March 3, 2005
Buenos Aires Let Me Dance to Your Beat
In Buenos Aires you wouldn't know about the Argentine economy's disastrous crash -- except, perhaps, by chatting with your taxi driver and discovering he was a former tycoon.
BA, as old hands call it, has retained its prosperous appearance and cosmopolitan cool, and it remains one of the world's most fabulous cities. In fact, given the peso devaluation, the once-pricey Argentine capital should be visited soon, while its delectable cuisine and shopping, some of the finest in South America, are a relative bargain.
No wonder this glittering capital was so inviting to the upwardly mobile Evita in the early 20th century -- this huge but green city boasts a level of European-style opulence and elegance equal to anything in Europe, and most closely recalls the finest residential neighborhoods of Paris.
Like Paris and London, Buenos Aires is made up of clearly defined neighborhoods, each with its own flavor. Visitors tend to concentrate in the smart enclave of Recoleta, which boasts not only the finest hotels but the city's most intriguing attraction -- the cemetery where Evita and all the rest of the town's high society are buried. This fashion plate of a cemetery is a delightful and not remotely spooky place to stroll, with a wonderful craft market on the perimeter to boot.
Visitors are invariably trundled across town to the working-class neighborhood of La Boca, home of the signature postcard cityscape of brightly colored buildings amidst which young tango dancers strut their stuff on every street corner. Unlike laid-back Recoleta, the neighborhood is a bit of a tourist trap with its gaudy street art and restaurants where extra charges are levied for the entertainment that comes with lunch. However, it is worth a visit if only to see the immaculate young dancers in a more intimate setting than the big, fancy tango shows in halls packed with foreign tourists.
Another place to see tango dancers against a natural backdrop is Sundays at the Plaza Dorrego in the evocative San Telmo neighborhood, which with its cobbled streets and handsome 19th-century houses is definitely worth a stroll. Or the intrepid might consider visiting a milonga, one of the city's many authentic dance halls where the natives gather nightly to tango; some offer lessons as well as an opportunity to gawp at the amateur experts.
In the city center, after a de rigeur cappuccino at the marvelous, if rather snooty, fin de siecle Cafe Tortoni, head for the Plaza de Mayo. The whole handsome plaza, bordered on one side by Evita's Casa Rosada (Pink House) palace, is a wonderful testament to the public right to protest.
A visit to the Templo Paso shul in Once (pronounced Onsay), the old Jewish commercial area, can be arranged through specialist tour operator Last Frontiers. Once retains the odd Jewish clothing shop and other remnants of Jewish life while largely given over to newer waves of immigrants. Today's shoppers are more likely to be found in and around the pedestrianized shopping area of Florida, where one of the finest stores is the Jewish-owned leather business of Silvia and Mario. Downstairs is a range of styles in sumptuous hides, upstairs the tailors who will custom-make any pattern in 24 hours.
Exquisite food is another bargain in BA while the peso remains devalued, and even kosher travelers can enjoy the world's finest beef thanks to the city's best hotel, the Jewish-owned Alvear Palace, which boasts a kosher kitchen. The Alvear is like the Savoy transplanted to South America, though it remains expensive, devaluation or no.
While many will adore its tradition, there is no doubting the value on offer at the nearby Four Seasons, whose huge suites and outdoor pool are not to be sniffed at. Next door is the city's finest Italian restaurant, Piegari (in this city where 40 percent of residents are of Italian origin, pasta joints are numerous and excellent), while nearby is the city's best steakhouse, the incredibly elegant La Cabana. This is not to be confused with the more informal but equally excellent Cabana Las Lilas in Puerto Madero, the lively reclaimed docklands area. Both restaurants serve fish and excellent vegetable dishes, and the rich, creamy spinach gratin alone justifies the trip to La Cabana.
One day in BA should be set aside for a trip into the watery suburbs of the Tigre Delta. Here 3,000 people live full time in delightful houses on a series of islands where every necessity from school teachers to ice cream is brought to their door by boat. It is feasible to try out the lifestyle by renting a cottage for the weekend, but it's also a great idea to take the tiny suburban Tren de la Costa to the terminus for boat rides around the delta. Every station along the little branch line offers a different attraction -- antique shopping on one platform, gourmet dining on the next -- and it would hard to think of a more agreeable holiday outing than getting on and off the train for a nosh and a browse, finishing with a leisurely cruise through the backwaters. Don't leave, though, without visiting the Puerto de Frutas craft market for pretty and unbelievably inexpensive sea grass baskets and other hand-made souvenirs.
Different tour groups offer a Jewish Buenos Aires Tour, which is a day tour of sites like the Immigrant Museum, Israel Embassy Plaza, Lavalle Plaza, Libertad St. Synagogue, AMIA Federation Building, and Paso St. Synagogue. For more information, visit www.AllAboutAR.com, The Argentina Travel Guide.
Anthea Gerrie writes for the London-based Jewish Chronicle.