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Tuesday, we started our day with a free guided tour of the famous Recoleta Cemetery. On the bus there, we ran into a girl we'd met on the walking tour we took on Monday, who was also headed towards the cemetery. It’s so funny how often stuff like that happens.
Anyway, the cemetery is huge - covering four city blocks - and crammed with 6,400 mausoleums, all sculpted in different styles by architects from Argentina and Europe. I saw mausoleums that looked like miniature stone cathedrals, pyramids, a rough stone cottage covered in vines, Greek temples and more. Many were decorated with statues. There were the usual stone angels and weeping women, of course, but also soldiers standing guard or posing in groups, companion animals and even an inexplicable rendition of a man in a bathrobe and boots. He was either a famous boxer, or his family just looked at each other and said, "Well, Dad was always most comfortable dressed like this."
Lots of famous people are buried in Recoleta. Our guide said a mausoleum there costs as much as an average-sized apartment in Buenos Aires. Buried there are presidents, authors, doctors and scientists, important businessmen and generals, among others.
Of course, Recoleta’s most famous grave is that of Eva Peron. Evita is buried in her family’s (the Duarte's) mausoleum and not with her husband. Her brother purchased the spot for the family, and it’s surprisingly simple, made of a shiny black stone with no sculptures or ornamentation.
The mausoleum next to Evita's is up for sale. The owner had stuck a typed sign on the door with his name, email address and phone number. If you're looking for a nice place to bury someone, let me know, since of course I took a picture of that. I hear the plot is undesirable, however, due to the amount of traffic received next door.
Another famous grave belongs to Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, a woman who died on her honeymoon at the age of 24. She and her husband were sitting in their hotel room in Austria when an avalanche hit the hotel. Both were buried under the snow; her husband ultimately recovered, but Liliana did not. In the statue by her grave, Liliana is pictured with her childhood dog, Sabu. The entire time I was in Recoleta, passing her grave a couple of times, a cat lay on her other side.
Another tragic story involves another young woman, this time only 19, named Rufina Cambaceres. The story goes that Rufina was getting ready for the opera following her birthday party, when she collapsed and was pronounced dead by three separate doctors. A few days after her burial, the lid to her casket was found askew. Peeking inside, cemetery workers found scratches on the inside of the lid and on her face. It was determined that Rufina had been buried alive, tried to fight her way out, and, ultimately, died of a heart attack from shock.
(You can read hundreds of stories and urban legends about the mausoleums of Recoleta here. Click on the orange links to the left of the main text on the page.)
I was surprised how many of the mausoleums are in disrepair. Our guide said the government pays the cemetery keepers to maintain 500 mausoleums that are of national importance. That leaves the upkeep of the remaining 5,900 to the good graces of any surviving family members. It was so sad to notice a beautiful monument to an important person, commemorative plaques on the exterior walls and soaring angels on top, and then to look inside and see broken glass in the doorways, trash on the floor and dust on the altar. It made me think... all of these people were wealthy and influential in their lives, but now, with the exception of the celebrities, it seems no one remembers them today.
Besides Evita’s grave, forever decorated by her fans, the only decorated mausoleum I saw was a very humble one, plain and small. Two rosaries and two flowers were tucked into the gate.
All in all, I absolutely loved the cemetery. There was such an eerie feeling to the place, maybe due to all of the realistic statues and all of the mausoleums. It felt like a city frozen in time, like Pompei. I could've spent an entire day there, taking pictures and reading stories about the cemetary from a specialized guidebook they had for sale.
The guided tour itself was a bit of a dud. I know it was free, so maybe I shouldn't have expected much. The real issue was the guide herself, a very nice lady with a voice so quiet that only the people close enough to touch her could hear a thing she said. There were maybe 50 people on the tour, so at any given time, approximately five people could hear her while the rest tried to read her lips or asked people who had been at the front what the lady had said as we moved to the next site.
Matters weren't helped by her extremely thick accent, some sort of cross between Italian and Spanish. I tried to memorize some things she said so I could better describe it; but, now, the only word I can remember is that she pronounced "birthday" like, "bus-tee." Therefore, most of the information I received on the graves came from other tourists who had purchased a guide to the cemetery. My advice to anyone interested in Recoleta is to buy the book and give yourself a tour. It would also be easier to take pictures without 49 other people in your way.
Wandering away from the cemetery and through the posh Recoleta neighborhood, we found a tiny restaurant called La Casa de Grethel. The interior was decorated in a Swiss alpine style, with wooden furniture, whimsical wrought-iron railings and tempting cases of pastries. Patti had a knockwurst and sauerkraut and I had what amounted to chicken schnitzel and a salad.
For dessert, we each ordered a cute little apple strudel. It was the best pastry I’ve had so far in South America, where they usually look good but taste pretty bland. Not this one. It was flaky and buttery, super fresh and flavorful with an apple filling that perfectly balanced the sweet and tart flavors. They were so delicious that Patti and I each ordered a second one, even though we were stuffed. As she ate a peach pastry and I a ricotta, Patti reassured me that I was not overdoing it because we were putting the pastries into our "dessert stomachs." Sure, our lunch stomachs may have been full to bursting, but our dessert stomachs had room for more, she argued. The "dessert stomach" concept was new to me and I absolutely loved it.