Wednesday, April 10, 2019

South American Diary #3: The Walking Tour

Ministry of Exterior Relations

     If New York City and Paris had a baby, it would look like Buenos Aires.
     I'm not speaking of the entire city—just like New York and Paris, Buenos Aires has its share of slums and favelas, which I did not visit in the two days I was there.
      But much of the fashionable areas, with five-story apartment blocks topped with copper domes, obviously mimic fashionable Parisian streets.
      The first day we exhausted my plan—visit Recoleta Cemetery then grab a steak at Don Julio, which arrived on a searing hot plate, thick and salty and delectable, along with roasted pumpkin. I could have turned around and gone home at that point and felt the trip had been worthwhile.
     But the next morning Michael had an idea. We took a cab to the opera house, Teatro Colon. I didn't ask why, just went along assuming we were heading blindly into the city, which would be my inclination. It turned out we were hooking up with a walking tour, FreeWalks Buenos Aires.
      Like a lot of guys, I have this little narrative loop playing in my head when I travel where I'm James Bond traversing the city in my virtual Aston Martin Vanquish. There is no place in that mindset for tours, for joining the sheep baaing after brightly t-shirted guides.
      But Michael, whose life at times actually approaches the Bondian, has no such qualms. We were briefed by an undernourished young lady named Dominique, who told us about Luciano Pavarotti complaining that the acoustics in the opera house were too perfect—his flaws were being projected too readily.
    Interesting if true, as they say in my business. A thought that came to me a few times more during the tour—perhaps another reason I avoid them: their standards of veracity dip below that of professional journalism, which might betray an excessive fastidiousness on my part, like rating carnivals based on their cleanliness.
     Dominique said the tour would take three hours, and we could pay her what we liked at the end. I knew we'd never last the three hours and would drop out at some point along the way, but was willing to give it a try, since we were here.
      Our first stop, to my surprise, the Templo Libertad, where the group admired a mosaic hands formed in the gesture of benediction, which I had lain on my sons' heads at their bar mitzvahs. As I considered whether to volunteer the story of how Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in Star Trek, was Jewish, and based the Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" hand sign on the Jewish gesture of blessing, Dominique explained that Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in Star Trek, was Jewish, and based the Vulcan "Life Long and Prosper" hand sign on the Jewish gesture of blessing.
9 de Julio Avenue is wide enough to be easily seen from the air.
      Which increased my confidence in her veracity. We crossed the 9 de Julio Avenue— named for July 9, 1816, Argentine Independence Day— the widest avenue in the world, more than 110 yards across, or longer than a block in New York City. Crossing at top speed took more than a minute.
     Pausing before the former palace of the Anchirena family, now the Ministry of Exterior Relations, Dominique leapt from the standard tourist fluff to history with a bit more substance to it. 
     In the first half of the 19th century, she said, up to 25 percent of the population of Buenos Aires were black slaves—their labors built the fortunes of what was, at one point, the third richest country in the world. An understatement, turns out—some sources say up to a third.
    "If you are wondering what happened to people of color," she said, explaining how after Argentina abolished slavery—officially in 1813, in practice in 1853—it systematically eliminated its black population, either by selling them to slave-owning neighbors, or putting the slaves in the front lines during military campaigns. Today Argentina is the whitest nation in South America, with 97 percent of the population having European roots. 
     "There's a truth we don't speak much of," she said.
      Dominique was a very quotable guide. Stopping at an equestrian statue of Jose de san Martin, the liberator of Argentina, she asked, "Who is our biggest hero? Not Messi. Not Maradona. Not the Pope—San Martin." (Sigh, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona are wildly popular soccer players. I try not to leave you guys in the dark). 
Basilica of the Holy Sacrament
     We toured a gorgeous church, The Basilica of the Holy Sacrament after Dominique shared an improbable legend about the nearby art deco Kavanagh Building being constructed to deliberately block the view of the church from the home of its patroness, Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena, as "a revenge" for the high-born woman blocking Kavanagh's romance with her son, even though Anchorena died in 1920, before the church was even completed, and the Kavanagh Building wasn't designed for another dozen years.     
     As Hemingway wrote, "Pretty to think so."
     The shift into the fantastic continued at the memorial to the 1982 Falklands War, which they call the Malvinas War here. General Leopoldo Galtieri and the junta running Argentina, trying to distract Argentinians from economic turmoil and brutal political repression—30,000 people disappeared, many of them dropped from helicopters in "flights of death" or tossed into the River de la Plata—tried to push the British out of the Falklands Islands, where they had squatted since 1841. 
     That part, alas, is all too true.
     The British, ripe for a bit of distraction themselves, responded with the full brunt of their military might.
Kavanagh Building
     "This ridiculous war, often called 'The Most Ridiculous War,'" said Dominique, who then, speaking of ridiculous, suggested that Margaret Thatcher herself accompanied the British armada to South America and personally directed the sinking of the Argentina cruiser General Belgrano, considered a great atrocity because it supposedly was torpedoed while cruising out of a British-established exclusion zone. Whatever direction it was steaming, 323 Argentinian sailors died, nearly half their forces killed in the war.
     I raised my hand, suppressed saying, "That can't be true," and instead observed, "So you're saying that Margaret Thatcher was on the scene, giving orders?"
     "Margaret Thatcher was there," Dominique insisted (spoiler alert: she wasn't). 
     While I still trusted her nuanced and passionate account of the Dirty War at home and the insanity of the battle with a superpower over this collection of rocks off the coast, her leap into fantasy was unfortunate nevertheless. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.
      Though it did give insight into how myths develop—the Iron Lady is even more vile if she can be transported to the scene of the supposed slaughter of innocent Argentine sailors, giving the fatal command herself with a wave of her bejeweled claw.
     Not that I held this flight of fantasy against our guide. Her father, Dominique said, was a young conscript in the war, and I appreciated the heat she brought to the subject.
     "We lost 649 men in that war," she said. "It was about stupidity. It was about politics."
     Most wars are. The tour ended, conveniently, next to the La Biala cafe, where we all posed for a group shot—which Michael and I realized was done, not for our benefit, or hers, but to help her bosses gauge the tour's gate, 50 percent of which is supposed to be turned over to FreeWalks.  The going rate seemed to be $10 a head, and we gratefully ponied up. The full three hours had held our interest, even offering moments of fascination, with the detours into fabrication easily forgiven.  It was time to sit down, enjoy another coffee and to plot our next goal: The Tango.


