Sunday, 23 February 2014

South American Adventure - Day Three, Saturday 22nd February 2014

After a good nights sleep, we were awake well in time for our full days walking tour of Buenos Aires.  We decided to have a recce of the area, and go and get a coffee and some breakfast.  We walked down the street and came across a McCafe.  There was a distinct absence of any other coffee shops so we had a latte and muffin – that really was a latte and muffin.  Brits abroad!!

Ceri met us at 10.00am – our tour guide for the day from BuenosTours.  He was born in Canada of British parents with a Welsh name and now lives in Argentina, so there was no language barrier.  He spoke perfect Spanish, and because he has lived in the city for around eight years, knew it like the back of his hand.  The first job we had to do was to exchange some money on the “blue” market.  The hard currency here is dollars, and we got 11.4 to the dollar as opposed to the 7.8 on the official market.  This, apparently, is the way everyone works.  Inflation is quite high, and the peso is not a good currency to have.  The dollar is worth a lot more.  We had been warned of changing money on the streets, as you may get fake notes, but when you are with a local it seemed very safe to do so.  The government taxes everything that comes in to the country over and above a very nominal allowance, so it is also hard to get anything here.  What is available in the shops is very expensive, like mobile phones, and if you order one from another country the government looks at it and decides how much tax you should pay on it – often then making it not worth getting.  This apparently was the thinking behind putting the mobile phone make and model on the paper – but as we were told the idea and the reality are two different things.  Nobody has their immigration form taken from them as this was the idea and the reality was nobody wants to do anything with it.

We then got in a taxi to start our tour in the oldest part of the city – San Telmo.  On the way we passed the “Pink House” which is a bit like the White House in the USA, but the president doesn’t actually live here.  There was a large statue of Christopher Columbus at the back of it, that was all in pieces over the ground.  The present president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, decided that it had to come down.  This was an unpopular choice, and as soon as the pieces hit the ground the Governor of Buenos Aires declared it property of the City and there it still is.  We heard about the history of when the British were here, and then the Spanish, and how they fought for independence.  The streets in this part are cobbled and very narrow, and not particularly well kept.  The buildings were ornate, if not a little unloved.  We passed the San Telmo markets that are on at the weekend, where tourists and locals alike shop.  There are many monuments to various generals, and some of the buildings are absolutely magnificent.  Next to them were newer buildings that were downright ugly.  We stopped for a coffee and croissant in a typical café and sat at the table Ceri took us to.  “This is the exact table that the pope used to sit at every day to have a coffee before he went to the Cathedral where he was Arch Bishop before he moved to the Vatican” says Ceri.  Paul was sitting on “the chair”.  That gave a slightly different perspective to the morning coffee!  It was a fantastic place, with tango music playing in the background.

We passed a church that still had cannon balls embedded in one of the towers, although I think they must be replicas because if they were originals the tower wouldn’t still be standing.  Again, it was when they were fighting the British.  We then walked around the square in front of the Pink House – this is where protests about various things happen just about every day.  There is a permanent protest about the Malvinas (Falklands) and a police presence all around.  But everything was peaceful, and apparently usually is.  The Pink House was made famous by Eva Peron, and we saw the balcony where she and her husband made many of their speeches.  The most famous one, the “Don’t cry for me Argentina” one was made from there in the film, but not in real life.  Just made it easier to say it was!  Just down the road was the Cathedral, where we stopped for a short while to have a look.  It was a lovely building, with the body of General San Martin in a mausoleum down the right side aisle guarded by two soldiers.  There was a changing of the guard whilst we were there.  The new guards come marching in with tourists scattering to either side of them.  If one of the tourist doesn’t notice them coming, or gets in their way, they just march on the spot until the way is clear.  Quite amusing.  On the other side down the left hand aisle is a board filled with Jewish writing – one of the things that has shown how moderate the present pope is, and probably helped him to get his present job!  There are not any other Catholic places of worship that allow other religions in.  The cathedral has been rebuilt six times for various reasons, which is why it looks in such good shape I think!  The roads now are wide, as are the pavements, and the buildings are in a completely different style.  We had a quick look in the famous Café Tortoni – there was a queue to get in for overpriced coffee and not so good food we are told - but it looks good!  I much preferred to have sat on the Pope’s seat anyway.

We then went a few stops on the underground – the British designed it and the Irish built it.  We were even entertained by buskers actually on the train.  Very cheap – about 25p.  Much cheaper than the London version!  We then were back around the park outside our hotel where we had walked this morning.  There was the most enormous rubber tree in middle, with metal supports holding up its gargantuan branches.  These trees are very common in Argentina – the Gauchos used them for cover.  There are a couple of statues here, and in the distance a clock tower that was originally called the Tower of the English.  After the Falklands war it was renamed the Monumental Tower, and a memorial to the Argentinian dead was erected facing it. 

