Archives for category: Buenos Aires

The tango is quintessentially Latin American, and especially Argentinian. There are Uruguayan and Brazilian variants – tango and maxixe – but just as the samba is thought of in the same breath as Brazil, the tango belongs to Argentina. Arising in the working-class districts along the Rio Plata which separates Argentina and Uruguay, the tango has become a form known and recognised the world over, both its dance and its music.

The back room is to the left

The back room is to the left

It isn’t difficult to see a tango show in Buenos Aires: the ticket sellers are almost as prolific as the money changers (“Cambio cambio!”) on the main pedestrian thoroughfares. The most ‘authentic’ show is said to be the performance in the back room at Cafe Tortoni, one of the oldest established cafes in Buenos Aires.

Tortoni opened its doors in 1858, as the tango was beginning to emerge from the Porteno workers’ dwellings in La Boca. Judging from the early photographs, the cafes were a home from home for working men, offering food, warmth and relaxed company, in much more comfortable surroundings than the crowded wooden shacks they called home. (See https://theproverbial.org/2013/07/11/cafe-life-in-buenos-aires/ on Buenos Aires cafes.)

Tiny stage

Tiny stage

The Tortoni show is intimate, but it is nonetheless a performance for a seated audience. To understand the social meaning of the tango, you need to see a dance session at one of the many milongas or dance halls around the city. Not tourist destinations, these are more a dance school and tea dance venue.

Milonga el Arranque

Milonga El Arranque

There are more than 60 milongas in Buenos Aires alone. (Listings at http://hoytango.com.ar/) We went to El Arranque, which shares its name with a famous tango orchestra. On the afternoon we went, there had been a class, with a dance session for students to follow, the music provided by a DJ. A large dance hall in a nondescript modern building, it had an array of tables with checked table-cloths around a large dance floor, and a stage occupied only by a large banner. A simple menu and a rudimentary bar suggest that dancing is the main attraction.

Milonga dancers

Milongueros and milongueras

Despite the cavernous interior, the dancers moved with fierce concentration, not to say passion, following the musical format and the conventions of the dance with close and sometimes rapt attention. Pairs of dancers take a turn counter-clockwise around the outside of the floor, for a bracket of three or more dance tunes. Each bracket is separated by a section of faster music, allowing partners to return to their own, separate tables. Invitations to dance are made by eye contact and an inclination of the head or the lift of an eyebrow. Not that I saw any – it’s done with subtlety.

We saw couples form and dissolve with easy formality. Some longer partnerships were evident – a teacher dancing with a number of pupils, and executing more showy leg movements in the space left for him in the middle of the floor; younger couples honing their skills for competitive dancing; some couples who danced only with each other, and had perhaps been formed on this dance floor.

Personal styles were also evident. Traditionally the woman follows in tango. The moves are signalled by the man’s hand on her back, pressing and lifting to indicate direction. Some danced loosely and fluently, others with greater attention to formal steps. One woman danced in the Argentino style with all her partners – leaning into the contact at chest level so intensely that if he had moved away, she would have fallen – and dancing always with eyes tightly closed.

http://www.tangotrazo.com/en/tanguerias/milonga-el-arranque-buenos-aires/

And just as the camera does in this footage of a tango competition at L’Arranque, your attention is drawn to the feet, partly by the intricate steps, but also so as not to intrude on the peculiarly public intimacy of the dance. It becomes clear that tango was a social dance before it became a show. And in the milongas, it remains so.

‘Recoleta’ is an up-market district of Buenos Aires, a famous cemetery, and a mendicant order of friars and nuns. The austere Augustinian Order of Recollects, founded in Spain in the sixteenth century, established a convent and church on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the eighteenth century. The church is still there, well-kept and worth a visit.

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Less than a hundred years after the church was opened, the order was disbanded in Argentina, and the vegetable garden of the convent became the first pubic cemetery, the Cementerio del Norte.

Interior of the church

Interior of the church

The layout was designed by French engineer Próspero Catelin, said to have had the Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery in mind. The dead were not buried but held in mausoleums above ground. As yellow fever broke out in the poorly drained areas of downtown Buenos Aires, especially from 1852 and culminating in the epidemic of 1871, wealthier citizens moved north to safer ground, and the status of the district rose.

