During the long night I must have tried virtually every possible sleeping position. However, four hours seem to have disappeared somewhere, so it cannot be as bad as it seems. While breakfast is served over the southernmost extremity of Brazil, a thin orange ribbon of dawn is forming on the eastern horizon.
There is an interminable wait at Argentinian immigration due to the fact that they are “optimising migratory procedures” (problems with their new computer system I suspect). Finally we emerge blinking into the summer sunlight of the southern hemisphere to be greeted by Laura, our guide in Buenos Aires (pronounced ‘bwenuz eye-rez’).
While the bus drives us into the city along a wide freeway hemmed in by residential tower blocks, Laura gives us a short introduction. Although Buenos Aires is a reasonably safe city, she warns us to take care nevertheless.
We come presently to the 9th July Avenue, instantly recognisable by the large obelisk in the centre. The 9th July 1816 is the day that Argentina declared independence from Spain. It is rush hour in the city and our progress is slow.
The Bisonte Palace Hotel where we are staying is quite central, just one block off 9 July on the corner of Suipacha and Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear. Our room key-cards are required to operate the lifts – they clearly take security seriously here. The room itself is pleasant enough, though overlooked by an office directly opposite. I’m sharing with Lawrence, a structural engineer, easy-going with a strong east-London accent.
Laura is keen to show us the sights of Buenos Aires, so we head off in the bus, first to the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada presidential palace. (Literally ‘pink house’ – apparently they didn’t want a US-style ‘White House’.) There are palm trees dotted around the plaza, and a large metal screen prevents anyone from getting too near to the palace itself.
Next on Laura’s itinerary is their antique underground railway. Their oldest line, called appropriately enough ‘Line One’, runs in a shallow cut-and-cover tunnel directly below Avenue de Mayo and, with its wrought iron girders and tungsten lamps hung from the ceiling, looks like something from the Victorian era.
From there, the bus takes us to La Boca, a quarter on the far south-east side of the city next to the old port at the mouth of the Riachuelo. Caminato is the central street and the main tourist magnet, a riot of brightly painted houses of wood and corrugated iron. Their penchant for bright colours dates from the time when these houses were occupied by sailors who used the paint left over from their boats. Now it is all a show for the tourists and the streets are filled with street-artists and painters, as well as stalls selling the usual tourist tat. It is nevertheless a place full of atmosphere and life. In a small square at one end of Caminato I pause to watch a couple dancing the tango to the music of an accordian and violin. I leave slightly guiltily before the hat is passed around at the end.
As we return to the bus, our ears are assaulted by a noisy drum and percussion band made up mostly of young children parading down the street. There is a small altercation as they stop outside one shop. It seems that this piece of local colour is not entirely welcome.
Our bus takes us along the Riachuelo and underneath the tall skeletal ironwork of the old ‘transporter’ bridge, high above the river to allow tall ships to pass underneath. This bridge appears to go nowhere, but in former times a deck was slung underneath on long cables and winched from side to side. We continue through the container port and on to the more up-market Puerto Madero riverside development where old warehouses have been converted into smart restaurants and apartments.
Although the time difference between London and Buenos Aires is a surprisingly minimal three hours, the general lack of sleep has left me feeling nonetheless somewhat jet-lagged. Waves of sleep are sweeping over me as the tour continues and I struggle to remain attentive. We pull up at the dead centre of Buenos Aires, sorry, the Recoleta Cemetery. A huge spreading rubber tree stands in a square outside, planted there by the “Brothers of Recoleta” around 1800. Stepping through the entrance reveals a long paved central avenue, packed along each side with ornate mausoleums and sarcophagi, like a city in miniature. Smaller side roads branch off. Laura is busily explaining something. I get my camera out, and when I next look up the group has vanished. Picking an avenue at random I hurry along to see if I can find them. Some of the mausoleums are of new and shiny black marble and are well-tended with fresh flowers. Others are of stone crumbling into decay. Through the windows of some can be seen coffins and occasionally old dry bones. The more elaborate mausoleums are decorated with extravagant life-size statues of angels and cherubs.
It is at once a morbid and fascinating place with its own peculiar serenity away from the bustle of the city. One could easily spend an afternoon lost in the maze of avenues and alleys wondering at the thoughts of those who poured so many resources into the commemoration of the dead.
Somehow we all manage to reconvene at the bus and we are delivered back to the hotel. Laura makes some suggestions for lunch and Ron, Helen, Pam and I head off together to see what we can find (must do vegetarian for Helen). We pass a couple of restaurants with what looks like a conservatory fronting onto the street. Inside is a large charcoal pit over which various animal carcasses are roasting, stretched out on racks. We settle on a smart sandwich bar just off Plaza Libertador with a light and airy room upstairs where we take our food.
Suitably refreshed, we walk down to the riverside area below smart steel and glass sky-scrapers. At one end of the docks is a building with multiple curved white roofs like a small version of the Sydney Opera House. The enclosed water is sleepy and turbid brown. Rows of yachts are anchored down the middle and further along a large square-rigger is moored up, now the home of the museum of maritime navigation.
Helen and Pam return with me past the pink presidential palace. It has become very hot and I know that I’ve caught the sun this afternoon. We stop off for a coffee on Avenue de Mayo before returning to the hotel.
Steve, the final member of our group, has turned up after having been initially directed to the wrong hotel. Apparently our hotel was changed at the last minute and the agent he booked through omitted to tell him. We eat dinner as a group at a restaurant just two minutes from the hotel. In true Argentinian style, I opt for the steak. It is quite delicious, but the size of it is quite indecent and I cannot possibly finish it.