Wine Tasting, Beef Eating and Tango, Mendoza to Buenos Aires

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June 20th 2012
Published: July 27th 2012
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Mendoza to BA

Crossing the mountains to Mendoza in Argentina was an experience in itself, we certainly were not prepared for the border crossing at the peak of the Andes mountains, in a blizzard and freezing conditions. The Argentines made us all get off the bus so we could be stamped out of Chile and into Argentina, then we all had to get our bags checked which took ages while we stood outside with them. A few hours later we were out of the snow and into the sun. Mendoza was pleasantly warm at about 20 degrees, meticulously clean and very quiet during 13:00 to 17:00. We soon discovered they take siesta very seriously here so don’t even attempt to get a late lunch, there’s no chance! Mendoza is a fairly new city as most old buildings got wiped out in a huge earthquake in the early 1900’s. Despite its lack of heritage Mendoza is still a charming place and is coincidentally the wine making capital of Argentina. We stayed at the Lagares hostel who offered us free bike hire for a self guided wine tour from a guy called Mr Hugo. We ended up with a Tandem for the day and went off to sample some local produce.

The Mendoza region is famous for it’s reds and the Malbec variety in particular, we visited the oldest surviving winery, Familia Di Tommaso. Here we did a tour of the winery and some wine tasting costing us $20 (£3) each. The tour was fairly informative, but because the group was so large we were hesitant in asking question. Then it was to the largest producer, Museo del vine de rural. At this winery there was actually a museum and the one tasting was free. The best of the day was Tempest Alba, a boutique little place with amazing wine, specifically the Merlot and Malbec (I doubt it’s available e UK). We sat on the terrace looking out over the vine yards and olive trees whilst we sampled the 3 wines which ended up being about $30 (£4) but you got a few full glasses. The distances between the wineries can get longer than expected due mainly to the route map from Mr Hugo which was not to scale by some margin. Luckily there is a strong police presence on motorbikes all over the wine region; they ride with you to ensure you reach your destination in one piece. This one dude stayed with us for quite a while, he must have thought that our weaving about was due to intoxication and not the fact that we were on a tandem for the first time.

After watching England get smashed by Italy on penalties we decided to make tracks to Buenos Aires on an overnight bus of 16 hours.

Buenos Aires, we had been warned that everyone stays longer than they expect and we did!! There was just so much to see and do and on top of that the locals were very hospitable. We chose the district of San Telmo for lodgings as we were recommended a little place that was quite cheap but authentic. On first impressions the Hotel Victoria was old, run down and cold. There were old grape vines growing out of the walls in the courtyard but after a few hours we came to love the place. It was literally a piece of untouched Argentina which is hard to find in a modern city like Buenos Aires.

In typical fashion we were straight onto the city tour that evening; this one took in the buildings of historic relevance mainly in the suburb of Recoleta and along Avenue Alvear. Argentina was at one point in the 1920’s one of the richest countries in the world and it’s apparent in the buildings that were constructed during this period. Even the lampposts were imported from Paris, in fact some of the mega rich even imported the building materials from France and Spain so they could rival some of the most extravagant creations of the Bell Époque period. There was an initial uncomfortable period for us as we were taken to the Las Malvinas memorial, that’s the Falkland Islands to me and you. It turns out that every time a political leader in Argentina starts to lose popularity they try to stir up the issue of the Falklands. It happened in 1982 when the dictatorial military regime told the locals that the English were surrendering the islands. In truth the Argentines who have a grasp on current affairs think “there’s more important issues in Argentina one being so many people living below the poverty line right here in Buenos Aires” (that’s what the opinion of our guide was and according to him many other Argentine people ).

In truth there is no animosity here towards the English and people are genuinely kind here. One business man realised we had got on the wrong bus, 40 minutes out of town and with no change, he told us where and which bus to get and gave us some change to pay with. Another random act of kindness came from an 82 year old lady called Gladis. She lives in the Hotel Victoria, has inch thick glasses and is nearly bent double but she knew the owner of a Tango show and asked if we would accompany her that night, drinks included. The only night we really needed the phrase book and I had left it in the restaurant the night before.

Recoleta Cemetery, now that is a place to spend the rest of eternity. When the super rich started to die off they had huge tombs built, not only for themselves but for the rest of the family. Some of these are magnificent marble mini houses with underground sections piled high with coffins. Evita is here in one of the most understated tombs of the lot. About 30% of the tombs are now dilapidated with smashed windows and doors, the problem being that the cemetery is full but some families no longer attend or have died out all together. The families paid huge sums of money to have the plots forever, but some can no longer look after them; the government are in turmoil over what to do.

El Casa Rosa, or The Red House is probably the most famous building in Buenos Aires. If you have seen Evita the movie it’s, where she sang “Don’t cry for me Argentina” from the balcony. It’s here where the locals come to protest about one thing and another. It was the day of the South American Champions League Final so when we saw huge gangs of people with flags and drums, drinking in the street (before 10am) we assumed it was the build up to the game. In fact it was a collection of workers unions gathering in perpetration for a huge protest; they were demanding an increase in the tax free element of their income. There must have been over 100,000 people on the streets that day, the Plaza De Mayo (Square in front of the Red House) was so full that all the streets leading up to it were also full. Everywhere in the city you could hear the fireworks erupting with the sound reflecting from the buildings. In truth they sounded like bombs going off. It was on every TV Channel broadcast from the several helicopters circulating above and surprisingly it all went by without any trouble.

We visited the town of La Boca, home of the Boca Juniors Football Club. This area is real rough and we were warned not to venture far from the stadium or the tourist street. Nat got us lost with her normally perfect directions and we stumbled into the ‘Bronx’, it was not a good experience. La Boca is famous for its tin houses painted in bright colours it looked quite cool but is a bit of a tourist trap with many Tango dancers on the streets and people hassling you to go into their bar / restaurants.

People in Argentina don’t go to meet up in pubs, they prefer Cafe’s and they don’t eat until at least 10pm, sometimes midnight on a weekend. We were a little baffled but soon took to having a siesta in the afternoons. Most of our time was spent in one of the many heritage cafe’s drinking Submarinos (a glass of warm milk with a bar of chocolate in it) and eating Dolce de Leche on toast (Condensed milk that has been boiled). This stuff is also available as Ice Cream which is purchased by the litre and not by the scoop. Needless to say we were regulars at ‘Freddo’ the best ice cream chain in BA with over 30 flavours! The Argentines also do something called Empanadas, a mini pastry pasty filled with beef, chicken or ham and cheese, we are not far from looking like one as we have eaten them more than every other day! For me the best thing about BA is the steak, the cuts are 2 inches thick and BBQ is the only way to cook them, oh and the Chorizo sausage hot dogs, known as ‘Choripan’ another highlight.

Our last night in BA was spent at the Theatre Colon where we had booked onto the opening night of the Ballet, check us two out! We arrived and went in through the front door, feeling massively underdressed we were immediately aware of the dagger eyes looking us up and down. As we stared up at the ceiling and the windows we were also aware that this was not the peasant’s entrance! We were soon ushered around the corner to the side door. Yes we were sat up in the heavens and I could not really get into the Ballet but the Orchestra was amazing and the sounds were so clear.

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