as if you’re no-one until you have left your own specific tribute here.

Back in the world of the living, La Boca’s colourful streets feature in every collection of photographs about Buenos Aires. The historic corrugated-metal houses were originally decorated with paint leftover from their occupants’ work in the shipyards, but this has now become such a distinctive and photogenic part of town that it has sprouted its own tourist industry. Nowhere else in the city is quite as tourist-centric. Tourist shops abound, and outside restaurants each have their own musicians and tangueros - the tango dancers who themselves encapsulate the unique style and class of this city. We joined in. This was our last full day in Buenos Aires, so we indulged in a leisurely lunch, applauding the dancers and their musicians after every number. With the reduced crowd of midweek, the dancers took time to come round and chat to their audience. Yes, it’s a bit naff, the artiness of the locale exaggerated by the use of dressed-up figures leaning out of windows, and standing in doorways or on balconies, but it’s a unique side of BA and quite unlike anywhere else I have ever been.

The monuments and plazas of Microcentro and Congreso are superb. The Palacio del Congreso itself was clearly modelled on the US Capitol Building, though its dome looks like it’s been on a bit of a diet. In front, the vast Plaza del Congreso is dominated by the Monumentos a los Dos Congresos, an ornate collection of statuary and fountains. The parkland of the Plaza falls away in its shadow, a place for dog-walkers and pigeons rather than vast edifices.

In Plaza de Mayo (or “mayonnaise square” as we naughtily renamed it one day), the Pirámide de Mayo takes centre stage, a small obelisk commemorating the first anniversary of Buenos Aires’ independence from Spain. It provides the focal point for many demonstrations here, including permanent ones by, for example, ‘Las Madres’, the mothers of those who disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War”, the euphemistically named “Process of National Reorganisation” in the late 1970s and early 1980s when, it is estimated, some 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ at the behest of the then-ruling junta. Sadly, for some protesters, banners nearby are not enough and the obelisk itself has been graffiti-ed.

At one end, General José de San Martín holds a standard aloft from the back of his horse. Regarded as Argentina’s national hero for leading southern South America to independence from Spain, his is a ubiquitous presence. In the Catedral Metropolitano at one corner of the Plaza, an eternal flame burns outside on its lofty perch high up the front wall in an Aladdin’s lamp, and an honour guard maintains a permanent presence at the doorway to his mausoleum.

At the other end of the Plaza stands the Casa Rosada, so much grander in Spanish than its translation, the “pink house”, yet this is where the presidents of Argentina have their offices. This is also the location for such momentous events as Eva Perón’s tearful rejection of her nomination for vice-president while already clearly ravaged by the cancer that would kill her less than a year later. Outside is a display of photographs of the current president and her late husband (and predecessor). Despite his buffoonish nickname of “El Pingüino” for his Patagonian origins, Nestor Kirchner is recognised for having had some impressive successes in turning round the failing economy he inherited, as well as in tackling corruption and reversing an unpopular amnesty in favour of those who committed atrocities during the “Dirty War”. However, any view I might have of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (“CFK” as she is widely known in the press here) is tainted by her recent words in connection with the Falklands. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, I can’t but help feel she is doing exactly as Galtieri before her: trying to distract a population suffering high inflation and ongoing economic problems with an external and therefore unifying issue.

With the timing of CFK’s war of words with David Cameron and the (mis)interpretation here of UK’s allegedly “normal course of business” actions with regard to the Falklands, I was a little cautious about visiting Argentina at this time. Just how widely would Cristina’s views be being adopted? Personally, however, I have encountered no problems at all. One shop-owner started asking me about Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron in what seemed to be a spirit of pure curiosity but I demurred saying I had only been a child during the war and that I hadn’t heard any news recently. Otherwise, when people have asked us where we’re from, our answer seems to generate genuine interest. There are occasional references to football – another national obsession here – though only one person has reacted delightedly, “London? Yeah! Black Sabbath!” But I gather there have been demonstrations outside the British Embassy in the last week. It’s located in Recoleta, not far from the famous graveyard, so I made sure that, when we went into the area, we stayed well away from the streets nearby. One or two of my new travelling companions have also reported taxi drivers unfriendly on hearing the nationality of their passengers, though it wasn’t clear whether this was in jest or not. I was also intrigued to notice on a freebie map handed out by Hostelling International’s BA hostels that the Islands are clearly marked “Las Malvinas (Arg.)”. Argentina has never acknowledged British sovereignty. But I’ll be glad not to be in the capital city on 2 April.

So that was Buenos Aires. I’d like to say, “I’ll be back”, though I can’t at the moment realistically see when or how. But it gave us a wonderful introduction to the country where we’ll be spending the best part of six weeks.

Now we’re on the road to Patagonia. Penguins and glaciers, whales and mountains await – or so we hope, as well as a dramatic reduction in temperature!

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17th March 2012

hi from Argentina
I do love Buenos Aires. I live at 400km, in a city called Tandil, lovely place to live surrounded by hills and a lake. I like the way you describe my country and my people. You use preciese words, no doubt you are a great observer. Enjoy Patagonia. Hugs. Graciela.
19th April 2012

Fab as usual!
Well anything that is compared to Paris favorably is aces in my book. In fact that description of the cemetary had Pere Lachaise written all over it! May have to add this to my "maybe one day" list! Glad you are continuing to have a great time and glad that I'm actually catching up on the blogs! Wish me luck!

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