Buenos Aires, Sunday morning. A brisk 48 degrees. I’m clutching my styrofoam coffee cup tight as I stand in the Plaza Dorrego, viewing the breaking headlines as they flash from the newspaper kiosks.
Ha fallecido Eva Perón Enorme multitud se volcó en las calles de Bs. Aires
Eva Perón Dies Huge Crowds Pour into the Streets of Buenos Aires
Dateline: Buenos Aires late edition, Saturday, June 26, 1952.
Meanwhile, on the next rack, a collector’s edition of El Gráfico, Argentina’s version of Sports Illustrated. The banner trumpets Diego Maradona’s epochal “goal of the century” against arch-rivals in Britannia: ¡No llores por mi Inglaterra! (Don’t Cry for Me, England!). Dateline: Buenos Aires, Tuesday, June 24, 1986.
At $250 and $200, respectively, the vendor disdainfully assures me the rag sheets are a steal.
Around me, the rest of the Sunday flea market here in the district known as San Telmo is packed with sights equally colorful, even carnivalesque. There are artists shading in rapid-fire caricatures and matrons hawking choripanes (Argentine sausage sandwiches) abubble with grease. Marionettes with strange Nordic costumes are here, as well as rows of antique dry-cell telephones in wooden cabinets topped with double bells. On the curb, gorgeous cut-glass Art Deco lamps stand shyly, and beautifully stitched leather boots, and heaps of retro silk dresses right out of grandma’s wardrobe—from the days when la abuelita strutted seductively amidst the city’s smoke-filled milongas.
On the corner, a Carlos Gardel imitator armed with pin-striped suit and guitar croons “La Cumparsita.” In Plaza Dorrego itself, a vest-clad rake dancing tango bends a stunning morena vertiginously backward.
Retro glories like this are what inevitably draw me to San Telmo each time I’m in the Argentine capital. Old-time charm and youthful energy, bohemian irony and the obsessive self-quotation of a city enamored of its own history: San Telmo stands as a microcosm of Buenos Aires itself. Indeed, no other neighborhood sports so broad a cross-section of what porteños do best. Funky cafes, atmospheric old bars, tango shows, restaurants plain and fancy, secondhand bookshops, historic houses, cobblestone streets: it’s all here, and today I’ve set aside the whole day to take it in.
I haggle a moment with the newspaper vendor before I go, just for fun. But the old vivo won’t budge. He knows what his stuff’s worth.
A Street into the Past
I’m 30 feet underground, in the sewer of a century-old slum, and I have to say, the aesthetics are exquisite.
On the ceiling, soft, atmospheric lighting bathes the brick arches in a warm glow. The polished stone floors add gray accents to the reddish walls. A person could live here, I feel.
As it turns out, people did. Or if not here, just a few feet overhead, in a cramped conventillo or tenement building, which at the end of the 19th century was packed to the rafters with Spaniards and Italians, English and Poles, all newly arrived from the Old Country and scrounging for work in Buenos Aires’s thriving port. The Zanjón de Granados, the refurbished building-turned-museum was called, and it served as a way station for young families trying their luck in the New World. Its sewers and cisterns, which I’m currently touring, were where they got their (not always clean) water, as they fought to make the South American dream a reality.
Historic sites like this abound in San Telmo. On seemingly every corner, some relic opens a window onto a now-vanished Buenos Aires, a romantic port city of dock workers and meat packers, tango dancers and compadritos in neckerchiefs and slouch hats.
Take the street I’ve just come out onto: Calle Defensa. Still paved with the original cobblestones, it’s the stuff of porteño legend. Indeed, it has a fair claim to being one of the most historic thoroughfares in all of Latin America.
1806 was the crucial year. That winter, when the British invaded the city in the hopes of gaining a toehold in Spain’s decaying empire, they advanced up the flagstones of this artery from the Riachuelo, the channel from the Río Plata. Eventually, they succeeded in taking the downtown. But a month or so later, at about the point where I’m currently standing, their troops were routed by local militiamen, who gunned them down in a blaze of musket fire near the cabildo, or town hall.
A minor skirmish, in the eyes of London. But for Argentines, it was the shot heard round the world, offering proof positive they didn’t need a king’s troops to protect them. Four years later, Buenos Aires became one of the first Latin cities to declare independence.
I continue walking south on Defensa, away from downtown.
Passing beneath the overhead highway, I come to another fabled point in local history: Parque Lezama. This morning, the hilly green space is fenced off for landscaping, but tradition holds it was the point where Pedro de Mendoza founded the city of Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre way back in 1536 (the ill-fated explorer reportedly spent all his time battling Querandíe Indians). Scholars dispute whether the site really is Ground Zero, but the government has capitalized on the park’s historic rep to situate the Museo Histórico Nacional next door.
I peruse the banner. Currently on exhibit: artifacts belonging to José de San Martín, Argentina’s heroic liberator.
Two national heroes in one block. Not bad for a one-lane passage that still sports vacancies in several stretches.
Pubs and Parrillas
Lunchtime. I’m sitting at a window table, warmed by the winter sun. Whatever I end up ordering, I feel, nostalgia is definitely on the menu.
