Saturday, May 22, 2010

Buenos Aires

After 2 weeks in Sydney we flew into Buenos Aires and settled into our apartment in Recoleta, a suburb of cafés, hair salons, restaurants and well -dressed people, looking forward to spending a few days getting to know the real Buenos Aires.

Our first destination was to explore our local area; plush Recoleta, where professional dog walkers rein in packs of enthusiastic canines, and its geographical neighbour, ritzy Palermo where the porteño girls strut around the bars and restaurants wearing skinny jeans tucked into their tall leather boots in the current fashion and style.

Recoleta Cemetery is a small city celebrating the wealthy and important and dead people of Buenos Aires. It is a vast and crowded checkerboard of black and white crypts. Eva Perón is buried here, interred in the family crypt belonging to her blood relatives, Familia Duarte. I wondered if I would find General San Martín lying here somewhere but no, his final resting place was to be one of significantly more splendour; he is interred at the Catedral Metropolitana in the centre of town.

One of the many interesting mausoleums at Recoleta Cemetary

Angels and crosses adorn the tops of many of the mausoleums

A ‘Subte’ train ride later, hanging onto wallet and camera, the Buenos Aires town centre is a jostling bustle of shopping malls, plazas, palaces and monuments. Shopping is a bit of a sport here; tourists are expected to want to spend their time and money snapping up designer this’n’that at bargain prices and drag their acquisitions back home to whatever safer, wealthier country their currency came from. I felt like I was standing behind a pane of glass and scratching at it with my fingertips, the real Buenos Aires was on the other side of that glass.

One evening we visited Consuelo and Juan Antonio at their beautiful apartment. We caught the Subte to a nearby station and walked to where we though the building should be. So monumental was the apartment building that we walked right past it. Towering stone walls, a gate of black wrought iron and a suited doorman helped me assume it was a public building of some kind, a museum perhaps. Inside, the apartment was a whitewashed picture of style and urbanity, delicately furnished with fine antiques, the collecting of which is a bit of a porteño thing. “They say that an Argentinian man is an Italian who speaks Spanish, dresses like an Englishman and has the intellectual culture of a Frenchman”, Juan Antonio explains. Maybe so. There is certainly something indefinable about the place, a coalescence of European cultures all jostling around in this Argentinian city.

With Juan Antonio & Tía Concho in their beautiful apartment

We dined that evening on huge and juicy Argentinian steaks at a nearby restaurant named Juana M. It was wonderful to share the experience with Consuelo and Juan Antonio; we were welcomed in a way that you can’t match in a big city as a tourist. As we dined it occurred to me that for the moment we were in an environment quite free of other foreigners, a privilege that tourists always crave, the illusion that you are in fact making an entirely new discovery in a foreign place. We wouldn’t have found a restaurant like this one without the benefit of local intelligence.

The next day we strolled around the suburbs of San Telmo and La Boca, taking in the markets and the touristic novelties of these places. Old historic buildings have been converted into marketplaces, each room turned into a different stall selling antiques or arts and crafts.
On the cobbled streets of San Telmo the novelty is pretty thick. A suave older gent in pinstripes and a fedora scopes for attractive female tourists to give impromptu tango lessons to. Human statues abound. Sexy girls dressed as tanguestas drape themselves over tourists, a few dollars will buy you a photo opportunity with a lithe model.

One of the many human statues near San Telmo markets

The streets of La Boca are a similar experience, a bit rougher, a little more charming. One tourist street in particular, Caminito, is painted in bright primary colours with large papier maché figures on the balconies to add to the fun of the atmosphere. Tourists walk up and down looking at the hawkers’ wares, street dancers dance an occasional tango, and touts encourage passersby to sit at tables on the street, buy some overpriced wine or beer and watch the dancers. The tango is mesmerising to watch. It is not a light hearted affair. There is both love and hate mixed up in it.

Caminito, La Boca

Cats snooze on the corrugated iron of the roofs nearby. There are more tanguesta models here. I watch as a portly tourist dons a hat and scarf and a girl in fishnets and a corset shows him how to stand solidly so she can climb up onto his legs, gripping his thighs with hers and staring passionately into his eyes for the camera.

Tango street art, La Boca

A block or two further up the road the colourful buildings and the market stalls have disappeared and cartoneros are picking through the garbage to see if they can salvage anything of value. It is easy to imagine someone getting knifed to death in a nearby alley for a pair of Italian leather shoes. The contrast between the tourist streets and the rest of the suburb is readily apparent.

On our last day in Buenos Aires we visited a few of the historic cafés in the city. Built in 1884, Café Las Violetas has been preserved in its original style since that time, down to the leadlight above the windows. It is a bright and comfortable and stylish place, and it hadn’t appeared in our tourist guidebook. Photographing the café drew odd looks from the locals who frequent it, there were no other foreigners in the place when we visited. I got that special feeling again. I ordered the signature coffee, the ‘Las Violetas’. A combination of coffee, Cointreau, cream, tequila and chocolate it was stimulating, smooth, intoxicating and a little bit dirty. The drink seemed to be a metaphor for Buenos Aires itself.

Café Las Violetas

We had still not been to see a tango show and the moments watching street dancers didn’t seem to count, so we knew we had to see one before we moved on. At Café Tortoni the tango shows are run twice nightly, you cannot miss and you cannot go wrong. Tourists are ticketed and herded downstairs to the dark basement where the tables are crammed in front of the stage. The multilingual jabbering and people taking photos of themselves was an irritation so I watched the waiter for a while. The waiter was cool, a black dude in a bowtie with a white apron and a little badge that read ‘Sergio’. He had a little leather holster for his waiters tools and I liked the way he used them to lift the cap off a bottle of beer and serve it at a table one-handed while his other hand held the tray aloft.

In the fantasy world of tango theatre at Café Tortoni, an Italian-American gangster is having a stormy relationship with a Parisian prostitute in a wild west saloon. Juan’s proverb about Argentinian men seemed to be dancing there on stage, lit up by a follow spotlight and the dim glow of a dozen digital camera viewscreens.

Some people expect to fall in love with Buenos Aires, it is one of those cities, like Paris or Venice that does something to you. I didn’t love it because I never felt like I made it through that pane of glass: the real Buenos Aires remained on the other side. In another week, or another month if we had stayed longer… perhaps. I was happy for the special moments we had.


  1. Interesting post jace, thanks! I heard that Recoletas is a great location to stay. I'll be traveling in two weeks to Buenos Aires for working purpuses. I book an apartment in Recoleta with Buenos Aires apartments because I didn't want to stay for long time in a hotel. I´ll also excited about watching the real tango. Best, Annie

  2. Thank you. I love your insights. love to you both, Uschi