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The Obelisk and the Avenida 9 de Julio

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Avenida 9 de Julio, which cuts north-south through the city is one of the world’s widest avenues. Where it intersects Calle Corrientes, the city’s most emblematic symbol shoots grandly into the air: the Obelisk of Buenos Aires. The phallus-shaped monument is the perfect symbol for a country that so proudly basks in machismo.

Obelisk Buenos Aires

My, that’s quite an impressive… monument you have there, Argentina! Reaching 67 meters in height, the obelisk was built in 1936 by German engineers to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Buenos Aires’ founding. Throughout the years, it’s been the scene of protests, vandalism, concerts and speeches. During Isabel Perón’s tyrannical presidency, a banner was hung on the obelisk that read “Silence is Healthy”. Ostensibly a message to keep traffic noise down, it was actually a thinly veiled warning that it might be smart for political opponents to keep their trouble-making mouths shut.

Biggest Street in the World

Crossing the street to get to the obelisk is an exercise in bravery. The Avenida 9 de Julio, at 140 meters of width (460 feet), is insane, with four separate lights to get across the street, and about 20 lanes of traffic. Well, “lanes” is an abstract term, as nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to the lines painted on the pavement. Cars weave in and out, passing perilously close to one another at speeds that make you sick. Velocity is the name of the game for pedestrians, as well: if you want to get across the avenue in one go, you have to jog.

Loud, crowded and stressful, I wouldn’t want to spend a whole day near the avenue, but every time I had to cross it, I became energized. With the obelisk towering high overhead, and cars zooming recklessly by on all sides, it’s tough not to be impressed.

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May 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm Comments (0)

The Palacio Barolo – Inspired by Dante

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One of the best panoramic views in Buenos Aires is from the lighthouse at the top of the Palacio Barolo, on Avenida de Mayo. But as impressive as the view over the Plaza del Congreso and the city might be, expect to be even more amazed by the building itself.

Palacia Barolo

When the Palacio Barolo was completed in 1923, it was the tallest building in South America, with a crowning lighthouse that could be seen from Montevideo, Uruguay. The Italian architect, Mario Palanti, was commissioned to build the palace by an Italian immigrant, Luis Barolo, who had become rich in the fabrics trade. Palanti was a huge fan of Dante, and designed his building to pay tribute to the great author’s Divine Comedy.

The building is precisely 100 meters tall, one meter for each canto in the epic poem. Following Dante’s footsteps, a visitor to Palacio Barolo begins his journey in Hell (the basement and ground floor), moves on through Purgatory (floors 1-14) and ends in Heaven (floors 15-22). The 22 floors equal the number of stanzas of the poem’s verses. Each floor is split into 22 offices. And as in the Divine Comedy, the number nine is repeated throughout the building’s plan. Nine entries to the building represent the nine hierarchies of hell, while nine arches in the central hall stand for hell’s nine circles.

This kind of thing is like crack for me. The palace was inaugurated on Dante’s birthday, and Latin inscriptions throughout the building pay further tribute to the poet. The crowning cupola, inspired by a Hindu temple in India, symbolizes Dante’s union with Beatrice, his perfect woman.

You can join a guided tour, during the afternoon or evening, when the city lights are on. It’s an incredible way to see Buenos Aires from above, and also learn about one of the city’s most unique and amazing buildings.

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May 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm Comments (7)

The Palacio de Aguas Corrientes

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An intricately detailed, 19th century building spanning the width and length of a block in Balvanera, the Palace of Running Water must be the world’s most impressive clean water pumping facility. I can’t imagine it even has a competitor.

Palacio-de-Aguas-Corrientes

At the time of its construction, Buenos Aires was the only city in Latin America with clean running water, and the jaw-dropping palace was intended as a celebration of the city’s surging wealth modernity. Who cares if it’s just a shell for twelve massive water tanks? Why shouldn’t a shell be beautiful?

They went all out. The French Renaissance style building boasts over 300,000 multi-colored bricks and terracotta tiles, and occupies an entire city block. The rich ornamentation includes columns, turrets, mosaics and sculptures of flowers, fruits, and shields which represent the fourteen Argentine provinces. Almost everything was produced in Europe. The tin roof hails from France, the bricks from Belgium and the gorgeous terracotta tiles were elaborated by London’s Royal Daulton ceramics maker.

