Passionate European style city
Trip Start Jul 15, 2010
26Trip End Dec 13, 2010
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The 16 hour bus journey to Buenos Aires actually took 20 hours due to roadworks and traffic! We had a good nights sleep so navigating the huge bus station, metro and finding our hostel wasn't too bad. When we rung the bell we were greeted by an old lady who only spoke Spanish. We had booked a quiet hostel and most of our top choices were booked for the weekend. It certainly was quiet, we were the only ones there. Over the next few days a few more people showed up and we met some people over breakfast. The hostel was a little odd and deserted. Having to get an old lady out of her room every time we wanted to go in or out wasn't fun, but we grew into it and there was Natalia, who was on hand in the mornings to give information on the city.
We met Eva again. She had been joined by a few other scientist friends who had a conference in the lake district region in the south of Argentina. We all took a trip to Palermo: the posh area that had markets on a Saturday. We turned up at mid-day and there were only a few stalls. We thought that we had missed the action and sat down for a coffee. Over the next hour more and more stalls arrived. We had read that Argentinians are night owls but we hadn't anticipated how much. Over the next few days we had to get used to things opening late, eating dinner at 11pm and going to bed between 1 and 2 in the morning. Clubs generally got going at around 3am; we never made it out that late!
That day we got acquainted with empanadas: little pasty type snacks filled with meat, cheese or anything else. They were really cheap, tasty and made a large part of our diet for the rest of the country. We ate them in the botanic gardens and then took a walk around a cute Japanese garden complete with quintessential bridge, very civilised.
We were starting to get a feel for Buenos Aires. Whilst still retaining the character of South America, it is overwhlemingly European. In fact very French. Whilst it was a Spanish colony, Argentina was very rich. Boats used to leave Buenos Aires packed full of exports for Europe. The wealthy owners of the boats had an empty boat for the return trip and they bought loads of French furniture and artefacts back. Eventually they wanted palaces built in the French style and soon the city was full of Renaissance buildings. Today Buenos Aires seems to have a great mix of colonial and French architecture with newer South American culture. We really liked it.
We took a free walking tour with a local guide who got paid with tips. He was really enthusiastic about the city and filled us in with a lot of history and cultural observations. He told us about General San Martin who built an army in the countryside and went and liberated Chile, Peru and finally Argentina from Spanish rule. Now every main street in the country is called San Martin and most cities and villages have a square dedicated to him. He also showed us their Big Ben tower, a gift from the English 100 years ago when Argentina was rich and influential. 99% of Argentinians believe it looks exactly like Big Ben, whereas in fact it doesn't! It sits in front of the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas) memorial. We learned about the Falklands War from the other side of the fence. Argentina was under the rule of a horrendous dictatorship at the time and they sent untrained 18 or 19 year olds to defend the island. When the British turned up it only took a few days to reclaim the island, but the state run press reported an Argentinian victory. Our guide told us that when the real news got through it was one of the tipping points for the people to rise up and put an end to the end of the tyranny.
That night we went for dinner at the proper time of 11pm and surprisingly the restaurants were busier! We had an excellent steak, in a restaurant yards from our hostel and were joined for some red wine by Aussies Matt and Lucy who we met over breakfast.
On Sunday we went to the San Telmo markets. It started out as a antiques market in the main square but has ballooned to cover around 6 blocks with people selling arts and crafts as well as street performers doing tango demonstrations. We got some empanadas from a stall run by a local fundraising scout group in front of a church and watched the world go by. We walked the rest of San Telmo reading all the historic plaques and eventually getting coffee in a gorgeous colonial cafe.
Impressed with the free walking tour we took a few days before we took another to see the main municipal sights of Buenos Aires. We started off at the houses of parliament, where we found out that the politicians are only in session once a week! We covered the main square that had all it's fountains fenced off since homeless people got naked and washed in them. There was also a building built in honour of the book, Divine Comedy. One aspect was that the 15 storey building was divided into 3 levels; hell, life and heaven. This was one of the many intricate details that was woven into the fascinating building. We stopped by the main thoroughfare in Buenos Aires, the avenue 9 de Julio which has 11 lanes in both directions. One of the main parts of the tour was the plaza in front of the Casa Rosada: the official residence of the president and a balcony where Madonna sung "Don't cry for me Argentina" for the film Evita.
One of the more poignant parts of the tour was the central circle of the plaza which had headscarfs painted on the floor to commemorate the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. We were told about the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 and the "Dirty War". We were told that 30,000 people disappeared, mostly opposers to the government and anybody even remotely connected to them. One woman met a guy in a nightclub and gave him her phone number; when he was arrested by the dictatorship he still had her number and she disapeared to be tortured and killed as well. Gorillas were sponsored by the government to crush any opposition to the dictatorship; which gave them free reign to kill, rape and pillage as they pleased. The most shocking tales were of babies whose parents were tortured or killed. The people doing the torturing or killing seperated the babies from their parents and gave them to childless families associated with the gorillas. Now some people are finding out that they have been living with adopted parents and their real parents had been murdered. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo organisation sprang up during the war when the state produced all the media, and public gatherings of more than 3 people was banned and heavily enforced by the military police. They used to stand in groups of three and one person would break from their group and walk clockwise to another group, passing a message until it went all the way around the circle. Since the end of the dictatorship they protest once a week and campaign for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. They also help oprhans detect if their parents are fake and find out their real identity. The most shocking thing about this was that it was only less than 30 years ago. Our guide explained that the people disassociate themselves with the government or military and think of their national identity as football, tango, steak and wine.
