City of Fair Winds

Buenos Aires is a cul­tural breath of fresh air

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE -

Ar­gentina is a story brim­ming with both great achieve­ment and great tragedy, a drama that stars a col­or­ful cast of char­ac­ters drawn from a lively world her­itage. And its cap­i­tal city, Buenos Aires, seems to dis­till all that in an in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of Euro­pean elan and Latin fire. The name in Span­ish means lit­er­ally ‘good airs,’ but for the 16th cen­tury ex­plor­ers who orig­i­nally set­tled Buenos Aires it was trans­lated per­haps more ro­man­ti­cally as‘fair winds.’

Wedged be­tween Ar­gentina and Uruguay along the west­ern banks of the Rio de la Plata, Buenos Aires of­fers wide, wel­com­ing boule­vards, a trea­sure trove of neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture and a cul­tural verve that long ago earned it the ti­tle of “the Paris of South Amer­ica.”

After Ar­gentina de­clared its in­de­pen­dence from Spain in 1816 and fol­low­ing decades of civil war, be­gin­ning in the 1860s the country en­joyed a long pe­riod of pros­per­ity. Buenos Aires be­came its po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic epi­cen­ter, at­tract­ing vast wealth from Ar­gentina’s fer­tile agri­cul­tural heart­land. By the 1880s, thanks to gov­ern­ment poli­cies that en­cour­aged im­mi­gra­tion, the country was a mag­net for Euro­peans look­ing to set­tle here and with the dawn of the 20th cen­tury, Ar­gentina had be­come the 7th rich­est na­tion in the world.

The im­pact of Ar­gentina’s long-ago belle époque is still man­i­fest to­day, both in Buenos Aires’grand ar­chi­tec­ture, and even more pro­foundly, in the so­ci­ety’s rich cul­tural legacy. Porteños – as the res­i­dents of Buenos Aires are known – have a her­itage drawn from Ital­ian, Span­ish, and other Euro­pean cul­tures who flocked to Ar­gentina dur­ing the pe­riod, a mi­gra­tion that vir­tu­ally re­shaped both its peo­ple and its econ­omy.

But since those heady days, the country has fallen into a se­ries of na­tional mis­steps, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships, dev­as­tat­ing eco­nomic crises and charges of cor­rup­tion. Men­tion Ar­gentina and the first thing that may come to mind are re­cent news re­ports of for­mer pres­i­dent Cristina Fernán­dez de Kirch­ner, in­dicted for al­legedly tak­ing kick­backs.

As the wife of Nestor Kirch­ner, the for­mer pres­i­dent, CFK – as she’s some­times styled in the press – chan­nels Ar­gentina’s most cel­e­brated fe­male politi­cian, Eva Peron who, though she never held elected of­fice, was none­the­less enor­mously in­flu­en­tial even after her death. Fans of Broad­way will im­me­di­ately con­jure up im­ages of the mu­si­cal Evita with Eva and her hus­band, Pres­i­dent Juan Peron, on the bal­cony of La Casa Rosada wav­ing to the cheer­ing throngs packed into the plaza below. So much to see

In fact, the Pink House is prob­a­bly the best place for out-of-town­ers to start get­ting to know Buenos Aires. The build­ing faces Plaza de Mayo, the heart of the city, which since 1810 has been the scene of ev­ery ma­jor po­lit­i­cal event in the country. In the cen­ter, the Pi­ramide de Mayo memo­ri­al­izes Ar­gentina’s in­de­pen­dence rev­o­lu­tion. Sur­round­ing it in a per­fect cir­cle, white scarves are painted on the ground, tes­ti­mony to the scarf-wear­ing moth­ers and grand­moth­ers who march here ev­ery Thurs­day in re­mem­brance of those who died or dis­ap­peared dur­ing the bru­tal mil­i­tary rule of 1976-83.

Other ex­am­ples of Ar­gentina’s his­toric ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage dot the square in­clud­ing the Ca­bildo and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Cathe­dral. The lat­ter is no­table as the arch­dio­cese of for­mer Car­di­nal Jorge Mario Ber­goglio – to­day Pope Fran­cis. In­deed, the Pope has be­come big busi­ness in his home town.Vis­i­tors have a choice of sev­eral tours that show off Fran­cis-re­lated sites around the city. In ad­di­tion to the cathe­dral, stops in­clude Flores, where he grew up, and his for­mer schools.

At the cor­ner of the square, Avenida de Mayo heads west­ward of­fer­ing a string of tra­di­tional cafés in­spired by tango mu­sic, in­clud­ing Café Tor­toni, one of the old­est in Buenos Aires and reg­u­larly vis­ited by in­tel­lec­tu­als and politi­cians. Just a few blocks away from Plaza de Mayo is Florida, the pedes­tri­an­ized street lined with shop­ping ar­cades, of­fices, restau­rants, tango dancers and street per­form­ers. It’s an es­sen­tial stop for tourists and busi­ness trav­el­ers alike. Gone but not for­got­ten

A cab ride away is the leafy Reco­leta neigh­bor­hood with large green ar­eas where live artis­tic per­for­mances take place in the open air. This quar­ter hosts sev­eral of the city’s prom­i­nent cul­tural at­trac­tions such as the Na­tional Mu­seum of Decorative Arts, the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fine Arts and the Palais de Glace. On a more somber note, Reco­leta is also the home of the ceme­tery of the same name, fi­nal rest­ing place of the city’s elite for gen­er­a­tions.