That’s because I’ve elected to grab a bite in one of the cafés notables, old-timey saloons that dot San Telmo and other Buenos Aires neighborhoods. With their tile floors, walls cluttered with knick-knacks, dim lighting, and bars worn to a polish by generations of elbows, these watering holes have become local institutions, mini-museums of meat and memory. The city government has even concocted an official list, with strict criteria for inclusion (ambiance, historic significance, etc.).
Here in the Bar Federal, where I’m currently sitting, the memorabilia have reached critical mass. Rows of antique shelves loom before me, crowded with antique siphons, bottles, maté gourds—a taproom stockpile that looks like it could collapse at any second.
The sandwiches, too, are vertiginous. I’m currently struggling with the lomito ahumado, smoked beef, but the towers of triple-stacked turkey, pork, and other delicacies from this highly carnivorous nation are equally massive (and tasty).
At this rate, I’ll never make it to the coffee.
Of course, tavern fare isn’t for everyone, and San Telmo doesn’t lack for other, more elaborate dining options. As I pay the bill and walk out into the noise of Av. Peru, seemingly every corner I pass has its parrilla—steakhouses dedicated to the beef that is, with soccer, Argentina’s national obsession.
Just a block or two away is one of the best: the venerable Gran Parrilla del Plata, a no-frills neighborhood joint with red-and-white tablecloths and an encyclopedic selection of Malbecs to accompany the sizzling hotplates of choice cuts.
Nor should visitors to San Telmo, if they’re looking to top up, overlook the so-called restaurantes populares. Raucous, fast-paced, and cheap, these informal eating houses serve some of the best, most authentic food to be got in Latin America, and the atmosphere is electric. Desnivel, a family joint just around the corner with an intimidatingly vast menu, gut-busting portions, and bargain prices, is my personal fave, as well as an unbeatable place to catch a national soccer game on the LCD TVs that line the walls.
Hitting the Shops
“Of course Borges used to work here in San Telmo, right around the corner. At the old National Library. You know Borges?”
Enrique Nicolás Tempone is who wants to know, owner of El Rufián Melancólico, a second-hand book shop just two doors down from where I’m lodging. All around me, the tomes of Argentina’s blind literary sphinx mingle indiscriminately with heaped-up cookbooks, post-structuralist philosophy, self-help guides.
“Of course,” I reply, struggling with the porteño accent.
“Ernesto Sábato as well. He wrote most of On Heroes and Tombs here, at the Bar Británico. And Manuel Puig. He would hang out at the flea market, browsing through the clothes.”
To hear Tempone tell it, San Telmo’s streets have been a veritable proving ground for Argentina’s five-star literary generals, a fact reflected today in its numerous bookshops, no less than in its bohemian past. Besides Rufián Melancólico, there are also the Librería Fedro, with its superior organization but inferior charm, and Walrus Books, which specializes in English-language materials.
I ask Tempone what Argentine writers he recommends. Ten minutes later, I walk out with a stack of tomes by Cortázar, Roberto Arlt, Juan José Saer.
Time to dust off that Spanish dictionary I’ve been not studying.
As I continue my postprandial wandering, I discover other retail outlets, perfect for working off my beef-induced bloat. Back on Calle Defensa is Cooperative Argentine Handicrafts, which sells handmade ponchos and shawls, gaucho-themed souvenirs, and colorful paintings and maté gourds. Browsing through its artisanal wares are several stylish porteñas. But for sheer ambiance, two indoor markets just up the road are unrivalled. The Galería El Solar de French, pastel-colored and quaint, is a leafy alleyway full of antique toys, metalworkers, and Tarot-card readers. Two streets away, the historic Mercado San Telmo covers most of a square block and sells everything from fresh meat and produce to antiques, all beneath a lovely Victorian skylight that dates back almost a century.
I check my watch. It’s getting late, so I put down the exquisitely carved dollhouse I’m inspecting and head to my final stop in San Telmo.
When I arrive at El Viejo Almacen, the elegantly dressed couples are just arriving. I check the menu outside: parrilla, yes, but also stuffed grouper and cheese soufflé.
The four-course dinner is prelude to one of Buenos Aires’s best tango shows, hidden in an out-of-the-way corner of lovely old Calle Balcarce. Performers started playing the venue some 100 years ago, and in the late 60s it became the tourist hotspot it continues to be today, with tango greats such as Mercedes Sosa, Edmundo Rivero, and Aníbal Triolo all playing gigs.
One more instance of San Telmo’s retro allure.
I’m late. I show the maitre d’ my ticket. Is there still time to eat before the show?
“Claro, ¿cómo no?” he says, showing me to my seat.
Feria de San Pedro Telmo Plaza Dorrego
Zanjón de Granados Defensa 755
Parque Lezama Defensa 1500
Museo Histórico Nacional Defensa 1600
Bar Federal Carlos Calvo 599
Gran Parrilla del Plata Chile 594
Desnivel Defensa 855
Bar Británico Brasil 399
El Rufián Melancólico Bolívar 857
Librería Fedro Carlos Calvo 578
Walrus Books Estados Unidos 617
Cooperative Argentine Handicrafts Defensa 1244
Galería El Solar de French Defensa 1066
Mercado San Telmo Bolívar and Carlos Calvo
El Viejo Almacén Balcarce 799