– In Buenos Aires, Barrio Norte is where the rich people live. But this was not always the case. In the city’s early days, a large slaughter house occupied the northern part of the barrio, the Recolet. It was said that a ravine filled up with cattle heads and that people dreaded the rainy season on account of the floating heads.
– Barrio Norte acquired some much-needed tone when a yellow fever epidemic hit the city in 1870. Wealthy portenos, convinced that the river fogs were causing the deaths, fled from the southern lowlands near San Telmo for the higher ground to the north.
– Over the next few decades, Argentina’s upper classes spared no expense in making Barrio Norte into a miniature Paris. Here, more than anywhere else in the city, it is easy to imagine what Buenos Aires was like when it was capital of one of the richest countries on earth. At the ever-fashionable Cafe Biela, you may see a handsome businessman in a well-cut Italian suit. His head may be tilted back to take advantage of the sun as a white-jacketed waiter takes his order, another man shines his shoes and a third, a street artist, sketches his likeness on a drawing pad. The thought may cross your mind that this is a wonderful life.
A wonderful death
– However, to do a proper walking tour of Barrio Norte, you should postpone the cafes for an hour and begin where privileged Argentines end, at Recoleta Cemetery.
– In a city that devotes itself to distinctions of class and military rank, the Recoleta is Buenos Aires’ marble heart. To be buried in one of these ornate crypts, you must be related to one of Argentina’s “name” families. A general or two in the family tree would also help. The allure of the necropolis is such that even mourners have the air of apartment hunters, doggedly searching out immortality with a view. As one Argentine writer put it, the inhabitants of Recoleta are “more dead and less dead than the ordinary deceased. “This is true of no one more than Eva Peron, reviled and revered wife of the dictator Juan Peron, whose body disappeared for 16 years before it finally came to rest in a black crypt marked simply, “Eva Duarte.” Her inscriptions reads “Volvere y sere millones,” (I will return and be millions), a populist sentiment that does not sit well with many of the families who pay respect at the neighbouring tombs. Although Evita expressed scorn for Argentina’s oligarchy, she was hurt when the society ladies did not invite her to become head of an exclusive charity organization, the Sociedad de Beneficiencia, as was the usual prerogative of Argentine First Ladies. She lies among them now, in a supposedly unrobbable grave under six feet of concrete.
– Next door to the cemetery stand the Basilica of Nuestra Senora del Pilar and Convent of the Recoletos, both completed in 1732 by the Recoletan monks (a Franciscan order) who give the area its name.
– For anyone familiar with the imposing stone exterior of the Latin American cathedral, the Basilica’s mustard and white stucco seems almost cheery. Children play in the nearby playground and on Sundays, artisans gather to sell mate gourds and handmade leather goods. The Basilica houses a Baroque silver altar and woodwork attributed to the Spanish artist and mystic Alonso Cano, yet on a sunny day at Recoleta, you could imagine that they fold the Basilica into a box when the circus gets ready to leave town.
– The russet-red Convent is no longer a convent but a cultural centre which displays aggressive examples of contemporary Argentine art. In one recent exhibition, Las Historietas de Hierro (Cartoons of Iron), visitors were greeted by a highly realistic representation of a dead steelworker crumpled in the entrance hallway. The Centre’s young artists often traffic in images that are violent, grotesque and explicitly sexual. Consequently you may see older Argentines jogging through the exhibitions as if pursued by a bad smell.
Sinful ice cream
– Sex, death and religion all have their own shrines at the Recoleta grounds. After you have paid your respects, walk south across grassy Plaza Alvear towards the large bill-boards that advertise Calvin Klein or some other good thing. You will have arrived at cafes Biela and Del la Paix, which face each other on Avenida Quintana. They are portals to the posh neighbourhood of Recoleta. The most economical thing you could do at this point would be to go down Quintana one block to Ayacucho to have a chocolate amargo (bitter chocolate) ice cream at Freddo. Go south on Ayacucho one block to Alvear and you will witness a sumptuousness that has faded from many quarters of Buenos Aires but which lives on in retail at the Galeria Alvear (1777 Alvear) and the Galeria Promenade (1885 Alvear inside the Alver Hotel). The Alvear’s newly restored, gleaming lobby is a favourite spot for afternoon tea. (Along the opposite cemetery wall, on Calle Azuenaga, you may have spotted a row of hotels called hoteles transitorios or telos. These are not student pensions but Buenos Aires’ highly discreet answer to indiscretion.
