Puerto Madero

Built on the old docklands, Puerto Madero is Buenos Aires’ newest and trendiest Barrio. It’s an amazing mix of beautifully restored old buildings and fabulous modern developments.  “Re-dressed” warehouses are home to ritzy loft apartments, chic bars, gourmet restaurants and smart offices. Luxury high-rise condos hover above them.

The Bridge at Puerto Madero
The Bridge at Puerto Madero

Some of the world’s leading designers and architects have left their mark. Phillippe Starck has woven his magic on the boutique Faena Hotel and Universe. The state of the art Museo Fortabat which houses the treasures of Argentine socialite Amalia Fortabat is the work of  Rafael Vifioly. But undoubtedly the most impressive piece of architecture and engineering here is the Puente de la Mujer. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the 160 metre pedestrian bridge represents a tango dancing couple.

One modern phenomenon you won’t encounter down at Puerto Madero is traffic.  Most of the area is reserved for pedestrians. Cobblestoned paths lead along the waterfront and between the high rise buildings. And on the most easterly edge of the area, on the banks of the mighty Rio Plata, lies one of Buenos Aires most peaceful places. The Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur is a rambling wetlands of reedy lagoons threaded with gravel paths and rich with wildlife.

The barrio is named after Eduardo Madero, who was the brains and indeed the pesos, behind the transformation of the muddy wasteland on the Buenos Aires’ eastern edge into a harbour to accommodate Argentina’s burgeoning trade. Begun in the mid 19th century, the project was dogged by difficulties, including financial problems and accusations of corruption. It was finally competed in 1898 but by 1910, the docks were  already inadequate. Trade moved away to new ports at La Boca and Retiro and Puerto Madero languished.

Today Puerto Madero is back and it’s thriving. It’s one of Buenos Aires most popular precincts both as a place to live and as a place to play. 127

Floralis Generica

From the giant stone horseman in the Plaza San Martin to the towering monolith on the Avenida 9 de Julio, to the bold grinning mannequins at the windows of the conventillos of Caminito, Buenos Aires is a city rich in public art.

Floralis Generica
Floralis Generica

One of city’s, if not the world’s, most unusual and memorable sculptures is the Floralis Genérica, in the centre of the Plaza Naciones Unidas, just next to the Museo de Belles Artes,

Designed and funded entirely by architect Eduardo Catalano, it was installed in 2002, a year after the disastrous crash of 2001. The giant flower has 20metre high steel and aluminium petals which open at dawn and close at dusk. By night it glows with warm red lights. In the dark days of 2001, the sculpture might have served as a sign of hope, a promise that Argentina would blossom again, as it most certainly has.

Café Tortoni

Cafe Tortoni, at 825 Avenida de Mayo, is one of Buenos Aires oldest and most famous milongas, or tango clubs.

The tango show at Café Tortoni
The tango show at Café Tortoni

It was opened in 1858 by a Monsieur Tuon, a French immigrant, who named and modelled his Cafe Tortoni after a famous Fin de siecle coffeehouse on Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. He hoped that, just like the Parisian Café Tortoni, the new Buenos Aires establishment would attract the intelligentia, the literati and the elite of the artistic set. It did, particularly after the famous basement room La Pena, opened in 1926. Among the artists and writers who aired their ideas there were the poet Jorge Luis Borges and the artist Benito Quinquela Martin.

And of course the tango served as a backdrop and most probably an inspiration to their creativity.

The society of La Pena slowly disintegrated during the 1940s, but Café Tortoni had earned a reputation as a Buenos Aires landmark. Over the years famous figures from all over the world have visited, including Albert Einstein and Hillary Clinton.

Nowadays the basement of Cafe Tortoni is a theatre restaurant with up to four shows a day. And what a show! We sat spellbound as a quartet of dancers, to the music of a small orchestra, danced out the story of the tango, from its birth in the bordellos of La Boca to the brilliant work of art it is today.

