Part 6 : Returning to Buenos Aires
Every so often, you find a hotel that is just that little bit different. Tucked away on a side street in the Palermo Soho district of Buenos Aires is the Sissi Haz. It’s owned by a German who is also the architect of the Moroccan-style boutique hotel. Floors, doors and windows are all custom-made in cedar wood. Walls are lined in stone and the beds are huge, comfortable and cosy. It’s an ideal spot, better because, right across the road is one of the best bars in the area. El Galpon de Tacuara, Palermo.
We flew in from El Calafate to the internal airport, the Jorge Newbery, named after an Argentine aviator and civil servant who died in 1914. During the 1980s troubles, many political prisoners and ‘undesirables’ were flown from Jorge Newbery airport out over the river Plate before being thrown out to meet their deaths. Fortunately, the arrival of the flight from El Calafate was a lot less eventful.
On Saturdays, there are free escorted tours of the King Fahd Mosque. It’s quite a formal affair, bags and coats have to locked away on arrival and, for women, they have a supply of headscarves and long skirts that look as though they’ve come from a school props cupboard after a production of Toad of Toad Hall. I’m sure even Mr Toad couldn’t have looked worse after he escaped prison disguised as a washerwoman.
I thought I’d done my homework. I’d expected a quick tour round the mosque – unusual in that it accommodates both women and men at the same time – and that would be that. Unfortunately, those three hours of my life I will never, ever, get back.
The whole tour was in Spanish with a good deal of Arabic thrown in. It makes for a difficult time when the only phrase you have in your ‘Fluent Bits in Spanish’ repertoire is dos cervezas por favor. Not the best of starts anywhere, even less so in a Mosque. My Arabic isn’t that good either. It doesn’t get much further than shukraan. As we wandered down a corridor alongside the King Fahd High School I thought that it would just be my luck if we ended up in a classroom.
We did. Complete with white board and guide with a marker pen. Nearly forty of us. Thirty eight women and two men. We had nearly an hour of quick-fire Spanish with the odd clues – pointing at the Quran, bowing, pointing back at the Quran…..
I managed to gather that the Quran was delivered to Mohammed by Gabriel in Arabic over a period of 23 years and therefore it should only be read or recited in Arabic. This is why the schools teach Arabic; as any translation of the original text into an other language impacts on the meaning and interpretation. Well, come on…..that wasn’t too bad for an hour of intense listening.
We then went into the Mosque to observe midday prayers. I’m afraid to say that I’ve never found sitting cross-legged that easy and, since falling into a hole on the ice at Perito Moreno, I’d been suffering with a swollen knee, so kneeling with any degree of respect was nigh on impossible.
After ten minutes of wriggling and wincing – I managed to retrieve my shoes and escape. I suspect that everybody was relieved. Not only was I the noisy one, I’m afraid that three weeks in the same trainers meant that, in socks, I was not particularly pleasant to be around.
We walked down to the Cafe La Biela, It’s a cafe of renown in the Recoleta bario. A biela is a connecting rod in an engine and the cafe has built up its reputation over the years as a watering hole for famous Argentinian racing car drivers and their followers. The walls are covered with photographs of the big names from the 1950s and 60s and various pieces of memorabilia. For some reason there is a table set with two wax work figures taking tea. They must be famous – there must be a reason why everybody seems to want their photo taken sitting with two wax dummies and holding up a tea cup? Francis Ford Coppola for one….oh, and Robert Duvall, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Enzo Ferrari……the list goes on.
I should mention Tango. Buenos Aires and Tango are synonymous. There are a number of ways to see Tango if you’re here. I suppose you could divide them up into informal or formal, amateur or professional.
The milonga is a word for informal Tango, usually delivered by extremely good amateurs in various districts around the city. A lot of tour excursion companies and other outlets will endeavour to recommend a formal ‘Tango Show’ although these tend to start after an expensive meal – anytime from 10 p.m. onwards. Informal tango takes place late at night in the Puerto Madero district, but if you have to travel back across Buenos Aires on the Subte, by bus, or take an expensive taxi ride, it can make for a very late night and a less than desirable journey home…especially bearing in mind the vagaries of city transport systems.
We chose two alternatives. The first was tickets to the Cultural Centre Borges on Avenida Florida. At 8 p.m. every evening they offer a professional Tango experience, a four-piece band (piano, double bass, violin and button accordion) accompany twelve professional dancers in an athletic journey through the history of Tango styles. It’s breathtaking and highly professional. Well worth the experience.
The second is to head out into San Telmo on a Sunday morning. From the Plaza de Mayo, by the Cathedral, down Defensa to San Telmo and along the full length of San Telmo to La Boca, you’ll come across couples dancing the Tango as street buskers. It’s colourful and whilst the women range from the delicately sexy to the fiercely predatory, the men, in their black suits, greased-back hair and fedoras, look like the seductive ‘lounge lizards’ the dance requires them to be.
