They say you are never too old to Tango but somehow we were having such a good time walking and eating our way around Buenos Aires on a recent holiday that we never quite got round to having dancing lessons.
Buenos Aires is often called the Paris of South America because of its grand old buildings and leafy boulevards which give the city a European ambience, but we found it much friendlier and relaxed than Paris with music and tango dancing in the streets.
It’s a city full of statues. There are dozens of them, to commemorate local military heroes, statesmen, mythical figures, a famous tango dancer and even William Shakespeare.
We stayed in a charmingly restored apartment on the 9th floor of a large inner city 1920’s building with an old fashioned mesh lift and a friendly doorman.
From here we explored the city. Our aim: to visit a different neighbourhood (barrio) each day. Each has its own very distinctive flavour.
On our first Evening:
Somewhat travel weary we walked only a few blocks to the Florida shopping street and window shopped at the elegant and expensive Galeria Pacifico shopping arcade housed in a renovated Beaux Arts building and admired the stunning frescoes painted on its cupola.
Day 1: Friday: Monserrat
The lift in our apartment block was out of action so we had to walk all the way down nine flights of stairs. Perhaps this was because it was May the 25th, a national holiday to celebrate the 1810 May revolution when Buenes Aires gained its independence from the Spanish.
It was not far to the barrio of Monserrat, the historic centre of the city. At the Plaza de Mayo there was a war veteran’s protest. Crosses were draped with Argentine flags to commemorate the 30 years anniversary of the Malvinas’ (Falkland Islands’) war.
The Casa Rosada, the famous pink palace caught our eye. Evita Peron once addressed the adoring crowds from its balcony. We took a stroll and admired many gracious tall buildings dating back to the 1800’s.
Saturday: La Boca and San Telmo
The day started off very badly! On the way down into the subway my trusty Canon G11 camera was snatched and we lost our precious holiday pics.
But we carried on to the Indepencia station from where we walked around San Telmo through the markets and antique stores. Then on to La Boca an old part of the city famous for its brightly painted houses and the famous Maradona’s La Boca Junior Football Club.
By this time feeling peckish, we sat down at a café for a coffee and an empanada and were serenaded by a couple of Tango playing musicians. Then we walked back all the way to our inner city apartment for a late afternoon siesta.
Sunday: Recoleta and Puerto Madero
We put our walking boots on again today and went to Recoleta, a gracious neighbourhood with grand old buildings.
Here there is a strange grand cemetery established in 1822, a miniature city of the dead. We walked through the labyrinth of narrow streets lined with huge ornate tombs (4870 in all). Visible through the glass fronts of many were coffins stacked in multigenerational layers along with ornate seats and artificial flowers. Outside the tombs were many statues of the dead inhabitants, or of religious figures such as the Virgin Mary. Eva Peron is interred here, her tomb less ostentatious than many others and the only one where fresh flowers had been laid. The cemetery is overrun with feral cats.
From there to the Fine Arts Museum nearby with its sizeable collection of mainly European but also some Argentinian Art. In a side room we discovered an intriguing collection of silver bombillas, the straws used for drinking yerba mate, the national drink.
Feeling peckish by now we stopped at a café where the special Sunday menu proved irresistible: 3 croissants each and coffees for a total of NZ 7.00, all served stylishly, together with the usual glass of sparkling water, in elegant surroundings by charming waiters. Eating out is cheap in Buenos Aires.
Then we strolled back to another barrio: Puerto Madera, the recently converted docks area. The Rio Plate River looked murky and polluted. Dozens of people were taking a Sunday stroll or eating at the many restaurants.
We boarded the Uruguay, an old sailing ship whose major claim to fame was rescuing a group of Swedish Antarctic explorers in 1901. And stopped to admire the Women’s Bridge, a new millennium symbol for Argentina’ renaissance. Its graceful curve represents a couple dancing the tango.
After 6 hours of walking we took our tired legs back to our apartment and stretched out on the couches with a glass or two of good Argentinian Malbec.
We took the metro to Palmero, known as the Soho of Buenos Aires. Here we saw a strange sight in the street: a homeless person asleep on a mattress, two well fed dogs curled up beside him and a large colour television playing at his feet.
We went for a stroll in the Botanical Gardens which looked somewhat dishevelled and overgrown. Then we walked further to the green and landscaped parks which this neighbourhood is famous for. The air was crisp, but it was sunny. The perfect day to stretch our legs, not just for us but also for the professional dog walkers who look after up to a dozen dogs on leashes while their owners work. The dogs were exceedingly well trained, we didn’t see one doggie squabble,
We returned on the metro again and did some subway exploring. It’s cheap. Once you have bought your ticket (70 cents NZ) you can ride for as long as you like along any of the lines. The most fascinating is line A (The first Metro Line in the Southern hemisphere). Old wagons with wooden seats still run along this line. We stopped to take a look at Peru, the oldest station, which has been tastefully restored and decorated with vintage posters,
Then back to Puerto Madera for lunch at a Parilla restaurant to sample the famous Argentinian beef barbecue, easy to spot as they usually have a stuffed cow at their entrance. Argentinians are known as big beef eaters (there are more cattle than people in this country) and in this restaurant we could eat as much as we liked. Even the offal looked good but we were too squeamish to try it.
That evening we walked to Café Tortoni, BA’s most historic café, dating from 1858, with wooden panelled walls, stained glass skylights and tiffany lamps. In its intimate little theatre downstairs we sipped iced coffees and watched a tango performance which was more authentic and much less expensive than the expensive extravaganzas put on elsewhere in the city.
Tuesday: El Tigre:
On our last full day we decided to give our walking shoes a break and took a train out to the city of El Tigre (about an hour’s ride) from where you can catch a public ferry along the Parana River Delta. Our lack of Spanish meant that we went past our stop and once we’d realised it thought we would just make the round journey without getting off, but this was not allowed. We were politely dumped at the next stop, a very flash restaurant called the Gato Blanc (the White Cat). Luckily we had enough cash on us to have a delightful lunch overlooking the water and the waiter kindly waved down the ferry with a large white serviette for us when it went past again a couple of hours later for the return journey.
From Tigre we caught a coastal train and caught glimpses of the sea and leafy suburbs. Then changed trains to return to Retiro, a large station a 15 minute walk from our apartment.
Wednesday: On our way home
Time had flown. On our last morning we didn’t venture too far, but walked back into the city and browsed in an antiquarian bookshop in a historic building, visited a cathedral and had time for lunch in a restaurant where a “menu de dias: was being served. These midday dinners are great value and the restaurant was packed with young inner city workers.
But all journeys must come to an end. All too soon it was time to walk back to our apartment to catch our airport taxi and start on the long journey home. It had been a most enjoyable and fascinating week.