Laura Whateley finds her feet in Buenos Aires
The Germans are even more tense, I’m reassured by my dance teacher, as I stiffly embrace a sweaty man from Seattle on a darkened dancefloor. “But by the end of the evening they are hugging and kissing everyone like true porteños [Buenos Aires residents].”
I have already downed a strong drink for a bit of Argentine courage from a table covered by a red cloth on the edge of the floor and watched strangers dance sensually together, legs expertly tangled, faces almost touching, eyes shut, communicating through the rhythm of the bandoneon (concertina) and live orchestra. This while trying to keep my eyes averted for fear of accidentally locking them with an expert bailarin (male dancer).
Cabeceo is the signal to dance: a man scans the room to make eye contact with a woman he wants to dance with and subtly tilts his head, a woman might nod to accept, the man will stand, collect his partner and escort her to the floor; if you are not keen you pretend not to have seen, to spare a man’s blushes.
Too soon it is my turn, along with a handful of visitors mostly from the US and Latin America, to join the beginners and learn the most basic of tango steps. The teachers chat away in Spanish, but you do not need to understand the language to figure out where your feet should be going in the eight-count formation. Half an hour later I’m dreaming of a new career as a tango star.
It is about $10 to enter La Viruta Milonga, one of about 150 tango clubs across Buenos Aires, at least one of which is open all night on any night of the year. For that you can listen to live tango music, watch people dance, learn yourself, pay extra for dinner and malbec, then join in until closing at 6am. The dancefloor is heaving at 4am. Taxis lined up outside are not there to pick up visitors, but are owned by drivers having a quick tango during their break.
Dancing is just one of the activities offered by a new local company, Immersion Tours, to encourage visitors to get under the skin of the city; many, such as visiting a milonga (tango club), or eating the best steak of your life, cost very little.
A stay in the Argentine capital has got cheaper, too. The city’s many boutique hotels, while not cheap, have become more affordable for visitors; the government, hoping to attract more tourist pesos, last year abolished the 21 percent tax on hotels for non-Argentinians.
Shopping is still painfully expensive; the Argentine woman I sit next to on the plane tells me it costs about half her monthly rent to buy a coat. But things are changing, with a new right-leaning government keen to boost investment.
It is hard to escape politics, history and changing economic landscapes here. On a tour around the city I pass the central bank, where my guide points out the dents and scratches on heavy metal shutters from where crowds banged the doors to get access to their cash during the crisis of 2001. Everyone I meet has an opinion on Perón, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and whether or not residents pay too much tax.
High taxes have, however, resulted in a commitment to providing citizens, and visitors, with access to high culture, free of charge. The grand beaux arts post office building, completed in 1928 and modelled on New York’s main post office, is now the impressively huge Kirchner Cultural Centre, one of the best of several arts centres in the city that are free to visit for hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, book fairs, dance classes and even yoga.
A visit to the Teatro Colón opera house is a must. Like so much of Buenos Aires, with its wide boulevards, Parisian architecture, British-designed subway, Italian-influenced language and ‘Spanish soul’, it is a mishmash of European and Latin American style. Its sweeping grand-entrance staircase is a patchwork of white carrara marble from Tuscany, pink from Portugal, yellow from Siena and orange from Verona, with art nouveau floor tiles from England. The auditorium takes my breath away. It seats nearly 2,500, with standing room in the vertigo-inducing ‘henhouse’ for a further 500, at the top of the 28m-high ceiling, crowned with a chandelier of 700 lightbulbs.
The best seats are reserved for the mayor, the president and the Pope, but I am fascinated by the widows’ boxes, hidden behind an ornate grille either side of the stalls, where, until 1955, women in mourning would sit during the two-year period they could not be seen in public. I try to get tickets for a concert — they can be as cheap as $10 for ‘henhouse’ standing — but it is near impossible unless you book two months in advance. A good trick, however, is to turn up for a rehearsal, when you can sit in the auditorium and experience the theatre’s world-class acoustics for free.
The other grand theatre I rate is now a bookshop, El Ateneo Grand Splendid. It is frequently voted one of the world’s most beautiful, with an ornate frescoed ceiling, shelves lining the stalls and a café on the stage. There are more bookshops per capita here than in any other city, with more second-hand bookshops than London. Many have cafés, where you can sit and read all day with no hassle.
Among the other bookshops, I love the tiny, arty Librosref, with green velvet mid-century armchairs; Libros Del Pasaje, which has ladders to scale the tall wooden bookshelves and a wine bar at the back; and Librería del Fondo in Palermo Soho, which has a café in a sunny, rainbow-painted courtyard, with bright red chairs and a balcony filled with cactuses.
