Tag Archive: Buenos Aires tour


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