Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tango Town (16-21 March 2011, Days 97-102 of 127)

With 13.8 million people, Buenos Aires (Est 1536) is far from being a town but it is certainly the capital of Tango!

Buenos Aires is known as the "New York" of South America... a city that never sleeps! More on this grand city in a second. First it is off to the lakeside ski town of Bariloche at the top of Argentinian Patagonia!

Our journey from the Ancud hotel door in Chile to the one in Bariloche Argentina took 11.5hrs - 9hrs on the bus and the rest at the border.

We left Ancud on 16MAR at 10am in rain and arrived in Bariloche at 10pm to a freezing moonlit night. It rained most of the way but we could still make out the dramatic pine forest and glacier lake scenery along the way.

Bariloche (Pop 100,000. Elev 894m) is very reminiscent of any ski town in Switzerland, especially Lausanne given its goegraphy and position on Lago Nahuel Huapi.

All its buildings are built of stone and wood with steeply pitched roofs and every second shop sells chocolates or is a fondue restaurant - how more Swiss can you get?

The morning after our arrival I went on a lakeside jog - probably the coldest one after Antarctica - I had to wear a thermal top! The wind was howling and the lake dominated by white crested waves but the sun was out and clouds parting! I then walked to the central plaza and lakeside beach. The wind was still up but the photos magic. The tourist office gave me a map of the town and surrounds and told me that the cable car to the top of "Cerro Otto (1,600m)" was closed due to the high wind.

There was not enough time for me to visit the more distant "Cerro Campanario" with weather-proof lift and make my 3:30pm flight to Buenos Aires. I discovered that a dirt road went up to Cerro Otto so I caught a taxi which took me up there with myriads of photos along the way and the top. The views were breathtaking and the sun stayed with me. Bariloche is one of many towns around an intricate lake system, fed by many mountain glaciers which are also covered in pines. It was good to see trees on mountains at last!

Once back in town I relaxed with a cappacino before heading back to the hotel. At 1:30pm it was off to the airport with Maureen to fly to Buenos Aires in 2hrs versus 20hrs on the bus with our group the next day. I had to go one day earlier since I was told that my Brazilian VISA could take up to 3 working days and I wanted to leave Buenos Aires with my group. Maureen flew because she was over long bus trips and her legs swelled up! A total of six hours passed from the hotel door in Bariloche to the one in Buenos Aires.

It was love at first sight! First impressions was that Buenos Aires is architectualy a "European Salad" with influences from Madrid, Paris, Barcelona and even Lisbon.

The city boulevards are huge with Paris style 8-storey apartments, side-by-side, fronted with big leafy green trees with cafes down below. The orange of the setting sun lit up the facades like faces in front of a fire place. The place was buzzing with people and cars.

Our taxi took us through Recoleta, the ritzy part of town to our 4 star hotel. We were in paradise. The hotel in Recoleta had stuffed up our room booking so they cabbed us to another of their chain in San Telmo, the Steak and Tango part of town. That evening we had our first huge steak, a "butterlied" thick New York cut. It was around 400g and fabulous and only 15AUD but Meat & Wine Co in Melbourne still tastes better! We also enjoyed the best house cut chips to date and two terrific 16AUD bottles of 2007 Chardonnays from Mendoza. Heaven.

Fri 18MAR was my big day. I was up at 6:45am and cabbed it to the Brazilian Consulate to meet Gary at 8:30am, the Intrepid manager for Buenos Aires. We the first in line when the consulate opened at 9am and I nearly fell over backwards when the tough old bird behind the counter told me to be back at noon on Mon 21MAR to collect my VISA. Incredible. Both Gary and I were expecting to be told Tue or even Wed. We both agree that the following made the difference: 1) I had a recently expried Brazilian VISA to show her, 2) we were the first in line (she had an appointment sheet which I could not access online but none of these people were there yet, so she HAD to see us!), 3) all my paperwork was completed and 4) Gary's excellent Spanish and the fact that he vouched for me as an Intrepid customer who had to leave town on Tue morning. Suffice to say I was immensely releaved and elated. I took Gary for a coffee and we talked about his background and Intrepid. I offered to give him some constructive feedback in return. Another potential drama resolved!