Still a working cemetery today

Still a working cemetery today – “May they rest in peace”

The cemetery was remodelled in 1880, from when the grand neo-classical entrance dates. Much of the material used in constructing the elaborate mausoleums between 1880 and 1930 is said to have come from Paris and Milan. When you catch sight of the statuary inside these gates, the effect is astonishing in its exuberance and richness.

Built for his son by the founder of newspaper  La Prensa José Camilo Paz

For his son by founder of paper La Prensa José Camilo Paz – sculptor Jules Felix Coutan

Recoleta is in fact quite small – some six and a half thousand plots compared for example with the 53,000 of London’s Highgate Cemetery – and the city crowds in to the northwest and southwest. As in the city, the Recoleta streets are shadowed and windy, with some sunny corners.

City of the living beyond the walls

City of the living just beyond the walls

And as in Buenos Aires, there are marvels of urban architecture to intrigue the eye. Just a touch more exotic.

Byzantine-style dome

Byzantine-style dome

Neo-classical dome

Neo-classical dome

Elaborate Art Nouveau tomb

Elaborate Art Nouveau tomb

One sees quite a few tombs which are barely Christian in style.

Early 20th century 'Middle Eastern', Argentinian naval family

Early 20th century ‘Middle Eastern’, Argentinian naval family

The detailed guide book (the website  http://www.ciudaddeangeles.com/  is sadly not maintained) confirms that “in 1863 the bishop of Buenos Aires retired its blessed [consecrated] condition after President Mitre – also buried here – ordered the burial of a well known Mason, blessing that has not and will not be recovered.” In fact, leading politicians – Sarmiento, Yrigoyen – buried at Recoleta in Masonic vaults were members of the Obediencia a la Ley N° 13 lodge.

Family of Italian origin, developers of BsAs wholesale food market

Family of Italian origin, developers of BsAs wholesale food market

Active from 1859, the lodge has its own vault in Recoleta.  http://www.scribd.com/doc/36186658/Boveda-Logia-Obediencia-a-La-Ley-N%C2%BA-13

Family tomb of de Alzaga and de Yturriaca

Family tomb of de Alzaga and de Yturriaca

The stories behind the monuments are perhaps more dramatic than the memorials. Martín de Álzaga – his family tomb, above, is shared with the de Yturriaca family – was a poor Basque immigrant whose wealth grew from trade in slaves, fabrics and weapons. He participated in the resistance to the 1806 British invasion of Buenos Aires, and its defence in 1807, but fell foul of the new government and was publicly shot in 1812, his body left hanging for three days. The Recoleta tomb is dated 1866 – the guide book says that his wife and daughter confined themselves to their home until their deaths and burials in the same mausoleum.

The impressive tomb of General Julio Argentino Roca stands out on its corner site for its elaborate sculpture and metalwork. Bronze victor’s wreaths adorn the side of the structure, and the angel atop the pediment holds two more – Roca was twice President of Argentina. Known as  el Zorro – the Fox – he devised and led the 1878-1879 Conquista del Desierto, which pushed back the indigenous tribes – dominated by the Mapuche people – who attacked Argentinian settlements in Patagonia, killing about 1,000, capturing 15,000 more, and pre-empting Chilean-Mapuche domination of the area. With the help of the Remington rifle, he laid claim to huge tracts of land, which were awarded to his backers. The settlement of Patagonia by Welsh immigrants dates from this time.

Family tomb watched over by its patriarch

Family tomb watched over by its patriarch

Though crosses top the railing and an obscured Christian cross decorates the pediment, the doused crossed torches on the frieze are Masonic. An apt contrast, in the light of the debate between revisionists and apologists for the Conquista

Tombs of national heroes like Roca are well kept, so what are we to make of the dilapidated tomb of the Sáenz Valiente family? The mouldings and ironwork barely keep the patched brickwork standing, and the stucco is long gone.

Tomb of Casto Sáenz Valiente

Tomb of Casto Sáenz Valiente

Anselmo Sáenz Valiente, a successful Spanish grocery merchant, was a hero of the British Invasion of Buenos Aires, joining forces with Martín de Álzaga to resist and repel the invaders, but avoiding political entanglement with him, despite being affected by anti-Spanish measures after moves towards independence began in 1810. His son Casto, the third-born of 14 children, was close to Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was to become virtual dictator of the newly independent Argentina. Perhaps he did not have his father’s instinct for political survival – the guide book says he fled to Uruguay, where Rosas laid siege to Montevideo for ten years. Does the state of his tomb reflect his continued political exile?

