I remember going to a very fancy New Year s Eve party many moons ago. It was one of those —Champagne on tap, killer Atlantic Seaboard views and packed to the rafters with people you think you should probably know. I promptly switched over into my Argentine accent (a brilliant coping mechanism, I like to think, for such brilliant company). Sometimes the Argentine accent slipped across the bay into what I imagine is my Uruguayan patois —more Montevidean than Porteno. That second word is what people from Buenos Aires like to call themselves. (If I was very good, I would tell you why, but I m not.) Eventually the dodgy accent just slipped altogether but that was at about three o clock in the morning and it was a choice between the accent or my virtue, so I picked the path less travelled. I tell you this story only to illustrate my abiding love for all things Argentinian, more specifically one Nacho Figueras, a fellow prone to ponies and mallets. Polo is a national obsession in Argentina and Nacho is the culmination of many hopes and dreams. More dreams in my case.
So imagine my delight when I finally embarked on a real-life Buenos Aires expedition. I used Bob Dylan as a loose excuse to lure my man across the ocean. Actually I simply bought a ticket for the septuagenarian s final concert in South America and presented it as a fait accompli. A birthday present with strings attached. What was the beleaguered soul to do, other than conform to the magnificent plan that unfolded before him?
Central to the plan was the Faena Universe Hotel. I know, I know it is centrally located in Puerto Madero —not the old part of town. A taxi driver was at pains one evening to explain that we were now crossing over into a new country. Read —eerily clean broad boulevards and mammoth developments for the nouveau riche spanning the river, in close proximity to the yacht club, a series of antiseptic designer restaurants and a wonderful inner-city park replete with bike paths and home-grown skater boys. But how can I help it? I am the friend of Philippe Starck. I am prone to Philippe even more than I am prone to Nacho. (The Bob Dylan fan is well aware of these proclivities and tolerates them as best he can.) And the Faena Universe (yes, that is its name on the official documentation) is very much like a paean to the Argentine world as per my silly accent.
In other words, it is over-the-top madness: there is lust, there is velvet, there is gilt, there is designer tango and there is a Philippe Starck gnome in the expansive foyer that stretches the length of the hotel. There is also a resident countess who owns endless tracts of pampas and takes her drinks at the lovely bar. Never mind the wonder cabinets in the dining room featuring mementos of Evita and Maradona behind the hand-cut crystal and local porcelain. The owner, one Alan Faena, is clearly an eccentric visionary after my own heart who has established daily yoga classes in the Faena gym, along with a world-class art collection in the Faena gallery/museum. He throws in a little urbane property development along the waterfront as part of his Faena Universe portfolio. Nice.
The Dylan fan and his faithful companions (one, namely the younger one, was not entirely convinced by the Dylan subplot but nevertheless bravely put up with it) would hop onto the urbane red Faena bicycles and ride out into that wonderful, epic and slightly dilapidated city for days on end. Naturally we broke for many snacks, drinks and wonderful meals. We also took frequent energy boosts to be found in our pockets in the shape of the small bottles of dulce de leche —local Nutella made from condensed milk —that wehoarded from the breakfast table. Our path often
led to Palermo. In fact I plan to retire to Palermo and take up residence in a charming, antiquated, single-storey abode on the corner where Oui Oui —the small lunch spot —and Picnic, —the decor store —are to be found, somewhere at the top of Calle Nicaragua. There I will live my bohemian South American life for ever and ever. I imagine my accent will improve dramatically and it might never slip, not even at 3am. Not even when challenged. Bob Dylan better give another concert soon. (It was, by the way, fabulous.)
Now here follows a guide from one in the know. Michal Leon is currently resident in Palermo Buenos Aires, her hubby is there on important government business and these are some highlights from the guide she gives all official visitors:
MUST SEE, DO AND SHOP
It is impossible to include all the thousands of good restaurants, wonderful coffee shops, museums, galleries and interesting spots Buenos Aires offers. But, if we have to choose just a few gems, we would recommend:
1. The Recoleta Cemetery Combine with a walk via elegant Recoleta streets, especially Avenida Alvear (pop in for tea or a drink at the Alvear Palace).
