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City life: Buenos Aires

Stunning, old-fashioned, haughty and with a lot of heart — just don’t let anyone tell you Buenos Aires is the Latin American Paris

City life: Buenos Aires
Graffiti in Avenida de Mayo. Image: SuperStock

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“Three-hundred pesos,” says the shop assistant, with a frosty air, as if the price weren’t absurd. For a worm-eaten paperback whose cover barely clings to its spine? Buenos Aires is a true mecca for book lovers, but I’d been wary the moment I’d encountered the officious, buzz-you-in entrance of the Libreria Helena de Buenos Aires antiquarian bookshop, located downtown between posh Recoleta and the theatre district’s tatty marquees. But the window display had beckoned.

Handsome, musty tomes on Latin American history, Eva Perón ephemera, photos of Buenos Aires as beaux-arts, fin-de-siècle boomtown — but too dear. Then, during a desultory browse through the bargain bin, up hops the store’s resident feline: a magnificent, proud, yet alley-born Persian. Hard to catch, but a purring love-bug once he’s in my arms.

My rapport with the moggy seems to have endeared me to the shop assistant — or perhaps the titles in my ‘maybe’ pile have piqued her interest. Soon, she’s pulling down related volumes, and the conversation — always compelling — veers from small talk to concerns about my native country, the perennially ‘dreadful’ situation in Argentina and cries of “thank God we’re not Venezuela”. I sense openness, and now that I’m engaged I can no longer resist, and drop some money on a framed vintage advert for Fernet-Branca, the old-fashioned, petroleum-flavoured aperitif the city’s residents (porteños) love knocking back.

Plaza Dorrego flea market. Image: Getty

Plaza Dorrego flea market. Image: Getty

Later, having overshot lunch playing the flâneur, I’m suddenly hungry. Hungry enough for El Obrero, a once-unassuming lunchroom, now a cult favourite in the Boca quarter. Historically a first stop for the immigrant waves who created BA’s mongrel culture, and the legendary birthplace of tango, this slum may well be headed for gentrification. And down a still sketchy Boca street, I spy telltale crowds — even though it’s after lunchtime — squeezing into a shack whose four walls and low ceiling are plastered in fading, rag-tag football memorabilia.

The place reeks of roasting beef and serves no-nonsense Argentine fare, like empanadas, mayonnaise-heavy salads, rich pastas… and let’s not forget the entrails. “Give me 20 minutes,” says the hostess, acknowledging me later than she should. I request a while-I’m-waiting glass of wine and sense I’ve transgressed some unstated protocol; now I’m self-conscious. Unlike me, the other diners are with friends, deep into the best conversations — political arguments, juicy gossip, tales of romance — all intensely tête-à-tête. Intonations rise and fall, forearms are seized, to drive home a point; interlocutors make grand, skyward gestures in droll disbelief. This room has a lot on its mind.

I’m wedged into a table at the rear. Cash only? I haven’t enough for even half a lunch. Mortified by my touristy faux pas, I ask the hostess — now my waitress — if there’s a bank machine near. She turns out to be owner Silvia Castro, who inherited a 1950s-era working men’s place from dad and an uncle, then made it one of the city’s hidden gems. Yes, there’s an ATM, the better part of a mile away. “But go, bombón — go,” insists Silvia, now pure sympathy, in her sibilant BA Spanish. “I’ll hold your table.” Taken aback, I could imagine no New York hostess being so indulgent. “You want to enjoy,” she says, “not leave without trying everything.” A screw-up, confessed, had broken the ice. Post-money-dash, my bife de chorizo, bloody rare, alongside creamy spinach and perfect chips, is superb, and served scorching. Another glass of mellow, bargain-priced Mendoza grape, and I daydream, eavesdrop and volley with Silvia, disarmed by her kindness and everything that comes extra with meat and potatoes.

Forget Paris
At the Plaza del Congreso, I take in the sooty grandiloquence of the capitol, alongside ruins of the legendary, abandoned coffeehouse Confitería El Molino, with its lopsided, storybook steeple and rusting windmill sails. A designated national monument that was once a watering hole for Argentina’s brightest writers, artists and statesmen, it’s been soon-to-be-restored for 20 years.

Next, down Avenida de Mayo, I’m wowed by the promiscuous architectural mashup. Graceful art-nouveau portals, spectacular neo-Moorish lobbies tucked behind wrought-iron arabesques; hotels fronted by splendid, crumbling, art deco contours; and block after block of neoclassical apartment houses with French-doored terraces opening onto wainscoted drawing-rooms and libraries. You can’t resist imagining the ghosts within.

