Tag Archive: Argentina tour


For reasons unclear this remaining blog entry from my Argentina trip has remained parked in “draft” mode for over two years, but the experience is far too rich not to share, and it’s a fitting epilogue!

Bodega Norton Mendoza grapes on the vine

A taste for Malbec honed during my visit to Mendoza and regularly refreshed to this day is a constant reminder of a entire delightful day spent winery-hopping. A privately guided tour and tastings at three Mendoza wineries is my only real splurge on this trip.

The cultivation of grapes and the making of wine has been a part of Argentina since the Spaniards and Jesuits first arrived almost 500 years ago. British investment funded the development Argentina’s railroads and Edmund Norton was the British engineer responsible for pushing the track through the Andes. In 1895 he began importing French vines to establish the winery in Mendoza which still bears his name. It’s just one more aspect of the Anglo-Argentine connection which emphatically contradicts the message of the brief Malvinas conflict.

All of the Mendoza vineyards I visit have two things in common. One is the canopy screens suspended above the vineyards to protect them from frequent hailstorms peculiar to this microclimate. I’m told that the Argentine air force is actually employed to seed storm clouds in order to blunt storm development. The other is an irrigation system that stores mountain runoff in dammed lakes and delivers it to the otherwise arid region either as drip irrigation or the older field-flooding method. Interestingly enough, historical accounts confirm that the Spaniards found upon first arriving in the area that indigenous peoples had employed a similar method to irrigate their crops there for centuries.

Bodega Norton Mendoza vineyards with Andes backdrop

The quality of this memorable day has lots to do with my tour guide Cecilia and her remise driver Roberto.(Find her company here.)

Cecilia speaks excellent English and patiently endures my torrent of questions about daily life in Argentina that have nothing whatsoever to do with Mendoza or winemaking. A designated driver notwithstanding, they wisely determine that a scheduled first tasting a bit before noon strongly suggests a 3-winery limit to my day. They couldn’t have chosen three wineries capable of delivering a more diverse experience.

Bodega Norton. The view from the Norton vineyards of the snow-capped Andes, rising high above the two lower, nearer ranges, is postively breathtaking.   Norton was among the first of the Argentine wineries to make a name for itself in the States when Argentina began in the ’90’s to shift from production of inexpensive wines for domestic consumption to quality wines for export.

State-of-the-art equipment at Bodega Norton

The vineyards and winery are now privately held by the Swarovski family of crystal glass fame, and their investment has updated it into a state-of-the-art winery.

Bodega Norton cellars

The tasting room is contemporary in its design and the vats are all stainless steel, but there’s lots of charm remaining in cellars racked with miles of bottles!

Find more on Bodega Norton here.

Bodega Alta Vista cellar

Bodega Alta Vista.  More history remains intact at Bodega Alta Vista than at  Norton even though it, too, is now owned by a multi-national winemaker.

Bodega Alta Vista concrete vats

Bodega Alta Vista tasting room

Most interesting here were the old concrete vats still in use. In order to maintain the proper temperature during the coolest months of the year, the original owners stoked wood fires under the vats.

Find more on Bodega Alta Vista here.

Lids from old casks at Bodega LaGarde

Bodega La Garde.  If I had in my mind’s eye an image of the quintessential Mendoza winery it’s Bodega LaGarde, which has been family owned and operated since 1897.

Old wine press at Bodega LaGarde

The city has crept to the winery’s edge in the years since it was built, but it still retains all of the charm of an old country chateau.

Old pump at Bodega LaGarde

Scattered across the grounds are winemaking implements from a bygone age.

Bread ovens Bodega LaGarde

A master chef serves gourment meals in a beautiful dining room, and it is here that we lunch fashionably late in the day.  The atmosphere is serenely other-wordly, authentic and timeless.

Restaurant at Bodega LaGarde

I could sit here until the moon rises, but I have a morning flight back to Buenos Aires.   The Malbec here is exquisite, and three bottles of the 2007 D.O.C. are headed for my bags and on to the States.

Find more on Bodega La Garde here.

Read my other posts from Mendoza:

• “The Omnibus.” Forget everything you’ve learned about bus travel in the States and take a luxury bus across the Pampas. Cappuccino, anyone?

• “Mendoza First Impressions.” European architecture and the casual class of winemaking towns all over the world make for a hugely pleasant surprise here at the far edge of the Pampas.

• “The End Of West.” Travel into the Andes past hot springs used by the Incas and on to the Chilean border.

• “Leaving Mendoza”. Magical light and lively music fills the air on my last evening stroll around the city.

Advertisements

Buenos Aires’ regional airport sits at the heart of the city along the river, and the city has clearly outgrown it.  As my flight from Mendoza taxis to the terminal I can see that all gates are occupied and planes are double-parked on the tarmac in a line three hundred yards out,  where busses ferry passengers back and forth.  My flight arrives late, buffeted by some of the strongest updrafts I’ve experienced in a lifetime of flying, but my remise driver is waiting patiently in baggage claim.