Upstairs at street level, Cafe Tortoni is just as entertaining. It’s a great place to enjoy a drink, people watch and bask in an ambiance of old Beuenos Aires.

La Boca

A Street in La Boca
 La Boca

Picturesque, romantic and built on broken dreams, La Boca is one of Buenos Aires most fascinating and most visited barrio (areas).

The name La Boca, which means “the mouth”, derives from its location at the mouth the Riachuela River.

The area was settled first, between 1830 and 1852, by Italian migrants from Genoa who had come to work on the newly established docks. They built their houses with leftover materials from the port, raising sheets of corrugated iron on piles and painting them with remnants of paint from ships and warehouses.

During the boom of the late 18th century, thousand more immigrants from Spain and Italy poured into Argentina. Unable to afford the land they had chased across the world, most of them remained at La Boca where they had disembarked, doomed to a life on the docks, building their houses, like the generation before them, from corrugated iron, and painting them with gaudy odds and ends.  Thus the colourful architectural tradition of La Boca began.

Also at about this time in La Boca, the tango was born. Poor, disappointed, lonely, often alone, and far from home, the Boquenses sang nostalgic songs of longing for the lands and the loves they had left behind.  They danced to them in the local Bordellos – a close and sensual dance they called the tango. And in the Bordellos of Buenos Aires, the tango stayed, shunned by polite Argentine society, for a quarter of a century.

La Boca itself remained a place apart, largely unappreciated and even distrusted by the rest of the city until well into the 20th century.  Its unique character and style was first celebrated in the paintings of Benito Quinquella Martin in the 1930s.  In 1933, Martin donated a piece of land to build a primary school and an Argentine art museum. He decorated the walls of the school with his own murals and his own works formed the foundation of the museum’s collection.  Martin was also one of the prime-movers behind El Caminito, La Boca’s “museum” street. Named after a famous tango, it is lined with old, brightly-painted conventillos or family houses, where giant puppets lean from windows and lines of washing hang between balconies. Today, many artists live, work and exhibit in La Boca and it is the most painted and photographed barrio in Buenos Aires.

However, La Boca really became part of Buenos Aires in 1940 with the opening of the Bombonera. This stadium, which seats 60,000 people is the Boca Juniors, the most popular football team in Argentina (and incidentally, the team which spawned Diegoi Maradona) Underneath the stadium is a state of the art museum with a great deal of fascinating local history and of course wonderful displays of team kit, triumphs and characters.

Undoutedly, and perhaps unfortunately, La Boca is now a tourist hot-spot and its main streets and buildings have been pimped and primped to that end, with souvenir shops, tango shows and tango lessons galore. However, it still remembers its roots, it still has its own special culture traditions and style. Those first Genoese immigrants are remembered in Vuelta de Rocha, the small-ship-shaped square they used to call “whispers’ square” where they used to gather to recall their home country.  The Italian influence is still strong here; so much so that just a few years ago, there were moves afoot in La Boca to secede from Argentina and annex to Italy!

 

The tango

Beauty, passion and tragedy are the essentials of romance and Buenos Aires’ history and culture is steeped in it. There the stories of Evita and Che, the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, the haunting music of the Andes and old Spain and a host of heart-rending songs.

The tango brings Via Florida to a standstill
The tango brings Via Florida to a standstill

Then there’s the tango!  Born in the dockland bordellos and shunned for many years by polite society, the tango, now, defines Buenos Aires.  It flourishes in the clubs and is the centrepiece of every great spectacle. It owns the streets and a group of dancers, dancing out their stories of love and loss and longing can bring whole corners of the city to a standstill.

Buenos Aires is as beautiful, as passionate, as tragic and as romantic as the tango.

 

 

Plaza Lavalle, Buenos Aires

Just a few blocks to the northwest of Buenos Aires’ busy, noisy Avenida 9 de Julio, lies the lovely Plaza Lavalle. We discovered it quite by chance as we followed a quiet and blissfully car-free passage off and away from the ceaseless roar and rush of the world’s widest avenue.

