Tango bravo

 

GO CITYBREAK:From sultry dancers and crumbling mansions to fine art and skyscrapers, this stunning capital has it all. It’s hard to believe you’re in South America, writes SOPHIE PARKER

Whether you’re looking for street art or fine art, crumbling mansions or shiny skyscrapers, the mournful strains of a tango musician’s bandoneónor the buzz of a hip riverside nightclub, BA delivers.

Turning a corner can allow you to imagine you’ve changed countries, if not continents. The question is not what to see but how to see it all.

The metropolis owes its European heritage – and pretensions – to the immigrants who arrived here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From architecture to gastronomy, Old World influences are everywhere in Buenos Aires, as well as in the idiosyncratic Spanish spoken by Porteños – as the people of this port city are known – in the home-grown slang lunfardo and in the tango, all of which are, of course, quintessentially local.

For many European visitors, this blend of the familiar, given a seductive spin and set against the edgy backdrop of a nation with a rocky political and economic past, is what appeals. The mostly favourable prices are also an incentive.

The extensive but somewhat confusing bus system is not for the faint-hearted, and, while efficient, the grubby Subte underground system has few intersections along its mainly east-to-west-running lines. Both forms of transport are very cheap, costing a little over a peso (about 20c) for a single journey. Taxis, too, are inexpensive, and for the most part the must-see neighbourhoods are conveniently close together. A predominantly flat topography and grid-system streets make Buenos Aires ideal for exploring on foot. Pavements can be in poor condition in some areas – evidence that the capital’s upkeep is subject to the vagaries of the country’s economy.

Thankfully, there are less prosaic reminders of the city’s historical and cultural wealth. Located on Avenida de Mayo – an important avenue bookended by the Congress building and the president’s ceremonial residence, Casa Rosada – is Café Tortoni. This coffee house, with its art-nouveau interior, is an institution, frequented by local literary and artistic figures such as Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Gardel.

Head east along the street, away from the multilane Avenida 9 de Julio, with its imposing obelisk and impressive Teatro Colón opera house, and towards Casa Rosada (Pink House), where you can view the balcony from which Eva Perón, Diego Maradona and even Madonna addressed crowds gathered on Plaza de Mayo. This central square is still the location of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’s weekly demonstrations, when they protest against the forced disappearance of their children during the country’s military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983.

At the opposite end of the plaza stands the colonial-era Cabildo, once the seat of the Spanish viceroyalty of the River Plate, and the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, the final resting place of the national hero José de San Martín. The exploits of this general, a major figure in Argentina’s struggle for independence from Spain, were recently re-enacted on celluloid as part of the build-up to the country’s independence-revolution bicentennial, which will be celebrated on May 25th this year.

Dead politicians and war heroes are all very well, but what about the city’s living inhabitants? Porteños could give us a run for our money when it comes to the gift of the gab.

You’re bound to have your ear bent by a sweet-talking salesman or experience a genuinely curious citizen’s innocent interrogation. Mention you’re from Ireland and the talk turns to BA’s St Patrick’s Day festivities – the city centre’s Calle Reconquista is a focal point – alcohol or literature. (I had to bluff my way through a conversation on Joyce’s Ulysses, initiated by a taxi driver, before finally admitting that, unlike him, I hadn’t got around to reading it yet.)

With migration inextricably linked to the city’s history, there is a sense of nostalgia perhaps best appreciated in the atmospheric southern neighbourhood of San Telmo. A bohemian quarter with cobbled streets, abandoned 19th-century mansions and quaint former tenements – many of which have been restored and converted into hip art galleries, bars, boutiques or intimate hotels – this, one of BA’s oldest barrios, was home to many late-19th-century immigrants and is now a popular spot with tango fans.

Sundays see the area throbbing with visitors wandering around the antiques market on Plaza Dorrego. Artists and craftspeople set up stalls along Calle Defensa, and tango dancers skilfully wind their way over the cobbles in public performances. Yes, it’s touristy at weekends, but there’s still something charming and authentic here, and if you’re lucky you’ll stumble across an orquesta típica– an ensemble of tango musicians – playing on the street, double bass and upright piano included.