We pass into the city on an elevated highway within eyesight of the trendy neighborhoods I walked a week earlier. On either side of the highway is a shantytown, a secret Buenos Aires that many foreign visitors may never see.  These are not cardboard cartons, but crude brick-and-mortar buildings rising up as high as three stories.  Pirated electricity runs through lines draped among them and on the highest floors residents sit in this warm, humid evening on cheap lawn chairs in “wifebeater” shirts at eye level, watching us pass.  I have seen this many times in Mexico, but it is my first sighting in Argentina.  My driver explains that these are second and third generation squatters whom successions of socialist governments have been reluctant to evict.

It’s nearly 11PM by the time the remise turns off the Avenida 9 de Julio beyond the obelisk and begins winding through the side streets toward my B&B.  We pass the graffiti walls and shuttered windows of the Montserrat neighborhood and cross Calle Chile into San Telmo.  Block by block shops and cafés appear ablaze with light and young people walk the sidewalks or cluster in doorways to share talk and laughs and smokes.

Nostre Bayes hotel San Telmo, Buenos Aires

The Noster Bayes Hotel is a classic.  Floors probably laid before my father’s birth lead from the lobby up steep, narrow stairs between tiled walls.  The night clerk, indistinguishable from many I have just seen outside on the street, checks me in.  Our conversation shifts quickly from my bad Spanish to English, hers well-spoken with an accent I can’t quite place.  As we decide when to schedule my next day’s remise to the international airport she calculates the transit time out loud, “cinq, six, sept, huit…”Vous etes francaise?” I ask.  “Swiss,” she replies.  I’m not surprised; I’ve met world citizens like her throughout my time in Argentina.

She leads me up the stairs to my room as I trail behind boosting my large bag up one step at a time and feeling a bit like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.  “There is no lift,” she says out of some need to state the obvious.  The staircase and hallway at the top look into an open-sky atrium, and below is a small patio predictably hidden from the street in the old Spanish style.  High, narrow-paneled double doors lead offf the hall opposite the atrium, glass panels above them tilted open for air to circulate.  She turns the heavy key in an old lock and opens one of the door panels.  I wrestle the big bag through the narrow space as she fumbles for the light switch in the dark within.  The air inside is still, hot and humid.  “The air conditioning?” I ask.  She flips a switch and the ceiling fan begins to spin.  High on the wall above an air conditioning unit sits dark and mute.  I turn to ask her about it, but she is already gone.  It recalls a similar incident in Mendoza, and in both cases the lost-in-translation comedy works out well in the end .

Nostre Bayes hotel, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

The room is not much wider than it is tall.  The floor is finished wood plank and a giant armoire serves as a closet.  The spartan furnishings are a combination of ultra-modern and kitsch.  Each is themed fo a famous Argentinian and on this night I’ve drawn Buenos Aires Formula One race care driver Juan Manuel Fangio.  It takes three tries to get the wi-fi connection to stick.  “It is better on the lower floors,” the clerk tells me upon check-in, “but sometimes it goes out in bad weather.”  I’m thinking that the storm I’ve just flown through should arrive here in a few hours.  I check email and transcribe some handwritten notes made on the plane before preparing to turn in.  I encounter my first Argentine bathroom without a bidet, but the old commode here has been ingeniously retrofitted with a chrome arm tucked inside of the bowl and attached to a lever outside that swings the arm and its small shower head into the center of the bowl.  I wonder for the umpteenth time – but not for very long – what European women know that American women don’t… or vice-versa.  Then I turn in.

At 9AM on my last day in Argentina any expectation that the neighborhood will be sleeping off its late night partying is quickly disproved as I forego the B&B fare to walk the neighborhood in search of a café con leche and the perfect atmosphere in which to nurse it.  There is no lack of choice and I settle on the Café Roli, located at a busy neighborhood street corner on Calle Peru.  I pick a windowside table where I can watch the comings and goings and settle in.

Roli is another of the city’s endless classics.  The place can’t possibly seat more than 50 or 60 people.  Real wood tables and chairs are neatly arranged on a marble tile floor. At one end sits the requisite granite counter service bar covered with trays of fresh medialuna pastries.  Behind it on mirror-backed shelves is a fully stocked bar.  The patrons match the eclectic mix of the people on the street walking briskly to the Subte, catching one of the frequent standing-room-only busses or on rare occasion catching a taxi.  There is a young couple in jeans, pullover shirts and tattoos looking much like those out on the streets only a few hours before.  There is an obviously retired old gentleman engaged in a morning ritual of reading the newspaper front page to back.  There are workers dressed for the office.  The waiter looks remarkably like my Italian grandfather when he was still in his white-haired prime.  He wears a crisply pressed, short sleeve shirt and a black pin-striped apron is tied at the waist. I can’t resist logging on to the wi-fi; no telling what I’ll find when I again attempt it back at the B&B.

I spend what remains of my day walking the neighborhood bistros, bookstores, markets, and antique shops.  The thing that strikes me most as I people-watch is that this is a vibrant organic community, home to a full spectrum of sub-cultures that co-exist in the same space from dawn to closing in a sort of time-share framed by centuries of architectural history.

I’ve read that the true measure of a travel destination is its half-life:  the number of days it takes for its luminescence to lose half of its radiance.  Another measure of its power, I think, is whether or not we deem it worthy of a second visit.  An accident of my itinerary has afforded me the opportunity to return for one day to my choice of the many B.A. neighborhoods visited a week earlier.

