The musical Evita starring pop diva Madonna, the passionate Tango to which Carlos Saura paid tribute with his eponymous film, and, of course, football legend Diego Maradona — Argentina conjured these images for me.
And when I actually stood in front of Casa Rosada, the seat of government with its pink façade at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, it felt rather unreal.
Buenos Aires or place of good air... that’s how the Spaniards named the future Argentinean capital when they arrived by the Atlantic Ocean, and sailed up the Rio de La Plata river (‘river of silver’).
Though greatly influenced by French and Spanish culture, the city has a certain languor that makes it at once European and South American. Exploring its wide avenidas (avenues), skirted by ornate colonial buildings, is made pleasurable by the warm greetings and ready Gracias from the people.
Not for nothing is it called the ‘Paris of South America’. Numerous museums, heritage buildings, cafes and theatres (including the historic Colon Theatre) dot its cultural map.
Visiting the Museo Evita, dedicated to Argentina’s legendary figure Eva Peron, ranked high on my agenda. Actress, social activist and wife of the late President Juan Peron (1946-55), her admirers affectionately called her Evita or ‘little Eva’.
Fifty years after her death, the museum was inaugurated in 2002 with the tagline “Mi vida, mi mission, mi destino” (My life, my mission, my destiny).
Located in the fashionable Palermo area, the museum brings alive the memory of the extraordinary woman through memorabilia.
It attracts thousands of visitors each year. The hotel and theatre on Calle Corrientes — the Broadway of Buenos Aires — where she stayed and performed are landmarks too.
Calle Corrientes (calle means street) with its Obelisk at the centre of the city is also where portenos (local people) congregate to discuss the latest news, from political imbroglios to the newest Tango show.
From the tourist information office near Calle Florida, hop-on-hop-off buses leave every half-hour — a convenient way to explore the interestingly spread out city. Moreover, the guides speak English, which is an added attraction. Spanish is what you’ll hear elsewhere in this region, so it would be a good idea to learn a few useful phrases before heading here.
Hopping down at La Boca area, I found a vibrant locality sprawled on the riverside. On the way, we had passed the huge ‘La Bombonera’ stadium of the Boca Junior Club, where Maradona played.
When Argentina was opening up to the outside world, La Boca was where poor immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Syria arrived by the river’s mouth (boca in Spanish). They stayed in coventillos (communal houses). Italians dominated and even the Boca Junior Club was their initiative, according to records.
Today the area has developed into a tourist destination. The most famous and colourful part is ‘Caminito’ (little path). Apparently, the migrants were so poor that they painted their houses with whatever colour was available on the ships. This resulted in a chiaroscuro of colourful façades. The current authorities have retained that ambience.
At the memento shops choc-a-bloc with mugs and flags bearing the Boca Junior blue and gold emblem, suddenly strains of Tango music wafted in. Following the sound, I came upon lively shows of Tango and local Gaucho folk dances put up by restaurants to attract customers, some of whom ended up learning the steps.
Tango, of course, is the heartbeat of Buenos Aires, the birthplace of this dance form. Every other restaurant advertises a Tango show along with the food. Many places offer to teach it too.
Later, in the afternoon, I joined the crowd heading to Calle Florida — a pedestrians-only street that ends at the famous Galeria Pacifico shopping mall. With its art-deco ceiling, frescoes, statues and beautiful Tango shows on TV screens, the mall is more like an art gallery. Vibrant with shoppers, tourists and vendors of colourful beads and kitschy mementoes, the street echoes with the strains of music as bands, mainly composed of young students or freelance musicians, perform to earn a few pesos. In a holiday mood, I had time to stand and stare — soaking in the atmosphere, listening to the music, and enjoying local food.
Café culture is big in this city. At the iconic Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo, which is in business since 1858, I revelled in the heritage décor and could easily imagine the hotbed of social and political discussions it once used to be, thriving as a hub for intellectuals, rebels, et al.
The ambience at Las Violetas café is completely different, though it’s equally old (dating back to 1884). Its mauve décor, pyramids of cakes and pastries, and a sunny atmosphere greeted me as I got off the equally historic subway from Peru station, near Plaza de Mayo, which retains its wooden carriages of yore.
On Sundays, the San Telmo antique market in the old part of the city is a must-see. Shops at the cobblestoned square overflow with old books, curios, silver jewellery and glassware, while Tango dancers perform on the street. At night, the square becomes a veritable open-air food court with music and folk dances topping it all. Try the fish here —it’s the best.
Visitors take back many unique memories of the city. Such as a graceful bridge at the Puerto Madero dockside that is named ‘Woman’s Bridge’, and every street in the area named after an outstanding Latin American woman. Warm ties are forged too, such as an old cab driver who talked admiringly about Gandhi and Nehru after coming to know I was from India.