Argentina: Stepping out in Buenos Aires

You feel the beating heart of this supercharged electric city, writes Paul Rush.

The Theatre Colon opera house has a commanding position on Avenue Ninth July. Photo / Paul Rush
The Theatre Colon opera house has a commanding position on Avenue Ninth July. Photo / Paul Rush

The passionate people of Buenos Aires love to dance. It's a desire that's embedded deep within their cultural psyche. When porteños (as they are called) are not dancing the tango on balmy, sultry Latin nights, they're watching futbol (football), a game that is followed with religious fervour.

You will also find porteños promenading around their architecturally striking city, immersed in animated conversation and resplendent in the latest chic fashion wear from Italy, France and Spain.

At other times they will be discussing politics while dining on the finest beef in the world in restaurants that are fully booked from midnight until 2am - when the nightclubs start to hum. Buenos Aires is the city that never sleeps. Having just arrived from Auckland I'm not about to emulate the fast-paced life of the porteños tonight.

The morning sees me stepping out to experience the sights of the elegant, Parisian-inspired boulevards, avenues and alleyways of this great city of 14 million.

Buenos Aires took its first colonial steps in the barrio (neighbourhood) of Plaza de Mayo, close to the River Plate, so it's appropriate to begin my first day's walking tour here.

From under the gleaming white Pyramid of May, I look at the broad sweep of public building facades and do a double take. Am I really in South America? I shake my head in wonder, as all the stately buildings appear to be faithful reproductions of Old World edifices that line the piazzas of Rome and the boulevards of Paris.

My local city guide has the answer to this enigma. It seems that there was a boom time around 1900 when cattle were king and wheat was gold. Architects travelled to Europe and returned home with design ideas that would turn the 'Great Village' of good airs into the 'Paris of the Pampas'.

A rosy pink palace catches my eye as I face east in the Plaza de Mayo. The Casa Rosada (Presidential Palace) was originally painted in a mixture of lime and bovine blood. The door is open on the first floor speech balcony. I can readily visualise one-time President Juan Domingo Peron and Evita addressing the assembled crowd. It was from here the charismatic Evita wooed her beloved 'shirtless ones' with an emotional plea 'don't cry for me Argentina'.

I'm also drawn to the colonnaded, neo-classical splendour of the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the plaza. Inside, there is a buzz of activity around the ornate baroque altar. In a quiet alcove I solemnly approach the statue of Jesus Christ of the Football Players, where the national team and thousands of supporters come to pray for victory on each championship year. Argentine won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986.

Once I emerge into the sunlight and get my bearings. I amble along the Avenida de Mayo until a prominent red sign appears, which reads 'Café Tortoni 1858'. This café is revered by porteños as the first French café in the city. The pleasant aroma of freshly-brewed coffee emanates from the dark-panelled and generously-mirrored interior. I order a cortado (strong espresso) and medialunas (sweet croissant), just as the conoscente did in the 19th century.

The diners are huddled in close conversation and appear to be quite physical and demonstrative when speaking. It's the porteño way. They are stylishly dressed in formal attire and appear to be more European in appearance than Latin American. I might well be sitting in a café in Milan or Madrid. Buenos Aires has the appearance of a classic belle-époque European city that has inexplicably found itself in the heart of South America.

Continuing on my walking tour, I stumble over a weird architectural creation festooned with gargoyles and other demonic figures. The Palacio Barolo was inspired by Dantés Divine Comedy. The entry lobby is decorated as the inferno of Hell, the middle floors are Purgatory and the upper floors signify Heaven. I take a bumpy ride in an ancient iron-framed lift, not to enter the pearly gates but to get a celestial view of the sprawling city.

Catching an inexpensive black and yellow cab (one of 60,000 in the city) I head to Avenue Ninth of July. This magnificent avenue hums with a sound that reminds me of low-frequency static in an amplifier. Standing under the shiny white obelisk that proclaims Argentina's independence from Spain I listen to the throb and thrum of a thousand vehicles traversing the 20 lanes of traffic on the widest avenue in the world.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the grandeur and elegance of this vibrant city with a silver lining. Like Paris, it has a certain je ne sais quoi that compels your attention. The variety of architecture is surprising and the city is at once bewildering and beguiling with a subtle blend of old and new.

My day of promenading has created an appetite. I find an Asado restaurant offering a selection of delicious meat cuts from carcasses suspended over an open charcoal fire. With 50 million beef cattle on the pampas and 6000 restaurants in the city to serve it, restaurateurs don't skimp on portion sizes. A palatable Malbec wine rounds off the meal. The homely Tanquero Hotel on Suipacha Street provides me with a well-earned sleep.

The next morning sees me jumping on a collectivo (bus), riding to Recoleta, one of the city's wealthiest districts. Among the designer fashion boutiques, ritzy cafés, tango dancing couples, artists, clowns and human statues is one of Buenos Aires greatest sights - the Recoleta Cemetery.

Once inside the colonnaded gates of this great necropolis I'm instantly lost in a marble-walled labyrinth. Monolithic mausoleums sit side-by-side with modest tombs in this mini-city that is a peaceful simulacrum of the frenetic metropolis outside the gates. I find Eva Peron's modest resting place, where fresh flowers attest to the lasting devotion of the porteños.

Another taxi ride and I'm in Calle Defensa, the main street of San Telmo district, intrigued by the faded grandeur of the buildings and the free, bohemian spirit of the people. There's an unpretentious, working-class charm about this barrio with its antique dealers, street entertainment, tango dance demonstrations and café culture. Taking a lunch break, I'm spoilt with a choice of generous portions of pasta, parrilla (barbecued meat) and pizza, which are delicious.

It's fascinating how Buenos Aires is so cosmopolitan and diverse in its barrio neighbourhoods. Some have undergone significant gentrification and are now slick and flashy, like San Telmo. Others retain their historic, downtrodden look, like La Boca, my final destination.

La Boca is the cradle of tango and also home to the La Boca Juniors, Argentina's greatest football team. In the Football Museum I meet a larger-than-life statue of Diego Maradonna, an idolised national hero. I stroll down the tourist honey trap of El Caminito, an alleyway with eye-catching murals and corrugated-iron clad buildings decorated in unbelievably garish colours.

Buenos Aires is an exciting destination, a European-style cocktail of pleasures and sights, laced with loads of Latin verve and energy. For the Kiwi traveller it's reasonably inexpensive with our favourable exchange rate and is one of the best walking cities on earth.

It's a city where you can step out in confidence and see everything it has to offer. Allow several days to appreciate the elegance and charm. Don't miss any of it.

FACT FILE

Getting There
Aerolineas Argentinas flies direct from Auckland to Buenos Aires.

Accommodation
The Tanguero Hotel in Suipacha is also an excellent choice being just one block from the central section of Avenue Ninth of July.

City Tours
A wide range of half and full-day excursions are available through the tour desk at most hotels. Buenos Aires is a city that is easy to walk around. You can take in the Plaza Mayo precinct with its cathedral and presidential palace, Plaza del Congresso, Plaza de la Republica and Plaza Eva Peron in San Telmo within a comfortable day of hoofing it.

WEBSITE
adventureworld.co.nz
ohbuenosaires.com

*Paul Rush toured Buenos Aires with assistance from Adventure World.

- nzherald.co.nz

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