Archive | November, 2011

A Pink House, a Colorful Neighborhood, and Countless Cool Buildings

29 Nov

Buenos Aires Part I

Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America,” is a mix of historical allure and metropolitan sophistication. Literally every single building in the city is of an interesting and unique architectural design in a range of architecture styles, from Spanish colonial to French art nouveau to modern highrise. I could have taken a picture of each building I saw and was only precluded from it because of the monstrosity of the city.

The pedestrian Florida Street - this picture makes it look like there were many people wandering about, but there really weren't.

My first order of business in Buenos Aires was exploring the historical hot spots. I set out on Florida Street, the downtown pedestrian street on which my hostel was situated.

The street was confusingly deserted despite being a Monday in a city of 3 million porteños (what Buenos Aires residents call themselves due to the city being a major port). I later found out this was due to it being the The Day of National Sovereignty, a pubic holiday honoring an 1845 battle between a small Argentine army and an Anglo-French navy fleet, the result of which, despite being an Argentine loss, had a great impact on its economic sovereignty from the European powers.

The May Pyramid in the Plaza de Mayo

After a few blocks traipsing down Florida Street, I hit Avenida de Mayo, a historical avenue that links the Congressional Plaza with the Plaza de Mayo. I headed in the direction of Plaza de Mayo, a square commemorating Argentina’s May Revolution, a coup in 1810 that created a new independent government in the province of Argentina and eventually led to the country’s independence from Spain in 1816. It is a very meaningful place in Argentinian history as it has been the site of Argentina’s most important political events over the years, both peaceful and violent – demonstrations, a bombing, celebrations, congregations, protests, and riots.

Casa Rosada, the "Pink House"

At the base of the plaza is Casa Rosada, the “Pink House,” which is Argentina’s White House, although Argentina’s president doesn’t actually live there. (She lives at the Quinta de Olivos in a suburb of Buenos Aires and takes a helicopter to work at the Pink House.)

The balcony of the Casa Rosada is famous as the spot where Eva Perón (affectionately nicknamed Evita), a cultural icon of Argentina known as one of the most important women in Argentinian history for her work with the poor and contributions to women’s rights as first lady of the country, addressed her adoring supporters.

Portrait of Eva Perón in the Casa Rosada museum

Her life has been made into a musical and an Oscar-nominated movie starring Madonna. After leaving the Casa Rosada, I was singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” for the rest of the day.

I continued walking for what seemed like forever across the abnormally empty city to the colorful streets of the La Boca neighborhood. In the 1800s, La Boca was a lively home to Italian and other European immigrants and artists and musicians.

A colorful building in La Boca

Today it retains its artistic flavor with its multicolored houses and street vendors selling vibrant paintings. It is also residence to the stadium where the Boca Juniors, Argentina’s esteemed football team, plays.

La Boca’s main street, Calle Caminito, is an electric yet romantic cobblestone alleyway of outdoor bars and restaurants with tango dancers in traditional costumes spinning each other around the al fresco tables. The buildings are a patchwork of loud primary colors and soft pastels. The street is musical and animated, radiant and vivacious.

The colorful Calle Caminito in La Boca

While the locals stayed off the streets in celebration of their holiday, the tourists thronged to Caminito. The crowds only added to the resounding energy of the street. I wound my way through the clusters of people, stopping to marvel at the vivid, expressive paintings for sale and finding myself inside a large courtyard mall of small shops selling brightly colored clothes and creative handicrafts. It was unlike me, but I was less piqued by the shops and more entertained by the ornate artistry of the mall. The courtyard was a piece of artwork itself with its cartoonish sculptures of people leaning over balconies and outlandish but comical murals.

The artistic courtyard in La Boca

I lunched in La Boca, then slowly made my way back to the center of Buenos Aires. My feet weren’t used to walking such long distances after weeks spent riding a truck around Africa, so as I neared the San Telmo neighborhood, I collapsed on a bench at Parque Lezuma. One of the best things about Latin American cities is that they are filled with parks and plazas, so that you never find yourself having to walk more than a few blocks without finding a bench on which to rest for a while.

Courtyard of Pasaje de la Defensa

San Telmo is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Its cobblestone streets are lined with antique furniture stores, art galleries, museums, cafes, restaurants, and bars, all in well-preserved colonial buildings.

Feet rested, I wandered through San Telmo, making a brief stop at the Pasaje de la Defensa, the late 1800s mansion of a prominent Buenos Aires family that has been converted into a shopping promenade surrounding its old courtyards. The shops were closed but it was still fun to be in the courtyards of an old family mansion, wondering what it was like to be part of a rich family in Buenos Aires in the colonial times.

The French neoclassical City Legislature building built in 1931

I continued my zigzag around San Telmo for a while, not even noticing when I entered Monserrat, completely absorbed with the architectural beauty of the old churches and cathedrals, university buildings, banks, and government structures. Monserrat is the oldest district in Buenos Aires and is now a neighborhood of financial and government buildings, including the French-influenced City Hall and City Legislature and the national executive office at Casa Rosada. I was back to where I started.

As I was scrutinizing my map to see if there were any important landmarks that I had missed, it got pelted with a few large raindrops. The clouds looked threatening, but I thought I’d chance it for a little while so I could continue admiring the architecture of the city’s historical center. Bad idea. Within two minutes the rain clouds exploded, and I booked it back to my hostel as quickly as my flip flops would take me, but not before my clothes were completely soaked through.

Me eating an inauthentic but delicious meal of California Mexican

The next day I caved and had lunch at California Burrito. I couldn’t resist, especially because my Hosteling International card gave me a 10% discount. (Of course, when I paid, I forgot to give them my card, so that turned out to be merely an excuse for my inauthentic food splurge.) It was just like eating at Chipotle and completely satisfied the Mexican food craving I had in Africa that went unfulfilled.

The facade of Teatro Colón, stretching from one end to the other of an entire city block

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the neighborhood of my hostel. The streets were more crowded than the day before, but not in an overwhelming way. I took a pleasant jaunt down Florida Street, checking out the vendors selling clothes, jewelry, perfume, purses, belts, hats, knick knacks, handicrafts, and artwork on large mats in the middle of the stone promenade.

The streets intersecting and surrounding Florida Street contain long blocks of splendorous shopping opportunities. I perused the department stores, electronics shops, perfume galleries, clothing boutiques, home wares emporiums, and farmacias of the shopping district before undertaking a historical architecture tour of the neighborhood.

The Obelisk

I first walked around the perimeter – an entire city block – of the Teatro Colón, a grand opera house built in 1908 in an Italian style with a touch of French. A few blocks away is the columned and arched French-styled Palace of Justice, seat of the Supreme Court of Argentina. The blocks stretching out from the nearby Plaza de la República contain countless buildings of interesting architectural pasts.

Finally, I stood in the Plaza de la República looking to the cloudless blue sky from the base of the Obelisk, a tall and narrow tapered monument built in 1936 where the Argentine flag was hoisted for the first time.

Tonight I am early to bed because I have to catch a morning ferry to Uruguay!

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