Buenos Paris

Ar­gentina’s cap­i­tal city has an un­de­ni­ably French un­der­cur­rent

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY DINA MI­SHEV

Last De­cem­ber, I had an urge to visit Europe — I wanted gor­geous ar­chi­tec­ture, a rich cafe cul­ture, fab­u­lous wine and cheese, wide av­enues to stroll and nar­row cob­ble­stone streets to bike.

In­stead of fly­ing across the At­lantic though, I fly over the equa­tor, to Buenos Aires, “the Paris of Latin Amer­ica” where, it was ex­plained to me when I was there in 2012, the res­i­dents are “Ital­ians who think they’re French and speak Span­ish.”

Yes, Buenos Aires is a longer flight from my home in Wy­oming than the Paris of France, and Buenos Aires is in South Amer­ica and not Europe. But, be­tween De­cem­ber and April, Buenos Aires is 90 de­grees and sunny; win­ter in Europe means rain or snow and dark­ness. This De­cem­ber was a par­tic­u­larly cold one for Wy­oming — it is about 15 de­grees be­low zero when I board my plane at Jack­son Hole Air­port — so I am will­ing to trade Europe for a warm, sunny Euro­pean-ish city.

My travel part­ner is one of my best friends from high school. Our last in­ter­na­tional trip to­gether was to the real Paris. This trip was long ago enough that I was per­fectly fine sleep­ing on the floor of Kevin’s friends, who I had never met. For six days, I hap­pily ate noth­ing but crepes filled with Nutella and ba­nanas.

Fif­teen­ish years after our trip to Paris, Kevin and I book our tick­ets to the Paris of Latin Amer­ica. Al­though Kevin is the Span­ish speaker, he en­trusts me, one who does not speak Span­ish at all, with trip plan­ning. Be­cause my tastes have ma­tured be­yond Nutella crepes and friends’ floors, I start with ho­tel and din­ner reser­va­tions.

The Alvear Palace is a gra­ciously Old World, Belle Epoque ho­tel in the Reco­leta neigh­bor­hood. Servers at its L’Orangerie break­fast buf­fet wear white gloves. Plac­ards on each floor re­mind guests of the dress code: In public ar­eas, at­tire should be “for­mal or smart ca­sual; shorts, Ber­mu­das, or sleeve­less T-shirts are not al­lowed. If you jog you may leave and en­ter the ho­tel in your run­ning ap­parel.” Bath­rooms are mar­ble with brass fix­tures. The door­men wear tuxes and top hats. We will be Euro­pean aris­toc­racy, at least for sev­eral days. There is a per­sonal but­ler.

Con­ve­niently, one of the restau­rants I want to eat at, La Bour­gogne, is in Alvear Palace’s base­ment.

Two blocks from Alvear Palace is Pala­cio Duhau, de­signed as a fam­ily home in the early 1930s by French ar­chi­tect Leon Dourge in the style of the Chateau des Marais, a neo­clas­si­cal palace out­side of Paris.

In 2006, after ex­ten­sive restora­tion work and the ad­di­tion of a 17-story mod­ern tower, it opened as a Park Hy­att. Sit­ting in front of my com­puter in Wy­oming, scan­ning the ho­tel’s web­site, it doesn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to trans­port my­self to its out­door pa­tio, which over­looks the city’s largest pri­vate gar­den, for af­ter­noon tea. I also make a reser­va­tion for a cheese tast­ing at the ho­tel’s Vinoteca, where the city’s only maitre fro­mager works.

Al­though Reco­leta might be one of Buenos Aires’ most Euro­pean-feel­ing neigh­bor­hoods, we do want to ex­plore the wider city. Our first ac­tiv­ity will be a seven-hour, guided bike tour.

To im­me­di­ately get us into a Euro state of mind, I in­sist that Kevin and I walk from Alvear Palace to Bik­ing Buenos Aires’ store­front in the San Telmo neigh­bor­hood, one of the city’s old­est.

We’re late be­cause I can’t stop tak­ing pic­tures of the ar­chi­tec­ture. (Also be­cause I mis­judged the dis­tance we would have to walk.) At one in­ter­sec­tion of two cob­ble­stone streets, build­ings range from Ed­war­dian to Bru­tal­ist, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco. Maybe plan­ning an ar­chi­tec­ture tour is in or­der.

Pedal power

In our first hour with bike guide Pepe Ri­vas, we pedal down nar­row, one-way stone streets and on des­ig­nated bike lanes along the edges of wide, leafy av­enues. We ride through Lezama Park, which, with its nu­mer­ous sculp­tures and large es­planade, where two cou­ples are mak­ing out, feels de­cid­edly Euro­pean. This makes sense when Ri­vas tells us that, at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, it was a French Ar­gen­tine land­scape ar­chi­tect that re­mod­eled the park’s orig­i­nal de­sign.

