Sunday, October 25, 2009

Buenos Aires

Last week I returned from 11 days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I found it a fascinating place and perfectly suited for someone who likes to wander around and look at interesting stuff. A friend of mine who went a few years ago had warned me that the city was "not that attractive, although it has great street life." Well, he was right about the street life, but I didn't find the city unattractive. How else could you explain how I took over 600 pictures? I've narrowed it down to 20. So sit back, the vacation slides are starting.

Buenos Aires was largely built up at the turn of the last century, when Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world. It clearly modeled itself on Europe (in fact the city center was inspired by Haussmann's plan for Paris) and there is lots of Belle Époque architecture. But don't expect the equivalent of a European visit. Much of the historic city has been replaced by modern blocks, and of course, the long, rich history of Europe is missing as well. What's exciting is the dynamic between old and new — something that you see everywhere in terms of architecture, but also is the very life of the city itself. It's a mix. A cultural mix too, since porteños (people from Buenos Aires) seem to borrow so heavily from the cultures of Spain, Italy, Britain and France. The combination creates a bustle that often resembles New York.

For me personally, all that Belle Époque architecture means tons of statues (and there's nothing I like photographing more than statues).

However, that statues had competition from the unbelievable street art that I found throughout the city. There were murals in all sorts of styles. I have to say New York has nothing to compare. Unfortunately, there was also plenty of regular tag graffiti as well, often at the base of some lovely monument or statue.

(Some more street art from the Palermo Soho neighborhood.)

But to return to the statues for a minute... One of the city's great attractions is Recoleta cemetery. This is a true necropolis — a city of the dead. More specifically: the wealthy dead. Much like the dueling McMansions of today, rich people all tried to outdo each other with the most elaborate and finely-appointed family tomb. The statuary is exquisite and I took a huge share of photographs right here.

I should add that Buenos Aires had another historic cemetery called Chacarita that is considerably bigger than Recoleta and mostly unvisited by foreign tourists. It's a lot less luxe, but well worth seeing if you liked Recoleta.

But, you say, what about the shopping? Buenos Aires does owe a lot of its current popularity with foreigners to its reputation as a bargain. There no getting past the cheapness of some things, namely public transportation. A ride on the subway cost less than 50 cents (in comparison, a ride on the New York subway now costs $2.25, and when I was in London last year, a single ride cost $8. Yes, I said EIGHT DOLLARS.) The big "tourist trail" shopping experience is the San Telmo antiques market on Sundays. I dutifully went, but found the route WAY too crowded for my tastes. A good place for pickpocketing, but not so much for shopping. Thankfully, if you go any other day of the week, the neighborhood still has loads to offer — plenty of antique stores and indoor markets, plus hipper, more modern places (I bought several things at a shop called Materia Urbana, including a piece of original artwork). I included the above photo because it includes two omnipresent pop culture sights in Buenos Aires: an image of Carlos Gardel (the guy in the hat on the left), who's sort of the Argentinian Elvis (as far as celebrity worship) and a advertisement for Quilmes beer, the dominant brand whose mark is all over town.

Aside from its reputation for antiques, San Telmo is probably the most interesting neighborhood in the city from an architecture perspective. The historic character is better preserved than elsewhere (due in part to a yellow fever outbreak that caused the wealthy to flee their mansions here for the north). I loved wandering around and finding grand mansions in varying states of preservation.

But I think my favorite thing about Buenos Aires was its cafe culture. This is city that always has time for a good cup of coffee. I don't drink coffee, but the British influence means that it's also a good place for a proper pot of tea. I quickly discovered that nothing could top ordering "te con leche y medialunas" in an astounding array of charming establishments. This spread above was put out at Las Violetas, a stunning cafe/restaurant/chocolate shop a bit out of the center of town.

This is what Las Violetas looks like. Believe it or not, there are like a dozen historic cafes just as amazing — all of which can be enjoyed for the price of a cup of coffee.

But the cafe life extends to hipper places as well. I was particularly fond of Voulez Bar in Palermo. They serve lunch during the day, but come 5 o'clock, the place was full of people having tea with scones and marmalade. I drank a LOT of tea on this trip.

I always seek out bookstores when I travel, and I don't know if I've ever seen a stunner quite like Ateneo Grand Splendid, which is housed in a former movie palace.

But my favorite bookstore was the more modest Boutique de Libro in Palermo Soho, which in addition to some English language books has an amazing art and design collection. I picked up a book on Gonzalo Juanes, a Spanish photographer I'd never heard of. Palermo Soho is the hip shopping neighborhood in the city. It's dominated by trendy clothing shops, but there are decor shops on the fringes, including some mid-century antique shops. Unfortunately, I'm not rich enough to ship furniture home just yet.

