Porteños, as the residents of Buenos Aires are known, pride themselves on living in the Paris of South America. As you stroll the city's broad boulevards styled after the Champs Elysee, explore elegant belle époque architectural gems such as the Teatro Colon and Barolo building, or sip coffee in one of the landmarked 19th century coffee houses, you'd be forgiven if you fancied yourself in Europe rather than Latin America.
Policies that encouraged European immigration built a large Italian community. This strong Italian heritage and the prevailing Latin flavor have had a salubrious influence on the city and its residents' disposition. Despite living through some truly horrifying political episodes (see: dirty war, the memory of which the mothers of the disappeared keep alive in weekly demonstrations at the Plaza de Mayo) and numerous economic crises, porteños haven't forgotten how to enjoy life. Tango and the world's best beef are some of the favored past times.
The defining element of national culture is the tango. The fedora-topped visage of 30's tango singer Carlos Gardel gazes upon you from countless murals, billboards and black-and-white photos, rivaling the celebrated Eva Peron for sheer ubiquitousness. Everyone from sidewalk buskers to hotels and dinner theaters is putting on a tango show.
This exotic dance has fascinated me ever since Gomez dipped Morticia and I could not pass up the opportunity to learn the steps at the Academia Nacional del Tango. Ascending to a bare bones studio in an ancient cage-like elevator suitable for the Addams Family, my girlfriend and I were schooled in the basics by a tanguero couple. They gave us quite a two-hour workout, and afterwards a caffeine lift from the historic Cafe Tortoni next door was welcome and well timed.
Having done Arthur Murray, it was time for Dancing with the Stars - the professional tango shows that combine the smoldering passion of the genre with acrobatic and ballet-like flourishes. Esquina Carlos Gardel is one of the finest, staged in a gorgeous art nouveau dinner theater with orchestra and tuxedo-clad singer accompanying the troupe. It is the creation of Juan Fabbri, master tango impresario with movie-star looks. His Tango Porteño and Piazzolla Tango venues are also impressive. New Yorkers can catch the Esquina Carlos Gardel show at Fabbri's Malbec and Tango House wine bar and restaurant on Lafayette Street.
To see how mere mortals tango we took in a couple of milongas (tango salons). Salon Canning's popular milonga on Friday night offers a real slice of porteño life. Couples of all ages, sizes and skill levels circle the room to music from another era. A rock number clears the dance floor and give dancers a rest. As another tango begins, men approach women to ask for a dance. If you ever wondered how boy meets girl without Match.com, this is how it works, old school socializing in the real world.
Confiteria La Ideal has a wonderful milonga in a beautifully restored 1920s room with stained glass ceiling, its dance floor framed by columns. (Scenes from Evita were filmed here.) Along with the tourists here to watch, me among them, the scene is genuinely authentic with committed tangueros dressed up for a night of fun. I snagged a front row table with an unobstructed view of the footwork and the live orchestra with singer that began playing after midnight.
Since Argentina is noted for some of the best beef in the world, it's crucial to know how to order your steak. Here's the lingo:
• A punto: Pink in the middle, what New Yorkers call medium rare. The most popular. Recommended for most cuts.
• Cocido: No pink, medium. Literally, cooked.
• Crudo: Red and bloody.
Of course, there is far more than beef for dinner in B.A. Peruvian ceviche is popular, as is fine dining of all stripes. Tomo I continues to make everyone's list of best restaurants in the world. Oviedo in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood serves the best fish in town, and for world-class Italian, Sottovoce rivals a Roman dining room. You'll even find molecular gastronomy at Tarquino, whose chef Dante Liporace trained at elBulli. This being Buenos Aires, he should be careful: serving Provolone cheese foam in a martini glass and calling it pizza, as he does, he might find himself abducted by food fundamentalists to stand trial for crimes against gastronomy.
Argentina's literary, artistic and intellectual elite gathered at coffee houses, a movable feast that has earned a number venues such as Cafe Tortoni and Cafe Biela landmark status. They are not to be missed, nor is El Ateneo, the opulent theater-turned-bookstore where you can read while sitting in luxurious box seats and sip coffee on the stage where tango legends once performed.
Cult, kitsch or icon, Evita is still very much alive in Buenos Aires. Her image is emblazoned 10 stories high on the Ministry of Health overlooking Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest boulevard in the world that runs through the center of Buenos Aires. Everyone who saw the movie, the play or listened the cast album knows the story: stylish film star Eva Duarte married General Juan Peron (the union of fashionista and fascist, some would say) to become Argentina's First Lady and Spiritual Leader. An actor with a second life in politics, Eva blazed the trail Ronald Reagan followed. Her combative treatment of the critics she inspired invites comparisons to Hillary Clinton as well.
You'll find a shrine to Saint Evita and Peronism at the Evita Museum in Palermo. It provides a fascinating (if one-sided) view of the political movement, cult of personality and personal history of Eva Peron with photos, fan magazines, her wardrobe and even grade-school reading books touting Peronism. Period film clips show Eva gleefully lacerating her detractors from the balcony of the presidential palace, the funeral that captivated the nation and her embalmed, mutilated corpse that wandered the world in secret for decades before finally being laid to rest in the Duarte family tomb in the Recoleta cemetery.
Staying in Style
We made the 5-star luxurious Intercontinental Hotel our base camp, ideally located in the heart of the city. Apricot marble, a grand piano, carved wood furniture and potted plants gave the lobby an elegant ambiance. The excellent concierge filled our calendar with the best the city had to offer, confirming dinner and entertainment reservations as we imbibed a glass of Malbec at the lobby bar followed by a tasty roast duck at Mediterraneo. Posh furnishings, potted palms and cut flowers lent our spacious and stunning suite on the executive level an air of timeless comfort, a promise delivered by the king-size bed, plush linens and an oversize marble bathroom with Jacuzzi tub. A rejuvenating massage and facial at the Spa put paid to any remaining travel stress. Blissed out, we returned to our suite to find a bottle of wine, chocolates and a tango CD. A great intro to Buenos Aires.
Hamptons on the bayou
While New Yorkers have the Hamptons, porteños have the Tigre delta as the getaway, a subtropical tangle of islands and lagoons just 45 minutes from town. Palm-fringed streets, splendid Victorian houses, yacht clubs, flowered gardens and eateries draw artists and the wealthy to the charming town of Tigre. Think Amagansett with jacaranda. My stylish room at the Intercontinental Nordelta offered water views. With an elegant restaurant featuring Argentine cuisine, spa, pool and health club, guests are assured a relaxing stay in luxury. The concierge will arrange river excursions and day trips to the picturesque islands.
Economics, Shopping and Art
Look closely and you'll see the impact of Argentina's economic nationalism policies. Trendy boutiques in the Palermo Soho and Recoleta neighborhoods feature Argentine labels and designers along with the usual international names, thanks in part to official limitations on imported goods. Another example: the Sentidos del Delta magnolia-scented body lotion, an amenity at the Nordelta hotel, was developed in-house with locally sourced ingredients from the Tigre delta, the management's creative response to import restrictions. Argentine conceptual artist Marta Minujin captures her nation's maverick response to global economic forces in The Debt, a series of photos that show her paying Argentina's external debt in corn - to Andy Warhol. It's on exhibit at MALBA, the Museum of Latin American Art Buenos Aires, in Palermo.