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