We then walked past a very grand house (we had walked past a few, but I can’t now remember which family owned what, but La Paz was one of them) that once had a very good view.  Apparently, the daughter of one house was going to marry the son of another wealthy family, but his father told him he would disinherit him if he did.  He shrugged his shoulders and married someone else to keep the money.  The daughter then built a huge building in the front his one, so that he couldn’t have any view anymore – a woman scorned etc…  We walked down into the Recoleta District, which is the new “Chelsea” of around here.  Full of art galleries and very grand houses – this is where the rich and famous now live.  We had lunch in a little restaurant that is famed for its pasties – who said they originated from Cornwall?  They were delicious.  And it was accompanied by a Penguin of wine.  No – I’m not drunk or seeing things.  The wine here doesn’t come in a carafe, it comes in a Penguin.  Neat!!

The next stop was up to the Cemetery of Recoleta.  The poor used to bury their dead here, but when it was decided that this was going to be the cemetery for the rich, the poor were “politely asked to go away”!  This, we were told, was not like any other cemetery you have ever seen.  A cemetery is a cemetery I thought.  No.  It was a cemetery like I had never seen.  Space is sold here, and there are rows and rows of mausoleums.  Some very large, some very small, but the whole thing is like a town with streets and houses on either side.  Many of the generals and famous people have a spot here – anyone that wants to buy a plot and build what ever they would like to be buried in.  Many are made of marble, some a brick, some have stained glass windows, some have seats inside, and some have coffins!  Not buried at all.  The whole family can go in as long as there is room – so the deeper you bury them the more you can get in.  Some have servants buried with them – well, outside the mausoleum but within the confines of the plot.  Even in death they have their rightful place!  The stories that come with some of these were amazing – something you don’t get out of a guidebook.  Then we came to Eva Peron – who was buried under her family name of Duarte.  Shortly after she died her husband, the president, was overthrown by a military coup, so the body had to be hidden.  It had been taken to Milan, and buried there for fifteen years under an assumed name.  Juan Peron had fled the country, but in 1973 came out of exile and was elected president again.  He had the body exhumed, and was then taken to La Recoleta cemetery and buried in the Duarte family plot.  This is one of the most popular mausoleums in the cemetery.  There are constantly flowers left on the front of the gates to the entrance.  Above one of the mausoleums was a satellite dish – perhaps some of the living relatives like to watch the football whilst visiting the dearly departed!  It really is a surreal place – you just don’t imagine that you are walking amongst rows and rows of dead people.  Some of the stories we were told involved tragic deaths and ghosts.  Yeah right!  Wouldn’t like to be here after dark though!

From here, we went to a lovely ice cream parlour and tried some of the rows and rows of flavours that they have.  Very refreshing!  This brought our tour to an end.  What a fantastic way to have seen this city.  It is the best way to have seen the city, and to have experienced it both as a tourist and a local.  We were probably about a mile from our hotel, so we retraced our steps and got back to the hotel at around 6.30pm having walked around eight miles during the day.  Not once did we feel threatened or intimidated, but we had been warned to not show any jewellery or phones.  Just sensible precautions in a place where pick pockets and thieves operate – as in most large cities.

A shower and change and we were ready to go to the Dinner and Tango Show – when in Buenos Aires…  The Esquina Carlos Gardel in supposed to be one of the better shows – and there are quite a few.  This one includes transfers from the hotel – the venue was around twenty minutes in an area of Buenos Aires that we hadn’t been earlier on in the day.  We passed lots of bars and clubs – it was Saturday night and was quite busy.  We were shown in and to the table – a lovely table at the front of the “dress circle”.  We were given champagne and the menu – very civilised.  The bottom tier was rows and rows of long tables and people were packed in.  I much preferred where we were – but we had paid for the VIP section (as one does when backpacking as we are!).  The menu looked good, but I had read reviews that the food was only OK.  It was OK.  Nothing special, although the steak that I had must have been five inches thick.  The wine was poured freely - not bad either.  A film was being played on a large screen with the history of the Argentine Tango – quite a history because it took over half an hour.  Spanish with English subtitles – although some of it was miss spelt and lost in translation.

We were then invited to have our photo taken with a couple of the tango dancers – and then in the tango position ourselves.  I could just imagine Craig Revel Horwood saying “yours arms are hopeless darling”!  I somehow don’t think we will be purchasing that keepsake.  The show started soon after that, and was very pleasant.  It was about an hour and a half of various dancers, and a male and a female singer.  I looked over at Paul and could see that he was riveted – not!  Oh dear – it was a long and busy day and this was not the way he would have liked to have finished it.  Was it worth the money – probably not.  Would have I wanted to have left Buenos Aires without seeing a tango show – definitely not.  It had to be done.  The show finished around midnight, and the transfer back to the hotel was very smooth and efficient.  Considering how many people were gushing out of the building, this is the bit where the VIP comes in handy.  Back to the hotel to fall into bed ready for an early morning call to go back to the airport!  I can see on Paul’s face that he really wanted a couple of weeks relaxing in the Caribbean.  Instead, I have organised a kind of boot camp.  We shouldn’t have gone to see The Adventures of Walter Mittey or whatever it was – gave me itchy feet!

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