Buenos Artes

Of all the places we’ve visited so far, Buenos Aires might have the most visible and vibrant arts scene. There are dozens of theatres, cultural centers, and art museums all across the city, and each features a constant rotation of performances and exhibits. Weekends bring craft fairs where local artisans can showcase their work and music and dancing (the ubiquitous tango) in some of the parks. We’ve seen a lot since we arrived, but, alas, I’m a little sad we didn’t get seats for the performance of El Principito at the symphony orchestra. For now I’ll have to settle for the Spanish-language version of the book we bought.

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Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Latin American Art Museum, Fortabat Coleccion

We’ve visited several of the local art museums (especially those that have free or discounted admission days). The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes might be our favorite, in part because it is free every day, and in part because it has a wide-ranging collection. Argentina has strong ties to Europe, and the Bellas Artes Museum has many works by European artists like Degas and Rodin. Of course, Argentinian artists like Antonio Berni also play a big part in their modern collections. A special exhibit gathering the works by Norberto Gomez, including current sculptures, reminded us a lot of video game art and old flash internet videos.

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Pieces from the Bellas Artes Museum

In San Telmo, the Museo de Arte Moderno is free on Tuesdays (guess which day we went). It is in a pretty inconspicuous brick building, but the supporting beams on their central staircase look like the track of a roller coaster. Even if it wasn’t the designer’s intention, it made me happy to discover it once we got inside. Temporary displays of pieces by Antonio Berni (perennially popular here), Picasso, and Hernan Soriano took up much of the museum. Soriano’s exhibit of reworked illustrations and maps are mind-bending; by finely cutting, layering, and painting over older images, he creates something entirely new. Sadly, no photos inside this museum, but thankfully the internet can help compensate.

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Works from MALBA and Bellas Artes – cut out map and paintings by Antonio Berni

MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, is the most Central and South America focused. As you might guess, it focuses on more local issues and peoples. We clearly missed some of the messages behind the works since our knowledge of past conflicts and corruptions is sketchy, but I can at least appreciate that those situations led to beautiful art.

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More from Bellas Artes. The cat makes the portrait in the top left.

The Fortabat Coleccion started as the personal collection of Argentina’s richest woman. It was interesting to me to go through what an individual found pretty or worthy of attention. I agreed with a lot of her taste – especially some of the mountainous Argentinian landscapes (more so because we are looking forward to seeing Tierra del Fuego in a couple weeks). There are now rotating exhibits as well, and those featured less  generically pretty but more current dioramas making some pointed political commentary about women in power in Argentina (at least that was what I took away) and the concepts of beauty that are so pervasive in many cultures. I don’t think I’ll ever have a personal collection that can afford Bruegels and Bernis (yup, here too) but it is nice to dream. I like the airplane-hangar-shaped building as well, which is newly built in Puerto Madero, one of BA’s newest, and richest, neighborhoods.

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Floralis Generica and a statue holding up part of a tree

Naturally, Buenos Aires itself also acts as a gallery. The 75-foot tall Floralis Generica sculpture is centered inside its own park. The petals are supposed to open and close each day like a real flower, but currently the mechanisms are a bit broken, so it wasn’t fully open during our visit.

San Telmo is a good neighborhood for mural-hunting, but there are monuments in parks all over the city. In another European callback, there are a fair number of statues of men looking important while on horses scattered around the city.

And if a person has any interest in Spanish-language literature, there are more bookstores here than any place I’ve ever been. In some areas of Recoleta, every third shop will be a bookstore. Even the sidewalk stands often have classic tomes for sale, not just pulp romances or thrillers. Today I walked past one selling copies of Horace and Tacitus next to the latest fashion magazines. I don’t know how much of it translates to more reading, but it makes me happy to find books almost everywhere.

Another reason to keep learning Spanish…

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Buenos Aires

Argentina beckoned us south from Lima, both because we are following summer and because we needed to be in Buenos Aires for a Norwegian cruise through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego that is leaving in early January. It helped that we also found an apartment downtown that let us stay put for the whole hectic the holiday travel season.

It was a bit shocking to arrive from Lima. Both cities are massive and still growing but Lima felt chaotic and sprawling awhile Buenos Aires feels calmer and shows off a more distinctly European influence. Main avenues in our neighborhood in B.A. tend toward tree-lined and cafe-dotted. People seem like to take life a little slower, they mosey and chat on the sidewalks. Many buildings look as though they were transplanted from Paris or Rome. Car horns are rare in comparison to Lima.

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El Ateneo Grand Splendid and Puerto Madero from the Costanera Sur Reserve

Our first couple days gave us time to see places high on our list. For me, El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore was a minor pilgrimage site. It lives up to its name; shelves of books, music, and movies run through four floors of a former theatre. Ceiling frescoes and theatre boxes (now reading nooks), as well as the stage (a small cafe), are all preserved. The Argentine and Latin American authors sections are incredible, running through all the names I’ve heard of and so many more I haven’t… if only my Spanish was better.

Catching a sea breeze on the waterfront is the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve. Several miles of trails next to some of the city’s newest development is a welcome escape from the traffic and noise. We saw and heard groups of bright green parrots, herons, and some kind of diving bird catching fish, even as skyscrapers were visible through the trees. The center is a marsh full of reeds. Signs warning against feeding the critters; apparently snakes still make this their home, and it wouldn’t feel out of place to find a caiman. Despite the value of having this so close to downtown, I wonder what percentage of the mosquitoes in our apartment have their beginnings here.

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Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires’s most famous landmark might be their city of the dead, Recoleta Cemetery. Here are the tombs of the most famous Argentinians. Eva Peron, dozens of Presidents (they have a history of going through them quickly), artists, politicians, bankers, and athletes are buried in grand mausoleums. Simply carving names in stone would be too easy; the cemetery is a space for sculptors to show their skills making angels and likenesses of the dead. Some wealthy men have a penchant for statues of beautiful women mourning their passing. Tombs have windows of stained glass, domes, wrought iron gates. Many have lower levels, visible down tiny staircases, that are stacked with coffins. It is eerie and poignant at the same time.

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Catedral Metropolitana

The Catedral Metropolitana of Buenos Aires has a massive Neoclassical facade, and all the interior trappings you’d expect of an important Catholic church. It has received a lot of attention over the last few years since their last Archbishop is now the Pope. I especially like the tile work on the floor that has flowers and crowns of thorns. In altars along the sides, Mary appears in several guises and is dressed in flowing gowns. Toward the back corner, a life-sized Jesus is riding a life-sized donkey. Gold and beautiful carvings are very much in evidence.

 

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Dulce de batata, dulce de leche, pan dulce, STEAK

Argentina is famous for beef and wine, which naturally attracted our attention. Honestly, the reputation is very well-deserved. The cheapest steaks from the grocery store ($1.50US each) were some of the best we’ve ever eaten. And the Mendoza-area malbecs are fruity and delicious. Patagonia is fast becoming a wine region as well, but their products tend toward more mineral-tasting.

Italian influences are found throughout menus here, meaning pastas, pizzas, and pastries are staples. And also that the food is fairly bland. All the spiciness got left in Peru… There is a drink culture here as well, teas and wines are the main choices, but coffee makes an important appearance as well. Unfortunately, the local coffees are more like candy. Even bags of ground beans in the store come pre-sugared.

The most popular desserts contain dulce de leche, a milky caramel spread, and dulce de batata, a jellied sweet potato reduction. They are decent as dips and toppings for other foods, like cookies and apples, but really don’t have a super-memorable flavor of their own. Despite this, Argentina seems to be obsessed with dulce de leche – at some stores it takes up half an aisle. Pan dulce, the local fruitcake, is everywhere because of the rapid approach of Christmas. We tried the cheapest possible version, which meant they made up for putting in actual fruit with an excess of sugar and flour.

One shocking thing are the prices in Buenos Aires. We expected a higher cost of living than Lima and Mexico, because of the relative wealth of the area we are staying in and the high inflation rate. Looking at the history of the US dollar – Argentine peso exchange rate, it seemed to be going in our favor. But actually shopping for groceries was a different experience. To our dismay, prices for almost everything are Seattle-level and some things we generally consider staples (bread, pasta, frozen veggies) are actually more expensive here. And stuff – clothes, cookware, Christmas decorations – are almost universally more expensive than at home, especially if they are imported. Turns out many locals travel to Chile, Brazil, (even the U.S.!) to do their big shopping runs.

The steaks and wine are the exceptions to this, probably because these are produced locally and in large quantities. So at least we will still be dining well!