Springtime in BA - Jacaranda trees

15/11/14 - Buenos Aires

Is that the Pope on the balcony in La Boca?

Cities are always tiring places if you aren't used to them, so we're taking things reasonably easy.  Fortunately, we don't have jet lag to cope with as Buenos Aires is just three hours behind UK, albeit opposite in season.

Our first day, after arrival was spent getting our bearings, which meant taking a walk "round the block".  We are staying in the central area, so many of the main landmarks are within walking distance, but even so, the "block" turned out a bit bigger than we had intended!  BA is a very flat city, which is good for walking, but the pavements are a complete nightmare, which is not.  If it's not broken and missing paving stones, it's hazardous obstacles sticking up in random places, so you really have to watch your feet - a shame when you're trying to admire the grandeur of the buildings.  Never mind - no accidents so far.

First night we decided to try the local cuisine.  Our hotel stands between three almost identical restaurants - all huge and all offering variations on big bits of meat! We picked one at random and were treated to a huge (maybe 12+ ounce) slab of steak, cooked rare, as we requested, with chips - no frills, but absolutely delicious. Couldn't possibly eat meat like that every day but it was great to try it.  Followed that with our South American favourite - flan - which is like creme caramel, but with more body and texture.  Argentinians eat late, so when we go out, around 20:00, most of the restaurants are pretty empty, but as we totter home about 22:00, things are beginning to liven up nicely.

On Friday we decided to get the feel of the whole city by taking a hop-on-hop-off bus tour.  Easier said than done, as hopping on proved impossible at our nearest stop, due to all the buses being full. A bit of thought and a subway ride later, we managed to get on at the start of the route and it was all clearly meant to be, because we found ourselves on the only bus in the fleet with a canopy over the open top and an afternoon in the blazing Argentinian sun wouldn't have done us any good at all.  The tour, in busy traffic, took three and a half hours and covered the city really well. 
Buenos Aires, is, like any city, a place of contrasts.  The centre is full of splendid, monumental structures, wide avenues and lots of beautiful trees (the jacaranda is out - quite lovely).  As you leave Centro the trees continue and you reach the faded colonial grandeur of San Telmo, the lively, colourful old fishing area of La Boca, rich shopping centres like Recoleta and a whole new development since we were last here in 1986, on the old docks, where rich people and yacht owners live.  There's an enormous amount of building work going on and litle evidence of the dire state that the Argentinian economy is supposed to be in, but who knows what's beneath the surface.  There's a huge, once magnificent building just across the road from the Congress, absolutely filthy, boarded up, with rotten window frames and bits of masonry missing from upper stories(they must have fallen into the street!).  It's hard to imagine a building opposite the Houses of Parliament being allowed to get into such a state, however strapped for cash we were!

Today we took a taxi back to La Boca, the old waterfront area which has replaced the fishing industry with the tourist industry!  Narrow lanes full of stalls selling attractive leather goods and a wide range of styles in paintings as well as tat and jewellery, cafes with couples giving tango demonstrations and today, a regatta (didn't quite get to the bottom of what it was in aid of) and a naval brass band!  It sounds a bit tacky, but it's actually fun and we intend to go back there for supper one night.  After a restorative lemonade, (temperature reached 33C today) we got a taxi back to the city centre, where we found ourselves in the midst of the annual LGBT march and rally.  It was all quite low key and rather sparsely attended, but good that such things are allowed in a country with a history of repression.  In fact, gay marriage is legal here, despite being a predominantly Catholic country. The BA Herald (English language paper) had a survey yesterday which showed that the vast majority think the Pope's wonderful, but that they are quite liberal in their attitudes to homosexuality and abortion.

We thought we'd finish the day with a quiet sit-down in the Botanical Gardens. It was an easy metro ride away, but less easy to find the way in! We walked more than half way round the high railings and locked gates (remember the 30+ degrees?) before finding an open gate.  Kew Gardens it ain't!  But there are lots of trees and plenty of benches in shady spots, so it was a pleasant interlude, but we were more than ready for our afternoon siesta when we got back at 16:45.
On Thursday and Friday the roads have been clogged with cars, buses and enormous trucks, with dreadful levels of exhaust fumes, but today those same streets are quite devoid of traffic and our taxi was able to get to La Boca in about 10 minutes whereas yesterday it would have been upwards of 30!  However, now (Saturday evening) everybody and his mate are out and about - walking, cars and buses.  All choc-a-bloc out for a night on the town. Not us - we're going to bed.

Tango, tango everywhere!

17/11/14 - Buenos Aires

A charming encounter in BA antiquarian bookshop.

The traffic in Buenos Aires is unrelentingly busy (except, apparently on Saturday and Sunday mornings), but it is not chaotic.  All of the hundreds of intersections on the grid layout are controlled by traffic lights and everyone seems to obey the rules.  There's a bit of honking and hooting but not too much.  Pedestrians wait for the green man, which gives you a generous time to walk - which you need when crossing the extremely wide avenues.  Crossing the road is actually safer than walking on the pavement, given that the road surfaces are in much better condition!  The only thing I wonder is what happens in a major power cut....?

It's a well known fact that Latin people love children.  We went on a crowded train the other day, the journey was about an hour and opposite us was a man with a three year old boy who spent the entire time jumping up and down on the seat and climbing up the window.  Dad's solution to this was to pull him down playfully and give him a kiss. The little lad, rewarded for his behaviour, did it again.  And again.  As you may imagine, Martin was slightly disapproving of these disciplinary methods and was inclined to recommend stronger methods.  And it's true that to our cold northern eyes, it was just a touch irritating - but the child was happy, laughing and not noisy and he was clearly adored.  Who is right?  Discuss. Write on one side of the paper only.

