Matt Chesterton and Daniel Neilson share the secrets of a city with a sad soul, but a typical Argentine party spirit
It would be unjust to suggest that all porteños, as Buenos Aires residents are called, are born pessimistic – some acquire the trait during childhood or adolescence. However, most of the inhabitants of this enchanting city have deduced that their town has either gone to the dogs or is on its way there. Such, at any rate, is the stereotype. But how accurate is it?
The cited-ad-nauseum fact that Buenos Aires contains more psychiatrists per capita than any other city in the world has led many to conclude that porteños must be more-than-averagely screwed-up. But it could just as easily mean that porteños are more-than-averagely analysed – and saner for it. And then there’s tango, which many regard as the acme of miserabilism; sad songs played on sad-sounding instruments for sad people to shuffle around sadly to. But most of Buenos Aires’ tangos were written during the city’s belle époque, when grain was shipped out as fast as it could be harvested, and gold bars deposited in the country’s bank vaults as fast as they could be stacked.
Beyond its chaotic, frenetic exterior, the city is beautified by grandiose buildings, world-class art galleries, fine restaurants and a thriving fashion industry. It has been saddled with the wince-inducing ‘Paris of the South’ tag, but it is undoubtedly a Latin city, as neighbourhoods such as Once and Retiro demonstrate.
It is also a city of ‘barrios’, or neighbourhoods: some unofficial (if you ask someone where they’re from and they reply with a number, you’re probably talking to a shantytown, or villa, dweller), others, like Recoleta, long established and world-renowned. Most of the affluent, touristic barrios are concentrated in the east of the city. There’s La Boca, which attracts busloads of tourists hunting that elusive quarry, the ‘soul’ of Buenos Aires. Further north is San Telmo, once famed for its cobbled streets, crumbling façades and overpriced tango venues, but now increasingly known for its hip shops and restaurants, nightlife and ever-more-overpriced tango venues.
Palermo Viejo, meanwhile, is the poster-child for creative, cutting-edge (and costly) Buenos Aires. Locals as much as tourists come here to drink Manhattans, eat sushi and buy Diesel. In one sense this is a logical continuation of the porteño narrative; a city built by immigrants importing cultures and cuisines where once it imported farm workers and engineers. But in another sense, the rise of ‘creative capitalism’ represents an important break with the past.
The challenges still faced by BA are daunting: poverty, poor housing, underfunded public hospitals, dilapidated schools. But porteños love their city and, in a manner that is hugely charming, want everyone else to love it too. They never tire of hearing newcomers tell them how sensational their buildings/women/steaks/footballers are. In BA, you never know what’s around the next corner: a spontaneous tango display, a flash mob from the exciting theatre scene, an all-night party, or maybe another protest. Despite all its problems, Buenos Aires was, is and probably always will be one of the world’s great cities.
Monumento a las Víctimas del Terrorismo de Estado
It took 25 years, numerous hold-ups and the usual rounds of internecine wrangling, but Buenos Aires now has a fitting memorial to the thousands of people who ‘disappeared’ – that is to say, were murdered – during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. The Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism was unveiled in 2007 and is now the centrepiece of the Parque de la Memoria, a sculpture park on a spit of reclaimed land in the north of the city, surrounded by the Río de la Plata.
The rather nondescript location is inconvenient but appropriate. Of the 30,000 or so people who were tortured and killed in the junta’s mini-gulags, many – either already dead, or drugged – were dumped into the river from planes. The names of those known to have died are engraved on a granite monument laid out to represent a scar in the earth, symbolising pain and a breach of natural law. Nearby is the most moving sculpture in the park: a statue of Pablo Miguez, at 14 the youngest-known victim.
The park is still a work in progress. More sculptures are due to be installed and there is space for more names to be added, as investigations continue, to the 9,000 already inscribed.
Getting there Qatar Airways flies daily to Buenos Aires via Doha from Dhs6,235 return, including taxes (www.qatarairways.com).