by Tim Dawe
On my second visit to Buenos Aires I find myself at a café overlooking Cementario de la Recoleta recalling my first visit seven years ago on a city sightseeing tour at this very spot, looking like those tourists over there on the tour coach; fazed and a little dazed.
“Say, honey, where did he say we were?”
“I don’t know Elmer. I think he said something about Evita.”
I try not to assume the smugness of a local, particularly as I am a very temporary resident.
So, Elmer and others clamber down to Recoleta’s famous cemetery and photograph the family (Duarte) mausoleum with its small ground-level plaque commemorating the sainted Eva Peron. They seek a Madonna-like theatrical pop celebrity but they miss the socio-political cult that remains today as a potent Peronist spectre of Argentine politics.
That cult is also responsible for that youthful, spirit-like Eva Peron I see cast in bronze, perpetually overlooking the wide tracts of tended parklands; a privileged respite for Recoleta residents in this hugely overcrowded and polluted city.
Recoleta cemetery, the repository of the establishment reading like a ‘who was who’ list of the rich and powerful, the grand and the bold, is an odd end-point for a person so closely associated with, and adored by, the working poor; “give us work and bread”.
Porteños (residents of port Buenos Aires) have a thing about cemeteries. They are celebratory places to visit and revere the dead and are crammed to the gunwales with ostentatious and extravagant mausoleums and statuary. This one is also very scenic, tempting one to linger in its shady corners.
The statue of the great crooner who brought tango to the world, Carlos Gandel, another Argentine cult figure in another cemetery, on the anniversary of his death has a lighted cigarette placed between his bronze fingers by adoring fans. Indeed it says something about their culture that most famous Argentines are more often denoted by their death date than their birth date.
But there’s much more to Recoleta than Evita.
In fact there are two Recoletas.
There is posh Recoleta. To the north, it’s bound by Avenida Libertador, scything through swaths of parklands and punctuated with bronze statues of heroic gentlemen on horseback brandishing sabres. Overlooking the greenery are the grand, elegant and expensive apartments of Buenos Aires’ elite, interspersed with five-star hotels, top restaurants, art galleries and global-brand boutiques.
Then there’s the other Recoleta. To the south, it’s bound by Avenida Santa Fe, flowing through wall-to-wall 20-storey apartment buildings and awash with hordes of people trudging crowded, littered streets blue with the unrestrained exhausts of teeming cars, buses and trucks.
For my month-long stay in BA I select an apartment online using tiny, grainy, black and white photos. I like the price and being at the intersection of two main streets 100 metres from the subte (subway).
Unwittingly I choose the ‘other Recoleta’!
European development of Recoleta dates from the earliest years of the eighteenth century when French Franciscans – known as Padres Recoletos – built a convent and chapel on the then banks of the mighty River Plate, now a good 2km across reclaimed parklands. They were followed by the influential Jesuits who built the lovely Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar, now in the grounds of Evita’s resting place, Recoleta Cemetery.
The 1871 yellow fever epidemic saw wealthy Portenos flee the contagion in their San Telmo mansions for the “good air” of Recoleta. There they built other mansions and palaces along tree-lined boulevards like Av. Alvear, now home to Alvear Palace Hotel, arguably the best and most expensive hotel in South America.
Built in 1932 the hotel’s “palace” title is justified by the luxury lavished on their well-heeled guests. It is not only an iconic hotel it is the pride of Portenos and a symbol of their city’s former opulent grandeur – their belle époque during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Covering most of a city block, the hotel has 210 rooms including 100 suites packed with French antique furniture. Some of the hotel’s signature restaurants, such as La Bourgogne and the L’Orangerie, are open to locals with the necessary deneiro.
Close by to Alvear Palace are boutiques from the houses of Cartier, Hermes, Armani, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren. Naturally Recoleta also provides the very best in fine dining and exclusive bars. Those who want trendy informality spend sunny afternoons, seeing and being seen, in the charming walkway, RM Ortiz, outside such legendary meeting places as La Beila and Café de la Paix.
In a leafy island amidst hurtling traffic, a safe distance from the flea market stalls dotting the landscape (and the ample flesh of sun-worshippers without backyards), lies the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA), a former city waterworks pump house. It is a splendid gallery, all the more so because its 32 intimate rooms do not overwhelm.
MNBA is important for its concentration on nineteenth and twentieth century Argentinean paintings and sculpture by artists such as Benito Quinquela Martin. But it also lays claim to masterful works by Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh and Monet and a modest collection of indigenous art.
The National Library lies half-hidden behind the ethereal bronze figure of Eva Peron. In fact it is built of the site of the Peron’s home, demolished by a vengeful replacement government.
The architecture by Argentine Clorinda Testa owes nothing to la belle époque and the “Paris of the South”. Unashamedly modernist, its massive box-like structure of formed concrete is unwelcoming and brutal. Somehow the black grime from thousands of exhausts looks worse on this 1960s “public statement” than the private, three-storey mansion on the corner.
The massive and imposing neo-classical building immediately to its north appears to have no practical use for students, yet it operates as the University of Buenos Aires law faculty. In need of a good scrub (and a life), the building has the feel of the acropolis about it; standing alone, disconnected from its environment and designed by geometry rather than architecture.
By contrast the defunct engineering faculty, a short distance away, is jaw-dropping material. The student engineers have long since departed leaving behind this eerie, blackened, Gothic, theatre piece. Anyone brave enough to strategically look up from the hazardous footpath could not fail to be impressed by this strange vision. Why Hollywood has not used it for a movie set is beyond me.
Equally striking but infinitely more creative and beautiful is the stunning sculptural piece Floralis Generica. It’s a huge aluminium flower designed, and funded, by architect Edwardo Catalano and set in the expansive UN Plaza. It “grows” out of an enormous pond and its petals mechanically fold inwards when the sun goes down. The natural lines and brilliant shine stand in stark contrast to its grey, grimy neighbour, the law faculty.
Yes, there’s more to Recoleta than the cemetery.
My website-choice to live in “the other Recoleta” is not all bad.
The pollution, noise and crowds are counterbalanced with the smiles of recognition from waiters at my various locals – wonderfully different and welcoming cafes, kioskos and restaurants, and there is delight in turning the corner and each time discovering a new and interesting view or activity.
But my romanticised notions of living like a local in a garret on the fourteenth floor palls a little when that clanky, old-fashioned cage-lift with its metal, concertina door is out of action three times a week.
Whenever that happens there is always the easy one-kilometre, tree-lined stroll to the clean, green grass to Evita’s Recoleta – and, on my return, a stop at that little reggae-playing, sepia-coloured hole-in-the-wall for a tumbler of house red and the best freshly cooked empañadas you could wish for.