Sunday, 12 September 2010

Argentina, 2002

Clive James once became so hooked on tango he started flying regularly to South America for lessons.
Sitting in the Esquina Carlos Gardel Cena and Tango Show, Buenos Aires' premier nightspot, it wasn't hard to see why.
I was here to sample the best Argentina had to offer - and tango is a great place to start.
This shrine to Gardel's nimble-footed talent is a great introduction to the passion of Argentina.
In one fell swoop you are immersed in their lust for great food (beef especially), excellent wine, scintillating dancing and red-blooded love of life.
From 8.30pm, dinner is served: a huge steak and a coin-sized quiche. It typifies the attitude toward local side dishes - minimal to say the least. Argentinians adore tango and steak as much as they love life. It became more than apparent over the two days I spent there, having flown from Heathrow to Sao Paulo on Varig Airlines' mammoth 777.
The flight from London to Brazil takes around 12 hours and in business class, it's a dream, with acres of leg room, a personal video screen with a choice of games and movies, and an enviable menu.
A connecting flight from Sao Paulo took me to the heart of Argentina and it was obvious that like any city with 13 million port city dwellers (Portenos), South America's most sophisticated city has more than its fair share of problems.
Housing the impoverished in style is clearly on the government's 'to do' list as the fringes of the city are bordered by decaying houses and buildings.
For much of the 1990s, Argentina's stable currency and relatively strong economy made it a financial jewel in the crown of South America. Investment boosted the country's coffers but the government's subsequent spending created problems.
The nation's debt grew and two years ago the country turned for help to the International Monetary Fund.
Argentina is still in trouble but there is a sense of regeneration sprouting around the city as I entered Buenos Aires one rainy Friday lunchtime in May. It was autumn and even the foul weather couldn't detract from fascinating streets and warm-hearted people.
The Microcentro, or heart of downtown, bursts with life and stunning architecture. It may be South America, but, aside from the odd burger chain or video franchise, the city has resisted the all-consuming stamp of global corporations.
An archway of trees welcomes the endless traffic (driving here is best avoided unless you're Eddie Irvine) while alluring shops will help fill that suitcase with trinkets for friends and family.
My guide was keen to reveal the cream of the city's nightspots and who was I to refuse?
My tango knowledge was minimal to say the least before I arrived in Argentina, so by 10.30pm in the theatre, what unfolded was a welcome revelation.
On the stage's top level were the band: a host of immaculately dressed male musicians and a female violinist creating rhythms for the drama which unfolded beneath their feet.
For half an hour or more, the dancers came and went - the magic casting a spell over all.
Interspersed with square-jawed men strutting with a host of sleek women was a mature dancer, fingers dancing over the back of a younger partner. By the end, the crowd went wild.
He wiggled his outstretched hand as if to say 'not bad'.
The self-deprecating humour made the audience love him more.
There was a spring in my stride as I returned to the luxurious Alvear Palace Hotel.
It's an opulent place with 280 rooms, 11 floors and dinners worth forsaking that diet for. Little wonder Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert have chosen to stay here in the past.
Whatever hotel you choose, chances are you'll be more interested in city life.
'Portenos' love partying into the early hours, filling the streets with banter and laughter at a time when even British night owls have retired. Since its economy went into freefall, you get a lot for your pound or dollar these days. (Though the currency is Pesos, you can get by with US dollars and ATM machines.)
So, purely in the interests of research of course, by Saturday night some new-found friends and I sampled the local beer (Antarctica is excellent) in a trendy bar and pool hall.
The hours flew by until we reluctantly made a move at 2.30am.
Even at that time the city is relatively safe. You don't want to wave around the fortune you save on drinks but during the stay I never saw a hint of violence or heard a cross word, in English or otherwise.
And if language does concern you, fear not. Some basic Spanish will see the most verbally challenged through without you ever feeling alienated.
Aside from visiting a good tango show, other must-sees are Caminto in La Boca, a thriving port community of artists, mimes and market traders all set against the backdrop of houses washed in primary colours.
Up the road from the Alvear Palace Hotel is Recoleta Cemetery (1760 Junin Street), one of the three most important in the world after Genoa and the Pere Lachaise in Paris.
It's here that Maria Eva 'Evita' Duarte de Peron's tomb attracts millions of fans, even if you do have a hard time finding it through the maze of exotic burial sites.
Prefer something more lively and off the beaten track? Then estancias (ranches) are ideal.
They let you experience the more iconic images of Argentina, from galloping gaucho on horseback, the country's obsession with yerba mate, (a bitter herbal tea drunk from a gourd through a metal straw) and the asado, or barbecue, where huge quantities of meat are consumed.
Less than an hour's drive from BA is The Villa Maria, where we sampled the latter.
It's a stately 1920 country home with 16 bedrooms, a pool room, horse riding, polo, tennis courts, swimming pool and golf facilities. If you're feeling more adventurous, take an internal flight to the Parque Nacional Iguazu. Here the spectacular Iguassu waterfalls on the border between Argentina and Brazil make it well worth a trip.
The Sheraton Hotel pays host to toucans and tourists all year round - and they're not just there for the great menu.
Its breath-taking surroundings were the backdrop for Robert De Niro's historical epic The Mission and 007 blockbuster Moonraker. However, no movie screen in the world can capture the 360 degrees of spectacle awaiting you. Millions of gallons of water thunder down a series of falls, the tour teases you toward ever-more delirious views.
Good walking boots and all-over waterproofs are a must as this power shower of epic proportions takes your breath away.
However long you stay and wherever you go, Argentine spirit gets into the blood like a virus.
Unlike the obligatory souvenir for Auntie Beryl, the South American lust for life is something you gladly take home - along with a thousand great memories.

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