BUENOS AIRES Travel Review

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BUENOS AIRES Travel Review

TANGO, TERRACES AND T-BONES

David Leck spends a few days in a South American capital, European in feel but distinctly Latin American.

You could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of geographical displacement on arrival in Buenos Aires. Stand on one of the Argentine capital’s wide boulevards and you could easily mark out your surroundings as distinctly European: Paris, possibly? Madrid, maybe? Yet scratch even fleetingly below the surface and this place is passionately, vibrantly Latin America.

white church in buenos aires blue skyIt is also a city with considerable charm, an edgy disposition and bags of attitude. Not, for nothing, do Porteños (residents of BA) have a penchant for the psychiatrist’s couch, a liking for the plastic surgeon’s scalpel and, according to some, egos that are said to have residents of other cities in the region scuttling away with inferiority issues.

But having visited this most interesting and often quirky of capital cities twice, my hunch is that much of this is a reflection of the country’s turbulent past as it is about levels of arrogance.

There’s no better example of Argentine style and attitude than the city’s Recoleta Cemetery. Now, stick with me. I know the thought of a morning passing the resting places of the great and good may seem like no incentive whatsoever to take the 15-hour flight due south but this is one of BA’s highlights.

It’s a Hampton Court-style maze of opulence. If the wealthy departed could enter a game show and win the most ornate, extravagant, over-the-top tomb in which to out do the “neighbours” then Recoleta would be the result.

polo players in argentina on horsesIt’s a fair bet most visitors are here to locate the final resting place of Eva Peron, the country’s former first lady and – a half-century after her death at the age of 33 – still regarded by some as saint and saviour and by others as fascist whore. Whichever your view point, Evita is a much an enduring symbol of Argentina as the passionate tango, soccer, and those legendary steaks.

The city is noted for its coffee houses. Here they assume the same role as social nucleus as our own pubs and bars but that Latin passion has shaped, scarred and influenced many of these hostelries through Argentina’s rich literary heritage as well as less savoury times typified by social unrest, financial ruin (they saw a run on the banks at a time when we would have said “that can’t happen here”!) and military oppression

The most famous is Café Tortoni – a 150-year-old temple to R&R BA-style with waiters in bow tie and tails, marbled floors and mahogany panelled walls, all of which is enough to make you dread the sight of another Starbucks.

coloured houses in buenos airesA short walk away is the Plaza de Mayo, dominated on one side by the Casa Rosada – from whose balcony Evita addressed the adoring masses. But this is also a part of the city where you are reminded of the country’s troubled past.

Following a bloodless military coup in 1976 a brutal dictatorship was installed in which mass murder and torture where the order of the day. Over the next seven years an estimated 30,000 people – mostly but not exclusively Argentineans – were made to “disappear”. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo march on the square, peacefully and with great dignity, weekly to this day.

One of the great pleasures of Buenos Aires can be had exploring its leafy neighbourhoods or stopping off for a café con leche (a latte with a kick) or to watch an impromptu pavement-side display of the hypnotic, passionate tango. Porteños have a certain attitude but delve beneath the surface and you will, on the whole, find them a people with a sense of style, a love of life and a take on events that has obviously shaped their journey through turbulent times.

couple tango in argentinaThe Argentinean zest for life is observed to no greater, or impressive, extent than in its love of the beautiful game. The world famous Boca Juniors and River Plate represent the local equivalent of Chelsea and Arsenal. The rivalry is legendary and, even if you’re not a football fan, if you’re in town when one of these giants is playing at home, then the sheer spectacle and fervour on display really is worth experiencing.

As the country enjoys a period of relative economic stability, Buenos Aires has seen the arrival of sophisticated bars and fine dining to rival anything London, Paris or New York has to offer. Head for the rejuvenated dockside area of Puerto Madero and be spoilt for choice, or make for the trendy Palermo district for a confection of tree-lined streets, artists and intellectuals, and some seriously good food, And, yes, if you’re a carnivore then that Argentinean beef is every bit as good as you’ve been told.

Messrs Rice and Lloyd Webber asked when penning Evita: “What’s new, Buenos Aires?”. The answer these days is quite a lot. A city that wears its heart on its sleeve, locals with considerable style, and a gateway to a country that surprises at every turn, you may well find yourself completely captivated by this intoxicating capital.

WHAT ELSE?
No matter how great a city it is, you’re unlikely to be heading to Argentina just to spend a few days in its capital. Here is the Index guide to what else you might include in a trip to this richly diverse country.
Salta
Part of the Northern Provinces, Salta is a fascinating place in which to spend a few days and is also the gateway for exploring pre-Columbian cultures, ruins of native villages, and forts and constructions dating back to the time of the conquest and colonisation.
Mendoza
Locals claim it as one of the most beautiful cities in the country but Mendoza and the surrounding region is probably best known as the centre of Argentina’s large (the world’s fifth biggest producer) and highly regarded wine industry.
Bariloche
No, you’re not in Austria or Switzerland, but Bariloche’s stunning natural beauty typified by stunning scenery, chocolate box beauty and great outdoor exploring, has a distinct alpine feel.
El Calafate
The gateway to the stunning Perito Merino Glacier (for once, the words “truly breathtaking” are more than justified), El Calafate is a great base from which to explore this part of Patagonia.

FACT FILE
British Airways (www.ba.com) is the only airline flying direct to Buenos Aires from London (with a brief stop in Sao Paulo). Fares start from around £750. Cheaper deals may be available via Madrid with Iberia (www.iberia.com). Latin America specialists Veloso Tours (020 8762 0616; www.veloso.com) has five nights in the Argentine capital from £1444 per person staying at a four-star hotel and including flights with BA and transfers. The company also has the 12-night Pampa Tour of Argentina costing from £3105 per person. Also try Pettitts (www.pettitts.co.uk)