To call Buenos Aires ‘the Paris of South America’ is a bit of bunk, something those who truly understand would never say. But you get where it comes from. In ‘nice’ neighbourhoods like Recoleta, sharp-dressed, perfectly coiffed high-flyers slip into doorman buildings on leafy, clean-swept streets. There are clever boutiques touting the silliest, most mouth-watering luxuries: gilt-tacked saddles, creamy, ruinous bed linen or fussy moppets’ togs only the childless would consider purchasing.

Yet it was right on Avenida Santa Fe that I saw a huge, beautiful oak limb crack off the trunk, plunge and crush a jet-black, late-model sedan — mercifully empty. Once the shock passed, onlookers directed a chorus of reproaches against a city government that lets sidewalks, streets, green spaces, order… fall, literally, to ruin. Disaster and discontent are at the heart of BA’s pomp.

“It’s more like what Buenos Aires imagines Paris to be — a hundred years ago,” says David Jacobsen, who was born in New York, but came to BA 12 years ago to practice psychoanalysis. He compares Argentina to Australia: vast, but underpopulated, a new nation of immigrants. “A fancy projection onto a grubby port, yet it becomes the reality. Brazen, when you think about it,” he adds.

Tonight, Buenos Aires is better than Paris at Club Social Deluxe, a sexy, buzzy beachhead at the border of other, iffy districts. Artsy types jam into a vintage-styled dining room for haute hooch and local-style Mediterranean, with more-than-standard culinary aspirations; they pull it off.

Paradoxically imposing and unassuming, David, my companion, is a wide-ranging raconteur who also works as a translator — and happens to be a fervent tango student. “The cultural offering — the tradition of intellectuality in Buenos Aires — is an incredible attraction,” he states, inviting no arguments.

He describes an outstanding theatre scene with everything from feel-good musicals to edgy dramas that are changing Latin American literature. There’s tremendous social engagement. David rattles off multiple happenings — an LGBT-rights tango intervention, an activist workshop and a garden-variety march against the latest government misdeed: all possible dates on his calendar. The performances at the new Centro Cultural Kirchner, in a magnificent, repurposed post office, are edgy. “Where else in the world — even in New York — could I find that?” Yet after all these years in a city he loves, David still can’t negotiate the red tape to score a proper visa. He takes the ferry to Colonia, Uruguay, and back, every 90 days, to enter Argentina as a tourist once more.  

Las Violetas. Images: AWL Images

Las Violetas. Images: AWL Images

Another immigrant, Juan Ramírez, meets me after work at Las Violetas, in Almagro. One of the city’s grandest of grande-dame cafes, Las Violetas opened in 1884. Venues for pastries and sandwiches, full meals or a solid cocktail, confiterías like this are at the heart of city life and — you guessed it — from the old-school, with marmoreal and stained-glass appointments, waiters on the north side of 40 and amusing refinements like embroidered napkins, liveried plates and lots presented on footed dishes. Service ranges from good-naturedly spotty to infuriatingly bad, everyone complains, nothing changes. But whether it’s workaday Las Violetas or stylish La Biela, the Petit Colón, near its namesake theatre, or any of the thousand other cafes I’ve passed and really must visit, I never failed to marvel at how many tables were taken by friends, talking one on one. Giggling teens and old fogeys, turned-out señoras and worn-down housewives, bound by obvious affections. Even tourists let go of telephones in these fabulous yet everyday settings.

The waiter at Las Violetas delivers a huge pile of sandwiches, including some interesting concoctions with white bread. “I wanted a bigger, freer life than I could find in Barranquilla, or even Bogotá,” Juan says, when I ask what the city means to him. He came from Colombia nine years ago, with little more than his ambitions. These days he’s slogging through exams to get into medical school. Some old photos reveal how the city has driven him toward his goal: compared to back home, he’s slimmer and more smartly dressed, his smile looks more genuine. He speaks of a life today surrounded by friends who came from lots of other somewheres to take their place in Buenos Aires — and the wider world.

Juan invites me to a favourite spot, Frank’s — a way-hot Palermo speakeasy done in wink-wink bordello chic (flocked wallpaper, cut-glass chandeliers), famed for twee mixology and a comely, young and fashionable set. There, sanguine Juan clouds a little. “It hasn’t been easy, but I’m me here,” he states. This involves urban anonymity and port-city live-and-let-live, an antidote to idle scrutiny in small towns and too-tight families.

