ARRIVING in Buenos Aires, you could be forgiven for thinking you were still in Europe. Graceful parks, apartment blocks and boulevards, the bustling citizens chasing style – you might be in Paris or Milan.
Look deeper and you’ll see a country with a great pride in its own culture; the steak houses, the wine bars and, of course, the tango salons. And the central Avenida 9 de Julio, claimed to be the widest avenue in the world and holding Teatro Colon, the world’s largest opera house, displays a taste for excess that is truly South American.
Tourist tours start in La Boca, the old dock area, where brightly painted corrugated iron buildings gave birth to Argentina’s iconic tango.
There you’ll find shops selling gaucho gear – leather saddles, rich woollen blankets, artistic silver and paintings.
There’s Argentinian leather jackets, wines from Mendoza, beef from the pampas – the vibrant markets recall the source of Buenos Aires’s wealth as a link between the country’s rich interior and the markets of Europe.
Overseas visitors explore shopfronts boasting the world’s luxury brands on the mile-long Calle Florida and Lavalle, enjoying the bargains to be had since the peso’s collapse from the heady days of its parity with the US dollar, while locals window-shop and remember happier times.
But everyone can afford a good steak and a fine Malbec wine, so the restaurants remain packed into the small hours – when it’s time to move on somewhere else and party.
Tango dominates the city. Buskers dance it in the shopping malls and the Sunday morning antiques market at San Pedro Telmo, while tourists leave city-centre hotels to watch themed cabaret shows.
What saves its integrity is that the dance is a real part of city life. Behind the tourist shows and the posters, deep in the heart of the neighbourhoods, real people dance tango for the sake of it, and nothing else.
The god of tango is Carlos Gardel and, while tourists make their pilgrimage to the romantic cemetery of La Recoleta to visit the grave of Evita Perón, locals – known as porteños – go to La Chacarita Cemetery to make sure the outstretched hand of his statue at its entrance always holds a smouldering cigarette.
Gardel is claimed by Uruguay – a one-hour hydrofoil ride across the River Plate (yes, that’s a big river) – but he was actually born in Toulouse.
Incidentally, they take their tango even more seriously on that side of the river; I was once refused lessons in Montevideo on the grounds I was only in Uruguay for three weeks.
Opposite Recoleta is the achingly wonderful café La Biella but, if you are on the tango pilgrimage, you’ll want to visit the Cafe Tortino, a famed tango haunt and ‘the oldest café in South America’.
This has become something of a self-conscious pastiche of itself, with waxworks of Gardel and writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Half a block away is the more relaxed Cafe Ideal. All are wonderful throwbacks to the city’s heyday, filled with glowing wood panelling, acres of mirrors and starched-linen staff of uncertain ages and unselfconscious elegance.
They are great places to enjoy a breakfast of cafe con leche y churros and will leave you with great memories, while making you wish you had seen BA in its days of glory.
Thinking you have just missed the party is arguably the best sign that you are in one of the world’s great cities.