Today is the second day of a four-day long weekend that ends on May 1, International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day). We feel right at home because like long weekends in Vancouver, it’s raining!
Fortunately for us it’s been mostly clear and sunny for the past week, although a “polar front” hit town a few days ago, pushing the temp down to 12-15 degrees C. Perfect weather for walking around many of the 47 neighbourhoods that make up Buenos Aires, a federal district like Washington and Mexico City. We’ve managed to take a stroll or follow guidebook walking tours through about a dozen of them, and have visited numerous historic buildings, plazas, and art galleries, enjoyed chop (draft beer) at many outdoor cafes while watching tango dancers, and oh yes, done our best to avoid getting hit by a car!
That last bit needs an explanation. We’re thinking of coming up with a “Ten Best and Ten Worst Experiences of Travel” – and the car and taxi drivers of Buenos Aires have already secured the number one position on the “Ten Worst” list. Throughout our travels we have observed cars and buses going too fast, running red lights, and generally driving recklessly by any standard. But here in Buenos Aires, the drivers not only drive fast and furious, but actually aim for pedestrians foolishly attempting to cross streets in marked crosswalks with walk signals. Even if the street is 8 or 12 lanes wide, as is the case all over the city, drivers will always want the lane a pedestrian is in front of, and they don’t slow down for families, senior citizens, or people with canes or crutches. No wonder the people here seem fitter than in North America, they have to do several life-threatening 50-yard dashes every day to and from work and shopping. That gets the heart pumping and calories burning!
On the positive side, our favourite outdoor space is Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighbourhood, formerly a working-class area that claims to be the birthplace of the tango. The plaza is surounded by cafes and antique stores. For a real sense of history, sipping a café con leche at Café Tortoni in the Centro neighbourhood can’t be beat. This is the oldest traditional café in the city, dating back to 1858. The very high ceiling features stained glass and the wide open layout gives everyone a good view of the old wood fixtures and chairs, artifacts, framed photos, and paintings spanning the 150+ year history of the café and surrounding area – just a few blocks from Casa Rosada – the main government building at the east end of Avenida de Mayo. It is clearly a favourite with tourists and locals alike. We also took the “A-Line” to the end of the line and back – this is the subway line built under the city in 1913, the first in South America, and still running the original wood-construction cars on rails.
Other walks took us to the mansions originally built by “captains of industry” in the early 20th century but sold or lost during the 1929 stock market crash – many then purchased by foreign governments to serve as embassies. We happened across the Canadian embassy, down a side street next to a television studio, in a plain building of no particular noteworthiness – unlike the French embassy, in a magnificent old mansion that the French refused to abandon years ago when city officials hoped to demolish it in order to widen the street behind it.
Our last stop was the Cementerio de la Recoleta, a mausoleum-packed cemetery serving city elites since 1822. We wandered through rows and rows of the extravagantly adorned tombs of families headed by generals, presidents, the captains of industry mentioned earlier, and Argentine icon Evita Peron. Most of the tombs were in good condition, obviously still visited by family members, but more than a few showed signs of being vandalized, broken into, or have simply deteriorated over time. At one ancient mausoleum with the door long gone, we could see wood boxes of remains stacked along one side, bones visible through cracks in the old crates.
One of the things that has intrigued us about the city is trash pick-up, and what happens to apparently abandoned cars. Residents and businesses simply pile trash – regular garbage, packing materials, broken furniture, construction waste, and everything else you can think of, in random piles on street corners and sometimes on the street itself. Piles seem to accumulate for several days before being picked up – although now that we have some regular walking routes to and from the subway, we have noticed some piles have never been cleared. And you don’t have to walk far before seeing an abandoned car – there seems to be at least one every block. Some have obviously been in a serious crash and just pushed to the side, some have become makeshift garbage dumps, the rest have been stripped to the bone, torched, or decorated or covered in graffiti.