Many of Buenos Aires’ art galleries are free too and are open in the evening for workers to get their culture fix after office hours. I wander around the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, with Latin America’s largest collection of public art, just before it closes at 8pm. Downstairs are Rodin sculptures and 19th-century European art works from Monet to Van Gogh, but I prefer the upper floor with more unusual contemporary Argentine and Latin American art, portraying gaucho life, or 20th-century political struggles.
Some of the best political works are to be found on the side of buildings, shops and houses. Buenos Aires is one of the top cities in the world for street art: the authorities take a laissez-faire attitude to it and politicians often hire artists to produce street art propaganda. Down residential roads in the neighbourhood of La Boca is a huge painting of a woman in a headscarf, representing the Madres, identified by white pañuelos, or handkerchiefs, worn on their heads, who demonstrated against the disappearance of their sons during the 1970s military dictatorship. Across from the Boca Juniors’ stadium, painted on the side of a high-rise housing block, is a giant Carlos Tevez playing football with a small boy.
I cruise around the sunny, brightly painted streets of La Boca on a bike, which proves an excellent way to see what is a surprisingly green city, studded with willowy, purple jacaranda trees in late November. Buenos Aires is divided into 48 barrios and it can be hard work getting around. For travellers watching the pennies, the buses are cheap, but can be held up by bad traffic or protests that frequently block roads. The subway, designed in 1913 and modelled on London’s, is handy, but increasingly people cycle around — bike lanes are being added all the time and the city has free yellow bikes to use.
Other parts are easy to cover on foot, including the city’s richest and most European-looking, Recoleta, and the trendiest, Palermo. One of the best sights in Recoleta is free: its cemetery. It is inspired by the great Parisian graveyards, but is even more eerie and impressive than Père Lachaise, with row after row of architecturally intriguing mausoleums and more than 6,400 statues, sarcophagi and crypts, housing the rich and powerful of Buenos Aires. Evita is buried here, 5m underground, although her mausoleum is tucked away and remarkably modest.
There is more interesting history in San Telmo, a district of narrow cobbled streets and old-fashioned wood-lined cafés, once the home of the wealthiest late-19th-century families until yellow fever cleared out communities who relocated to Recoleta. Huge houses were abandoned and occupied arrived European immigrants, who started selling the goods they found inside, such as family silver collections. The tradition has remained: on Sunday afternoon I stroll around the weekly antiques market, which is selling genuine, good-value antiques, from cutlery sets to old gramophones.
The indoor market here has more antique shops, alongside bargain places to eat. Try the tiny, cult, hole-in-the-wall Nuestra Parrilla, where there are just a handful of stools round a greasy barbecue, producing the juiciest steak for just a few dollars. Or grab an empanada from a bakery for $1 or so and sit on a step in the sunshine.
It is in Palermo, however, where I find the coolest and best-value restaurants. It’s a familiar story: the district was taken over by young designers looking for cheap studio space and became a hip area of independent shops, bars and pricey homes on leafy streets with colourful front doors.
Allie Lazar, a local foodie who writes the Pick Up The Fork blog, says that the craze for burgers and craft drinks has just reached Buenos Aires (try the Burger Joint on Calle Jorge Luis Borges, with graffitied walls and pictures of Che Guevara). There’s cheap pizza and gelato on every corner, thanks to strong Italian immigration – at one stage half the population of Argentina had Italian heritage.
If you want a full, fancy, sit-down steak-of-your-life experience, though, head to La Cabrera, one of Buenos Aires’s most famous parrillas (grills). Every day it has a happy hour from 6.30pm to 8pm, during which the whole menu, including wine, is discounted by 40 percent. Get there early, before queues start to form.
The waiter suggests I try the most popular cut, tenderloin. A slab of butter-soft meat arrives, almost the size of my head, for about $16, with free sides of apple sauce, pumpkin purée, mashed potato and a strange but tasty egg, ham, pea and béchamel mixture.
For porteños, eating at 7pm would be unthinkable; weekend dinners are often at 11pm, before people go out partying from about 3am.
There’s yet more steak and empanadas at La Ventana, one of the city’s many tango shows, where dinner is served before you sit down for the performance. If you are a fan of Strictly Come Dancing you’ll love the noisy performance of kitsch, acrobatic dancing, with sparkly costumes, a tango singer blasting out Evita classics, with black and white footage of Eva and Juan Perón in the background, and a gang of gauchos demonstrating their panpipe skills.
At $120, though, such a show does not come cheap, and you would not catch a porteño in the audience. I’m a milonga convert – for the real Buenos Aires experience save your pesos and work on your eye contact.
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Laura Whateley / The Times / News Licensing