Happy 2009 everyone! That said, be warned that my first – and second – blogs of the year will date back to the last month of ’08.
I’m going to leave aside the why’s, the how’s, the what’s and other such logistical intricacies for now, instead just cut to the chase – after all 36 hours ain’t a lot of time 😉
11:20 AM – Arrival at Ezeiza or EZE in IATA parlance. The terminal I arrive at isn’t the most impressive I’ve seen, but 36 hrs later, I fly out of another, which is, in fact, quite plush.
Clear blue skies, some brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the early to mid 20s (~80F) await me outside the terminal building, and what’s more, being summer in the southern hemisphere, I will have daylight all the way till 9:30 PM!! A warm welcome, if you will, on my first visit to South America.
MTL or ‘Manuel Tienda Leon’ offers frequent shuttle buses from EZE to the city centre for 40 Pesos (3.5 Pesos to the Dollar). Argentina’s highway infrastructure is at par with the best in the world – traffic glides along effortlessly, not everyone sticks to their lanes admittedly, but at least no one honks and there’s certainly no aggression on the roads.
1 PM – I reach MTL’s terminal in downtown Buenos Aires and get my first glimpse of the magnificent Estacion Retiro or Retiro train station – one of Argentina’s busiest rail terminals and a city landmark in itself.
A quick ride on the ‘Subte‘ or subway and we are in Belgrano – one of the northern ‘Barrios’ or neighbourhoods of the city. I drop of my stuff at the hotel, shower and then head to the local cafe for a snack of coffee, cookies (which come gratis with it) and some assorted but very delicious ‘Empanadas’ – the sweet corn one easily scoring over the rest!
4 PM – I am still in hot pursuit of my railway / transit fix – but don’t worry, that’s not why I am there – and soon arrive at the century old ‘Estacion Plaza Constitucion‘ – another splendid rail terminal in the heart of the city and one which sports a grand old European style train shed.
There will be more train rides and rail stuff on this trip but in the interest of the larger audience, I will leave them out 😉
Buenos Aires is a walkable city for most part – more so its downtown area – which is compact and can easily be covered by foot. If European architecture isn’t your cup of tea, then the sidewalk cafe culture may interest you a bit or then browsing local handicrafts or simply gazing at street art – all of which there is plenty of in Buenos Aires. More than anything else, it is a delightfully colourful and vibrant city and evidence of this can be had at almost every street corner.
Avenida Nueve de Julio or Avenue 9th of July is named in honour of Argentina’s Independence Day (1816). It is one of the widest roads in the world, measuring over 100 mtrs in width and spanning no less than 17 lanes! Its centrepiece is El Obelisco – a 220 ft high, 1936 built monument commemorating the many centuries of the city’s existence. It also marks the spot where the Argentinean flag was flown for the first time.
9 PM – We arrive at Puerto Madero – a large waterfront renewal project that consists of four docks or ‘diques’ which in turn are a part of the west riverbank of the Rio De La Plata – the widest estuary in the world and a natural border between Argentina and Uruguay.
Interestingly, all streets in the Puerto Madero district are named after women. The centrepiece amongst them is the pedestrian only cantilever swing bridge – ‘Puente de la Mujer’ or Women’s bridge – designed by Santiago Calatrava.
On the east side of the docks are several spiffy looking high rises – both residential and business. New construction is rampant here and it almost seems like the global recession hasn’t quite hit these parts.
On the west side lie many historic red brick warehouses, which have all been transformed into modern residential and commercial lofts, with several cafes and restaurants lining the promenade below. One of these is ‘La Caballeriza’ or ‘the stable’ where I get to have the meal I have been waiting for, for a very long time. Argentine steak, assorted mash potatoes, spinach and some Malbec. Nirvana achieved, many times over 🙂
Midnight – To work of some of that ‘carne’ guilt we take a long walk from Puerto Madero to Florida Street or ‘Calle Florida’ – a pedestrian only affair full of musicians, stand up comedians, street performers, artists and a plethora of vendors hawking everything from local handicrafts to the bizarre! Florida and another intersecting street, Lavalle represent the Argentine version of a night market – only more bustling, colourful and lively.
01:30 AM – The Big Apple is known as the ‘city that never sleeps’ but if one were to assign a similar tag to Buenos Aires, it would have to be, ‘the city that never stops eating’. Unlike other big cities, where only debauched individuals flock to Delis and other such, for a slice of stale Pizza, at hours such as this, in Buenos Aires, the locals sit at sidewalk tables (the cafes are already quite full inside!) and our served their meals and drinks, as they would at 8 or 9 pm elsewhere! This, for example, is the scene right by our hotel in Belgrano, at close to 2 in the morning!
10 AM – General Jose de San Martin was an Argentine general credited with leading South America’s struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century. Today, close to Retiro station, stands Plaza San Martin, a park built by a French architect in the late 19th century to honour the general. On the park’s north side is the Falklands War Memorial, where we happen to be in time to witness a change of guard. The park itself is laid out over a small hill with views overlooking ‘Torre de los Ingleses’ or British Clock Tower, with the docks on the Rio de la Plata in the distance.
