Monday 26 October 2015

Cafes, tango and a marvellous market: Buenos Aires for beginners part 1

This is a big town. A very big town. You might even say huge or overwhelming, especially for first timers. And this is my first time in Buenos Aires. This is a South American city that looks like Europe. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in Paris or even Budapest when walking down the Belle Epoque boulevards in the centre of the city, except I can't think of a European city that has streets so long the numbers might reach 5000, that has as many dog walkers or where tango music might burst without notice from a cafe, shop or a street performer.

A lot of people live here - about 13 million in greater Buenos Aires according to the 2010 census. That's one third of the country's total population. The descendants of European immigrants mainly from Italy, and Spain but also Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, Serbia and other countries form the majority here but more recently there has been significant immigration from other parts of South America and from the Far East. Buenos Aires also has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world at over 200,000.  All of this has influenced the life, culture and feel of the city.

It takes a couple of days to get used to things here. You may want to visit two or three places in the same street but but they can be so far apart you might need to get a taxi or the subte (metro.) Unless of course, like me, you enjoy walking in cities and although I may get sore feet, I also happen on the unexpected. In Buenos Aires this includes eclectic architecture, references to the past, welcoming people and thankfully - wonderful cafes on just about every street in the city centre.

Cafe Tortoni
Cafes are an important part of daily life in Buenos Aires and several of them have long and interesting histories. The oldest and most famous is Cafe Tortoni at Avenida de Mayo 825, founded in 1858 by a French immigrant and named after a cafe in Paris.  Once the haunt of Argentina's most accomplished writers and artists including authors Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, tango singer Carlos Gardel and pianist Artur Rubinstein - today you are more likely to find tourists in the majority. However if you go early in the day it is still possible to sit amongst the locals, enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate (delicious) and soak up a little of the historic atmosphere.

I like Tortoni very much but my favourite cafe so far is La Confiteria Ideal at Suipacha 380-384. Founded in 1912 the confiteria serves as a cafe and restaurant but is most famous for its milongas - tango sessions where locals (and some tourists) come along to watch, to dance and to enjoy the music.  Ideal's grandeur is a little faded but there is still much to see. I love the ornate belle époque staircase, the glass cases that once displayed patisserie and other treats and the original manual cash till displayed by the door. The dancing starts in the afternoon and during my visit there were several couples making their way across the floor. Interestingly you don't need to take a partner with you as a number of dancers, men and women, seemed to be alone but were still invited to dance. This is a very delicate affair, described in  Tomas Eloy Martinez' book The Tango Singer "Between one tango and the next, a man would invite a woman to dance with a nod that seemed indifferent. It wasn't. The disdain was feigned to protect their pride from any slight". Complicated. I sat watching and wondering how the female dancers anticipate the movements of the male leads.

Confiteria Ideal
Confiteria Ideal 
Tango is acknowledged as an art form nowadays and is highly respected but originated in the bars and bordellos of nineteenth century Buenos Aires where immigrant men from various countries mixed with waitresses and prostitutes, evolving this most dramatic of dance forms. This might explain the still slightly risqué atmosphere in Confiteria Ideal, made more so by the sign requesting that one ask permission before photographing the dancers. Perhaps some of them shouldn't be there!

Whole areas of the city are associated with tango. The working-class Abasto neighbourhood was once the home of Carlos Gardel, acknowledged as the most famous tango singer of all time. Gardel was born in France but came to Argentina as an infant. He sang in cafes and bars and at private parties before rising to fame in 1917 with his rendition of Mi Noche Triste which sold 10,000 copies and was the start of a career that included films as well as concerts and other successful recordings. Gardel mixed with the literary crowd in the city's cafes, many of which claim a link with him. He died prematurely in a plane crash in 1935 and his death was mourned by millions in Latin America. The Museo Casa Carlos Gardel at Jean Jaures 735, where the singer once lived with his mother, exhibits memorabilia including press cuttings, sheet music, recordings and letters as well as showing some of his films on a loop. Its just a few pesos to get in and worth a visit as you can also see the brightly coloured houses in the surrounding streets of this quarter, known as casas chorizo due to their long, thin, sausage like shapes. 