  1. As a fellow professional tour guide, I give props to Dominique. Three hours is a LONG TIME to hold any group's interest, and only one mythological fallacy isn't too bad an average in that amount of time. Of the MANY myths often perpetrated on Chicago tours (btw people are more inclined to believe in Mrs. O'Leary's cow than the reversal of the river), the one that bugs me the most concerns Al Capone partying in the speakeasy atop the old Jeweler's/Sun Oil Bldg., going so far as to insist he took the car elevator there. No dice. The Stratosphere Lounge was a LEGAL club in the dome once Prohibition was lifted. By then, Capone was in prison. People still ask about it. Never mind the horse-hockey about Sam Insull building the Opera House for his lover. Your skepticism about tour guides is, in general, appropriate.

    1. The Jewelers Building became the Pure Oil Building until Pure moved to Schaumburg & then was bought by Union Oil of California.

  2. Not too surprised. The absolute best tour I ever took was a walking tour of central London. Got more out of that 90 minutes than several tours comnbined.

  3. Fascinating. It's no wonder that Argentinians don't speak much about their solution to the slavery problem.


  4. Thanks for the shout out, my old colleague, but I think the opera singer's name is Luciano. I'm heading to BA in May to see the family and already have my reservation at Don Julio confirmed. So glad you - and Michael - gave Argentina a try!

    1. Smart call. I decided not to linger too much over it, but it was a fantastic place. Casual yet refined. The steak really was first rate—they hand patrons a glass of champagne when the walk in. The reservation is essential -- that, or wait an hour.

  5. Galtieri was brought down by the Falklands War, so at least it had that benefit. Like many dictators, he ignored the cardinal rule: Only pick on people who can't shoot back.


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