Until this past December, there were two things I’d never done on an airplane, sleep and . . . well never mind. On a recent twelve-hour overnight Air Canada flight from Toronto to Buenos Aires, I finally accomplished the former after splurging on an executive class seat. I’m now totally spoiled. Rested and relaxed, I watched as we flew across the immense Rio de la Plata which separates Uruguay from Argentina, then glided into Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport.
A taxi ride downtown brought us to the Clarendon Aspen Towers Hotel. The hotel was surprisingly luxurious, given the ninety dollar (U.S.) room rate and I had a decadent soak in the Jacuzzi tub before venturing out on the street. I rounded a corner and decided a pub with the improbable name of The Ness looked like a good spot to try out a glass of the local brew and meet some Portenos (as the residents of Buenos Aires are known). Entering I solved the riddle of whether the Ness in question was Elliott or Loch when I spotted a stylized quasi-plesiosaurus silhouette on the glass of the door. Since Buenos Aires received a huge influx of Europeans of all nationalities in the last century, a Scottish themed pub was hardly unusual. Paging through the Buenos Aires phone book it is not uncommon to see names such as Fernando O’Toole or Juan McTavish. Even Butch Cassidy eventually emigrated to Argentina.
The affable bartender spoke no English, but my rudimentary Spanish allowed me to order one of the local Quilmes (pronounced “kill mees”) ales and a plate of tapas. He then dug out a dog-eared map from under the bar and helped me plot out a “plan of attack” for touring the city. A Chinese gent in a business suit proved to be an Argentinean economist and, bemoaning the local economy, wondered what Canada did right that Argentina was doing wrong. I suggested that placing ourselves in proximity to the U.S.A. was likely our smartest move.
Leaving the Ness I enjoyed the prolonged austral summer evening and ambled down to Plaza San Martin, enjoying the massive, gnarled rubber trees and the bright blossoms of the jacarandas. The park is dedicated to General San Martin, the “George Washington” of Argentina, who is credited with liberating the country from Spain in the early 1800’s. San Martin actually became so disillusioned with the constant political bickering after the revolution that he left for France and never returned (at least not while alive; his body was eventually returned and ensconced with an honor guard in the Metropolitan Cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo). Amorous couples, less inhibited than their Canadian counterparts, appear to make the Plaza the location of choice for their trysts. From the park I could see a tower which reminded me vaguely of Big Ben. In fact the English Tower was a gift to Argentina from England in 1910. After the Falklands War there were calls to tear the edifice down, but calmer heads prevailed and the tower was simply renamed. Locals, presently much more annoyed with their own government than with the English, have taken to calling it once again the Torre de los Ingleses.
The following morning I began a more thorough tour of the city. Beginning with the lovely Plaza de Mayo I wandered the square, taking in the 19th century architecture. The government building, known as the Casa Rosada, is painted a shocking pink. The color, I’m told, is the result of an old political compromise between two parties whose colors were respectively red and white, the combination being, of course . . . pink. Our guide pointed out the balcony from which Juan and Evita Peron used to speak to the crowds, and from which more recently Madonna had stood during the filming of the movie “Evita”. Further up the Avenida de Mayo, visitors can enjoy the Art Nouveau and Art Deco style architecture, and stop for a coffee at the 150 year old Cafe Tortoni.
Our next stop is the wealthy suburb of La Recoleta and the elite cemetery where Evita Peron is buried. The cemetery is a melange of many different architectural styles and is so exclusive that not even Juan Peron was allowed to be buried there. In fact Evita had to be smuggled into the family Duarte tomb years after her death. The city’s elite still seem a little embarrassed about Evita being in the cemetery and there are no signs to direct tourists to her grave.
On our way back, my traveling companion joked that with so many McDonald’s in downtown B.A. we should be able to find one in the cemetery. We then came to the tomb of Argentinean war hero, James Macdonald which I gleefully pointed out. It seems that during the revolution a lot of Irish and English seamen fought for Argentina, gaining the right to be buried in Recoleta.
Next stop was La Boca, settled mainly by Italian immigrants in the early twentieth century. Many built their homes of corrugated iron salvaged from the dockyard. These are painted in the bright colors of favorite soccer teams, usually blue and yellow, since these are the colors of the legendary soccer team, The Boca Juniors. I had coincidentally worn a blue and yellow striped shirt this day and had a constant stream of strange women speaking to me in Spanish (single men take note).
The Caminito area of Boca is the most Bohemian portion of the district, with beautiful art work for sale at reasonable prices and colorful street performers busking for a peso or two. This is a good spot to pick up gifts and souvenirs. Later we pass through San Telmo, the home of the tango. Originally the tango was a dance of the lower classes, confined to petty thugs called “compadritos” and their ladies (usually “of the night” variety). Often two men would dance together while waiting for their women to make an appearance. The step is said to mimic the movements of a knife fight and the upper body motion is said to mimic . . . well, you know.
The tango is not only a dance, but vocal and musical art form. It eventually became a craze for all classes and one of its most famous proponents was singer Carlos Gardel. That evening we decided to book a dinner tango show. The Carlos Gardel show is performed in a reconstructed Art Deco style theater where Gardel used to perform. The evening began with a dinner of, what else, melt-in-your-mouth Argentinean steak, accompanied by unlimited amounts of red or white Norton wine (one of Argentina’s noted vintners). The curtain rose and I noticed the orchestra played suspended over the stage. Prominent among their instruments was the bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument which gives tango music its distinctive sound.
The dancers were incredibly smooth and the tango, performed properly, as it was this evening, is an intensely erotic dance. Between sets, a man looking uncannily like Gardel (and with a voice to match), crooned tango ballads to the audience. This show is a definite must for visitors to Buenos Aires.
The final day in Buenos Aires was spent touring the city’s world class opera house. Completed almost a hundred years ago and Italianate in style, the theater has hosted many opera greats. Though we were unable to take in a performance, we did get a chance to sit in the presidential box watching dancers practice for an upcoming show. Alas, too soon it was time to go.
Despite recent difficulties, the city of Buenos Aires appears prosperous, and the city is very reminiscent in style and atmosphere to Montreal. Some say that Montreal is the “most European of American cities” while Buenos Aires is the “most American of European cities”. In any event Argentina’s capital is a beautiful and vital city well worth a visit.
(Note: while in the Buenos Aires area, side trips across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo, Uruguay and north to the incredible Iguazzu Falls are highly recommended)
First Published In The Medical Post, November 5, 2002
Plaza St. Martin via Wikimedia Commons
Casa Rosada via Wikimedia Commons
Tango Show via Wikimedia Commons