Monday, January 23, 2012

About Beef, Wine and Parrillas (Steakhouses).

Argentina is world renowned for its high quality of beef and although much is exported, the best is kept at home. This is a carnivore’s paradise. Around 50 varietals of grape are grown in Mendoza and the drier areas of the north but the Malbec and Cabernets with a few blends are the best. The wines are extremely inexpensive and very good. This is a wine-drinkers paradise. Arguably, put together, a good cut of beef and a bottle of red wine is a gastronomic, culinary delight and the Argentineans have taken it to another level of ritual and tradition. Steak preparation is taken very seriously and it seems as though there is a parrilla on every street corner. So, how to find the best steakhouses in Buenos Aires, not just a restaurant that serves steaks but a true, honest to God temple to beef? We checked the internet, asked cab drivers and talked to locals. The same names pop up: La Cabrera, La Brigada, Cabana Las Lilas and for the locals, Siga la Vaca, La Caballeriza and La Dorita. By American standards Argentineans eat late, 10 or 11pm is not unusual, so many restaurants do not open until 9 or so.
For our first venture into serious steak consumption, we took a taxi to San Telmo and La Brigada. After dropping us off at the appropriate intersection, we then asked a policeman who pointed to a building just a few steps down a cobbled street. On the way we passed an upscale looking wine retailer and decided to check it out before dinner. VinoTango is owned and ran by Delia who speaks very good English and is extremely helpful. The wines are priced from about $5.00 a bottle on up. Like I said there are some very good, inexpensive wines in Argentina. We purchased 2 bottles in the $15.00 range and a bottle of port made from Malbec grapes. From there it was onto La Brigada. The first thing I noticed was that we were the only non Spanish speaking customers and the waiters didn’t speak English either. There appeared to be the easy camaraderie of regulars who probably eat here often. There was the tantalizing aroma and the sound of sizzling beef as it hit the grill. The tables had white tablecloths with runners of black leather, the menus were bound in cow hide and the walls had posters illustrating the various cuts. We were seated by our waiter, Sebastian, who commented that he spoke only a little English. That’s ok, there is only beef on the menu and we know enough Spanish to request our steaks “jugoso”, rare. The wine list was daunting. Sebastian made a few suggestions and left us to decide. There is a couple at the table next to us. They have a bottle of wine on the table. I tried to see what is was but the label was the wrong way. They caught me looking and offered the bottle for me to see. Then they offered me their glass to taste from. This would never happen in the States without requesting a clean glass but “when in Rome” so of course I accepted. It was a Malbec Reserve listed at $35.00 and it was very good. We ordered it and introduced ourselves to our neighbors. They spoke some English and were regulars at La Brigada. Tom ordered the T-Bone and me, a rib-eye. Steaks are usually served by themselves without any sauces or garnishments other than a salad although if you request it, chimichurra sauce is provided. We ordered the Waldorf salad to go with ours. The steaks arrived, covering the whole plate. One entrée would easily serve two people and we did take a considerable amount of meat home with us, including the bone for Winston. The steaks were cooked to perfection and excellent. The entire meal, salad, steaks, dessert (flan), wine and coffee came to about $120.00. Not cheap but certainly not expensive by US steakhouse prices.
Following our mammoth Sunday of sightseeing with Pablo and Cesar, we next tried Siga La Vaca (Follow the Cow) in Pilar. This is a “tenedor libre” or all-you-can-eat parrilla with restaurants in Capital Federal at Puerto Madero and 4 others in the surrounding suburbs including the one we went to. None of us had eaten since breakfast, so we decided to show up unfashionably early which means before 10pm. The L-shaped building is reminiscent of a ranch home and inside is decorated with ceiling lights and wall sconces covered in cowhide and wait staff wearing aprons with a cow hide pattern. The method is simple. You can get up whenever you want and get as much food as your body can physically handle. This includes the salad bar and parrilla, complete with various cuts of meat from cows, chickens, pigs, and miscellaneous animal parts. At the end, if you are still breathing and able, you get one dessert from a fairly extensive dessert menu. In addition to the food each person gets unlimited bottled water (with or without gas) and either an entire bottle of wine or pitcher of beer or soda, all for the low price of 97 pesos (about $22, 00) per person. There were two long buffet tables, loaded with a variety of salad items, cold cuts and cheeses. Then there was the huge parrilla with a chef tending to it and serving customers. This might seem confusing and daunting to some tourists, but if you know a couple of beef phrases, tira (short ribs), bife de chorizo (sirloin) or filet or, simply point at what you want, you’ll do okay. The chef then slices off pieces for you. The waitress supplied us with bottles of water both clear and sparkling, a bottle of wine, two pitchers of beer and one pitcher of soda and bowls full of French fries to accompany our meat. We later ordered desserts of flan with crème de dulce and crema, chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry sauce, lemon sorbet and a bowl of mixed fruit. The four of us ate and drank for under $100.00 including a tip. When we got home all we could do was collapse on the bed because we had not only “followed the cow” but caught and ate it!