A cemetery of mausoleums naturally has architectural interest, but there is a wealth of decorative detail to enthrall the eye too. The non-Christian trend is also in evidence here.

'Egyptian' memorial, mourner wearing a Fascist helmet?

‘Egyptian’ memorial, mourner wearing a Fascist helmet?

The Biblical tradition is of course strongly represented. In a section of Recoleta set aside by de Rosas for prominent citizens, the Panteon Ciudadanos Meritorios, there’s a charming bas-relief in marble illustrating the New Testament verse on children. Its low-key simplicity is restful to the eye.

In memory of Peña, an educator

Sculpted by Italian Livi in memory of Peña, an educator

Sometimes a simple trick of the light is enough.

Shadow of a statue

Shadow of a statue

A small detail can be hugely significant. A simple family tomb …

2013-07-02 11.11.18

Top right is a plaque bearing a well-known name.

Memorial to little Eva (Evita) Peron, nee Duarte

Memorial to little Eva (Evita) Perón nee Duarte

Roughly translated, it says that whoever follows the same path as Eva Perón, in imitation of Christ, is also one of his disciples. The guide book tells us that there are always flowers on this memorial, and it relates more of Eva Duarte de Perón’s history, dramatic even after her death.

When Juan Perón was exiled from Argentina, Eva’s embalmed body was guarded by her sympathisers in secret, but flowers always appeared at her door; one of the guards shot his own wife by accident while guarding the body. The military government of the day quietly sent the body to a cemetery in Milan, where it stayed for 20 years. A new military government sent the body to Peron in Spain. When he returned to Argentina in 1973, the coffin was once more taken and recovered. Her sisters finally interred the body safely under the concrete of the Duarte family vault.

One begins to understand how strong the symbolism of earthly remains is in Argentina. In 1987, Juan Perón’s hands were removed from his body and an US$8M ransom demanded. It was not paid, no one was ever charged, and the hands have not re-appeared. It’s been interpreted variously as an attempt to promote Argentinian democracy, to destroy the cult of Perónism – which remains a significant political force in Argentina – or a Masonic ritual to deny Perón’s body rest.

The most haunting story though is associated with a memorial striking for its beauty.

Memorial to Rufina Cambaceres

Memorial to Rufina Cambaceres sculpted by Richard Aigner

Eugenio Cambaceres was a wealthy man, a controversial politician and novelist, who died in 1888 of tuberculosis when his daughter Rufina was only four. Her uncle was also a well-known politician. Her mother Luisa Bacichi was a dancer from Trieste, who despite not being accepted by local society later took up in with founder of the Radical party and President of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen, who had many informal relationships with women. An unconventional family.

Rufina was found dead on the evening of her 19th birthday. Despite being examined by three physicians, no cause of death could be established. She was interred, but some day later cemetery attendants noticed that the coffin had been moved. When they opened it, Rufina’s face was said to be scratched and injured, presumably in an attempt to escape or at least to be heard. She had been interred alive, while suffering from catalepsy. Her family commissioned the tomb you see, with the freestanding young lady in white at its door.

Taking a little sun

Taking a little sun

There are those who say they see a young lady in white wandering near the cemetery at night. Certainly the way death is treated quite casually here – all the dead above ground, ornate coffins on display behind glass and wrought iron – lends itself to such stories. Even if the sombre reminder as you exit frames mortality firmly in a Christian context.

"We expect the Lord"

“We expect the Lord”

Buenos Aires is known as the Paris of Latin America, and at its best, it is indeed a spacious, beautiful, prosperous and cultured city. One of the factors which makes it cosmopolitan is the number of  cafés or bares – there is one almost literally on every corner in the microcentro. The city conducts its life in them, at every level.

Bar of the Plaza Hotel, Florida San Martin, near the river port to Colonia

Bar of the Plaza Hotel, Florida San Martin, near the river crossing to Colonia

The Plaza Hotel has been an upmarket destination for more than a century. Overlooking the Plaza San Martin in Retiro, it was opened in 1909 and hosts the wealthy and the well-known to this day. Its bar is a destination in its own right. The wood-panelled decor, buttoned leather and subdued lighting make for a relaxed ambience, and its high tea – cakes, sandwiches and a decent pot of tea – is a welcome treat. The skill with which the barman mixes drinks for his regulars suggests that he can provide a treat too, should you be in the mood. On Wednesday evenings they have live jazz music.

