A love letter to Buenos Aires

By | Category: Travel destinations

Don’t cry for me Argentina

Having made the journey twice before, I knew the trip to Buenos Aires – Argentina’s charismatic capital –  was long but my most recent trip was madness.

I must have been in the air for more than 22 hours and, thanks to stops at New York and Dallas, it took 29 hours altogether.

To say it was something of an epic journey is an understatement but, the paradox of it all, is that even though I have travelled so far I feel very much at home. Arguably more so than I do in the UK a place where I  am beginning to feel increasingly mystified.

When I left London, everyone was talking about Celebrity Big Brother – a reality show where ‘stars’ such as Scarlett Moffat (someone known for watching TV on her sofa)– hole up in a house and have their movements monitored by the Joe Public. Our TV  – like so much of Britain – has definitely seen better days…

I spend my days in Buenos Aires sat working away, behind my MacBook, in an elegant cafe. I like going to Los 36 Billares whose famous past guests include the likes of Michaelangelo Bavio Esquii, Abelardo Arias and the beloved Frederico Garcia Lorca for a Cafe cortado (essentially a shot of espresso, with an equal amount of steamed milk) and alfajore – a melt-in-the mouth cookie guaranteed to make you close your eyes with happiness.

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However on sunny days, I prefer the sidewalk terrace of  London City – where Julio Cortazar wrote his first novel, Los Premios (The Prizes) – or La Biela, a historic Recoleta coffee-house that has been serving Buenos Aires’ elite for over 70 years. On a sunny afternoon, the best tables to bag are those on the al fresco front terrace, although you’ll have to be prepared to 20 per cent more for the privilege.

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When I need to take a screen break or stretch my legs, I’ll stroll along to one of BA’s bookshops because, while book stores may be shutting down left, right and centre in every other city, the Argentine capital is positively brimming with brilliant bookshops. Make no mistake: Portenos are proud of their strong literary heritage – this, after all, is the land that has produced Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortazar (aka some of the greatest writers in the Spanish-speaking world).

Trying to choose the best bookshop in BA is akin to selecting the spottiest dog in a kennel full of Dalmatians – nigh on impossible. That being said, I have a soft for El Ateneo Grand Splendid – a stunning book store that was once a theatre, something the ornate balconies, white and gold-leaf boxes, crimson stage curtains and high painted ceilings bear testimony to – and Walrus. Run by an American photographer Geoffrey and his Argentine wife Josefina, this tiny San Telmo spot has a superb selection of both literature and non-fiction books, all in English. Other pluses include regular literary workshops and the chance to trade tomes with fellow literature lovers.

On Sundays, I’ll drop into Feria de San Telmo – an unmissable market selling some of BA’s best arts, crafts and souvenirs including bombilla, the metal straw used to drink Argentina’s beloved Mate (a bitter herb drink) – and  watch a colourful street performances while enjoying an empanada (super South American pie) and freshly squeezed orange juice purchased from friendly street vendors, for peanut prices.

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Occasionally I’ll make the one hour bus journey to the Feria de Mataderos to watch the Sunday La sortija show: expect to see gauchos (Argentine cowboys) galloping at their fastest along a corridor of sand before rising up out of their saddle – leaving just their feet in the stirrups – in an attempt to spear a small ring, all the while cheered on by rowdy locals.

But it’s when night falls, that BA truly comes alive. Never mind the Big Apple: Buenos Aires is the real city that never sleeps. Dinner is rarely eaten before 10pm – at the earliest – while boliches (night clubs) and milongas (tango clubs) don’t open much before midnight.

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All of the aforementioned are invariably packed full of hormones, hedonism and a whole lot of fun every night of the week – even on a Monday – for as the saying goes: “An Argentine will make one peso and spend two.”

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Puerta cerradas and speakeasy bars such as Floreria Atlantico are two of the hottest nightlife trends in Baires right now, but you can find them in any city. For me, a quintessential Buenos Aires evening revolves around tango – arguably Argentina’s greatest gift to the world. Nothing and I mean nothing is more extraordinary than watching this sultry, steamy dance live.

The milonga ritual changes according to the day: Sunday sees the action take place at La Glorieta, an outdoor milonga in the barrio of  Belgrano, while the uber-cool warehouse space of La Cathedral is the place to be on Tuesday evenings. Elsewhere charming Confiteria Ideal  (which  featured in the art house film Sally Potter’s Tango Lesson) comes alive on Friday evenings.

What all the venues have in common is that they don’t wind up until the wee small hours of the morning (Argentines have a fantastic ability to stay out until 5am, and somehow still be at their desks by 9am) so I’ve grown accustomed to grabbing a power nap before enjoying a night out in Tango town. And to dressing up for, despite the fact that it’s notoriously difficult (not to mention down right expensive) to buy clothes in Argentina,  Portenos still remain some of the most stylishly attired people on the planet.

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On a good day – when the jacaranda trees are in bloom – I doubt there’s a city as beautiful as BA. But the Paris of the South definitely has a dark side with its weekly power cuts, corruption and ever rising prices  (no one has any money now in Buenos Aires, myself included, owing to the currency devaluation implemented last December by  Mauricio Macri, the first centre right president in 12 years). Oh – and the fact that it’s impossible to walk without having to make occasional jumps to dodge the piles of dog mess, that plague the city’s side walks…

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And, on the outskirts of the city, the poor are plentiful. The descamisados (shirtless ones) inhabit shantytowns – or villas miserias as they are known – which are sadly all too common in the Argentine capital. According to TECHO, a non-profit organisation, there are 56 villas in the city including Villa 31 where five people were killed in one month alone earlier this year.  Happily improvement works, pacification programmes and mapping projects putting these hitherto invisible areas on the map, are in place under the new government – and will hopefully help change perceptions about the slums, that are often associated only with poverty and violence…

Yet for all it’s (many) problems, Buenos Aires has captured my heart and seeped into my soul. It’s one of those places that make me feel alive. And that alone is worth the arduous journey.

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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