Big City Tales

Beautiful, Bold and Brash Buenos Aires

December 20, 2011
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The world-famous Teatro Colon Opera House.

“The Paris of South America” was the enticingly descriptive phrase that first piqued my curiosity about Buenos Aires (BA), but it was also the mystique of the enigmatic and provocative Eva Peron and the intricacy and intimacy of the tantalizing tango that captured my interest and increased my desire to one day visit this South American marvel.

The opportunity to go to BA presented itself in 2011 and I diligently prepared myself with a pile of pre-trip reading and CD-Rom language study to try to learn some basic and critical Spanish words/phrases.   Picking up the language proved to be quite a challenge as having taken French through high school, my tendency was to apply accents and emphasis en francais versus en espangol, so it didn’t come to me as naturally as I thought it would.  With Spanish phrasebook in hand, I hoped for the best and hopped on my BA bound flight via Houston, Texas.

The Obelisk celebrates the 4th centennial of Argentina.

Well, it’s fair to say that most of what I read about beautiful, bold and brash Buenos Aires turned out to be an accurate portrait of the city:

  • Spring in BA is a LOVELY time to visit (i.e. October) – a bit breezy at times but overall not too hot and not too cool (20-25 Celsius on average).

    A lapacho tree in bloom.

  • It is a BUSY, BUSTLING and NOISY metropolis complete with European style and North American flair (to me, it was like a mash of Paris and NYC, particularly the Times Square and Central Park areas).
  • BA has a lot to offer in terms of sports, the arts, and shopping (Florida Street and Santa Fe Avenue have a heavy concentration of leather/shoe stores).
  • Pastry and ice cream shops are everywhere and Argentines have no qualms about spoiling their dinner with a big bowl of gelato after work.
  • The many plazas around BA are luscious green spaces that are a nice reprieve from all of the high-rise concrete buildings.
  • BA’s expansive and impressive skyline is best seen from the river on a ferry-boat heading to Uruguay.

    General San Martin monument.

  • Argentines do like their meat and most dishes offer two large portions along with a side of veggies; Argentines also like their pastries and the traditional Alfajores (stuffed cookies) come in all sorts of delectable variations such as dulce de leche.
  • Handing out leaflets is a civic obsession, be it for the upcoming national election or for an upcoming promotion at a store.
  • The world’s widest avenue (Avenue 9 de Julio) was a wonder to behold and while you could make it across in one trip if you were running at a good clip, it was generally a two trip affair
  • Casa Rosada is indeed a bright pink building and a fitting setting for the delivery of passionate political speeches (too bad that it is often fenced off due to demonstrations).

    The May Pyramid in Plaza de Mayo was the first national monument erected.

  • Recoleta Cemetery is one amazing mausoleum after the next and a “who`s who of Argentine society” is buried here – it is a great history and architecture lesson at the same time.

    A Guardian Angel in the serene Recoleta Cemetery.

     

  • The legacy of Eva Peron still resonates in some circles and there are many monuments and tributes to her around BA; her family crypt in Recoleta Cemetery is the most visited and multiple bouquets of flowers are still placed outside of it daily.
  • The subway system is efficient and cheap/easy to use based on a colour coded scheme.
  • Soccer is VERY popular (the matches for the much-loved Boca Juniors are broadcast on no less than four local TV stations).
  • The barrio of La Boca lives up to its billing as a `colourful` and cultural hot spot; Puerto Madero is the ‘it’ barrio to be in and features a walking bridge designed by the famous Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava.
  • The Congresso (National Assembly building) rivals Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
  • The San Telmo Antiques and Craft Market stretches for blocks on Sunday afternoon;  Florida Street is just plain crazy every day of the week (like Times Square on crack with some sort of visual or audio stimuli to jar your senses at every turn).

All in all, it was a good trip and I can safely say that I had the full BA experience complete with traffic jams on the ride in and out of the city, having to change hotels because of a water shut down, avoiding poop piles in the many park areas and marvelling at the hired dog walkers who manage up to 20 dogs at a time, sampling many delectable ice creams and pastries and empanadas and meat entrees (veal, chicken and pork), admiring the many statues and stately buildings, and, much to my chagrin, falling prey to a camera thief.

Lush greenery frames a detailed sculpture in Plaza San Martin.

While I was fully prepared to deal with situations that could arise within busy, crowded streets (and had successfully navigated through the Recoleta Artisan Market, the San Telmo Market, Avenue 9 de Julio, Corrientes Avenue (like 42ndStreet in Broadway), and the open air Florida Street Mall before the incident occurred), what my travel books failed to mention was to watch out for bike bandits roaming the many green space plazas around the city.  Apparently, it’s not enough to just be concerned about being jostled about/pick-pocketed in the busy market /street areas by the pros who make themselves out to be ordinary citizens/business people who are experts at pulling the innocent bump into, distract and snatch manoeuvre; you also have to be on guard even in a quiet and safe park area.

Corrientes Avenue is in the heart of the theatre district.

The Kavanagh Building overlooks Plaza San Martin.

Lesson to all of the travellers out there:  NEVER, NEVER, NEVER let yourself get too comfortable and be fooled by what on the surface appears to be a safe environment because that can quickly change in a matter of seconds as I sadly came to realize.  In less than a minute,  a bike bandit silently rode up behind me like a stealth bomber, grabbed my camera and made an expedient get away.   I still have no idea where he came from – chances are he could have been watching me from afar – but he may well just have appeared out of nowhere and it was the perfect crime of opportunity sadly made entirely possible by myself in committing not one, not two, but likely multiple cardinal sins of being an over-confident and cocky tourist!   Granted, it could have been worse and, at the end of it all, the only thing that was really hurt was my pride in being so grossly taken advantage of out of my own stupidity and vanity as a ‘seasoned traveller’ who knows better.   Yes, this was a big (and costly!) lesson learned and while I was really miffed about losing all the great digital pictures I had taken prior to the incident, I’m thankful that I was able to find a drugstore chain that sold 35mm disposable cameras.  This technology is going the way of the dinosaur but nonetheless provided some half-decent pictures.

Resting in peace at Recoleta Cemetery.

As the famed Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, conveys in his many essays/poems devoted to his beloved homeland:

  • Morning is an overwhelming blue, a swift and massive surprise spanning the sky, a crystallizing, a lavish outpouring of sunlight that piles up in squares….
  • The day is a playing field for our endeavors or for our idleness…
  • …Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning.  I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.

I hope the pictures that I have included capture the glory of the expansive sky, the places where you can play, and the eternal appeal of Buenos Aires…beautiful, bold and brash all at once and delightfully so!

One of many Argentine national hero monuments along Avenue 9 de Julio, the world's widest avenue.

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