Paris without the prices

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A building on Av. de Mayo refelecting la Belle Epoque

by Tim Dawe

Thinking about a holiday in Paris but daunted by its prices? Think Buenos Aires – the Paris of the South. I’m in the crowded and lively capital of Argentina for my second visit. The first, six years ago, was a typical tourist stay: three nights in a hotel, two effective days, one city tour.That was a time when Argentina pegged its peso to the US dollar, masking its economic inadequacy, and the little Aussie dollar bought a good deal less. Then a cup of coffee, accompanied with sugar enough to fuel a Volkswagen, cost the equivalent of $12.00.

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Buenos Aires Cathedral

Argentina has since unshackled its currency, experienced the recession it had to have and put out the open-for-business sign for tourists with stronger currencies, including neighbouring, and increasingly cashed-up Brazilians, over the northern border.

On this month-long visit I am pretending to be a local.

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Not my apartment

I have rented a bright and breezy, two-bedroom, twelfth-floor apartment on frenetic Avenida Santa Fe in Barrio Norte. OK, the apartment is showing signs of wear, and like many of Buenos Aires’ famous character buildings, its best days are behind it. But it is central, has every shop imaginable within co-ee and is near a Subte (Metro) station. Buenos Aires’ (BA’s) highly codified barrios or neighbourhoods have their own distinct character, ranging from elite Palermo, to bohemian San Telmo and working class La Boca, of tango fame. In fact each barrio is a self-contained, culturally-specific community providing all the requirements of daily city life. Most inhabitants see little reason to visit another barrio a few blocks away.

So how do things stack up after six years? My accommodation has changed from hotel to apartment. Whereas I might have paid $250 for a hotel room, I now pay $25 per night.

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Palermo Viejo

I set out mid-morning for my local café on the corner and receive the usual: café con leche, flat white, orange juice, three media luna (mini croissants), some little biscuits and water. I read the newspapers for as long as I want and pay the waiter $1.85.

What about a city tour? No, that’s for tourists. This pretend local opts for the number 152 bus from my cafe to the famous and historic La Boca. Luckily I get a seat and an armchair view of half a dozen barrios as monumental buildings, leafy plazas and imposing statues fly past my window.

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Watching street theatre in San Telmo

After an hour of observing this parade of street scenes  I step down. How much? $0.27! Seemingly it costs $0.27 on any city bus across town. I walk La Boca’s cobbled streets until lunch beckons. I seek something light; an omelette perhaps or a Caesar salad, both at $3.95 and both served on dinner plates to feed a family of four.

Back in BA’s Microcenter I visit museums and art galleries. As most are free I hesitate when an elderly lady seeks money for what looks like a very limited exhibit at the Museo del Cabildo (Museum on the Revolution) at one end of the city’s cultural heart, Plaza de Mayo, and overlooking Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

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Expressive

I pay the entrance charge: $0.36! In return I get one of the best photographic vantage points in this historic precinct. Window shopping, I see  men’s suits $90, men’s shoes, $40, top-drawer shirts, $20, mobile phones with all the fruit for $60.

“Basta”already! It’s time to rest – or siest”.

By late afternoon, when the style-conscious, über-cool citizens of BA (porteños) are finishing their lunch, I might happen upon the tiny, sepia-coloured hole in the wall, also known as the bar with character from central casting. Here I order the good house wine in an industrial-strength kitchen tumbler; cost: 80¢! As with the locals, I also order some empanadas, delicious mini pasties stuffed with meat or cheese, also for 80¢.

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Stark architecture Av. de Mayo

It’s time to think about dinner at the parilla, or steak house, over the road. Here I order a mini bifstek, standing tall and weighing in at about 400 grams. The restaurant provides enough bread rolls, slices of pizza and mini sandwiches to constitute an entrée. My meal is the melt-in-the mouth best Argentine lomo beef imaginable, cooked to perfection and costs $6.50 (salads extra). A short black at 45¢ and I am ready for home.

I cross the road to one of the ‘25-hour-a-day’ mini supermarkets that dot the streetscape, and buy a litre bottle of premium beer for 90¢ – incredibly incorporating a 30¢ bottle deposit – and a kilo of bananas for $1.10 for tomorrow’s adventure.

And I didn’t mention the old-world Paris of the South, its scenes and ambience.

If you want a glimpse of la Belle Epoque Paris – without its prices – try Buenos Aires. Stay for a month and you’ll live like a king.

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Alvear Palace Hotel, Recolta
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