06.04.2014

FAIR WINDS

FAIR WINDS, Alper Daçe | 06.04.2014

With a name meaning “Fair Winds”, given by the arriving Spanish colonizers, the Argentine capital is quite a large and beautiful city. For a time, an immigrant culture fostered here for those who saw this land as an escape from many different parts of the world.

For a full itinerary covering Argentina and Uruguay, we set aside 4 days for the city. It’s a 2-hour flight from Puerto Iguazu and we landed at Jorge Newbery airport, close to the city center. However international flights generally use Ezeiza Airport, itself 1.5 hours away from the city.

From Newbery, it’s a half hour to the city center with bus number 45. Ticket prices vary according to distanced travelled.  For our 2010 trip, the cost was $1.25 ARS (prices mentioned throughout the rest of this article have not been updated). Avoid the airport exchange offices as best as you can. The rates in the city are quite lower. Remember to get some coins, because if you plan on taking the bus you’ll need them.  To get your ticket you toss coins into the machine behind the driver, who does not make change. As the guidebook says, having the correct change is a chronic problem in Buenos Aires. Thankfully everyone’s pockets are jingling as they walk around.

Hotels in the old center have seen their standards drop. After settling in and relaxing a little, we took to the streets in late afternoon. Our first goal was the San Telmo district. We took the metro. Tickets are $1.10 and you can buy a card worth five trips. Public transit and the metro is common here, but the wagons seem like historical monuments.

We got off at Independencia and walked along the avenue. Head south from Defensa Street and this goes to the heart of San Telmo. This is where the street gets lively, especially on market days. A little further at number 855 is Desnivel Restaurant, where we ate. They offer traditional dishes, in a shabby but entrenched décor. You may have to queue at the door. Stewed meats, a roast, and two beers came to $92 ARS. Nice but not special. You must try Quilmes beer, however.

After walking further south there are the street stalls selling handicrafts. A little further and you’ll see the San Telmo market and Dorrego Square. Antiques sold in passages at the top of the street may draw your curiosity. Classic snacks and drinks are sold at the market. Flea market vendors line the square, as do plenty of shops and cafés. A tango show goes on in the middle. The stands begin to pack up at around 6pm. I don’t think weekdays are as lively. We were unable to stay for the San Telmo tango night but you definitely should add it to your list.

Not far from Bolivar Street, we boarded the number 29 bus headed for La Boca. On the bus, a little old lady sitting next to us overheard us ask the driver about La Boca and proceeded to talk to us in Spanish and used plenty of hand gestures. After a five-minute exchange, we finally understood that they were trying to tell us that it was late and as a result that we shouldn’t go there, even though it wasn’t even 5pm or dark yet! We didn’t listen to the old lady and kept going and it was fine, nothing happened to us. But still, be yourselves and be a little careful when it starts to get dark outside.

La Boca is a neighborhood in the southeast of the city. This district was made famous for many years as Maradona wore the Boca Juniors uniform and the football team’s stadium is here. The city’s other major team is River Plate, whose fans are amongst the city’s affluent and distinguished citizens. Boca can be said to be the people’s team. Boca Juniors fans, the majority of whom have immigrant backgrounds, make up this neighborhood. Those immigrants, who worked the old port, came in waves from Genoa, Italy. Assimilation came slowly; even in the late 1800’s the district’s denizens rebelled and raised the banner of Genoa. Today, what remains of this rebellion can be seen in football teams.

These days, dock works stop in Caminito Street; colorful houses, tango shows, and bars have become one of the city’s touristic hotspots. Although it may seem a little backward in terms of transport, this district will take much of your time. If you go with little time or not intending to spend much time, you’ll get the chance to catch a very different air here. Colorful buildings in a European architectural aesthetic and colorful people are heartening. Don’t miss a nice sit at the bar for a drink.