The tombs with their in­tri­cate de­signs crowd along a net­work of stone paths so it re­sem­bles a city in minia­ture more than a burial ground. It’s also the last stop for the afore­men­tioned Evita, in the de­noue­ment of a bizarre tale wor­thy of the dark­est gothic novel. Fol­low­ing her un­timely death in 1952, Eva’s body was pre­served on or­ders of her hus­band with the idea of build­ing a huge mau­soleum to put her earthly re­mains on dis­play for pub­lic view­ing.

How­ever, be­fore the me­mo­rial could be com­pleted, Peron was over­thrown and fled the country in 1955. The mil­i­tary junta that re­placed him banned Pero­nism, for­bid­ding any ref­er­ence to the dic­ta­tor or his wife. Evita’s body was spir­ited away in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances and re­mained un­ac­counted for un­til 1971, when it was re­vealed she had been buried in Italy un­der an alias. Her body was ex­humed and

brought to Spain, where the ex­iled Peron and his third wife Is­abel re­port­edly kept it in their din­ing room.

Evita made one more pub­lic ap­pear­ance in 1974, when Peron him­self died. Is­abel Peron, who had suc­ceeded her hus­band as Ar­gentina’s pres­i­dent, had his sec­ond wife’s body dis­played be­side his for a time be­fore it was well and truly in­terred in Reco­leta. To­day she rests – fi­nally – deep be­neath a black gran­ite gravestone which, in light of her no­madic life-after-death, is rather se­date by com­par­i­son.

Reco­leta it­self is an area of opulent homes typ­i­fied by its grand Belle Epoque ar­chi­tec­ture of which the Al­go­don Man­sion ho­tel, at 1647 Mon­te­v­ideo, is a great ex­am­ple. The 1912 white-fronted town­house was re­stored in 2010 to be­come the city’s first Re­lais and Châteaux prop­erty. The glass-cov­ered pa­tio is a great spot for a glass of Ar­gen­tine red. Tango in the Streets

From Reco­leta it’s a 20-minute walk north to one of the big­gest green spaces in Buenos Aires, the Palermo dis­trict. The parks and lakes of Palermo have flora from across the country, and here too the city of­fers more qual­ity at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing the im­pos­ing Galileo Galilei Plan­e­tar­ium which boasts its own hunk of moon rock brought back by Apollo XI.

The Mu­seum of Latin Amer­i­can Art Buenos Aires presents films, art ex­hi­bi­tions and in­trigu­ing projects by lo­cal de­sign­ers. Fi­nally, the Ja­panese Gar­den com­bines cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties in the mid­dle of a land­scape with ori­en­tal flow­ers and trees, and a mag­nif­i­cent view of the lake from a panoramic bridge.

On the south side of the city lies San Telmo, one of the city’s old­est neigh­bor­hoods near the Plata River. The ex­trav­a­gant homes of Reco­leta were built by wealthy porteños flee­ing a yel­low fever epi­demic that plagued this low-ly­ing area. To­day San Telmo is an artsy en­clave known for a Sun­day af­ter­noon mar­ket at Plaza Dor­rego with hun­dreds of stalls sell­ing an­tiques, leather goods, vin­tage gear and hand­made ac­ces­sories. The rest of the week, side­walk cafes fan out from the plaza dur­ing the day, and late at night (some bars don’t even open un­til mid­night) a bo­hemian crowd min­gles with tourists.

Lo­cated next to the Ri­achuelo river south of the city cen­ter, La Boca is the most pic­turesque of Bueno Aires’bar­rios with its lively col­ored houses of wood and cor­ru­gated metal. It is the city’s old­est neigh­bor­hood, lo­cated at the mouth of the first port of Buenos Aires, which gives it its name. The most fa­mous street in La Boca is Caminito, where lo­cal painters, ar­ti­sans and pho­tog­ra­phers show­case their work, and tourists watch tango dancers in the street, shop for sou­venirs and dine in lit­tle restau­rants.

From its glitzy glass and steel high-rises to col­or­ful art-laden bar­rios, ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy star­tups to street-side tango ses­sions, Buenos Aires is a grand city in ev­ery sense, of­fer­ing a wealth of op­por­tu­nity. The city’s peo­ple have a di­verse her­itage drawn from all over the globe, and it’s home to a so­phis­ti­cated world-span­ning cui­sine.

But de­spite all its glam­our and cul­tural rich­ness, Buenos Aires still labors un­der the weight of Ar­gentina’s his­tory – an un­set­tling back­drop of po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and eco­nomic un­cer­tainty that seems to color what­ever progress with a tinge of skep­ti­cism.

Nev­er­the­less through pros­per­ity and ad­ver­sity, this city’s lim­it­less vi­vac­ity con­tin­u­ally bub­bles up, un­fet­tered. On the streets of Buenos Aires, the mood is light, the wine flows freely, and the dancers tango long into the night.

Tango dancers in the street; col­or­ful houses in La Boca; Reco­leta Ce­mentery; Soda Syphons on San Telmo Mar­ket

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