While getting around on foot is a viable option in Buenos Aires, there are several excellent public transit options to. Cabs are plenty, inexpensive, available around the clock and sport the Bombay colour scheme for good measure! Then there is the ‘Subte’ (metro system) with its six lines spanning the length and breadth of the city. Finally there is ‘Collectivo’ – literally, a collection of several bus companies numbering about 200 in all, each representing a different bus route and each sporting its own unique and lively livery!
For the architecturally inclined such as myself, Buenos Aires is, simply put, paradise! With British, French, German, Italian and Spanish influences found in abundance across the city’s older buildings, it is the best of Europe in one locale. Art Nouveau, Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, Art Deco – you name it and the city has it! We are back on Florida St. now and this masterpiece is one of many that catches the eye.
1:30 PM – Plaza de Mayo is the city’s main square and one that should not be missed on any tourist itinerary – however short that might be! On its north west corner, at the apex of Rivadavia and Avenida Roque S Pena, stands a triangular shaped building, which to me is reminiscent of both the Flatiron building in NYC as well as the Ballard Estate area of South Bombay.
The Plaza is home to such important buildings as the Presidential Palace, the Argentine Reserve Bank, the City Hall, and, dating to the 16th century – the Metropolitan Cathedral – the main Catholic church of the city. None of these storied structures are featured in the picture below unfortunately – instead, this is a very pedestrian view of the Plaza’s west side, featuring no less than four distinct architectural styles – beat that, if you will!!
La Casa Rosada (‘Pink House’ in Spanish) or Presidential Palace is a mid 19th century Italianate construction, which up to 1890 was considered the largest building in Buenos Aires. Its west facing balcony, which overlooks the square and the Piramide de Mayo (May Pyramid), has hosted everyone from Eva Peron to the Pope to Madonna!
The ‘Portenos’ or locals of Buenos Aires are a warm, friendly, unassuming and non obtrusive lot. A carefree and laid back set of people at most times, the Portenos, like their fellow Argentines, are extremely passionate about their Football (Soccer for all you Americans reading this.)!! On the Sunday that we are there, it turns out there is a big game on somewhere and football fans are everywhere, seen waving their team’s flags and sometimes even in matching coloured cars!!
3 PM – My obsession with fine old buildings continues and a short walk away from Plaza De Mayo leads to a host of federal buildings – each one more imposing than the other. After capturing it from every possible angle, I decide that ‘Aduana’ or Customs House tops the federal list for me!
3:45 PM – We decide to make a pit stop for coffee on Avenida De Mayo. Buenos Aires is well known for its cafe culture – both of the indoor and sidewalk variety. Its most famous and also its oldest is Gran Cafe Tortoni – dating back to 1858 – with interiors as splendid as the coffee itself!
The city boasts several eclectic neighbourhoods or barrios – Monserrat, Palermo, Belgrano and Recoleta to name a few. Amongst these is the oldest of the lot – the very vibrant San Telmo barrio – with a decidedly Bohemian air to it! Cafes, bars and tango parlours line the streets and the all cobblestone main thoroughfares double up as street markets on weekends.
Locals and tourists jostle for space amongst a sea of musicians, artists, and of course vendors, offering a wide range of wares from embroideries to vinyl records. Up and away from the madding crowds, I spy a pretty face on a balcony and conjure up my own rendition of modern day Evita..
5 PM – As is the case with dinner, lunch to is served till late in the day here. And so it comes as no surprise to us when we walk in to ‘Desnivel’ (‘Uneven’ in English), a local ‘parrilla’ or grill, to find a significant number of tables occupied with customers downing an equally late lunch! Apart from its much revered steaks, Buenos Aires is also known for its strong Italian influence in food. The Pasta that I order is unlike any other I have eaten before – the meat sauce comes with actual chunks of meat – not the usual minced stuff! And it all goes down pretty well with the local beer, Quilmes.
6:30 PM – So I’ve seen the sights and had the steak and wine. What’s left on a first visit to Argentina? Tango of course!! The last stop on our itinerary for the day is Dorrego Square, a bustling plaza in the heart of San Telmo – one that would put the likes of Washington Sq in NYC to shame in terms of the sheer variety of things to see and do there. In about half the space of Washington Sq, Dorrego Plaza features dozens of coffee shops, cafes, bars, fascinating antique shops, a thriving flea market and of course some delightful Tango!
11:25 PM – American Airlines flight 994 for JFK taxies out of its gate and so ends my first foray into South America! It’s been awfully short no doubt but I’ve loved every bit of it and I’ve sworn to return there soon. If not Buenos Aires again, then maybe Bogota or Santiago, where I do have friends. Till then, I need to get cracking on my Spanish 😉 Adios Amigos!
A full set of pics can be seen here.