The offices of Argentina’s water company are today found inside the building, along with a courtyard and the old tanks. You can take a tour of the premises and visit a small Museum of Water, on weekday mornings.

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Riobamba 750
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May 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm Comment (1)

The National Library

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Surely the strangest building in Recoleta is the futuristic Biblioteca Nacional, a wildly modern structure near the staid Museum of Fine Arts.

National Library Argentina

Argentina’s national library has moved around a lot since its inception in 1810. First, it occupied a building in Montserrat’s Manzana de las Luces (Illuminated Block), which has become a cool place to go souvenir shopping. A century later, the library moved into a new building on Calle Mexico, originally designed for the National Lottery. We took a peek inside. It’s now the national center for music, but the guard allowed us into the lobby, and pointed out curious design elements like lottery balls worked into the stair railing. Jorge Luis Borges worked in this building after being appointed director of the library in 1955.

The current building wasn’t opened until 1993, a date that I first assumed must be wrong. The bold, gray Brutalist-style construction feels straight out of the 1960s. And indeed, that’s when the mammoth structure was actually designed. But work suspensions, budget restraints and politics plagued construction for over 30 years. By the time it opened, the audacious new building was already long-since architecturally outmoded.

Still, it’s an impressive block of concrete, and the exterior patio offers a great view over Recoleta. There’s a nice cafe below, and the library offers daily guided visits, often in English. Among the treasures you can see inside the library are a first-edition of Don Quijote and a Gutenberg Bible from 1455.

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May 1, 2011 at 7:24 pm Comments (0)

Palacio Paz – A Private Home Fit for Kings

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Fleeing the yellow fever which was devastating the city’s southern barrios at the beginning of the 20th century, Buenos Aires’ most wealthy families established fabulous residences around Retiro’s Plaza San Martín. None were more extravagant than the Palacio Paz.

Dome

José Camilio Paz was the founder of La Prensa, the city’s most influential newspaper, and a man whose success brought him to the forefront of Porteño society. He was Argentina’s ambassador to France, and harbored aspirations to the presidency. Clearly, he regarded himself as a man of much import, and so ordered the construction of an outrageous private home in the heart of the city.

Like many Argentinians of his day, Paz was obsessed with Europe, and returned to France to choose an architect and materials. Construction on the palace stretched from 1901 to 1914, but Paz died in 1912 without ever seeing the completed work. But his widow and family happily moved in, and enjoyed a life of absolute splendor.

As we were taking the tour, our guide stressed that the Palacio Paz was for a family of nine. Yet, regardless of how many times I heard that, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea. This was a place fit for royalty. At four stories and 12,000 square meters of space, the sheer size of it is incredible. The nine family members had sixty servants at their disposal. There are seven elevators. Seven.

Our tour started in the reception area, moved into the ball room, then a long gallery, decked out with wooden benches and velvet walls. We continued through the dining room of honor, where each guest had his own personal waiter, the smoking room, the ladies’ room, and the music room. At this point I was starting to lose my orientation; every room was just as gorgeous as the last. But on we marched, through the waiting room, to the music room and then into a round room which shattered my conceptions of what kind of things private wealth could actually purchase.

This was the formal reception room, meant to leave guests astonished, and it accomplishes its task handily. A perfectly circular room over 21 meters in height with statues, paintings, marbled columns and a ceiling fresco dedicated to Louis XIV, the Sun King. From here, we were led into the garden, and had the chance to admire the iron wrought sun room on the palace’s back side.

After the Paz family moved on, the palace was purchased by the Círculo Militar for private functions and, except for the unfortunate addition of a sporting area which replaced the garage and stables, it’s survived almost completely intact into the modern day. The tour costs $40 (US$10) per person, and is a wonderful chance to see how magnificently rich porteños of the early 20th century were able to live.

Palacio Paz
Av. Santa Fe, 750
English-Language Tours at 3:30pm, Wed & Thu
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April 27, 2011 at 10:44 pm Comments (2)

Puerto Madero

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Buenos Aires’ trendiest residential neighborhood is probably its most bizarre. Even though it’s physically close to the historic center, Puerto Madero almost feels like a completely different city.