I picked San Telmo.

Leaving Mendoza

Mendoza may sit at the periphery of Argentine geography, but is also the subcontinental crossroads.  As such it seems to look more to the west and to connect more closely to the region’s indigenous cultures than does Buenos Aires.

The earthquake which in 1861 wiped Mendoza’s geographic slate almost cleans seems also to have freed it of many vestiges of Spanish colonialism.  The ornate architecture that everywhere else marks the alliance of the Hapsburg monarchy and Jesuits is noticeably absent in the orderly geometry of its broad streets and public parks, and in the Latin contemporary lines of a more subdued skyline that conforms to the land rather than imposes upon it.

Mendoza vineyard against Andes Mountains backdrop

Few crops require a more highly tuned sensibility to the relationship between harvest and end product as the one between grapes and wine.  That same sensibility seems to have translated into an aesthetic reflected in parks, monuments, performing arts, and dining that far exceed expectations of a city this size.

Andean earthquakes and avalanches, a propensity for harvest-threatening hailstorms, and the vineyards’ ever-present thirst for irrigation seem to have instilled in this place a clearer sense of man’s vulnerability to nature, and a longer view of its own economic rhythms.

 

Restaurant along the Plaza Independencia, Mendoza

It is after sunset as I venture out onto Mendoza’s streets.  Warm light spills over diners seated in stylish sidewalk cafes as aproned waiters ferry meals out to them.  I wander down the block to the Plaza Independencia where a Christmas tableau stands outlined in colorful lights.

 

 

 

Arrayed in a semicircle around the vast square are artisans at their booths, many working at their crafts as residents of all ages stroll among them.

Puppet artisan booth, Plaza Independence, Mendoza

 

 

 

 

A young guitarist strums soulful American blues as the beat of Latin drums begins to pulse at the opposite end of the plaza.  A Christmas theme headlines at the performing arts theater across the way, but American jazz appears prominently in its schedule of upcoming shows.

Tonight I fly back to Buenos Aires, and it will be interesting to see how it will now feel in contrast to this place… and how this place will look as seen in B.A.’s rear-view mirror.

The end of west

As the wheels roll it’s about 100 miles from Mendoza to the Chilean border, but that’s only the short of it.

Andes Mountains near Mendoza, Argentina

Most of the serpentine route winds upward into the Andes, sometimes for miles at a time behind a semi truck or tour bus, and on the way it passes through several micro-climates and a thousand or so years of human history.  Even now in the heart of the Argentine summer there is snow on every peak in sight at the far end of the trip and a couple of the waystations resume their real lives as ski lodges every winter.  There you can stop for coffee and a hot meal, purchase bottles of Malbec or boxes of chocolates made in local villages along the route, or collect campy souvenirs.

The trip starts out feeling like the westward drive from Northern California or the state of Washington; the first vineyards appear within twenty minutes or so.  In fifteen minutes more, though, they give way abruptly to an arid landscape in which grows only sagebrush and wisps of desert grasses.  Later in the trip lichens and button-sized flowers  join this minimalist botanical garden and in a few small, fertile valleys oases of trees briefly appear, but these are not your Doug-fir-and-redwoods kind of mountains.

Here the earth is laid open in great, tilted slabs.  Sometimes it is stratified like slices of a giant layer cake and sometimes it lies congealed like icing dripped down its slides, but everywhere it is awe-inspiring in its grand scope.  Here primeval, molten earth is set in stone as a palette of  ochre and basalt and teal.  Where aeons of erosion have dissolved it into flake and silt, the cracks and crags and crevices are filled in smooth with a rainbow array of watercolor streaks.  Boulders ranging in size from refrigerator to boxcar litter the landscape, sometimes interrupted mid-slope in their rolling fall and elsewhere littered in mounds at the mountain’s base.

Bridge used to pass into Peru by liberator José de San Martín

A third or more of the way to the border a section of the old highway makes an off-road loop.  I follow it to the remnants of a stone bridge built across a tributary of the Rio Mendoza in 1817 by the army of General José de San Martin as his army, fresh from the liberation of Argentina from the Spanish, went on to liberate Chile and much of Peru.

Two-thirds of the way I encounter along the roadside clustered sheds and lean-tos of a bazaar from which hang brightly colored blankets and clothing in native patterns.

The work of artisans in leather and wood and silver and glass is displayed among them upon dozens of tables, but at the first I see everyday objects like running shoes that look as if they have been wetted and dipped in mustard-colored sand.

Shoes calcified by the hot springs, El Puente de los Incas, Andes

Just beyond the tables and booths lies a giant crevasse split by a stream, and from a building perched on the opposite side giant, fantastic shapes in the same color seem to drip into the water below, streaked also with white and pink and gold.  It is a hot spring, and the molten shapes are mineral deposits laid down over the centuries.  The running shoe sculptures that first greeted me have been suspended in their water until covered by petrified mineral shells.

El Puente de los Incas, Andes Mountains near Mendoza

This place was known to the Spaniards and long before them regularly visited by the Incas in their western-most travels.  It is in fact called El Puente de los Incas: Inca Point.  Ruins on the opposite side in the shadow of the mountain beyond are the remains of a modern spa crushed in 1971 by a landslide.