By contrast our next venture into the world of parrillas was Cabanas Las Lilas in Puerto Madero. It is widely written about on the internet and screams “tourist”. We had been warned that it was the most expensive parrilla in town but was it worth it? The huge 400 seat restaurant is located in a converted warehouse along the canal with tables both inside and out. The menu which consists of what else, but beef that is raised on their own private estancia (ranch). It is also one of the few restaurants that stay open all day and so accommodates the early (by Argentinean standards) dinner habits of North American tourists. We arrived on a Tuesday night at around 9pm with no reservations and had to wait about 30 minutes for a table, which we spent having a gin & tonic at the bar and chatting with Guthrie, a gentleman from England who is headed to Tierra del Fuego for a fishing trip. There are no cow hides in sight. The waiters are dressed in black pants and white shirts, suits for the head waiters and the guests are mostly foreign. When we were seated, it was outside at one corner, sheltered by short shrubs and with pretty views of the canal. The night was clear and warm so it was perfect. The staff works a given area on a team basis with one head waiter who takes the order and then others that serve, refill and replenish your bread and drinks. Tom ordered the T-Bone and me, the asado de tira which is a traditional Argentine cut. Since everything is a al carte we also ordered a baked potato and mushrooms to share. After studying the wine book, which is split into sections of exceptional (more than $100), very good ($50.00 range) and good ($25 range) we eventually asked the waiter to select for us a bottle of very good or mid range wine. He pointed to a Cabernet Reserve that once opened was delicious. Those were the highlights. To put it mildly, our steaks were disappointing. Tom’s T-bone was not of the same juicy quality as at La Brigada, or size for that matter and my tira was dry and tough. I eventually gave up on my steak, ate the potato and mushrooms and had the rest packaged to take home for Winston. We had no dessert or coffee and our bill including 4 gin & tonics, dinner and wine was close to $200.00. So, for ambience and service we give it a 5 and for food a 2. Hmm. Maybe we were there on an “off night”, maybe we chose the wrong cut of steak but we would not return which is a shame because we really did love the location, service and atmosphere.
By contrast, we loved La Cabrera. A lot is written about the restaurant and some is true but it is a great parrilla. Yes, the wait is long if you don’t have reservations, we did not. But the hostess was cheerful and pointed us to a seat next door where we could sit and have a drink whilst we waited. We chatted with a student from Seattle who was studying in Buenos Aires and her Paraguayan friend who both said this was the best restaurant for the money. There are plenty of tourists but also some locals. Our outside table was fine for us. We were seated next to two Australians and there is definitely no room for private conversation but we were not here for romance. We were here for beef. Our waiter Gustavo was polite, friendly and well informed. He encouraged us not to order too much and suggested a wine from the list. It was a $32.00 bottle of Malbec that went well with our Ojo de Bife. He also let us know that if we really want rare we should ask for it “bien juguso” (well juicy). This is the only parrilla that offered at no extra charge, side dishes and lots of them consisting of small portions of potatoes, squash, salad and about 10 other bowls of various vegetables. The beef was sensational and cooked to perfection with plenty left over for take home. At the end of the meal a lollipop tree was put on the table. Try as many as you like. Our bill including tip was under $100.00 making it the best value from the list of top parrillas in Buenos Aires. To avoid the long wait, make reservations. This restaurant stays packed from 8 until after midnight but at no point did we feel rushed. It is worth the visit but don’t forget those reservations.
At the complete other end of the economic scale are the Carritos (food stand parrillas). If you come to Buenos Aires and don’t eat at one you are missing out. Not only are they cheap but incredibly delicious. There are many along the Costnera Sur in Puerto Madero. Just order a traditional choripan (sausage sandwich) or bife de chorizo (sirloin steak) and eat out at plastic tables with chairs overlooking the river.
To conclude. We think Argentine beef is the best in the world, with Uruguay second and Australia third. Like seeing a tango show, every visit to Buenos Aires should include eating at least once at a parrilla. If we had to choose one it would be La Cabrera and next time we will make reservations to avoid the wait. A close second is La Brigada as we liked the non-tourist feel about the place as well as the food. If you don’t mind buffets or are on a budget and are not timid about asking for help in selecting your meat, try Siga la Vaca. Unless it is a special occasion (anniversary) and you’re looking for ambience, give Cabana Las Lilas a miss. It was expensive and not worth our time or money. But there are hundreds of others in town so ask around and venture into your own realm of serious steak consumption.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Congress Palace and Casa Rosada – Sunday in Buenos Aires.

