Ode to Buenos Aires

buenos-aires-travel-tips[I loved my stay in Buenos Aires so much I really do intend to look into moving there! Here is an excerpt from the article that appeared in the Star on November 27, 2010.]

BUENOS AIRES — We fall madly in love with places for the same reason we do with people: Because of an instant connection and a need to find it. After a challenging trip in another South American country, I arrived for a four-day stay in the capital of Argentina expecting a city snarled with traffic headaches, poverty amid ostentatious displays of wealth, overpriced everything and long stretches of grime. Another one of those “Paris of …” places that don’t live up to the City of Light.

Instead, I found an energetic yet easygoing city rich with character. Buenos Aires may be called the Paris of Latin America, but it’s no knock-off. If anything, it blends aspects of several great cities into a copasetic mix. There’s a touch of New York with all the pizza parlours and artsy neighbourhoods, a bit of Rome in the Colon Theatre, plenty of Barcelona with its never-ending nightlife, a hint of London in a smaller, 100-year-old replica of Big Ben that the British capital presented to Argentina on its centennial and, yes, a lot of Paris, including the 9th of July Avenue, a Champs Elysees-type thoroughfare that’s the widest street in the world.

Occupying the city are three million people mostly of European descent who’ve weathered all kinds of political and economic upheaval. In the last 60 years alone, Argentina has survived dictatorship, war, the devastation of its currency and the soiling of its reputation because of the sympathy its leaders showed to defeated Nazis.

With the Argentine peso bouncing back and the economy emerging strong from recession, the country’s capital is in a groove. The streets of Recoleta, the city’s affluent neighbourhood, are filled with opulent hotels, high fashion and outstanding restaurants. The historic Alvear Palace Hotel — the Royal York of Buenos Aires — plays host almost every day to gala events, weddings of dignitaries and meetings for ultra-powerful business leaders. One of the city’s major attractions is the Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is entombed in a mausoleum. The cemetery has nothing resembling a traditional grave. Tiny palaces to the city’s dead elite fill its walls.

At night, the streets around the cemetery teem with life as music and laughter clamour through Recoleta’s clubs, bars and cafés. Even in Buenos Aires’ less vivacious neighbourhoods, you sense the confidence of a world-class city that knows it can survive any turmoil. You also feel people’s pride in living here. While walking with map sometimes held to my face, I was approached four times within two hours by someone wishing to point me in the right direction. Of course, each Porteno (the nickname for Buenos Aires’ residents) also wanted to know where I was from. Despite a language barrier, an adios would be withheld until he or she had gone on about an experience in Montreal or a friend who’d enjoyed Toronto.

“The people are so friendly,” says Sonja Hirsch, a Minneapolis vacationer who was celebrating her birthday. “I was in a restaurant and I bumped elbows with the man beside me. I apologized and they were so nice we ended up spending the rest of dinner talking.”

Sonja and her husband, Tom, raved about SottoVoce, the restaurant they dined at that night, while another American visitor singled out a nearby Recoleta spot for its beef.

“It’s the best steak I ever had,” says Ned Mozier, a Kansas native now living in St. Louis, “and I know my steak.”

With such an endorsement, I had to visit Fervor, one of the many places that serve up large varieties of Argentina’s renowned beef that comes from cows fed with natural grass. I ordered a 350-gram serving of tenderloin that cost 68 Argentine pesos, or about $17. I paired it with a good half-bottle of Alta Vista Premium Malbec that ran 33 pesos, or $8 and change. As for the quality of the steak, it was great, but Ned should’ve wandered a few blocks along the same street toward where the 9th of July Avenue begins.

Beneath a highway underpass, diners take up chairs at fine restaurants while cars slowly pass through a brightly lit corridor that’s decorated with artwork and flowers. It’s a scene that immediately makes a Torontonian ponder what it might be like to linger at an elegant table below the Gardiner Expressway. At El Mirasol, I ordered another 350-gram tenderloin that was so soft a butter knife sliced through it. It cost 30 per cent more than the steak at Fervor, but was worth the premium.

“The city’s overwhelmingly impressive,” says Brian Gabor, a Torontonian who was enjoying an afternoon snack at La Poesia, a café in San Telmo. “There’s architectural grandeur that a lot of other cities have, but there are other things that are unique to it. People here don’t go to dinner until 10 at night, they don’t go to the bar until 1 a.m., and that’s just not Toronto.”

What is like Toronto is the neighbourhoods. While they’re not divided by ethnic storefronts, they are distinctive. Recoleta and Retiro are the upscale districts that attract tourists and shoppers; Palermo draws artists and musicians; Puerto Madero is the easy-to-stroll, revitalized port area lined with new restaurants; San Telmo is the oldest part of town steeped with iconic churches and markets; La Boca is home to the famed Caminito Street, where tango was born. Buenos Aires is mostly flat, making walking easy, but if you do want to go by public transportation, the city has a subway system with six lines and buses that are safe to ride. A single fare costs the equivalent of 40 cents.

Read the rest of “Falling for Buenos Aires” in the Toronto Star.

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