A railroad once ran alongside the river back in the day when Butch and Sundance were robbing banks to the north in Bolivia, but now only its skeleton tracks and decaying bridges remain, crisscrossing the road carrying the busses and semis and cars  that have replaced it.  Fallen timbers and rockpile foundations of  long-gone depots and coaling stations punctuate the tracks.  In places the split ends of rails curve upward like coiled springs sprung.  In others they lie draped like melted strands over gullies where wooden bridges have long ago decayed or their timber has been pilfered.  Decades of falling rock have in some places obliterated the railbed with piles of stone and in others made swiss chees of corrugated iron rock-fall shields as if in some giant shooting gallery.

Abaondone rail terminal at Chilean-Argentinian border

At Las Cuevas, the last station before the Chilean border, a faded sign at a long-closed customs station whispers “Bienvenido a Argentina.”

The new highway border station looks a lot like a toll-booth, and this is the place to turn around unless you’re going on to Santiago, Chile.  Even as a non-stop drive the trip back feels long, but it’s a one-of-a-kind that can be experienced no other way.  To come this far and miss it is to leave an important page missing in your catalogue of the Argentine experience.

Mendoza first impressions

Like Denver, Mendoza is nested tightly against the east side of a spectacular mountain range whose foothills spill over to within a few miles.  As in Denver, I notice for the first time mixed among the bus terminal throngs faces that are clearly indigeno – native American.  On the way from the bus terminal to the hotel, my taxista tells me that 1.6 million people live here and I believe him, but the open skies of this sprawling low-rise city belie it.

My hotel is situated along a broad main street and on this Saturday mid-afternoon I venture out between a nap and a city tour scheduled to follow before evening begins.  Traffic on the avenida is light, and the next block down is occupied by hostels and restaurants and lined by late-model parked cars. Early Bird dinner specials may just be beginning back in the States, but here the Latin lunch is barely ended.

Streetside dining, Avenida Sarmiento, Mendoza

In contrast to B.A., where restauranteurs drag a few extra tables onto the sidewalk when the weather’s good, it’s clear that sidewalk dining is a fixture here.  Sidewalks separate restaurants from outdoor tables stacked three and four deep and covered by permanent-looking awnings with foul weather flaps neatly rolled up underneath. The main dining rooms are decorated in a casual brand of Old World elegance.  I lazily pick the one nearest to the hotel, where the menu runs a dozen pages and includes not only traditional Argentine dishes, but Continental specialties.  And then there’s the wine list, which runs even longer.  It’s ordered not by variety, but by local chateau, and I now know that I am in serious wine country.

Parched from the long bus ride,  I commit the ultimate blasphemy by first ordering a beer to quench my thirst.  The waiter arrives with a bottle of the local Quilmes that I swear is 750 ml large and served in an iced bucket as if it was champagne… along with a pair of empanadas that has also somehow sneaked onto my order.  I tell myself that I’m saving my appetite for dinner.  The crowd here is both young and old and clearly far more casual and laid-back than even in mellow B.A.  This place feels so much like Northern California that I wonder if some secret society of vintners stamps its cultural imprint on every place in which the grape is grown.  Think Big Sur or Mendocino with a gaucho twist:  Two tables down a striking,olive-skinned Latina in European designer glasses sits opposite a bearded guy in a plaid short-sleeved shirt , his baseball cap planted firmly over a bandana headdress.  Los viejos – the older ones – wear polo shirts beneath their sports coats.  If B.A. has wrung the pretension out of its European roots, then Mendoza has wrung from B.A. its essence, erasing the lines and leaving only the light and color as if in some Impressionist painting.

The empanadas hit the spot.  I apologize to my waiter for my poor Spanish, a tack which invariably earns both sympathy and magnanimity, before forging ahead.  I’m tempted to order una copa de vino – a glass of wine – but I can’t seem to find on the menu any selections by the glass and the price of a full bottle here is less than that of a tasteless Stateside flight.  I ask the waiter to pick me out a Malbec and for good measure to tack onto my order  two yet-untried flavors of empanadas.  He brings me a half-split that’s on par with the best bottle I’ve yet tasted Stateside. I spoon some killer salsa chimichurra over the empanadas, uncaring that it’s probably intended just for steak.  A joke spreads from the diners a couple of tables away to their waiter and from him to the next table and their waiter and to the table beyond.  This is decidedly looser than even mellow B.A. and I am enjoying the tableau as much as if I was a participant. I’m prepared to die at this moment a very happy man.

The empanadas have fallen short of absorbing the Quilmes + Malbec, but I’ve committed to the City Tour at 4 and I’m a man of my word.  I exchange names and shake hands with my waiter Mario, tip him generously, and haul myself and my fresh buzz back to the hotel.  All of this, incidentally, has cost me little more than US$15… with tip.

Parque San Martin, Mendoza

The City Tour turns out to be much more about listening to the guide lecture than about photo opps, which does not bode well for a gringo with bad Spanish and a camera, but it gives me the lay of the land for forays to follow.  It also includes a magnificent view of the city from a mountainside monument and one of the most spectacular metropolitan parks I’ve seen anywhere. Satisfying as my sleep on the bus may have felt, I’m apparently still running a sleep deficit because I’m catapulted into an impromptu nap as soon as I reach my hotel room; I emphatically deny that the Malbec had any part in this.

