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.