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Seven days in Buenos Aires

Three-lane freeways, skyscrapers and modern cars: an unexpected scenery in a “third-world” country best known for the biggest debt default in history.

This is Buenos Aires, the city of contrasts. Poor neighborhoods next to the presidential palace and shanty towns over the railway from the richest district of the capital.

Once the richest city in South America, Buenos Aires is now famous for its beggars and pick pockets and soaring unemployment. But go to the historic districts and you will find yet another face to the city: its European heritage next to sprawling skyscrapers.

San Telmo, the oldest district of Buenos Aires with cobble stoned streets and turn of the 19th century buildings is near La Boca, one of the most dangerous places in the city, and the birthplace of Diego Maradona.

Much of the San Telmo district will make you think the wheels of time turned back a few decades, until you reach a ten lane highway that cuts in half past and present. It is a blunt reminder of failed town-planning and crazy architects, running two blocks from the main square.

The main square gives place to the San Telmo fair that takes place on Sundays and runs along the Calle Defensa from Avenida Brasil to Avenida de Mayo. Jugglers, buskers and beggars gather regardless of the weather all day long along the antique shops and street with vendors to amuse passers-by.

Walking between jugglers on Calle Defensa I could discover late 19th and early 20th century architecture in Buenos Aires and see everything from toys made from copper wires to centuries old paintings.

San Telmo used to be the meeting place and residence of the rich and famous. Also, most of the government offices were located here with the aristocrats and industrialist magnates. Unfortunately the yellow fever epidemic in 1871 all but wiped out the population of San Telmo, and most people relocated to Recoleta and Palermo to the north.

The rich were soon replaced by Italian immigrant workers. Their descendents still dominate the neighbourhood. After walking to Avenida Brasil I had lunch at the Hipopotamo restaurant.

Service is very slow but the big and tasty portions will compensate for that. They serve lunch every day at the Hipopotamo at a discount price. Lunch is always two or three courses of mainly Italian dishes and a drink or desert.

Live shows of Jazz and Tango are always popular in Buenos Aires and wherever you go you will find a restaurant or a bar that has a live event. I spent a few hours in the Bar Britanico, one of the oldest in San Telmo listening to live Jazz with a friend I made here one night.

We met in cafe whose name I cannot remember now. We were both drinking a couple of bottles of beer and ended up chatting. And that’s it, we became friends like that. I kept in touch with her during my summer long stay. Ironically she was a Chilean girl, and not Argentine!

Argentine waiters are always up for a chat and they tend to stop at your table to inquire if all is good with the food. Here nobody care if they have to wait a little, because time does not mean a lot here, so just sit back, relax and enjoy the music.

The Palace of Congress

Walk from the Plaza de Mayo to the Plaza del Congreso. The two squares are connected by theAvenida de Mayo and here you will find some of the most important buildings of the city. One of them is the Congress and the other one is the Casa Rosada, the headquarters of the executive at the opposite ends of the Avenida de Mayo.

The avenue is just under a mile long and it was inaugurated in 1894. It received protected status and became a world heritage site in 1997. Underneath the road runs Buenos Aires’ and South America’s oldest subway, the A line since 1913.

As a Hungarian I felt like home, not only because the architecture was very similar to most of the buildings of Budapest, but because the streets were also lined by the same type of trees as back home. I would not hesitate to rename it the Budapest of the South instead of Paris.

The Plaza de Mayo is dominated by the pink government building, the Casa Rosada where Madonna sang her famous song “Don’t cry for me Argentina” on the balcony. Demonstrators still gather every day here and there are also many who come to remember Evita and the heyday of Argentina. The Casa Rosada has its own museum as well with pictures and items of presidents from 1957.

I did not want to leave Argentina without trying the famous Argentine beef burgers so I headed to the Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. To my disappointment the burger was awfully dry and almost inedible so I had to send it back.
They brought the same bread and salad back with a different burger that was probably recently defrosted, all soggy and still disgusting. I left a little upset, the service was horrible, not to mention the burger and the drink. It made me think there was no point going to any expensive places in BA if you get a top notch service in the cheaper restaurants and cafes.

After lunch I carried on walking towards the Plaza del Congreso. I walked by some of the most impressing buildings in the city such as the Hotel Paris, the Hotel Chile, El Cabildo and the Palacio Barolo. The Palacio Barolo used to be the tallest building in Buenos Aires until the construction of the Kavanagh Tower a few blocks away.

The Plaza del Congreso is a place where many homeless people sleep under the trees in little sheds made of cardboard, or simply on mattresses by the pavement. They are very peaceful and during the night they collect the trash that they later sell at recycling points. This is how they scrape a living to survive every day.

As I got closer to the Congress it became clear that Argentina had seen better times. The building is just magnificent. The Congress is made of granite carved with perfect precision, crowned by an 80 meter green cupola.

Later I decided to take a look at Palermo with its parks and palaces. It is so huge that it has been divided into smaller districts such as Alto Palermo, Hollywood and so on. After the narrow streets of the downtown area it was a refreshing change to stroll down the green parks and relax a little on the grass. Palermo is home to the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens and most of the Embassies in the city.

I started by looking at the Botanical Garden. It was designed by French landscape architect Carlos Thays and bears his name today. It is unlike any gardens that I have seen in Europe because it does not only have flowers and shrubs but the walkways are lined by some of the most beautiful statues that I have ever seen. In the centre of the garden there is the tiny greenhouse which won an award in 1899 in the Paris Exhibition and is the last one that remains in the world.

Another unique feature of the gardens is the homeless cats that wonder around everywhere looking for visitors to feed them. It seems every garden has something to remember them for such as the squirrels of Edinburgh or the Iguanas of Guayaquil in Ecuador and the cats of Buenos Aires. From the botanics I took a bus to Recoleta, the most expensive district of Buenos Aires.

Nightlife, shops and restaurants are centered around Calle Junin and the Recoleta Cemetery that is a must see. It is similar to the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris with rows of tombs in narrow streets. Some of the most famous politicians are buried here such as Evita Peron, Raul Alfonsini, or the newspaper owner Jose Camilo Paz who built the biggest palace in Buenos Aires, now the Circulo Militar where I headed after the cemetery.

It is an easy 20-25 minute walk towards Retiro, the main railway station. On the way there I stopped to buy some “empanadas” pastries filled with meat, chicken or vegetables. They are the Argentine alternative to western fast food chains, they are also cheap but much more delicious. Another significant difference is that the saleswoman chats to you, and will remember you the next time you come.

The Circulo Militar is at the end of Avenida Santa Fe, not far from the Kavanagh Tower. It was inaugurated in 1914 and is in the style of Loire valley castles. Since 1938 it houses the Military Club, a library and a museum. If you are not very keen on walking you can also take the subway, called subte in BA. Service is frequent but very crowded and does not cover too much of the city.

I wanted to see other parts of Argentina too so after a week I caught a bus to the north. The main bus and railway station is at the end of the Blue underground line. Bus service is very good and frequent to all parts of the country, so take a bus instead of the trains, which are very slow. Bus companies offer food and movies on board and they are also very cheap.

Much more by this author on his very excellent website

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