We now know what BA people do on Sundays.  We thought it would be nice to get out of the city and our book recommended a town about 12 miles north - Tigre - which is a favourite getaway spot.  It also suggested a jolly tourist train that runs along the coast, but Martin's research (which really does sometimes come in useful - and what did we do before the Internet?) told us that it's overpriced and over-rated, so we opted for the slow local train which cost us the grand sum of 60p for a return ticket.  We thought that Tigre might be a bit tacky - there was much emphasis on amusement parks and casinos, but what a pleasant surprise!  Those things are there, but mainly it's a centre for water sports and activities, being on the edge of the delta which leads into the mouth of the River Plate.  First we took an interesting bus tour, then explored a really good craft market.  Fortunately, we didn't have too much time, or we might have been tempted to buy something - and we really do not need anything else to carry!  I did manage to buy a nice scarf to replace the one I lost on the plane, and cost about the same (the one I lost having been bought at the Strawberry Fair - yes, Carole - that one!).  The whole place was seething with people having a good time - on the water, in the water, beside the water, in the market,in the numerous restaurants, eating Big Meat, or just strolling, like us. Then we boarded a comfortable covered boat for a cruise back to the city.  It seemed a shame to waste the return half of our train tickets, but what's 30p between friends?

The cruise turned out to be another surprise.  we had expected that the delta would be a bit like the Sepik in PNG. Perhaps a bit less jungly but mainly greenery and some wildlife but, in fact, the islands and rivers which form the delta are home to a thriving community and a haven for all kinds of water sports.  So we cruised past houses ranging from ramshackle sheds to splendid mansions, the occasional school (health, police and supermarket services come by boat), all the while avoiding hundreds of canoes, rowing boats, speedboats and jetskis.  Then, in the more open water of the River Plate, hundreds of parasails, windsurfers and sailing boats - and I mean hundreds.  So, as I said, we now know what BA people do on Sundays!

On Monday we did the tour of Teatro Colon, the magnificent Opera House.  It really is very fine indeed, with European marble, gold leaf, statuary and wide, stately spaces to show off your wealth in.  And that's before you enter the auditorium, which really is breathtaking and apparently possessed of some of the best acoustics in the world.  High in the dome, more than 20 metres above ground, is a great chandelier and hidden within is a facility for singers to stand and deliver heavenly music as if from angels, or the voice of God.  Gives the audience a surprise every time!  As our enthusiastic guide said, "You have to be quite brave".  Wonderful place, but at the end of the day, it's still opera, or as we like to call it, shrieking and carrying on.  Sorry - I now some of you out there love opera!

We also visited the memorial to the Argentine soldiers killed in the Falklands War, which was a bit sobering. 649 names are engraved on the plain wall and we know that most of them were young conscripts.  All sacrificed to the pride and power games of politicians - and I'm not taking sides.  The memorial is constantly guarded by two soldiers, standing stock still in the blazing sun in their elaborate dress uniforms.  There was a medic on hand, presumably in case they fainted, but he was fast asleep on a bench in the shade!

We had planned to return to La Boca at night for a meal and more tango, but were warned by one of the brilliantly friendly and helpful receptionists in our hotel not to go to the area after dark. There is a seedy and unsafe side to Buenos Aires and that's where it is.  He said that while all day it's a tourist haven, there are no police or taxis there after about 17:00.  So we've stuck to the restaurants near to our hotel - certainly no shortage of choice!

So many bookshops in Buenos Aires.  Walking along any street, you come across them everywhere, some big, some no more than stalls, but all presumably making a living.  It must tell you something about Argentine society.  Today (Tuesday), while walking the length of the Avenida de Mayo, we went into a second-hand bookshop where the old gentleman in charge looked like someone out of Dickens.  He greeted us with great charm and we had a great conversation before he invited us to sign his visitors' book.  Like everyone else we've spoken to, he was delighted to learn that we are English - no reference to the paragraph above!

Our last visit today was to the Evita Museum, which we found very interesting.  It's situated in a rather grand old house which she turned into a temporary home for women and single mothers in difficult circumstances, so had a real sense of place.  Very comprehensive audio-guide, so you got your money's worth.  She was a fascinating character. Say what you like about Andrew Lloyd Webber, he got the story pretty much right - and if you don't like the melodramatic and sentimental tone of the musical, that's tough, because that's exactly what she was like!

Earlier we had seen the Casa Rosada at the end of the Avenida de Mayo, complete with the balcony from which Evita made her last emotional address to the crowds in the plaza.  All quiet today in the spring sunshine, but parked on one side was a line of police vehicles and a water cannon.  Clearly, the president isn't that sure of herself!

Now I have to repack for the journey to Ushuaia tomorrow.  We're bracing ourselves for excess baggage charges, because the next three legs of our journey have no business class facilities and although we tried not to bring too much, six months in varied weather conditions is a long time.  Speaking of varied weather conditions, we're also bracing ourselves for a drop in temperatures from 30 degrees to single digits.  With rain.  Martin has just tried to check-in online - booking confirmed, but no check-in possible.  However, panic stations - our original reservation was for a flight from Aeroparque Jorge Newbery but they not only changed the time and flight number, but the airport too!  So we're due at Ezeiza International at 07:50!!  We rushed down to reception to rearrange our taxi, only to find a woman in the same situation, so we're sharing a taxi in the morning.

This may be the last post for some time .... or not.  Argentina is a surprising country, so we may be back to you sooner than we expect.

You never know when the peasants are revolting!

Malvinas Memorial - 31+C

Don't faint until I've finished my siesta!