My “short” nap ends when I awaken abruptly nearly 4 hours later at 10:45PM.  In the States my dining options would now be limited to IHOP or Denny’s, but I am thankfully in Argentina.  I pop out onto the sidewalk where lights are blazing up and down the block and patio dining is raging at full tilt.  I’m torn between my newfound loyalty to the Estancia La Florentine and the equally tempting Giovanni’s across the street.  I rationalize that my La Florentine waiter Mario is now off-duty and that it’s not really cheating on him if I sample Giovanni’s, where the lighting is not quite as bright nor the tables quite as packed with large parties.

It’s late, so I pass over entrees like the quarter chicken – I’m certain that buried somewhere among the entrees is also a quarter steer – and take the easy way out. I graze my way tapas-style through a fistful of empanadas and some pumpkin soup.  Once again I do the I-only-want-a-glass-of-wine routine and once again I end up with a tasty Malbec split.  The empanadas – the spiced meat criolla is fast becoming a new favorite – are outstanding, but the pumpkin soup is exquisite.  As he clears the table my waiter asks how I like it.  I tell him more truthfully than he knows Spanish words fail me, and – arm outstretched – pantomime myself mainlining it directly into my veins.  He laughs at the crazy gringo, but I think he’s warming up to me.

Now the moment of truth has arrived:  To dessert or not to dessert.  It quickly become obvious that my waiter Diego’s practice of reciting the choices in Spanish isn’t going to fly, and we retreat to the menu where I pick out the flan de casera.  It is, however, not that simple:  I can have it con crema or con dulce de leche.  It’s already a foregone conclusion that before the trip is done I’ll have to return to the jogging trail at that magnificent urban park and do penance for the sins I’ve already committed, so I take the plunge and go for the dulce de leche.  I decline an accompanying coffee; these guys are purists who refuse to serve decaf and the gargantuan dollop of  dulce de leche containsenough sugar to keep me bouncing off the hotel room walls for the rest of the night.  And anyway it’s now past midnight and I leave at (OUCH!) 7AM for the High Mountain tour.  I ask reluctantly for the check and find that I’ve yet again failed to break the US$20 barrier, with tip.

My hotel is mercifully within eyesight of Giovanni’s, which is a good thing because the dulce de leche has just hooked up with the Malbec somewhere just south of my aorta and my brain isn’t quite certain if I’m coming or going.  I stand waiting in front of the elevator for the longest time until I remember that it’s one of those quant antiques which requires you to open a hinged door, pull back an accordion gate, and navigate yourself to your floor of choice. I have to remind myself to close the door and the gate behind me upon entering.

On the way up I replay the phone call received from the tour operator earlier in the day recommending that I substitute the High Mountain tour for the Canyon Tour.  It turns out, she tells me, that the photogenic clouds I saw on the bus ride here were the remnants of a storm that washed out some roads normally used by the Canyon Tour.  Then she blows completely past the TMI (too-much-information) threshold to tell me that as a result of the storm it took two days for them to retrieve the guests from last Thursday’s 1-day Canyon Tour.  Then she breaks her own freshly-minted TMI record to share with me that 4 casualties ( as in “mortalities”) resulted from a storm-induced the landslide.

I’m thinking that tomorrow morning I may forego my ritual cappuccino and instead get myself down to the local cathedral to light a few candles for them… and perhaps for myself.

I’ve previously travelled by bus into Mexico and there was pleasantly surprised both by the spacious seats and video entertainment of its premier class service, and by bus terminals that rivaled many U.S. airports in size.  This still left me unprepared for the scope and quality of bus service in Argentina.  (For the record, this overnight trip of around 600 miles with two meals costs approximately US$80.)

The B.A. Omnibus Terminal sits downtown very near the railroad’s Retiro Station and is a city unto itself.  When I arrive around 6:30PM for my 7:45 departure the crowds in the pre-boarding areas are heavy but orderly.  Dozens of shops, snack bars, and restaurants are doing a brisk business, and waiting passengers watch pay-per-view video at chairside kiosks. Outbound schedules for each departure lounge flicker across giant reader-boards, and arrivals and departures for the entire terminal appear on video screens everywhere.  The volume is awesome.  Just to display all current departures the screens must refresh three times. Upcoming departures are added and old ones retired every three or four minutes and only about 20 minutes pass between each new posting, so this is not a travel choice for the inattentive!

Through the lounge windows I see big tourist-sized busses parked side-by-side in angled rows as far as the eye can see in either direction.  If the crowd inside is heavy, the crowd in the boarding area outside can only be described as a quiet riot.  Out there is not a single unoccupied foot of pavement and processions of people making their way to each departing bus move like currents through the vast human ocean.  It is only possible to advance by pressing against those around you, and yet even here is the same Argentine civility I have experienced throughout my visit; voices are rarely raised and there is no shoving.

I check my larger bag with the curbside porter, tip him, and board.  There are two levels and my assigned seat is on the upper.  At the top of the stairs I do a double-take:  A broad aisle separates leather seats so wide that there are only three per row.  Every other row has been extracted to allow the seats to fully recline and leg rests to rise fully horizontal.  Large video monitors are scattered about and music videos are already playing as we await departure.

