It’s a long Friday. I start at Rocky Bay at 11.30 am, walking down Agony Hill to the Bus stop. I get to Matiatia in time for the 1 pm ferry to Auckland then walk to the Sky-bus shuttle which drops me half way up Queen Street. The journey to the airport takes thirty minutes so I’ve go loads of waiting before my Lan Chile flight to Santiago. Eleven hours later, I’m exhausted and desperately need to sleep, but run into Richard N from my Myanmar tour, is also on the next flight to Buenos Aries. I power nap in the very back seat of the plane before and during take-off. It’s still Friday by the time we arrive, change money and grab a cab into the city. Richard C, our tour leader meets us at the hotel and after a quick freshen up before joining the rest the guys in a trendy modern bar for wine and tapas.
Our characters for this adventure are assembled. Richard N as before – from Titirangi – ex tour-guide; Robbie, an Aucklander from Edinburgh via Australia is a programmer of our culture and entertainment; Rob, the youngest in our group is an Insolvency Lawyer. Richard I (there are three Richards) gets this title by seniority, is a retired teacher, art lover and foodie. Mike is a well known GP in Auckland, hopefully having a rest from consultations – we shall see. Steven is an Australian architect who went to London for a week and still lives there twenty years later. In spite of our rugged Kiwi/Aussie exteriors, we’re a fairly cultured and educated bunch of guys.
Saturday promises to be shorter as no international date-lines are to be crossed. We’re on a city tour this morning in two open-top Citroen 3cv’s. The blue one has been stretched and is an amazing sight. Martin, the owner-operator of Unique Vintage Tours greets us and we set of in convoy
with his brother driving the Lime green car. We’re heading for La Bocca region of the city – home to the famous football team (I’d never heard of it) to gaze at the now tired-looking stadium and endless outlets selling strip and memorabilia. Poorly made statues of (unknown to me) famous players proliferate. I think one of them is Maradonna.
This is one of the original parts of the city and now one of the poorest. It’s also one of the most colourful; houses originally made from cheap corrugated iron are brightly painted. Some of the old ones are still lived in but there is evidence that ‘reconstructions’ have taken place to attract the tourists.
This is the capital of kitch and also where the tango was allegedly invented. There are various Senoritas dressed and ready to dance, offering me the opportunity to be photographed with them in a pose. Conscious of my rucksack and camera around my neck and the danger of letting go of either, I decline their offers. It’s all garish and vibrant.
We attract attention from passers-by in our strange vehicles. Men stand and stare; women have their photographs taken in front of the cars. It’s a fun way to see the city, looking up at the buildings from near ground level. Buenos Aries is known at ‘The Paris of South America’ and is indeed an elegant city.
It also reminds me of Madrid and Barcelona with churches reminiscent of Quito (Ecuador). The effect is European with architecture spanning the decades. Arts Deco and Nouveau are well represented here and the main boulevard – Ave 9 de Julio – is apparently the widest in the world. In the wealthy areas grand apartment buildings are balconied and planted. Mature trees line streets and pass over our heads as we trundle along in our 3CV’s. The Central Bank looms large over our heads as we pass underneath, a huge building designed to impress and instill confidence but contrast with the tattered state of the economy.
We end our tour at the memorial to the Malvinas war. It’s guarded by two grenadiers and just as we arrive it’s time to change the guards. It’s not as grand as Buckingham Palace and the marching drill is not up to
British standards, but the soldiers are cute. The Malvinas was significant for two outcomes: the re-election of Margaret Thatcher and an end to the Argentinean dictator responsible for ‘the disappeared’. We walk on past a stunning Art Deco sky-scraper (pictured), stop to have coffee and sweet pastries – standing up because it’s cheaper – on our way to the Casa Rosada.
We have to be there on time to join a guided tour group in English.
These working offices of the Argentinean Presidents were originally a colonial fort strategically built and now overlook (to the back) Mayo square which has been the stage for revolution and continues to be a magnet for demonstrations by the populace. We pass barricades stored at the ready a protest which can erupt at any moment.
The new regime is a mixture of socialism and capitalism (which doesn’t work) producing bureaucratic procedures. Not only do we have to present our named tickets which Richard has gone to great length to obtain, we also have to show a photocopy of our passports. As one would expect, there is a scanning procedure to get in to be greeted by a diminutive young woman. The Cassa is European in style with Italian marble staircases and rococo decoration everywhere. It’s not architecturally distinct but it is the history of the nation which is important. President Sarmiento is the most revered, having brought education and culture to the country. He was a Europhile and made many improvements but sadly is also responsible for bringing the European feral pigeon here and they remain until this day.
Interestingly Eva Peron, by contrast, does not figure much in our guide’s presentation. She actually wasn’t even elected, seizing power after her husband, General Peron died. We are taken out to a loggia – not the one where Eva addressed the masses – to learn the difference between this and a balcony. The later is an unsupported ledge and there is one just further along the façade where Madonna appeared in that film. Andrew Lloyd Webber (or is it Tim Rice?) has a lot to answer for in promoting the Evita legend. The Perons were popular with the working class masses it seems and Eva’s embalmed body was banished for years, doomed to wander the world having various sexual encounters until it was deemed safe for her to be returned and buried. The fear was that her return would resurrect an interest in Peronism. There are some rooms dedicated to her in the Cassa which we get to see, but there is no access to the loggia where she famously addressed the masses. Argentinans seem to be uninterested in her and I get the feeling that her memorabilia is displayed for the tourists.
The real star is Sarmiento who brought the country European culture, education and social benefits. His only crime, it seems is to introduce the European feral pigeon which is now ubiquitous. Non flash photography is allowed, but not in the offices of the Vice President or President. We have to put phones and cameras away and get into lines so we can pass in single file past their respective office doors. There’s an impressive courtyard with palm trees and our final room houses the marble busts of elected Presidents realised as they were on their first day of office. Only the ones who have been approved by the following president are here, so you can imagine that there are some gaps.
One of the more recent presidents has a sticking plaster on his forehead as he had an accident on his first day. Another was shot at and has a dent in his marble head. The other rule is that the Presidents have to be elected so many of the generals are excluded as is Eva Peron, who was also unellected. We exit on the other side of the Cassa, which is actually the front, a bit like Buckingham Palace.
The Myanmar stories of shit are echoed when Richard N returns to base minus his jacket. He’s been scammed queuing for a set to the Opera. Fake pigeon shit is sprayed on a jacket and when the wearier takes it off to clean the mess off, the jacket is snatched. Fortunately, he carries nothing in his jacket pockets. Later Dr Mike is hit by real pigeon shit.
It’s a walk back to our hotel for a rest before a welcome dinner at a steak restaurant. Argentina is famously meat eating and we are not disappointed. Having been advised that vegetables are scarce, I’m delighted to find rocket salad with parmesan available and sensational spinach in creme sauce, topped with cheese. Malbec is a popular red wine and pleasant but Cabernet Sauvingon (my preference) wines are also very good here.