Thursday, March 14, 2013

Buenos Aires: Our only South American Princess Excursion (a bus tour)

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

Most of the places discussed in our Fodor’s book on South America have a page or two of description and history. For Buenos Aires, the description and history is a mere paragraph long (103 words total). If all you knew of the city was dependent on this brief description, serious travelers might choose to avoid the city—"incredible food, fresh young designers, and a thriving cultural scene" (p. 27).

Our tour guide (Teresa) told us an interesting story that may explain a portion of the lack of "charm." She said that during the very early days of the city, the founding father (and those in power) emphasized the cattle and the grasslands of the interior—unlike Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo cities which placed an emphasis on the beaches and built pedestrian walkways and even boulevards that highlight and emphasize the beaches and water.

Of course, if the Rio de la Plata (river of silver) looked like it did today from Deck 18 (Skywalker’s Nightclub), no punctuation would be necessary. It is a huge, brown (mud-like) expanse as far as the eye can see. The river is over 30 miles wide here in the port of Buenos Aires, and where the river (really an estuary) meets the Atlantic Ocean, it is 180 miles wide.

Teresa told us, too, that Buenos Aires was preparing for "Carnival," but she said it was a miniature version of "Carnival" in Rio. Here it was truly a copy—"it feels forced," she said. In Rio, she said, the people really feel the music. For them, it is natural, unforced, and feels right.

The pink, silk floss trees , with their cotton-candy blooms, were all on display as we drove through the city, and the parks and trees beautifully set off the austere buildings. Buenos Aires is the commercial, administrative, artistic, and intellectual hub of Argentina.

Early on our 3½-hour tour, we headed for the 14 acre Cementerio de la Recoleta. This property contains 4,691 vaults, all above ground. 94 of those have been declared National Historical Monuments by the Argentine government. You enter the cemetery through neo-classical gates with tall Doric columns. This is Argentina’s most elegant and aristocratic cemetery where the national heroes, former presidents, famous personalities, and many aristocratic families are buried.

Many of the vaults are elaborate marble mausoleums decorated with statues in a wide variety of architectural styles such as art deco, art nouveau, baroque, and neo-gothic, and most of the materials used in the construction of the tombs was imported from Paris and Milan between 1880 and 1930. The entire cemetery is laid out in sections like city blocks with wide tree-lined main walkways branching into sidewalks filled with mausoleums built wall-to-wall with no breaks.

It should be noted that while many of the mausoleums are in fine shape and well-maintained, others have fallen into disrepair. Some are found with broken glass and are littered with rubbish.

I asked Teresa if this was a Catholic cemetery, and she replied that when it opened in 1822, it was only for Catholics, but later, in 1863, Argentine president Bartolome Mitre signed a decree which allowed the burial of members of other religions.

Because of the importance of the Cementerio de la Recoleta, I went to the web site Buenos Aires Travel Planet and here I am quoting information from that site: 

"The most internationally famous historical and political figure in the cemetery is Eva "Evita" Duarte de Perón, wife of former Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón and a political leader in her own right. Eva’s body was embalmed after her she died from cancer in 1952 at the young age of thirty-three. Her body was later stolen after the military coup which overthrew her husband in 1955, and hidden in a cemetery in Milan, Italy until 1971 when it was returned to Juan Perón who was exiled in Spain. It was later repatriated to Argentina. To avoid any further tampering with her remains, she was buried eight meters beneath the passage to the Duarte family crypt. Today Eva Perón’s tomb is the most visited in the cemetery. Compared to other tombs and mausoleums it is very discrete; the numerous cards and flowers, the constant stream of visitors and the many camera shutters clicking are the only indicators that someone of great historical significance lays to rest there."
Our tour moved from one "must see" tourist site to another. The new site is the widest street in Buenos Aires, Av. 9 de Julio, named to commemorate Argentine’s independence from Spain on July 9, 1816. The avenue is a full city-block wide. It has up to seven lanes in each direction and is flanked on either side by parallel streets of two lanes each.

Crossing the avenue at street level often requires a few minutes, as all intersections have traffic lights. Under normal walking speed, it takes pedestrians normally two to three green lights to cross it. Teresa told us a joke of a man who was trying to cross the road and sees a man on the other side. He loudly shouts to him, "Sir, I’m trying to get to the other side. How did you do it?" The other man shouts back, "I’ve never crossed it. I was born on this side."

A third "must see" site followed as we arrived at La Boca. As one of Buenos Aire’s 48 barrios, La Boca is located in the city’s southeast near its old port. The residents are of mixed European descent, mainly Italian, Spanish, German, French, Arab, and Basque.

It is a popular destination for tourists because of it colorful houses and its pedestrian street, the Caminito, where numerous artists display and sell their work. Tango artists perform, and tango-related memorabilia is sold. In addition, there is the La Ribera theatre, many tango clubs and Italian taverns. I asked Teresa if it is always this busy (we were there on a Wednesday morning), and she said, "No. Only when the big cruise ships are visiting." Not only was the MSC Armonia docked near our ship, but the Royal Caribbean ship, "Spelndor of the Seas" was in port as well.

In getting to LaBoca, we passed the Obelisk of Buenos Aires, which looks like the Washington Monument. It is a national historic monument located in the Plaza de la Republica at the intersection of avenues Corrientes and 9 de Julio. It was built in 1936 to commemorate the fourth centenary of the first foundation of the city. Since the Obelisk of the city is always associated with the night and entertainment of Buenos Aires, a zone around the monument has been designated that is similar to Times Square in New York and Picadilly Circus in London—two associations the people of Buenos Aires appreciate.

There is more information about Buenos Aires in the second essay that covers our planned Princess excursion around the city.

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Buenos Aires Vacations --- click on the icon that says 3 Days in Buenos Aires, and you will get a list and description of all the major attractions (the "must sees") on any tour of the city.

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Copyright March, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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