“I even love the fog and rain,” he says, looking poetic in his pampa-wool scarf.

House of horrors
Another walk. A dumpy neighbourhood, along a roaring avenue, but at that, there’s intriguing architecture and of course, arch graffiti. It recalls the city the early-20th-century, Buenos Aires-born writer Roberto Arlt described so well: chilly, pensive; suitable for existential musings.

Beneath a noisy overpass, I happen on a government signpost that doesn’t mince words. Translated, it reads ‘Former Clandestine Detention, Torture and Extermination Centre’. In the now-uncovered basement of what was once a stately Buenos Aires clubhouse, historians are unearthing the ruins of a torture chamber from the nation’s ‘Dirty War’ (roughly 1974-1983), a national trauma, still being denounced, that saw the state kidnap and murder as many as 30,000 native-born political inconvenients. From above, I see a labyrinth of rooms, empty and abject, where some of 20th-century Latin America’s most heinous political crimes took place; a sickening death pit. As if on cue, mosquitoes, maybe a centimetre long and ferocious this time of year, drill into me, but I can’t take cover. I stand and stare, imagining the worst, paralysed.

Back to a softer reality, chatting with a driver, a fine, honest old soul. What was it to live through? How could this refined, intelligent, human place have been the scene of such brutality? “It was a very difficult time,” he admitted, with zero elaboration. I probed others, sometimes casually, sometimes less so. No one else — young, old, upper-class or average Joe — wanted to remember. You suspect they can’t forget.

Sculpture entitled ‘Waiting for the Boat’, La Boca. Images: AWL Images

Sculpture entitled ‘Waiting for the Boat’, La Boca. Images: AWL Images

Later, one last, sun-dappled walk from the Plaza de Mayo — home to Argentina’s presidential palace and the scene of some of the nation’s most significant political activism — to Plaza Dorrego, in San Telmo, for the Sunday flea market. This is an official must-do, and the action starts blocks away, on Calle Defensa, which is well-nigh impassable, thanks to locals and visiting hordes nosing into craft and food stalls. In the plaza proper, there are great souvenirs: tossed-away dishware from long-defunct nightclubs; antique banknotes in head-scratching denominations — a testament to the nation’s notorious economic instability; and phonograph records by the thousand.

At Bar El Federal, two blocks off the plaza, I meet up with Teresita Lencina, an expert on Argentine popular culture, originally from Entre Ríos province. Another ‘immigrant’ in Buenos Aires for good, she’s put together an NGO and founded a cultural centre that’s a bit of a landmark, especially when it comes to tango-related books, seminars and events. “Are we really that far away?” she wonders, when I suggest the city’s way-south geographic placement gives rise to a curious urban character.

As always with porteños, native-born or imported, the outlook is intelligent, rueful, very human. “The city is a challenge, complicated, maddening, often for no reason,” she confesses over a pint, in the tavern’s warm, wooden setting. “But you’re always engaged, you still go out, see people even when you’re tired, even when there’s work first thing tomorrow. My whole life project started with a bottle of wine, in a Buenos Aires cafe, talking to sympathetic friends.”

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways runs nonstop daily flights from Heathrow. Other European, US and Latin American carriers connect with a change of planes.
Average flight time: 12h 50m.
The neighbourhoods of most interest to visitors (especially El Centro, Palermo, Recoleta, San Telmo and Boca) are all walkable and connected by a metro system (Subte), while the reasonably priced taxis are preferable to the complex and chaotic bus network. Uber is a very recent arrival in Buenos Aires.

When to go
Winter can be chilly (June-August, average high 15C), while summer is often sweltering (Dec-Feb average high 28C). Autumn (Mar-May) averages 22C, while spring (Sept-Nov) is similarly balmy.  

Places mentioned
El Obrero. 64 Agustín R Caffarena, C1157ADB. T: 00 54 11 4362 9912
Club Social Deluxe. 438 Caseros Ave, C1152AAN. T: 00 54 11 4307 1919
Frank’s. 1443 Arévalo, C1414CQC. T: 00 54 11 4777 6541
Bar El Federal. 599 Carlos Calvo, C1102AAK. T: 00 54 11 4361 7328

How to do it
Journey Latin America offers three-night stays in several well-placed hotels from £1,335 per person, including flights, transfers and a tango show.

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)