Argentina: A Christmas dream
In 1984, I went to Spain. I boarded a train in Granada headed for Seville. My ticket had a seat number on it but I could not find the seat in the car I was assigned to. Confused, I asked a guy who was standing in the aisle. It turned out he was as confused as I was and could not find his seat either. After a fairly long conversation in Spanish, he asked me where I was from. It turned out he was a school teacher from Oregon. We decided to pick any seat and got to talking about places we had been and places we would like to go. I mentioned I wanted to see more of South America including Machu Picchu. He had been there and highly recommended it but he also suggested I read the Old Patagonian Express by Paul Thereaux. It was about a trip from Boston to Tierra del Fuego mostly by train. His description of the southernmost tip of the world had a big impression on me. It sounded beautiful and other worldly and almost eerie. A special place. I decided I had to go there.
Thirty-three years later, I finally fulfilled my dream.
My son and I took the long trek from St Paul, Minnesota to Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina on an overnight flight landing at 6 a.m. The taxi ride into town through the suburbs, the tall run-down apartment buildings, the knocked out windows, was underwhelming.
We stayed at the Palo Santo Hotel in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood. It bills itself as the only completely “green” hotel in Buenos Aires. I have to say it was very nice. It was a small boutique hotel with a great staff. Breakfast was included and we enjoyed the “media lunas” (small sweet croissants), media lunas filled with dulce de leche, beef empanadas, eggs, and homemade bread. We had a small balcony off our room with plants growing all around it and a waterfall outside in the courtyard and an inside waterfall that came on at 6 pm every day. There was a small shallow pool on the roof for those who wanted a dip or to sunbathe.
It was hot. In the 80s and 90s F. most of the time we were in Buenos Aires. After a long nap, we went out and bought beer and sat on our patio. We picked out an Italian restaurant for dinner. That was enough work for the first day.
The next day was Sunday, Christmas Eve. I had read that there was an open-air artists market along an old cobblestone street in the San Telmo neighborhood. We headed over to the Plaza de Mayo to see the big pink National Palace and the Cathedral.
The market started down a street off the plaza. Vendors lined both sides of the street and we walked down the middle. We walked for blocks and blocks and saw all kinds of items for sale. Jewelry, leather goods, clothing, ceramics. We were afraid it would be really kitschy and touristy but it wasn’t. It was really pretty awesome. I bought a cool pair of earrings. The artist adapted the earrings on the spot when I asked for silver wires. Everybody was friendly. They tried to communicate with everybody. We heard English, French, and Portuguese along the way. Some communicated by pointing and gesturing. Luckily I speak Spanish so we had little trouble.
We headed back to the plaza in order to catch the subway (known locally as Subte). On the way, we stopped in the Metropolitan Cathedral. This was where Pope Francis who is currently the Pope, performed mass before moving to the Vatican. It was nice and cool inside and a good place to rest out of the heat.
The Cathedral was the seventh church built on the same site. The first chapel was built in 1593. The current building was started in 1752 and took almost 100 years to complete. The mausoleum of San Martin and the Unknown Soldier was in an alcove to the right of the nave. General San Martin led the army that liberated Argentina, Chile, and Peru from the Spanish in the early 1800’s. The sarcophagus is surrounded by three female figures representing Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Two grenadiers stand guard at the entrance.
There were several beggars out in front of the church. I watched one of them pull out a dirty bandage and wrap up a perfectly fine looking foot. We saw a lot of homeless people living on sidewalks and in alcoves around the city. The interesting thing was many of them seemed to have pretty good mattresses to sleep on. Some of them had elaborate setups. We ran into a group in a park who had put together a contraption so they could grill some food. Apparently, there are about 15,000 homeless in Buenos Aires.
The Subte was easy to figure out and inexpensive. Some of the trains were even air-conditioned. Each station had its own unique art on the walls. Trains ran pretty regularly even though it was the holidays. The only problem was we often had to walk a ways from the station to reach our final destination. Some days we walked 8 or 9 miles. My Fitbit was buzzing away.
Our next stop was the MALBA art museum (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires – http://www.malba.org.ar/en/museo/). It is a big modern building designed by three young Argentine architects in 1998. The artists featured come from all over Latin America and the day we were there, a special exhibit on Mexican artists was in place including Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera among others. The art was fabulous.
That night we had booked a special dinner for Christmas Eve at the UCO Restaurant in Palermo. It was within walking distance from our hotel. Nothing opens before 8 pm for dinner so we had a reservation for 8:30. It was a six-course dinner with wine pairing. All the wines came from the Uco Valley of Mendoza, Argentina.
The first course was a charcuterie of pork shoulder with apple chutney, veal tongue with chimichurri, pork terrine with homemade mustard, pate with sliced almonds, pork fillet cured in herbs, pastrami with cucumber pickles and Patagonian trout smoked in Quebracho wood with fennel salad. It was paired with an Alma 4 Pinot Rose.
Next came the octopus pieces with aioli in a micro-salad. The wine was Zuccardi Q Chardonnay. This followed by a paella style rice with organic vegetables and emulsions paired with Emma Zuccardi Bonarda. The main course was Patagonian lamb shoulder cooked for 18 hours with morels, peas, and vegetables paired with Jose Zuccardi Malbec. Noah had never seen morels before and didn’t know what they were at first. He did enjoy eating them, though.
We had a pre-dessert cleansing of watermelon granite and then peach with ginger, honey and cinnamon ice cream and hazelnut paired with Soleria by Malamado followed by some small petit fours. The evening ended with Zuccardi Blanc de Blancs champagne.
Needless to say, we were stuffed.
We came out of the restaurant about midnight and there was a family across the street setting off fireworks. Fireworks were going off all over the city in celebration of Christmas. We ended up staying up until about 2 a.m. enjoying the sounds and sights.
After spending two nights in a very hot room I finally figured out what the problem with the air conditioning was. I needed to actually turn it on. After that, we were very cool and comfortable. We got sunburned the first day of walking all over the city and made sure we had our sunscreen from then on. The sun was very hot and it hovered in the 80’s and 90’s the whole time we were there. If you were in the shade and there was a breeze, it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t very humid.
Christmas day was a quiet one with not much open. We decided to go to the cemetery. The Ricoleta Cemetery is on 14 acres and has over 6400 statues, sarcophagi, coffins, and crypts. It became the first public cemetery in 1822 and the layout was designed by Prospero Catelin, a Frenchman who also designed the Metropolitan Cathedral.
The graveyard was restricted to wealthy families with power. One plot could cost up to $8 million. The mausoleums were about 650 square feet with several floors going down into the ground. We found several abandoned graves where families could not afford the taxes and upkeep anymore. Eva Peron was buried in a heavily fortified crypt over 16 feet underground. You won’t find Jorge Luis Borges there, he was buried in Geneva, Switzerland.
It was another day of walking in the heat. We saw the National library – a huge neoclassical building. We walked through parks, saw monuments, ate French fries and shopped at the “Disco” grocery store.
Before I left the US, I had purchased tickets to see the Nutcracker at the Colon Theater. I have seen the Nutcracker many times, performed in different ways from ultra-modern to classical Russian. I went because I wanted to experience the theater. It is said to have some if the best acoustics in the world and is an opera house ranked on a par with La Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The current building opened in 1908 and has welcomed famous performers from around the world. They did a full restoration of the building in 2010.
We were impressed with the beauty of the theater, with its chandeliers and stained glass ceilings. The main hall is a horseshoe shape with box seats going up three floors. The orchestra pit holds 120 musicians. We had a box seat about halfway down one side of the room. We only had a partial view of the stage but we could hear the orchestra perfectly. There were four other people in the box and one small child. It was very hot and crowded. The performance was good but seemed geared more to children and was nothing out of the ordinary. We left at intermission just because we were so uncomfortable.
There was a restaurant in the same neighborhood that we wanted to try so we headed over there. It was about 9:30 or 10:00 pm when we got there and the place was completely packed. We managed to get a table right away but after that people were waiting inside and outside. They weren’t tourists, either. They seemed to all know each other. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we decided to share the half tenderloin and a side of mashed potatoes. The steak we got was about 12 ounces and cooked to perfection. It practically melted in your mouth. It came with an excellent chimichurri sauce and the potatoes were nice and creamy. Chimichurri always accompanies the grilled meat and can include parsley, oregano, garlic, onion, red pepper, vinegar, olive oil. It can be a green sauce or a red sauce. Many of the restaurants had their own secret recipe. If you are ever in Argentina be sure to go to Parrilla Pena (http://www.parrillapenia.url.ph/).
The following day we headed for another airport. This time we were going to the southernmost tip of South America, my ultimate goal, Tierra del Fuego.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.