Jockey Club and old silver
– Walking southwest down Alvear, you will pass a number of the city’s finest apartment buildings, scrupulously copied from the French. There is no choicer spot in Buenos Aires than this (for the living; the dead have Recoleta). You may gaze upon the French and Brazilian embassies, and, more importantly, the Jockey Club, the citadel of Argentine anglophilia. The doors of the Jockey Club open for no man who cannot produce impeccable references and an equally impeccable suit; women are allowed only in the dining room. If you choose to postpone your membership bid, continue down Alvear which becomes Arroyo and then crosses Avenida Nueve de Julio. Gape at Nueve de Julio’s obscenely large obelisk on your right but press on to the next cross street, Carlos Pellegrini. There on the left is Plaza Cataluna, a striking piece of urban redesign consisting of a mural by Josep Niebla painted n great slashes of colour across the sides of several Dickensian-looking houses.
Plaza San Martin
– There is one proper way to enter Plaza San Martin and that is to enter from Avenida Santa Fe. Described by one Argentine writer as a “prolongation” of New York or Paris, Santa Fe offers everything imaginable in leather and will satisfy a reasonable number of other desires as well. Because of the generally enervated state of the Argentine economy, the cost of high fashion here is medium or low for the tourist. Portenos spend a lot of time looking in shop windows. Some of these windows hold only the nylon-covered legs of mannequins, suspended in mid-air, a disturbing sight if you have not grown up with such things.
– Browsing southward on Santa Fe, the avenue opens up into the Plaza San Martin, a palm-fringed greensward dominated by the bronze statue of San Martin upon his horse. Built in 1862, the statue is Argentina’s monument to a lost cause. The general had left his base near the present-day Plaza to wage a war of continental liberation from Spain. He returned to Argentina triumphant, only to discover that internal bickering had undone his vision of a liberal, unified South America.
– The area around the Plaza is an upscale mix of travel agencies, government buildings and expensive restaurants. It is pleasant but a little dull. Since you know that San Martin will not unfreeze in mid-gallop to restore Argentina to glory with one mad dash down Avenida Santa Fe, you head southeast, downhill to the enormous thoroughfare, Avenida Del Libertador. Along the way, you will pass the Sheraton Hotel, a true yanqui vision, with its shopping gallery enclosed in an inflated fabric tunnel.
– Farther up Libertador is the Museo Ferroviario Argentina (Railways Museum, Liberator 405), worth a quick stop, and then on Avenidas Libertador and Callao, the Ital Park Amusement Park which should be worth a roller-coaster ride. In any event, the rollercoaster’s airy architecture is a nice visual counterpoint to the Greco-Roman mass of the University of Buenos Aires Law School still farther up the road.
– You may take the pedestrian bridge in front of the Law School, cutting back over Libertador which has branched off to the west. Now you will be hard upon the Museo de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Museum, 1437 Libertador), red bulging-columned classical building. A minute’s walk away is the Cultural Centre.
– On the first floor are nudes by Rodin Gauguin, Manet and others.
– The second floor of the Bellas Artes is more interesting than the first since you will not find its likes in London or New York. There are portraits of the Argentine aristocracy, painted with all the solemnity of imported European convention; in another room folkloric canvases romanticizing the hard men of the pampas; and in another, panoramic paintings by Candido Lopez (1840 – 1902) detailing the glorious carnage of military campaigns against South American neighbours. Back on Libertador, continue your northerly walk for several more blocks alongside pleasant parklands. You will come to Calle Austria on whose southwest corner is the desolate National Library, which was abandoned for lack of funds. Two blocks up the street at Austria and Las Heras the well-to-do ladies of Buenos Aires – las gordas (the fat ones) – congregate at the Cafe Fontaine for chocolate cake…