“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
~Jorge Luis Borges
El Ateneo Grand Splendid
If there ever were a more beautiful place to look for books, it would have to be the impossibly special El Ateneo Grand Splendid. The name says it all about Buenos Aires’ 1919 theatre-turned cinema-turned bookshop: It is grand and it is splendid, and it’s a stunning example of transforming a gem of an architectural space into a modern new use while maintaining its original charm and beauty.
The summer sun was already in full force as we made our way through the early morning streets to Avenida Santa Fe in the Bario Norte. El Ateneo Grand Splendid’s marquee-like exterior was easy to spot, and once inside, it almost seemed as if a ticket-taker and popcorn machine would be perched by the front door.
It’s the stage that really draws you in, with ruby-red curtains hanging ever-so elegantly, ready for the show to begin. Frescoes in muted tones decorate the ceiling, and ornate theatre boxes and column-like pillars with gilded embellishments ring around the periphery. And amid of all of this early 20th-century wonderment are, of course, the books!
From El Ateneo Grand Splendid we headed to another theatre, Teatro Colón, the main opera house in Buenos Aires, ranked as one of the acoustically best concert venues in the world. We had stopped at the ticket office a day earlier to secure spots in one of the English-speaking tours. Tours in English are limited, but additional guided visits are offered in the summer months.
Our guide first ushered our group of about twenty to the Grand Foyer, giving us a chance to take photos as she explained the history of the theatre. Teatro Colón was completed in 1908, replacing the original building that had opened in 1857. It closed for renovations in 2006 and reopened in 2010. Throughout its history, world-renowned opera singers and ballet dancers have appeared on its stage.
Next we headed up the staircase to the Golden Hall, a lavish space designed in the styles of France’s Palace of Versailles and the Garnier Paris Opéra. Our guide said that in the early days of the theatre, you could only enter the Golden Hall if you spoke French, confirming that you were from an upper class. Today, she added, everyone is welcome.
Our final stop was the main attraction – the concert hall and stage. Seven levels, 2,400 seats and standing room for about 500, all amid a sea of red velvet and gold. We were seated in the Gala Box on the second level, considered to offer the best view in the theatre. And as an additional perk in this coveted box, the red velvet seats have armrests.
A Change In Climate
Our tour ended where it had begun. I had hoped we would have been given a brief demonstration of the acoustics of Teatro Colón, but that was not part of the tour. Our guide encouraged everyone to return sometime for a performance. I smiled and nodded as if to say, “Maybe sometime,” knowing that sometime would be a long way off, if at all. For now, we had a ship to board and an exciting journey ahead.
Later that afternoon, Herb and I settled into our cabin on the Seabourn Quest. The bright orange parkas waiting for us signaled a change in climate. After a stop in Uruguay, we would be putting away our summer clothes and getting ready for our voyage to Antarctica. We stood on our verandah, watching Buenos Aires fade in the distance, filled with anticipation about the adventure to come.