Saturday, February 4, 2012

Buenos Aires

Last week the family took a trip down to Argentina, leaving behind the miserable grey and rainy skies of São Paulo for the gloriously clear blue ones of Buenos Aires. Indeed, one of the very first things I noticed after stepping off the plane was that the Argentine sky was exactly the same colour as the blue of its flag. Amazing. And it would have been the perfect start to the holiday if our flight hadn't just landed an hour and a half late. And at the wrong airport.

But determined not to be put off by such minor inconveniences, I decided to spend the taxi ride in from the airport enjoying the sights and sounds of a city that is so very different from the Brazilian one we live in. I don't have a problem with São Paulo - in fact, in my own way, I'm even quite fond of the place - but even I have have to admit that it comes way down on the list of the world's most beautiful cities. Way, way down. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, has a reputation as something of a European-style city and is often compared to Paris and as we headed in from the airport I could certainly see why. Except that the Paris I know has never been that quiet barely an hour after rush hour.
Two eager adventurers ready for a day of walking around places.
We drove in to town on a wide dual carriageway we had almost entirely to ourselves (which was perhaps fortunate given the average Argentine driver's reluctance to maintain any sort of lane discipline) and all the way through the centre of town there was practically nothing on the roads except busses and taxis. But then Buenos Aires has a large and efficient metro system and a city that's nice enough - and safe enough - to make walking a serious alternative to driving.

Fabulous tree-full view from our balcony
We were staying in a lovely little apartment in Palermo, an upscale, bohemian residential area in the north of the city, right next to a collection of beautiful parks and gardens (and, incidentally, five minutes drive from the airport where we were supposed to land!) and as it was already fairly late by the time we arrived we thought we'd just pop down and get something to eat from one of the lovely-looking cafés all along our street before putting the kids to bed. Which was when we discovered that we were going to have to seriously re-evaluate what we considered 'late' to be.

At seven forty-five we sat down in the fabulous Voulez Bar on Avenida Cerviño and asked to order dinner. "Sure", the waitress said with a shrug, "but the kitchen won't be opening until eight, eight thirty or so." Eight thirty? What kind of time is that to eat dinner? My kids eat their dinner at six, having pestered me constantly since five saying that they're starving, literally starving to death and why can't they have a bun and some biscuits as a snack, just to tide them over until I've cooked them something proper? Bloomin' hobbits! Anyway, by nine o'clock Helen was eating a lovely big chunk of cow and I was finishing off some of the nicest salmon I'd had in a long time while James struggled to stay awake and David just gave up and fell asleep on his chair, too far gone even to care about chocolate dessert.

The kids soon sorted themselves out, however, and after the first night were well up to the challenge of late dinners. On our first afternoon I introduced them to the concept of a siesta in the hope that this would enable us all to stay up much later at night, but of course the only one of us who collapsed, drooling on the bed for two hours was me, James and David preferring to use the opportunity to get in a serious dose of extra computer time. Helen, meanwhile was off doing what the Argentines do, which is work all day, eat late anyway, and just spend their entire lives somewhat sleep-deprived.

And of course, we ate out every night. It would have been foolish not to, seeing as how the restaurants were lovely, the food was fabulous and the bill was about half what it would have been in São Paulo. The highlight of the week was definitely the salmon at the Voulez Bar (which I had three times) followed by their chocolate volcano, but even popping in somewhere for a toasted sandwich and a juice was a pleasure when you could sit somewhere pleasant and quiet and not worry about how much it was all going to cost.

It wasn't all food, food, food, however, and we did manage to squeeze in a little bit of sightseeing between all the plates of beef and fish. First stop was the zoo which was, quite literally, at the end of the block we were staying on. I never know whether I should enjoy a trip to the zoo or not. I do love to see the animals, but I can't help feel that maybe this is not the right place for them to be, stuck in a small enclosure, either on their own or with very little in the way of company and unable to run about the way I imagine they would like to given the choice. The children, however, seemed to have no such moral dilemma and were quite eager to wander around spotting their favourite animals.