On our second day here, we headed towards 9 July Boulevard. A few words about this boulevard. At 140 meters wide, it ranks with the world’s widest. This becomes apparent as crossing it in one go is not possible. Begun in 1937, all but a few privileged buildings were demolished to make room. One such building is the French embassy. From there, head along Diagonal Norte, you’ll see the Obelisk. It was erected in honor of the 400th anniversary of the city.

From here, if you follow Av. Roque Sanez Pena, which cuts across Diagonal Norte, you’ll reach Plaza de Mayo. It’s not wrong to say that Plaza de Mayo is the heart of the city. Important buildings surround the square: the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Casa Rosada.

Completed in 1836, the Metropolitan Cathedral houses the mausoleum of General Jose de San Martin, liberator of Argentina, Peru and Chile. In terms of architecture, you may think it civil or administrative rather than a historical cathedral. Perhaps it’s because of the façade, lacking any steeple or wide dome. At the entrance, thanks to ever-burning torches on the walls, I learned about a plaque saluting the General Jose de San Martin and the unknown soldiers who lie here.

If you look across from the cathedral you’ll see the very white Cabildo. Before independence, this building was the seat of Argentina’ colonial governance, traces of the colonial era dating from 1725. Thursdays and Fridays there’s a craft market in the garden.

After checking out the Cabildo briefly we hit a café right next door to try out the famous Mate tea. With vendors selling Mate on the street and people drinking as they walk, Mate is a particular drink to Argentina (also Uruguay and Paraguay to some extent). People drink the tea all day from distinctive cups and thermoses of hot water they carry around. The cups are filled with tea and steeped in hot water, a silver or metal straw used to drink acts as filter. With the waiter’s help we prepared a splendid tea ceremony. But one sip and our great expectations for this tea adventure were dashed and ended in one sour expression. The taste was stronger than we expected. But as we understand, this tasteless flavor does have some health benefits. So after the tea tasting fiasco we continued our tour and headed to the other side of the square.

In the middle of the square lies the Piramide de Mayo, which dates from 1810 and is dedicated to the revolutionaries who fought for the independence movement. Right behind is the Casa Rosada. The building is really pink. In Argentina, some of the people here either still really hate or really love President Juan Peron and his wife Eva Peron, who saluted the crowds from the balcony of this presidential palace.

Continuing east, we reached the Puerto Madero neighborhood. Buildings on both sides of a canal have been restored, to the benefit of some university and private businesses. On the far side of the canal, skyscrapers and residences rise. There’s a park behind them. At different points along the canals, old cranes preserve an industrial aesthetic. Don’t be fooled by the dingy colored water flowing through the canal. That’s the general color of the sea in Buenos Aires. The mud of the La Plata River that spills into the gulf between Argentina and Uruguay is to blame.

After the canal, we reached the striking Woman’s Bridge and crossed it. This bridge reminded me of one I saw in Valencia, while the guidebook tells me that it’s from the same architect. The bridge is named so for the women who give their names to the surrounding streets.

Near the bridge we saw the Sarmiento, an old navy training ship now a museum, named after the fourth president of Argentina. We started to get hungry and found a restaurant recommended by our book. But the high prices in the menu at the door made us move on.

Following our route, we took Ave. L.N. Alem, past 25 de Mayo Street, in the direction of the Retiro. There are a lot of offices in the area. In the many restaurants along the street the prices we came across were not reasonable. However, at the end of the street at number 743 is a place called Wish; food, drinks, and coffee came out to $25 ARS per person and we found the menu to be quite nice. Although it may seem like a bar from the outside, the food wasn’t bad.

After dinner, going in the same direction we reached Plaza San Martin. There’s a clock tower in the square.  On the opposite side is a monument to the Argentine soldiers who died fighting in the Falklands War. Leaving through the park behind the monument, I saw quite a bit of people lounging in the grass and some interesting trees. Looking down the hill, the park and the clock tower make a pretty picture.

