Chicago Addick living in Bermuda
Wednesday 30 May 2007
  Buenos Aires My recent wrangling, nay arguing with American Airlines gave me a kick up the butt, on writing my Buenos Aires travelogue, which is long overdue. By the way we still do not have a penny back from the bastards, just a few thousand air miles, which on the basis I vowed never to travel with them again, is as much good as a poke in the eye with a boarding pass.

Anyway, don’t let that put you of Buenos Aires, because it was well worth the aggro.

The capital of Argentina is not love at first sight but she is certainly a keeper, slowly growing on you wanting you to discover more. It is a city of many contrasts. A colourful history mixes with a black and white past and today flourishing porteños, as the locals are known, are effortless in their style, live side by side with some of the poorest areas in the world.

The people are massively passionate and warm, proud of who they are but belonging more to Europe than Latin American. They look down their noses at the rest of the country and likewise the rest of country stares back at as if they were strangers.

The city grew with the importance it’s port, now part of a huge regeneration, on the Rio de la Plata and although their independence came later than the rest of the country they finally banished the Spanish in 1820 and for decades that followed battled all-comers manfully to keep this huge divided country as one.

However it wasn’t until an obscure army general called Juan Domingo Peron stepped out of the shadows to drag Argentina in the 19th Century with his young glamourous wife Evita becoming the darling of the country as she set about distributing the wealth from the few to many.

But it was hard to shake the militants and in 1955 Peron was overthrown only to return in 1973. By this time the country was in turmoil and after his death the country entered the abyss and under military rule up to 30,000 people were killed, mostly trade unionists, political activists, defiant priests and student leaders.

Inflation soared and although memories of the 1978 world cup are of beautiful football and ticker-tape the country was in meltdown. Women marched weekly to the Plaza de Mayo to demand information on their missing children. They still march every Thursday at 3.30pm.

On April 2nd, 1998 the military junta made one last attempt to flame support by evoking patriotic passion and invading what the Argentinians call La Malvinas. Of course they didn’t budget on a large slice of Maggie’s patriotic passion and it was a nasty defeat for then leader General Leopoldo Galtieri. Defeat did bring the people to their senses though but 20-years on The Falklands is still a political issue and Brits are wise to avoid the topic in conversation.

However even as recently as 1987 there was another military uprising, which saw the economy spiral out of control with inflation at 197%. The peso was then pegged to the dollar at one to one in 1991 but the corruption and scandal did not go away.

The ‘90’s were a bad time for Argentina and the International Monetary Fund had to come to the rescue more than once, no more so at the end of 2001 when the country witnessed four presidents in 11 days.

Amazingly this large country with rich natural resources and huge national pride lived through generations of unrest, corruption, violence and economic disaster but at long last seems to have finally stopped beating itself up. Corruption and crime have not gone away and it is wise not to stroll around looking like a tourist with a big chunky watch on your wrist or a wallet temptingly sticking out of your back pocket. We had no problems but there are plenty of horror stories to make you wise up.

On the face of it today Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina is booming. Tourist’s stream into Buenos Aires, 4m in 2006, and enterprising portenos move back into the city in droves, creating businesses and investing in or building property.

However it is not all like that and the reverse is only across the train tracks. The train that comes into the huge Retiro station (English built in 1915) dissects the port area and on one side is wealth and the other is the shanty towns. If you are walking in this area understand your surroundings as a wrong road can take you into squalor only seen on television screens. There is no gloss to be put on 25,000 people each living in one of 30 shanty towns or villas in the capital, where corrugated iron is slung over rotting walls with holes for windows. Whilst the government ignores them there is now a tour you can take so tourists don’t have too. We didn’t but driving along the main autopista into the city, look right and you will get a good view of the other side of the tracks. Its humbling indeed.

The proud porteños are a cool lot, dressing to impress, even a mooch around the shops is seen as a chance to don ones best outfit, and still in the less affluent neighbourhoods, hard-earned money appeared to be worn in, than lived in or driven.

