Sunday, August 30, 2009

Buenos Aires in retrospect

If Buenos Aires had a theme song, it would be “Cite Tango” by the Gotan Project.

The city is sexy and cosmopolitan, yet a little rough around the edges after emerging from a long history fraught with political upheaval and strife. Though the government is relatively calm now compared to the days of Peron et. al., the financial situation still weighs heavily on the country, with unemployment very high and inflation quite rampant ($1 equals about 4 pesos). While this doesn't bode well for Argentinians, for Americans it's a dream come true. You can live like a king on almost nothing here, especially in the trendiest, hippest neighborhood of Buenos Aires: the Recoleta district. Here is where Santa Fe Avenue lies, with its endless boutiques, cafes, book stores and restaurants that stretch for miles both ways. I stayed in an apartment just around the corner from Santa Fe, and when I wasn't visiting the usual sights, everyday was spent shopping here or on Calle Florida (another long street filled with retail in both directions), drinking espressos at corner cafes.

During my stay I bought a black peacoat ($30), a black wool trench ($50), a real(!) leather handbag in the style of Balenciaga's motorcycle bag ($55) and knee-high leather boots ($60). In other words, prices here are ridiculous compared to what I'm used to -- especially for quality leather items. The unspoken uniform in Buenos Aires (at least in the fall/winter) is knee-high leather boots, whether flat or heeled. Every woman is wearing a pair, so to blend in with the locals and look stylish, a pair is necessary. Speaking of style, I found the women here to be more stylish than anywhere I've seen in Italy, France or NYC, and they pull it off with ease and the knowledge that designer labels aren't needed to look good. Sometimes it was fun just to people watch with a cappuccino because of all the great oufits that passed by.

Our apartment was beyond charming, and true to most of the architecture in the city, was impossibly French in every way. It felt like a flat in Paris, but was instead nestled nicely in the Recoleta district, and came out to only about $100 per night. (For a two-bedroom/two-bath with modern kitchen, it was a steal.):

I fell in love with the building's French cage elevator just outside our
front door. It was like a scene right out of "Amelie".

San Telmo:

Every Sunday there's a big artisan's fair in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires. It's called the "feria de San Telmo" and is filled with tables of arts, crafts and antiques from local artists and collectors. Fun to peruse and soak in the culture, as San Telmo is a historic district known for its tango and tango dancers it used to house:

The city:

Me in front of the Casa Rosada (or "pink house"), where the president's office is.

Calle Florida (or "Florida Street"):

A group of tango dancers on Florida Street continuously perform for tourists and passerbys near the entrance to a mall called the Galleria Pacifico.

The entrance to Galleria Pacifico (above). This mall is incredible. I've never seen any like it.

I couldn't help myself.

Recoleta Cemetery:

On our way to the cemetery (above). I really want to own that building with the for sale sign behind us. According to real estate rates quoted by an agent I spoke with, it probably costs about, oh, $200,000. I don't know what I'm waiting for.

Now I don't usually visit cemeteries on my off days...or any days for that matter. Frankly they creep me out (as do most things that are tied to death), but the one in Recoleta is world famous so we had to pop by for a visit. It's exactly like the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris (you know, the one from the Oscar Wilde vignette in "Paris Je T'aime"), and in true cemetery fashion, is pretty eerie:

Many of the tombs had glass doors, and you could see the coffins lined on shelves inside. I'll be honest, it was ... different. After we visited Eva Peron's grave (above), we hightailed it out of there. The feeling of just how mortal we were was a little too palpable for our tastes.

El Ateneo:

I've heard it said that Buenos Aires is one of the most literary cities in the world, and the many book stores I came across was evidence of this. I couldn't go more than three or four blocks without stumbling upon another hole-in-the-wall bookstore or behemoth that could easily rival a Barnes and Noble at its best. For a bibliophile, I was in heaven. In fact the most stunning bookstore I've ever visited thus far was the El Ateneo on Santa Fe Avenue. Even if you could care less about books, you MUST visit the El Ateneo. The giant space is an old majestic theater converted into a modern bookstore, where a cafe sits in the stage area, and the tall red velvet curtains, frescos and gold trim detailing along the eaves have all been kept in immaculate condition. Where else can you spy readers lounging with their books in historic opera boxes near the stage area?:

The restaurant scene:

If you were to live permanently in Buenos Aires, you would easily be able to afford eating out almost every night -- and you wouldn't have to rely on fast food to get you through your journey. Locals go to dinner around 10pm, and often stay out enjoying their food and drink till midnight. Going out to eat is an event here -- something to look forward to in your day. Even the most upscale restaurants in the city only run about $10 to $12 a plate – the same kind of restaurants that in the states would cost $30+ per entree. And bottles of wine, both ordered in restaurants and bought in grocery stores, is a pittance compared to what we're used to paying. If dining out is your thing, this is the city to do it in:

A dinner show (above and below).

A charming fondue restaurant (above) we ate at one night in the Soho district. Below, Restaurant Cabernet, a romantic bistro with candlelit seating in a courtyard inside the stucco walls.