Carlos Gardel street art
Painted house, Jean Jaures
Painted house, Jean Jaures
San Telmo is another fascinating part of the city. Close to Plaza de Mayo in the very heart of Buenos Aires, it is home to the Mercado San Telmo held every Sunday along Defensa and in the mercado itself - a huge metal structure that might remind British visitors of London's Borough Market or the old Spitalfields. Crowds descend on Defensa and the surrounding streets which are filled with vendors selling leather goods, various crafts, food, second hand books, music and, well, junk. The shops offer similar items but (in some cases), of a much higher quality. There are several design shops selling fancy stationery, office items, art books, clothes and music whilst San Telmo is also an important location for selling antiques and vintage items. 

Panaderia Andre, Bolivar
La Vieja Rotisserie de Nonno Bachicha, Defensa
The mercado itself has a number of food stalls and an eclectic collection of antique stores selling pictures, records, old postcards, books, tango related memorabilia, pictures of Eva Peron and other items too numerous to mention. There is also a great little coffee stop - Coffee Town, where they take coffee very seriously, even posting daily details about which blend is being used. They also have good hot chocolate and very acceptable pastries. This is a great way of passing a Sunday afternoon. There are also many cafes and restaurants offering everything from sandwiches to pizzas and soups to steaks with numerous old style panaderias (bakeries) offering cakes and sweets too. It's also worth taking a stroll along at least part of Bolivar which is quieter but has a certain charm with its crumbling buildings and old fashioned Panaderia Andre.

If you want something more substantial to eat, there are many restaurants including the supremely stylish Panaderia del Pablo at 269 Defensa, which serves a modern take on Argentine cookery in very modern surroundings, or for something more traditional, try Bar El Federal on the corner of Peru and Carlos Calvo. El Federal has been serving food and drink since 1864 and offers sandwiches, grills, pastas, salads, desserts and various beers. The surroundings are very different to the Panaderia, with old photographs and posters on display and a fantastic antique bar.

Bar El Federal, Peru and Carlos Calvo
My favourite shop in the mercado is Nativo Argentino at Defensa 928 which sells textiles and high quality crafts, including some beautiful and highly colourful vintage items made with natural dyes. All of the items are made by the indigenous people of Argentina. Nativo Argentino is also an organisation that supports these communities to develop and benefit from their skills. I have visited a couple of times and didn't feel pressured to buy anything - although I did return to buy a fantastic striped blanket. Store owner Jorge Cordone is friendly and helpful and can give advice on how to care for purchases as well as the story behind each item. Well worth a visit - even if you only want to look.

Artepampa at 917 Defensa is just across the road from Nativo and is another great shop. Owner Cesar designs and makes many of the items in his store, all of which are inspired by the art of indigenous Argentines. I especially liked his collage works and the little worry dolls that can be seen in many places around the city. I liked them so much I took some of them home with me.

Preserves shop in the Mercado San Telmo
Finally, the streets of San Telmo are decorated with street art - much of it interesting and of high quality. There are signs displayed on listed buildings warning would be artists not to use them as a canvas and by and large they don't. Many of the pieces are related to the area or to the cultural life of Buenos Aires and Argentina. I have included a couple of examples here - a gaucho and the ubiquitous tango!

Part two of Buenos Aires for beginners is coming soon with highlights of the city's art nouveau architecture, Palermo and La Boca - two very different quarters, jazz, some unresolved history and much more. 

Street art, Bolivar
Street art, Bolivar

1 comment:

  1. I love your photos of La Confiteria Ideal because the place reminds me of Paris coffee houses of the Belle Epoque (with a hint of Vienna added in). Perhaps 1912 is a little more modern than the equivalent in Paris, but ideas take a few years to travel from one continent to another.

    Even the facade is elaborate and dressy.