A German village in the Argentinean hills

The road winds uphill among lush green spruce and pine. At the end is Villa General Belgrano, a German village smack in the middle of the sierras cordobesas (the hills of Córdoba in central Argentina). It’s lunchtime and I’m salivating at the thought of all the German dishes we’re about to eat: sauerkraut, leberwurst (and all kinds of sausage names ending in wurst), apfelstrudel, potato salad and more.

vagralbelg
The main street is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops

My brother and his family are showing me around. They moved to Córdoba a few months ago and I’m visiting them for the first time. Although they’ve been here before, they’re as excited as I am, especially my nephews. The two little boys run around pointing at their favourite spots, like the child-sized wood train outside a photographer’s shop they like to climb.

Villa General Belgrano is one of the biggest attractions in the area. One doesn’t expect to find such a European looking village in the middle of the Argentinean hills. The facades are painted in light, pastel colours (as per a local bylaw) and there are lots of wood. Shops have names like Tante Leny or Der Kuckuck. Even the town hall has a distinctive central European flavor, complete with two figures at the top wearing traditional German costumes.

The town hall (municipalidad)
The town hall (municipalidad)

Villa General Belgrano was originally inhabited by the Comechingones Indians. Later, the Spaniards and the Jesuits founded a settlement in the area. Between 1890 and 1931, Southern European immigrants came to live here. From then on, it was mainly immigrants from Central Europe (Germany, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia) who found protection from ideological and religious persecution and the miseries of war. It was this latter wave of immigration that gave the town its particular physiognomy. In 1940, many of the sailors from the German cruiser Graf Spee, sunk by British ships in the Battle of the River Plate, also settled in Villa General Belgrano.

Wood decks and awnings everywhere
Wood decks and awnings everywhere

Villa General Belgrano is famous for its Oktoberfest, which dates back to 1957. It’s a huge event that attracts visitors from all over the country. There are other food festivals all year round, like the Summerfest, which takes place every Sunday in summer; the Fiesta Nacional de la Masa Vienesa (the Viennese Pastry Festival,) which is around March or April; or the Alpine Chocolate Festival that takes place during the winter break in July.

Oktoberfest has its own designated space in the community
Oktoberfest has its own designated space in the community

I missed all of these festivals because I was there in June. I know better now.

 

 

 

 

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(re)Discovering Buenos Aires

Whoever said that you never really know a city was right. I’m still discovering new aspects and parts of Buenos Aires, even though I lived there for over thirty years. Maybe that’s why there are so many places I haven’t seen: one tends to take one’s hometown for granted.

My birthday was in early November and since it was a big one (the dreaded four-oh), I decided to throw the mother of all parties in BA with friends and family. Two of our friends from Dallas, David and Kelly, decided to join the celebration. How kind and sweet of them. It was their first visit to the city and Sean and I acted as their guides, sort of.  It was thanks to them that I knew a little more about my hometown.

One day we decided to walk around San Telmo and meet at Plaza Dorrego (intersection of Humberto Primero and Defensa streets). We were early so we sat down to enjoy a coffee al fresco. Actually, I had coffee and Sean had a submarino, a tall glass of hot milk and a chocolate bar. You drop the chocolate bar in the milk (the submarine) and stir it until it melts. Predictably, a couple of tango dancers set up shop in the middle of the plaza and passed the hat around after their number. I must confess that this was my second tango show.

Our friends joined us and set off. We were walking along Defensa Street when I spotted a sign pointing to the Casa Minima.  I ran to see it. The Casa Minima (Pasaje San Lorenzo 380), as this construction is known, is the narrowest house in the city of Buenos Aires: it is only 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) wide. According to an urban legend, it belonged to a freed slave, who built in in the sliver of land his former master had given him. However, city records show that it was part of a larger house, converted to tenements after the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. Oh well, it was a romantic story anyway.

A very narrow house for very slim people

Then we walked along the Paseo de la Historieta, or Comic Lane, also in San Telmo. The local council decided to erect statues of the most popular and beloved characters from famous comic books and strips that delighted generations of Argentinean children and adults. It’s work in progress still, but I was able to take my photo with some of them: Mafalda (corner of Defensa and Chile), Larguirucho (corner of Balcarce and Mexico) and my favourite playboy, Isidoro (Balcarce and Chile).

Me and friends
Comic book related street art: Hijitus and his friends – San Telmo

The final destination of our walk, Plaza de Mayo, was awash in purple: the jacaranda trees were in full bloom, the loveliest sight in spring in this part of the world.

Plaza de Mayo turns purple in spring

San Telmo and the Prison Museum

San Telmo is the oldest neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with old houses, with a handful dating back to colonial times. San Telmo used to be a well-to-do area until the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1871, when the rich fled to the healthier northern side of the city, in what is now known as Barrio Norte and Recoleta. The larger homes became tenement houses, called conventillos, to house the increasing numbers of European immigrants. Living conditions in conventillos weren’t always ideal: a whole family would often live in one room and share the bathroom and kitchen with the rest of the tenants.

A former conventillo

Nowadays, San Telmo is the hub of the antiques trade. Many of those conventillos reinvented themselves as shops and art galleries. Plaza Dorrego (at the corner of Humberto Primo and Defensa streets) is famous for its weekend flea market and street performers – mainly tango dancers. During the week, the plaza is covered with from nearby cafes and bars and there are a few stalwart street vendors as well.

One of the many antique shops

Plaza Dorrego is where Sean and I strolled to after a wonderful lunch at Café San Juan (Avenida San Juan 450 – fantastic tapas). We looked at some of the shops, Sean headed straight for the plaza and I wandered around. I used to walk along Humberto Primo from Plaza de Mayo twice a week when I taught at Editorial Sudamericana. The area has changed but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Or maybe it’s me who’s changed.

There’s an old building with a brick façade, next to the church of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which has always intrigued me: the Museo Penitenciario, or Prison Museum. The museum opens Thursdays to Sundays from 2 to 6 pm and the admission is free.

Corridor in the Prison Museum

The building dates from the early 18th century and was originally a Jesuit convent. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and her colonies, the building became first a barracks, then a mental hospital and then a prison for women, run by a religious order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, until 1974. The museum was opened in 1980, after the inmates were transferred.

The museum is rather small. Each room is a former cell and has a different theme, like tools and uniforms from the early 20th century, a replica of a modern cell, lethal weapons manufactured by inmates. That particular collection rattled me; it spoke of violence, thirst for blood and the need to survive at all costs in an extremely hostile environment. It was time I went back outside and joined Sean.

One side of Plaza Dorrego
Weekday vendors at Plaza Dorrego
Dorrego Cafe

 

Street performers dancing the tango
Typical San Telmo architecture

Boar Farm Revisited

(Oh all right! the title of this post was indeed inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel. However, a boar farm is slightly less glamorous than a country pile. Only just.)

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Last weekend my parents, Sean and I we piled into the car and drove to Suipacha.  This is the town where I bought my antique china tea set last year and I wanted to see if they had matching plates but they had none left.

We had reservations at the restaurant they owners of the boar farm recently opened on site. The food was very good. I’d never eaten boar before and I expected it to be more gamey than it actually was. I had boar ravioli, Sean had boar with a berry sauce, my dad had homemade pasta and my mum had goulash. Apparently, their recipes were handed down the generations of this family.

It was a glorious day, perfect for a stroll after lunch to see the boars. Some can be very mean and rather dangerous, hence the electrified fence inside another fence. Their grunts did sound scary.

 

 

So what is a telo anyway?

You walk down, say, Tres Sargentos Street in the financial district of Buenos Aires and see a door with a discreet sign above that reads Hotel alojamiento. You see a suited-up man looking over his shoulder before going inside, followed by a woman sporting a secretarial look, who sneaks in; hopefully unseen. You wonder why there’s no doorman to carry their luggage and then realise they had no luggage. “What a strange hotel” you think to yourself.

Since you’re on a limited budget you decide to stay in a hostel. You look up the word in the dictionary and find the word albergue. A youth hostel is an albergue de la juventud. Then you remember seeing the sign for an albergue transitorio somewhere. Is it the same, you wonder?

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No, it is not the same. Hoteles alojamiento and albergues transitorios, popularly known as telos(TEH-lows), are hotels where you and your friend, partner, bit on the side, etc., can have some rumpy pumpy for a couple of hours.

These pay-by-the-hour establishments can be found everywhere and are not easy to miss, although some do try to be discreet. They range from the seedy and very basic to the utterly luxurious. Two top-notch telos have almost become household names: Los jardines de Babilonia (The Gardens of Babylon) and Magnus, both located in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires.

Who patronises these fine establishments? Anyone and everyone from one-night stands or cheating spouses to couples who need a change from routine or twentysomethings who still live at home and need some privacy.

Some telos (use the word with caution) do brisk business during the lunch-time hours, like the one in the financial district, but most are busiest at weekends, especially if they’re located near bars and clubs.

A friend told me. Seriously.

A telo ad