This past month has been characterized by long, languorous summer days. The heat surrounds us in Chile, radiating off of the concrete buildings and seeping into every corner of my apartment. The intense white sun is mercilessly intensified by the giant mirror of the Pacific ocean. Not much happens in February in Chile, and thus I am left with thoughts and memories from other, more action-filled days of the recent past… and schemes and hopes for the near future.
These endless, blurry summer days were kicked off, for me at least, last month during our week away, in Argentina. Although I knew we wanted to have a more laid back trip to Buenos Aires than I’d experienced other times, deciding to do several walking tours in high summer was a challenge in its own right. Still, I managed to meander along the tree-lined sidewalks for miles and miles throughout the city in the heat, fuelled by a few iced coffees and gelato along the way, of course.
Buenos Aires in summer was a strange thing. It was quiet(er than usual), with most of its population having escaped in January to its coastal resorts. This also lent the city – that feels so much like a city from another era any time of the year – an even more peculiar, “time warp” feel than usual. The downtown neighbourhoods, with a lower percentage of its residents present in the summer heat, felt even more like a city that had skipped a few decades.
It was, in that sense, the perfect time to experience one of the city’s oldest, most evocative neighbourhoods: San Telmo.
I booked a walking tour with an American-turned-expat in San Telmo, Rick. Unfortunately for us, we booked the walk on probably the hottest afternoon of the week. For a good three hours we meandered the streets and sidewalks of the shabby neighbourhood, Rick pointing out fascinating street art, places and sights that could otherwise easily (and sadly) be missed by casual passers-by.
Like many parts of Buenos Aires, San Telmo has an intriguing history. Rick recounted its history to us (I later refreshed my memory on Wikipedia before writing this post … it was a hot day after all, and thus only 1/2 of my brain cells were working!) Briefly, it was one of the first neighbourhoods in the city, home to workers and labourers who built the port city on their backs in the 17th century. It was later settled by Jesuits in the 18th century, who wanted to clean up the neighbourhood, though they left after a few decades. Then, better public infrastructure in the mid-19th century transformed the squalor of the working-class neighbourhood into a place of interest for the well-to-do of the city, who moved in and built palatial homes and buildings, modelled after those in Europe. Unfortunately for them, an epidemic swept through the neighbourhood in 1871, prompting the upper classes to flee the area and settle just north of downton in the “Barrio Norte” (where they can still be found today). They left the neighbourhood to the newly-arrived immigrants from Europe who were working in factories in the area. This multicultural flair can still be sensed in the neighbourhood today: I saw elements that were reminiscent of Italy, Britain, Ireland, France, and Russia. Flamboyant architectural detail on historic homes, churches and other buildings borrows heavily from European homelands but is given an exuberance and flair that I have come to associate with Buenos Aires. It was in this era – roughly from the turn of the last century to today – that San Telmo earned its Bohemian flavour and attracted artists and writers and settlers from around the world.
It is certainly a neighbourhood that is a product of its past. In fact, I am not sure I have ever visited a neighbourhood -in any city- that in modern times better reflects its staggeringly diverse and tumultuous history. It is still home at once to crumbling, shabby buildings that are in dire need of a fresh coat of paint – and swanky bohemian lofts and apartments built in spectacular old mansions and colonial tenements. Both the less-than-affluent and working classes (who have been here for generations) along and relatively well-to-do expats (who are entranced by its character and history) call this area home. We saw young and old alike meandering the sidewalks and sitting in cafes. It has some of the best art in the city – home to a fabulous Museum of Modern Art that we visited, and buildings decorated in the city’s trademark Filetado Porteño – and many energetic artist co-ops and workshops. On the other hand, it has some of the worst art in the city – in the form of tacky souvenir shops and overpriced antique stores.
It also has a lovely market that we stepped into (where, according to our guide, the best coffee in Buenos Aires can be found), where you can buy both dinner (fresh vegetables, fruits and meat) and some lovely antiques. The wrought iron Belle Epoque architecture of this indoor marketplace was incredible, and there were many good examples of the Filetado Porteño – a graphic style that characterizes signs and store windows, invented in the neighbourhood around the early 20th century. Rick, with his excellent artistic eye, taught us how to identify “good” specimens of Filetado Porteño.
The city has had to cope with a dark recent history, and that mark has also been left on the neighbourhood. We walked under a highway overpass, where the excavation of a former prison used in the 1970s is currently underway. Small signs underneath this highway explain the building and what it was used for. Humbling, to say the least. It’s easy to get swept up by the present-day bohemian vibe of the neighbourhood and forget what happened not that long ago.
It’s worth mentioning that you have to be careful in this neighbourhood: Rick mentioned to us that it is not unheard of for a camera to be snatched out of your hand as you walk around snapping pictures of the incredible views. Pickpocketing and muggings do happen, and he told us he wouldn’t recommend that a woman walk around alone in the area even during the day. This is in contrast to the reasonably (for a large city) safer neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, such as Recoleta, Palermo, and even downtown. In other words, tourists might be led into a false sense of security elsewhere in the city and forget to take some common-sense precautions when visiting San Telmo.
One modern-day development in the neighbourhood is its street art. The (sanctioned) “graffiti” art is practically an institution throughout the city, especially in neighbourhoods like San Telmo that pride themselves in having an artistic vibe, and this neighbourhood had its own characteristic works of street art and artists that frequent the area (which I will elaborate on a bit more in next week’s post).
My favourite overall experience in the neighbourhood was walking past the sleepy cafes and parks once frequented by literary and artistic greats such as Jorge Luis Borges, and seeing the legendary Tango halls of the neighbourhood. These were the places that most felt like we had briefly stepped back in time. I could easily imagine a writer, poet and artist meeting up for an afternoon stroll in the park designed by the Argentine-French architect Charles Thays. It was not a stretch to picture a scene right out of a French impressionist painting playing out in this historic urban setting.
Our walk ended in early evening, when a dark grey thunderstorm cloud rolled in to give us some respite from the afternoon heat. We retired to an Irish pub frequented by expats. In the spirit of the neighbourhood and like the thinkers and artist who have haunted the streets of San Telmo for decades, Rick, some of his friends and my husband and I enjoyed some happy hour specials in the energetic little pub while comparing photos of the city and its art on our iDevices, pondering and reflecting upon the day – and expat life in South America in general – as rain and thunder pounded the cobblestone streets outside.
For more information on Rick’s San Telmo Art Walk, you can visit his website.