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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.

Palacio de Aguas Corrientes
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May 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm Comment (1)

Latin American Art in the Museo Isaac Fernández Blanco

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Around the corner from the ostentatious Palacio Paz is the much more refined Palacio Noël, home to the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernández Blanco. The palace would be worth seeing in its own right, but together with the museum, it’s one of Buenos Aires’ cultural highlights.

Museo Isaac Fernandez Blanco

Isaac Fernández Blanco was an engineer who, finding himself the beneficiary of a vast inheritance, went on a whirlwind shopping spree of the continent’s colonial-period art. From the outset, Blanco wished his collection to publicly accessible, so he opened up his house in 1921, calling it the Museum of Colonial Art. His daughter was the museum’s first guide.

In 1947, fifteen years after his death, Blanco’s museum was moved into the Palacio Noël. Designed and built in 1920 by architect Martín Noël as a private residence for himself and his brother, the city’s mayor at the time, the neo-colonial palace was a natural fit for Blanco’s collection.

Visiting the museum is an utter joy. You could do nothing more than hang out in the tranquil Andalusian patio, with its fountains, benches and trees, and leave satisfied. But then you’d miss an incredible collection of art from the colonial periods of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. The museum is small, but with three floors and plentiful information about the exhibits, a comprehensive visit could easily consume a couple hours. Religious paintings from Cuzco, a room packed with colonial-era dolls, ivory figures, intricately-carved wooden furniture, a refurbished kitchen and costumes and clothing are just some of the pieces on display. Everything is tastefully lit and the palatial setting generates the perfect atmosphere.

Regardless of your level of interest in antique Latin American art, you won’t be disappointed in the museum. Entry costs just one peso, and it’s hard to imagine better value for that kind of pocket change.

Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernández Blanco
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April 23, 2011 at 10:02 pm Comments (4)

Iglesia del Santísimo Sacramento

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Near the Plaza de San Martín in Retiro, the skinny Iglesia del Santísimo Sacremento is not as famous or conspicuous as so many other landmarks close nearby. But as long as you’re in the area, it’s worth taking a quick walk through one of Buenos Aires’ prettiest places of worship.

Iglesia del Santísmo Sacramento

At the turn of the 20th century, Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena had risen to the heights of Porteño society. Also known as (take a deep breath), Countess Pontificate Maria de las Mercedes Luisa Castellanos of the Church, she had the Palacio San Martín built as her family’s primary residence. The sumptuous living quarters must have nagged at her conscience; in 1908 she declared that, “If I live in a palace, then so should God!”, and ordered construction of the Iglesia del Santísimo Sacremento. Not bad. Someday, I’d like to be wealthy enough to condescend to God.

The great dame spared no expense. She hired French architects who outfitted the new church with Carraran marble, the world’s most expensive, three Venetian maiolicas in the altar, blue and white granite, and a group of statues carved from white marble. Stained glass windows display miracles throughout Christian history and the church’s crypt, which can be visited on request, holds the countess’s mortal remains. Apparently, she wanted to be God’s roomie.

Santísimo Sacramento is still known among porteño high society as the place to get married in the city. Little wonder: it would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful catwalk (or gangplank, depending on your point of view) than the church’s narrow and richly ornamented nave.

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March 29, 2011 at 8:26 pm Comments (2)

A Tour through Barracas

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In the 19th century, the wealthiest corner of Buenos Aires wasn’t Retiro or Recoleta, but Barracas. Over the decades, this southern neighborhood lost its former glamor but recently has been showing signs of a resurgence in popularity.

Lsa Palmas
Yellow Fever

In 1871, a yellow fever epidemic devastated Buenos Aires. Eight percent of the city’s population fell to the disease, and the southern end of the city was particularly hard-hit. The upper-classes abandoned Barracas in droves, resettling in the north of the city and leaving the neighborhood to the European immigrants, still arriving from Italy and Spain by the boatload. The wealthy families generally held onto their properties as landlords, and slowly allowed them to fall into decay.

Las Palmas
Lsa Palmas

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we set out to uncover the best the barrio has to offer. We stepped out of the bus at the strangely quiet Parque España, and made a beeline for Pizzería Las Palmas. Pizza was our first mission of the day, as it nearly always is. Las Palmas is a very cool, unpretentious restaurant with cheap prices and delicious food. With its neon lights and casual vibe, it felt like a place right out of 1950s Midwest America. I turned around every time I heard the door open, to check if the Fonz had just come in.

Calle Lanín
Calle Lanin

Full on cheese and grease, we headed south along Calle Brandsen, past a creepy neuropsychiatric hospital and onto Calle Lanín, a street which has been turned into an amazing open-air art gallery; kind of an answer to Boca’s Caminito. Every house on Lanín is covered with colored tiles, in swirling, mesmerizing patterns. The project, by local artist Marino Santa María, debuted over 10 years ago and has lost none of its brightness or vitality. And the amazing thing is, on a Sunday afternoon when thousands of tourists are crammed into El Caminito, Calle Lanín was absolutely desolate.

The Israeli Temple & Society of Light
Sociedad Luz

In fact, everything was so eerily quiet that we were becoming convinced that nobody actually lived in Barracas. But that changed upon crossing Avenida Montes de Oca, where the neighborhood burst noisily into life with shops, restaurants, dog poop, galleries, buses and traffic, and cleaning ladies dumping buckets of water out onto the sidewalk. As we wandered around Barracas’ eastern side, we came across some incredible buildings. A gorgeous Arabesque building on Calle Brandsen turned out, strangely, to be the Israeli Temple. According a group of older Jewish Argentinians standing outside, it has an amazing interior patio (the temple was unfortunately closed when we arrived). Nearby, we found the neoclassical Sociedad Luz building, a stronghold of 19th-century socialists who founded the university to promote scientific learning among the working classes. Today, the building continues its educative purpose as a public library.

Iglesia de Santa Felicitas
Angel

But Barracas’ most impressive building is the Iglesia de Santa Felicitas. This massive religious complex was inaugurated in 1876, and named in honor of Felicitas Guerrero, who enjoyed fame as the most beautiful noblewoman in Buenos Aires. As a teenager, she had been married off to a rich and much-older landowner, who died soon after the union, leaving his young widow incredibly rich. Felicitas had youth, wealth and beauty… it’s no surprise that she became the desire of numerous suitors, among them Enrique Ocampo, who had been obsessed with her for years. When he learned that she’d fallen for a rival, Ocampo lost it. Following her onto her estate in Barracas, he confronted her with a pistol. “You’ll marry me, or you’ll marry no one!” When she tried to escape, he shot her in the back then committed suicide. (Or was shot by Felicitas’ father, who had quickly arrived on the scene; it’s never been satisfactorily resolved). Both the widow and her assassin were buried in Recoleta Cemetery on the same day.

Barracas was once the scene of the noble class’s exploits, but has spent the last century as a forgotten corner left to poor workers. The richness of its history is evident in every corner, and it’s a fascinating neighborhood in which to spend a day. Warned off by overly cautious guidebooks and well-meaning locals, tourists generally avoid the area, and that’s a shame. Barracas has a lot to offer… but get there quick if you want to be ahead of the curve, because the neighborhood is already at work shaking off its rough image. Check out the rest of our images, of this incredible and still relatively unknown section of the city.

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March 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm Comment (1)
The Palacio de Aguas Corrientes
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