London livery company dinner 1925 - note guests of honour

London livery company dinner at the Plaza, 1946 – note guests of honour

At the everyday level, cafés abound. The Florida Garden opened in 1962, a meeting point for the avant-garde of the day. During the week it is more a businessman’s venue, with a pleasant mezzanine floor offering an elevated view of the daily bustle. The double counter is workplace and service facility, and the copper accents extend from the coffee machine over the decorated walls and up the stairs. They serve a decent coffee and the usual medialuna (croissant) with ham and melted cheese. It also sells coffee beans loose. The constant stream of customers confirms that it is still serving them what they need.

The counter at Florida Garden, corner of Florida and Paraguay

The counter at Florida Garden, corner of Florida and Paraguay

Out in the quieter suburb of Recoleta, overlooking the plaza in front of the renowned Cementerio de la Recoleta, is the equally famous Café La Biela. Opened in 1850 when the area was still farmland, and the vegetable garden of the local monastery only recently converted into the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, it was a small pavement café on the site of a general store. As the city grew and as the well-off moved further north to escape the yellow fever breaking out in the lower land by the river, the café grew and changed, hosting the members of the Civil Pilots Association, and in its second century, racing car drivers and enthusiasts from Fangio and Jackie Stewart to Emerson Fittipaldi.

La Biela at Recoleta

La Biela at Recoleta

It takes as its symbol the connecting rod or ‘conrod’ from a car engine, known in Spanish as la biela. Sipping coffee, we saw customers reading the newspaper, having a meeting while the car waited outside with driver, having their shoes shined at table, taking the afternoon sun on the terrace, or planning their visit to the Cementerio.

Petit Colon on Plaza Lavalle

El Petit Colon on Plaza Lavalle

Buenos Aires takes its café culture very seriously, and prefers it traditional. El Petit Colón has the look – traditional ceiling mouldings, wooden furniture and bar, patterned wallpaper, brass fittings, black and white photographs, and spectacular light fittings. It’s popular with the lawyers who work around the nearby Palacio de Tribunales and with business people, as well as with the theatre-going public at the Teatro Colón from which it takes its name. Fast attentive service, good bar food and the usual excellent coffee complete the package. Difficult to tell that it opened as recently as 1970.

Cafe Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo

Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo

And so to that venerable Buenos Aires institution, Café Tortoni. Whether you ask where the best café is, or the best tango show, you get the same answer: Tortoni. Founded in 1858, and a feature of city life for generations, this café is such a landmark that if you look like tourists, and a little lost, as we clearly did, the locals give you directions to it unasked.

The bar at Cafe Tortoni

The bar at Café Tortoni

Here too the decor is in brown, beige, off-white and gold, with stained glass, brass light fittings, black and white photographs, wood and leather chairs, and the usual food and coffee. It’s the original style to which El Petit Colon pays homage. The costumed waiters play their parts well – we saw one grip a bottle of agua in the crook of his knee to open it with his free hand – and towards the back the cultural life of the café is celebrated with photographs, bronze busts and a souvenir shop. On the left hand side at the back is a separate room for the tango performances, seating 50 or so at tables, with a stage at the far end for musicians, singers and dancers (though not all at the same time).

Cafe Concert

Café Concert

The show we saw featured a pianist at the baby grand, a stony-faced bandoneon player centre stage and an electric bass to the right, with just enough room in front for the singer or for a pair of tango dancers. The performers walked in through the audience, and the dancers changed behind the curtain. A technician at the back ran sound and lights for an appreciative audience of visitors.

Café Tortoni is one of more that 70 cafés and bares declared Bares Notables by the city. Although supported by the city’s programmes, the status of such establishments does not prevent them from closing. They find ways of promoting themselves – tango shows, websites, supporters clubs – which raise their profile. Some recent establishments are experimenting with a more modern style – the Grand Cafe in Plaza San Martin is said to deploy a New York style – and such adaptation is needed for café life to survive. Clearly they are no longer the home from home of working men as seen in the early photographs, but as long as they provide what the Porteño – the citizen of Buenos Aires – needs, they will thrive. It seems that Buenos Aires needs a sense of history with its coffee, its medialuna and its WiFi.

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