The Palacio de Congresso (Congress Palace) is an imposing Greek-Roman style building. It is also a good example of the concept for Buenos Aires for taking architectural ideas from the world’s most famous buildings and incorporating them into the city. Designed by Italian architect, Vitorrio Meano (who also designed Teatro Colon) and constructed from granite covered in gleaming white marble, the palace resembles the U.S. Capitol Building. The views from our vantage point in the Plaza de Congresso (Congress Plaza) with the Greek Doric style columns in front and the copper covered dome gleaming in the afternoon sun made for some great photographs. The plaza which features the Monumento a los Dos Congressos (Monument of the Two Congresses) is also the place where many protests have taken place. There seemed to be a semi permanent collection of booths and a group of people regaling the state of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and the war. I was unsure what they actually wanted but it was interesting to watch their relatively quiet protest as police and guards patrolled. A 10 block walk down Avenida de Mayo, at the other end and facing the Congress Palace is Casa Rosada (the Pink House). As we strolled along the boulevard we passed some amazing granite and limestone buildings with adorned balconies constructed either from carved stone balustrades or ornate wrought iron and tiled or copper cupolas, towers and domes. As we approached Plaza de Mayo and La Casa Rosada, the sun was starting to set, bathing it in extraordinary shades of coral and pink. Possibly the most photographed building in the city, Casa Rosada or its official name Casa de Gobierno (Government House) has been the seat of the executive branch of the government of Argentina since the late 19th century. The picturesque Italian Renaissance style “house” is stunning and as I stood on front of it, I could easily picture Eva Peron standing at the balcony facing the plaza rallying the “descamisados, the low income workers or Pope John Paul II when he visited in 1998, waving to the crowds. Today though, no-one is on the balcony and the crowds made up of tourists and Argentineans alike are soaking up the early evening sun and the sights and sounds of a bustling city. The biggest surprise for us came at 6:50pm when a group of ceremonial palace guards in full uniform marched out of the house and around the plaza. As the clock tower rang at 7pm, one played the bugle as the others gathered around the flagpole for the lowering of the Argentinean flag. The bugle with its hauntingly simple tone and melody filled the square and it was beautiful to watch as the Argentineans respectfully stood with hands over their hearts paying homage as the flag was lowered and taken away. Instead of walking the 10 blocks back to the car, Pablo and Cesar suggested taking the subway and Tom and I jumped at the opportunity. As we descended into the well-lit, tiled tunnel that make up the underground train system it reminds me of subways I have been in all over the world. The sights, smells and sounds are all so similar. There was a vintage train on the platform and as we waited for our train, we took photos of it and the guard. The subway ride back to the car was quick and uneventful but we were grateful for the chance to experience another aspect of the city. Everyone was tired. It has been a long day and the dogs have been alone at home. We decide that instead of eating dinner in the city, we will go back to Pilar, check on the dags and then go to Siga La Vaca (Follow the Cow) parrilla for dinner. What a day! EL Ateneo, Plaza San Martin, San Telmo, La Boca, Congress Palace and Casa Rosada, phew!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

San Telmo & La Boca – Two Barrios in Buenos Aires

Of the 48 barrios (neighborhoods) in Buenos Aires, San Telmo is the oldest and La Boca along with Barracus and Puerto Madero are next. Most of the residents are of mixed European descent, mainly Italian, Spanish, French and Basque. Known for its 19th century architecture and cobblestone streets, San Telmo is teeming with cafes, tango parlors, art and antique shops. If you are ever in Buenos Aires, put this on your schedule: “San Telmo on Sunday”. Centered in Plaza Dorrego, the arts and crafts fair stretches down numerous side streets. The little barrio is teeming with artisans, musicians, tango dancers and performers and the atmosphere is filled with energy. Arts and crafts, antiques and all things tango are for sale in the pedestrian only streets. Some expensive, some not and you can always bargain. I purchased a small leather-bound notebook with a tango scene on the cover for only $5.00! The artist even put my name on the back. Taking time we would stop often and listen to the performers, who range from one person singing the melancholy sounds of tango to full scale tango orchestras. I was entranced by a tango show being performed by two dancers in a small amphitheatre style setting. I could have watched longer but the guys wanted to keep moving. The day was heating up when we stopped at one of the many restaurants that line the streets, many of which host performances of tango and folklore song and dance. Here you can see dancers performing the tango, milonga (a more energetic version of tango) and folk dancing without spending the money to visit a show. As we sat drinking our chopp (draft beer) we watched tango and folk dancers, while at the restaurant across from us there was another more elderly performer singing tango. In fact at one point the owner came across and tried to tell the owner of the restaurant where we were that his music was too loud. I also had to ask the owner to sit down because he was standing in front, blocking the view and as a result most of the photos we took, he was in them! If in the mood, you can try your hand (and feet) and learn to tango from many of the dancers. With so much to see and do, it is easy to forget to look up at the old, restored buildings with their flower filled ornate balconies and cupola topped roofs. I could have stayed here all day but we want to see La Boca too. La Boca is the most colorful area of Buenos Aires and the buildings and homes in the barrio are painted vibrant shades of blue, red, yellow and green. Italian immigrants were the first settlers in this neighborhood and it was the city’s first port. Although many of the world’s football (soccer) fans know La Boca as being the home of La Bombonera and the Boca Juniors, we are going to the main pedestrian street, La Caminito, named after a famous tango song. Like San Telmo, the streets were lined with artists selling their designs and local dancers performing and teaching tango. Unlike San Telmo , due to the brilliant splashes of color you definitely won’t forget to look up and check out the buildings with their adornments of statues and mannequins. From this quaint, quirky, colorful neighborhood, with echoes of tango in my head, we headed back to the city center for more sightseeing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tourists in Buenos Aires.

