In which we stroll around San Telmo market, (attempt to) dance the tango and discover the delights of Argentine cafe culture
09.03.2013 - 11.03.2013 26 °C
After our chilled out days in El Calafate, we landed in Buenos Aires ready to see some sights. We decided to stay in the San Telmo district which is one of the oldest and most bohemian areas in BA, and had booked into Hostel Ostinatto. The hostel is really nice, perhaps a bit young and noisy for us old married people, but we have a lovely big room that even, shock horror, has a TV (first TV we've had in a hostel room since we were in Australia). Our first task was to try and get into BA time. Down in Patagonia people definitely operate on trekking time, up early and eat dinner early. BA is the total opposite. Here it's more like Spanish time... you eat dinner at 11pm, go to a bar after and stay out all night if you want to. Things definitely don't quieten down in the hostel until people have rolled in about 5am.
So for our first night we got straight into the BA spirit with a few drinks and a tango class at the hostel. It was really fun, although Marcus got very frustrated with me not wanting to be the 'follower' (it won't surprise anyone to know I didn't like having a man tell me what to do). But by the end we managed a few moves, not bad after a couple of hours in tango city. We followed that with a traditional steak and malbec at a local parilla restaurant. Steaks here are so huge we ordered one to share and it still came out as two huge hunks of meat. Marcus was a happy boy.
The next day we spent a lovely few hours wandering around the San Telmo Sunday market, which takes over the main square in San Telmo (Plaza Dorrega) and the surrounding streets.
Not only are there hundreds of stalls selling everything from jewellery to antique soda bottles, there were also tango dancers busking on the street. This guy was so cool, dressed up at 10am in the morning in full suit and cravat, and he was still dancing (and winking at all the girls) six hours later.
(As these photos show, tango is a lot of... erm... older gentlemen, dancing with younger women. It seems to do wonders for them, they've definitely still got the moves as the guy above proves. We saw him getting up close and personal with his dance partner, who must be half his age, later that evening!)
The whole place was buzzing with tourists and locals, people enjoying a coffee on the street, clapping along to the live tango music or shopping up a storm. A brilliant way to spend a Sunday.
It also gave us our first chance to explore charming San Telmo in the daylight. We loved the beautiful, slightly run down buildings covered in unique pieces of grafitti that could really be classed as art.
Being in San Telmo reminds us a little bit of being back home in Brighton - arty, cool and a bit edgy. There were even a few drag queens out in their Sunday best which made us feel right at home, although this guy was my personal favourite of the day.
His sign says 'free hugs'. What else?
After a siesta we went back out to see what San Telmo has to offer after dark. And we weren't disappointed. Almost immediately we got caught up in a street drumming performance, about twenty drummers and lots of dancers parading through the tiny cobbled streets, heading to the Plaza Dorrego (luckily now empty of antiques) where tens more drummers awaited. Slightly incongruously, on the other side of the square a milonga was taking place. A milonga is an open tango event, basically a place local people go to dance tango. We had asked our tango teacher where best to see 'real' tango, and he was unequivocal in his response. A milonga is the only place to see tango. There weren't any lifts or the drama of the street performances we saw earlier on, just about forty couples, young and old, dancing beautiful tango in the square. Not for money, or to show off. Just because.
The next day we decided to get a feel for the city on a free city tour (through the brilliant Buenos Aires Free Tours). So after a dulce-de-leche-heavy breakfast we walked to the Congresso district to meet our guide Gaston, a born and bred Porteno (that's what you call someone from BA). Just like the tour we did in Santiago, you just turn up, no booking required, and then tip at they end. We started in front of the National Congress building, a stunning domed facade built in the early 1800s.
The story I liked most about this though was that during military rule in the seventies and eighties the Congress was closed. So the politicians moved next door, to this lovely building, which was the glamorous windmill cafe, and continued to work.
Gaston led us down huge avenues lined with very French style buildings, down to the Plaza de Mayo. This square is most famous for the Casa Rosada which is the President's seat, and is perhaps most famous as the place that Juan Peron and Evita used to give speeches to thousands of people in the square below. The famous balcony (which they also let Madonna sing from in the film) is on the left of this photo.
Another interesting fact about the square is that a group of women, known as las madres de la plaza de Mayo still protest here once a week for information about their children who 'disappeared' during the military rule. At a time when it was illegal for more than three people to gather together in the street (because four counted as a protest), fourteen women took a stand, and are still doing so thirty five years later (although we did hear they've now become a funded political group, slightly more political than their founding). Gaston was much more positive about a splinter group called the 'Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo' (the grandmothers). During the 'dirty war' when these disappearances occurred, some of the women taken were pregnant or had very young babies. These babies were sold, given up for adoption or in some cases kept by those involved in the atrocities. The grandmothers' aim is to track down these babies, who are now aged 25-35. Gaston told us of a recent case where a young woman discovered not only that she was adopted, but that the people who had brought her up were responsible for the deaths of her real parents. Horrific stuff. So far, they have found 107 of these 'missing' children.
Following the tour we had lunch at Cafe Tortoni, BA's oldest cafe. Coffee culture is big here. You NEVER see a porteno walking the streets clutching a Starbucks takeaway, because there's a beautiful traditional cafe every few metres (probably also because the pavements here are a death trap and you and your coffee would never make it!) Cafe Tortoni is probably the most famous of these cafes, and while that means it's a bit of a tourist trap, it's still a beautiful place. The walls are covered in art, the waiters are all bedecked in bowties, and are as rude to the patrons as is traditional.
We tried a submarino which is a great BA tradition... a cup of hot milk which comes with a chocolate bar (in the shape of a submarine - hence the name) that you melt in the milk to make a delicious hot chocolate. Yum yum.
That evening we didn't feel like another big steak dinner (turns out there is such a thing as too much steak) so we decided to continue our cafe education and check out Bar El Federal, another notable cafe only a few blocks from our hostel. El Federal felt a lot more 'local' with less tourists, although still the same rude service (seems it wasn't just the architecture they copied from the Parisiennes). There were locals sitting along the bar, couples taking up the inside tables, and groups of friends sitting on the street outside. We ordered a very tasty bottle of Malbec and a picada (a platter) of cheese, meat and olives, and spent a lovely couple of hours tucked in the corner enjoying the ambience.
Lucky for us we've got a few more days in BA... more coffee, more steak and more Malbec. What more could we ask for?