April 6th, 2015


Recoleta and Retiro

In the morning we awoke late because the bedroom shutters muted the morning sun deceptively. We left the apartment, crossing Avenida Cordoba to Calle Reconquista. One of the first places that we saw was a Starbucks but we fancied something a little more Argentinian for breakfast. We followed the street for about three quarters of a mile to Plaza de Mayo, which is widely cited as the centre of the city. It is a paved public space bounded by roads with a few monuments and an unsightly fence dividing it in two with narrow portals permitting free passage. The pink palace that is the seat of government is an unremarkable building in late nineteenth century European Empire style. Other buildings included the classical Metropolitan Cathedral and the white Hispanic Cabildo where the secession from Spain had been planned. We were surprised that there were no cafes bordering the square; the only retailers were occasional newsagent booths.

Setting our backs to the plaza we walked up Avenida Presidente Julio A. Roca passing a variety of shops and places to eat until we saw an attractive looking café bar called ‘Harmony’ on our left. ‘Harmony’ was the name of our favourite local cafe in Antwerp so we too this as a sign and bought tasty simple mixed breakfasts at a reasonable price. We continued along Roca and turned north towards Barrio Recoleta, where we planned to visit the famous cemetery. On, Calle Talcahuano as we entered Recoleta we saw a municipal library with a dark wooden double doors off an arched passageway. The receptionist was eager to speak to us in English and encouraged us to explore Biblioteca Ricardo Güiraldes. In the room opposite the reception desk on the ground floor were built in wooden shelves holding books in a variety of languages. Up the glorious carved dark wood staircase was a panelled room containing a large stone fireplace and glass cases displaying incunabula softly illuminated by the light from stained glass windows. A small room off this central space was lined with dark shelves filled with darkly bound volumes in English, French, German and Spanish from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Central blocks provided further shelving and moveable old wood ladders gave access to the higher shelves. At an ageworn desk sat a librarian who spoke only Spanish but proactively showed us treasures from the collection with a particular emphasis on those published in English. She started with a nineteenth century illustrated Spanish edition of Don Quixote but also showed us a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Walter Crane illustrations and a lovely limited Shakespeare Press edition of The Gaucho translated by Walter Owen. Few English lending libraries can offer such vintage glories, which are an unintended benefit of retention policies driven by woeful underfunding.

The streets of Recoleta are lined with diverse shops including antique dealers, lottery kiosks, grocers, and cafeterias. Outside a cafeteria near the library stood a freestanding box covered in hooks labelled ‘dog parking’. It made us smile but we had no dog to park so we continued walking to the nearby cemetery. For over a century the elite of Buenos Aires have been laid to rest in the necropolis of narrow streets between mausoleums of varying ostentation and neglect. Some structures were covered in weedy growth but several were in the process of restoration or redecoration. We spent a couple of hours enjoying and photographing the architecture and its ornament. The most popular tomb in the complex is the family vault of Eva Peron; a surprisingly restrained monument with just a few flowers woven into its decorative ironwork. We had considered buying a comprehensive guide to the memorials but decided simply to enjoy the appearance of the place without studying its history. Our pleasure was unalloyed by our lack of knowledge.

On our way back towards the city centre we stopped at Josephina's Cafe (the ‘dog parking’ establishment) for water, Coke, and coffee. While we sat drinking on the street, one of the city’s many dog walkers eschewed the cute dog parking and tied some half a dozen dogs to the railings.

