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.

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.






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.