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Review: Buenos Aires

City/Town/Region/Island

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires - without the Tango dinner

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2378 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • 2008
  • Husband

120 people found this review helpful

We don’t like big cities but Jon at Audley Travel had advised us to spend at least one day in Buenos Aires (BA), at the start of out trip to Argentina and South America, if only to get over jet lag. We were told it was a vibrant exciting place and we hadn’t lived if we hadn’t been to BA. The highlight of many itineraries for BA is the Tango Dinner. This didn’t feature on our to do list and definitely ‘isn’t us’. We agreed to spend two nights there with a city tour planned for the day after we arrived but NO tango dinner. We would also have two half days to explore by ourselves.

Buenos Aires is big and brash and we enjoyed it much more than we expected.

We were booked into La Cayetana, a delightful 1820s house in the centre of the city.

Entry was through a big wooden door which opened directly onto a busy street onto the street, but was very effective in cutting out all noise. Beyond the door it was an oasis of calm. Inside were three courtyards with rooms along the sides. The first courtyard and rooms would have been the family quarters; the second courtyard would have housed the servants and cooking, washing etc., were done here. The last courtyard would have been the stables and grooms quarters (so the horses would have been taken out through the working and living quarters…). Now the courtyards are gardens with trees, flowers and sitting areas.

Each of the rooms is furnished slightly differently with antique furniture. They have their original wooden shutters which are very effective at cutting out sunlight and help keep the rooms cool. Our room was large and simply furnished. There was a large and comfortable bed with stairs to a half landing with hanging space and bathroom. A fan helped keep it cool. We bought empanadas (think Cornish pasty) from the local bakery and sat in the courtyard with a bottle of red wine for our evening meals.

We did the statutory FULL DAY CITY TOUR. We don’t like city tours as we have found many seem to involve being driven around peering through windows as you sail past the sites. You need to walk a place to fully appreciate it. However access to a car meant we would be able to reach parts of the city too far to walk. As elderly ‘gringos’ with virtually no Spanish we were dubious of our ability to cope with taxis and the metro.

We had an early start to visit La Boca before the crowds arrived; a good ploy as by 10am it was busy with coach tours and tourists. We loved the brightly painted houses made of wood and corrugated iron. Italian immigrants used to paint the walls with paints left over from painting their boats. The tradition has continued and each wall is a different colour. We went into a reconstruction of an early settlers house which is now a museum. Being anoraks we went to have a look at the river and Puente Transbordador, an early 20thC transporter bridge which is no longer used. Not being football fanatics we gave Boca Juniors a miss.

We then drove back to the city centre to Plaza de Mayo and went into the Metropolitan Cathedral with its classical frontage. The inside has a feeling of spaciousness with elegant columns with a decorative frieze above and a beautiful silver plated main altar. In a side aisle is the Mausoleum of General José de San Martín guarded by soldiers.

We went for a short ride on Line A of the Metro from Peru Station. This was the first line opened in 1913 and still uses some of the original carriages. Peru station has been restored to its original grandeur with old adverts and fittings.

It was then back to the car as we drove through Puerto Madero. This had been the old dock area with huge warehouses which had become very run down. They have now been restored as luxury apartments, restaurants and offices. It is now a highly desirable area and a marvellous example of what can be achieved if there is the money (and will) available.

I had wanted to visit the Botanic Gardens. In the guide book it had had a great write up and was described as being divided into geographical areas, into systematic groups and different styles of garden (French, Japanese, Italian). I was expecting great things but was terribly disappointed. There were few labels, the different styles of garden weren’t obvious, nor were the systematic groups of plants. It was basically grass with trees and could have been anything, anywhere. We felt this had been a waste of our time.

We then had a ‘guided drive’ past La Torre Monumental, the Big Ben ‘look-alike’ in Plaza San Martin and then through Palermo and La Recoleta, the exclusive end of BA where all the money is. Large numbers of mansions were built between 1910-25 by wealthy families who had moved out here after the yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s. The latest fashions were brought back from Paris and money was no object.

Movie stars, pop stars and diplomats now live here and many mansions now embassies or museums.

We went into the delightful Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Pilar outside La Recoleta cemetery. This was built by the Jesuits on the site of a Franciscan monastery in the early 18thC. The inside of the church is painted white and the first impression is of a fairly plain building , until you see the silver fronted altar with highly decorated gilded altar back. There are statues on the pillars and splendid side altars.

There is a small museum of religious artefacts in the cloisters. There were some beautifully decorated garments used to clothe statues or the baby Jesus. These are lovingly embroidered by the the spinsters of the parish. Another good reason to visit are the views down on La Recoleta cemetery from the windows.

Everyone goes to La Recoleta Cemetery. All the really important people are buried here. Evita is here but the authorities try not to publicise this as they don’t regard her background as being ‘important’ enough to justify a plot. Peron wasn’t buried there and only managed the ‘second best’ cemetery.

The cemetery is like a small town with streets lined with huge mausoleums in every architectural style imaginable. Space is at a premium so there is no space between the mausoleums. Money was no object. Many had glass doors so the coffin(s) could be on show with all the assorted plastic flowers and other offerings. Some are still carefully maintained but many are now looking very uncared for – either the money ran out or the family died out/moved on. There were lots of feral cats roaming around.

We enjoyed La Boca and La Recoleta. The day also gave us chance to find out more on the history, architecture and life in the city. It gave a personal perspective and gave us chance to begin to find answers to all the questions the guide books don’t cover.

We spent the afternoon we arrived walking from the hotel. We had gone prepared with a map of BA from Insight Guide to Argentina. BA is built on a grid system so as long as you count streets it is difficult to get lost… We had read horror stories about personal safety in BA and our guide told us she had been robbed at gun point twice. However we didn’t feel threatened at any time. We kept to the main streets with people around . We also made a point of not going out after dark.

All the big money moved to the north of the city about 100 years ago and the centre became very run down over the years. It is only just recovering and being renovated. The streets are narrow with lots of traffic and narrow pavements. The buildings are tall, which gives a claustrophobic effect. We enjoyed looking at looking at the many late 19thC town houses around Monserrat and San Telmo with their ornate Italianate facades, wooden doors and wrought iron railings. Some are still well maintained and cared for but many are now in a poor state of repair.

We headed to PLAZA DE MAYO with its palm trees, gardens, crowd of people and large police presence for yet another demonstration. On one side is Casa Rosa, the French/Italian renaissance Government House This, as its name suggests, is bright pink. Traditionally Ox blood was used as a fixative for whitewash. Opposite is the white painted Cabildo which was the first government building in BA and now a museum. The Cathedral is on the third side.

Round the corner from the Cathedral we found the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Merced which is one of least visited churches in BA. This is quite dark inside as there are no windows. It is very ornate with beautiful side altars lining the walls. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed in the church.

Our final morning we spent walking in the RESERVA ECOLOGICA COSTANERA, which is a large area of reclaimed land along the shore of the River Plate, separated from the city centre by the redeveloped docklands. It is a low lying area of seasonal lagoons, marshland and drier areas with trees and shrubs. There is a network of paths past the lagoons, across the drier areas and along the River Plate with views of container ships. All the trees were coming into flower and there were birds everywhere. We hadn’t a clue what they all were but there were finches and blackbird and thrush type birds as well as South American lapwings. This was the highlight of BA – forget the tango dinners and the night life.

A review of our trip to South America can be read here.

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