Buenos Aires Day 1: La Recoleta Cemetery, La Casa Rosada & A Starry Touch of Russia

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in Argentina | 12 Comments

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.

This tree-filled avenue is like a town square. The green monument honors Guillermo (William) Brown, an Irish-born Admiral and founder of the Argentine Navy.

The Aldao tomb’s unique architectural style was called Neoprehispanic, mixing geometric and Art Deco patterns.

A watering can sits in the shadows…

…and scaffolding signals a restoration project.

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.

A soldier stands guard in front of the mausoleum of General Juan Lavalle, a leading military figure and governor of Buenos Aires.

Journalist and author José Hernández, best known for his epic poem, “El Gaucho Martín Fierro,” is buried in this elegant mausoleum.

The story is told that the woman in this tomb, who died after her husband, requested to be shown facing away from him, representing all the years they didn’t speak to one another!

A statue of professional boxer Luis Ángel Firpo stands tall in front of his tomb.

Rufina Cambacérès was a nineteen-year-old girl who is said to have been buried alive. She had been pronounced dead, but later awakened in her coffin.

The grotto-like tomb of General Tomás Guido was hand-built by his son, the poet Carlos Guido y Spano.

Undoubtedly the most visited site at La Recoleta, Eva Perón’s tomb in the Duarte Family mausoleum is surprisingly simple compared with its neighboring monuments.

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.

Exterior view of this stained glass window…

…and a look from the inside.

A floral window and the outside world beyond.

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.

These figures of Borges and Casares reminded me of the Fernando Pesoa statue in Lisbon’s Café A Brasileira. I love how these countries honor their writers and their cafés’ histories!

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!

The lovely table setting on the terrace at La Biela, with traditional Argentine medialunas and a piece of chocolate on each saucer.

A rubber tree called “El Gran Gomero” sits at the edge of La Biela’s terrace. It is said to have been planted in the 1800s and has a 50-meter-wide span.

Metal supports including one designed to resemble Atlas are positioned along various points to support the weight of El Gran Gomero.

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.

Mercado San Telmo’s dome was right out of the pages of an old book of black-and-white photographs. The market was filled with antiques, fresh fruits and vegetables, a butcher shop and a café called Coffee Time.

Entrance to Gran Pizzeria Los Talentos in San Telmo.

Richard recommended holding an empanada “like an ice cream cone” and wrapping a paper napkin around the bottom to avoid the sauce from seeping out. These were filled with chicken and beef.

The faina was served on the side, ready to plop on top of the pizza!

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.

Jewelry designer Alberto Codiani at his San Telmo studio called Signos.

Wine tasting at Tierra Mendocina Wine Bar.

Our terrific BuenosTours guide Richard, talking Malbec at Tierra Mendocina Wine Bar.

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.

Looking up at the exterior of the former National Library of the Argentine Republic.

The library’s lobby and wrought-iron staircase beyond.

The library and balconies.

The philosophers…

…and the dome.

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.

The staircase was lined with globe-like brass decorations.

Inside Borges’ office.

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.

Richard explained that the fence separating Plaza de Mayo from the grounds of La Casa Rosada marks the boundary where protesting must be contained.

The Metropolitan Cathedral’s façade resembles a Greek temple.

View from the Plaza de Mayo just beyond the Metropolitan Cathedral.

With Herb in front of La Casa Rosada’s “Evita Balcony.”

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:

12 Comments

  1. Shelly Sherman
    February 20, 2017

    You make me want to revisit Buenos Aires! I am anxiously waiting for your next entry.

  2. Mary
    February 20, 2017

    Thank you so much, Shelly…great hearing from you! Sorting through all the photos and memories made me want to return as well 🙂

  3. Rita
    February 20, 2017

    Lovely blog Mary! I hopped over here from your very helpful Cruise Critic review of this trip. Looking forward to reading the rest!

  4. Beth Rusoff
    February 20, 2017

    Great work…how did they know girl awoke in her coffin if she was buried…it looks
    Like a beautiful city along the lines of Rome,Madrid etc. The walking tour was the best idea and doing it with a native English speaking person must have been a break.
    I am wondering, if it is not too personal what kind of shoes did you use and did you
    Alternate for other walks or did the one pair hold up…Bravo to the woman who stood
    Her ground after her death with her husband! Also the statues of the two men you sat with look so real…..talented sculptors and artists…

    • Mary
      February 20, 2017

      Beth, thank you! It is indeed a beautiful city with a European feel. The Recoleta Cemetery stories were fascinating… In the legend of Rufina Cambacérès, a cemetery worker discovered that her coffin had moved, opened it and found marks on the lid from her trying to escape. The La Biela statues were incredibly life-like, down to the pages of the book on the table. And as for shoes, I always travel with a pair of athletic shoes for all-day walks like this one and a pair of “nicer” walking shoes for less intensive days!

  5. Mary
    February 20, 2017

    Thank you, Rita! I’m so glad to know you found the review helpful, and I’m happy to have you following along on this journey!

  6. Bruce jacobson
    February 20, 2017

    I wish you could have seen the smile on my face remembering what a wonderful time Judy and I had there. Thanks for the memories

    • Mary
      February 20, 2017

      Aw, that made my day, Bruce! So happy I was able to rekindle some happy travel memories 🙂

  7. Beth rusoff
    February 20, 2017

    BTW what/where is your cruise critique…thx..

  8. Beth
    February 21, 2017

    Great cruise review…very well thought out along the lines of I think your very first post about how you plan a trip,ie
    Two or three restaunts and alternate
    Plans for events,etc…too bad about the medical emergencies…maybe
    Medical assistance is a good checklist
    Item on adventurous excursions…in
    Mexico they have air lifts to Texas and
    California hospitals directly but weather is not usually an issue,maybe just rsin

    • Mary
      February 21, 2017

      Thanks, Beth…it was quite an adventure!