Part Paris, part Berlin, part technicolour South America, Buenos Aires is a city of glorious contrasts: football and fishnet tights, satin dresses and mausoleums, red wine and sheet metal, tango and politics
Climatic shock and a pit bull
We peer groggily out of the bus window as we pull into Buenos Aires. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and there are people in ski gear as far as the eye could see. Woolly hats, mittens and fluffy topped boots – I look down at my flip-flopped feet and have a moment of misgiving. Could a 20 hour bus journey take us from a blissful 30 degrees to what looks like the depths of a Baltic winter? Ehm apparently so!
Teeth chattering and toes turning a worrying shade of blue, we make our way to Romain’s house by bus and the kindness of strangers. There we meet Romain, Vincent (another of Damien’s university friends) and Theo, the pit bull terrier and house mascot. As Theo’s jaws clamp around Damien’s foot, I see his smile becoming a tiny bit tense. Standing before us, chest out, all slavering jaws and pointed teeth, Theo is petrifying! Damien is growing noticeably paler. Just before we left Luxembourg, Damien had been out running in the woods behind our apartment when he was bitten by a Doberman. It’s fair to say that he has been a little uneasy around dogs ever since. There is no avoiding Theo though – he is always lurking ready to pounce and seems to derive a twisted pleasure in launching himself at Damien at every given opportunity. Having pretty much close to no choice in the matter, Damien is soon more than able for the wild eyes and “playful” nips of the hound !
For our first afternoon in Buenos Aires, Romain takes us strolling through his neighbourhood, the achingly trendy and slightly bohemian Palermo district of Buenos Aires. Palermo has an urban village atmosphere. Its streets are tree-lined and often cobbled, its boutiques tempting, its bars lively and its cafés quirky and vaguely European. I think I could happily live here!
Then, to tip the balance definitively, I discover organic dulce de leche – a dark golden syrup of absolute deliciousness!
Exploring La Boca & Tango highlights
Distracted from the cold by the sugar buzzing through our veins, we head off in the direction of La Boca, a barrio located by the old city port, famous for its colour and for its football. Home to the Boca Juniors, the former club of Diego Maradona, and La Bombonera football stadium, La Boca is home to some of the most passionate football fans in the world. Tourists flock here for both the guided tours of the famous stadium and to see the Caminito. Originally, the Caminito was home to the fishermen and stevedores who worked in and from the nearby port. Grouped in a lovely, higgledy-piggledy way, the houses here have been constructed from salvaged materials from the barrio’s former ship-building yards -sheet metal, corrugated iron and planking. In the late 1950s, in a spirit of urban revival, local artist Benito Quinquela Martín painted the walls of what was then an abandoned street, creating a haven for artists. Now, although still charming, the Caminito has a slightly artificial atmosphere. It has become a place for tourists and photographs where bright colours and souvenir hawkers vie for attention.
However, a little away from the Disney-esque La Boca, there is a real and unreservedly working class neighbourhood. It is there that Romain leads us – to La Usina del Arte. The refurbished factory is one of the venues for the Tango BA festival. By a trick of wonderful timing, Romain is able to get us tickets to a recital of tango music in the concert hall. For the final piece, the accordion maestro invites audience members to dance tango on-stage in an impromptu milonga.
The following day, we head to the Sunday antiques market in San Telmo. The stalls are crowded with curios and trinkets but it is the performance of the ageing dancers that holds my attention. They are beautiful.
An echo of home
Despite wearing practically everything in my rucksack, the cold is clawing at my bones and I need to go shopping! I drag the boys along to the very sleek Palermo Altero shopping center and I try to resist buying everything in their ski shops. I’m warm now, warm and bulky. The residents of Buenos Aires, the porteños, are unerringly chic – I’m definitely fitting in waddling along like a mismatched abominable snowman! Hohum…
We then stroll through the new port area of the city, Puerto Madero. It bears a strange and striking resemblance to Dublin Docklands – even down to the white arching bridge.
A pink palace, difficult times and a place for voices
We walk by the elegant, white buildings of the Microcenter and pass the Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace and its famous balcony where Perón and his wife, Eva (better known as Evita), delivered their speeches to rapt audiences. We continue to the Plaza de Mayo, a place of political significance and protest. It is here that the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) have gathered on Thursdays since 1977 bearing photographs of their children, the desaparecidos, who “disappeared” during the Dirty War and placards demanding information as to their fate.
A city of cats and mausoleums
We later take a walk through Recoleta Cemetery, the resting place of Buenos Aires’ deceased elite. Stray cats sun themselves on the crumbling mausoleums and, uneasy, we don’t stay long.
Satin and dancing
Our final night is one of red wine, truly delicious steak and another milonga. Red satin dresses with thigh splits, high-heels, fishnet tights, cravats and dapper suits look curiously incongruous in the community hall setting. Then the dancing begins and pairs, young and old, move sleekly, limbs entwining, around the dance floor. It is seductive and wonderful and I now understand the satin.