In Recoleta they die as they had often lived, beyond their means. The most prestigious suburb in Buenos Aires, Recoleta, has its own exclusive necropolis where row upon bankrupting row of grand marble vaults accommodate the dusty repose of the city’s once-gilded elite.
Lowering the cemetery’s tone by octaves (according to some) is the tomb of parvenu Eva Peron, aka Evita. Lauded in life by Argentina’s poor, she is surrounded in death by the rich who loathed her then, and still do.
Buenos Aires is a bright city of melancholia set to a dance-step, a tango town of a delicious decrepitude, of fabulous wealth blown but for the nostalgia and crumbling mansions.
It is the home of Jorge Luis Borges, of jackbooted generals and the Mothers of the Disappeared, of Maradona and, briefly, Madonna who has come here to channel Evita.
Eva Duarte Peron (second wife of Argentine President General Juan Peron) died at age 33 in 1952. She still divides Argentinians in death as she did in life: some think of her as a near-saintly friend to the poor, while others consider the ex-actress little more than a social-climbing tart.
Heroine or whore? Who could be better cast in this deified-demonised contradiction than Madonna, the woman who tweaked the horns of that a similar dilemma — starlet as faux harlot — throughout the 1980s and 1990s?
And there I was with a hotel room overlooking hers when she was here for seven weeks, filming the musical, Evita. The brush with fame was wasted on me.
As a photographer I make a lousy paparazzo. Stalking the soi-disant glamorous through an 800 mm lens would bore me witless.
I was there to write about a city of debt and plazas, coffee and glory, not to go celeb sniffing. Had I wanted the latter, the far more talented Robert Duvall was also in town, shooting the movie Eichmann — and his Hollywood crew was delighted that Evita was drawing all the rubberneckers.
Glimpses of Madonna
Benign fate delivered me a sixth-floor room in the Park Hyatt. My windows looked straight down onto the hotel’s exclusive annex, La Mansion.
This restored, turn-of-the-century millionaire’s pile — a pseudo-Louis XIII confection of marble, oak and chandeliers — accommodates the sorts of guests who might think the term ‘cash-strapped’ refers to bankers into bondage.
The likes of Keith Richards and media magnate Kerry Packer used to stay there, and now Madonna. She occupied the entire top floor of the opulent three-storey Mansion in a suite costing $6000 per night.
From my considerably cheaper room I could look down on her bodyguards — blokes built like brick outhouses with bow ties — patrolling the gardens of La Mansion. On Madonna’s top floor the louvered French windows that opened onto a patio were sometimes left alluringly ajar, their gauzy curtains flicking in the evening breeze.
Soft lighting glowed within her suite. Yes, I confess, I peeked. No — in three days I didn’t once glimpse the Immaterial Girl. However, one night I saw a person stepping onto the balcony to drink in the breeze. I strained for a better look. Was it her? The horror! The horror! The negligee-clad figure looked more like Kerry Packer.
There’s more to Buenos Aires than tarts, juntas and tango. This city of cupola domes, Belle Époque elegance and endlessly wide avenues is like no other Latin American capital. From the M&M-coloured houses of Caminita to the centre’s grandiose edifices, BA is an intriguing towns of recurrent wins and losses.
The coffee’s fine (as are the coffee shops, like the famous Cafe Tortoni, founded in 1858 and once patronised by writers like Lorca and Pirandello) and Argentine steaks are as large as your place mat.
The 19th and early 20th century wealth — generated by the export of pampas beef, mutton and wheat — that created this New World melding of Paris, Rome and New York styles must have been astounding.
The taxis are metered and the public buses are good, but the walking is even better. That’s what I did, letting the city’s vast, flat blocks crowd me with their memories.
A sunlit city with the grumps, I thought at times. (In fact, Porteños, the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, are famously unhappy and are said to have two addictions: coffee and psychoanalysis.)
They have reason to be grumpy. Less than a century ago Argentina was the eighth richest country in the world. Its patrimony was then squandered by a string of venal generals and feckless politicians.
The capital’s sumptuous old buildings are in desperate need of maintenance but, for a dilettante blow-in who’s walking its streets, the flaking patina of their history rubs off, almost literally, on one’s elbows.
Rio de La Plata
The first Spanish settlement here, on the banks of the Rio de La Plata, was established in 1536. The British attempted a takeover in 1807 and were booted straight back out.
The Spanish colonial masters received their own marching orders a few years later. By the turn of the 20th century, this was the largest city in Latin America. Massive immigration added German, Welsh, Basque, Irish, Italian and English blood to that of the earlier Amerindians and Spaniards.
In the harbour suburb of Boca (where Diego Maradona started his career at Boca Juniors club) one old street has been reborn as a walk-through art galley.
Closer to an alley than an avenue, Caminita is more notable for its buildings — multi-storeyed structures made of corrugated iron and painted like Rubik’s cubes — than for its art, which is mostly kitsch images of zoot-suited blokes with pomaded hair and bedroom eyes, if not bathroom eyes, entangoed with slinky dames in slit dresses.
Nearby, in San Telmo district the plazas, cobbled streets and outdoor cafes seems so European that this could be Italy in the 1950s or Franco’s Spain.
One writer noted that ‘BA doesn’t look like Europe, it looks like a postcard of Europe’, but this is undoubtedly Argentina, with radio tangos trotting softly in the background and the walls splashed with today’s reprise of ‘Yankee Go Home’ — ‘Viva Evita! Fuera Madonna!’ (‘Long live Evita! Get out Madonna!’).
Theatre Colon, the grand 1908 opera house, seems like it just drifted down a canal from Venice. There’s no such whimsy attached to La Casa Rosada, the President’s Palace, from whose balcony Juan and Eva Peron stirred the crowds with jingoism.
There’s Avenue Ninth of July, at 16 lanes across, the world’s widest city street. And, of course, the Porteños themselves.
Almost 40 percent of Argentina’s 37 million people live in greater Buenos Aires. Beyond the grand edifices and tourists tango clubs, it is the Porteños who make the place real.
In BA ‘personality’ means the triumph of substance and style.
Everywhere I see people with a defiant individualism and a glint in the eye, even if not much cash in their pockets. Folk who are far greater than the sum of their brand labels.
At an outdoor cafe in Recoleta on a crowded, sunny Sunday afternoon I caught a glimpse of who-gives-a-damn pleasure that was at once intensely private and public — the kind of thing you’d never see in other, more self-conscious capitals.
A well-groomed, sixtyish woman sat with her bicycle propped nearby. A bottle of mineral water and a coffee half-consumed were on her cafe table. Her tanned midriff was bare and her sneakered feet were up on a chair. A partly smoked cigarette lingered in one hand, and her eyes were closed in semi-ecstasy as the Buenos Aires sun poured down like benediction.