Some cities you visit to see the sights, learn about the history, or marvel at the architecture. Some cities you visit to experience the nightlife or higher elements of culture. When they don’t have that, you shop.
But Buenos Aires, you visit in order to come alive.
Buenos Aires vibrates with life. It breathes, sings and dances its way through the day and night, bathing its vibrant colours and rich history in sunshine…even when the sun isn’t out at all.
Buenos Aires blends its rich port city history with the cultural remnants of its would-be occupiers. It mixes up its architectural periods like they were always meant to go together, and infuses it all with the joy de vivre and confidence that comes from hard fought independence, creating a city like no other.
It’s unfair to compare Buenos Aires to other cities, but it’s hard not to. At times it felt as though we were walking the streets of London (although BA’s streets are much, much wider). Other times, BA was reminiscent of Paris with its abundance of neoclassical buildings, and most delightfully, it reminded me some of the old world of a port city like Havana (the clean parts of Havana at least.)
But for all of the comparisons, BA has a personality all its own that is just…Buenos Aires. It is colourful, musical, and proud.
And this city dances.
La Boca is one of those neighbourhoods that you’d never wander in to at night – in fact, the tourist guides all tell you not to. Bus in and taxi out is the advice. But under the protection of a Saturday morning among hordes of tourists, one becomes brave enough to venture in to the “risky area”
La Boca is where all of the port workers lived. It was always, and remains today, a rough around the edges working man’s barrio. But what makes it an attraction today are the vivid colours of the buildings, and vibrancy of Porteno life (much of it put on for the tourists). There are tango dancers and musicians on every corner. A craft market winds wits way through the barrio, and eager hawkers invite you to their street cafe promising meat and beer combinations at a special price.
The corrugated iron buildings are painted every colour under the sun, and it brings the air truly alive. The ship workers would bring the leftover ship paint home with them, and mix original colours with which to paint their homes, fences, and just about any other surface they could find.
We sat on stools facing a brightly coloured railroad track, enjoying the best choripan (grilled sausage sandwich) we had in all of Argentina. Washed down with a cold, cold beer, while sitting in the sunshine, amidst all of that life…it was a truly perfect moment. One you not only want to remember for the setting, but for the sounds, smells, flavours and the feeling as well.
La Boca hits all the senses in all of the best ways.
Leading off the main avenue were little side markets that were an absolute riot of colours, music, street art, and of course things to buy. It was like wandering around in an Alice in Wonderland meets Willy Wonka film set.
We finished the day with another choripan and beer at a blue and yellow bedecked parrillada opposite the Boca Juniors football club stadium. And then we got the heck out of dodge.
Sure La Boca today is put on for the tourists, but if I had to pick a theme park, this would be my choice.
We humans have a morbid curiosity about death. In our western Judeo Christian society, to experience death is to not experience it as humans. We can never really know on this Earth, in our present time, what death really is like and then come back to tell the tale. But something compels us equally to want to know, but not know at all.
It’s an odd thing to do while in holiday, to visit cemeteries. Yet we do. They make for good photographs, cause you to slow down, be quiet and calm for a while. And some of the best ones are spectacularly beautiful in their eerie stillness.
The Cementerio Recoleta is one of the best. It is a “city” of crypts laid out neatly along small streets and wide avenues. Some are lavish family mausoleums , adorned with statues and other tokens of memorial to their inhabitants. Others are simple, but evoke no less of the love their families showed them. Portenos have been buying their dead here for nearly 300 years, and continue to do so today. It is strangely beautiful, and eerily thought provoking.
Many had windows, showing ornate caskets draped with lace, their wood regularly polished, and adorned with flowers or photos. They were guarded by statues of angels, or even statues of the inhabitants themselves. Some were grand family crypts, with bronze plaques describing the lives of the various inhabitants. Many had stained glass windows set into the ceiling, hidden from view of the casual observer, but providing a spectacular window to heaven for those inside.
Other crypts showed the effects of time and neglect or even perhaps theft and vandalism.
Broken windows, crumbling plaster and cobwebs held the once lovingly cared for mausoleums together. And a far corner of the city of death smelled like – death. In the very last crypt on a little side “street” was a bashed in casket that was clearly the source of the smell.
There are a lot of terrible smells on this earth, but the stink of rotting flesh is the most abhorrent is them all. Perhaps it’s an unwelcome reminder of our own mortality. We so violently recoil against the rotting of those bodies we put so much effort in to preserving during life, and we can’t tolerate the idea that we’ll one day just be a heap of forgotten rotting flesh. Or perhaps it just stinks.