Plaza Lavalle
Plaza Lavalle

Plaza Lavalle centres on a small park, shaded by tall palms and leafy trees, with lawns edged by low wrought-iron fences, worn, dirt paths and statues planted in dry, overgrown gardens.

On one side of Plaza Lavalle stands the Palacio de Justicia and the imposing Tribunales, or federal courts. On another, ornate apartment buildings lend an air of old France. Narrow art nouveau and plain “modern” buildings sit side by side. On the northeast end of the Plaza is Argentina’s largest synagogue, Templo de la Congregacio Isrealito, its narrow facade adorned with the symbols of the faith.

Peaceful. pretty and with an air of faded grandeur, Plaza Lavalle is a glimpse of old Buenos Aires.

 

Avenida 9 de Julio, the world’s widest avenue

At 140 meters, the width of an entire city block, Avenida 9 de Julio is the world’s widest avenue. Its name commemorates the 9th of July, 1816, when  Argentina achieved independence.

Avenida 9 de Julio
Avenida 9 de Julio

Avenida 9Julio, then to be named Avohuma, was mooted as early as 1888, but as plans involved cutting a giant swathe through a large part of the city, residents and business people resisted vehemently and for a very long time.

Work on the project finally began in 1935 and continued for 45 years. The first piece opened  on July 9, 1937, the main section in the 1960s and the final stretch was completed in 1980.

Avenida 9 de Julio is an impressive road, by any standards.  With sixteen lanes of relentless traffic speeding in two directions, it’s a serious challenge, even to the most intrepid pedestrian. Fortunately median parks of surprisingly leafy trees and amazingly healthy lawn provide a kind of oasis in which to take a breather and gather the strength to complete a crossing.

Some of the city’s loveliest landmarks are here on Avenida 9 de Julio. Obelisco Ade Buenos Aires, located in the Plaza de la Republica was built in 1936, to commemorate the fourth centenary of the first Spanish settlement on the Rio de la Plata. Just as the Eiffel Tower symbolises Paris, so does this he 67 metre national historic monument represent the city of Buenos Aires.

Nearby stands the beautiful seven storey Teatro Colon, Argentina’s main opera  house. The present building, which opened in 1908 with a gala performance of Verdi’s Aida, stands on the site of the original theatre which was built 1857. Considered to be among the five best concert venues in the world, has seen performances by some of the world’s greatest stars, including Enrico Caruso, Arturo Toscanini and Luciano Pavarotti.

Other must-see landmarks on the Avenida 9 de Julio are the statue of Dan Quixote on the intersection of the Savenida de Mayo and the magnificent Estacion de la Constitucion.

Shoulder to shoulder with some rather ordinary modern monsters are some real art deco and art nouveau architectural gems, so it’s really worthwhile taking a stroll along this rather chaotic and loud thoroughfare and when it becomes unbearable, the side streets lead away into some really beautiful little squares, like the Plaza Lavalle. But that’s another story.

The Catedral Metropolitana

The Catedral Metropolitana, as the name suggests, is Buenos Aires’ main house of worship. It was completed in 1827 and stands on the site of the city’s first church in the Plaza de Mayo. As it is the final resting place of General Jose de San Martin, Argentina’s greatest hero, the Catedral is one the city’s most important landmarks. Outside, on the steps, an eternal flame burns in his memory.

An altar in the Catedral Metropolitana
An altar in the Catedral Metropolitana

Architecturally, the Catedral  is quite different from the spired, domed, turreted and belfried churches of its time, having instead an austere, columned, triangular facade, which resembles, both in its form and scale, the temples of ancient Rome and Greece. It exudes, too, the same air of power and might.  The only decorative features on the Catedral’s exterior are the bas reliefs depicting the stories of Jacob and Joseph, which strike a bold contrast on the building’s plain, perhaps somewhat  grim, face.

