Monday, 10 February 2014

Days 320 to 324: Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of these cities I feel I have a bit of a cheek to write about. We were there for only five days: it's like licking a goose and saying you've tried foie gras. An eternity of a city with 13 million people, it feels like every day and night might offer something entirely different. In five days, even the weather managed to feel completely different and unpredictable on a daily basis.

To give it the proper meteorological terminology, it began as "supersweaty". Not what you want when carrying one big bag and pulling another after a 15-hour bus journey. Danielle's foot is still playing up, meaning I have to carry her rucksack and drag mine along. My bag, mercifully, has wheels, but they are small and of negligible help. Danielle assures me that she will recommence the carrying of her own bag as soon as her foot is better, which at present I am quietly predicting to be October.

On arrival at our gloomy but cheap and very central hotel, I was therefore more sweat than man, but efficient air-con and a good shower remedied that. Whereby we went outside for a wander, and every one of my sweat glands went into overdrive again. Capricious Buenos Aires was feeling hot that day (forecasts mentioned 37C), but more significant, very humid. I couldn't cope. On our first day, I worried that this might consume our experience of the city: everything we might do would be overwhelmed by heat and exhaustion. But the following day the temperature dropped by around 15 degrees, and the weather for the next few days veered between clear sunshine, incredible rain and thunder, cool breezes, stifling humidity, and overcast greyness. Buenos Aires simply couldn't decide what it wanted to be.

Perhaps something of this can be seen in the city itself. It's beginning to feel like a cliche for me when writing about South American cities, but glimmers of Europe and the USA were felt everywhere. Paris, London, New York: Buenos Aires has some notable influences. Italy and Spain too seem present. None of this is surprising as being of the New World, Buenos Aires is a sum of its influences and all of these are foreign - the indigenous population was wiped out during colonisation. But despite being a "new" city, Buenos Aires very much has the grand feel of something older. It may not have the prestigious history of the big European cities, but it has a similar sense of prestige, seeming established and sure of itself, not feeling the need to try and impress, all mixed with the broad one-way grid plan of the USA. It's a messy, crumbling, bumpy, confident, and exciting city - Danielle and I loved it.

When not reducing me to a man-shaped chunk of sweat, Buenos Aires is a delightful place to simply walk around. The architecture is great - grand and battered, like a decayed vision of Europe. It's a city of blocks - a local we spoke to explained that the blocks are so regular in size that they are used as units of time and distance, instead of minutes and metres. This makes city navigation very easy. Here are a few of the places we found on our wanders.

The final one is a preview of sorts of another one of my candidate Wonders, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, as they share the same very distinctive style of the architect Santiago Calatrava.

Not all our time was spent wandering though. We ate food too. Argentina is currently going through a rocky patch economically, with rocketing inflation. The good news: this made prices pretty cheap for us. Eating and drinking out was highly affordable, and usually very good quality. As you may have ascertained, this is not a food blog, so I'll spare you a spoon-by-spoon detail, except to say on our final night I enjoyed the largest steak of my life. It was as big as a baby.

Missing from Buenos Aires' itinerary is its own bona fide World Wonder: give it a Rio statue or a Sydney Opera House and I firmly believed it could be raised to their level of public profile. Instead, it's got a condensed collection of mini-Wonders, in the form of its celebrity cemetery, the Cementerio de la Recoleta. One feature of World Wonders is that, usually, they were built to impress, with an element of grandeur and gravity. They make you go "wow". Well, the cemetery kind of does that, to a lesser degree, - an "ooh" - but lots and lots of times. Hundreds and hundreds of entirely and unnecessarily over-the-top crypts and tombs are packed into a tight grid system, looking like a vast field of baby temples, cathedrals, and other pompous neoclassical edifices. Sprinkle with water and watch them grow. Some are well maintained by the families, generations on, and others are smashed and decayed, coffins covered in rubble, and the corpses all but tumbling out. Many of the monuments are truly magnificent, awesome tributes to ego, costing (according to a guide we overheard) over $1 million to build. It's a hugely engrossing place to visit.

One of the tombs is of Eva Peron, and on our final day we visited her museum, which was full of her old dresses. It was very boring.

Much more humble than the Cementerio de la Recoleta but every bit as interesting was El Zanjon de Granados. Like many cities, Buenos Aires is built on layers, and in the 1980s an entrepreneur bought a ruined mansion near the city centre, intending it to be a restaurant. As he restored it, he discovered it sat on top of about 150 years of history, and significantly a vast network of tunnels that once contained an underground creek. These tunnels form a forgotten underground city. For over 25 years, the building has been restored and excavated, and tours are now available. The restoration is beautiful, the tunnels are fascinating, and the tour was conducted by a guide with excellent English and knowledge about the history of the city. This was an unexpected highlight for us: by learning about the house, we learned about the city.

And that, in a dinky nutshell, is Buenos Aires. A city. In Argentina. With lots of people and buildings. It's pretty good.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds great. I've heard a few good things about Buenos Aires, but that's a very tantalising overview.


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