Sunday, September 29, 2013

San Telmo


During our visit to Buenos Aires, we did our best to explore as many of its diverse neighborhoods as we could. In addition to its trendier and more modern areas like Palermo and Belgrano, other sections of the city reveal its deeper history. In the case of San Telmo, one of its oldest neighborhoods, we found a community that once housed the city's dock workers who earned their keep in nearby Puerto Madero.

In the past as much as today, working class society did not have the resources necessary for many families to prosper in a house they could call their own. Instead, these laborers, often first generation immigrants from Europe, lived communally in conventillos. These large buildings stretch far back from the front door to street, deep into the city block, often enclosing as many as three interior patios with two stories of separate dwellings packed around each one. With shared kitchens and bathrooms, and the patios serving as common areas as well, life in close proximity to one's neighbor was the reality for Buenos Aires' working poor.

Much like Puerto Madero, San Telmo has had its renaissance in recent years. Enough of its historic buildings have survived the turbulent years of the 19th and 20th centuries to attract attention from both tourists and locals, and a slow but steady regentrification of the neighborhood has been taking place. Located just blocks from the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo, San Telmo is a living reminder of Buenos Aires' past, in the heart of the city's urban center.

Also like Puerto Madero, San Telmo is home to plenty of cafés and restaurants. But here you can find meals at less than half the price of those you'll find listed along the port's fashionable bistros and grills, all the while taking in the arguably more authentic surrounds. We chose to have lunch in a wide, deep hall with worn wooden floors and high ceilings. It bore the name pulpería, a reference to the old, working class general stores that had anything you might need for the home, and also had a bar ready to pour you a glass of your alcoholic beverage of choice. The restaurant, true to its name, had a classic, long, wide bar over which you could imagine any class of sundry good or after work imbibe sliding into the waiting hands of its clients. The place was also decorated with an assortment of antique furniture and domestic products, immersing you into an induced nostalgia of Buenos Aires' imagined past.

The neighborhood was also once the home of Argentina's beloved Quino, cartoonist and creator of Mafalda. Mafalda and her friends are as well-known and loved around the Spanish-speaking world as Charlie Brown in the US. Here she can be found sitting a few doors down from the building where Quino had lived. Now she brings delight to countless children and adults who find her waiting with a smile on the corner of Chile and Defensa.  She marks the beginning of an short and entertaining walking tour of Argentina's tradition of comic strips and cartoons, punctuated by appearances of many of its most famous characters.

There's quite a bit of shopping to be done in the neighborhood as well, where you can find everything from antiques to modern fashion, plastic souvenirs and original artwork plied in well-appointed stores and open-air markets alike. The people of Argentina, and Buenos Aires especially, are famous for their gregarious spirit. This translates into a natural predisposition for salesmanship.

The sellers have another advantage to begin with, as any visitor to Argentina invariably has some special purchase in mind during their stay in its most famous city, be it well-aged malbec, jewelry, leather, literature, clothing, local pastries, or simply a token reminder of their time there.

San Telmo, only about 10 blocks long and even fewer wide, is one of Buenos Aires' smallest neighborhoods. You could walk from one end to the other, have lunch in one of its restaurants, and feel as though you'd seen it all in just a couple of hours. Nonetheless, this neighborhood of many layers of history and as many hidden corners and corridors will reward the more patient explorer with a more profound understanding of what the city is, what it once was, then leave you to imagine where it might be headed, and when you might return.


1 comment:

Mancakes said...

Por fin, Tamia abraza Mafalda! Que linda!