Buenos Aires – Airs and Graces

Streets of CaminitoPorteño: the adjective used to refer to people from Buenos Aires, is also the key word to understanding this city, which seems almost to rush headlong into the River Plate. Its congested avenues all point to the river and the port. Its high rises vie with one another for the best view of the ‘silver’ ocean (thus the name) beyond. Gateway… Nexus.

Streets of Caminito The city funnelled all the produce of the continent’s hinterland out through its docks. And in exchange, distributed the manufactured goods of the sophisticated world beyond back across the pampas and mountains and plains. Here, the influences of Paris, London and Madrid disembarked on the clippers and steamers. Here, the riches of southern South America were transported, taxed, hoisted and sold. It’s as a point of exchange that one can understand Buenos Aires’ character and unique qualities.

Working through the city’s history chronologically, one has to start at the old docks and the neighbourhood of La Boca. From here the city grew. The corrugated zinc and patchwork wood houses, painted in colourful hues from scavenged paint pots, are dilapidated and touristy, an area that lives off its past rather than its working class present. Its streets are dusty and worn, but loved, retaining a quasi-religious significance for the fans of nearby Boca Juniors. The accordion wheeze of tango songs and their laments emanate from its houses and shopping arcades, turned over to selling the souvenirs which as visitors we all feel obliged to, if not buy, then at least peruse. It’s bright and colourful and fun, perhaps the most lingering image one has of the city.

Streets of San TelmoSlightly north come the streets and houses of the later colonial and republican period, more orderly and ornate: the neighbourhood of San Telmo. Its cobbled thoroughfares are lined with stalls on weekends, competing with the shops stuffed with antiques, bric-a-brac, funky designer furniture or clothes. The feel is bohemian and down-at-heel, a bit like a criollo version of Portobello market in London. There is an organised chaos feel to it.

On the Sunday we visited, rivers of locals and tourists flowed up and down its streets, and one had to weave between them, the stalls and the huge number of people selling small amounts of food in impromptu places. These looked like local residents who had decided to pick up half their lunch and sell it to passers-by to make a few pesos.

Accordion friendsOutside an antique shop on Plaza San Telmo, an accordion player eased the notes from his instrument as he stood chatting to his friend, while inside, we were treated to a tango show by a trio whose average age must have been 65. The debonair dancer, immaculately-dressed in a pin-strip grey suit and trilby hat, must have been a regular rake in his youth. He winked at the girls in our group and made them giggle.

The anomaly in the historical narrative is the area of Puerto Madero. These old docks, which lost their reason for being in the 20th century, make one jump to a decade ago, when the authorities decided to regenerate the area. The functional yet symmetrically-pleasing red brick warehouses were given a new lease of life, making the most of the progressively-claimed two kilometres of land the city has stolen from the river over the years.

La Parolaccia, Pueto Madero, Buenos AiresToday, the Calatrava-designed Puente de la Mujer provides an elegant point at which to cross over to the newest and swankiest part of the city, where 50-storey apartment blocks rise and a couple of top-flight hotels have been inaugurated. The former warehouses host some of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires, packed to the gills on the Sunday we visited, enjoying a fantastic meal at the Italian bistro, La Parolaccia (www.laparolaccia.com).

Streets of Recoleta and Alvear Palace
Jumping back to the late 19th century and early 20th century as one heads north, Recoleta undoubtedly feels European. Not entirely the Paris that some would make out, but certainly an amalgam of a handful of European cities. The slate-grey mansard roofs and the cream-coloured stone of many properties are undeniably elegant, while the shops lining the streets around the famous Alvear Palace Hotel are chic, to be sure. There are dog-walkers and baby strollers, street-corner newspaper stands, architraving that wraps and curls, and a pleasing symmetry and formality. Here one finds the Four Seasons, Caesar Park (www.caesarpark.com),  Hyatt and Recoleta hotels, all making fine bases from which to explore.

Palermo’s parks spread further to the north, a welcome counterpoint to the bustle of the city. These are formal parks, ordered and delineated, punctuated by huge, tired goma rubber trees and museums such as the impressive Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA – www.malba.org.ar).

Palermo’s neighbourhoods are being atomised into smaller districts by journalists and real estate profiteers. Locals now talk of Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood. Their largely low-fronted houses have been turned over to trendy boutiques, bars, hotels, restaurants and cafés. A jeunesse dorée crowd hangs out on terraces heated by metallic tubes, people watching and enjoying the sun on a holiday-Monday, as a blessing to be savoured after the bitter cold that has chilled porteños this winter. Perhaps here the influences are now more North American, more Sunset Boulevard then Boulevard Saint-Germain. And soon enough, the city will no doubt find another identity to adopt and make its own.

The port city of Buenos Aires seems constantly on the move, charged with a nervous energy like few cities I’ve visited. Its past and its present are inextricably linked to its role as a conduit; fashions, trade, tastes, commerce, styles and ideas ebbing and flowing through its heart. It continuously, and some would say obsessively, transforms, reworks, reinvents, and today, sends its hybrid creations and its irrepressible creativity out into the world like never before.

By Dominic Hamilton – dhamilton@metropolitan-touring.com

Join Metropolitan Touring to discover Buenos Aires:  http://www.metropolitan-touring.com/content.asp?id_page=1797

Colours in Caminito

View photos of Buenos Aires on our Flickr gallery here:

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