Buenos Aires briefly

Buenos Aires is a big city and with only a day in which to explore it Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott, with the help of their guide, set off to see some of the highlights.

Hector, our Buenos Aires guide, was in need of coffee and a pastry. He had had a difficult start to the day – Buenos Aires was in the middle of a series of strikes and getting to pick us up from our hotel Palo Santo had evidently been a traumatic experience. He lived down town in the city centre and we were staying some distance away in the trendy Palermo district. He and our driver were certainly late.

An eco-friendly hotel

In retrospect we probably should have asked 2by2 Holidays to book us a more central hotel – but if we had we would have missed out on the comfortable rooms in this eco-friendly hotel, we would not have enjoyed its excellent breakfasts, its green courtyard garden with its living wall and the kind, helpful staff like the lovely Laura who leant over backwards to look after us.

We really only had one day to explore Buenos Aires, Argentina’s vibrant and lively capital, and first stop was to be the colourful district known as La Boca; and where Hector knew a good coffee bar.

The music of a tango competed with the sound of traffic

As we got out of the car the provocative sounds of tango music competed against the noise of traffic. On the opposite corner on the uneven cobbles was a stick-thin couple – the girl in fish net tights, the tightest of skirts and the highest of heels had draped herself seductively round her partner -whilst a colleague handed out leaflets for either tango classes or a tango show.

The Argentines love tango – it represents their culture, their heritage. And why not, after all Buenos Aires was the birthplace of the sultry and passionate Argentine Tango recalling the days when the gauchos of the pampas would ride into the city in search of ladies of the night.

Coffee and some retail therapy

But first coffee. La Boca is the area for a number of street markets but Hector’s favoured coffee bar was in one of the covered markets. Along with its coffee bar it proved of an interesting diversion for us too as the market offered a wide range of goods and the possibility of a few minutes retail therapy.

After coffee we wandered down a little street called Caminito. Way back in the 1800s it was a small stream flowing into the Riachuelo river. Then the stream dried up and it became part of a railroad system serving the port and warehouses. Immigrant workers settled here living in shacks made chiefly from wood and sheet metal.

Dilapidated buildings were his canvas

But the Riachuelo was too shallow for large ships and the port was moved to deeper waters. The area became something of slum.

But in the mid-1950s it was decided to regenerate the rundown district thanks in part to the local artist Benito Quinquela Martin who used many of the dilapidated shacks as his canvases.

His statue stands on the broad river esplanade with its colourful paving slabs echoing the vibrant colours of the buildings.

A wealth of architectural styles…

Buenos Aires architecture fascinated me. Never in such short distances had I experienced such a mix of styles, shapes and colours, and indeed, various states of repair and renovation.

Neoclassical sits alongside Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Modernist Le Corbusier meets Norman Foster inspired architecture, not forgetting Latin America’s first sky scraper – the Kavanagh Building.

…and a major thoroughfare

Back in the city centre we drove along the wide Avenida 9 de Julio passing elegant buildings many of them dating from the latter part of the 19th century during what has been described as Argentina’s age of prosperity.

Softening either side of the Avenida are green oases of tree lined squares and gardens many of them favoured by local dog walkers trying to control their many four-footed charges.

Avenida 9 de Julio is not for the faint-hearted

The Avenida 9 de Julio is not for the faint-hearted pedestrian, or motorist. It is some 140m wide with 12 lanes needing to be traversed should you wish to cross it on foot.

And to make it even more demanding along its one kilometre length are traffic lights which attract a number of street entertainers who dice with death in exchange for a few pesos every time the lights are red.

However, if like us you are a passenger look out for the French Embassy building and the glorious Teatro Colón, ranked as one of the world’s best opera houses.

One of the guests at our hotel had taken one of the latter’s guided tours.’ Excellent’, he said.

More or less in the middle of the Avenida stands arguably Buenos Aires most famous city landmark the white, needle-like Obelisk.

It soars 70m above the traffic and commemorates the city’s 400th anniversary.

The Plaza de Mayo

Hector by now was warming to his task of showing us the city’s highlights. We stopped at the Plaza de Mayo one of the most important areas of Buenos Aires.[/caption]

The plaza attracts all types of rallies and demonstrations, the most famous of which are the weekly rallies of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo – the mothers/grandmothers wearing their distinctive white headscarves who demonstrate for human rights and for their children who ‘disappeared’ during the 1977-83 military dictatorship.

On the plaza is the balconied pink house, the Casa Rosada, originally a fort, where political leaders have their offices and traditionally address the crowds, several of the big banks, and close by the Catedral Metropolitana.

The cathedral looks not unlike a Greek temple

From the outside the cathedral with its rank of pillars looks not unlike a Greek temple. It’s an impressive building with a massive German built organ, a 41m high vaulted ceiling and five naves – with beautiful wood carvings and oil paintings attributed to Sir Peter Paul Rubens. But most of all I loved the Venetian mosaic passion flower patterned floor tiles.

The cathedral holds the tomb of General José de San Martín one of the country’s national heroes. San Martín, died during his self-imposed exile in France at Boulogne-sur-Mer. His remains were repatriated to Buenos Aires in 1880 and today he lies in his mausoleum guarded by two soldiers.

The cathedral is also where Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio lived and worked, we know the Archbishop better as Pope Francis. Time allowing it looked to us as if this part of Buenos Aires with its wealth of museums would be well worth exploring. Unfortunately, however, on this visit, time was not on our side, and we had one more must-see before we left Buenos Aires – a cemetery.

Recoleta cemetery – a city of the dead

But the Recoleta cemetery is like nothing I have experienced before – you might even call it a city, albeit a miniature city – a city of the dead – with marble mausoleums in every imaginable architectural style. Many of the tombs have been given National Historical Monuments status by the Argentine government.

Even the layout of the cemetery is reminiscent of a city with tree lined main walkways and side streets and alleyways leading from it. It is the city’s first public cemetery and dates from 1822, built on what was once part of the grounds of the Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The first grave Hector told us was that of ‘a black freed boy’ Juan Benito.

Arguably the most expensive real estate in the city

It is reckoned that the cemetery provides the most expensive real estate in Buenos Aires. Maps are available at the front entrance of the cemetery and there are free hour-long guided tours in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am.

For the statistically minded there are about 4800 crypts and goodness knows how many coffins, statues and sarcophagi in its 54,843 square metres. The tombs are frequently embellished with huge domes, crosses and angels. I found it somewhat macabre peeping into some of the crypts and viewing the dust covered coffins lying amongst family mementoes.

Stories about the residents abound

There are tombs housing the remains of wealthy important families alongside those of writers, presidents, soldiers, and personalities like Firpo the boxer, said to have been buried upright. Stories about the graves and their occupants abound.

Naturally too there are several ghost and horror stories associated with the cemetery but the most gruesome and tragic has to be that of young Rufina Camberceres who it would appear from the scratch marks on the inside of the casket and on her face was accidently buried alive.

Evita’s resting place

Grandiose as the tombs chiefly are the one we most wanted to see was tucked away on a side alley modest and discrete in comparison.

Even in death she is still a highly controversial figure so Eva Perón (Evita) lies buried deep underground protected against grave robbers in the surprisingly unassuming Duarte family tomb, with a few bunches of wilting flowers and dusty, forlorn artificial ones pushed through the iron grill in her memory.

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