Of all the cities we’ve visited since leaving Seattle in January, Buenos Aires is the first city we didn’t stay for two weeks. As self-confessed Europhiles we felt at home in “The Paris of South America” from the moment we arrived and wished we had planned to stay longer.
First, we enjoyed the nicest drive into a city from an airport we’ve ever taken. There are no freeways into the center here, so we cruised along wide roads lined with trees, open fields and clusters of Pampas grass until we reached the outskirts where the traffic and building density increased, but the greenery never stopped.
The main thoroughfare is an impressive 12 lanes wide called Avenue 9 de Julio. Its name honors Argentina's Independence Day, July 9, 1816 and has dozens of traffic circles sporting statues of important men on horses. It claims to be the widest in the world, and it felt like it when you tried to cross it - or any other street because the driving culture is one where rules are suggestions and pedestrians do not have the right of way. It felt more dangerous to cross some streets here than it did in Saigon. At least there you knew the cars would stop, in Buenos Aires it was more a game of “chicken” even if you were in the crosswalk.
However, if you were to meet your demise on the street, it would be a lovely one. French landscape landscape designer, Charles Thays laid out the city’s green spaces in the late 1800’s and his plan included 150,000 trees to and numerous parks (including the impressive botanical gardens right in the center) so there would be cooling shade and inviting lawns for everyone.
When our Uber driver turned down our own Plane Tree lined street we met a nattily dressed elderly gentleman waiting at the door of our Airbnb. He greeted us with a kind smile and introduced himself as Alberto and he would be our host. I was smitten with this dapper man immediately. He spoke English slowly and thoughtfully, because as we soon learned, there is no rushing Alford. At 88 years old his hearing isn’t what it was once, so some of the answers to our questions weren’t exactly on target - but close enough. He was very earnest in his desire for us to feel at home, and as he left, he presented us with tickets to a special Tango performance and a lovely bottle of Argentinian wine.
The apartment itself was unique. It was tucked off the street in a 110 year old building. The original ceilings soared 20 feet and the windows were tall and multi-paned, and some were arched and edged in stained glass. Alberto is an architect so when he and his wife remodeled the flat many years ago they installed a loft level with a bedroom, a large closet area and a full bath. The huge windows look out at the wall across the open walkway between two buildings so there was light, but no view. Here is the link to the listing. When you look at the photos my description of the place will make more sense - but I do remember when we first looked ourselves it was hard to figure out how the space worked. The part I enjoyed most as a graphic designer was the decor. Alberto and his wife Emma love the arts and of course architecture, so almost every wall was covered in event posters, performance programs, postcards, maps, and illustrations.
We decided to stay in Palermo - where the cool kids stay. You never really know if you’ve chosen the right neighborhood until you go to the grocery store, locate a bakery and find the nearest bank. This neighborhood was perfect. We were at the quiet end by Armenian Park so we got all the benefits of the restaurants, shops, cafes, and the many places to buy ice-cream without the late night noise. And if there is one thing we’ve learned on this Latin American Tour is that people are out until the wee hours.
As you stroll the boulevards of the city center you pass one ornate “Belle Epoche” mansion after another. It seems the influential Spanish founders and rich European landowners eschewed Spanish Colonial architecture and wanted their homes and namesake buildings to look as if they were dropped in place directly from Paris. In fact many of the decorative facades including ornamental carvings, spectacular wrought iron gates, slate tiles, stained glass, massive doors and winding staircases came by ship from France.
But if the exterior of Buenos Aires appears French, it’s beating heart is Italian. In the 1870’s the government extended an invitation to all Europeans to come live and prosper in Argentina. They were hoping to attract aristocratic families from France, Spain and Germany which would help build a glittering society that rivaled Paris. Wealthy speculators did come, but increasingly waves of poor immigrants also arrived from Armenia Poland, and Russian. Thousands of European Jews fled to South America as well. But the largest numbers by far came from Italy, many from Genoa, where the men felt confident emigrating to a thriving port city. Their influence is everywhere. In the food, in the music, and in the language where the local Spanish has an Italian cadence to it along with rolling R’s and enthusiastic hand gestures. I’ve dubbed the people here Argentalian!
Knowing that we wanted to explore every inch of this city we packed a lot into our ten days. As always we started with a free walking tour of the city center. The guide did such a good job that we also took their free tour of the Recoleta neighborhood a few days later. That tour took us past the many of Parisian wanna-be mansions that have since turned into museums, embassies or government offices. We also passed a small bistro that we returned to for a late afternoon repast where I had the best pate I’ve ever eaten. It was called Brasaro Atlantico. We also found out the flower shop next door called Floreria Atlantico doubles as a late night speakeasy after 8:00 pm. The bar is in the basement and is accessed through the flower cooler!
The tour ended at the world famous Recoleta Cemetery where Eva Perone is buried, and some say you can see the best architecture in the world in miniature. There are over 4,600 tombs and they are as close together as Brooklyn brownstones and statues of angels fight for wing room. Most are in good condition, but there are definitely some creepy ones where you can peek through the bars and see dusty caskets stacked on one another. Definitely not a place you’d want to be after dark!
After spending a morning at the sprawling San Telmo Market grazing the food stalls for lunch I decided to take a cooking class. Argentine food is much more appealing than any we found in Peru (although the ceviche was fabulous) and Chile (suprisingly bland) so I was eager to learn how to make savory empanadas, chipa (hot cheese puffs) tasty pumpkin and corn stew with pulled pork, and dulce de leche crepes. Chef Francesco was laid back and an excellent instructor. The best part was all 8 participants got hands on experience both prepping and cooking - even at the stove.