The bus pulls out of the station precisely on schedule, joining a throng of 20 or 30 others also outbound and passing a similar number inbound as it makes its way through downtown traffic toward the autopista.  A uniformed steward rises to make announcements, and then to pass the time spent in city traffic he distributes cards for what turns out to be a game of bingo.  He calls out the numbers in his best TV game show host tradition and the winning passenger is awarded a bottle of wine.  He passes through the cabin to take hot beverage orders for breakfast:  coffee, café con leche, hot chocolate, or cappuccino.

Once we’re on the autopista he serves dinner, first a cold plate and then a hot entrée and wine with refills.  Afterwards he cues up an English language movie with Spanish subtitles and sometime around 11 it’s lights out as we make our way through the very last of the suburbs.  Past my window roll the neon signs of motor hotels and Argentina’s ubiquitous parrilladas; I can almost smell the aroma of grilling beef through the glass.  Passengers around me have already pulled their curtains and from somewhere ahead I hear a gentle snore. I kick my seat into a prone position, tuck a fat pillow under my head, pull up a blanket, and nod off to the hum of the engine and spinning wheels.

I awaken from a satisfying sleep in darkness broken only by the line of streetlights stretching endlessly down the autopista median and small patches of light spaced in farmhouse-and-outbuilding clusters against the silhouette of a dead-level horizon.  As we move they are unblinking as they can be only on a treeless plain and I know that we are now crossing the Pampas.  From time to time we pass an ornamented gate and arch bearing the name of an estancia or a billboard picturing heavy farm machinery.  On rare occasion we pass through a toll booth. Near most exits are villages and many boast a light manufacturing facility; even in the darkness it is clear that there is economic substance here.  I doze off.

When I awaken the sunrise has already come and gone, but the sun is obscured by magnificently ominous, low-hanging clouds that run from horizon to horizon.  They’re not formed in bursts and billows, but in layered shades of gray and white that swoop and swirl like sand-painted snowdrifts.

The passengers are beginning to stir and soft American pop-rock drips through the speakers above.  The steward serves juice and pastries and hot beverages.  Outside the ceiling is lifting and the clouds brightening.  The grasslands have burst into sage broken by occasional stands of trees and truck farm patches.  The farmhouses have become more modest, the toll booths have vanished, and the highway has narrowed from four lanes to two.  Trucks and busses.  Trucks and busses.

The first, small vineyard appears.  An hour or so ahead lies Mendoza, and beyond it the Andes.

Slices of life

America claims to have bars and eateries where “everybody knows your name,” but they are increasingly franchised chain clones with faux historical decor, uninspired menus, and rotating casts of alternately self-absorbed or mechanically detached managers and waitstaff.  America, in fact, has already passed the tipping point beyond which there are more chain restaurants than “mom and pops”.  Everywhere else in the western world foodservice means locally owned cafés  and bistros which often serve three meals daily, where food is freshly prepared and reasonably priced, where the staff and ownership have remained unchanged for years, and that have truly acquired the status of neighborhood institutions.

Plaza Dorrego Cafe & Bar, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires these are called “confiteria,” and you’ll find one at or near virtually every street corner.  As my B.A. immersion deepens, I find myself more often starting the day there with an espresso or cappuccino, grabbing a light midday snack, or occasionally taking an evening meal.  It’s another great way to experience a daily slice of Argentine life and to observe and better understand the B.A. psyche.

These places seem to cut across social classes in a way that establishments in nominally classless American society increasingly do not.  During morning rush hour a suited businessman can often be found seated at a table next to a store clerk wearing her workplace smock.  This leads me to reflect further upon how common it is in B.A. to see people wearing workplace uniforms to and from work in a way that Americans haven’t since the 1940’s. For one thing, trade unions remain a powerful force in Argentina as in other social democracies, and the right to a lifelong job is still widely and successfully sought after as a political right.  In contrast, American workers seem increasingly to see their jobs as a transient part of their lives, and at best peripheral to their identities.

But there may be even more to it than workplace identity.  I am struck as I walk among literally thousands of pedestrians every day by the singular absence of affinity-branded clothing among porteños.  Rarely if ever to be seen are shirts with pro sports or college alma mater logos, political slogans, political incorrectness masquerading as humor, or variations on the “I’m-a-bad-boy-and-that’s-a-good thing” theme.  It’s as if Argentines have an inner compass that lets them feel secure in their personal identities without the need to label themselves and broadcast it on their chests.  While the chic shops carry the latest from European designers, porteños’ choice of clothing most often has an understated sense of style that seems to place a higher value on timeless fashion than on here-today-gone-tomorrow trendiness.

This sense of self and balance seems also connected to a different sense of time.  I am struck as I move around the city by the singular absence of clocks on public buildings and in shops and restaurants. This place hustles and bustles from 9 to 5 in a way totally unlike the sleepy, banana republic version of Latin America, but it is not a nation of clock-watchers.

What a contrast this is with the Japanese, who  often seem determined to out-do Americans in their embrace of rock ‘n’ roll music, golf, Western fashion, and the longest white-collar work week in the world.