On the other hand, inside the Catedral, nothing is spared; murals and paintings crowd every  surface, every ledge and every edge is picked out in extravagant baroque detail. Even the statues are trussed up in heavy robes.  Yet, all this pales into insignificance beside the dazzling gold rococo altar which is, of course the centrepiece of the place.

Stepping out of this lavish, incense-scented place of soft, gold light, cool shadows and celestial scenes, looking out over the parched lawns of the Plaza de Mayo, where the banners of the Veteranos de Guerra, stir sluggishly in desultory puff of wind, I meet Priscilla, just five days old, in the arms of her mother, who has her hand out for a few pesos.  I want to run back inside and break a large chunk off that gilded altar and give it to her, with the blessing of the Pope, but I don’t. Perhaps it’s because I too am a child of this church and am bound by its ways, or perhaps it’s that I know that it’s merely fools’ gold. I open my purse and empty my pesos into her upturned palm. I take a photo of Priscilla. This is it.

Priscilla at 5 days
Priscilla at 5 days

La Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

When Juan de Garay drew up the plans for Buenos Aires in 1580, he placed the large Plaza de Fuerte or Square of the Fortress at its centre. Following the dictates of Spanish law, it comprised a church, a public meeting place, a marketplace and civic buildings. It was the hub and the heart of the new city.

A peaceful corner of Plaza de Mayo
A peaceful corner of Plaza de Mayo

The Plaza’s name has changed a number of times over the centuries. Plaza de Fuerte gave way to Plaza del Mercado, then in 1807 it became Plaza de la Victoria to mark the country’s victory over the invading British and finally, when Argentina shook off  Spanish  rule on May 25, 1810, it became Plaza de Mayo.

Despite the changes in name and the inevitable changes in the shape of city, Plaza de Mayo is still very much the heart of Buenos Aires. It lies at the meeting point of two major roads – Roque Saenz Pena and Avenida Rivadavia. It is home to some of Argentina’s most famous and significant buildings such as the legendary Casa Roseda, or Pink House.

More importantly, Plaza de Mayo has been and still is, the scene of Argentina’s most significant historical and political moments.  Over the centuries crowds have rallied here for both the highs and the lows of the country’s chequered history.

Plaza de Mayo is a focal point for protests. They start and or finish here. When I passed through two years ago, the War Veteran were encamped in one corner, They looked as if they hade been there for a long time and they looked as if they were there for the long haul. Every Thursday at 3.30 pm a group of mothers turn up to protest ad mourn the disappearance of their children during the Military Regime of 1976 to 1983. They call themselves Los Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.

La Casa Rosada

La Casa Rosada
La Casa Rosada

On the eastern edge of the Plaza de Mayo, looking down across the smart new architecture of the Puerto Madero, stands one of Buenos Aires most beautiful and famous buildings – La Casa Rosada or the Pink House.

La casa Rosada was built during the 1868 to 1874 presidency of Domingo F. Sarmiento, on the site of the 18th century Fuerte Viejo, the original Fort of Buenos Aires, overlooking the Rio Plata. But after almost a century and a half of land reclamation and building La Casa Rosado stands more than a kilometre from the sea. Its striking pink colour, it is said, was Domingo Sarmiento’s attempt to bring peace to Argentina by blending the red of the Federalists with the white of their rivals, the Unitarists.

From the balconies that face the Plaza de Mayo, many famous Argentine leaders, including Juan and Eva Peron, have preached to their public. It was also from the balcony of La Casa Rosada, that Madonna, playing Eva Peron in the film Evita, delivered her unforgettable rendition of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

Like Argentina, La Casa Rosada has lived through hard times. In 1955, at the time of the Revolucion Libertadora which ousted Juan Peron, it came under fire from the navy. During the Military Regime of 1976 to 1983, it was sinister, secret place, out of bounds to all but government officials.

These days, la Casa Rosada is open to the public, but bookings and photo ID are essential.

At the Museo de la Casa Rosada, relics from the old fort are on show, along with memorabilia from past presidencies, including the Peron era