On our last walking tour we strolled through La Boca, the “real” heart of Buenos Aires. Here among the colorful corrugated tenements thousands of Europeans came to work in the port and and the city as laborers. They were mostly poor men who had hoped to make a better life in Argentina, but the promise of house and land had been revoked before most of them arrived. They build homes from what they could forage and formed a Barrio that today draws hordes of tourists who want to see the birthplace of Tango or attend a Boca Juniors football match in the stadium at the heart of the neighborhood.
Speaking of tango - we came to realize it is more than a scintillating dance, it is also the soulful music that is often played on its own. No fedoras or heels in sight. It originated as a sort of “dueling dance” between men to blow off steam after an 18-hour day of hard work in the port. The traditional instruments associated with Tango; the Bandoneon (accordion), guitar, violin, upright bass and flute came to Buenos Aires as precious cargo with the immigrants. In the evenings, to get out of the hot, crowded tenements they created music in the streets - and those “jam” sessions became Tango! The women that began to dance with the men where the ladies from the brothels and that’s when the more erotic moves developed. It was shunned by the elite as immoral - until it was performed in Paris in 1912 to rave reviews. From then on tango was accepted with open arms and became the national past time it is today.
Near the end of our stay Michael returned to La Boca to attend a football match as an Airbnb experience. That is the only way I was comfortable with him going because he would be with a host that made sure the group of fans were safe. We had been warned many times that La Boca is not a place to be after dark, and that football matches were a potential flashpoint for violence and possible muggings. But if you look past all that, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see one of the worlds most revered football team play in their home stadium. Killian, the Irish host living in Buenos Aries, was great and looked after every one until they were safely headed home after the match. Michael said it was the most exciting football experience he’s had in more that 30 matches he’s attended around the world.
Of course, everyone said when you’re in Argentina you have to eat steak. So we did, and we did it right. We chose another Airbnb experience called Steak and Wine Buenos Aires. It was a wine tasting that took place at La Choza, a traditional steakhouse. It was walking distance from our place - but away from the touristic part of Palermo so more of a local restaurant. Our host, Diego greeted us and told us we would be his only guests that evening so we would have his undivided attention and, of course, more wine.
He led us to a special table and we prepared to eat, drink and be educated. Diego is a sommelier with an extensive knowledge of Argentinian wines. He brought his four favorite bottles of boutique wine for us to try as we ate our way through four courses, culminating in a juice rib-eye steak done to perfection. When we were finished he gave us the remaining half-full bottles of wine to take home along with mounds of dark chocolate mousse that we couldn’t finish. Probably the best leftovers we’ve ever purloined.
Our final Airbnb experience took us to a place I doubt we would have seen otherwise - the Tigre Delta. This one was called Island Restaurant & Exotic Speed Boat and it was a fine way to spend an afternoon out of the city, but still close enough that we could occasionally see the skyline in the far distance from the water. The ‘exotic’ boat turned out to be an 18-foot runabout. Not particularly exotic if you are from Seattle, but perfect for nosing around in the shallow canals as well as blazing across open water. Something a typical tourist boat couldn’t do.
Our host took us through the winding estuaries and silty back waters of what turns out to be the worlds 5th largest delta. It eventually widens and runs out to the Rio de la Plata river, the widest river in the world. We took a break for a lunch of grilled meats at a restaurant on stilts. As we ate, we watched vintage ferry boats used by the locals like buses (just wave from the shore and they’ll pick you up) as well as “floating stores” that serve the community. Our host Agustine is so enthusiastic about the magical brown waters of this UNESCO protected waterway, that she and a partner bought an island in the marsh to create an eco-camp someday.
A highlight of our stay was an evening out with friends from Seattle, Pennie Pickering and her husband Richard Roberts, who were in town for a wedding. Every time we are in Seattle we pledge to get over to their place on Vashon Island and it never seems to work out. So it was ironic that we met for dinner almost 7,000 miles away. We had them over to the house (that’s what we like about Airbnb) for a drink before heading to dinner at Proper,one of Palermo’s newest restaurants. Richard had scoped it out ahead of time and knew we should be there before the doors open because they didn’t take reservations and it was popular and new. We arrived and there were no lights on… but that’s because it is housed in an old car repair garage and the graffiti-covered metal doors were still down.
We knew we were in the right place because there was a crowd of hipsters milling around. About 20 minutes later, the doors rolled up and it was a dash for a table. We snagged one near the door and congratulated ourselves. Dinner was good - interesting shared plates and a big chunk of steak to carve at the table. It was so nice to be able to spend time with friends. Afterwards we went in search of ice cream because that is the second food group that BsAs (cool way to write Buenos Aires) is known for. We headed down the street to The Creme Lab where a dozen different flavors are created right before your eyes in a Kitchenaid mixer with help from a shot of liquid nitrogen. Instant ice-cream in a homemade waffle is worthy of all praise.
I am behind in my blogging! Since leaving Buenos Aires we have already enjoyed a few days in Montevideo, Uruguay and are now in the middle of our two weeks in Rio de Janeiro. We are just down the street from the famous Ipanema beach where you can’t help hum the song. You know the one. We are still a little under the weather because our colds turned to Bronchitis, but we found an excellent doctor and are taking our “meds”. We should arrive in Paris next week healthy and rested for Easter with the French family.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads