Church and convent of San Francisco – Córdoba series 1

A potted history of Córdoba first

What happens when a subordinate disobeys the Viceroy’s orders?

A new city is founded. Or, at any rate, that’s what happened with Córdoba. In 1673, the Viceroy of Perú, the head of one of the administrative units of the Spanish colonies in South America, commanded Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera to travel south from Potosí (modern-day Bolivia) and found a settlement in the Salta valley (northern Argentina) to stop the threat of the Calchaquí Indians.

Cabrera had other ideas and pushed on south towards the Atlantic. He did found a town, however. Roughly halfway between Salta and the ocean, he founded Córdoba de la Nueva Andalucía on the banks of the Suquía River.

With Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera came the first religious order to settle in the area, the Franciscan friars. Under Cabrera’s patronage, the Franciscans founded a convent in 1575, a humble adobe and thatch structure. Years later, a more permanent construction was built to house the growing community. The convent of San Francisco still stands in the city centre, on the corner of Buenos Aires and Entre Rios streets.

Church of San Francisco
Church of San Francisco

The convent of San Francisco

I had the chance to visit Córdoba a while ago. I did not have a list of must-see places or even a map. I simply strolled around, occasionally asking passers-by for directions. This is how I came across the convent and church of San Francisco, almost by chance. Granted, I knew about a few historic churches and buildings that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and kept an eye out for them.

The convent sits between the church and a private Catholic school. It consists of a two-story building with an unprepossessing façade. The year of its foundation is written above the door. That is what caught my attention and drew me in.

Convent's facade
Convent’s façade

“I’m sorry but the convent is not open to the public because it’s the friars’ private residence,” said the girl at reception with a pleasant smile.

“Oh. OK then. I’d thought I’d ask. Thanks, anyway.” I was disappointed and it showed. I really wanted to see the convent. My country, Argentina, is relatively young so any construction that dates from the 16th century is considered ancient by our standards. I‘m always excited to visit those historic buildings, especially because there are precious few of them.

“I can show you the domestic chapel if you want. It’s not open to the public either, mind.” My spirits rose with her words. She led me through a massive wooden door into the cloisters. The domestic chapel was a few feet to the right.

The chapel dates back to the early 1600s. Its thick walls (3 feet deep) still show traces of the original frescoes that adorned them. Most of the floor tiles are original as well and show damage in some areas. The chapel is slowly being restored.

The most important feature of the chapel is the image of Our Lady of Copacabana sent from Alto Perú (modern-day Bolivia) in the 17th century and which rests on a piece of wood. Legend has it that this is a slice of the carob tree under whose shade the convent was founded. The thought that I was standing where local history was made four centuries earlier gave me goose bumps.

Our Lady of Copacabana. The slice of carob tree is beneath her feet
Our Lady of Copacabana. The slice of carob tree is beneath her feet

The church of San Francisco

I wanted to see the church next. I had to hurry because it was about to close. Although Córdoba is a big, modern city, it still retains some traits of a small town and observing the siesta is one of them.
The church of San Francisco was built between 1796 and 1813 to replace the crumbling earlier construction. It was designed in an Italianate Post colonial style. The building and the Franciscan community saw the change from Spanish colony to independent republic. Interestingly, the church gave sanctuary to the vanquished during the Independence and civil wars.

The main altar. Although the church is dedicated to St. Francis, its patron saint is Saint George. He's killing the dragon above the altar.
The main altar. Although the church is dedicated to St. Francis, its patron saint is Saint George. He’s the one killing the dragon above the altar.

My Córdoba

Córdoba is rife with history, both ancient and modern. It has played an important role in the history and economy of Argentina. But it has also an important place in my personal history. My paternal grandmother was Cordobesa and although she lived elsewhere for over 60 years, she never lost the cadence and sounds of her place of birth. She used to tell us stories of her childhood in Córdoba and cook traditional local dishes.

Her native land held a kind of fascination for me as a child but for reasons I don’t know we never visited it. I only did when my brother and his family moved there last year. My grandmother passed away two years ago and I deeply regret having taking her for granted and not having appreciated her stories and her culture more.

Let this series of posts about Córdoba be a long overdue tribute to my grandmother, Maria Elvira Altamirano de Astri (1918-2012.)

My grandmother and I in the early 70s
My grandmother and I in the early 70s

Historic Jesuit mission of Alta Gracia [Córdoba]

I must admit there are many beautiful places in my own country that I’ve never visited. I can’t think of a specific reason other than… well, no reason. Now that my brother and his family moved to the hills of Córdoba I have no excuse for not exploring that beautiful province (we call them provinces in Argentina, not states).

One thing I already knew about Córdoba was that the Jesuits were very active in colonial times there: they founded the country’s first university (which had its 400th anniversary last week) and first printing press, among other things. They also founded a few estancias (ranches) where they performed all manner of agricultural activities as well as preaching the Catholic faith, of course. The Jesuits ran the estancias and the local Indians did the physical work. They had their own living quarters –called ranchería– and were taught useful skills.

Main courtyard with the church on the left and the main entrance to the residence on the right
Main courtyard with the church on the left and the main entrance to the residence on the right

We visited the Estancia de Alta Gracia in the eponymous town of Alta Gracia. Nowadays it is a museum as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The estancia was founded in 1643 and was in use until 1767, when the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and her colonies.

The Baroque church was, as luck would have it, under repair and closed to visitors that weekend but the museum was open.  Each room displays a different aspect of life in the estancia and the Sierras (hills) of Córdoba between the 17th and 19th centuries through historical objects, photos, dioramas and miniatures.

View from behind the espadana (bell dome)
View from behind the espadaña (bell dome)

After the expulsion, the Franciscans took over the Jesuit missions. In 1810, Viceroy Santiago de Liniers bought the Alta Gracia mission and lived there for five months. He made some changes and had a new kitchen built. The furniture on display in the drawing room belonged to her great-granddaughter. I enjoyed the visit but wondered about the comfort of those sofas.

Drawing room. Not very inviting, is it?
Drawing room. Not very inviting, is it?

The surviving original structures are the smithy, the communal oven, the mill (albeit in ruins), the sawmill and the tajamar, an man-made water reservoir across the street.

Don Manuel Solares bought the estancia from the Liniers family. In his will, he stipulated that a part of the land should be divided into plots to create a village. That’s why the town of Alta Gracia grew around the estancia, which is now located in the city center.  The leafy square across from the mission provides peace and quiet in spades and also a little bit of shopping, as craftsmen and artisans gather to offer their products.

This is the oldest tajamar in the province
This is the oldest tajamar in the province

Alta Gracia is a lovely town where to spend a day or two. The childhood home of Che Guevara is now a museum, as is the home of Spanish musician Miguel de Falla.

How to get there
There are several flights to Córdoba  every day from Buenos Aires. Alta Gracia is about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Córdoba ’s international airport.
There are many bus companies that do the City of Córdoba  – Alta Gracia run every day.
Museum hours
Tuesdays through Fridays from 9am to 1 pm, 3pm to 7 pm (most shops are closed in the afternoon for siesta)
Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from 9:30 to 12:30 and 3:30 to 6:30.
Closed on Mondays.
Admission AR$10, free for children under 12.

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

What the Brits left behind: football

The second installment in this series explores the history of one of the most popular sports in Argentina today: football. It can be said that the railway plays a key role here too since many clubs were founded by railway workers in the late 1800s.

Alexander Watson Hutton (10 June, 1853 – 9 March, 1936) was a Scottish teacher who emigrated to Argentina in 1882. He first taught at St. Andrew’s Scots School and later founded the Buenos Aires English High School in 1884. Hutton believed that sports were an important component of child education and introduce football practice at his school.

In 1893, Hutton created the Argentine Association Football League, the first officially recognized league outside of Britain. In 1898 his school put together a team called Alumni Athletic Club, which won ten league titles until 1911, when it was disbanded.

Alumni 1910 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Up until the demise of the Alumni team, the tournaments were dominated by British players and teams. Gradually, the local population adopted the game and made it the national passion it is today. Hutton’s life was the inspiration for the award-winning 1950 film “Escuela de campeones”. I remember watching this film (decades after its release, mind you).

Film poster

Although Alexander Watson Hutton is considered the father of football in Argentina, he wasn’t the only pioneer. English-born Isaac Newell (Kent, 24 April, 1853 – Rosario, 16 October 1907) was also a teacher who had emigrated to Rosario from England. Like Hutton, Newell also founded a school, the Colegio Comercial Anglicano Argentino, or English High School of Rosario.

Also a keen sportsman, Newell decided to introduce football at this school in 1884, when the first football and set of rules came to Argentina. On 3 November, 1903 the Newell’s Old Boys Club was founded for the teachers, students and alumni of the school and as homage to its director and coach. Newell’s (locals pronounce it nyools) is among the top teams in the country today.

Although many football clubs were founded by non-British, it was customary at the time to use English names because the sport had been introduced by the Brits. One example is Boca Juniors, founded in 1905 by Italian immigrants.

Other clubs founded by the British community and still playing in the premier league (In most cases the name was changed to a Spanish one due to varying historical and political circumstances) are:

  • Club Atlético Banfield was founded on 21 January, 1896 by the British settlers of the village of Banfield, 14 miles south of Buenos Aires.
  • Club Ferro Carril Oeste was founded on 28 July, 1904 by 95 railway workers from the Buenos Aires Western Railway.
  • Club Atlético Quilmes was founded in 1887 by J. T. Stevenson as the Quilmes Rovers Club.
  • Club Atlético Rosario Central was founded in Rosario on 24 December, 1889 by English railway workers of the Central Argentine Railway.

What the Brits left behind: the railway

On my recent trip to England I realised that some areas or buildings reminded me of my own country, Argentina. Even my Argentinean friends, who were on holiday in London, too, made similar remarks.

One of the aspects that caught my attention was the architecture of railway stations. Waterloo Station put me in mind of Retiro, one of the three railway termini of Buenos Aires and our local station, Haslemere, looked eerily similar to my home town’s station. I knew that the British had built and operated most railway lines between the 1850s and the 1940s, as this is the kind of thing we learn in history class at school but seeing the similarities really brought it home to me.

I decided to look into the British legacy in Argentina for a new series. The history of the railway is the first installment.

Haedo Station (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Haslemere Station (Surrey, England)

The economic growth of Argentina in the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with the laying of the railway lines. Many modern towns and cities began as small settlements around train stations, like my own hometown of Ramos Mejia.

A family photo of Ramos Mejia station in the 1950s

Britain had always been interested in Spanish America in general and Argentina in particular and signed various treaties in the 1850s, which laid the groundwork for massive investment in transport, communications and navigation.

The Western Rail Company was formed in 1855 with mainly local capitals in order to build the first railway line. This line ran from Parque Station (where the Colón Opera House stands today) to Flores, eight miles to the west. This line was officially opened in August 1857 and was subsequently extended. (And it happens to be the line that I took everyday to work.)

Several smaller rail companies (and lines) were created after the Western Rail, like the Northern Railway of Buenos Aires, the Buenos Aires and Ensenada Railway, the East Argentine Railway or the Buenos Aires to Campana Line. These companies were eventually absorbed by bigger British-owned outfits like the Central Argentine Railway Ltd. and the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Co. Ltd. The latter quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

In 1948, President Perón decided to nationalise the seven railway companies operating in Argentina at the time. This was considered a turning point because it was thought to bring about economic independence. All it did was deepen the economic crises from the 1950s onwards by contributing heavily towards the national budget deficits and deteriorate the quality of the rail service and the rolling stock in a downward spiral.

Interesting facts

  • The first engine to pull a train in the country was La Porteña, which is now on display at the Enrique Udaondo Museum of Luján (Buenos Aires). La Porteña was originally built in Leeds to use in the Crimea War. After the war, the engines and carriages were put up for sale around the world and that’s how it ended up in South America.
  • John Allan, the first engine driver of La Porteña, had the sad duty of driving the train that transported the victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1870-1871 to the cemetery on the western outskirts.
  • The rail companies imported absolutely everything from Britain, from railway terminals to signal boxes. The modern-day La Plata Central Station was originally built for India but news of disturbances and economic problems on the Indian Subcontinent caused the station to be re-routed to Argentina.
La Porteña


Extracts for The Forgotten Colony by Alexander Graham-Yooll, 1981

Wikipedia (various articles)

Photos: my own. See more on Flickr