Later, we dived into Florida Street. This street is filled with shops left and right. It’s closed to traffic and full of people. Most interesting were the ones they call “cambios” shouting on the edge of the street. I learned from the book that these are black market currency exchange men. Despite better rates offered than official ones, they are not recommended because of the chance of counterfeit money. Walking this street we reached where we started, Plaza de Mayo. In the end we didn’t find many appealing things in Florida Street.

Before heading to our nearby hotel to rest and gather energy for the evening, we wanted to sit at the famous Tortoni café on Avenida de Mayo. Seeing the queue at the door we had a drink at a more humble café.

For dinner, we headed back to San Telmo. We decided on the Gran Parrilla del Plata restaurant at the corner of Chile and Peru Streets (Chile, 594). For a starter, we got an empanada filled with ground beef and onions, reminiscent of our own Turkish börek pastries, and spicy stewed beef and some roasted goat cheese called provoleta. I strongly recommend both. They go great with some wine. For the main, we of course turned to Argentina’s legendary dish: meat.  We ordered an ojo de bife (foreigners say ribeye), and a fillet cut from the waist. The ojo de bife was tough and dry, the other was more tender and juicy. Both were beautiful. You’ll enjoy whichever you prefer. The wine from Argentinian Malbec grapes was also nice. All in all, we paid $201 ARS and were pleased. A waiter who spoke good English made our lives easier. I would also suggest other venues in the area: to eat La Brigada (Estados Unidos, 465); for drinks Time-Out’s 2009 suggestion the English pub Gilbratar (Peru, 895). To get back to the city center, I remembered that the metro shuts at 11pm on weekdays.

On Tuesday, we started with the Block of Lights area near Plaza de Mayo. This is a few city blocks between the square and Av. Belgrano. Here you’ll find the 19th century homes for the wealthy, as well as schools, churches, and buildings. These buildings have been declared historical monuments considering their historical and aesthetic importance. Yet I can say the book is silent about them, despite the fancy label.

We left and turned towards the obelisk. From the obelisk, on foot we reached the famous Teatro Colon. A long period of restoration work ended in 2010. The 100-year-old theatre reopened and is very popular.

Right in back of the theatre is Plaza Lavalle. It’s the city’s oldest square and some important buildings are here. In the middle of the square is a statue of former president Juan Galo Lavalle. There’s a library and the city’s oldest synagogue Templo Libertad opposite the Justice Palace.

After hanging out in the square some we reached the street off Talcahuano, Av. Santa Fe. This is a broad street full of shopping. Our attention was drawn to Bond Street (Av. Santa Fe, 1670), a passage with very diverse and interesting shops selling sportswear, skateboards, magazines, books, etc. and tattoo parlors.

We got hungry and searching for a place to eat we came across Cumana (R. Pena, 1149). Inside we found a warmly decorated restaurant with good food that suited us. With a lingering taste of the night before, we order cheese and chicken empanadas. I learned that the main course I wanted to try, locro (meat stew and beans), is made with pork. A little disappointed I ordered carbonada (a meat, corn, peaches, and potato casserole). It was delicious and satisfying. The Cumana salad (fried dough in a bowl) we ordered we also liked.

After eating we went to La Recoleta Cemetery, it wasn’t mentioned in any city guidebooks before we went. Since the 19th century, much of Argentina’s upper-crust is buried here, each mausoleum is unique and custom-ordered by its owner. The most famous tomb of course belongs to Eva Peron.

Keep going downhill from here and immediately to your right is the Hard Rock Café and Plaza Francia a little further. On weekends the square hosts the city’s liveliest arts and craft fair. Artists, craftsmen, hippies and many others crowd here. It’s busiest from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. It being a weekday we had to settle for a quiet square. Directly opposite the square is the Museum of Fine Arts. As we walked too much to devote any energy to the art, we jumped on a bus back to Plaza San Martin. However, I note that entrance is free if you wish to visit and you can see all the museum’s works in about 2 hours.

