A historic pizzeria experience in Buenos Aires

Melted cheese, baked dough, cardboard boxes, and the vapors from the espresso machine. Any old, traditional pizzeria in Buenos Aires smells like that.

El Cuartito is one of those pizzerias, founded in 1934. It is a no-frills, paper tablecloth on Formica table kind of place. Years ago, a former boyfriend of mine took me there for dinner and I felt slightly offended. Don’t I deserve linen and a candle on the table? I clearly did not appreciate the cultural value of a historic pizzeria. I do now.

In the background, the bar where people can eat "de parado"
In the background, the bar where people can eat “de parado”

Cut to the present. Since El Cuartito is within walking distance from the Colón Opera House, I decided to treat my nieces and my mother to a different culinary experience before taking the guided visit. We got there fifteen minutes before opening time at 12:30. A group of people was already waiting outside El Cuartito: tourists, office workers, old-timers, a motorcycle courier or two.

The doors opened and we all quickly found a place to sit. Or stand, as the case may be. People can order pizza by the slice or empanadas and eat standing at a special wooden counter. That’s what we call comer de parado. Service is really fast, ideal for people on the go like the motorcycle courier.

We ordered a pizza de musarela (Argentinean Spanish for mozzarella) and a pizza napolitana (with slices of tomato and tons of fresh garlic). The strings of melted cheese stretched for ever, which made it fun to serve and eat each slice. The base was neither too thin nor too thick, the traditional media masa, crispy and chewy at the same time. Our waiter acted in a very professional, brisk and efficient manner. Definitely a career waiter, as opposed to a student holding a summer job.

Our "pizza de musarela'
Our “pizza de musarela’

Old posters and prints cover every inch of the walls, mainly sports memorabilia. Autographed photos of local football teams; posters announcing boxing fights or car races. It reads like a Who’s Who of Argentinean sports history since the 1940s. It goes without saying that only my mum and I knew most of these sporting stars; my nieces, aged 10, 13 and 17, had no clue! However, they enjoyed the experience, as did we.

We felt too full for dessert. This kind of pizzeria serves traditional, old-fashioned desserts like sopa inglesa (vanilla cake, dulce de leche, whipped cream and port), rice pudding, tarantela (crème caramel with apple slices), flan casero mixto (homemade crème caramel topped with whipped cream and dulce de leche.)

I put the leftover napolitana in my spacious handbag. The smell of garlic dogged us for the rest of afternoon but it made for a wonderful dinner snack that night.

Sports
Sports memorabilia very which way.

 

* Address: Talcahuano 937. Open every day from 12:30 to 1 am except Mondays.

Advertisements

Guided visit to the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires

What do vanilla wafers and Teatro Colón have in common?

Opera!

Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue
Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue

Teatro Colón is Argentina’s leading opera house, opened in 1908. Opera is also a popular brand of vanilla wafers made by a company called Bagley. They were launched in 1906 under a different name but the manufacturer decided to change it to Opera to honor the magnificent new opera house. Both have delighted generations of Argentineans to this day.

My mother and I took three of my nieces on a guided visit of “el Colón,” as it’s affectionately known. Our guide, Javier, was a delight. The tour started at the main entrance hall, on Libertad Street. This is where the other half makes a grand entrance. The more humble ticket holders go in through the Tucumán and Viamonte side entrances. It’s been this way ever since the opera house was opened in 1908.

Main entrance hall
Main entrance hall

The main focal point of the hall, the grand Carrara marble staircase, symbolizes the link between the mundane and the world of the arts. The columns that support the ceiling are covered in different kinds of marble: red from Verona, yellow from Siena and pink from Portugal. The stained glass window is from Paris. The building, eclectic in style, was inspired by the great opera houses of Europe.

We mounted the stairs, worthy of the scene where Cinderella loses her crystal slipper, towards the Hall of Busts. Theatre-goers use this area during the intermission to stretch their legs, have drinks, chat, while Bizet, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Mozart, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner look down from high up.

Classical composers keeping an eye on the public
Classical composers keeping an eye on the public in the Hall of Busts

Javier told us that, in the past, the season was very short; it lasted for the winter only. The reason was that only time the European companies were able to travel to South America was during their summer. When the season finished, the Teatro Colón was closed until the following year. All this changed in 1920, when the Colón’s orchestra and ballet company were created and the season lasted from March to December. However, the Teatro Colón hosted a number of internationally renowned artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Igor Stravinsky or Maya Plisetskaya.

The lavish Golden Room sparkles, glitters and glimmers. Every surface is covered with gold leaf, gold dust paint and big mirrors. The floor is Slavonian oak. Thanks to the restoration undertaken between 2001 and 2010, the name of the artist that painted the linen ceiling was discovered. It was a Monsieur Romieu, forgotten or unknown for decades. The Golden Room is used for master classes, auditions and more intimate concerts.

All that glitters is gold
All that glitters is gold

We then moved on to the splendid concert hall. Our guide asked us to be very quiet. There was an audition going on and we didn’t want to disturb the candidates. We silently filed into one of the boxes, sat down and enjoyed part the audition. It felt like a privilege.

We were in an official box used by various authorities on special occasions. The President and the Mayor have their own boxes at either side of the stage, in a location called avant-scène. In the past, the widows could not be seen in public, so if they wanted to enjoy the ballet or the opera, they had to sit behind black railings inside enclosed boxes. Of course, widowers had carte blanche to have a merry old time.

Concert hall
A candidate belting out during the audition. The widows’ boxes can be barely seen in the bottom right-hand corner.

