The Plaza de la Republica in Buenos Aires can be likened to New York’s Times Square or London’s Picadilly Circus. It’s busy with pedestrians, hawkers and cars, there are plenty of large LED billboards, and it’s an iconic symbol of the city’s identity. Here the centerpiece is the 67.5-meter tall Obelisk, built and inaugurated in 1936 to commemorate the fourth centenary of the city’s founding. The Obelisco’s location also marks the center of the Avenida 9 de Julio, which is at 110 meters side to side the world’s widest avenue. Size matters in Buenos Aires.
As I was preparing to snap a picture of the Obelisco a man approached me and asked: “Do you know what this monument is for?” Jetlag coupled with my shamefully meager Spanish resulted in a blank stare. “Most people here don’t even know what this represents,” he said, switching to English as he shook his head. “Young people, new immigrants. It doesn’t mean anything.”
I asked what it meant to him just as his phone sounded an annoying ring. He answered it and moved on leaving my question unanswered.
A few days later I was near the Obelisk again and caught the tail end of an attempted robbery. A group of young boys, perhaps eight to twelve in age, were accosting two couples. After a bit of yelling and commotion, one tried to yank a necklace off of one of the women’s necks, but was kicked away. Some shoving followed before the boys ran off across the Avenida, expertly dodging the eighteen lanes of rush hour traffic on the widest avenue in the world. If I ever see them again, I’ll ask what the Obelisco means to them.
Truth be told, the Obelisco didn’t mean much to me: impressive though it is, it’s just another monument, occupying a nice square in a large city. I was more preoccupied with the other pop culture images and stereotypes associated with the mention of Buenos Aires that I brought with me on that 14-hour 11,165 kilometer/6,938 mile flight from Rome.
There’s Evita of course –for me it’s the Patty Lupone interpretation, not Madonna. The Dirty War, The Disappeared. Peron and Tango. Che and football.
There’s nostalgia and melancholy too, two words often used in literary renderings of this city of three million. I certainly felt both hanging in the sweltering, humid air during my first few days here, although now I’m not sure how much of that is simply based on my preconceived notions or prejudices.
I was told, and often read, that the city looks and feels more European than it does Latin. There have been countless comparisons to Paris, and in a few parts the description works nicely. Madrid is another obvious choice, but Italy probably fits best. Italian immigrants built much of the city during its expansion in the latter years of the 19th Century and early into the 20th when the Argentine capital was considered more developed and modern than cities in the U.S.
Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario, said by many to have written more beautifully in the Spanish language than anyone before him or after, called the city a “cosmopolis,” a “crucible of souls and races.” One thing setting Buenos Aires apart from modern day Europe is the lack of any sign of a Muslim population.
An aside: I used Buenos Aires: A Cultural History by Jason Wilson as my main guide around the city for the past week, referring to it and stealing notes from it much more often than from my Lonely Planet guide, so I’ll be borrowing liberally from it here. It’s a fascinating and authoritative look at the city through the words of novelists, travelers, journalists and poets, organized primarily by neighborhood. If you’re planning a visit, I strongly suggest reading it before you arrive. And take lots of notes.
So what are some distinct Buenos Aires characteristics? What is genuinely unique to the city? Those aren’t easy questions to answer after just a week of wandering about, when what is most striking is how this melting pot of a city and nation have adopted what they’ve imported from others.
Doctor-writer Eduardo Wilde (1844-1943) didn’t look at this too kindly. He wrote: The Argentines imitate everything, we’re ridiculous, especially because we copy badly.”
I wouldn’t be that harsh. The Italianate parts of the culture have been copied quite well. In appearance, the numerous pizzerias, cafes and bakeries could easily have been shipped directly from Naples or Rome. In taste, more positive news. I had pizza twice and it was spectacular. The Argentine touch? Plenty of empanadas on the menu as well.
That said, I won’t pretend that I even scratched the surface during my eight days and eight nights here. I’m not sure I even located the surface. No matter. Argentina’s greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges, once said that his hometown was impossible to know. “Buenos Aires is such a boundless city,” he wrote, “that nobody can know it.”
So instead of trying to out-do Borges, here’s just a short list of observations and notes from an attempt last night to make my scattered notes slightly less disorganized. I’ll piece together a few more BA-specific posts over the next several months when I make the time to catch up with hundreds of photos.
Of the Port
Locals are referred to as Porteños, meaning of, or from, the port. As the city’s port grew, so did its importance and prestige. But it’s not an ocean port. It’ located on the Rio Plate which at 140 miles across at its mouth is the widest river in the world, and fourth largest in water volume.
Today the port’s boardwalk area has a modern look and feel, with red brick warehouse buildings housing an eclectic mix of upscale and overpriced restaurants, shops and offices. The modern Puenta de la Mujer bridge here is worth a look.
The most impressive structure in the port area is the imposing Aduana, or customs building, which must have appeared quite daunting to newly arriving immigrants who likely experienced Argentina’s notorious corruption there for the first time. The dirty appearance of its stern façade lends a strong air of nostalgia to the area, a reminder that no one arrives by ship anymore.
The chief international airport, Ezeiza (EZE), is roughly 25 miles to the north of from the city center. It’s a modern facility renovated and expanded about a decade ago. Among its claims to fame was a shootout that occurred there between left-wing and right-wing groups when a crowd estimated at two million turned out to welcome Juan Peron –you know, Evita’s widowed husband– from exile in 1973.
If you approach the city by highway from the airport, where stacked concrete box apartments are the chief architectural highlights, initial impressions can be a bit grim. But that’s hardly the entire picture.
If nostalgia is the prevailing theme, then tango is its soundtrack. Not the modernist approach popularized by Astor Piazzola and those he inspired. But rather the Carlos Gardel style of the 1920s and 30s which will forever remind me of on old film’s scratchy soundtrack.
The dance is genuinely Argentine, and said to be the perfect antidote to the rootlessness and melancholy that defines Buenos Aires and Argentina. As a symbol, it’s everywhere. The logo on the city’s official tour buses is a small outstretched accordion. Couples in a passionate embrace are used in ad campaigns for everything. Just off the Plaza de la Republica, a twelve-story high and half block wide image of a tango couple covers the entire front side of a Banco Ciudad office.
Not far from that tango pair is another iconic image, that of Evita Peron which covers an entire side of a building on the southern end of the Avenida 9 de Julio. The legendary former first lady, her hair in a bun and shown speaking into a microphone, towers over the busy boulevard as if she’s still keeping watch.
Buenos Aires is laid out in a grid pattern made up of near perfect square blocks, or cuadras, which makes the city very walkable. And there are many people strolling, dodging the prolific dog crap as the do.
When they’re not avoiding dog crap, pedestrians are hoping to stay dry. Air conditioning units are everywhere. It’s impossible to not get dripped on half a dozen times over the course of just about any city block.
Strolls through the more upscale Recoleta and Barrio Norte neighborhoods have their distinct charm, with plenty of tree-lined streets to escape the prevailing heat. From there, head north to the lovely Botanical Garden or walk down the Avenida de Libertador for more green spaces, plazas and sculptures.
San Telmo, the oldest part of the city, still boasts plenty of colonial era buildings along its cobbled streets and should top your must-visit lists. The area is awash with antique shops, but more trendy boutiques are beginning to take over. Lots of great street art and good restaurants too.
The city’s underground, the Subte, opened in 1914, marking Buenos Aires as the 12th city in the world to open underground train service. It’s efficient and at 2.50 a ride, about fifty cents US, inexpensive. I’m curious as to why it hasn’t evolved into something even more practical. Three of the six lines run more or less parallel from west to east, allowing for changes between lines only at the far eastern end where most converge. The H line is somewhat of an exception but it’s not connected to the northernmost line.
Peddlers work every train, hawking everything from playing cards to office supplies. There’s a wide array of music as well, with the passengers glad to show their appreciation. A saxophonist yesterday was given a vociferous round of applause for his rendition of Girl From Ipanema, a teenager playing an unidentifiable heavy metal tune did not.
Some of the stops are old and in need of attention, but there are some standouts. I mentioned the Carlos Gardel stop a few days ago; the Plaza de Italia stop is another, featuring a large mural set out in tiles on the floor depicting muscled dock workers hard at work on a boat as smoke stacks, proudly emptying themselves into the blue sky, serve as the backdrop.
I didn’t get around by bike at all, but the situation on that front was much better than anticipated. There were more bike lanes than I expected – they didn’t by any means cover a majority of the city, but they do exist and are spreading. And contrary to what I’d read about safety on the roads, I didn’t see too much evidence that drivers here are exponentially more crazed then their counterparts elsewhere. If I stayed here longer, I wouldn’t hesitate using a bike as a chief mode of transport.
FYI there’s a city bike borrowing service in operation, but for now it’s only for residents.
Coffee and café culture is ubiquitous. A ‘café’, sort of like a large espresso in Italy, will set you back 10 pesos and up. Café con leche is generally 13 and up. And they’re all good.
The city is loud. If the timing is right (or wrong, as it were), you’ll be treated to a savage symphony of bus engines, ambulance and police sirens, horns, barking dogs and loud –usually bad– music.
It never snows. According to Wilson, it’s only snowed twice in modern times, once in 1918 and again on June 6, 1955.
I discovered Margarita Paksa at a retrospective of her work at the Museo de Arte Moderno Buenos Aires in San Telmo. The three-story space is somewhat modest by international standards, but for just a 5 peso entry, it’s a great investment. Paksa did it all, utilizing many different styles: paintings, drawings, video, she crafted furniture, made sculptures and conceptual pieces.
I would have liked to explore more museums but I’m out of time and won’t be back in Buenos Aires any time soon. I’m finishing this on my early morning flight to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world, el fin del mundo. It’s the southernmost city in the world. Penguins live nearby. I’ll be joining some after lunch tomorrow.