Speaking of design, I suppose I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Puerto Madero. This is the premium locale in Buenos Aires right now and home to Philippe Starck's Faena Hotel+Universe, a place so forbidding and exclusive, they wouldn't let me in to look. But I can say that the brand-spanking new neighborhood of towers, parks and empty streets is bland and boring, and has tossed out pretty much everything that makes the city interesting. I will concede that Santiago Calatrava's bridge (pictured) is pretty cool.

If I was rich and lived in Buenos Aires, I would definitely live in Palermo, with its wonderful parks, including the rose garden shown here. Can you see the gorgeous spring weather?

I took two day trips. I visited Tigre (an easy train ride out of town). Although past its super-chic heyday, the town is still a base for boat trips, and has an incredible legacy of English architecture in its boating clubs. I found it quite quirky, and filled mostly with porteños enjoying a day out.

I also went to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, along with every other foreign tourist in BA. A one-hour boat trip across the river, this beautifully-preserved town was quiet and tranquil and offered an amazing sunset. (Thankfully, I followed my guidebook's instructions and brought mosquito repellent.)

Lastly, I stayed in two boutique hotels, one in Palermo Soho and Home Hotel in neighboring Palermo Hollywood. The hotels cost the same, but while the first place was "pleasant enough," Home was truly special. Here you can see my room. Every room in the hotel features a different vintage wallpaper. Mine was quite Golden Girls chic, but otherwise the room wasn't especially exciting (and I didn't like the lighting in my bathroom). The ground floor, with its progression of indoor and outdoor rooms, was the real design showpiece. Where Home elevated itself was the level of detail that went into everything from the welcome package you received when you checked in, to the (slightly wacky) breakfasts, to the cookies and weather report they left on your bed each night. I'll add that the graphic design (which incorporated the vintage wallpapers as a motif) was also very good. In its price range, this is definitely the place to stay. But book well in advance!

Didn't mean to go on for quite so long. We now return to our regularly scheduled interiors blogging.


nkp said...

Thanks for the grand tour a la photos. What a beautiful country. I love the idea of tea on every corner...I could definitely get used to the cafe way of life. And that second book store looks sublime. This will go down on my "some day" list for sure!

Stephanie said...

Oh man. It looks like a killer trip. Those statues!

Anonymous said...

What gorgeous photos! I love the postcard of Uruguay at sunset and the gorgeous floor of the coffee shop and the grand bookstore and the air conditioner behind the statue and Death looming over that tomb with the angel... Very nicely done - but I want to see more! All 600 photos!

Cassie said...

Miss Anonymous,

You don't have to look at all 600+, but I should have an album to show you at some point.

carol l. said...

Absolutely stunning. I am green with envy. The wallpaper in your room looks beautiful (and I'm not a fan of wallpaper in general). The bookstores and cafes are "my cup of tea" (although I really love coffee, as well.) Thanks for sharing.

vintage simple said...

Oh, this made me decadently homesick...! Lovely nkp passed this link on to me.... These are really beautiful photos - I think you captured the spirit of (what I think is) a beautiful city. And I miss the cafes on every corner - and the architecture with a history everywhere you turn...


Cassie said...

Thanks Maria. BA really is an incredible place.

Ben said...

This is great. How was the food?

Incidentally -- and entirely beside the point -- a tube ride on the London Underground only costs $8 (closer to $6 at today's rate) if you don't have an "Oyster card", a refillable card that beeps you through the gates and is available to anyone for a small deposit.

Obviously it depends what zone(s) you are travelling in, but a zone one ride costs £1.60 on an Oyster card and £4 paying cash, a big difference. Apparently they want to bring the technology to New York.

Cassie said...


I'm not a steak eater, so I'd rank the food just OK. I had some very good meals, but tea in cafes remained my favorite dining experience.

I've heard about the Oyster cards since I was last in London (at the absolute NADIR of the dollar). They definitely seem like the way to go! I just like throwing that $8 figure around to shock people.

erin@designcrisis said...

Le sigh. I won't be traveling anywhere exotic anytime soon, so I very much enjoyed living vicariously through you. Lovely photos, and I could almost taste the tea!

(oh, and thanks for the shout out!)

Designers' Brew said...

Incredible photos--the one of the statues in the graveyard gave me the chills. My boyfriend used to go to BA every few months for work, and I was just waiting for my chance to go with him... and then he got transferred to a new position that doesn't require him to go. So I can live vicariously through your photos!

Summer said...

There are two of the places you visit that I simply loved when I travelled to Argentina. First, the biggest bookstore in the world. What makes El Ateneo so special is the fact that it was installed in a luxury theatre and this theatre was build in 1919. By the end of the twenty century, for commercial purposes, the theatre was partially renovated into a book and music shop. I loved it, it is devided into sections with books depending on the theme.
The other is Las Violetas. I was not able to resist it. I was having my cup of delicious tea surrounded by stunning stained glass, polished wood, and marble columns.
Anyways, I loved the whole city. I was looking to rent apartments buenos aires in the neighborhood of Palermo which I heard it was safe. I had the best time and I am certainly planning on returning!