Buenos Aires, Argentina. My passionate affair with Argentina’s capital begins.
It was on the second night that my love affair began. It started with the quaint cobbled streets and ageing mansions of San Telmo, the oldest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires and where our hostel was situated. Then I had my first encounter. I was swept off my feet by the evocative rhythms, the sensuous moves and the sultry looks. Born in the poorest parts of Buenos Aires in the mid 19th century and invented principally by the European immigrants, some may say that it’s had its day. I disagree. The Tango is still alive and well in many of the bars and clubs of Buenos Aires and is the only dance I have seen which has the ability to transport you to a bygone era.
That night we had accidentally ended up in Bar Sul, a tiny, intimate bar in San Telmo. The bar was filled with small round tables, black and white tiles and old pictures. We walked into a couple dancing in and amongst the tables- a scene straight out of a 1940´s film. Old men sang and played their hearts out on the piano, double bass, guitar and the accordion. I was enchanted by the dancers; their faces touching lightly as they spun around the floor, their romantic grace, utter class and absolute intensity. Of course most of the audience were tourists, but the atmosphere made it easy to forget that. We had only paid 20 pesos (from a discount ticket shop whilst trying to get tickets to the theatre), but I later found out that the couple next to us had paid 100! We got dragged up to have a try but felt nothing more than clumsy next to the grace of the dancers. (Walking sandals just weren’t made for tango…)
Two days later we saw San Telmo square transform itself into a Tango dancing hall as young and old Argentines practised their technique to music blaring out from speakers. That was me convinced: tango wasn’t only there for the tourists. We met an old man with a black pointy moustache who introduced himself as tango teacher and so found ourselves in a small apartment the next day ready to begin. Bryan talked alot about the “language” of the tango dance and its history rather than just teaching us a set of steps. He had even written a massive bound volume about the history and styles of tango which he couldn’t resist pulling out every few minutes. This man just lived for his tango and that made it a very special experience. Even the man who had been “dragged” there enjoyed swishing me around the floor as we both giggled uncontrollably at each other.
We did get one more chance to dance at a street cafe in La Boca (see below). Whilst Jason danced with the typically pretty but short Argentine girl dancer, I got the bloke who was also all of about 5 foot tall.. but he did complement me on my “ocho paso” steps so I was very happy. Unfortunately that’s where the tango story ends for now.
Europe or South America?
So what else of Buenos Aires? Well the “Aires” are certainly not very “Buenos”; it’s big, noisy, polluted and full of crazy drivers. However, without succumbing to one of the most prevalent traveller diseases: exaggeration, BA really is one of the best cities I have been to. Why? Well basically it’s like the Paris, Milan, Barcelona or London of South America but with that extra dose of Latino culture and energy thrown in. The tree lined boulevards with grand 19 century buildings are reminiscent of what any great European city has to offer. The shopping is as good as London for a third of the price. It has lots of quaint bohemian neighbourhoods with artists and dancers tangoing in the squares surrounded by funky restaurants and bars, a dockside development full of bars and cafes and the most beautiful club I have ever been to (Opera bay). Not forgetting one of the world’s classiest opera houses, great, cheap food, eclectic nightlife and a people full of passions.
We explored the city centre which has enough grandiose public buildings to keep you occupied for a few hours but not a great deal more. It boasts the world’s widest road with 18 lanes (apparently although Argentineans have been noted for claiming the World’s best/biggest/longest everything…). One small problem though, this being a country full of politically passionate people we ran into a massive demonstration. All sorts of flags, banners, chanting, bonfires and about 50,000 crazed people, but we had no idea what it was all about! It made the first glimpse of the famous “Casa Rosada” (pink government house), all the more exciting though and it was easy to imagine Evita and Peron on the balcony giving their impassioned speeches.
Later I went to the Casa Rosada museum and discovered that its history is littered with scenes like that – it seems the people have been “revolutioning” outside it since the city was built.
Don`t cry for me Argentina.
I was in my element being able to visit the Evita museum and try to find out the real story. It seems she was loved and hated equally, but no one can deny the impact she had on the country’s society and the uniqueness of her story. The strangest thing I found out was that 2 years after she died the Military stole her body and hid it for 16 years in Milan. Her grave was actually a big disappointment. The recoletta cemetery is for the rich and famous and full of incredible elaborate mausoleums for whole families, it felt more like a little town. Compared to the other “mansions”, Evita´s family shrine was a simple affair. Perhaps because she didn’t arrive here until the 1970´s and space was running out.
Every neighbourhood in this city has a distinct character to it and that`s something I like about this city. From the glitzy northern suburbs with chic bars, restaurants and Plazas al la Soho, to the faded mansions and cobbled streets of San Telmo. On Sundays it’s full of artists and street peddlers dressed up, people dancing in the cobbled streets and tango music played everywhere. Yes it is slightly for tourists but doesn’t feel tacky – there is a genuine bohemian feel to it. La Boca (home to the La Boca juniors) is traditionally the poorest part and where the Italian immigrants painted their ramshackle houses in bright colours. It’s also where tango was invented they say… hence lots of tacky shops and tango shows.
There is every type of nightlife here, but it all starts late. On Saturday night we went to a dockside club which looks like the Sydney Opera house. Almost totally glass with open decks looking out to the water, terraces and fountains inside and full of about 1000 of BA’s beautiful people. We arrived at 1.30am and it was dead. By 4am it was heaving and when we left at 6am it was still packed – quite a place.
A few nights later and we were in an opulent 8 storey high opera house. Yes it`s the truth, I managed to persuade Jason to go to Verdi’s Requiem. From the 6th floor we had a great view of the elaborate gold gilding, ceiling frescoes and gigantic chandeliers. It was built in 1908 to rival the best European opera houses and the acoustics are supposedly the best in the world. As is the Argentine way, we all went for dinner at a dockside restaurant at 11pm and the restaurants were at their busiest!
The next night could not possibly have been more different. A group of us from the hostel went to watch Argentina play Colombia in the world cup qualifier at the River Plate Stadium. Finding our entrance was a challenge and ended up with us all madly chasing round the stadium being told a different things by every steward. We eventually found ourselves in the “stand with the atmosphere”. That’s the standing part where all the fanatical fans wave flags, jump up and down and sing songs all night. Any man who can jump up and down for 90 minutes on a railing only holding a piece of string for balance has a definite passion for the sport in my opinion. Mostly there were so many flags flying in your face you couldn’t actually see the game.
Always a bad side.
In the interests of being balanced I must mention the negative things about the city. Poverty is obvious with heart-breaking child beggars constantly asking you for money and whole families rifling through rubbish bins on street corners. (I thought bin rifling was bad in Leeds but BA certainly has the edge!).
When it rains the old streets get flooded and the city grinds to a halt. Even 18 lanes aren´t enough to stop traffic jams. It’s very chaotic, and fast paced which was quite a shock for us after so long out of cities.