I was then off to see the city with my new-found enthusiasm. I walked down the middle of "Avenida 9 De Julio", officially the widest boulevard in the world - it is made up of 4 parallel streets, next to each other, totalling 16 lanes with a strip garden in the centre. This grand boulevard is lined with huge units, commercial buildings and flashy billboards.

After passing "Teatro Colon (Opera House)" I arrived at the landmark "Obelisco (Obelisk)" celebrating the 400th birthday of the city.

From here it was a short walk to the majestic "Avenida De Mayo" to "Plaza Del Congresso". Avenida De Mayo has the best looking buildings in the city. My neck was cramped from the constant "looking up" at the many styles of roof, balcony, window and decorations. I then decided to walk on the road to capture the full impact of these grand buildings.

Finally I arrived at the National Congress which is modelled on and looks like the one in Washington DC. It is fronted by a grand fountain and monument, whose steps symbolise the Andes.

From here it was back to Av 9 De Julio via Rivadavia and I walked the other side of Av De Mayo all the way to the main Cathedral and "Casa Rosada (Pink Palace)" or Presidential Palace on "Plaza De Mayo".

The Palace is in fact pink and was made famous by the many speeches that Eva Peron made from its central balcony.

The Cathedral facade looks like a brand new Acropolis and inside is the very impressive, Napoleanic style coffin and monument to General San Martin who was key in commanding the local troops that led to the demise of the Spanish and independence in all of South America.

I then walked past some of the oldest buildings in the city to arrive back at the hotel around 4pm. In fact, many of the old, large grand mansions in San Telmo are being restored and made into hotels or offices.

My first run in Buenos Aires was along the wharf area past "Puerto Madero", the newest barrio and very much like the King Street wharf precinct in Sydney. The best restaurants in the city are along the docks, complete with valet service and for the first time I saw fine motor cars in South America.

When I got back, Maureen and I enjoyed a few cold beers and some cheese before being picked up for our grand Tango dinner show in the San Telmo area.

The venue is much like the state theatre in Sydney, Very decorative, lots of velour and huge chandeliers.

For 75AUD we got a three-course dinner (including thick steak), unlimited beer/wine, a spectacular 2hr Tango show and a 45min Tango lesson! The food was good and the show was dazzling. The music and movements were to die for,

There were legs flying everywhere and the speed of the dancing was awesome. It was a fantastic night. So much so that I could not remember how I got home. According to Maureeen, I sang in the lobby with some of the dancers, bought a CD, tangoed from the bus to our room and ate half a Panatoni - none of which I could remember!

Sat 19MAR was a day full of surprises. The day started with Maureen and I moving to our Intrepid hotel. I then set out at 11:30am to discover the commercial and retail side of the city.

"Avenida Florida" is the main pedestrian and retail "Pitt St Mall" style street only 10 times longer! It is bustling with people, stalls and even buskers.

Another iconic street is "Roque Saenz Pena", a diagonal boulevarde of 6 lanes connecting the Obelisk with the Cathedral. Iconic because it is lined with massive grand old buildings that remind you of Madrid or even the Champs Elysee in Paris.

The excitement then began when I passed a small Tourist Office on Avenida Corrientes (another important and main thoroughfare).

I was not going to stop but I thought - what the heck - I may as well ask the question: "Where did Aristole Onassis live when he was in Buenos Aires".

The lady behind the counter, Gabriella was interested! After googling in Spanish we discovered that Onassis had arrived in the city on 7 September 1923 and shared a one bedroom hostel room in a building on the corner of the Obelisk intersection on Corrientes. This tourist office was 10m from this corner. Gabriella pointed to the oldest of the four buildings with McDonalds at the bottom!

Onassis had arrived in the city with only USD60 in his pocket. To make it last he slept in the bed during the day (since he first worked as a telephone operator at night) whilst his room mate slept in the same bed at night! You may laugh but this guy was worth USD6billion by 1955.

I then asked Gabriella if she knew anyone old that could tell us where Onassis lived most of his time. Gabriella then told me that she was part Greek and she called up her 80 yr old uncle, Metodio Spanos to see what he knew. Much to our surprise he called back 10min later to inform us that an old card playing mate of his had the address: Miller 2045 in Villa Urquiza (between Juramento and Echeverria Streets). This was approx 8km from the tourist office near the end of the Metro B Line. I left immediately.

