Why you should visit San Telmo in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Now that the temperature is dropping here in the UK, what better time to plan your next holiday to somewhere like the San Telmo neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, which is not only gloriously hot but also culturally vibrant. Whether you're tempted by tango, attracted by art, or more of a museum meanderer, here are some reasons why you should visit San Telmo
This atmospheric district of Buenos Aires resounds to the heady beat of the tango, the faded grandeur of its colonial architecture providing the perfect palette for a flourishing contemporary art scene.
Born out of the confluence of the diverse groups that settled Argentina, Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts. The barrio (neighbourhood) of San Telmo contains all the multiple facets that make up the city's cultural heritage, and no other neighbourhood encapsulates the history and character of Buenos Aires in quite the same way.
"No other neighbourhood encapsulates the history and character of Buenos Aires in quite the same way"
Spanish colonial and French classical buildings stand side by side, punctuated throughout with Italianate architectural details. The opulence of the district's 17th-century mansions, built when the barrio was one of the original neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, has given way to the shabby chic that characterises San Telmo today.
The birth of the tango
A yellow fever epidemic in 1871 forced the barrio's aristocratic families to move out of San Telmo, and their grand old houses were subdivided into rooms for the subsequent influx of new immigrants. It was in the courtyards of these conventillos, or tenements, that the tango was born—a fusion of the musical influences of far-off homelands, incorporating lyrics that spoke of the hard life of the poor working class.
Both an art form and a lifestyle, the tango became the pride of San Telmo, and the barrio's centuries-old cobbled streets continue to buzz with its seductive rhythms and movements. The visual elegance of the dance inspired by this music is demonstrated by the couples who perform directly on the street or on small, improvised dance floors, illuminated at night by intricate wrought-iron lanterns.
The dancers' graceful fluidity and controlled ardour create a captivating show. Impromptu audiences gather to watch the duos, who dress in the fashions of the 1930s and 1940s—the golden age of tango: the men in fedoras and lace-up shoes, and the women in high heels, always with straps to keep them from slipping off during the dance's characteristic long strides.
San Telmo's street life
To walk along San Telmo's main street, La Defensa, towards the Plaza Dorrego, the heart of the neighbourhood, is to get a glimpse into the city's past while experiencing all the vibrancy of its present. Old-timers' bars coexist with hip cocktail bars, chic cafés jostle with the traditional parrillas where they grill the grass-fed beef that is part of Argentina's national identity.
On Sundays, a huge antiques market and street fair takes place in the Plaza Dorrego, with craft booths, artists, tango orchestras and street performers from mime artists to musicians. Shoppers searching for antique jewellery, vintage clothing, sterling silver heirlooms and other treasures sift through the profusion of items for sale, each one a small part of Buenos Aires' past.
"On Sundays, a huge antiques market and street fair takes place in the Plaza Dorrego, with craft booths, artists, tango orchestras and street performers"
Families crowd the parrillas for the traditional Sunday meal of asado, a selection of beef, pork, chicken and various types of sausage, giving off the smoky, savoury aroma of grilled meat.
As day gives way to evening, the vendors begin to pack up their wares the street performers vacate the plaza. In their place, restaurant tables start to appear as people enjoy the early evening light and sip on aperitif—perhaps the orange-flavoured Hesperidina, unique to Argentina, or a glass of the country's famous red wine from the western Mendoza vineyards.
At night, the plaza takes on a different ambience again as the host to a milonga, or open tango dance, where some of the city's best dancers come to show off their moves. Sometimes the night's festivities include the chacarera, a whirling folk dance from the rural regions of northern Argentina.
A vibrant arts scene
The same creative nature that inspires ongoing interpretations of the tango is evident in San Telmo's art scene. From street art to galleries and museums, the energy and flair that characterise the music and life of the barrio are reflected in both its outdoor wall murals and in shows at public and private venues.
Bold shapes, primary hues, futuristic styles and contemporary themes define much of the art that covers walls that were once pasted over with posters. A strong along neighbourhood streets reveals an ever-changing display of stencil art graffiti and quirky, cartoon-inspired tableaux, all of which manifest San Telmo's legacy of transformation.
Galleries occupy a variety of buildings ranging from converted warehouses to restored 19th-century buildings, including the Pasaje La Defensa, an Italianate mansion that became a tenement and is now home to a gathering of antique stores and art galleries. Its vintage black-and-white harlequin patio tiles and intricate iron balcony railings are evocative of a gilded era whose traces continue to imbue the barrio with an air of faded elegance.
Several galleries provide platforms for innovative young artists, showcasing video and digital art alongside more traditional forms. Some galleries along the eclectic Calle Venezuela art district further engage the senses through sound and tactile installations.
The lively art activity in San Telmo make it an ideal setting for the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, housed in the 1918 British American Tobacco Company building in the heart of the community. The renovated structure retains the original exposed brick facade, but its heavy, iron-studded wooden doors belie the ethereal white light and impression of limitless space inside, with a staircase that seems to float from floor to floor.
A permanent collection of 7,000 artworks includes pieces by Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and other modern masters, as well as Argentina's Julio Le Parc and Antonio Berni.
Another major collection is on display at the National History Museum in Lezama Park. This 30-room Baroque mansion contains 50,000 items. Among them are furnishings, documents and personal belongings or former president Juan Perón and his wife Eva and other significant political and military leaders from the country's past.
"Lezama Park is possibly the site of the founding of Buenos Aires"
Lezama Park is possibly the site of the founding of Buenos Aires. Rich in history, today it is a sprawling green space with classic-style sculptures, towering casuarina trees, flowery purple jacarandas and a fragrant rose garden. A slave market was held here in the 18th century and it became the property of a patrician family in the 19th century.
Beyond the walls of the museum buildings, the denizens of the park form a microcosm of San Telmo's populace—from young lovers on benches to old men bent thoughtfully over chessboards—which seems little changed for centuries.
Banner credit: Leamus
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