Sunday in San Telmo
Buenos Aires revealed her magic to us one layer at a time, and Sunday in San Telmo was city life as it was always meant to be.
We had rented a little flat above a cobblestone street in the historic district of San Telmo. Once a prosperous neighbourhood, its inhabitants fled to nearby Recoleta during a persistent cholera outbreak, and didn’t return.
This barrio has seen wealth come, go and come again, and it is made all the richer for it. But it’s not the gentrification, the bright Victorian remnants, decorative wrought iron, or even the charming cobblestones that stand San Telmo proud.
This street, Defensa, is where the Argentine militia beat the “bastardo British” back all the way down to the harbour and on to the boats they rode in on, giving the Argentines the confidence to go and drive out the Spanish too, for good measure. This street is where Argentina won its swagger, and Defensa has never forgotten it.
An interesting enough neighbourhood during the rest of the week, we woke on Sunday morning to the sounds of market stalls being set up next door in Plaza Dorrego, the oldest plaza in Buenos Aires after the Plaza de Mayo, where the presidential palace sits.
It was early for Latin America to be waking up…it was barely 9. But the industrious market sellers were steadily preparing for a day of trading. I’m no stranger to markets, and could possibly even write a decent guide book for London’s Markets, but even I was amazed when I went outside.
Stalls stretched as far as the eye could see down the long Defensa street, and the plaza was packed cheek by jowl with antiques sellers. I rushed back upstairs to our flat to tell Mark “oh my god, we are living on Portobello Road! (For those who don’t know Portobello, it’s antique shops do a roaring trade during the week, and it turns into a bustling market that stretches the length of the road on Saturday.)
The San Telmo market has been held here every Sunday since 1970, as the colourful banners over the plaza told us. The antiques market was king of the plaza, while craft sellers stretched out in both directions up and down Defensa.
There was music, laughter, street tangoes, sunshine, itinerant street cafes, and throngs of people out to breathe in the first warm Spring day that signals the end of winter.
The place was buzzing…alive and ascending. And then the soldiers came.
Thine enemy is mine
We weren’t just there on any day. We were there on the 12th of August. The anniversary of the day they “drove the bastard British back to the port after stealing the Malvinas” (Falkland Islands to those from other parts, and if you don’t think Argentina is bitter about it, just take note of the road signs across the country that defiantly state “Las Malvinas son Argentinas”). I was told this very thing by a long haired, Jesus looking re-enactor dressed as gaucho militia.
A dozen or so men and women dressed in various military costumes from gaucho militia through to British, Argentine and Spanish officers took the crowd through the eras of Argentina’s military history.
First the gaucho fought each other with a wide range of swords, machetes, whips, and a type of lasso with three ropes weighted with heavy balls at each end. They were thrown at their enemy’s feet (or more likely the nearest wild cow) and promptly wrapped around their legs, leaving their prey unable to walk and vulnerable.
Then someone (perhaps the Argentines or the Spanish or both) fought a war against the gauchos. At first the gauchos had it over on them, but the soldiers figured out how to fight them and slaughtered them all. A few years later the Spanish and Argentines found themselves in a bit of a spot with the British, and made nice with the gauchos, convincing them to fight against the imperialists together, which was a successful plan. And then later they used the same alliance against the Spaniards, and won their independence for good. (At least I think that’s what was happening.)
The result was a festival of culture, sights, sounds, smells among the hive of activity that is a weekend market. We even found a weird children’s festival in former convent, complete with a 3 man rock band consisting of two teenagers on guitars, and a man who could only be their middle aged dad, rocking it out for all of his misspent youth and lost opportunities. He was killing it – in his own mind at least — and that’s the one that mattered most. We should all be that man at least once.
We then meandered toward a huge park at the outskirts of La Boca, that was filled to the brim with families soaking in the sunny day. There were picnics, canoodling couples and a massive playground piled high with kids of all ages. A flea market wound its way around the paths of the park, and it was clear this was a glimpse of real Porteno family life on Sunday.
The night was topped off with a slow moving procession of drums and dancers making their way down Defensa. We watched from the balcony of our flat while 30 or so dancers, drummers and hangers on twisted their hips, shuffled their feet, and banged out their song down the road, and eventually back again. Apparently they do it every Sunday night to keep in shape for Carnaval in the spring.
It was the perfect embodiment of Buenos Aires. It dances and drums it’s way through life, and reminds us to rock out to our own tune each and every day.