Lezama’s jacaranda and rose­wood trees pull me back to South Amer­ica, as does a mas­sive mon­u­ment hon­or­ing Span­ish con­quis­ta­dor Pe­dro de Men­doza, who founded Buenos Aires in 1536.

I watch groups of men pass around cups of mate, a caf­feiner­ich tea made from ground leaves of the yerba mate tree and des­ig­nated by the Ar­gen­tine Se­nate as the coun­try’s “na­tional in­fu­sion.” It is easy to rec­og­nize peo­ple drink­ing mate be­cause it is al­ways drunk out of a very specif­i­cally sized and shaped “mug” — ac­tu­ally a hol­lowed-out gourd — and through a metal straw called a bom­billa.

We pedal past La Bom­bon­era sta­dium, home to the Boca Ju­niors soc­cer team, whose col­ors are those of the Swedish flag — blue and gold. Ri­vas tells us what I’m sure must be a tall tale — that, over a cen­tury ago, after los­ing a game against a team wear­ing sim­i­lar col­ors, Boca promised to adopt the col­ors of the flag of the next ship ar­riv­ing at the nearby port. Fact-check­ing Ri­vas’s story later, I find it to be true.

In Caminita, an area of La Boca set­tled mainly by im­mi­grants from Genoa in the early 1900s and to­day pop­u­lar with tourists be­cause of its abun­dance of Ital­ian restau­rants and the col­or­ful fa­cades of its wood houses, the air smells like south­ern Italy — an­chovies and olive oil. Here in a small park kitty-cor­ner from a num­ber of women dressed in tango out­fits who pose for pho­tos and then de­mand sev­eral pe­sos, we take a break for a mate les­son. “To un­der­stand Ar­gentina, you must un­der­stand mate,” Ri­vas says, and then he makes a gourd­full for us.

To Kevin and me, its taste is as bit­ter as Ri­vas’s prepa­ra­tion of it is pre­cise. Ri­vas as­sures us it won’t take long for us to ac­quire a taste for it.

Since we do so poorly with the na­tional in­fu­sion, Kevin and I dou­ble down on the Se­nat­ede­creed na­tional drink: Ar­gen­tine wine. We are com­mit­ted even though our first op­por­tu­nity to drink wine is at the Frenchi­est of Buenos Aires’ French restau­rants.

Be­fore I can worry whether it’s ac­cept­able to or­der non-French wine at La Bour­gogne, I worry whether our clothes make the cut of the restau­rant’s dress code. Male din­ers are sup­posed to wear sport coats. Not be­ing a banker nor a diplo­mat, Kevin didn’t pack one. The only rea­son I’m ap­pro­pri­ately dressed is be­cause our per­sonal but­ler ar­ranged for my wrin­kled clothes to be pressed. It turns out that Kevin’s but­ton­down shirt is just fine.

Seated, it’s quickly ap­par­ent that it’s okay to or­der non-French wine here. The red leatherbacked wine menu in­cludes bot­tles from around the world, even Is­rael. It might just be the Frenchy for­mal­ity of the at­mos­phere — wait­ers in tuxes, the ta­ble’s small crys­tal vase with three pink roses or the hushed tones of our fel­low din­ers — but I swear the glass I start with, a sparkling wine from Men­doza called Cavas Rosell Bo­her Cu­vée Mil­lésimé, has notes of brioche.

I don’t know it at the time, but La Bour­gogne’s black pep­per beef ten­der­loin flam­béed ta­ble­side with co­gnac is the best beef I’ll have all week.

And this din­ner is the best meal of the week un­til my last day, when lunch is high tea on the Park Hy­att’s pa­tio and din­ner is a tast­ing/pair­ing of four cheeses and four wines at the ho­tel’s Vinoteca. (Not as unin­spired and un­ad­ven­tur­ous as ba­nana-Nutella crepes, but prob­a­bly about as healthy.)

The tea ex­pe­ri­ence is even bet­ter than I had imag­ined back dur­ing the plan­ning stages. The tea blend has hints of laven­der, vanilla and rose. A rasp­berry mac­aron is nearly the di­am­e­ter of a dough­nut. I am sit­ting on the ac­tual pa­tio of an ac­tual Louis XVI-style palace. And I’m grate­ful for the shade of gi­ant rub­ber trees be­cause it is De­cem­ber and the sun is out and warm. Mi­shev is the edi­tor of In­spi­rato mag­a­zine.


ABOVE: A pleas­ant evening walk across the Pu­tente de la Mu­jer in Buenos Aires. BE­LOW: The Torre Mon­u­men­tal, a gift from Bri­tish res­i­dents of Buenos Aires, was re­named after the Falk­lands War in 1982.





CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: A shady um­brella on a sunny al­ley­way in Colo­nia, Uruguay, a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site across the River Platte from Buenos Aires; a wind­ing stair­case at the Alvear Palace ho­tel in Buenos Aires; a se­lec­tion of sweets from Duhau Patis­serie in Buenos Aires.

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