After 20min on the metro I alighted at the last stop "Los Incas" and caught a cab to the fabled address. There was a new house there and the suburb was nice with tree lined streets. As I was taking photos a 50-55 yr old looking guy came out and spoke to me in Spanish. I then tried to explain that his house was the site of Onassis home and on hearing the name Onassis he declared that he was Greek! Can you believe it! What are the chances of this? We then broke out in Greek.

His name was John Cassimatis, born in Argentina of Greek parents and he then called his mother Marina to the door. In typical Greek friendly style, I was instantly invited to lunch which I had to turn down since the taxi driver was waiting to take me back to the station. John and Marina could not validate the Onassis story but explained that John's grandfather had bought the block back before WWII. They then gave me the address of the Greek Orthodox Cathedrall close to the city. What a story - I never thought in my wildest dreams I would track down the Onassis address!!!

I then caught the metro back to the centre and continued my journey down Florida Avenue. After visiting the ritzy "Galeria Pacifico" shopping centre I arrived at "Plaza Libertador General San Martin", a huge park sourrounded by the 5 star hotel chains, complete with a huge statue of the General.

After a pleasant stroll through the park, I ended up at the main "Estacion Retiro" railway station. Much to my surprise I discovered a cafe restaurant inside the station that looked like it had been built in Paris in WWI. All wooden interior, huge ceilings with massive chandaliers and a wrap-around internal balcony. It was a gem. I even had time to meet the owner. I then took the metro back to the hotel. After my afternoon docklands run, Maureen and I then had our traditional pre-dinner drinks, cheese and olives, this time with a bottle of 2008 Cab Sav Reserva. Dinner was a 20min walk down the lovely Av De Mayo to a little neighbourhood famous for its Parillas (steak houses). This place was old with 60+ male waiters dressed in suits. Given this amazing Onassis day, I ordered the Argentinian equivalent of souvlaki and enjoyed some more 2007 Chardonnay from Mendoza.
 Sunday 20MAR was another Greek day for me. Thanks to John and Marina, I knew the location of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Palermo, a park covered, yuppie barillo of all places.

I made the start of Othros (Matins) at 9:30am with the Liturgy going from 10:30am-12:30pm. Services are late here because everyone goes out to very late on Sat nights. The Cathedral is located inside a small compound that features a hall and outdoor stage. The Cathedral is small and called the "Dormition of the Virgin Mary". I met Fr John Argiris and Chanter George on my arrival and both filled me in on Greeks and Orthodoxy in South America after the service - refer "GREEKS IN SOUTH AMERICA" below. The service was in Greek and Spanish. The order of service and melodies are the same as in Australia but it weird to hear the Spanish. Even the Gospel, Creed and Lord's Prayer were in Greek and Spanish. Both the priest and chanter knew some English but the parishiners in general spoke mainly Spanish.

I then walked to "Plaza Palermo Vieja" which was lined with trendy cafes, hip restaurants and art stalls around the park.

After a nice strong coffee I headed up through tree-lined streets full of posh apartments and corner cafes and ice cream shops till I arrived at "Jardin Botanica Carlos Thays". This was great - very thick with greenery, lots of varieties of trees, plants and flowers and wonderfully cool - the day was blue sky and close to 28C.

Next stop was the "Museo Evita" or the Eva Peron Musuem - a fascinating place chronicalling her complete life story in pictures and film - refer "EVA PERON STORY" below.

It was then a short tree-lined walk to "Jardin Japones" which is a replica of the types of "tranquil" water-based gardens you would see in Japan.

Across the road is the "Parcque De Febrero" featuring a lake with paddle boats and the "Rosedal" or massive Rose Garden. This place is like Cenntenial Park, full of people on a Sunday, walking, bike riding, picnicing, roller skating and jogging. They even had live bands going.

From here I walked to the Palermo Metro and by 4:30pm I was back at the hotel. My legs were on fire. Equipped with beer and olives I spent the rest of the arvo writing this blog. Chandon Extra Brut Champagne (only 11AUD - normally 24AUD in Oz!), tuna and lentils with cable movies was just what I needed that night to celebrate what turned out to be a great day.

My last day (Mon 21MAR) in Buenos Aires was even greater. I got my passport back complete with second Brazilian VISA!!! The saga was over.