Football fans will want to make a pilgrimage to La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors stadium, in the working-class port neighbourhood of La Boca. Matches are often particularly boisterous and exhilarating affairs, especially if the team is playing local rivals Club Atlético River Plate. If you’d rather see Maradona’s former stomping ground without the rambunctious supporters, you can take a tour of the stadium and its museum. A few blocks south of the stadium is Caminito, a pedestrianised street flanked by much-photographed brightly coloured structures made of corrugated zinc. Restaurants and souvenir shops crowd the compact area, and models posing in tango garb will drape a leg around yours for a fee. Unashamed tourist trap it is, but it’s still worth a visit.

The excellent Fundación Proa art gallery, complete with library and cafe, is around the corner on Avenida Pedro de Mendoza.

The country may have suffered a crippling economic crisis just under a decade ago, but neighbourhoods such as Puerto Madero – the city’s docklands development – and Palermo exhibit little to suggest this.

Beyond the extensive picturesque parks along Avenida del Libertador lie the trendy shopping haven and gastronomic labyrinth of Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood. The sobriquets are imported, as are some of the shops, but there are numerous opportunities here to sample local cuisine, such as juicy steak or empanadas (pasties bulging with various fillings) in swish surroundings, and to savour a superb Argentinian Malbec or Torrontés at great prices.

Another regional speciality is maté, the popular bitter infusion drunk through a metal straw. Sharing this beverage with friends and acquaintances is customary; if you strike up conversation with a maté-drinking Porteño, don’t be surprised if they offer you their brew.

So how long does it take to find the “real” BA? A week is enough to comfortably explore the city’s major sights and most interesting areas, though the longer you stay the more you’ll discover that the real Buenos Aires exists in all of its multiple, contrasting neighbourhoods – and in its people.

  • bue.gov.ar

Where to stay, eat, go and shop in the Argentinian capital

5 places to stay

Faena Hotel + Universe.Martha Salotti 445, 00-54-11-40109000, faenahotelanduniverse.com.

Lose yourself in the opulence of Puerto Madero’s Faena, with its intimate cabaret theatre, spa and unique El Bistro restaurant, headed by a protege of the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià. From about €315 a night.

Mansion Vitraux.

Carlos Calvo 369, 00-54-11- 43006886, mansionvitraux. com. The 12 rooms of this modern San Telmo hotel are all decorated in distinct styles, and include a minimalist haven and a black-walled boudoir. There’s a pool on the roof, a sauna in the basement and a wine cellar where tastings can be had. From about €167 a night.

Castelar Hotel Spa.Avenida de Mayo 1152, 00-54-11-43835000, castelarhotel.com.ar. This historical hotel was home to the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca during his exile in Buenos Aires. With prices from about €67, this is a well-priced option in a great location. Ask for a room overlooking the avenue.

Nuss. El Salvador4916, 00-54-11-48336222, nusshotel. com. A recent addition to Palermo’s booming boutique- hotel scene, Nuss is located by the lively Plaza Serrano. The hotel’s 22 modern, comfortable rooms are distributed around a central patio. From about €197 a night.

The Cocker.Avenida Juan de Garay 458, 00-54-11- 43628451, thecocker.com. This beautifully restored period house in San Telmo is full of character. It has four chic suites as well as a roof garden. From about €78 a night.

5 places to eat

La Brigada.Estados Unidos 465, 00-54-11-43614685, labrigada.com. At this civilised San Telmo parrilla, or traditional grill, waiters show how tender the steak is by cutting it with a spoon.

El Cuartito.Talcahuano 937, 00-54-11-48161758, galeriaelcuartito.com.ar. Great pizza and pasta joints abound in BA, where Italian culinary traditions run deep. At this no-frills local favourite queues can stretch out of the door at weekends. Ask for the onion-topped fugazzeta and prepare to loosen your belt a notch.