Some of the more amusing parts of the tour were when we were told about the giant 220ft obelisk in the centre of the massive Avenue 9 de Julio which once had a giant condom dropped on it as an advert for safe sex. We also saw a house that was built on top of a skyscraper because, urban legend has it, the businessman owner didn't want to have to travel a long way home for a siesta. It is said that the house is an exact replica of his house in the suburbs. We weren't so sure about that, but it was rather puzzling to see a full-sized house on top of a 15 storey building!
During our tour we met a couple on honeymoon, Brad and Lucy from Canada. We said that there was a football match on in the evening and we were going to head to the stadium to get some tickets. They joined us and we went to the River Plate stadium to see if we could get in. After walking for 30 minutes as no vehicles are allowed near the ground and trying to decipher the spanish at numerous ticket windows on a noisy matchday we finally bought some tickets for the 5pm kick off.
We got into the stadium and found a seat (read: tiny plastic adornment to concrete steps) on the brilliant white painted and uncovered stand. The sunlight was blazing down even at 5pm and reflecting off the stands. We were melting. It didnt help that no bottles were allowed in to the ground and the only refreshments on offer were small cups of coke or sickly sweet ice pops. Dani had to put a scarf over her head and Rich took his t-shirt off and had it on his head. We were by no means the most fashionable people in the crowd!
Once all the crowd got in, the samba drums kicked off, all the huge flags and banners were put up and literally everyone singing and chanting songs like: "Vamos, vamos, vamos, River Plate" it was worth it. The atmosphere was better than in Brazil as every space in the stands was full it was an amazing spectacle to see so many people of all ages so emotional about playing a league match against minnows Gymnasia. The football was sadly lacking ending up 0-0 with River having umpteen chances to put it in the net even hitting the post and bar a few times. The quality wasn't great as Argentina is stripped of it's best players by the bigger European clubs. In fact Argentina is the biggest exporter of players in South America. There are now have two seasons a year to combat the fluctuation in team members (each team only plays all other teams once) and relegation is a headache as it is decided on an avearge of the past 3 seasons! (see here for a better explanation) After a 30 minute wait to let the opposition fans (all 100 of them) get away from the ground, we headed for a few beers and made our way home vowing to meet up with Brad and Lucy for a Tango show before we both left the city.
The next day we had a rest, did some planning and put our washing into a launderette which you had to post through some bars at the doorway beacuse there were so many tortoises wandering around the floor of the shop! In the late afernoon we headed for Racoletta Cemetary whose occupants are the rich and influential people of the country such as past presidents, founders of the country and most famously the iconic First Lady: Eva Peron. Loved by Argentinians for fighting for human rights, getting women a vote and introducing pensions for the elderly amongst other virtuous deeds before succumbing to cancer at an early age. The cemetary is also a chance for the elite to show off, with mausoleums rivaling the size of small churches and even more ornate. It was an otherworldly experience wandering through the thousands of outrageously expensive graves packed into a tiny cemetary.
To bring us back to reality we had an ice cream afterwards. Ice cream is an Argentinian institution bought across with the large population of Italian migrants during the late 1800s. You can't go far in the city without passing an ice cream parlour selling top quality fresh ice cream. We just had to join in with the tradition most days, but after the cemetary we tried a chain called Freddo. Our quarter of a litre of vanilla, chocolate, (oddly) lemon sorbet and "dulce de leche" was awesome. Dulce de Leche is another national icon: a sugary spread the consistency of nutella but made from evaporated milk. Teeth rottingly gorgeous and most sweet things have adopted a Dulce de Leche flavour. Afterwards we went to look at the 20-ton silver flower they have in a nearby park. We went past a building and a lady came up to us and asked if we knew where the "old door" was in Spanish. When she clocked we were English her eyes lit up. She was an English teacher on a trip to the capital with 30 kids aged 9-13. She asked us if we could speak English to her students. Shortly afterwards we were surrounded by the kids and they asked us questions in English for around 45 mins. They were from a small town called Gualeguaychu and hadn't met any Europeans before. It was an amazing and heartwarming encounter.
La Boca is another region you have to see in Buenos Aires. The area sprung up around the docks in colonial times as people flocked to the work in the city which acted as the only port for exports in the whole of Spanish ruled South America. The area is still bordering on being a slum and was one of the most dodgy parts of the continent we have been to. However in the centre of the district are two blocks where there are vibrantly painted buildings, life-sized paper mache sculptures of Argentian celebs hanging out of windows and street performers doing the tango. We weren't terribly impressed having to scurry a few blocks from the bus stop only to hit a tourist trap with touts trying to get us into a restaurant or get photos taken of us dressed in tango gear.
Buenos Aires is also tango. The dance having originated from men fighting for honour with knives on the docks of the city evolving (unbelievably) into a dance contest for two men. Women got on the scene later with men dancing with ladies of the night and into modern times as a national icon. We booked to see Complejo Tango on our last night as a farewell to Buenos Aires. The show included a one hour lesson in which we were taught the basic steps with two of the shows dancers mostly using the medium of example and counting in spanish. It worked a treat and even though we were probably the thousandth group of inexperienced gringos through the class they had immense enthusiasm in teaching us the dance. At the end of the hour we had to perform our few basic steps and received a cheesy certificate for our efforts. We had a great time.
The showpiece was the show though and the dancers took us through the ages of tango in an intimate theatre with live traditional band. The dancing was spectacular and the intermissions between routines was filled with a traditional singer who looked like an Argentinain version of Fonzi from Happy Days. We drank a lot of the included wine with Brad and Lucy as we enjoyed the show and eventually merrily set off on our way home and an end to our memorable week in B.A. We were certainly sad to say goodbye to another iconic and interesting city.