The hall can seat up to 2,400 people. 300 more people can stand in the upper levels. Its horseshoe shape and open boxes mean that the sound can travel freely, making for almost perfect acoustics. The giant chandelier weighs a ton, literally. The renowned Argentinean artist Raúl Soldi painted the inside of the dome. There is a narrow corridor around the dome, well hidden from view, where musicians and singers can create special effects, like a chorus of angels coming from above. I wouldn’t be able to climb up there, let alone carry an instrument!

And for good measure, an old Opera commercial. I shouldn’t say old because I can remember watching it! The quality isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but the sentimental value is there.

Go to Teatro Colón website for more information.

Barrancas de Belgrano park in Buenos Aires

Plaza Barrancas de Belgrano is a leafy public park located in the eponymous neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Its downward slope (barranca) towards the river gave it its name and makes it unique in the city. Or rather, it slopes down to where the river Plate used to be before the wetlands were dredged and filled in.

The park was designed by French architect Charles Thays in 1892, who also designed  the Botanical Gardens, among others, and is located in a quite posh and tony area.

Let’s take a stroll together.

Barrancas de Belgrano07
The land belonged to Dr. Valentin Alsina (1802-1869,) an Argentinean lawyer and politician. His house (photo) was built in 1856 in the Italianate style popular at the time and nowadays is dwarfed by modern tall apartment buildings. It now houses a foundation.

 

Ombu
This massive ombu is one of the park features. This evergreen tree (Phytolacca dioica) is native to the Pampas and is a symbol of Argentina, Uruguay and the gaucho culture.

 

Pergola
This band stand was built in time for the Centenary celebrations (1910.) Nowadays, a group of musicians organize milongas (tango dances) every evening and everyone is welcome to join.

 

A view of the slope that gives the park its name.
A view of the slope that gives the park its name.

 

Workers at lunch in the park
Workers at lunch in the park

 

This historic construction (1905) was once the park keeper's residence. In 2011 it was repurpused into a children's lending library called La Reina Batata after a nursery rhyme by singer, author and songwriter Maria Elena Walsh. Her music and books have influenced generations of Argentineans, including me.
This historic construction (1905) was once the park keeper’s residence. In 2011 it was purposed as a children’s lending library called La Reina Batata after a nursery rhyme by singer, author and songwriter Maria Elena Walsh. Her music and books have influenced generations of Argentineans, myself included.

 

One of the many paths that crisscross Plaza Barrancas
One of the many paths that crisscross Plaza Barrancas

 

Beautiful terrace overlooking the park
Beautiful terrace overlooking the park

The Buenos Aires Underground celebrates its 100th birthday

I grew up in the Western suburbs of Buenos Aires, where I went to school and played field hockey as a teenager. Many of the places I needed to go to were within walking distance except the club, which was a short bus ride away. Going to downtown Buenos Aires, “el Centro,” about 22 kilometres away, was a big adventure and a treat.

Our parents occasionally took my three siblings and me to the Los Angeles movie theatre, which showed Disney films only. The cinema was located in “el Centro,” on Corrientes Avenue. We would drive to Once neighbourhood, park the car and take the A line underground at Plaza Miserere station, usually on a Saturday evening.

Entrance to Piedras station on Avenida de Mayo
Exit only at Piedras station on Avenida de Mayo

We always sat at the front of the first car, next to the driver’s cabin.  We loved the thrill of looking out the front window, the tunnel lights flashing past and the darkness beyond, its musty smell a mixture of metal and grease. It was such an exciting treat for us suburban kids.

Plaza de Mayo station
An old Belgian train at Plaza de Mayo station

Years later, I took the same line to work. It wasn’t so much fun trying to hop on a crowded car during then morning rush hour. At the time, the original wood cars were still in use. I liked them better than modern ones. These elegant Belgian cars harked back to a by-gone era when people followed public transport etiquette to the letter, men wore suits and hats and ladies wore hats and gloves. In January 2013, these Belgian cars –manufactured by Le Brugeoise- were deemed unsafe and replaced by modern ones.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the population of the city of Buenos Aires experienced an enormous growth. Therefore, the number of people riding public transport and driving cars grew exponentially. Something needed to be done to order traffic. Thus, in 1909 the Anglo-Argentine Tramway Company was authorized to build and exploit the first underground line, the A line. Construction began in September, 1911 and the first section was opened in December, 1913.

Old school ticket booth at Plaza de Mayo Station.
Old school ticket booth (boleteria) at Plaza de Mayo Station. See the brown stripe? It identifies the station.

The other lines (B, C, D, E and Premetro) were gradually added throughout the century. The H line is being built right now. The lines fan out from a central point, Plaza de Mayo, like the fingers of a hand, and cover a big area of the city, although not nearly a big enough one to serve the millions that live and work there.

Map of the underground
Map of the underground

What I like about the underground stations is the wall art. The murals were designed by different established artists or based on the work of well-known Argentinean artists. Some murals depict the area the station is in or are related to the name of the station itself, like the portraits of tango legend Carlos Gardel in the eponymous station (B line.) The stations on the A line have beautiful wrought iron railings and period light fixtures. I read somewhere that each station has stripes of a different colour to help illiterate people find the right station.

Happy birthday, Subte*!

*Subte is short for subterráneo (Spanish for underground) and that is how the service is called in Buenos Aires. If you’re trying to find an underground station, ask for the nearest “estación de subte.”

cartel subte
The entrance to the Subte can barely bee seen among the buildings (but it’s there! Look out for the round purple sign)