Puerto Madero

The narrow port for which the neighborhood is named opened in 1882 to help serve Buenos Aires’ shipping businesses. But it was in use for only sixteen years. Before construction even completed, Puerto Madero had been rendered obsolete by the sheer size of the newer, larger barges. For most of the 20th century, the warehouses sat unused and the area around Puerto Madero was abandoned to urban rot.

But that’s changed. About ten years ago, a concentrated effort was made to modernize and clean up one of the city’s best-located and most-neglected neighborhoods. With its location along the Rio de Plata, and the ecological reserve of the Costanera Sur, it’s amazing that Buenos Aires took so long to make proper use of Puerto Madero. Wealthy porteños, both young professionals and retirees, have moved there en masse, and property values have shot through the roof. To accommodate the new residents, a number of restaurants have opened up along the old port, which itself has become a place of touristic interest.

We’re in Puerto Madero constantly, usually for jogging, but also taking advantage of the cheap and modern Cinemark theater. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in Puerto Madero — the newness of the buildings and shops is too apparent, and the large, expensive restaurants are almost always empty. A stroll through the neighborhood can be a surreal experience; where the nearby streets of Monserrat are noisy, dirty and gloriously alive, Puerto Madero is clean, quiet and desolate.

Still, walking along the old port as the sun behind the city, its rays reflecting off the water and giant glass buildings, is one of the more pleasant ways to spend an evening in Buenos Aires. We’ve gone to bars along the port for happy hour, and perhaps there are some treasures hidden in Puerto Madero that we haven’t discovered… does anyone have a suggestion?

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April 27, 2011 at 8:43 pm Comment (1)

San Telmo’s Market Hall

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Occupying a good chunk of the block sketched out by Estados Unidos, Defensa, Carlos Calvo and Bolivar, the Mercado de San Telmo is a place which locals and tourists visit in almost equal numbers. The latter to buy antiques and souvenirs, the former for their day-to-day groceries.

Telmo Dome

Since we precariously straddle the line between tourist and local, we use the mercado for both purposes. A number of veggie and meat stands compete for business in the center of the market, surrounded by antique shops that extend down long hallways. Prices for cool souvenirs, second-hand clothing and random trinkets are noticeably cheaper than at the Sunday antiques market. I picked up an old Carlos Gardel album for twelve pesos, and on that very day, saw the same album being sold for 60 outside.

The souvenir shops are a somewhat newer addition, capitalizing on San Telmo’s reputation as the best antiques hunting ground in the city, but the market has a history stretching back to 1897. It was inaugurated a couple decades after the Yellow Fever epidemic which devastated San Telmo, and the new center of commerce was greeted enthusiastically by residents. Ever since, the mercado has been an integral part of the neighborhood. In 2001, it was even declared a national historic monument.

When you go, take your wallet and take your time. It’s almost inconceivable that you’ll walk out without buying something. If you’re in the mood for meat, check out our favorite stand: Puesto 54. With incredible prices and friendly cleaver-wielding butchers always willing to explain the various cuts, it quickly became our go-to place for beef.

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April 25, 2011 at 10:33 pm Comments (4)

Belgrano “R” – Resplendent, Residential, Revoltingly Rich

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Hello boys and girls, and welcome to Belgrano “R”. Let’s play a game! Everyone think of an “R”-word that describes this lovely neighborhood!

Residential? Yes that’s right, Bobby. Very clever!
Rich? Indeed, how true! Gold star for Judy!
Ridiculous? I suppose that works too, Jürgen, though I don’t much care for that one.
Fascist? MICHAEL! Sigh, that doesn’t even begin with “R”… and put your fist down, you irritating little twit. There will be no populist uprisings in Belgrano “R”!

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The northern barrio of Belgrano is split into a few sub-neighborhoods, two of which are known as “R” and “C”. The letters come from the names of the train stations “Rosario” and “Central”, but most porteños assign different meanings to the abbreviations: Belgrano “R” for residential, and Belgrano “C” for China. We’d already checked out China Town during the New Year celebrations, and returned recently to explore the more upscale section of the barrio.

