April 8th, 2015


San Telmo and La Boca

W wanted to visit the barrios of San Telmo (to see the tango dancers in Plaza Dorrego) and La Boca (to see Caminito and La Bombonera football stadium) but everyone warned us that there were dangerous levels of crime in La Boca outside the few tourist streets of Caminito. Several people had warned against using public transport to get there because buses occasionally stopped short and walking in the streets was hazardous and we did not want the commitment of a full city bus tour. We decided to start with a walk to San Telmo and defer any decision about the afternoon.

We followed our previous walking route along Calle Reconquista; the busy urban street that leads to the Plaza de Mayo. This time the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace) looked much more attractive in the morning sun. Whereas we had turned west from the square for our visit to Recoleta, today we continued south towards the Feria de San Pedro Telmo. The streets in this district were narrow and the pavements so neglected that we had to watch every step to avoid stumbling. Watching the pavement and staying wary of pickpockets prevented us from looking at the architecture as we walked so we stopped frequently to look around at the little shops, café bars, and old office buildings. One little shop had its window filled with padlocks and other security devices. We went in and found it deserted. It seemed unwise to rob a security shop so we waited for the proprietor to emerge from the rear. He was friendly and remained helpful even when we spent less than £2 on a tiny brass padlock, which he checked thoroughly and assisted W to test its fit on the zipper tags of her backpack. With her bag secure we could now worry less about thieves.

We liked the amiable scruffiness of Calle Defensa as we walked south into the heart of San Telmo but most of the shops and cafes looked well kept even if the edifices above them seemed faded. We found a corner café for lunch. There were a couple of tables on the street but the interior looked more rewarding so we sat just inside the door. The décor of Cafeteria Minutas had the same rough charm as the street outside and we were served by a grinning portly fellow. Near us four blue collar men were sharing a table and a cheerful conversation while a lone artist at the window drew a couple of charcoal sketches of other diners and gave them away as he completed each one. It was clear from his beneficiaries' responses that he was a stranger to them and each gift generated warm pleasure and happy smiles from all who noticed the transaction.

I ordered picadas and an empanada with a glass of red wine. The wine came as a third of a bottle in a steel jug. It was rich and rounded. The picadas were laid out on a platter edged with a ring of slices of fresh white bread. In the middle were clusters of olives, and cubes of cheese, ham, and spiced sausage with about half a dozen cocktail sticks. W had a few pieces and I wolfed the rest before turning to my beef empanada. Empanadas are a ubiquitous snack throughout Latin America with regional variations. Essentially they are pasties with a bewildering array of fillings. And in some places they are fried rather than baked. In Buenos Aires they are baked and there is a wide range of fillings. W chose the ham with cheese.

We were only a block from Plaza Dorrego and beyond that we could see the raised urban motorway Autopista 25 de Mayo. The Plaza is a broad tree-lined square surrounded by nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings about six stories high. At street level the buildings are occupied by antique shops, bars, and cafes and the square is filled with parasols shaded tables and chairs served by these establishments. It is famous for its musicians and tango dancers but none were to be seen on this bright Wednesday afternoon.

We kept walking south for another block then turned east for a block along Avenida San Juan. Across the road stood the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, which also seems to identify as Museo de Arte Contemperaneo de Buenos Aires; could this be a way of hedging bets on whether 'modern art' is contemporary or modernist? Turning left again took us north into Calle Balcarce, a tree-lined street with few shops. On the corner was an old school that appeared to be occupied by squatters who had decorated the external walls with murals. The narrow cobbled street was picturesque and we enjoyed the colours and architectural features of its buildings. Opposite the end of the street was a white wall bearing a painting of Santa saying “It's me, David Lynch” to a reindeer; Could this be the real reason for Lynch's withdrawl from the Twin Peaks remake?

Further north we sat on some steps in the shade of some trees to discuss our plans for the rest of the day. We still wanted to see the brightly painted buildings of Caminito. We decided to ask a taxi to take us into La Boca, past Caminito, and round the football stadium. It took us a little while to flag down a radio taxi (the most reliable kind) and, although it was easy to explain that we wanted to go to Caminito, it was harder to communicate that we wanted simply to see it and would like to return to the city centre afterwards. La Boca did look rough as we drove past the docks and it became clear why the driver had had such difficulty understanding our request when we found that the few streets around Caminito were pedestrianised. The driver agreed to wait ten minutes while we had a look around. The painted buildings were interesting but the area was crowded with tourist attractions: tango dancers in cheap costumes offered photo opportunities alongside unconvincing Maradona impersonators. They were also giving tango lessons on the street. There were stalls offering jewellery and garish paintings but behind them were yarn-bombed trees and authentic painted bas reliefs from the early development of the street in the 1950s and 1960s. There was an energetic party atmosphere and we were glad to have had the experience. Back in the cab our driver took us through impoverished streets to La Bombonera football stadium. The distinctive blue and yellow of Boca Juniors football club was ubiquitous and the stadium sat alongside housing much like old baseball grounds and English football grounds once did. The taxi took us right back to our apartment. When we tried to tip him the driver assumed that we had made a mistake and tried to return some money; we had offered him less than a pound on an £8 fare.

On our previous visit to El Establo restaurant we had found it fairly quiet at about 2000. Arriving an hour later we were confronted with a nearly full house. Our former waiter greeted us and directed us towards the back of the building where one of his colleagues seated us at the only remaining empty table. Or we thought it was the back of the building: in fact it was the middle because the place had two fronts, of which the other had a long double sided bar with a stainless steel parilla at one end and a few tables beyond the bar alongside the windows to the other street. This parilla was a very different animal to the rustic version that we had seen in Uruguay and this cook had an assistant.

W had learnt from the portion sizes of our previous visit and ordered just half a serving of bife de chorizo but I still went for the whole thing. Last time I had had the bife de lomo; a fillet that is the choicest cut but deprecated by some because of its delicate flavour. Bife de chorizo is sirloin; big, juicy, tasty sirloin. It was a treat. But before we got to the meat we had salad and beer. Lots of beer. They had no amber ales in stock so I chose the draft local lager. Quilmes is by far the most popular brewer in Argentina. Based in Buenos Aires, its products are everywhere but, to the continuing dismay of Argentinians, it has been owned by the Brazilian subsidiary of the Belgian multinational AB InBev (the world's largest brewer) since 2002. A one-litre mug is a very big heavy thing but the Cristal lager was of such light flavour that it was very easy drinking.

Before we left I sought out the maitre d' to praise everything about our experiences and to share our delight in his staff and the cooks. We were within hearing of the cooks and, although my Spanish was rudimentary, I could tell that they liked the sentiment.

Back at the apartment we did most of our packing ready for our morning departure leaving only the wash bags and our charging electrical devices to add to our bags.