2. San Telmo For antique shopping and crazy bric-a-brac (preferably on a Sunday, after 11am).
3. La Boca The working-class district adorned in brightly painted prefabricated iron.
4. Casa Rosada, Plaza de Mayo and Avenida de Mayo Do visit Cafe Tortoni —the oldest cafe in the city freguented by Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina s greatest author. Cafetortoni.com.ar
5. Malba Museum The one we would choose if we only had time for one. Malba.org.ar
6. Palermo Soho An old neighbourhood gentrified into a centre of fashion designers, galleries, cafes and restaurants. The buzz starts only at around noon.
Amazing that Portenos are not much heavier with literally thousands of eateries (and kioscos —the shops —which abound). Add to that the fact that they eat their main meal after 9.30pm, often at 11pm or later…
At 5pm to 7pm people have merienda —for example, coffee and toasted bread with dulce de leche(this is very popular. Give it a try).
1. Empanadas Like samoosas or mini pies but often baked and not fried, with various fillings —minced meat, chicken, spinach, cheese and onion.
2. Meat A parilla is a grill house. Try chorizos, the local boerewors, usually eaten as a starter. Then sample bife de chorizo (which is a steak —confusing name) —always a safe choice. Lomo is fillet. For short ribs, order asado de tira.
3. Provoleta Grilled cheese —a very typical starter at any parilla.
4. Artisanal ice cream Try Freddo, Volta or Persico.
At all hours of the day and night, people drink coffee. Don t expect Italian espresso-based coffee at its best, but the vibe is great. Cappuccino in BA is not as we know it —in most places they serve it with cream and foamed milk and cinnamon. For the closest to our version ask for cafe con leche en jarrito —usually, half coffee and half warm and slightly foamed milk. For a double, ask for doble, as in cafe con leche doble.
1. FOR HISTORIC REASONS Cafe Tortoni A few blocks from Casa Rosada. Cafetortoni.com.ar
2. FOR A TASTE OF TRENDY Mark s Deli El Salvador 4701, Palermo Soho.
3. FOR BOOKS AND COFFEE IN ONE Boutique Del Libro
Don t even try to eat dinner before 8.30pm. For meat and other typical Argentine food:
1. Fervor Also serves very good fish. Posadas 1519 y Callao, Recoleta. Next door (Posadas 1515) is Sanjuanino, a traditional eatery serving empanadas and locro (local stew).
2. La Cabrera Vibey, crowded, chaotic, with huge portions (share the bife de chorizo, it is inhumanely huge). Parrillalacabrera.com.ar.
3. El Mirasol de La Recova Consistently good. Some say it serves the best meat in town. Elmirasol.com.ar.
4. Chila Portenos and foodies rate it very highly, in the restaurant hub of Puerto Madero. Chilaweb.com.ar
For other Peruvian-style, Armenian or ethnic options:
1. Sipan Indifferent location but wonderful food. Sipan.com.ar.
2. Osaka Soler For fusion Peruvian-Asian food. Osaka.com.pe.
1. The Calla Florida This pedestrian mall has known better days. But it remains a nice stretch of stores, with a few good leather shops (and many terrible ones, too). It s a good choice if you have limited time.
2. Plata Nativa For original silver and other local jewellery. The shop is on the right-hand side of Galeria Del Sol —a small gallery —on Florida 860, near Avenida Cordoba. Platanativa.com
3. Galena Pacifico A lovely, large shopping mall on Florida offering just about everything, from major Argentine fashion designers to the beautiful country-style store Cardon. Galeriaspacifico.com.ar
4. Peter Kent The top handbag designer, according to many locals. Peterkent.com.ar
5. Paseo Alcorta A mall with a good selection of local designers, as well as some international brands (like Zara) in Palermo. Paseoalcorta.com.ar/shopping
6. Palermo Soho Hit the streets of Palermo Soho for the trendiest, Boho-style, young fashion, especially Malabia, Armenia and El Salvador.
1. The Faena Hotel Refurbished and decorated by Philippe Starck, it s tongue-in-cheek five-star fun.