La Recoleta cemetery


Call it ghoulish if you like, but cemeteries have become a must-see item on my foreign travel itineraries.  It began a few years ago with a visit to the incomparable Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and I won’t lie to you:  I didn’t go there to see the graves of  Molière, Modigliani or Proust, but rather the grave of Doors front man Jim Morrison.  An important lesson learned there, though, stayed with me.  The world’s great cemeteries are time capsules, and through their architecture and inscriptions we see not just those buried there, but their cultural and family context.


La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires is more than the burial place of Argentina’s beloved Evita.  It is a snapshot of the city’s coming of age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Like Père-Lachaise, La Recoleta is an urban cemetery chock full of notables.  Unlike Père-Lachaise it is compact in every sense of the word.  Most of the burials occurred in 50 years or so beginning around 1880 and there are no expansive spaces here; only mausoleum crypts packed cheek-to-jowl in a style very reminiscent of New Orleans. With few exceptions the architectural styles are similarly confined to themes and symbols prominent around the turn of their century.  As with Jim Morrison’s grave, the Duarte family crypt containing Eva Perón’s remains is quite modest.


Evita's family crypt


Also as with Jim Morrison, Evita’s celebrity overshadows those of others as highly revered and in their own ways at least as accomplished, including boxer Luis Firpo, the “Wild Bull of the Pampas” best known for his celebrated bout with world heavyweight Jack Dempsey.  Evita has a plaque; Firpo has a life-sized statue.


Only a stone’s throw away at the edge of a sprawling municipal park along Libertad I stumble upon a magnificent city fair at which artisans in wood, leather, and glass displayed their wares.  The quality and range of craftsmanship was stunning, and the mood of the place is equally uplifting.  Young people gather in small clusters on surrounding grassy knolls, talking and playing guitars, and the overall feeling is a sort of flashback to 1967 San Francisco.  Followed by my obligatory steak – tonight twin, butter-knife-soft beef loins – and Malbec, it is a great way to end the my first full day.


I take advantage of Sunday morning’s traffic lull to visit the obligatory Microcentro tourist sites. At the risk of sounding jaded, I find from city to city a certain repetitiveness to the church-government-monument school of tourism and if you hanker for the details of these in Buenos Aires there are plenty of tour books that will ably meet your need.  The national cathedral, the inevitable cabildo seat of Spanish colonial government, and the Casa Rosada contemporary home of the chief executive all conveniently face each other across the Plaza de Mayo.


Casa Rosada


(I catch myself wondering about the paradox of a Latino machismo culture that houses its chief executive in an edifice named, literally, “The Pink House”.)


At least as interesting to me are the sights, sounds, and aromas encountered in the course of getting there and back from my apartment.  I stick – as whenever possible – with a pedestrian point of view, which makes for a round trip of about 5 hours.


Avenida 9 de Julio


First there is the magnificent Avenida de 9 Julio, a broad boulevard for which opposing traffic is separated by a wide and beautifully landscaped median that was flowering wildly in this Argentine summer month of December.  My impression of it as reminiscent of the Champs-Élysées is punctuated by the obelisk monument at its intersection with the Avenida Corrientes.  Americans think instantly of its twin the Washington Monument, but it recalled for me also the Luxor Obelisk in the Paris’s Place de la Concorde.


Next I encounter mid-street on the Avenida de Mayo – blocked off on this Sunday for foot traffic – an impromptu demonstration of the tango.


Street tango


Tango always recalls for me flamenco in its stylization, but while flamenco dancers of opposite sexes meticulously avoid contact even when within a hairs-breath of each other, tango dancers are sensuously bonded at every step.


Behind the Casa Rosada I’m attracted by towering skyscrapers in the midst of which are the first construction cranes seen since my arrival.  At their feet on the riverfront I find a renaissance neighborhood of loft apartments, restaurants, and marina not unlike those also making their appearance in the States.


The district is called Puerto Madero. After half an hour or so, the mood is shattered when I come across a Hooter’s franchised restaurant and I beat a hasty retreat.


Puerto Madero


Only a block from the urban Galleria Pacifico, a recent-model mall mercifully integrated into the structure of older adjacent buildings, I see a sight all too familiar in the States:   a shuttered downtown department store.  Upon closer examination, this one reveals itself to be the once-revered Harrods, and I paused in a moment of silence for this vanquished legacy.


Last, but certainly not least, is the Café Tortoni, a Buenos Aires tradition dating back to 1858.  Starbucks’ owners would blush with embarrassment at daring to call their places coffee houses if ever they set  foot in this place.  Café Tortoni harkens back to an era when artists and activists gathered in coffee houses to share and debate news and literature and politics.


Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires


The decor evokes a Victorian drawing-room.  Fluted columns rise to a high ceiling where light breaks through art nouveau stained glass panels.  Tiffany-style lamps are scattered about like confetti.  Dark paneling infused with a century and a half of cigar smoke lines the walls and encases the massive centerpiece bar.  Most of the wall space above the paneling is covered with paintings and photos of celebrity patrons.  The most notable of them appear at eye level as bronze and plaster bas-reliefs. Granite-top tables are encircled by heavy oaken chairs upholstered in red leather long ago worn to dark burgundy by the press of countless bodies whose shoes have worn rutted footpaths into the stone floor.  Black-jacketed waiters in white shirts and black bow ties look to a man as if they have worked here for their entire lives.  My waiter wags a scolding finger at my Canon and its obtrusive lens even as flashes from tourist pocket cameras are going off behind him.  I order a Cappuccino Italiano and churros, and pull out my notebook to write this picture.