Because we were planning to catch a bus out of the city next day, we decided to scope out the bus terminal during the afternoon. We walked back to the port area believing that the terminal and Retiro station were close by. And so they were, in a sense, but it was much further to walk than we imagined. We found an area where there were many bus stops but the very density of vehicles made it hard to locate the departure point that we sought. I left a weary W sitting on a roadside bench beside a dusty park. I found the Retiro bus terminal near the Retiro railway station. I entered the long building up a shallow ramp and a long walkway past about a dozen shops. There were 75 bus-stops divided into five gates. I walked the entire length of the terminal past all 75 stops including the international section at the far end without finding any ticket offices until I realised that ‘boletarias’ means ‘ticket offices’ and that frequent signs advised that these were on the next level up. So, I climbed the stairs to discover 206 ticket offices and no clue as to which served San Antonio de Areco. I knew that two companies served Areco and I could see that some companies had multiple offices and every office front was covered with list of destinations so I determined to walk out along one side of the terminal and back along the other until I saw a sign for Areco. There was no such sign. I looked particularly closely at the seven booths of Nueva Chevallier because I thought that was the name of one of the two bus companies but the word ‘Areco’ appeared nowhere. By the time I got back to the first of the booths it occurred to me that W might be fretting about the length of my absence. I returned to her bench and the two of us walked back to the bus station and resumed the search. The information desk still seemed deserted and this time I decided to enquire at a Nueva Chevallier booth. A smiling cashier pointed us at a colleague who spoke English. We waited while the anglophone cashier conducted a very long transaction with a short slight woman in her sixties. When he did get to us he was very helpful and his English was excellent. The company does serve Areco. The town is two hours along the 9.5 hour route to Rio Cuarto. It is the fifth stop out of seventeen and the company serves over 120 places, which is why the small town is not listed on any booth. We chose to depart at 0930 and return at 1840 for AR$90 (about £7 each).

We left the huge bus station and retraced our journey past the railway stations of Retiro and San Martin. Plaza San Martin is a park containing one of the city’s Malvinas war memorials. This one is the national monument; it includes a list of names of the 649 Argentinians who died in the short war in 1982, an eternal flame, and a single honour guard during daylight. Opposite, across a road, stands, the English Clock Tower, given to the city in 1909 by the British citizens who made a fortune developing the Retiro railway station complex. The tower is now known as the Torre Monumental to reflect the changed relationship between the two nations since 1982. Although most people with an opinion outside Argentina see the war as a cynical political distraction by the failing military government, most Argentinians believe that Britain was wrong to establish a fishing colony on the islands and make a final assertion of ownership in 1833.

Brief historical note for those who care about such things: In 1690 a British sailor navigated the passage between the two barren islands and named it after a Commissioner of the Admiralty; he also made the first recorded landing on the islands although some Spanish historians claim prior discovery by a Spanish expedition. It was almost sixty years before the British decided to exploit the islands but the Spanish objected strenuously and plans were deferred. In 1765 a British naval frigate visited one of the islands and claimed it as British territory, unaware that a French party had landed on the other island in the previous year. The Spanish still argued that both islands were theirs and although their French allies assigned East Falkland to Spain, the British held on to West Falkland. In 1770 a Spanish fleet of five ships from Buenos Aires captured West Falkland. Britain prepared for war but the Spanish capitulated and restored the conquered territory when France declined to support them. In the capitulation document the Spanish asserted that this was not an acceptance of British sovereignty over the islands. The British colonists left West Falkland in 1776 but did not relinquish the territory and the harbours were used as refuges by sealers and whalers of many nationalities for over forty years until the newly independent United Provinces of South America (which would later become Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina, except Patagonia) retook the islands in 1823 and 1826 with British consent. When, in 1831, the new settlers seized US ships that were fishing near the islands Britain decided to reassert its sovereignty, sending a squadron from Rio to replace the Argentine flag with the Union flag in 1833. And there matters stood until 1982 although the loss of the islands drove Argentina to explore and populate Patagonia to prevent Britain acquiring more land in South America.

Welcome back, non-historians. Leaving the park along San Martin we found people offering to exchange money at the unofficial but legal ‘blue rate’ but they offered poor prices for our small denomination dollar bills. We went back to the apartment to collect some $100 bills which we could change at an acceptable rate before going to dine at the highly recommended local parillada El Establo. We endorse those recommendations after a courteous waiter accommodated our halting Spanish while serving delicious salad with the best steak of my life and a half bottle of the house red —a fine Malbec that would not be cheap in England. W had ordered a skewer of steak and chicken expecting something like a Turkish kebab so she was surprised to receive five fist-sized lumps of beef and some chicken on a spike the size of an epee.