The Casa Rosada, Buenos Aires

A Little Touch Of Star Quality

19th October 2012

'Just a little touch of star quality…'

Those lines from Evita, used by Eva Peron about herself as she arrives in Buenos Aires, could stand for the city too.

Olivia Greenway plunges in to the heat… the noise… the lights…

Wake up in Buenos Aires without knowing where you are, and the boulevards and pavement cafés might make you think you’ve been dropped in Paris; but then the language and friendliness remind you a bit of Madrid; testing the home-made pasta and life-affirming ice cream takes you back to Rome. The truth is, BA is a fabulous mix of all of the best of these cities – and offers a lot more besides.
Flying in over the skyscrapers, it’s evident that the city sprawls but is relatively flat. Buenos Aires is divided into over 40 barrios, or districts, but most of the action and interesting sights are located downtown. You don’t have to stay in the centre, though, if you want to eschew the luxury hotels and opt for something more modest. Buses are very cheap and operate regular services, and taxis are inexpensive. Buying a Guia ‘T’ to the bus routes for a few pesos from a newsvendor will not only serve as a useful bus guide, but has road maps for the whole city. The Subte (metro) lines are a little gloomy, but handy in the central area.

Orientating yourself can be a little difficult to begin with, as some maps are published ‘upside down’, but if you have the port to your east, you should not go wrong. Streets are arranged using the grid system. A ‘block’ is around 100 metres and at each intersection, the numbers (in 100s) of the properties are calibrated, so even if your Spanish is rusty or non-existent, getting around is quite easy and walking is a joy on the whole. The city has long avenues, intersected by smaller roads, many of them one-way.

To get an overview, go on a guided bus tour. Buses leave from a central spot near the pedestrianised Avenida Florida at regular intervals during the day. The commentary is recorded and some seats have an obstructed view, but it’s still a good way to get a feel for the place. You can hop off when something interesting catches your eye and then jump back on again later. Tickets are slightly cheaper if bought online, but it might be an idea to see how your day is panning out; the bus is ideal if it’s raining, for example, and not so much fun if it’s baking hot. Allow two to three hours.

Visiting attractions and seeing the sights is best done by barrios. A good place to start is where the Avenida 9 de Julio (named after the date of Argentinian independence) intersects with Avenida Corrientes. It has at its centre a white stone obelisk, built in 1936 to commemorate the first foundation of the city four hundred years before. The Avenida 9 de Julio is the widest in the world, with up to 18 lanes of traffic, and takes three cycles of the lights to cross by foot. The Plaza de República, the large square formed at this junction, is the site of wooden crosses that commemorate Argentinians who fell during the Falklands War.

Nearby is La Casa Rosada – easy to spot with its distinctive baby pink exterior – that is the main house of government and home to a museum of presidential memorabilia. A working building, tours are only available at the weekend and conducted in Spanish with some English. The Teatro Colón (the opera house) has just been refurbished, and you can take a guided tour, in English, of this sumptuously decorated building, including the presidential box, reserved for Christina Fernandez and the mayor, Mauricio Macri. The two famously don’t get on, so she has never been. Also near here is the Catedral Metropolitana, the main Catholic church in the city. There has been a church on this site since the 1580s although most of the current building dates from the 18th century.

To sustain body as well as soul, try Café Tortoni on Avenida De Mayo, one of Buenos Aires’ oldest cafés. Popular with tourists, a short wait is usually necessary, but the freshly prepared food and plenty of opportunities to people-watch in this plush Parisian-style establishment make it well worth it.

Cementerio de la Recoleta, sited in the barrio of that name, is a walled, eerily quiet stone- and marble-world; tombs are both elaborate and basic, well cared for and neglected. Eva Perón, who died of cervical cancer aged only 33, is buried here, as are many notable Argentineans including several former Presidents – although Eva’s husband Juan is not. Nearby is the National Library; having taken 30 years to build, it has what was considered a modern design in the 1960s but now looks decidedly incongruous, ugly even, on its concrete stilts. A tour is fascinating, free and in English. The MALBA modern art museum is also close by.

The refurbished former port area, Puerto Madero, is now the playground and residence of many of the richer porteños (strictly meaning ‘people of the port’, porteños is the generic term for BA residents). Smart restaurants, bars and luxury apartments reflect off the water; it’s the place to enjoy a leisurely quayside walk away from traffic fumes.

Palermo, one of the largest barrios, is the up and coming part of the city. At Plaza Serrano, the streets are closed on Sunday for the market. Grab a bargain in the local cafés where designers sell their one-off wares. Near here in the huge Parque Tres de Frebrero are the lovely scented rose gardens, El Rosedal, with 10,000 bushes, and the peaceful Japanese garden, a relaxing respite and good picnic spot.

Search out antiques and curio shops in San Telmo, the oldest of BA’s barrios. Its narrow, cobbled streets have surprises at every turn: a decent, simple restaurant, a covered antique market, and lively street performers. The famous Sunday market is held along La Defensa. It’s mainly tat but the fun is the vibrant, busy atmosphere.

There are numerous American-style malls in the city selling world brands, but my tip for Argentinian chic is the Prune designer bag shop with over a dozen branches. Eat your heart out, Chloé and Chanel.

Argentina has the best beef in the world – cattle are naturally grass fed – so (unless you’re vegetarian, of course) you can’t leave the city without eating a steak. Try one of the local, family-run restaurants known as parrillas, named after the grill the meat is cooked on. Food is simple but usually delicious. Homemade pasta may feature too, signifying the strong Italian influence.

Look out too for the Havanna coffee shop chain; their moreish dulce de leche (a type of soft caramel layered in between biscuit and covered with chocolate) go down well with a cappuccino.

And, of course (and ideal for working off the calories of the aforesaid dulce de leche), there’s tango, a dance originating in the immigrant area of La Boca. If you don’t have two left feet, you can try it for yourself in numerous places in the city. If that’s not for you, you might prefer to go to a milonga, a public place where you can watch the experts interpret the music. Among the many locations is La Glorieta, an open-air 100-year-old bandstand in a Belgrano park, where dances are held every night. How can you resist the lure of a little star quality?…

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