Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A slice of Europe in South America

As the plane touched down in Ministro Pistarini International Airport in Buenos Aires, the sun gave me a warm welcome. Landing as I was from the cold climes of a New York winter, I felt its rays wrap themselves around my shoulders like a well-worn shawl and invisibly snuggled up to them. The highway leading from the airport to the city centre was wide and lined with rolling hillocks on either side. Against the bright blue of the sun-drenched sky, the greenery reminded me of parts of Europe. That image soon faded without warning and gave way to worn apartment blocks that clustered together and were so reminiscent of Mumbai that I began to wonder what exactly Buenos Aires really was about.

Later, walking through its enchanting neighbourhoods, I encountered more than just the odd backpacker trying to figure their way around like me, map firmly in hand. I already felt comfortable. I began my exploring with the Plaza de Mayo (pronounced ‘masho’, for those unfamiliar with the Spanish language), the seat of the country’s revolution against Spain in May 1810, as well as mass demonstrations organized by Eva Peron and the trade union movement in 1945 that sought to bring Juan Domingo Peron to power. The Plaza also witnessed riots as recently as 2001 when Argentina was crippled by its now infamous economic crisis. Uniformed policemen permanently patrol the Casa Rosada (literally, ‘Pink House’), home of the executive branch of the federal government and the most impressive building in the vicinity - though to be fair, the headquarters of the National Bank, the May Pyramid and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, all a stone’s throw away, are also worth your time. The plaza is the culmination of Avenue de Mayo, whose tree-lined pavements shade numerous Art Nouveau buildings that led, in 1997, to the avenue’s declaration as a national historic site. One of these buildings is CafĂ© Tortoni, a charming coffee house and a Buenos Aires landmark – queues to enter are a common sight at all hours of the day, and, conversely, spending a few leisurely hours inside is a must-do activity for all visitors - one that I made sure I didn’t miss myself!

Ambling along Avenue 9 de Julio, named so after Argentina’s Independence Day, I tried to recall any other avenue I’d seen that was as wide. The best I could dredge up from memory was ParisChamps Elysees, but even that was not as wide as the Avenue of the 9th of July. Maybe there is some truth, after all, to its claims of being the biggest avenue in the world. I passed by the Obelisk, a huge monument in the middle of the avenue built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the city, and very reminiscent of the other, probably more famous Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Disappointment was probably writ large on my face, however, when halfway along the seemingly never-ending avenue I walked up to the steps of the Teatro Colon, one of the world’s largest opera houses, only to be told that it had been closed for renovation since 2006, and was slated to take a while more to complete. Well, you can’t have EVERYTHING, I suppose! I was enjoying Buenos Aires so much at this point that I shrugged it off, disappointed as I was, and continued my urban adventure. This took me to Rivadavia and the Plaza de los dos Congresos, where I sat for a while in the park and admired the imposing National Congress building and the many statues of famous Argentinian citizens that dotted the plaza.

Buenos Aires is reputed to be one of the best cities in the world to party, and for a reason. The earliest people start going out, even for dinner, is around 10 PM – we left a restaurant at 12 midnight and it was more packed than it was when we entered a couple of hours prior to that. Relaxed and easygoing seemed to be the keywords – you are expected to take your time sipping your wine before placing your order for dinner, and then enjoy a cheerful conversation with your friends (if you can hear them over the din!) before you finally see your food. And the food – ah – it would be unfair not to recommend the popular Asado, basically cuts of meat cooked over a grill or parrilla (pronounced ‘parisha’), that is the traditional dish of the country. Puerto Madero, a locality that used to be a storage area along the docks but is now a modern hotspot with excellent restaurants and cafes along its marina, is one of the best places to catch a bite to eat. I didn’t get to go to a club, but heard that they stay open till early in the morning, and drinks (and everything else in Buenos Aires, for that matter!) are extremely reasonable because of the peso’s exchange rate – a few years ago it was 1:1 to the dollar but it is now 3.15.

A trip to Buenos Aires would be incomplete without a visit to Recoleta, an area that is home to the Recoleta Cemetery, where the most famous personalities of Argentina (including Eva Peron) have their final resting place, and the Basilica Nuestra Senora del Pilar, a charming whitewashed church that seemed to almost gleam in the heat of the sun. I also walked cross-town to La Boca, the neighbourhood that houses the Boca Juniors stadium, well worth a visit for all football fans – this was Maradona’s home ground. The charming locality of San Telmo was enroute, where the weekend flea market is a lovely place to shop for gifts.

Remnants of the Argentinan economic crisis are still visible – some commercial areas of the city like Florida (many streets are named after other countries and some after American states) have shops that are technically open 24 hours, but a grill outside with a small window at the side are all that indicate any willingness to do business after 8 PM or so. Local friends also recommended that it is best not to walk about with jewellery – the only kind I saw on others was beaded stuff, so I adhered to that myself.

Nevertheless, as I was boarding my flight back to New York, I overheard a young man talking to his companion in the airport. He ended up staying more than his intended few days because, in his words, he ‘fell in love with Buenos Aires’. With its cobbled streets, historical aura and vibrant nightlife, it is easy to see why.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Buenos aires has lot of european influence in their buildings.
The cabildo, el Congreso, and Casa Rosada have roman influence with their columns.
When we were there we rent apartments buenos aires and the people that later became our friends told us.