Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America, is a city full of art, food, glamour and joie de vivre, writes Pamela Wade.

He didn't look drunk - not on alcohol, anyway. On a sunny afternoon in Buenos Aires, it was simply the joy of life that had gone to his head, this young man in the blue-and-gold Boca Juniors soccer shirt walking along the pavement singing a love song.

"I'm not a good singer, but I'm a happy boy," he explained cheerfully in appealingly Spanish-accented English, and continued on his way, still singing. Joie de vivre: how appropriate, in the city they call the Paris of South America.

It's not just the stately buildings along the wide, tree-lined avenues, the statues and monuments, art galleries and museums that give the place its distinctive French feel; there's fashion too.

Long-legged, long-haired girls, effortlessly stylish, drift along the streets, followed by perfectly trousered young men, their shirt collars turned up just so. They cruise the swanky shopping malls where floor after floor of glitz and glamour are further embellished by this elegant clientele, who are not just looking at, but seriously studying, the window displays.


Fashion sense develops early - even children wear sweaters draped over their shoulders - and it never fades: ladies well past a certain age still put looks before comfort, spurning such monstrosities as sensible shoes.

And then there's a French-style fascination with food. This is Argentina, and meat is king, whether at barbecue joints or fancy restaurants, where a thick tender rib-eye on the bone is divinely paired with a glass of velvety local Malbec. Or it could be simple empanadas and milanesas at a pavement; in either case a good appetite is guaranteed, as the locals wouldn't dream of eating before 8.30pm and restaurants are still accepting diners at midnight.

Finally, there's passion: of course in the tango, the tourist version on the streets where any passing gringo is likely to be seized in a dramatic embrace for a photo op, or in energetic dinner shows; and the real thing at the milongas - unglamorous halls where all ages come together to practise and celebrate the dance.

More importantly though, there's soccer. No-one is neutral: the Portenos support either Boca Juniors or River Plate, with an intensity that has forced even Coca-Cola to bow before it. Its advertisements around the Boca Juniors stadium are in black and white, because arch rival River Plate wear a red-and-white strip. Here, still, Maradona is always in the news.

So far, so French; but Buenos Aires has its own distinctive flavour, too, from the dog-walkers who roam the city with a beltful of assorted apartment-block pooches, up to 20 of them strung around their waists, to the parade of mothers in white headscarves silently circling the Plaza de Mayo obelisk every Thursday afternoon, in memory of their Disappeared children.

Nearby is the Casa Rosada, where Eva Peron stood above the adoring crowds: even now, 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' still gives the locals a genuine tingle.

There are sights around the city that will do the same for tourists.

Tomb town ramble in Buenos Aires reveals reverent artistic influences
La Recoleta Cemetery is a real necropolis: a walled city of the dead, its narrow lanes lined with elaborate tombs, its only living residents a colony of cats. Crammed into its six hectares are 5000 tombs, all of them occupied. It's said that it's cheaper to live extravagantly all your life than to be buried in Recoleta: one tomb is on sale for US$500,000. It is, though, next door to the tomb that holds Eva Peron's remains and which has a permanent line of pilgrims reverently edging past it. Wander the cobbles, admire the architecture - classical, art deco, baroque, gothic, modern - and inspect the cherubs, angels and lions decorating the tombs, but don't get lost: there are no street signs and you wouldn't want to be trapped here after sunset.

La Boca is a tourist mecca, and for good reason: this boho barrio with its buildings of scavenged scrap wood and corrugated iron, decorated in random bright colours with leftover shipyard paint, is seductively photogenic. Artists can't resist it, and along the Caminito pedestrian street are many stalls displaying their work. Plaster statues gaze from balconies, Maradona sharing with Evita, dancers with boxers, and the colourful walls are further decorated in murals. Though even the locals daren't come here after dark, during the day it's safely busy with tourists and tango dancers, and the bars and restaurants are crowded.

Buenos Aires has the Southern Hemisphere's first subway, and the Subte A-line is still using its century-old original wooden carriages. Covered in arty graffiti, windows open, they rattle through decorated stations. It's an authentic (and cheap) way to cross the city to a famous coffee shop - Cafe Tortoni, in business since 1858, clubby and classy with marble tables and wooden panelling, Tiffany lamps and waiters in short jackets and bow ties, cloths over their arms. The coffee is good, too.

Teatro Colon is the Opera House, a gloriously successful hotchpotch of Italian, German and French design, with no expense spared from its intricate mosaic floor, up the marble staircase to the Versailles-copy Golden Hall with its half-tonne chandeliers, and into the auditorium with its red velvet chairs and five levels of gilded boxes.

If you're lucky, the guide will sing a snatch of Carmen she learned from watching The Simpsons.

Getting there: LAN flies direct from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with connections to Buenos Aires and beyond: Phone 0800 451 373.

Where to stay: Caesar Park Buenos Aires in Recoleta.

Pamela Wade was a guest of LAN airways.