Argentina is famous for three things – the Tango, its wine and its love of football. After living in the U.S., it was a source of great delight to see good old footie dictate conversation, the media and the streets. More can be read of our experience at River Plate’s opening game of the season here. (click for photos)

Tango is as popular now in Buenos Aires as it was 100-years ago. The dance originated from a combination of lively cultures and some say from often violent streets around the turn of the last century. Two different barrios (neighbourhoods), one Boca and the other Barracas claim its beginnings and back then it was seen as a scandalous proletarian affair but eventually it became respected once the Parisian’s bourgeoisie and the high classes of London and New York found out about this most visceral, frantic, sexy and explosive dance. We went to a show at El Viejo Almacen (Alvnedia Independencia 300, y Balcarce, San Telmo) and it was truly amazing and a must if you find yourselves in BA.

With heavy influence once again from their Spanish and Italian history, café society and outdoor eating is common in the city. People will tell you that BA used to be dirt cheap, and it probably was 10 years ago but although still very reasonable, stories of $3 a meal were off the mark, at least in the heart of the city.

But eating and coffee are perfect for people watching, particularly in areas such as Palermo Chico, Puerto Madero and Recoleta and it is not unusual for couples of groups to nurse a Pepsi or a coffee for hours as they pass the time of day.

Buenos Aires is a shopping haven and on the basis that American Airlines lost my entire luggage, I had no choice to sample another good reason to come to the city. It is boutique wonderland and window displays mirror anything you will see on 5th or Michigan Avenue but there are also bargains to be had, especially if you are looking for leather goods. What I liked about the place was its old-school approach to shopping, in that you’ll still find shops dedicated to one type of product. This drives me mad living in Chicago and it was a treat to see small book shops, hardware stores, shops just selling ponchos, or polo gear and toys.

The Patio Bullrich centre in Recoleta was specifically good and my credit card took a fond liking to menswear shops Etiqueta Negra and Airborn.

Now I’m pretty spoilt with the quality of steak in Chicago, you will need to do a few laps of the globe to find steak to beat that found in America’s Midwest but there is one very worthy competitor.

39 million people live in Argentina but there are over 50 million cows roaming the country and if you are learn two words of Spanish before you go, then jugosa (rare) and bien cocido (well done) could be it. Argentina has the world's highest consumption rate of beef, at 68kg a year per capita and although there is pasta and for some reason an innumerate number of pizzeria’s this is a meat-eaters haven.

From the pavement Parrillas that sizzle with chorizo, to the traditional eateries and trendy restaurants you will find cuts of meat on the menu that will get you thinking about that old butcher’s shop you used to go to when you were a kid.

The parillas are where you will find the best value for your money, but for great meal try Cabana las Lilas, which occupies a wonderful location down on the dockside at Puerto Madero.

Puerto Madero is a docklands type area of the city, once vitally important but for many decades a rat-infested shell - sound familiar? Now towering offices, exclusive restaurants and people (get that) occupy this vast arty complex. Unlike so many cities around the world it is possible never even to get a glance of the river in Buenos Aires as for decades the city turned its back on it but make sure you get to see the shiny new modern monument that is Puerto Madero.

The city is easy to navigate by foot and is laid out in a Spanish colonial style grid pattern of narrow calles wide avienidas, including the gynormous 20-lane Avenida 9 de Julio with its postcard emblem the Obelisco at it’s centre. We stayed in the Recoleta area of the city, a green, pleasant and quiet part of town.

The most famous visitor spot here, if not the whole of the city is the Cementerio de la Rocoleta, a permanent home to hundreds of illustrious corpses, including Evita, aka Maria Eva Duarte de Peron. The cemetery has rows of impressive tombs and cenotaphs. Gather your thoughts afterwards at the legendary La Biela café (Avienda Quintana 600).

Recoleta boasts some of Buenos Aires most beautiful buildings including the regal looking French Embassy (Cerrito 1399), the Basilica Nuestra Senora del Pilla, consecrated in 1832. A stroll along Avienda Alvear is a treat with the Palacio Duhau (now a hotel) the spooky Residencia Maguire and the famous Alvear Palace Hotel.