The New World seems so often  to have freed transplanted European culture of its most onerous confinements to make it more open and easy-going.   One can’t help wonder, however, at the different turn that metamorphosis has taken 40 degrees north of the equator than it has here, 40 degrees south of it.

Working class heroes

Vibrant, blue-collar La Boca and bohemian San Telmo are among the neighborhoods most often touted as B.A. must-sees.  I set out this morning on foot to add them to my mental scrapbook, retracing much of yesterday’s route to the Micocentro and past the Puerto Madero warehouse/marina district.  I’d otherwise bypass the crowded, cheesy pedestrian mall along Lavalle and Florida, but it seems like the place for a guaranteed score  of the  sunblock and cheap hat that are today’s first order of business; yesterday’s light breeze and balmy 70’s temperatures lulled me into a suspension of disbelief that December in B.A. = June in Dallas and I awake this morning just one stop short of a full-blown sunburn.

Bu the time I pass the Casa Rosada temperatures are pushing into the 80’s and at mid-day there is no longer a shady side of the street.  I apply my sunblock and dodge beween  porticoed sidewalks and shaded parks still in search of a full-brimmed hat.  As I pass Independencia headed southbound on Defensa the mid-rise buildings shrink to a more human scale and the architectural clock turns back a good 50 years.  Block by block, hip little shops begin to outnumber graffiti-covered vacancies, and in one of them I find a straw-colored fedora in tightly woven cotton with a breathable mesh crown, impeccably stitched.  The price of this little item in the States would start at US$50 and could easily run double that, but here it costs US$20 and change.  This place is turning me into a sale-a-holic and it frightens me, since I normally refuse to shop for clothing until something in my closet has disintegrated beyond repair.  In fact, were it  not for the internet, my fear of retail clothing stores would have turned me into a nudist years ago.  But I digress.

Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Only a couple of blocks past the hat store I find it:  A little gem of a square called Plaza Dorrego.  Restaurants on each side have carved out their fiefdoms of umbrella-covered tables, and chalkboard easels present their bills of fare.  I’m guided reluctantly to a table that seems too far from the photographic action, but the waiter – only the third black man I’ve seen in the entire city in three days – is forgiving of my paltry Spanish and graciously steers me through the menu.  Just when I fear that I may have become terminally beefed-out in this land of the gaucho, it leaps off the menu at me in a forehead-slapping moment:  CARPACCIO!  This one comes under a mountain of fresh spinach and a grated local queso blanco.  I round out the order and pull out a map to check my bearings while I wait.

I should have seen it coming, but I am too engrossed in the passing sight of a shapely, dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman in a tight-fitting, bright red, calf-length skirt slit almost to the bikini line in several places.   As she passes into no my-longer-looking-but-ogling range, I shift my gaze to an interesting character who has stepped to the center of a clearing among the tables, carefully picking and preening a double-breasted, pinstriped burgundy suit that looks like it came straight out of the wardrobe of a production of Guys & Dolls.

Tango dancers, Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Suddenly tango music begins and the pair walks slowly and deliberately toward each other from opposite ends of the clearing until they are locked in an inseparable embrace.  Their expressions are frozen and their backs ramrod stiff.  He seems to pivot right and left from the  backbone, legs rotating like axles from somewhere below the hip.  She wraps herself around him again and again like a banner flapping in the wind, long legs hooking around him hip-high before sliding down him like he was a greased pole.  The footwork is delicate and yet rapid-fire, leaving no more than millimeters between them and a nasty fall… or a painful knee to his crotch.  The entertainment ends to a round of roaring applause and the young lady walks her partner’s hat among the tables for tips.

My cool peach liquado arrives and not a moment too soon.  Then comes the carpaccio salad along with a side of empanadas that somehow crept into my order.  In other countries, these come stuffed with your choice of just about anything imaginable, but here in B.A. the menu says simply “empanadas” because – you guessed it – they come only in beef except otherwise (and probably at peril of your life) specified.  In other countries they’re also known to arrive deep-fried, but this baked crust is such a work of art that for a moment I’m actually embarrassed to wolf it down.  It looks like it was crimped by French pastry chef and it’s golden brown without a burn mark anywhere.  I bite into it and it’s flaky throughout, which is amazing since the steaming juices from the minced beef are sealed inside.

Argentina is clearly seeping much more quickly into my consciousness than I had ever thought possible:  I’ve now managed to find a way to eat beef for two courses of the same meal.  Dare I next attempt a trifecta?

Plaza Dorrego Cafe, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

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.

The economic roller coaster that Argentina’s been riding in recent years has a silver lining:  It may at this moment be the only civilized place on the planet where the American tourist dollar still has big clout.

La Recoleta rental apartment

La Recoleta rental apartment

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.  A taxi ride from the airport that would cost just well over US$50 anywhere else weighs in at well under US$35.  My first evening’s dinner – which includes a boneless steak the size of a New York strip on steroids and two glasses of the priciest Malbec on the menu, comes in at just about the same price.

La Recoleta apartment rental

La Recoleta rental apartment

My pied-a-terre – a neat little apartment in the chic Recoleta neighborhood with full kitchen, loft, wi-fi, cable, local phone, and night doorman – runs barelymore than US$100/day.  None of this would raise an eyebrow for any third-world tourist destination, but I am quickly finding that Argentina delivers a remarkably European experience at banana republic prices.