With broad, tree-lined streets and Victorian-style homes, Belgrano “R” is easily the most dignified neighborhood we’ve seen in Buenos Aires. This section of town was settled by wealthy British expatriates, and the gates and well-maintained gardens are clearly reminiscent of England. After a good lunch at Jolie Bistro, near the train station, we set off to explore. With sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees, and so many fascinating houses to photograph, we couldn’t have been happier.

But the joy didn’t last long. The very first time Jürgen hauled out his camera, in front of a house which might as well have been a castle, a portly security guard shouted at us from behind the gate. “¡No es museo! ¿Que quieren ustedes? ¡Esta es una residencia privada!” Geez, we just liked the house. Sorry to have been impressed by a building clearly designed to impress people.

This scenario repeated itself throughout the day. Private security guards were set up on every corner of Belgrano “R” in tan-brown boxes that resembled phone booths. Every time Jürgen started taking pictures, some blustery guard would run over to us and start asking questions. I suppose that’s their job and, once their curiosity was satisfied, they always allowed us to continue, but it was awfully annoying. Even when we weren’t taking pictures, the guards kept a careful eye on us. “Strangers”.

Still, Belgrano “R” is a beautiful neighborhood. There’s clearly a lot of money here, and perhaps the exaggerated security measures are necessary. Anyway, enjoy the pictures… I think in the end, it was worth the hassle.

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April 16, 2011 at 11:08 pm Comments (12)

The National Museum of Fine Arts

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We confidently strode up the stairs of an impressive neoclassical building, convinced that it was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Passing between the massive gray Doric columns, a guard brusquely informed us that we were actually at the University’s Law School. He shoved us off toward a nearby clump of dark red clay, which had been been molded into the form of a building.

Museu-Nacional-de-Bellas-Art.

In this neighborhood of refined elegance, the museum definitely stands out. It was built in 1870 as a drainage pumping station, and converted for use as a museum in 1933. The building’s age is evident; inside, paint is peeling off the walls and the air is impregnated with the unmistakable atmosphere of slow decay. Exhibits were poorly lit, trash was strewn carelessly about the floor, and the visitors, laughing loudly and using cell phones, weren’t treating the place with any respect. Overall, it was a far cry from what we expected of the country’s premier fine arts museum.

Still, the museum holds an astounding collection, which we spent a couple hours taking in. The first floor features masters from all over the world, including Cezanne, Rembrandt, Guaguin, Van Gogh and Monet. But we most enjoyed the upper floor, which serves as an excellent primer to the history of Argentine art. There was a healthy blend of the classic and modern, featuring artists mostly unknown outside of the continent. We loved Guillermo Kutica’s mattresses made of maps, and were puzzled by the mystical, post-modern works of Xul Solar.

By the end of our visit, any complaints we’d had about the building had faded from memory. It helped that entrance to the museum is completely free, making it difficult to gripe at all. Still, once the city has a little extra cash on-hand, another round of refurbishment for this otherwise excellent museum might be in order.

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April 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm Comment (1)

Find Your Inner Artist at Casa Globo

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At the end of an afternoon spent exploring Belgrano “R”, one of the most posh neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, a huge turtle peering out of a window on Calle Mendoza grabbed our attention. Made completely out of recycled plastic bottles, it was just one piece in what looked like an incredible gallery. We tried the door, but it was closed. Curses.

Casa Globo

Rounding the corner onto Zapiola, we learned that the gallery was attached to a much larger artistic complex called Casa Globo. A hip little café called “La Inspiración” occupies most of the first floor, with three floors of free art galleries above it. The art was a lot better than at certain museums I’ve paid entrance to, and we had a great time wandering the large house. In the basement, we stumbled upon the workshop where the artist responsible for the recycled-bottle-turtle was laboring over another sculpture. I mean, I assume it was the same artist; there surely aren’t many who use plastic bottles as their primary material.

Casa Globo was the brainchild of Solange Guez, who developed the multi-use facility to foster the appreciation of contemporary art, as well as active participation. It hosts workshops for children and adults, and is meant to be an open meeting space for anyone interested in furthering their artistic abilities. There isn’t a shred of creative talent in my body, so I was content to just admire the work of others and relax with a cup of coffee on the patio. If you’re in the area, definitely check out Casa Globo: a unique and interesting initiative.

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April 1, 2011 at 7:52 pm Comment (1)

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