Dinner at Piola (Libertad, 1078) and we decided to eat pizza. Searching for English on the menu, we noticed the existence of an Istanbul branch. The waiter who served us knew English, and that saved us. Overall, the music and décor were nice, the pizza satisfying but of middling taste. More memorable was the shot that came with the check: ice cream, milk, lemon, and vodka. Our bill was $128 ARS.

Finally our last day in Buenos Aires arrived. Thinking about it later, we figured out that our favorite spots were in the Palermo district. Rumor has it that the name of this place goes back to the city’s founding years and some Italian guy. However, it cannot be said that most of the old inhabitants here are Italian. In the recent past, Poles, Armenians, Ukrainians, and people from the Middle East have settled here. The most popular street is called Armenia anyway.

Take the D line and get off at Plaza Italia. From the square head towards the sea, you’ll reach the Botanical Park, the zoo, the Japanese gardens, and the Evita Museum. Our route was in the opposite direction, and we headed to Palermo Soho.

Looking to appease our hunger we found La Esquina de Las Flores (Gurruchaga, 1632), an interesting place that doubles as a restaurant and an organic market. There is also a library in the back in a charming but closed courtyard. The products on sale and on the menu are both healthy and delicious. Vegetable soup, tofu tart, beans, bulgur, rice, and sour lemonade; we liked them all. Just the right taste for Turks. The bill: $88 ARS.

While walking after leaving the restaurant, our surroundings began to change. We really felt closer to the center. We started to see restored low-rise buildings home to shops and boutiques. The buildings were of a different aesthetic but the colors we quite liked. It’s hard to believe that this area was once filled with elderly residents and repairmen.

If you head northwest of Palermo Soho, you will come to Palermo Hollywood, so named for all the private television channels that operated out of the buildings here in the 90s.

Turning right on Honduras Street, across from us sits Papelara Palermo (Honduras, 4945). You definitely have to see this stationary shop. Inside is an endless amount of notebooks and pens; fun to look at even if you don’t buy. Just nearby, the Capitol Interior has a lot of things.

So as not to continue our path even further without getting any coffee, we sat down at a nearby cafe called Nucha (Goriski). The surrounding buildings also had the backyard gardens that we'd loved. I recommend the light sweets, on which we spent something like $46 ARS.

After leaving we entered the busiest street Armenia and again started walking towards the sea. I'm positive you'll love this street both for its shopping and also its food and drink. The only problem is that, as always, there's even more things needed to keep the ladies happy, so we dove into a shop called Seco (Armenia, 1646). I got worried the second I saw that there were not a ton of men's products, though there were nice raincoats, slippers, and boots. Even though everything was designer, the prices were very reasonable. Another store right around there has a lovely interior as well. Right as you exit the shop, the next intersecting street has a store called Beautiful Ones (Costa Rica, 4737) which is great for shoes, t-shirts and bags. The t-shirts with pop culture icons were great. For guys who complain that there's nothing for them, as the sun was setting and we were heading back, I bought a t-shirt at a store called Trippin (Armenia, 1838) which made me happy. There were plenty of different products all for guys, if you make it over there I recommend you look in. But however many places I talk about, there are so many stores and cafes in the city that it's just about certain that you'll find a place that makes you happy. As a result, if you come to Buenos Aires you should make sure you come this way. Even if you don't go shopping, just smelling the air around here is worth the visit.

After wandering around in the evening we took the metro back to our hotel. Because we'd been walking so much all day, the only thing we were capable of was picking up a bottle of wine and heading back to the hotel. This is how we spent our last evening in Argentina.

The next morning as we flew towards Uruguay we carried the lovely memories of our trip to Argentina with us the whole way. We had come to understand that even though it seems so far away but the culture wasn't all as far from our own as we'd imagined. We'd really enjoyed our time in Buenos Aires to the hilt, with all our expections met and surpassed in its level of entertainment, flavor, and history.

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