The embarrassment part comes from noting on the ride into town that – notwithstanding the absence of street people or other obvious signs of hunger or unemployment – there appears to have been almost no new construction here in a good 20 years, and the exteriors of too many buildings look like they’re 4 or 5 years behind on their last coat of paint.  While things here don’t even remotely resemble the backward slide of depressingly faded Odessa in the former USSR and look a hell of a lot better than metropolitan Detroit, it’s also clear that the economy has been in an extended stall.  Perhaps the real silver lining is that B.A. is clearly inhabited by people who have clung tenaciously to a joie de vivre and sense of style despite all obstacles.

The airport taxi whizzes along a thoroughly modern autopista amid only moderate traffic to deliver me downtown in little more than 20 minutes, but it takes nearly twice as long to travel the final 5 miles through congested downtown traffic that made rush hour on 5th Avenue look like an orderly evacuation.

Along the way we pass subway stations of the several lines that criss-cross the capital, beautiful parks and classic monuments, and the distinctively Latin American incongruity of a Pierre Cardin storefront abutting a staircase door leading up to the headquarters of the local Communist Party.

We also pass through the intersection of the Avenida Juan Peron, leading me to reflect on the seeming paradox of Continental cultures now considered bulwarks of democracy and civil society that have also bred some of the 20th century’s most heinous dictatorships.  Peron was actually quite tame compared to the cabal of generals who followed him at the decade’s end to create tens of thousands of the Disappeared.  It took the French the better part of the century following their Revolution to get democracy right, and it took the Americans to seed it firmly in Germany, Japan, and Italy.  Is it culturally insensitive to observe that democracy seems in its most successful incarnations always to have in its DNA a sturdy Anglo-Saxon thread?

The La Recoleta neighborhood lies not far from  B.A.’s Microcentro” ground zero, and it is one of those glorious old Belle Époque era neighborhoods that retains its sense of elegance and charm, a grand dame weathered at some intersections a bit by the passage of time but nonetheless still a very classy lady.   It reminds me instantly of Paris’s Montparnasse, the upper end of Barcelona’s La Rambla, or Rome’s Via Veneto.

I’ve always had a disdain for chain hotels that keep foreign visitors tethered to a sort of Epcot Center experience.   Beginning with a visit to Paris almost a decade ago I quit staying even at quaint boutique hotels and instead rented for the first time a small apartment. It was gloriously situated just a block off the intersection of St. Germain and the Boul Mich, and I’ve been hooked on the foreign apartment rental experience ever since.

This time I reach out to the folks at Buenos Aires Habitat (found them through TripAdvisor) and I couldn’t recommend them more highly.  Tomas – who recently completed his PhD in tourism and who speaks impeccable English – greets me upon arrival and walks me through every detail of the apartment and the surrounding neighborhood with the care of a good friend lending me the keys to his place for a long weekend.  Delfina – whom I’ve met only via email but talk with by phone shortly after my arrival – guides me here from the States with the presence of an air traffic controller talking a pilot down for an emergency landing.  Her associate Eugenie makes complete arrangements for a side trip to the Mendoza wine country later in my stay and drops by to personally confirm arrangements.  Tickets and drivers to/from each site and transportation hub are all arranged.  It’s pretty much like the very best concierge service… except delivered as a house call.

I have to confess that I cheated my effort to switch fully over to local time on the first day and instead grabbed a short nap late in the afternoon.  Eugenie had recommended a bistro only two blocks away for a light meal and her intuition was yet again perfectly on target.

The restaurant Liber strikes me instantly as one of those perennial local favorites which seems to have an offering appropriate for every time of day and every occasion; I shortly learn from my waiter that it is open 24/7.  Tables between sidewalk and curb are covered end to end by the structure’s overhang to create a sort of outdoor dining gallery where all tables are empty as I enter around 9 thinking that a slight evening chill has driven everyone inside.  The place is bright, but the light is warm and inviting as the dark and well-worn paneled bar and cabinets.  The floor is a pattern in fitted stone broken unobtrusively by colored tile designs.

I pick out a corner table well-positioned for people-watching and I am not disappointed.  I am upon entering one of three lone diners later joined by another, the lot of us spread across 20 years or more in age.  By evening’s end one leavest accompanied by a woman with whom he has clearly scheduled a rendezvous and the other finishes reading a stack of the day’s papers.  The remaining tables are occupied by mix of couples, a girls-night-out trio of middle-aged  ladies, and mixed companies of friends.  It’s clear that this place has its regulars.  By the time my meal winds down, the patio begins to fill up – also with apparent regulars – in the Spanish tradition of late night dining; apparently only this lone Yanqui feels any chill in the air.

I’ve already recounted early on a bill of fare that ends with perfectly brewed cappuccino, but the account would not be complete without mention of an eye-popping display of elegant, freshly-baked pastries ranging from delicate petit-fours – served gratis with after-dinner coffee – to  elegant cakes.  It may be the first time I’ve been able to resist such a mother-load of carbs and I feel on the morning after somehow cheated by my restraint.

Tomorrow I’m posting a walk through historical sites titled Links to a Buenos Aires past