Artemisia.Cabrera 3877, 00-54-11-48634242, artemisiaresto.com.ar. If you’ve stuffed yourself with steak and fancy a change, this laid-back Palermo restaurant offers exemplary salads, plus dishes such as pumpkin and goat’s cheese wrapped in filo pastry.

Osaka.Soler 5608, 00-54-11-47756964, osaka.com.pe. Get your fish fix and a taste of something from another corner of South America at this slick Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant. Though people eat late in BA, this place is popular, so get there early to ensure a space, and don’t leave without trying the cocktails.

Sirop.Vicente López 1661, 00-54-11-48135900, sirop restaurant.com. Intimate, elegant and with excellent staff, this small restaurant in a pretty Recoleta passageway serves rich dishes such as duck with cassis and steak in Malbec. Sister establishment Sirop Folie, over the road, does brunch at weekends.

5 places to go

Cementerio de la Recoleta.Junín 1760, 00-54-11- 48031594. Marvel at the variety of architectural styles among the mausoleums in this impressive cemetery. You can pay your respects at Evita’s surprisingly low-key tomb or at that of Co Mayo-born Admiral William Brown, national hero and founder of the Argentinian navy.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid.Avenida Santa Fe 1860, 00-54- 11-48116104, editorialelateneo. com.ar. BA has great bookshops, and this one, in a former theatre, is first-rate. Browse through books in the theatre boxes, or sip a coffee at the onstage cafe.

Malba. Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 3415, 00-54-11- 48086500, malba.org.ar. The work of local and Latin American artists, such as Xul Solar, Fernando Botero and Frida Kahlo, can be seen at this notable modern-art museum.

Confitería Ideal.Suipacha 380, 00-54-11-52658069, confiteriaideal.com. Whether you want to watch tango or dance it, there’s no shortage of establishments. Some shows can be expensive and inauthentic; try catching one at this old-school cafe, or taking a class here and joining the milonga (dance session) afterwards.

Museo Evita.Lafinur 2988, 00-54-11-48070306, museoevita.org. This museum dedicated to the fascinating figure of María Eva Duarte de Perón – Evita – houses items such as the former first lady’s outfits. The museum restaurant has an attractive tiled courtyard and is great for lunch or dinner.

Hot spot

Milión.Paraná 1048, 00-54-11-48159925, milion. com.ar. Behind the doors of this gorgeous Recoleta mansion are a stylish bar and romantic restaurant. Wander around the floors, catch an occasional film screening, dine in the candlelit garden on a balmy evening or try the famous frozen mojitos.

Shop spot

Hit San Telmo’s Calle Defensa for antiques and vintage items, both on Sundays and during the week. Recoleta has an extensive weekend arts and crafts fair, held around Plaza Francia. The streets around hip Plaza Serrano (also known as Plaza Cortázar), in Palermo Soho, are full of local fashion and home-accessories shops, as well as international brands such as Diesel and Penguin. For classic leather items try Casa Lopez, or La Martina’s polo-inspired gear; both have branches in the Galerías Pacífico mall (00-54-11- 55555100, galeriaspacifico. com.ar) on the central Calle Florida, and in the Patio Bullrich mall on Avenida del Libertador (00-54-11- 48147400, shoppingbullrich. com.ar). Close by at Posadas 1380, Humawaca (humawaca. com) sells modern leather and suede bags in vibrant colours.

When to go

Argentina’s spring (mid September to mid December) and autumn (mid March to mid June) are good times to visit the city, allowing you to avoid the often sweltering summer. The main polo season is in spring, a tango festival and the tango world championships take place in August, and Argentina celebrates the bicentenary of its independence revolution on May 25th this year.

Go there

Air France (airfrance.com) flies to Buenos Aires from Dublin via Paris Charles de Gaulle. British Airways (ba.com) flies from Dublin, Cork and Shannon via London Heathrow. Iberia (iberia.com/ie) flies from Dublin via Madrid.