Ah, the delectable aroma of empanadas and alfajores wafting from every café on every corner… jacarandas in full bloom on the Palermo and Recoleta…. the sizzle of chorizos mingled with the rising notes of a near by Tango…. Buenos Aires seldom disappoints. Variously known as La Boca, the Paris of Southern Buenos or even Tangopolis, the Argentinian capital is an artful blend of European legacy culture and contemporary Latino ease. Within its sprawl are spacious parks, plazas, prime examples of Italianate architecture and old cobbled roads, making it the ideal choice for travellers looking to explore beyond the confines of Europe or North America.
While it enjoys a steady influx of tourists through out the year, it is spring (locally, from around mid-September to mid-November) when the city is at its very finest. This is the sweet spot when the air has lost its chill and the scorching summer heat is still just about at bay. It is also the time when the jacaranda flowers paint the city in most vibrant of hues, draping entire roads in shades of purple-blue.
Every recent arrival will inevitably be tantalised by the city’s rich colours. At times, it seems to have been daubed with varying shades of every possible hue, whether that’s courtesy of nature’s palette or down to the artfully fabricated fascias on many of the buildings and shops.
For its part, downtown Buenos Aires is fiercely European, with its gigantic structures and imposing façades a direct testimony to its multi-cultural heritage. From west to east lie the Plaza Congreso and Plaza de Mayo, the twin nerve centres of the city, home to its celebrations and equally riotous demonstrations alike. Then it’s just a brief stroll to the pink-washed Casa Rosada (Balcarce 50), the presidential palace and a repository of local metropolitan history in one.
While this, as well as a number of neighbouring attractions – including the Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo – in the bustling Palermo area will be high on the agenda for any vising art aficionados, they should also schedule time to take in the sombre grace of the Recoleta cemetery and its labyrinthine Graeco-Roman architecture. This necropolis, built in 1822 on the ruins of its predecessor,boasts a morbid opulence in every nook and corner, with its marble and graphite cherubs, angels and saints seemingly raising their hands skywards in silent rebuke.
The final resting place for many of the city’s once most influential people –its presidents, military generals, artists, socialites and beef barons –exploring these stately catacombs could easily take an entire afternoon. With its white marble gleaming in the spring sun, the steely coldness and unnerving silence of site inevitably inspires reflection on both the fleeting nature of earthly achievement and personal mortality.
Perhaps, ironically, the Recoleta and Palermo districts are also home to the best places in the city for living it large – from five-star hotels to haute couture boutiques. During many of the spring and autumn weekends, this area is also the epicentre for the many festivities that frequently animate the city, with pretty much all the principal parks hosting tango demonstrations or impromptu sax performances.
With commodious green spaces commonplace within the city limits, it is rare for Buenos Aireans to be found indoors, except when inclement conditions make it unwise. When not parading, locals and visitors alike can probably be found indulging in a little retail therapy in the Palermo Soho district, the natural haunt of keen shoppers and the fashion focused. As well as such premium vendors as Maria Cher, Jasmin Chebar and Las Pepas, this purchasers’ paradise is also home to a number of smaller, quirkier shops, with many said to sell the finest leather products to be found anywhere in the world.
With shopping duties discharged, it’s probably wise to head to the he southern part of the city and the old port district of La Boca. As well as the proximity of the home stadium of the Boca Juniors – one of Argentina’s most popular football teams – making it a Mecca for soccer fans, it’s a bustling shanty area that’s alive with tourist-friendly tango shows, welcoming cafes, human statutes and, sadly, pickpockets. Just as Recoleta and Palermo impress with their stately opulence, La Boca warms the heart with its resplendent colours and homely ambience
With no building permitted to be more than three storeys high, each structures’ brightly-coloured feature façade sports images that range from the agreeably gorgeous to the grotesquely outré. Essentially, La Boca is a psychedelic paradise, complete with quaint cobbled alleys that lead nowhere, the ever-present expectation of a tango flash mob and the chatter of unwary tourists failing to secure a bargain in Pidgeon Spanish.
Buenos Aires never seems to sleep, with its nightlife every bit as disparate as its days. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find restaurants opening at around 8pm in the evening and not reaching peak occupancy until 3am.
Buenos Aires, of course, has also proved itself to be a place of pilgrimage for many globetrotting gourmands. As more than 75 per cent of the city’s residents are of Italian extraction, there is a little bit of the culture of this far-distant Mediterranean nation to be found on every street corner – with street-side cafes serving home-made pasta, pizzas or provoleta (pungent sliced cheese slices grilled and topped with chili flakes and herbs).
With beef and cheese the mainstay of any true Argentinian’s diet, the country, understandably, excels in the production of both. While there is an undeniable taste of Europe in much of the local cuisine, there are also few days in the life of a local when they don’t tuck into a tray of delicious alfajores – dual-layered Arabian crumbly shortbread-like cookies, served with jam, mousse or dulce de leche. The delicacy found its way to Argentina courtesy of its onetime Spanish overlords, but it has now become such apart of the native culture that it is almost wholly synonymous with the city itself.
The city’s food, however, is just one of the many delights that await travelers. With its picturesque plazas, its large expanses of green dotted with vivid jacarandas, European architecture, Latino swag, liquor and bustling nightlife, visitors to Buenos Aires are best advised to be open to a veritable tango of possibilities…
Text: Kasturi Basu