Sunday, November 22, 2009

Buenos Aires

Arrived here yesterday lunchtime and have spent my first day in Argentina, checking out some of Buenos Aires!

Needless to say, much more than a day, perhaps more than a few weeks could be devoted to this place, but I’m moving on again – heading off down to El Calafate this afternoon. First impressions: a big, crazy and eclectic city. I was fortunate to be staying relatively centrally on the Avenida de Mayo, between the Plaza de Mayor at one end and the Congress / Parliament at the other. The hotel I stayed in was once visited by the great Federico Garcia Lorca in the early 1930s when his play “Bodas de Sangre” was being performed at a theatre nearby.

As one would expect, Avenida de Mayo is a great place to be located for a first impression of the city as it seems to reflect many elements of its history: inspired by Haussmann style visions of wide boulevards and beautiful architecture from the late 19th century there are many places which do indeed live up to that expectation. But alongside that, much of it betrays signs of a faded glorious past, a sort of worn and torn Champs Elysees. Clearly this gives the area an edge and a certain charm.

I had time yesterday afternoon to check out the Plaza de Mayo.

Strangely, but perhaps fittingly, I managed to arrive during two days when spring seemed to be on pause: grey skies and rain dominated much of my first afternoon and, though it was mild, some of my Antarctica gear made an appearance…A return on investment already!!

I had wanted to do an Evita Peron tour but BA London being slow conspired against my plans and I missed it.

However, it turned out to be something of a blessing as I discovered that the Casa Rosada – the Presidential residence – was open to the public to celebrate “20 November 1845”.

Essentially, from what I understood, this was all about a trade war of sorts between the French and English on the one hand, and the Argentines on the other, over import taxes. Needless to say, the Argentines were successful against such an alliance and yesterday was all about demonstrating this to the public. It was very interesting – and most unexpected – to be wandering around the Casa Rosada, a lovely old-style colonial building. I even got to stand on one of the balconies where so many Argentine leaders have made – usually impassioned – speeches to the throngs gathered on the square. It’s interesting how the tour is set up: the first room you go into is a homage to great Argentine women. 10 or so accompany the one you would expect to see in such surroundings, and I found it interesting that this was the first element of the tour. Although on reflection their current Presidente is of course a woman so that might have influenced thinking as well!

Looking out from the balcony you get a birds eye view of the Plaza de Mayor.

As with Avenida de Mayo it has a certain faded charm to it, and certainly a feeling that it is a “lived in” square, from the Mothers of the Disappeared (harking back to the last dictatorship) to the ex-Malvinas (Falkland) soldiers camped out there.

Moving back up the Avenida de Mayo, I checked out the wonderful Metro line. Getting on at the “Peru” station was like being transported back 100 years or so – and that was before the metro arrived. All varnished wood and no visible sign of any health and safety provisions given that the doors were opened manually with a quaint message informing people not to open them between stations! From an old style metro, I was back then back in very familiar surroundings at the Tortoni Café: familiar not in the sense that I had been before, but familiar by its Art Nouveau décor – it could have been the Horta House on rue Americaine! So much for crossing continents!

I had met family friends David and Graziella who very kindly showed me around the town in the evening: from the aforementioned café, once a favourite of intellectuals, poets and writers, and now tourists, to a tango-dinner show!

This had been one of my must-do activities (alongside a football game – watch this space for the return visit) and it didn’t let me down. The Homero Manzi appears to be something of an institution, and located right in the centre of one of the city’s tango quarters. But before the tango came the food and by god those Argentine steaks don’t disappoint! At least 3 if not 4 times as big as the usual Brussels fare and with no fat at all. Despite purposely not eating since the plane I was unable to finish mine…that’s how much there was. And then the tango.

A five-man band, three dancing couples and two singers took us through a range of tango styles. I was very pleased to be able benefit from the local knowledge provided by David and Graziella.

This morning I decided to check out the port area, not for any particular aesthetic reason, although they say it has been cleaned up a lot in the recent past, but rather to check out a tallship with more than a passing connection to my upcoming travels.

The “Corbetta Uruguay” is an institution in Argentina: well this is what I thought until my taxi driver couldn’t find it….!

It was the first iron ship operating in Argentina (built back in the UK naturally) and in 1903 came to the rescue of the Swedish scientific expedition, Nordenskjolk, around the Antarctica Peninsula.

Thanks Jess for putting me on to this, it was very interesting to see the ship and explore its history. As I stood on the deck I swear I could already anticipate the sway and motion of a tallship on the high seas. It was before midday so it clearly wasn’t a case of too much vino

I have now moved south and am in El Calafate. It’s 23h00 and only just getting properly dark. And cold. My clothing investment is one I’m increasingly content with. Tomorrow is acclimatization day before trekking on the Perito Moreno on Tuesday...

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