I am happy to report that I am having great fun in Buenos Aires! Unlike other historical cities I have visited in South America (e.g., Lima, Arequipa, Sucre), it lacks that Spanish colonial feel. The Adobe churches, narrow cobblestoned streets and Romanesque arches are around, but visiting the various neighbourhoods, it feels much more French/European. There are broad boulevards lined with shady trees, and elegant, well maintained 100-150 year old buildings with a twist. Investing the wealth from their plantations in the late 19th to early 20th century, the families of wealthy Portenos (people of Buenos Aires) hired European architects to build amazing palaces and public buildings that rip off every French architectural style of design ever conceived! The luxury of these buildings is staggering. We (my friend P. and I are the dynamic duo for the first leg of my trip) took a tour of the spectacular mansion of the family Paz. The French-style palace took 12 years to build (Finished in 1912) and the place is meant to impress! From the Rococo-style ballroom inspired by Versailles, to the domed "waiting room" with walls covered in coloured marble from all over the world, cut to make lovely designs, reminding me of churches in Florence, every room was a little taste of Europe. Not everyone had a palace, some of the rich had to settle for spacious penthouse apartments with private gardens and extra rooms for their servants. Walking the neighbourhood of Recoleta reminded me a bit of Park Avenue, except the architecture is more like the Champs Elysee than Art Deco modern. These families carried this flair for ostentation into the next world, the Recoleta cemetery is indescribable, filled with crypts topped with mini-domes, stained glass and containing personal altars made of marble. There are also beautiful carvings and statutes, some representing the dead and others just for show. It is still an active cemetery, though some of the family crypts have (sadly) fallen into disrepair.
Not only the rich, but the working class have left their indelible mark on this beautiful and culturally rich city. Today, P. and I visited la Boca, this was the old port in the 1880s where the poor immigrants from Spain, Italy and Germany lived and worked to build a better life. It was these poor families living in close quarters that developed this dramatic and sensual dance which is tango. The words of a tango song are sad and moving, portraying a difficult life. The music itself was built from blending the sounds of instruments brought from other countries (e.g., violin, german accordian, etc). Parissa and I saw a show at the famous Cafe Tortoni. The dance is difficult and intricate, full of emotion, but what struck me was the music. There was a five-piece live band and the music was lyrical, pulling you into the drama of the dance. Sadly, I think tango tradition is not embraced by the young. We went to milonga (where the locals come to dance tango) and the place was geriatric. It was still fun to see that many couples dressed the part with men in pinstriped suits and ascots, and the ladies in form-fitting, backless evening dresses and impossibly high heels.
This clash between rich and poor has been evident in Argentina's turbulent political history. After the 1930s the economy tanked creating considerable social unrest. This ushered in the famous President Juan Peron and his wife Eva. Peron was not a communist or a fascist, but he stole from both traditions and the working class loved him. He legitimized the trade union movement, extended political rights to the working class and gave women the right to vote. His party created a foundation (led by Eva, or Evita) that helped the poor. With his cult following, he held massive rallies from the Casa Rosada (presidential palace). In the process, Peron pissed the rich and powerful (remember all of those families in Recoleta) and when the moment was right, the military seized power. There was one military coup after another from the 1960s to the 1980s. Lots of unsavoury things happened such as 30,000 people from the left "disappearing" in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It isn't perfect, but the middle class seems very well established in BA, despite the economic crisis in 2000. The streets are clean, people seem to have a good life (enough to care about how they look) and you can drink the tap water. I am impressed.
On a lighter note, P. and I have also been indulging in another BA passion -- coffee. The coffee house is omnipresent. Sorry Starbucks! There are coffee house from the 1930s with suited waiters equipped with silver trays, marble floors and tiffany lamps. The coffee tradition is wonderful. The waiter comes with your coffee cup (or tea in my case) on a saucer. There is also a small glass of sparkling water and a plate with a sweet (e.g., a biscuit, a wafer, I got a spoon of dulce de leche yesterday). I am getting addicted. P. wants to know when I will be done with this missive so we can go for a coffee. :-)
Tomorrow we go to San Telmo market, not that we need to do more shopping. We hit the shops in Viejo Palermo yesterday. I was blown away. With some many cute shops with creative and unique clothes, it reminded me of Soho, but with Banana Republic prices.