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The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires showcases a European atmosphere with a passionate South American twist
Buenos Aires, or BA, is the vibrant capital city of Argentina. The city was founded by Spanish colonisers in 1536, but its golden period began only around the mid-18th century when Argentina became the seventh richest country in the world. Migration from Europe peaked at this time making Buenos Aires a melting pot of culture, creativity and charisma. The European architects gave the former colonial outpost a complete facelift with lots of Parisian touches, perhaps that’s why it’s nicknamed the “Paris of South America”.
Buenos Aires is a high energy, seductive destination with a relatively long menu of things to see and do. Obviously, it’s not possible to taste everything in one go, so what follows is a selection of top experiences which, according to travel experts, you can’t afford a miss, especially if you’re a first time visitor.
Plaza de Mayo
If you only have time to visit one site in Buenos Aires, it has to be the Plaza de Mayo. A sprawling square, the Plaza stands as a silent witness of Argentina’s history; from 16th century Spanish colonial times to great “Peronist” rallies in the 1950s, as well as world cup victory celebrations in 1978 and 1986, and bloody riots in 2001. Some of the city’s key asphalt arteries radiate outwards from here, with Avenida de Mayo being the most prominent. Adorned with decorative domes, balustrades and caryatids, an impressive array of European-styled buildings flank this ten-block stretch, alongside several boutique shops, bookstores and restaurants.
Among the many grand edifices ringing the square, immediately recognisable is the Pink House or the Presidential Palace, featured many times on television news and in movies like Evita. From the balcony of this grand mansion, some of the nation’s idols, like first lady Eva Peron and football legend Diego Maradona, have greeted their fans crowding outside. Other noticeable buildings are the City Hall and Metropolitan Cathedral, which is ornamented with series of Corinthian columns.
Football, an obsession
Though the national sport is a game called pato, which is a combination of horse-polo and basketball, the entire nation is obsessed with football. It’s hard to escape the heat when in Buenos Aires where it may be sometimes difficult to determine who is considered greater, Jesus or their celebrated footballer Lionel Messi.
Life almost stops when there is game on in the city and without hesitation people will bypass important meetings if there is a FC Barcelona match live on television as Messi is a star of that European club.
A visit to the La Bombonera Stadium, in the colourful and vibrant suburb of La Boca, is almost mandatory for visitors, even if the world game doesn’t take your fancy. This sporting arena is the home of the famous Boca Juniors Club, where Maradona’s heart and affection originally belonged. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to watch a game here, alongside screaming fans who storm in with team flags, banners, drums and trumpets to support their teams. Even if there is no game, ardent fans crowd the area filled with numerous eateries and shops selling everything associated with the game from actual footballs to key rings, team scarfs and jerseys, Maradona’s number 10 being most popular.
The passionate tango
Buenos Aires locals always say that they have three religions, Christianity, football and tango, a music, dance and poetic ritual born in the city almost 120 years ago. Today tango is the nation’s cultural emblem and the city provides many ways of experiencing the dance from learning a routine yourself to watching a choreographed performance at a classy venue.
Much of tango’s appeal lies in its impeccable footwork and body movements including bodily closeness and steamy embraces. According to expert performers, tango is a ballet that requires extreme fitness and high levels of concentration, while the melody shifts between joyful moments and melancholy.
Every year in August, the city hosts the Tango Festival and World Championship when romance and passion flood the streets of Buenos Aires. While the competition continues with all the big names from across Argentina and overseas, visitors and locals swan across countless floors with that jumble of self-assured sophistication and theatrical melancholy.
The city and suburbs are peppered with countless cafes where locals gather to stimulate their social senses and creativity with caffeine hits. The social and cultural influence of these cafes is so intense that around fifty old establishments have been declared as a part of the cultural and historical heritage of Buenos Aires. Ornamented chairs, marble-top tables, wood panelling, brass fixtures and soft music playing in the background collude to transfer people’s minds and moods back to a bygone era when intellectuals and commoners grouped there to discuss anything from the release of a new book or a film to the latest in tango music. The 157-year-old Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo is the most respected venue in this class.
A taste of tandoor
BA has firmly established itself as South America’s gastronomic capital, its glory on the menu card being beautiful cuts of meat, mainly beef. Many Indian travellers, from the homeland and from the diaspora, look for a suitable alternative closer to their hearts, taste-wise. Tandoor Indian Restaurant is a haven for them and for local curry lovers. Located in an historical 100-year-old French-style building with high ceilings and wonderful architectural details, this plush eatery takes their mission of providing a range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes that represent the diversity Indian cuisine seriously. Meals are accompanied with the very best of Argentinian wines.
Getting There: Fly Emirates (www.emirates.com) via Dubai to Buenos Aires
Accommodation: Stay at Buenos Aires Grand Hotel (www.buenosairesgrand.com)
Curry Eating: Tandoor Indian Restaurant (www.tandoor.com.ar) is a great option
Tour Operator: Contours Travel (www.contourstravel.com.au). Call 1300 135 391 for more info.