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Recoleta, Buenos Aires, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Recoleta, Buenos Aires, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Recoleta, a premier barrio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the irresistible Little Paris of South America. Until the sounds of thick Argentine Spanish reveal Recoleta’s true identity, a visitor might be fooled, stepping out of an urban rowboat and into a garden of 12,000 roses. Narrow streets are kept cool and shady, a respite from the city’s oppressive humidity, with pink jacaranda trees and neat wrought iron balconies overhead. The smooth, soft grays and whites of Recoleta’s architecture are easy on the eyes and encourage a leisurely stroll through one of the many green spaces; in Parque 3 de Febrero, French artist Auguste Rodin installed a sculpture of Argentina’s seventh president, Domingo Sarmiento. While many parts of Recoleta life are undeniably French-influenced, others are decidedly Argentine. The result is a beautiful, provocative Creole — the French make up the third largest ancestry group in Argentina, after Italians and Spaniards.

Recoleta is a neighborhood built around its cemetery, whose own quiet avenues form a miniature city with ornate above-ground tombs. The Recoleta Cemetery is Evita Perón’s final resting place, and it’s not a lonely one. Her grave is visited daily by tourists and locals who leave fresh flowers and the kiss of a whispered prayer. The cemetery is also home to plenty of stray cats who stretch out on concrete benches in the sunshine. Inside the cemetery’s walls, the cats are safe from the city’s canine gangs, walked ten at a time by a professional paseador de perros. Go ahead and enjoy the pups, but be thankful that shop keepers and porters wash down the sidewalks every morning as the sun rises.

Upon exiting the cemetery, Plaza Francia will present itself. Especially on weekends, the plaza is home to what was once known as La Feria Hippie, or Hippie Fair. Artists and artisans still gather to sell their pride and joy: real alpargatas espadrilles (the inspiration of the Tom’s shoe line), mates carved of gourds and garnished with local alpaca metal, leather handbags, leather jewelry, leather belts, heavy woolen ponchos, oils, incense, and more. You won’t go hungry, with plenty of street food and cafes nearby. Try garrapiñadas if you can find them — warm, sugar-roasted peanuts packed in tightly wound plastic tubes.

For something more substantial, get a table at Café la Biela, which opened in 1850 when Recoleta was run by farmers and Franciscan monks. La Biela survived urbanization, and was frequented by writers Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose photographs can still be found behind the bar. Biela’s décor turned automotive after a local drag racer lost a connecting rod (or, biela), and, defeated, laid it down on the bar, christening the restaurant. Munch on potatoes noisette and a picada platter containing the region’s charcuterie, cheese, and pickled vegetables. If you’re in the mood for something strong, order a café de Paris, a rare iced coffee with whiskey, vanilla ice cream, Tía Maria and charlotte.

Since the Tía Maria probably put you in the mood to tango, catch the subte to San Telmo, the city’s oldest barrio, and current tango hub. Described as French-bohemian, San Telmo’s colonial buildings are home to dancers, actors, musicians, street performers, antique collectors, and other starving artists. Galería el Solar de French is a colonial residence converted to a gallery of antiques and photographs of San Telmo’s days gone by. El Solar is named not for the country, but for Domingo French, an Argentine revolutionary. San Telmo’s tango music, with its lusty vocals and soulful bandoneón, might have you thinking of Paris again. If you want to experience the Little Paris of the south like a true local, stay up dancing ‘til sunrise, then head back to Recoleta to get in line for a fresh medialuna (think sticky-sweet croissant, sometimes filled with dulce de leche, pastry cream, or quince preserves) at one of the city’s many confiterías before heading back to your hotel.

Wake up to tea time in L’Orangerie at the Alvear Palace Hotel, where sunlight and plenty of hanging plants will bring you to your senses (if staying at the Palace is beyond your budget, you can still stop in for tea at L’Orangerie). The palace is located appropriately on Avenida Alvear, a short but oh-so-sweet section of Recoleta which has preserved some of the most noteworthy French architecture, including petits hôtels.

For more French aesthetic, hop in a taxi and travel 3 kilometers southeast to Las Galerías Pacífico, perhaps the most breathtaking shopping mall in the city. Galerías Pacífico was built to accommodate the shop Argentine Bon Marché, after the original Parisian shop, and boasts fresco paintings in the cupola. Clothes shopping in Recoleta is an experience of its own — the impeccable store clerks impart a matter-of-fact honesty and are quick to advise which size or cut flatters most. Barbara Redmond’s story, Paris makeover: coming home blond, reminded me of the client experience in Recoleta — “Ce n’est pas pour vous, Madame,” I heard her say, (“No, Madame. This is not for you!”).

I haven’t traveled to France, so some of these comparisons, I admit, are based on assumptions I have about Paris. I can speak to the Argentine people’s overwhelming pride of their largely European ancestry and their unmistakable vocabulary, pronunciation, and vocabulary. The Argentine-Spanish word for “you,” is uniquely “vos,” strikingly similar to the French “vous” (Argentina and neighboring Uruguay are the two countries where the use of “vos” instead of ”tú” is most common). Plenty of old-time lunfardo, or slang, is French-based as well: the Argentine marote, meaning “head,” comes from the French marotte, which means hat stand. The words demonstrate clear differences in pronunciation, but are intertwined in their roots. The same, I would argue, applies to French culture in Argentina. Surely you’ll find creative twists on the traditional croissant in Recoleta; lest you find it sacrilege, it will prove delicious.

Have you ever visited or lived in Recoleta, Buenos Aires? Share it with A Woman’s Paris®! Email: barbara@awomansparis.com

Natalie Ehalt is an editorial consultant for “A Woman’s Paris®” blog. She studied English with an emphasis in creative writing at the University of Iowa. In Iowa City, she participated for two years in the undergraduate Writing Fellows program and worked for three years with writers from around the world at the university’s acclaimed International Writing Program. Natalie spent her final semester in Buenos Aires and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in Spanish and English.

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Text copyright ©2012 Natalie Ehalt. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.