Tuesday, 8 March 2011

BA's Maracas

The problem with France is that it's full of French people. Sure, there are some nice ones, but the majority of the French manage to offend nearly all 5 senses. If this fact puts you off going to the traditional Paris - you know, the one in France - you can always do what I did and hop on a plane and take a trip to the self-proclaimed 'Paris of the South': Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires is a curious place: it has elegant baroque architecture in abundance, but when the local government were planning where to put all of their 60s tower blocks, someone must have sneezed on the blueprints. This is only explanation I could come with for why every pleasant colonial-era building seems to have a hideous great hunk of concrete next to, in front or on top of it. This is a crying shame, because Buenos Aires' buildings (the nice ones at least) really surprised me with their splendour. The Palacio de Congreso for example was supposedly based upon Washington's Capitol building, but in execution there was one crucial difference: they actually thought about it, rendering it tasteful and not garish.

Buenos Aires is indeed a proper big city, with all walks of life represented and all sorts of locales in which they live and work, so a lot like Rio really in this respect. Where it differs - and it differs hugely - is the sense that all Porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires are known) know that work also has to be done and that there is a time to be serious as well as a time to have fun.

And fun they do have: on my first night in Buenos Aires, I decided to check out the local cuisine and so headed to my nearest Parilla, or steakhouse to you and me. I was sat down and immediately given a shot of Jerez for no obvious reason. Not wishing to offend my beaming waitress, I obliged and drunk it. Following this I ordered a steak with chips, expecting a relatively standard steak-based affair. How wrong was I. The cow from which the steak seemed to have been cut must have been 40 feet tall and had a rump the size of Sunderland. It was humongous. It was also delicious.

When I finally finished this gargantuan pile of protein, I was offered more complimentary alcohol, which I gleefully accepted (Limoncello in case you were wondering). The greatest surprise came with the bill. All of 
this excellent food and alcohol and it amounted to less than £10. What a place this was turning out to be.

What every good Porteño does after their nightly steak (it is estimated that Argentinians each eat on average 70kg of beef a year) is let the meal digest until about two o'clock in the morning and then head out on the town. The Argentinians like to leave it late. And I mean late. In one nightclub we visited the doors opened at midnight and the dancefloor didn't open until 3 a.m. They all enjoy it as well. I was hard-pressed to find a miserable-looking clubber, although that may have had something to do with the 'clubbing aids' readily available in the lavatories. 

Not even I could dampen their spirits with my horribly broken Spanish: I managed to sort-of converse with an Argentinian financial analyst for nearly an hour and she humoured me throughout, not once pretending to go to the bar or the toilet. I would say she was just more desperate than other women to whom I've spoken in the past, but I like to think it's just the Argentinian way.

The undoubted highlight for me was going to see a percussion group called 'La Bomba del Tiempo'. This was a group consisting of drummers, bongo players and even a Bez impersonator on the maracas, all of whom were expertly led by a conductor who seemed to be frantically trying to communicate with the group through what looked like some primitive sign language. Either way, it worked.

So if you're looking for somewhere with lovely architecture, great food and a cracking nightlife, go to Paris. If you want all of the above, but with fewer Frenchmen and bigger steaks, head to Buenos Aires.

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