Pablo and Cesar have given some thought to our day which started at El Ateneo, one of the most well known bookstores in the city. Move over Barnes and Noble, this takes bookstores to another level of style and elegance and in 2008 came in second on the list of the World’s Best Bookstores. Designed by architects Pero and Torres Armengol, it first opened as a theatre named Teatro Gran Splendid in 1919. Many of the most famous tango stars like Carlos Gardel, Francesco Canaro and Ignacio Corsino performed here. Bought in 2000 by the group Tematika, who own more than 40 other stores, it was renovated and the EL Ateneo Grand Splendid became their flagship store. When you walk through you can still feel the grandeur of the original theatre. Although all the seats have been removed in lieu of bookshelves, the ornate carvings, theatre lighting and the stage with its crimson curtains are the same. The orchestra pit now houses a café where you can buy a myriad of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages as you wander the three tiers (floors) of books. The dome ceiling which has the original beautiful fresco painted by Italian artist Nazareni Orlando and the architectural detail are all original. Elevators take you to the second and third tiers, where shelves are filled with books but the still intact red velvet covered theatre boxes are available to read, have a drink and people watch. Comfortable sofas and chairs are also scattered throughout the store. We could have spent hours here but we need to move on. Next stop was San Martin Plaza, which is Cesar’s most favorite of the city’s parks. Named after General Jose de San Martin, the plaza is a sprawling, tree-filled park. Although the good general died in exile, in 1862 French sculptor Louis-Joseph Daumas was commissioned to create the equestrian statue of San Martin as a hero from the Wars of Independence and in 1878 the plaza was named in his honor. Now numerous mature trees shade the park and benches. The beautiful flowering jacaranda, magnolia and the yellow flowered tipa (rosewood) trees in addition to two hundred year old fichus and trees invite visitors passing by to sit and contemplate the statues and nearby monuments and buildings. Located in the park is the Monumento a los Caídos en Malvinas (Monument for the fallen in the Falklands war). Built in 1990 to honor those who fought for Argentina, this was the second memorial that we have visited (the first was in Rosario) that commemorates the 1982 Falklands War with England. Although much has been written about this war, precipitated by Argentina and General Galtieri who mistakenly thought the British would not respond, the war tragically took 907 lives, 258 British and 649 Argentine. Visible from the park and memorial is the renamed Torre Monumental, although most still call it Torre de los Ingleses (British Clock Tower). This Renaissance clock is set on a platform 35 meters (115 feet) high. On top the tower is an octagonal dome that is covered with layered copper. A weather vane that represents an Elizabethan three-mast ship crowns the peak. Surrounding the park are buildings of gorgeous examples of neo-gothic architecture that what were once mansions and now various government offices. After lots of photographs, it was off to our next spot, the older barrios of Buenos Aires.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A week in Pilar

Waiting for the fridge which is due to arrive Saturday the 14th, means that we can catch up on some RV maintenance and other chores. Since Pablo and Cesar live on a street surrounded by fields, there is very little traffic and there is a police sub-station next door to them. There was plenty of room to park the motor home and it was safe. Our weeks tasks were fixing the window frame on the door of the motor home, having the air conditioner in the truck checked, for some mysterious reason (and Tom has looked at it) it no longer blows air through the front vents, only top and bottom, so we are hot but our feet are freezing! And Winston needs his yearly check up and vaccinations. Pablo had looked for a mechanic to service the RV, so that is scheduled for Thursday. We are going to use the same vet as they do for their dogs and Monday afternoon we were at Puppies & Kittens to see Dr. Catalina Langbehn. Dr. Catalina speaks English and we were able to tell her we needed a health certificate for travelling, plus vaccinations and his yearly blood work. But first, to the scale. No!! Both Tom and I know he has gained weight but to our dismay he checks in at 23 kg. (50lbs). For his size he should be around 40lb. After he gets his shots, we buy some light, low calorie food. We returned Thursday as they need a little more blood and he weighed in at 22.8kg. I know he is thinner although no-one else sees it, maybe I’m delusional! Also we kept our appointment for the air conditioner and they discovered that somehow a hose had been damaged and that explained the lack of air. Now when we drive the cab is cool. Due to some errors in the cutting process, Tom spent all week going back and forth to the wood place to get the correct size for the frame. But by Saturday it was installed and painted black to match the other windows. On Friday we received notice from the shipping agent in Buenos Aires, telling us we can deposit their fees ($359.00) at the HSBC bank, so once the fridge has arrived and uncrated we will have the payment on file. The rest of the week, we spent lazing around the pool. Tom cooked several nights in the week and we went out for pizza one evening. We also went to a puppy adoption center on Wednesday night and another of the puppies found a home, now only three to go. Also, Pablo and Cesar have found a home for the mother, so that is great news. On Saturday, a friend came to visit. Sol works with Pablo as a flight attendant and spoke a little English. We also planned a Sunday trip to Capital Federal (Buenos Aires city) so they put together an itinerary of places to try to see. What fun.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pilar and Tigre

Saturday we left the city of Buenos Aires (Capital Federal) for the suburb of Pilar, about 25 miles from the city center. We had met Pablo and Cesar on Ihla de Santa Catarina in Brazil and have stayed in contact via email since then. Naturally, we got lost a couple of times finding their home and eventually asked someone who told us to follow them. Their house is away from the town center in an area surrounded by fields and with houses nestled behind shrub lined fences. As we went in and gladly accepted the offer of cold beer, the pool glistening in the sun beckoned us. Winston, of course made himself instantly at home, exploring the garden and playing in the thick, luxurious grass. Pablo and Cesar help with the animal adoption society so besides their own two Samoyeds and three mixed breed dogs, they also have a mom with her 4 puppies, five have already found homes. Winston has plenty of new friends. We spent the afternoon around the pool and later Pablo cooked a delicious dinner of chicken milanesa, potatoes and salad. We chatted until late in the night catching up with each others activities. On Sunday, Pablo, Cesar and their friend Estella planned a great trip to Tigre and the Delta. Situated about 20 miles from Capital Federal, the town is on the Rio Parana. The 14,000 square kilometer delta has hundreds of small islands, inlets, streams and backwaters forming a sub-tropical paradise. Founded in 1820, Tigre actually sits on an island created by several rivers, the Rios Parana, Lujan and Sarmiento. Its name is derived from the jaguars that for many years were hunted but are now virtually extinct. Now, besides the Naval Museum, the area is home to numerous riverside pubs and restaurants, antique and souvenir shops, a casino and Parque de la Costa, a huge amusement park. However, many people including us visit the region for its natural beauty and environment. All trips to the delta start in Tigre. For the people who live in the delta and some tourists, the most popular mode of transportation are the vintage, mahogany commuter launches called “Interislena”, which travel through the web of inter-connecting rivers and streams. If you want to simply tour the delta there are many private companies offering tours in catamaran or small motorboats. However, to really get the feel and experience of the delta lifestyle take the commuter boats. Floating along, it is like visiting time past mixing with present. There are traditional English style rowing clubs, elegant mansions mingle with more humble homes, small posadas compete with upscale hotel/spas and whilst you can eat at the numerous restaurants there are also simple picnic sites and small beaches for swimming or sunbathing. One of the more interesting of the homes is actually a museum. Declared a National Monument in 1966, Sarmiento House was home to the 7th president of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. President from 1868 to 1874, Sarmiento was an intelligent, enlightened man who modernizing the railways and establishing a postal system. His greatest achievement however was establishing a comprehensive education program that included the education of women and children. He is thought of by many, as being Argentines’ first “teacher”. Our stop was on the Sarmiento River at a small parilla for lunch. After disembarking at what was basically a small pier on stilts with steps, we encountered the footpath that led to the restaurant. But first, we followed the trail inland, crossed a wooden bridge and entered the backwaters where we could see, hear and smell the delta. Private homes were built along the trails and footpaths, some colorful, some ornate, some on stilts, most with jetties but all very unique. We recognized hydrangeas and orchid plants and hibiscus trees laden with scarlet blossoms and observed the many species of birds that made the area their home. It truly was a feast for the eyes. Back at the restaurant, we sat outside so we could watch the river activities and the many launches stopping at piers to allow people on and off. We saw the grocery shop sail by waiting for the delta residents to call out. And, the food was excellent. To get back to Tigre, we simply waited at our “boat stop” for a launch to come by and waved it over. Maneuvering up to the jetty, a rope was slung over the rungs on the stairs and we jumped in. Then it was the hour or so trip back to the town while watching the river float by, lots of people rowing, on jet skis, or in small pleasure boats, swimming or lazing in deck chairs by the riverbanks. All in the serene laid back lifestyle of life on the water. It seemed a million miles from the crowds and traffic of the capital. Before heading back home to a multitude of waiting, exuberant dogs and puppies, we stopped at Estella’s home for a beer and appetizers. As we sat in her garden surrounded by trees and shrubs, we talked about our day. It seemed perfect in every way and once again Tom and I thanked God for the people we have met in our travels and the friends we make along the way.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Buenos Aires – Day Two

Our main destination today is the Teatro Colon located at Plaza Lavelle. The plaza is dedicated to Juan Lavelle. Lavalle was a general in the military and like many military men he was both honored and reviled during his life. He died in 1841, defeated in war and his few followers tried to take his body to Bolivia. However, due to decomposition, they were forced to boil his body and take only his bones. These are now buried in La Recoleta Cemetery and his statue in the center of the plaza is surrounded by statues and fountains, shaded with mature trees. One of these statues is of two ballet dancers, Norma Fontenla and Jose Neglia, who danced frequently at the Teatro and were killed in an airplane accident in 1971. However the crowning jewel of the plaza is the Teatro. Although the theatre season is closed, the theatre offers guided tours and our German friends had said it was well worth the money and time. It is considered to be, acoustically, one of the 5 best opera houses in the world along with La Scala, Milan, Italy, and The Royal Opera House in London, England, The Metropolitan Opera House, New York, USA and The Bolshoi in Moscow, Russia. This current theatre replaced the original one which first opened in 1857 and operated for about 35 years. Three architects are credited with the design. Francesco Tamborini began the construction in 1889 but died in 1891. Design was then assumed by his colleague and student, Vittorio Meano who was murdered in 1904. The building was finally completed in 1908 by Belgian architect Julio Dormal. After 20 years of construction, the grand opening was May 25th, 1908 the “Dia de La Patria” (National Day) in Argentina with the first opera being Verdi’s “Aida”. During its first season more than 17 operas were performed with many of the famous stars appearing including tenor Bassi, baritone Ruffi and soprano Crestini and in later years Callas, Caruso and Pavarotti. The building is built in the Italian operatic tradition, with six vast tiers above which is the loggione or gallery where the less wealthy stand, a horseshoe shaped auditorium, to which the incredible acoustics are attributed and enormous stage with orchestra seating. Gorgeous building materials including three types of Italian marble, French stained glass windows and Venetian mosaics were all imported from Europe to create large-scale lavishness. The seven tier main theatre is breath-taking in size where a huge central chandelier with over 700 lights illuminates the red velvet seats and balcony rails. With its sheer size, opulence and acoustics it is easy to see why this is one of the world’s top opera houses. Luciano Pavarotti was once quoted as saying that the theatre’s only “flaw” was “that the acoustics were so good, that every mistake in pitch could be heard”. Although renovated several times, the theatre was closed for four years from 2006 until 2010 for a massive $100 million dollar remodel. However the original design and acoustics were kept along with the rich scarlet and gold furnishings and the cupola frescoes by artist Raul Soldi. I left with echoes of Pavarotti singing Nessum Dorma ringing in my head. Our only regret is that the theatre season runs from late March through December so there are currently no performances we can attend. We would have loved to experience the theatre from the audience point of view. Oh well. Our final stop was to photograph the Obelisk at the Plaza de la Republica. Located on Avenida 9 de Julio, which although credited with being the widest boulevard in the world still manages to be almost continually congested with traffic, the Obelisk was built to commemorate the 4th centenary (400 years) of the city. Designed by architect Alberto Prebisch in 1936, the monument is over 67 meters (220 ft) high. It has been used as a symbol for expression as in December 2005, when it was covered by a giant pink “condom” to recognize Worlds Aid Day, in September 2006 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of La Noche de los Lapices (Night of the Pencil) when students were kidnapped and murdered by the military junta it was converted into a giant pencil, in September 2007, it was covered with the colors of Argentina and Germany to celebrate 15 years of bilateral relations and in May 2010, it was bathed in lights for the Bi-Centennial Celebration of Argentina. The area is similar to Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London with huge flashing neon LED signs. Quite gaudy but a great photo op. After dodging the traffic and people on 9 de Julio we were both glad to stop at one of the many sidewalk cafes for a beer. The city may revolve around the Obelisk but our thought and conversation still was on the Teatro. What a glorious place and yes, it was worth every cent of the $25.00 (US) entrance fee.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Buenos Aires. – Day One

The “Paris of South America” is located on the shore of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate). Although founded more than 400 years ago, it really came known as an international city at the turn of the 20 century. Thanks to the beef boom of the late 1800’s, railroads were built and Argentina surpassed both Canada and Australia in beef and agricultural exports. Built up mostly by immigrants from Italy and Spain, the city is proud of its European heritage. As the economy improved, the older Hispanic colonial buildings were replaced in the image of Paris and all things French. The streets were widened into huge boulevards lined with trees, marble sidewalks and outdoor cafes. There was tremendous wealth and the city became the cultural center of South America. When the boom was over and the economy declined, so did the city. Now many of the buildings have been or are undergoing renovation to restore them to their former grandeur. Where we are staying in the area of Puerto Madero, small outdoor cafes line the promenade overlooking the river, very reminiscent of the west bank of Paris. Our first night, we walked through beautifully maintained and well lit parks and streets, admiring the 19th- century brick warehouses of the old port which now house offices and lots of up-scale restaurants. We ate at one of these, “The Sushi Club”, forgoing well known Argentinean beef for sushi for which we were both hankering. It was excellent and well priced compared to many sushi restaurants. The next morning I stayed with Winston and Tom went by taxi to drop off our laundry, which had accumulated over the past few weeks and he wanted to go to the Swiss Army Knife store to replace some components he had lost and buy new cases for the two knives. Winston and I walked through more of the parks and promenade areas, taking in the beautiful morning. Our first sightseeing trip in the afternoon was to the Recoleta district to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar (Basilica Nuestra Senora Del Pilar) and the Cemetery (Cementerio). The basilica was originally designed by a Jesuit priest, Andrea Bianchi and was completed in 1732. Although it was remodeled at the turn of the 20th century, in 1930 architect Andres Mille restored it to its original appearance. It was designated a basilica by Pope Pious XI and became a historical monument in 1942. The front is built architecturally along neo-classical lines with the tower on the left and the belfry on the right. In the case of this church, there is a double belfry which makes it unique. Inside, the main altar and most of the statues originate from the time of its construction. The main (silver) altar is Altoperuvian, with six medals of the sun and moon, which by Peruvian connotations allude to the Virgin: “brilliant as the sun, higher than the moon”. The main altar is flanked by 6 smaller chapels (altars) which vary in design from Peruvian to Rococo to Neo-Baroque. It was quite breath-taking and I remembered something written a long time ago “Visiting a church is not merely a cultural moment or leisure time. It is an opportunity to share in the religious beliefs of different peoples and the historic times of the country”. To visit this church is not only a journey through history back to the colonization of Argentina but it shows the evangelistic movement of not only the Spanish but also the Franciscans who designed it. As a side note, before retiring I was a designer and love architecture and its different periods. I also love religious places be it a church, cathedral, basilica, temple (Buddhist or Jewish) or mosque. It doesn’t matter to me, I am drawn to them. I have been in many all over the world (although I never went to Mecca) and no matter the religion, when I enter a religious building it is always with a feeling of not only deep respect but peace. I find them tranquil, serene places and if only for a few moments can leave all my problems at the door. From here it was onto the Cementerio de Recoleta. In 1822, this became the first public cemetery in the city and has over 4,800 vaults. Its front portico is in the Greek Doric style with four columns marking the entrance. Many of the most famous people of Argentine history are interred here – Belgrano, Rodriquez and Rivadavia in addition to a myriad of writers, poets and just the plain old wealthy. All have ornate marble and granite crypts with giant carved statues, angels and the like adorning them. The most internationally well known of those resting here is Eva Duarte Peron (Evita). I had promised myself a visit to her crypt mainly because being female, I am proud of women who came before me and made life easier for the rest of us. Eva Duarte Peron falls definitely into that category. She was an actress when she met Juan Peron, who at the time was Secretary of Labor. Back then, the so called working class and aristocracy were quite separate and Eva caused more than a few headaches with her passionate speeches on behalf of the working class. When Juan Peron became President in 1946, Eva never forgot her lowly background and became a champion for social change. It is thanks to her that women in Argentina got to vote and a public health service was developed. Yes, she toured Europe as though she were royalty and Yes, she (because of the social programs) caused more government spending which led to inflation and to corruption of some officials but she helped initiate social reform, programs and equality that in my opinion surpasses that. In other words, she did more good than harm. She died too young at the age of 33 from cancer. She has been immortalized but hopefully not trivialized in books, movies and song. Known affectionately by the people as Evita, Eva Duarte Peron is truly an icon of her time and Argentina only cries because she died not that she lived. Her crypt is strewn with flowers to honor a remarkable woman and remembrances of a time we can only imagine.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Laguna dos Lobos

The lake was a perfect spot to wait out Christmas and New Year. It stayed quiet most of the time. Christmas Eve was noisy with plenty of fireworks being set at midnight to welcome in Christmas Day. However, after 12:30AM it was quiet again. Christmas Day, we went back to Lujan to the Basilica for mass. We are used now to Spanish mass and are always interested in the slightly different customs in the countries. Brazil has, by far, the most exuberant of services both in music and the participation of the congregation. This was a more subdued service but the sheer beauty and magnificence of the church more than compensated for that. After getting back to the campsite, the rest of the day was quiet. The biggest highlight was being able to Skype with our kids and family. Christmas for me is probably the most difficult time to be away from home, my son told me the same thing. It is just one day however and we will see them in June or July when we are in Ecuador, as we plan to rent a house there and have friends and family visit. We also learned that Tom’s niece who swims with the US swim team will be participating in a swim meet in Patagonia at Viedra on the Rio Negro. The event is scheduled for February 4th and so now we want to re-arrange our schedule, yet again, so we will be able to meet with her and cheer her on in her open water event. We have never seen her swim so that will be fun for us and her. New Years Eve was similar to Christmas and when the campsite was the busiest. At midnight, we were treated to a beautiful fireworks display set off from the other side of the lake. This meant they went over the lake and so we were able to see the gorgeous colors set against the night sky. We only had one bottle of champagne and decided to save it for New Years Day, so we settled with toasting in 2012 with a glass of Argentinean wine. There were also fire crackers in the campsite, much to Winston’s dismay. After watching the big show, we went inside the RV and Tom kept him snuggled up on the bed with him. Fortunately, everyone went to bed at around 2AM, not bad for New Years Eve standards. The campsite has very strict rules about music, which is very unusual in South America. As a result the true party people camp on the other side of the lake, which was fine by us. I have come to the conclusion there are two types of people. Those who revel in New Years Eve and love the hype, the excitement and the partying that accompanies the New Year and those who don’t. I fall into the second category. Most years, I have spent the evening quietly with friends either at someone’s home for a small celebration or at a hotel and again with only a group of friends. I have never liked being out with hoards of strangers who are usually in some stage of inebriation. So, this New Year was perfect. New Years Day had the most visitors to the lake. It was one of those beautiful summer days, not too hot with a breeze. As a result we were able to watch wind and kite surfers out on the lake. Since most people only had Monday as a holiday by Monday night, the campsite was back to just a handful of people. Because of the relative calm and tranquility, there are lots of birds nesting around us. Daily we were treated to a family of burrowing owls. These little guys had burrowed and nested by the lake and had had a chick. It was mature enough that they were letting it out of the nest and it was fun to see it walk around while the parents tried hard not to look proud! Okay, that was my interpretation. Likewise for the family of hawks who had their nest in the tree hanging over our motor home. When we first arrived, we knew there was a chick in the nest and we would watch the parents fly around, taking turns in guarding the nest and getting food. But after a week or so he was also getting out and about, whilst all the time they kept a wary eye on Winston. Fortunately, the only times Winston would get curious was when they were getting him settled back in the nest and making lots of noise and rustling. This would immediately get the dog’s curiosity and set him barking. There were lots of hawks around but we soon found out that hawks are very shy, skittish birds. Whilst we got some great photos of the burrowing owls, the hawks would fly off as soon as Tom got a little too close with his camera. One day we were fortunate enough to see a flock of flamingoes come in. They arrived late in the afternoon and looked beautiful with the sun reflecting off their pink feathers. They stayed through the night and following morning but left by midday. In addition to bird watching we took long walks by the lake, read and caught up on household chores. We are a little undecided on how to spend our time until the 14th when the fridge arrives so we decide to spend a couple of days in Buenos Aires, referred to as Capital Federal by most Argentineans. We can find the port where the shipment comes in and get in some sight-seeing. Since the Monday following New Year is also a holiday, we decide to wait until Wednesday to travel. We have been told there is parking in the Puerto Madera area so that is our destination. I am excited. Buenos Aires, for years has been dubbed the Paris of South America. It is supposedly a beautiful city and we are looking forward to a few days of simply being tourists, not travelers.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

It is a small world after all

During the night the storm had passed though it was still cloudy and humid. Anne and Jon were up and about and we walked over to their site to have coffee and pastries. By the time I got there, Tom and Jon were chatting. “Guess what” Tom said to me excitedly. “They know Jeanne and Bruce”. They had lived in Sacramento for a while and Tom had said his three sisters and their families live in Granite Bay. “We know someone in Granite Bay” Jon added. It so happens, Tom’s sister and brother in law are avid birders as are Anne and Jon. So they would get together and Jon and Bruce had been bird spotting several times. We marveled that of all the places we go and people we meet, we could meet them doing the same thing as us at the same time. Over the next couple of days, we exchanged stories and information. They were able to give us plenty of information about Patagonia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. In return we give all our information regarding Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Venezuela. It was also fun to talk about events in the States and Europe. Like Tom and I, Jon and Anne are an Anglo/American couple and so are facing the same issues regarding visas, while both are travelling on passports from different countries. Jon definitely keeps up with current events in England more than I do but we do share similar feelings about the European Community (EEC) and its economic problems. We all agreed that travelling at least was sparing us from the GOP debates back in the States and for that we were grateful. That night Tom made fondue (reminiscent of our time in Villa General Belgrano) which went very well with some Argentinean wine. From here, they are going to do some bird-watching on the Rio Plata and we are headed about 60 miles south to Laguna dos Lobos for Christmas and New Year but with the intent on returning to Lujan for Christmas Day mass.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An amazing sight

We left Rosario early so we could get to our rendezvous with Anne and Jon at a suburb outside of Buenos Aires called Lujan. We had arranged to pick up a new deep cell battery in the city and hoped to do that first. As “luck” would have it by the time we reached Buenos Aires it was rush hour or maybe the traffic is always heavy. The streets were crammed. It took us 2 hours to locate the store but they had the correct battery and it did not take them long to install it. Then it was back on the autopista to Lujan. Anne had given me directions to the campsite which seemed easy to get to from the freeway. As we approached the roundabout, we were astounded at the sight in front of us. A basilica. Completed in 1937 this enormous neo-gothic church was built to honor the Virgin of Lujan (the patron saint of Argentina). Designed by French architect Ulderico Courtois who used Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as his model, it was built to the same lines and details of 13th century churches. Using stone from the Entre Rios region of Argentina, it is truly imposing. The front is flanked by two towers standing over 100 meters (330 ft) high, those combined with the copper roof transept and gigantic bronze doors maintain the gothic tradition. The interior also keeps to the French Gothic style with the main altar dominating the view from the front door, wide aisles and alcoves with beautiful stained glass windows. At the altar is the tiny 1 foot (38cm) statue of the Virgin of Lujan to whom this enormous church is dedicated and over six million people visit every year to pray. What a testament to faith. We pulled over to the side and could only ogle at the sheer beauty and magnificence of it. We decide that we will try to come to mass here before we leave. It is dark when we pulled in to the campsite and by the time we got the RV situated the rain which had been light, started to come down in torrents. Jon and Anne’s vehicle was silent, they were sleeping already. We made soup and a sandwich and as the rain picked up speed, the thunder and lightning followed. We ate listening to the sound and the conversation was centered on the basilica and the profound visual effect it created for us.