Buenos Aires Day 1: La Recoleta Cemetery, La Casa Rosada & A Starry Touch of Russia
The last thing I expected to find at a cemetery was a door knocker. But then again, La Recoleta Cemetery is no ordinary resting place. Built in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires in 1822, La Recoleta looks more like a lovely little city, with narrow streets, elegant house-like mausoleums, stained glass windows and marble, marble everywhere.
Our BuenosTours guide Richard had suggested starting our day at La Recoleta – the crowds and the heat pick up as the day goes on, he told us – and it turned out to be a wise idea. You could almost hear the quiet of the early morning streets, offering us a chance to take in the sheer splendor of it all. We purchased a small multi-lingual map and guidebook at the entrance – there is no admission charge – and headed inside the gates and grand Doric columns.
La Recoleta’s 14 acres are laid out like a well-planned city, with main avenues leading to mausoleum-filled side streets. There are about 4,800 vaults and several thousand statues and adornments, all in a variety of architectural styles that range from tasteful to opulent. And with workers busily cleaning marble, repairing statues, watering flowers and tending to the grounds, it was easy to forget that we were actually in a cemetery.
As we walked, Richard spun stories of Argentina’s history, giving us background on some of La Recoleta’s most famous “residents.” From politicians and military leaders to poets and journalists, it’s a literal Who’s Who of Argentina.
Many of the mausoleums were designed with windowed doors, providing a peek into the lives they honored. Some contained photos of the family; others had items that appeared to be personal mementos; many were filled with religious objects. I was especially struck by the stained glass windows that looked dull and unimpressive from the outside, but were filled with beautiful colors when viewed looking inward. Clearly a great deal of thought had gone into their placement to make sure the light hit the glass just right, as if it mattered more to the soul inside that to the passer-by from the world of the living.
The solitude of La Recoleta is abruptly interrupted along its borders, where the Buenos Aires skyline and the sound of traffic remind visitors of the city outside the gates. It’s a quick jolt of reality at the edge of a tranquil little world, but as soon as you head back toward the town square, it’s easy to get lost in a place where a finding a door knocker seems almost expected.
We left La Recolta and headed to the nearby La Biela, a 150-year-old café known as a favorite hangout for Argentina’s beloved author Jorge Luis Borges. Life-size statues of Borges and fellow collaborator and journalist Adolfo Bioy Casares sit at a table at the front of the café, as if they are still discussing their latest work.
We found a table on the terrace, ordered our coffees and Argentine croissants called medialunas and made plans for the rest of the day. Buenos Aires was the embarkation city for our voyage to Antarctica, and with such a short time there, I had thought a guided walking tour would be the best way to cover as much as possible. BuenosTours’ walks are designed for private groups – in our case, my husband and me – and are led by native English-speaking guides. When I showed Richard my ambitious 5×8 cards of places I’d hoped to see and he responded with, “I think we can do most of that,” I knew I had made a great decision!
After our coffee break, we walked through the Recoleta streets, passing stunning European-inspired buildings with architecture that seemed to call out, “Paris Meets Argentina!” January is mid-summer in Buenos Aires, and with many locals away on their holidays, it was a treat to take it all in with minimal crowds and traffic.
Our next stop was San Telmo, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods known for its colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and artsy vibe. We rode the city bus to Parque Lezama and made our way through the hilly, leafy walkways to the view I had hoped to see: The sky-blue domes dotted with golden stars of Iglesia Apostolica Ortodoxa Rusa, the city’s Russian Orthodox Church. After being enchanted by the domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Church on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, I’ve been forever fascinated with these little onion-shaped works of art. Although the design and colors of the Buenos Aires domes are much simpler than their Moscow and St. Petersburg counterparts, I found them to be equally charming and lovely.
Next we headed north to San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego. We walked through the Mercado, a stunningly domed indoor market, before stopping for lunch at Gran Pizzeria Los Talentos, Richard’s recommendation for empanadas and something we hadn’t expected to order – pizza! Richard explained that Argentine pizza is served with faina, a chickpea-based flatbread that is placed on top of the pizza, almost like a sandwich.
After lunch, we explored more of the neighborhood. Walking through the streets of San Telmo with Richard was like being shown around by an old friend. The New Yorker expat has lived in Buenos Aires for fifteen years and runs a film studio in the neighborhood. His commentary seemed to be continually interrupted by friends and business acquaintances stopping to say hello, and before we had left the neighborhood, we found ourselves chatting with local shopkeepers and tasting Malbec at a local wine bar where he knew owner.
It was late afternoon when we left San Telmo and continued our walk toward the city center neighborhood of Monserrat. We were headed to the main attractions along the Plaza de Mayo, but it was an unexpected stop that turned out to be one of the most interesting places of the day: The Biblioteca Nacional on Calle Mexico, Buenos Aires’ former national library building, under renovation and off the beaten travel path. Richard had become friendly with one of the guards and suggested we stop by.
Orange-toned marble columns with turquoise and copper-colored floral patterns decorated the lobby. The room beyond had been the library. Wooden placards carved in an Arts-and-Crafts-looking style contained subject headings and lists of well-known authors. Balconies with white pillars curved around the perimeter, and a bejeweled-looking dome flooded the space with light. It must have been a glorious place to look for a book.
The guard seemed pleased with our enthusiasm for the building and asked if we would like to see the office of Jorge Luis Borges when he was the National Library’s director. We followed him up the marble staircase and entered a small room marked by a brass plaque. The space was empty except for a long wooden table and an oil painting above the fireplace. There was clearly much renovation to complete, but the rich woodwork, intricate chandelier and patterned wood floor gave a glimpse of the room’s original beauty.
Back on the street, we pressed on toward the Plaza del Mayo, the oldest public square in Buenos Aires and the center of political rallies and revolution. Surrounded by La Casa Rosada – the “Pink House” executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina – as well as other major government buildings, banks and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Plaza del Mayo immediately gives off an air or importance, a heartbeat for a city in times of turbulence and tranquility.
The summer afternoon was fading into evening as we said goodbye to Richard and ended our whirlwind of a day walking through Buenos Aires. I clearly needed the perspective of time as well as a good night’s sleep to process everything I had taken in. But maybe too much thinking wasn’t the point of the experience after all. Perhaps this sign I had spotted earlier in the day as we were walking through the streets of Monserrat said it best: