THE PERFECT 10
From vibrant dance shows to ornate bookshops, Argentina’s capital has the lot
EL ATENEO GRAND SPLENDID
South America’s biggest bookshop, housed in a beautifully refurbished old theatre in the Recoleta district, is a showstopper. Four levels of elegant curved balconies, once filled with theatre seats, now house bookshelves; the stage, adorned with its original red velvet curtains, has been turned into a cafe. The Grand Splendid Theatre’s old box seats have been furnished with armchairs so visitors can settle with a book or sit and admire the elaborate Italianate frescoes on the domed ceiling. There is only a small selection of Englishlanguage titles among the 200,000 books, but in such stunning surrounds it hardly matters. Avenue Santa Fe 1860; + 54 11 4813 6052.
EL VIEJO ALMACEN
Like polo and soccer, tango dancing is in the Argentinian DNA. As the lights dim at this long-running tango show in the historic San Telmo district, three couples — the girls lithe and clad in figure-hugging costumes, the chaps dressed alarmingly like 1930s pimps — begin a quick-stepping, limb-tangling dance of seduction and despair. A live band provides the music during a fun and fast-paced evening. Sure, it’s mainly tourists in the audience, and the included dinner is average, but for a professional display of one of the world’s most alluring and emotional dances, El Viejo Almacen is a good choice. More: viejoalmacen.com.
Resting place of Eva Peron, Argentinian presidents and other notables, this 5.5ha plot housing more than 4700 mausoleums arranged like city blocks is one of the most impressive cemeteries in the world. Tree-lined thoroughfares offer a route through this labyrinthine necropolis, but duck down the thin lanes between rows of vaults and you’ll feel as if you have wandered on to a Tim Burton film set. Gothic tombs sit beside elaborate marble mausoleums, statues of winged angels, cherubs and weeping mothers keep watch over the interred. Ninety mausoleums have been declared national heritage monuments, though others have fallen into disrepair. I gaze through a broken window at the sight of six coffins discarded amid the rubble within a longforgotten tomb. More: recoletacemetery.com.
Looking for a stylish souvenir? Howabout an ankle-length calf-leather coat? Or a bolero jacket made of goat hide? Or a pair of capybara boots? At this leather factory and showroom opposite Recoleta Cemetery, watch the tailors at work on the first floor before heading downstairs to ferret through the well-stocked racks of clothing. If the garment of your dreams doesn’t fit or is not in your preferred colour, Uru’s English-speaking staff will take your measurements and your order will be ready within 24 hours (or sooner if it’s an alteration). My cropped black leather jacket is a bargain at $US160. More: us-cueros.com.ar.
PLAZA DORREGO MARKET
San Telmo is one of the oldest neighbourhoods and on Sunday its main square, Plaza Dorrego, is crowded with antiques stalls. If it’s a Bakelite telephone you’re after or a rare Asterix comic, or perhaps a set of discarded typesetting blocks, this is the place. A row of brightly coloured soda siphons catches my eye — quirky bottles that would pep up any drab kitchen. I hand over the equivalent of $12 and leave clutching a hot pink dispenser with a silver spout. The market, in operation since 1970, is surrounded by bars, cafes and restaurants — perfect for refuelling before the next round of shopping.
THE EVITA MUSEUM
This exhibition in the Palermo district charts the former Maria Eva Duarte’s involvement in the country’s political, economic and social life after meeting her husband-to-be and future
BE MY GUEST
president, Colonel Juan Peron, at a charity event in 1944. It also gives an insight into her taste in clothing — many of Eva Peron’s gowns are displayed on mannequins in this converted colonial mansion. Among the exhibits are photos of 14-year-old Eva, who dreamed of becoming an actress, and footage of her funeral. It’s hard to believe that Peron, who looms large in the Argentinian psyche, was the nation’s first lady for only six years, dying of cancer at the age of 33. More: evitaperon.org.
The city’s main square and political hub, Plaza de Mayo is the setting for many important buildings, including the Casa Rosada presidential palace, from which Eva Peron addressed the crowds (Madonna sang Don’t Cry for Me Argentina in the film Evita from the same balcony). But don’t miss the cathedral that sits on the plaza’s northwest edge. Its unassuming neoclassical facade belies interiors with exquisitely detailed altarpieces, carvings and statues, a series of small, elaborately adorned chapels and an intricate mosaic floor. The mausoleum of General Jose de San Martin is guarded by three life-sized female figures representing Argentina, Chile and Peru, the lands he helped free from Spanish colonial rule. More: catedralbuenosaires.org.ar.
7 This tooth-shattering confection is Argentina’s national sweet. Wrapped in gold and silver foil, a sandwich made of two round, chocolate-coated spiced biscuits is filled with dulce de leche, a heavenly caramel created by slowly heating condensed milk until it turns a rich, nutty brown. Locals add dulce de leche to desserts or just scoop and scoff from the jar. Havanna stores (look for their yellow signs) sell alfajores by the piece or in gift boxes. More: havanna.com.ar.
8 To uncover the real Buenos Aires, little can compare with being invited to dinner at the home of a group of hip, young locals, or Portenos. Trafalgar has made Be My Guest dining experiences — including visits to private estates, working farms, wineries and family homes — a highlight of its South American tour packages. At the residence of medical student Lina and her engineer brother Gaspar in the trendy Palermo Soho district, we dine on Lina’s empanadas, pumpkin crepes, steak with mushroom sauce, and a rich dessert drenched with dulce de leche. Gaspar, who is also a tango teacher, treats us to some of his finest moves on a makeshift dance floor at the head of the dinner table. It’s an enormously fun night, and a fabulous insight into another world.
Michelle Rowe was a guest of Trafalgar and Qantas.
If it’s cool and funky you’re after, the 11-room Legado Mitico (pictured) in the arty Palermo Viejo district has themed rooms celebrating Argentinian notables including Eva Peron, author Jorge Luis Borges and tango legend Carlos Gardel. The Alvear Palace Hotel in Recoleta, a stone’s throw from the city’s main cultural and artistic attractions, is one of the grandest boltholes in the capital. Expect the usual high standards of service and surrounds at the city’s Park Hyatt and Sofitel properties. More: legadomitico.com; lhw.com; buenosaires.park.hyatt.com; sofitel.com.