East of here is the very claustrophobic Microcentro, which is the city’s financial hub. The pedestrinised Calle Florida runs through here, and half way up you will see a now defunct Harrods. Other places of note are the English clocktower, Torre de los Ingleses right near the Plaza Martin. The clocktower was presented as a gift by local Anglo-Argentinians in 1910. However since the Falklands War, authorities have insisted on calling the building Monumental Torre, and thus dropping the Ingleses! The surrounding area was once called Plaza Britanica, but you guessed it, no longer. Some people never forget do they?

The massive Correo Central is worth a walk by, it’s the central post office and down the street is Luna Park, where Peron met Evita. It’s now a music venue and Coldplay were lined up to play when we were there.

South of the city is the lively area of San Telmo, an up and coming area with a burgeoning nightlife, particularly surrounding Plaza Dorrego. Further south is a barrio made famous by the beginnings of the tango and its football team.

It is best to be careful walking the streets of Boca, once the heartbeat of this area was its port, but now it is at La Bombonera (the chocolate box), home to the famous blue and yellow jerseys of Boca Juniors, arch rivals to the more high brow River Plate a few miles along the river. Boca’s most famous son is of course Diego Maradona, and despite his many demons, his influence is everywhere.

A stroll along the wide Avienda del Libertador, nestled by parkland will take you past various museums and embassies. A popular spot to visit, judging by the queue was Jardin Japones, complete with pagodas, artificial lakes and huge koi carps. Keep walking and you will eventually reach the Monumento a los Españoles. A left here will take you to past the zoo (Jardin Zoologico) and to Plaza Italia, I told you they are Europhiles didn’t I?

Then you are in Palermo, home to all things horsey. The Hipodromo Argentino is huge and can hold 100,000 spectators on race days. The track is used all year round. Across the street is another pastime that the porteños adore, polo. It is only played in the capital from September to November, when at which point the best players, and Argentina does have the best players, travel to play in other countries.

Polo was brought to Argentina by British ranchers in 1875, something else we gave the world and something else that other people are now so much better at and in this country the game is not just for royals or aristocrats, similar to Uruguay, when kids turn up after school to play. By the way Polo gear can be bought anywhere but La Martina is the place to go, owned by polo’s very own pin-up boy Adolfo Cambiaso.

Now there is the steak and the wine, but the coup de grâce is the ice-cream. A tradition inherited from the Italians, Buenos Aires helado artesnal (homemade ice-cream) is so unbelievable that you will never have a Mr Whippy again. Visit Persicco (2591 Salguero) for ice-cream to die for.

Our extra day given to us because of American Airlines incompetence did allow us to go to the Argentinian Tennis Open, held at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, also in Palermo. In recent years Argentinian tennis players have featured heavily in the world rankings and we very much enjoyed being entertained by some up and coming players battling it out in the first round.

Palermo is a big area and is split into smaller barrios. Palermo Viejo is a quiet residential area with plenty of boutiques, bars and restaurants. La Cabrera (Cabrera 5099) came well recommended but we didn’t try it. A little haven of the rich and famous called Palermo Chico, also merits a gawp.

I hope the early part of this post didn’t seem like a history lesson (I’ve just re-read it!) but this city deserves an appreciation of its sometimes rich but more often sorrowful history but what I saw in February was a proud city, with its beautiful buildings, open spaces, deep culture and vivacious citizens. Not to mention five things that make this city a fantastic place to visit - food, wine, ice cream, tango and of course the beautiful game.

Above photos top to bottom: View down Avenida 9 de Julio; Plaza de Mayo; Retiro train station; Dancing the tango; A Parillada; Torre de los Ingleses; Hipodromo Argentino.

Photos L to R: Recoleta Market; Palermo Chico; Monumento a los Españoles; Monumental Historico Nacional; Luna Park; A Subte metro station; View of the city from our hotel; The French embassy building; The famous Cafe Tortoni; The Argentinian tennis open; The Obelisk.

Click on Photos to enlarge.

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After living in Chicago for four and a half years, I moved to the beautiful if bewildering island of Bermuda in July 2008. This blog is about being an exiled and depressed Charlton Athletic fan and whatever else the day brings.
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