If you love Italian food, you have to try the fresh handmade pasta at La Baita (above), also in the Soho district. During our dinner two opera singers came out among the tables and sang while customers enjoyed food and wine.

Evita Museum:
I know she was corrupt and all, but I'm obsessed with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Evita" and have always been intrigued by the cult status of Eva Peron, so we visited her museum during our stay. Though it's small, it's definitely worth a visit and houses many relics like her collections of hats and dresses:

All in all, Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, and I can't wait to go back and stay longer. It's an interesting hybrid of the old and new, of antiquated Europe and modern Manhattan. It has all the conveniences of an American city, but with the charm and sophistication of Paris. Best of all it's 10-folds more affordable than any other city I've ever visited. If Carrie Bradshaw had lived here instead of the Big Apple, her clothing and shoe addiction on a columnists' salary would have been much more believable. ;)

Rio de Janeiro in retrospect

Last day at Copacabana Beach.

And I'm home. The last three weeks have been a blur of tango, flan and Havaianas (among other things) and while it's great to be back home (I missed my husband dearly), like most trips mine went by way too fast. Unfortunately I'm still in the process of getting my faulty memory card to work again, so all I have are the photos I took during my second and third weeks. Luckily my sister has pictures of us visiting the Christ the Redeemer statue, etc., so I'll get copies of those when she arrives back in the states in late October.

Anyway, Rio was fabulous, plain and simple. There's a charm about the city, but contrary to popular belief it's not in its beaches. I was told that's where it lay, but the longer I roamed, the more I saw that the beaches were not the main reason to fly southward.

Instead, it's the almost unrecognizable delight of being in a city where practically no one speaks English. Whoever said Portuguese was a dead language has not visited Rio. Here it thrives, and for such a tourist destination I was pleasantly surprised to see that any "American" way of life that may have rubbed off from tourists up north hasn't succeeded in pervading Rio's people or culture.

In the dirty streets, where a mixture of trash and banana leaves line the gutters, one can't escape the smell of car exhaust from the city's buses and cars, which go flying by and could care less about jaywalkers and red lights. With a little help from the humidity that lies thick on its descent in from the Atlantic, the smog sticks like a patina of pollution to your skin, a badge of honor earned as you traverse deeper on foot into the city. Here juice bars stand on every corner with nary a Starbucks in sight. Local "cariocas" (or locals) in tank tops and flip flops sit at corner bars sipping coconut juice under neon lights of soccer games broadcasting on TV sets above them. If they aren't here or enjoying caiprinhas at outdoor bars, they the cariocas are strewn across the shores of Ipanema and Copacabana, dotting the terrain in patio chairs and bikinis, drinking sweet water out of green coconuts with long white straws.

It's not cheap here. Good hotels are pricey, and food is even more so. On one particular quest to find peanut butter at a nearby grocery store, a local guided me to the closest thing to my description -- a sugary peanut paste that tasted more like raw cookie dough than peanut butter (turns out I like actually like this stuff better). The price I didn't like, but the local commented that prices were, in fact, quite high in Rio -- it was once you got out of the sprawling city of 7 million, she assured me, that prices became "normal".

But one doesn't come to Rio for the "normal", so it's just as well that the word stays outside of city lines. Rio is probably the most geographically beautiful city in the world. It's where jungle meets city, and the fascinating combination creates an exciting and dangerous atmosphere thick with lush foliage and urban streets.

The Jardin de Botanica:

An extreme close-up of the Christ the Redeemer statue, taken from the botanical garden.

The botanical garden in Rio is a must-visit. I'm not that big into plants and foliage, but the walled grounds here are breathtaking and serene.

Rio at night:

View of Ipanema Beach from our patio (above), and a very tiny-looking Christ the Redeemer statue (below) atop Corcovado Mountain to the right of our patio.

Taxi ride to the Rio Scenarium nightclub.

Rio Scenarium:

The Rio Scenarium is a samba club in the Lapa district of Rio. Lapa is a dangerous neighborhood, but if you take a cab you can get dropped off right at the door of the samba club. If you only have time to do ONE thing in Rio, it has to be a visit to this (okay, also a visit to the Christ statue, but this comes second). Inside, the Rio Scenarium looks more like a speakeasy in 1920s New Orleans than a samba club in South America. Fun, crazy antiques fill the walls and shelves and there's an electricity in the air as everyone drinks, dances and has a good time to the excellent live music:

The entrance to the Rio Scenarium (above), on the right.

Me having too much fun.

Rio by day:

Laying out on Ipanema. My bikini was by far the most conservative of bikinis on the beach.

I went a little Havaiana-crazy and bought too many pairs. Oh well, when in Rome Rio. Here's my favorite pair.

The favelas:

My earlier blog post on this says it all.

More Rio at night:

We ate dinner one night at the Garota de Ipanema (above), where "The Girl From Ipanema" was originally written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Apparently the girl is real, and used to walk by this restaurant every day, catching the attention of the musicians hanging out inside.

The sidewalks in Rio are made up of small black and white tiles, with different patterns swirling throughout the city streets. In Ipanema the pattern looks like so (above and below).

In Copacabana (above), the swirls are more free but just as beautiful.

On my flight out en route to Buenos Aires.
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