This happened at noon but before then I went for run at 7:30am and left the hotel at 9:15am to visit Eva Peron (Evita) at the the famous Recoleta Cemetery. Recoleta is the posh suburb (like Double Bay in Sydney) and this cemetery is only for the rich and famous.

Finding Evita was easy, thanks to the directory at the gate. She is buried in vault number 57 with her parents and siblings hence the title "Familia Duarte" (maiden name) above the vault. Her husband is buried elsewhere at Museo Quinta in Buenos Aires.

The steel and glass door to the vault has a small hole in one spot where you can insert your camera lense and take a photo of her casket inside - refer my photo in this blog. The vault next to hers is for sale if you are interested. I kid you not, but the owner can be contacted at dsabelli@hotmail.com. Talk about a mercinary!

I then walked extensively around Recoleta, soaking in the boutique shops, professional dog walkers (some have up to 10 dogs!!!), hundreds of salons and little old women with boofon hair does.

I had a great cup of coffee next to the Bulgarian Embassy before picking up my passport from the Brazilian Consulate, just around the corner. I was so happy to have my passport and Brazil in my pocket, knowing that my trip would not be stuffed up!

I then caught the metro down to San Telmo and walked to "Plaza Dorrego" which was my favourite. It is small, covered in trees and features tango dances. I saw one and filmed it in black and white - great look.

Next stop was "Parque Lezama" where on Sundays little old guys play chess. Being a Monday, no chess but lots of people lazing aorund.

The walk from here to "Caminito" in La Boca barrio was long and hot. By this time it was 2:30pm, blue skies but close to 30C. La Boca was first settled by Italian immigrants from Genoa back in the 1950s. Today it is a dive. Even the pastel coloured houses of Caminito were very ordinary and the place is way too touristy. I stayed 15min and caught a cab back to the metro. I was glad to put my feet up to a cold beer and blog back at the hotel at 4pm.

All in all, Buenos Aires turned out to be everything the guide book and our tour guides said it would be. It will be interesting to see if Sao Paulo or Rio can top it!

NEXT BLOG: covers Uruguay due 26MAR.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Incredible thanks to Gabriella and her uncle Metodio for helping me track down the first two abodes of the most famous Greek of Buenos Aires - Aristole Onassis. 2) Pleasure meeting John and Marina Cassimatis - current owners of Miller 2045! 3) Thanks to Fr John and Chanter George for the enlightening rundown of Greeks in South America.

GREEKS IN SOUTH AMERICA: 1) There are approx 100,000 Greeks in all of South America with 40,000 in Brazil and 30,000 in Argentina. 2) Most came after WWI since Argentina's economy was very bad post WWII, most immigrants chose USA, Australia and Canada instead. 3) There are approx 45 Greek Orthodox churches in South America with 25 in Brazil (mainly Sao Paulo) and 10 in Argentina (5 in Buenos Aires). 4) There are 23 Greek Orthodox priests in South America with 13 in Brazil and 7 in Argentina. 5) The "Coliva" or boiled wheat commemorating the dead even tasted the same as in Oz!

EVA PERON STORY: 1) Born Maria Duarte in Los Toldos on 7 May 1919. One of five children. 2) Dad died 1926 and was Eva was raised by her very strict mum. 3) Shot to fame as an actress from 1934-1945. 4) Married General Juan Domingo Peron on 22 October 1945 who went on to become a three-term President of Argentina from 1946-1955. 5) Married name was Maria Eva Duarte De Peron. 6) As first lady, Eva Peron fought for womens rights followed by workers rights and became President of the Workers Union Party. 7) On 23 September 1947 a key act was passed recognising equal rights for women - this made her especially popular and she became an icon of women going by the name "Evita". 8) From 1948-1951 Evita made incredible reforms in childrens health and aged care, all by influence and never did she hold any official office in Government. In fact oone of her most famous speeches was in 1951 when she turned down the offer of the Vice Presidential ticket along side her husband. 9) She died of cancer at 8:25pm on 26 July 1952 at age 33. A 14-day wake followed with over 2 million people at her funeral - probably the longest wake and biggest funeral of any person in history. 10) Fearing a revolution, the military buried her body under a false name in Milan Italy. Her remains were given back to her sister in 1974 with subsequent burial in the Recoleta Cemetery in 1976.