Even crumbling facades are works of art, Monserrat, Buenos Aires

The Barrios of Buenos Aires: Part I – Monserrat & the City Centre

In a serendipitous twist of fate, I found myself living in Buenos Aires. With little over a month and accompanied by my young family, I set about immersing myself in all that this beguiling city had to offer. The Barrios of Buenos Aires has been split into three parts: Monserrat & City Centre, Palermo & Recoleta, and La Boca & San Telmo. This is the first installment in the series.

Photos: Samai Haider

I’d originally tried my hand at learning to speak French but had failed spectacularly.  So, I turned to Spanish, a seemingly more manageable language, where I could, at least, pronounce the words I was reading. Somewhere along the way, I decided I’d move to Buenos Aires in Argentina for a more immersive learning experience. I suppose it was the lure of its rebellious but colourful past, the vibrant culture and of course, the famed Argentinian steak. The allure continued. My Spanish lessons, however, did not.

The stars aligned and I found myself staring at the prospect of living there, albeit for a very short period. Bags packed and an apartment sorted, we headed towards Buenos Aires. We had romantic notions of walking down wide, cobbled-stoned boulevards, surrounding ourselves with art and Latin American culture, wining and dining, and of course, writing about it all. What we got however, was a tempered, more child-friendly version of our visions, introducing us to a side of Buenos Aires we’d never imagined before.

Large and sprawling, Buenos Aires is home to a third of Argentina’s population, offering a heady mix of classical European architecture and grungy, graffitied streets. We quickly realised that the city, (as with any large city I suppose), alters itself based on the barrio (neighbourhood) you’re in. Sure you have some world class tourist attractions, but the true essence of Buenos Aires can only be felt when spending time in some of its diverse neighbourhoods, which range from posh, boutique lined pockets to crime-riddled hotspots. This is Buenos Aires, through my eyes.

Plaza de Mayo

If I were to pick a focal point for the city, it’d be the Plaza de Mayo. The square is not only the financial and administrative hub of the nation, it has also played a major role in the country’s political history. The square is hemmed in by three prominent buildings: the whitewashed Cabildo, or City Hall and the former seat of the Colonial government, which has left a distinct imprint on its architecture; the Classical porticos at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral, which, as the former parish of the current Pope draws in hordes of religious tourists; and the distinctive pink facades of the Casa Rosada, the government house, from where Evita gave her historic speech.

The focal point of the square itself is the May Pyramid, the first ever patriotic monument built in Argentina.  Contrary to its name, the obelisk shaped monument has historically sheltered many a protest, and to this day, it remains the home of the Falklands War veterans’ protest camp and the weekly march by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, or Mothers of the Disappeared. I jostled with suited professionals, hurriedly returning from lunch breaks, TV camera crews, protesters and even pigeons, to blend in with the crowds of camera toting tourists, my mind reeling from the onslaught of political history, unravelling before my very eyes. What little I knew of Argentinian history came from the few books I’d read, certainly not from lessons at school. Subsequently I’d always felt my knowledge lacking. To be able to learn about it all first hand, in person, felt like the ultimate privilege. I found myself returning to this square on multiple occasions, trying to learn a bit more each time.

Avenida de Mayo

A stroll down Avenida de Mayo, took me past some of the best examples of the Classical architecture that Buenos Aires is famous for. Palacio Barolo, with its seemingly eccentric façade, was a standout. I must’ve spent hours trying to photograph its union of neo-Gothic and Classical elements, literally bending over backwards to frame its 100 meter tower. It is hard to believe that this impressive structure isn’t home to royalty, but a mere office building.

When I wasn’t gawping up at the buildings (and apologetically bumping into passers-by) on Avenida de Mayo, I was scouring the shopfronts for quirky antiques stores, historic cafes and my favourite, second-hand bookstores.

Buenos Aires may have been crowned the tango capital of the world, but it is well deserving of another accolade. The sheer number of second-hand bookshops strewn around the city is every bibliophiles dream. Some are housed in basements, teetering with piles of dusty tomes, while others are tucked away inside non-descript buildings. All come with the oddly tantalising smell of musty old paper. But alas, most featured Spanish titles, a language I had still not managed to come to grips with.

While one end of Avenida de Mayo is edged by the Plaza de Mayo, the other features the Palacio del Congreso, the Argentinian Congress. The impressive building, similar in style to the U.S. Congress, opens up to the Congressional Plaza which has also seen its fair share of protests, although these days it is mostly thronged by tourists lounging on its immaculately manicured lawns.

Avenida 9 de Julio

Another busy thoroughfare through the city, boasting wide avenues, Avenida 9 de Julio is loud and seemingly endless. Walking south amidst the bustle of city life, past offices, theatres and malls, I was met with two distinctive landmarks on the horizon. A tall, gleaming white obelisk rose up above the surrounding buildings, and beyond, the unmistakable features of Eva Peron or Evita, ardently speaking into a microphone. The latter, a steel image imprinted on the building housing the Ministry of Health, held an inexplicable appeal, one that I continually sought out when I was in the area, and one that I chose to photograph from every angle imaginable. On my last day in Buenos Aires, as our taxi wound its way up Avenida 9 de Julio, I found myself staring up at Evita through the rain-speckled window, the sky dark and grey beyond – a wry reminder of a Hollywood ending.

Next stop: Palermo and Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina!