In Europe, in the early 20th century, wealthy young marriage prospects were said to be “riche comme un argentin”. Not any more. The country has not exactly fallen on hard times, but it has lost its swagger. Brutal blows to its democracy have left it seemingly hesitant and incomplete.
On our first day in Buenos Aires we wander the tree-lined avenues between the bubbling brown Rio de la Plata and Palermo, the currently fashionable Soho-style district wherein lies our hotel, a former home of Francis Ford Coppola now called Jardin Escondido (email@example.com). It’s small and cosy; full of plants and leather trunks.
The nearby MALBA museum fails to take the breath away. But there is compensation in the street cafes, the dark angular trees, and the dog walkers whose charges are linked together with elaborate leather and metal harnesses that look as if they could have come from Miss Whiplash’s boudoir.
At night we go to La Cabrera, round the corner. You need a reservation here. Be five minutes late, we’re told, and your table will have gone to one of the long queue of patient fans. We are not late, and we get the full Argentine meat experience, seated next to a gentle drunk and his patient wife. We try to communicate and smile a lot. I imagine him to have been a tango-dancing gaucho in his youth. But then again he might equally have been in the military, doing unthinkable things to young revolutionaries.
Next day we head downtown to the Plaza de Mayo and the Avenida de Mayo, the latter a bit like Tottenham Court Road when not at its best. The former’s dignity is rescued by Casa Rosada, the ruddy presidential palace, and by the memorial of the mothers of “the disappeared”. (At least 30,000 people vanished under the junta between 1976 and 1983, many of them dropped naked from planes into the murky Rio de la Plata.)
We look into Café Tortoni, a handsome vestige of La Belle Epoque, once a Paris-style watering hole of tango writers and artists. No music or dance when we are there, just ladies having coffee and cakes laced with comforting dulce de leche, the caramelised sweet stuff that is spread thick from one end of this city to the other. In Graham Greene’s “The Honorary Consul”, a central character’s widowed mother lives in Buenos Aires and typically spends her days in dulce de leche indulgence.
We pass the impressive Teatro Colon, then by taxi to La Boca and El Caminito, a couple of streets with multi-coloured walls, weary-eyed tango dancers and Maradona lookalikes. (The infamous ball-handler played for nearby Boca Juniors before he moved to Europe.)
In the evening we go to Tegui, a restaurant that comes high on the list of Latin America’s best. It’s behind a dark door set in a graffiti-covered wall. We have the eight-course tasting menu with accompanying wines. It’s a show, served in Petri dishes, an oyster here, a sweetbread there, and a single dish that is memorable – a venison tartare fused with raspberries. German Martitegui, the chef, became famous through a TV show and has just produced his own book. A well-trodden road.
Next day we head for Tigre, a town in the delta of the mighty Parana river. We are en route to Isla El Descanso, an island with a private house (on stilts, as they all are) and an outdoor collection of modern art. The themes are nature, art and philosophy; occasional phrases carved on rocks lead us through it. It’s all meant to be zen and soothing, except that the river is high today and menacingly washes onto the pristine lawns with worrying frequency.
Back in Buenos Aires we go to Uco, the in-house restaurant of the Fierro hotel, and here we have my favourite dish so far – something called Lima-style rice with prawns. A very original flavour, the rice cooked in orange juice and beer, slightly caramelised and not overbearingly sweet. Given that it was preceded by a tangy salmon ceviche of considerable class, Uco wins my top restaurant of Buenos Aires award.
Next morning it’s time for the Pampas: La Bamba de Areco, a two-hour drive to an estancia owned by a London-based French polo player, Jean-Francois Decaux. (I guess his family’s into advertising hoardings.) One old brick building dates back to 1830. In it is a smart red carriage from a not dissimilar era. The remaining buildings – for humans and horses alike – are all painted burgundy red.
This is Gaucho country, home of the legendary cowboys whose philosophy is summarised as “courtesy, generosity and independence”. One of them, Martin Tatta, gives us a moving show of horse whispering. (You can see him on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vV_EBEIoVg).
We ride around the grounds – I had imagined the pampas to be full of waist-high grasses, but it’s more like Cotswold pasture. Interesting birds though – a red crested cardinal, lapwings galore, a rufus-bellied thrush, and a small raptor called a carancho. Plus squawking parakeets and ring-winged doves who cry continually, “Thump the floor; thump the floor.”
The guests dine all together at a single, long highly-polished table. We find ourselves joined by a couple from Henley, he a golfing mate of a good friend of ours. “It’s a small world”, at least it is when you move in privileged bubbles like ours.