Being an ‘umble country gal, I wasn’t what you’d call ‘well-travelled’ before this trip, particularly in the Hemisphere where the water goes counter-clockwise, and it’s fair to say my mental image of certain places was made of pure soapy cliché . To wit, the capital of Argentina was a synecdoche for everything ‘Latin’ about South America: the passion, the music, the spandex pants. And sure enough, in the first hour of the first day here, we happened across a couple dancing the tango in a deserted square, right outside the bar where Borges used to drink. Of course we did.
And then there’s the Evita thing, starting with the Casa Rosada, with the balcony where Eva Peron famously greeted the crowds before she died of cervical cancer in 1951. And the footie thing – ‘La Bombonera’, home of Maradona’s Boca Juniors. For someone who learned most of their Argentine history from the World Cup and Andrew Lloyd Webber, it was almost like I’d been here before.
Elsewhere the place tingles with familiarity for structural reasons. Modern Buenos Aires was largely laid out by rich immigrant families from France and Spain and it shows in the building design and the road layout. There’s a central ‘Champs Elyseé-esque’ boulevard with a ‘Place de la Concorde-esque’ square at the centre, complete with obelisk, which looked particularly cool from the 11th floor of our hotel at night.
But that’s where the clichés end: the view from the other side of our hotel is dominated by a massive shanty town which fringes the port, built from scrap metal from boats & decorated with leftover shipping paint. It’s reminiscent of Valparaíso but a moment’s research shows it’s only pretty from a distance. The lack of formal mapping of these so-called villas miserias which exist cheek by jowl with the fancy hotels and malls of downtown Buenos Aires and house – at last count – 275,000 of the urban population, means emergency services often can’t, or won’t, find the source of a particular call. And utilities are patchy or non-existent.
There’s a kind of showcase section of the shanty town preserved for tourists in the old Spanish quarter, where many of the earliest settlers pitched up and it’s where all the tango-for-cash and tat-selling goes down. To be fair it’s also a cool place to hang out – the buildings are eye-popping and at the moment they’re displaying an amazing piece of public art by Ai Wei Wei outside the PROA gallery, called ‘Forever Bicycles’. I’ve missed too many of his installations, so it was great to see this one.
Also in the old Spanish quarter is the fictional home of ‘Mafalda’, the 6-year-old star of Quino’s comic strip who preached peace and tolerance in metaphors to get round the censors during the military dictatorships of the 60s and 70s. History luddite here had never even heard of her but she and her friends apparently live on as symbols of the Resistance in the form of stuffed toys, keyrings, tea towels… viva el libre comercio!
Then there’s the Recoleta cemetery. This is weirdsville. It’s basically a collection of family mausoleums, some with several stories and their own internal chapels, where many generations are laid to rest in coffins at the same time. This ‘Death City’ has it’s own real estate agents who broker the deals for the rare instances where a mausoleum comes up for sale. Even then, no matter how derelict, all you can do is renovate, not rebuild. And you can never evict the original ‘residents’.
Evita’s family tomb is the only one that’s allowed to have fresh flowers which seems a bit rough. God knows some more might cheer the place up. Walking through Recoleta with a guide who knows a bit about it is like navigating a 3D tragedy: so many sad tales. There: peer through the glass into a stained glass-dappled mausoleum and find a tiny white coffin. And over here: a beautiful oxidised statue marks the grave of a young woman – Liliana Crociati de Szaszak – killed in an avalanche in Innsbruck on her honeymoon. Her dog died shortly after (of grief, so the legend goes) back home in Buenos Aires, so they were interred – and sculpted – together. There’s a poem inscribed on the side of the tomb by Liliana’s father which is so depressing, I’d probably drown in my own tears if I tried to reproduce it here. Suffice to say the girls got completely spooked by the whole place.
The best surprise of all was the Tigre Delta. Buenos Aires lies on a river – the Plate – and where the river widens there are islands with channels between them, forming a kind of grass and freshwater Venetian paradise. It’s got fancy enclaves for sure, big houses with lawns sloping down to private piers with powerboats waiting to be used. But the vast majority of the Delta is covered with way more accessible small holiday homes, some no more than sheds or shacks, but all with bonza water frontage. And in the 31 degree baking heat of a Buenos Aires summer, you could really see how the city beats many of those it takes after into a cocked hat: 30 minutes by freeway, a hop on a waterbus and you’re sitting chest deep in fresh water off your own private deck. It’s a little rough round the edges – there are loads of rusted boat wrecks that probably won’t ever be budged – but I’d sell a kidney for something like this near London.
A special mention must go out to the main city Cathedral, the former diocese of current Pope Francis. I’m no lover of Catholicism, but this place is robustly unstuffy and at least makes an attempt at promoting harmony between religions. Amazingly, multi-denominational services are routinely held, with Rabbis, Priests and Mullahs presiding side by side – the spirit of this dopest of Popes still haunts this church, evidently. There’s a permanent tribute to the people killed at the Israeli embassy in 1992 in the form of relics and artefacts from sites of anti-Jewish persecution around the world. It’s also the home of the massive mausoleum of José de San Martin, the utter ledge who liberated basically most of South America from Spanish colonial rule but is a resolutely military/political (rather than religious) symbol. Last but not least, the Cathedral’s most strokable effigy is the ‘Christ of Footballers’, who gets taken out of his box during major tournaments so that footie fans can give him a squeeze for good luck. Heaven knows the Argentines are aware of the value of a strategic hand when it comes to el fútbol.
Just in case you thought I was getting a bit sanctimonious, we also took in a show at ‘Roja Tango’, the city’s ‘best night out’ according to just about everyone you ask. Second prize: two nights at Roja Tango. It’s the closest you’ll get to cruise-ship entertainment on dry land, a red-lit bodega with tables crammed elbow-nudgingly close, terrible food and a singer with the worst/best fake boobs on planet Earth whose singing voice was the sound you’d make if your parachute failed to open at 3000 feet. Cameras were banned (ha, for good reason) but I snook some shaky sequin shots to prove I was witness to the spectacle to end all spectacles.
Sadly I failed to capture the moment when a guy came out in white jeans, otherwise naked, fired up his sax and serenaded an erotic tango dancer wearing nothing but an unbuttoned white shirt and some fishnets with attached merkin. Rod Stewart was seen leaving the venue just before the show began, which just shows: you can lead a rocker to water but you can’t make him drink. Lord only knows what he was heading for that was better than this: a merengue cabaret in gimp suits? No, Buenos Aires truly has it all, if by ‘all’ you mean revolutionary pre-schoolers, seasonal effigy-groping, high-stakes crypt-hustling and titty tango. You see? Even for a history naïf like me, the guidebook pretty much writes itself.