One of the more unfortunate creatures - it was over 30 degrees!
David loved the penguins who were obligingly darting through the water right in front of us. James, somewhat bizarrely, claims his favourite animal was the tapir. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found on our first trip and fast asleep on our second. Actually, sleeping animals was something of a theme. Both trips were during baking hot afternoons and this is clearly when most sensible creatures are having a quiet doze, so that we ended up seeing a lot of little bits of animals hidden by bushes or rocks and a few who could easily have been dead. I swear the huge grey pile that was supposed to be two rhinos was in exactly the same position on both days.

video
And right across the road from the zoo is the Botanic Gardens. As the zoo had completely wiped out the boys, and as it was so conveniently close to the apartment, I decided to make it a separate trip and we set off on the following morning.

Disappointing. It's not that it wasn't a beautiful place for a gentle stroll, but sadly, that's all it was. I'm not able to tell whether it was worth it from a botanical point of view, but as a place for two children to run around and play it was a non-starter. Firstly, you had to keep to the paths and there was absolutely no running on the grass. Secondly, the glasshouses were closed. Thirdly, there was nowhere to get anything to eat or drink and fourthly, the toilets were horrible. I can imagine that if I worked somewhere nearby it would be a wonderful place to come and sit and eat my sandwiches at lunchtime. It's peaceful, not very busy and you don't have to pay to get in, but as I say, for two adventure-seeking and ice-cream-seeking kids it was a bit of a let-down.

Over the weekend we got Helen back and so we decided to go for a ride on the Subte (metro) into the centre of town. It cost us a grand total of £1.80 for all four of us to go as far as we wanted (which kind of puts London Underground to shame) and in Buenos Aires you even get to go shopping while you travel. At every stop someone would come onto the train with a big bag of merchandise and walk along the carriage depositing whatever it was they were trying to sell on everyone's knees so they could examine it for a couple of minutes and decide whether it was worth buying. If you weren't interested, you just left it there and it would be collected just before the next stop, to be replaced almost immediately by the next item on offer. In the space of one single journey I was offered a leather diary, a set of pens, some Nike socks, a children's catch toy and - most curiously - a guidebook on how to pass your driving test written exam. Possibly this gets kind of annoying if you travel the Subte twice a day, every day, but I found it interesting and was surprised to see quite a few people buying things - though not the driving test booklet.

Two eager adventurers ready for another day of walking around places.


The plan was to visit the Casa Rosada, the President's official residence, but when we got there the queue to get in stretched all the way along the side of the Plaza de Mayo so we decided to skip it and I settled for a photo of the outside of the building and its unfeasibly large flag. Instead we headed down to the newly redeveloped docks area and took a look around the Buque Museo Fragata A.R.A "Presidente Sarmiento". It's an old training frigate that has been turned into a floating museum and it was great. It wasn't too big, so the kids didn't get tired and bored, and it was full of fascinating objects like guns and torpedoes and some even bigger guns. Sadly, I wasn't allowed to send the boys up to the crow's nest, but I did make sure they got plenty of navigation and gunnery practice. Well worth the 40p a ticket it cost to get in!




We rounded off our sightseeing excursions with a trip to the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, and while many of the animals at the zoo looked like they might be dead, the ones in here certainly were and the whole museum is basically a collection of skeletons and stuffed animals. Good fun though, except again, there was nowhere to get anything to eat or drink. Or a gift shop. Still, when every other car on the road is a taxi, you're never very far from somewhere nice to get a bite to eat.

You wouldn't believe how long we had to wait before Dad would let us go for lunch.
And that's certainly what I'll remember most about Buenos Aires - the food. That, and the ability to eat it while sitting out on the pavement on a quiet, tree-lined street where I felt safe and relaxed, even at ten o'clock at night. And then paying next to nothing for the privilege. Of course, being a teetotal vegetarian I missed out on some of Buenos Aires' greatest delights, but then the rest of the family certainly did their bit to keep the cow population in check and I made up for it by eating way more than my fair share of ice cream - another thing Buenos Aires is famous for.

But I still feel there's so much more to see. Hopefully, we'll be going back there at least once more during our South American adventure and I can try and actually go inside the Casa Rosada - and also visit the world famous (or at least it is in our family) El palacio de la Papa Frita restaurant. And I'm sure there are plenty more museums I can drag the kids around as well. I just have to hope that Brits are still welcome in Argentina next time I want to visit. We managed to miss most of the protests and flag burning that were apparently taking place at the time, but I think maybe I should give it a year or so before I go back there waving my British pasport, just in case.

Protest central - you can just make out the words "Las Malvinas" behind the fountain.