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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Buenos Aires

Certain images depict the soul of a city. For Paris, it's the Eiffel Tower, lacy and glamorous; for New York, the Statue of Liberty, grand and welcoming. But for Buenos Aires, the 500 year-old capital of Argentina, a city that writers have described as "the greatest city south of the equator" or as "the Paris of South America," there is no grand landmark. But there is perhaps a word that can describe the soul of Buenos Aires - it's "Tango."
The tango originated there in the 1880's, in the port area of La Boca and the streets of Caminito, where poor immigrants socialized in bars and brothels with women of ill-repute. Unlike the more conservative arms length dancing of the era, they danced in close embrace, cheek to cheek, legs invading one another's space, with flirtatious pauses, caresses, all a prologue to sex.
While you can catch couples dancing the tango in dozens of local clubs or for tourists on the streets of Caminito, the better experience is watching the best professionals perform at one of the major tango theatres in the city. We saw our tango at the dinner theatre Esquina Carlos Gardel, named for the Frank Sinatra of the tango, Carlos Gardel, who was mourned by the entire country when he died in a plane crash in 1935.
Argentina, the second largest nation in South America, is set alongside narrow Chile and occupies the southern part of the continent. Nearly half of Argentina's 40 million people live in Buenos Aires or its suburbs.

I arrived in Buenos Aires after touring the Brazilian-Argentine natural wonder - Iguazu Falls - and landed at Jorge Newbury, the city's domestic airport. The first thing I noticed about Buenos Aires was its complexion. While Rio de Janeiro in Brazil was multi-racial with a large black and mestizo population, Buenos Aires has a predominantly white population of European descent. A tour guide educated me on why the neighboring populations were so different. Argentina banned slavery in 1825 and provided a grace period to slave owners so that rather than free their slaves, they could sell them to neighboring countries where slavery remained legal.
We entered the city on Avenida 9 de Julio, advertised as the widest boulevard in the world. But although the great avenue is bustling with traffic and near gridlocked during rush hour, it is not a glamorous thoroughfare like the Champs d'Elysee or Broadway. The only sights I found worth noting on 9 de Julio were the Obelisk and the Teatro Colon. The Obelisk is a 222-foot tower erected in 1936 to commemorate the sight where the nation's first flag was raised. It is the landmark most often used in postcards of the city. More importantly, it stands at the junction of Corrientes Avenue where three subway lines intersect. A few blocks to the north is the Colon Theatre, an opera house built in 1908, with seven tiers of seats and an enormous chandelier. It has been described as more opulent than Milan's La Scala and as one of the top five opera houses in the world. Caruso, Callas, Toscanini, Stravinsky all performed here. We saw one of the last performances there before a scheduled renovation.

Entering Buenos Aires on Avenida 9 de Julio, the first major hotel you come upon is the Four Seasons Buenos Aires (54 11 4321-1200), recently rated by Conde Naste as the best hotel in South America. The hotel is made up of a modern high rise building and a Belle Époque mansion. There are 165 guest rooms or suites with seven unique suites in "La Mansion." We stayed in the tower building and enjoyed the service and amenities that are a hallmark of a Four Seasons hotel. Our room overlooked the mansion, pool, and gardens and a chocolate statue of tango dancers and a bottle of local wine were set out for us in welcome. The mansion was built in 1917 when the wealthy in Buenos Aires flourished and created palace homes. It has been renovated to provide all the luxuries a first class traveler could desire and, although it is used for private parties, events, and Sunday brunch, its private suites have been local residences for celebrities like Madonna, who stayed there during the filming of Evita.
The Four Seasons Buenos Aires has a spacious and comfortable lobby, a lounge and bar, two restaurants, and a spa with signature treatments that include massages to the beat of - what else - tango music. Rates run from $300/night to $3500 for the presidential suite. And, there are interesting packages that bundle a stay in Buenos Aires with a stay at the Four Seasons Carmelo, another resort in Uruguay, just an hour boat ride across the wide estuary of the Rio de la Plata. It's a holiday combination of big city glamour with a more meditative riverfront country club experience.

On our first night in Buenos Aires, we walked a few streets from the hotel to explore an upscale shopping mall in the Recoleta district called Patio Bullrich and then set out for dinner at a nearby incredible steakhouse La Cabana - a four story dining extravaganza, not to be missed for their feast of steaks and interesting and historical decor. On the way there, we discovered a little about the political and economic turmoil that still boils in Argentine by watching a vocal protest in front a politician's home. Later, as we waited for our table at La Cabana, the restaurant's gracious Italian manager educated us a bit on the economic situation in Argentina. Buenos Aires, he explained, was until recently one of the most expensive cities in the world. Then last year, the Argentine peso, which had been pegged one-to-one to the dollar, was devalued three-to-one. Condos in Buenos Aires that had sold for $250,000 suddenly were now selling for $100,000. And portenos, the name given to locals, were obviously enraged, many having lost much of their life savings. The good news is that for tourists, Buenos Aires became a relative bargain.
Meandering through Buenos Aires, I couldn't help whistling the tune and butchering the lyrics of Evita.
"Hello Buenos Aires!
Stand back Buenos Aires!
Because you oughta know
What'cha gonna get in me
Just a little touch of
Just a little touch of star quality!"

I went to see the Casa Rosada, the Argentine White House, where Evita and Juan Peron addressed the faithful in the 1940's. The Plaza de Mayo, the city's main square, sits in front of the presidential palace. A circle on the ground in the middle of the plaza still marks off where the "mothers of the desaparacidos" paced in their vigil to demand an accounting for the loss of their children during the military dictatorship of the 1980's. This historical pain is obviously unresolved. The great statues in front of the Casa Rosada and those too in front of the Palacio del Congreso, the building modeled after the U.S. capital that houses the Argentine Congress, are horrifically defaced by graffiti. My guide explained that politicians are hesitant to remove the graffiti or protect the monuments for fear of raising the ire of the disaffected. Unfortunately, much of the city's other grand architecture, parks, and statues have been neglected or simply disrespected as well.
Another landmark on the Plaza de Mayo is the 17th century Cathedral Metropolitan which houses the Napoleonesque tomb of Jose de San Martin, the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru.
Although the subway in Buenos Aires is extensive with attractive station entrances that resemble the art nouveau metros of Paris, yellow taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. And certain areas, like Puerto Madero, once the city's working port and now a charming dockside promenade with many good restaurants, and San Telmo and La Boca, more bohemian neighborhoods with antique stores, galleries, and tango halls, are less easily reached by metro. If you're in Buenos Aires on a weekend, trek through the antique and flea Market in San Telmo for the best souvenir hunting and people watching.
In this city that embraced Evita, you cannot miss paying homage with a visit to the Cemeterio de Recoleta where the elite of Argentina are buried in elaborate mausoleums. Evita is there but she's buried in the Duarte family crypt, not alongside Juan Peron. That was a decision made, not unexpectedly, by Peron's second wife.
Several day trips to the outskirts of Buenos Aires are worth considering - a day trip to an estancia or ranch with traditional barbecues and gaucho guided horseback riding; a trip to the Delta, the confluence of the Rio Parana and Rio de la Plata, with river cruises through a maze of channels where locals keep their riverfront homes and enjoy water sports; or a boat ride to the town of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Colonia is a small town of cobble stone streets and quaint Spanish and Portuguese colonial architecture that, because of its strategic location on the river across from Buenos Aires, was repetitively fought over in the 17th century. While I found the town of Colonia interesting for a few hour stroll, I was glad to have another destination in Uruguay. A driver took us another 70 kilometers up the road to an unusual oasis in the midst of the Uruguayan countryside - The Four Seasons Carmelo.
The Four Seasons Carmelo is a boutique resort with 44 bungalows and two-story suites nestled in a pine and eucalyptus forest on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. To create a mellow and meditative atmosphere, the décor, rooms, pool, spa, beachfront thatched huts and the surrounding landscaping have been given a Balinese-Asian flare. At the entrance to the resort, there is an 18-hole golf course, one of the top five courses in Latin America; a polo field; tennis courts; and stables where real gauchos will escort you through forested riding trails. The evenings are for relaxation, for beachside barbecues, or sunset cruises on the Rio de la Plata. And, if the nights seem too quiet, there's a new public casino - which, because it's in the middle of isolated Uruguayan pastureland, is virtually a private casino for hotel guests.
It was in Carmelo that I finally tried mate (mah-tay). Mate is both a drink and the name of the container that holds the drink. It is the ubiquitous beverage of natives of Argentina and Uruguay. The mate is a hollow gourd often decorated with silver. Mate tea leaves are set along one side of the gourd, hot water is poured in, and the mixture is sucked out through a special metal straw with a sieve at its bottom, called a bombilla. Many locals fancy the beverage so much that they carry around the burdensome mate container and a thermos of hot water, as if were an essential part of their person, like a wallet or purse. Drinking mate is a part of the local social life, a virtual ritual. But it must be an acquired taste because it tasted god-awful when I tried it.
Buenos Aires is Spanish colonial and French belle époque architecture. It is history - of Evita and Peron, and sadly, the desaparacidos. It is steak and mate. And, of course, it is tango.
The men that do the tango, their black hair slicked back, are elegant and cosmopolitan. The women are lithe and exotic. They face each other, assume the position, and as the music of a bandoneon, a huge snake-like accordion, swells, they begin. The man initiates the movement. His partner follows. And they become mirror image figures. Their faces are masks, revealing no emotion. Their bodies do it all. It is a dance they say "of attitude with four legs, two heads, but one heart." And so too the tango describes the "soul of Buenos Aires" - people of elegant dress, exotic but often emotionless, with a national history of politics and social upheaval that has meandered, and nearly torn itself apart, as if it had four legs, two heads, but one heart.