San Telmo on a Sunday morning is given over to a street market. It’s over two miles long and stretches the full length of the bario. It’s not door handles and washing up bowls, dog food and watches, either. It’s all artisan-produced crafts, enamel ware, jewellery, knitwear, mate gourds, bombillas and antiques. There is so much choice and alongside, all the cafes and bars are open to provide sustenance when you’re ready for a coffee, a pastry or a beer.
Another of life’s coincidences. We turn a corner and see a young couple trying to find where they are on a map. I stop and ask if they need help. To my surprise, and theirs, it’s the young Korean honeymooners who shared a table with us on the boat crossing from Ushuaia to Martillo Island and who booked the hostel with a shared bathroom and no lock on the door! Of all the street corners, in all the world……to misquote Casablanca.
The whole area is closed to traffic and at the end, the road runs into La Boca. From here it’s a short walk to Caminito and the home of Boca Juniors who play at the colourful blue and yellow Bombonero ground. Around the ground are the usual types of shops you’d expect to see and a constant reminder of those players, past and present who played for Boca Juniors: Schiavi, Maradona, Tevez….and many more of whom I have never heard!
It’s a bario for daytime wandering, not a place to be after dark. A few of the usual personal precautions and its perfectly safe. Caminito has now become a haven for artists, cafes and restaurants and shops selling football memorabilia and local ‘tat’. It has rejuvenated what had become a very run-down area and that can be only for the good. The natural flow of traffic keeps you in Caminito, outside of this area, police presence increases and you may even be stopped by them from wandering in too far.
On the way back, we stop at two more Cafes, (well, it was hot). Bar Britanico and it’s neighbour Cafe Hippotamou, are again, elegant relics from a bygone age. The former is more famous than the latter having been used as a set in several major films. Both have an oldie-worldie charm about them with menus, prices and ‘facilities’ to match. It’s not hard to take yourself back in your mind to the 30s or the 40s and imagine what these cafes must have been like in the hey-days of ‘cafe culture’.
El Galpon de Tacuara Palermo is a bar to take seriously. All the beers are home brewed on the premises and the food is freshly cooked. They must have thirty beers from which to choose and if you want to take some away, they have a very clever canning machine that will produce a four-pack in a matter of minutes. It’s something we should start doing back in the UK.
Unfortunately, it’s closed on a Monday, but such is the area that, only five minutes walk away is Jerome. Again, it sells its own beer and the biggest portions of food you can imagine.
“Right, I’ll have a pancho, a beefburger and a portion of papas frites”
“No, senor, that is too much food”
It would have been.
So he brought a nine-inch hot dog and a mound of fries and an eight-inch diameter beefburger with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and another mound of fries. During this time we watched people having fries and cheese on plates that would have easily held a full 12 inch pizza. The fries were piled up to eight or ten inches in height. It was appalling! So much food.
The couple of young girls on the table next to us, possibly nineteen or twenty years old, maybe younger, were wading through such a plate. Fries, fries and more fries, all smothered in thick and sticky cheese. To wash this down, they were both drinking a local brew that at 8.6% ABV had the consistency of barley wine. Sometimes, it just beggars belief!
The other curiosity of Jerome is their ‘Happy Hour’. We ordered two pints and expected to pay for one. The bill came. We’d been charged for two.
“But it’s Happy Hour?”
“It’s personal, senor.”
It was heading that way!
“Senor, you buy a drink and your second one is free”
“OK, so I bought two pints”
“Yes, but you didn’t drink both. It’s personal. You buy one, you drink one. You have another and you drink another. And the other one is free.
The logic escapes me.
There are twenty six shopping malls or galeria in Buenos Aires. The larger ones have the labels that you’d recognise : Next, H&M, Zara, etc. However, there are many shops that are only operating in Argentina or Latin America and it’s refreshing to see so much choice. Mind you, it’s not cheap. There are no bargains. Prices are the same as they would be in the UK. Even in the ‘Sales’. Most shops offer discount for cash. With the banks levying a charge on the shopkeeper for using cards and the government taking their slice of tax, shopkeepers offer between 10% and 20% discount for cash. It’s not hidden. They offer no receipts, no paperwork. It’s just their contract with you.
It was over. Twenty two days previously we had left North Wales. We’d travelled by private car, hire car, train, bus, coach, subway metro, boat, airplane and minibus. We’d covered 18,189 miles by public transport and 140 miles on foot.
We’d seen a country of contrasts: the wealth and sophistication of Buenos Aires, the unique quality of eastern Patagonia, the untamed wilds of Terra del Fuego and the wonders of western Patagonia and the border with Chile.
It was time to fly home……..twelve hours to London Heathrow, a train journey to Chester and then a short, last hop back into North Wales.
What an experience, what memories. Or, as my Welsh other half would say, Bendigedig.