Steak, Cutting-Edge Culture And Tango Music For A Song

The Gran Templo de Paso, in the heart of the Once, the center of Jewish life, is a stunning landmark building that dates to 1930.

When I first visited Buenos Aires in 2004, the city was a bargain-hunter’s paradise ignored by American tourists. Argentina had just suffered a catastrophic economic collapse that demoralized its formerly well-off populace, touched off a moment of social chaos and devastated its currency, the peso.

In the several years since, tourism has rebounded, but many of the bargains remain in place. While prices for many things have risen — most notably hotel rooms, as demand has soared — the peso is still worth about one-third of an American dollar, making it one of the few major currencies against which the dollar can still compete. Especially after the sticker shocks of Europe, it’s fun to be in a place where a fancy steak dinner can cost $15.

The resurgence of tourism provides a striking contrast to the forlorn scene of a few years ago, when bored taxi drivers seemed elated to pick up a rare foreign customer. Argentines are once again mostly employed, having figured out how to adapt their stylish way of life to a local economy, and visitors will feel noticeably safer on the streets. Even those streets are in better repair than they were when the country abruptly went broke in 2001: poverty is still evident around the margins, but the infrastructure no longer seems on the brink of collapse.

In addition, Buenos Aires has become one of the world’s premier budget destinations, offering the sophistication of a big, multiethnic city at Latin American prices. The international hipster set has flocked here from all points of the globe: young professionals are snapping up real estate in the trendy, cobblestoned San Telmo district, while artists of all stripes have created a vibrant cultural scene and cafés bustle with chic young patrons chattering in a variety of tongues.

Interestingly, the trend of global migration has also spurred new immigration to Argentina, a country with a long tradition of transients. Migrants from South America’s poorer neighboring countries — Bolivian Indians in bowler hats, Peruvian street musicians — have come to partake of Buenos Aires’ new renaissance, adding to the city’s cosmopolitan vitality.

Buenos Aires is huge: one in three Argentines is a Porteno, the term for city residents. Sprawling along the banks of the rushing Rio de la Plata, the city is at its most massively impressive at its heart: the Avenida 9 de Julio, a 20-plus-lane artery that divides the city, where cars whir by the imposing landmark obelisk.

Buenos Aires is also the most Jewish city in Latin America. Generations of adventurous settlers and wartime refugees settled in Argentina from Poland, Germany and other European countries, making their mark on the country’s rich literary and musical culture. Several disturbing and high-profile anti-Semitic incidents here have raised concern, but the community continues to thrive, sponsoring dozens of synagogues, community organizations, Jewish schools and kosher eateries.

The most-visited site of Jewish interest is the Libertad Synagogue, a beautiful and historic temple on Calle Libertad in downtown Buenos Aires. It’s a short walk away from the Holocaust Museum, also known as the Museo de la Shoa, on nearby Montevideo Street, which offers a surprisingly comprehensive and absorbing exhibition on the Shoah from an Argentine perspective.

Another noteworthy synagogue is the Gran Templo de Paso on Calle Paso, a stunning landmark building that dates to 1930. Founded by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, the temple bustles with religious, educational and cultural activities that are open to visitors, including a concert series of the Jewish Tango Orchestra. The temple itself is situated in the heart of the Once neighborhood, the center of Porteno Jewish life; named for its nearest metro station, Once is a vibrant collection of tchatchke shops, kosher cafés and garment factories that is frequently compared to the historic Lower East Side.

Farther afield, the neighborhood of Puerto Madero feels like a symbol of Buenos Aires’ renaissance. The waterfront area, once a sketchy port neighborhood, was developed a decade ago into a stylish shopping and dining district. Today tourists and stylish Portenos alike stroll the manicured paths along the river and drink Malbec in the atmospheric cafés and bars.

As Argentines, economically penned in by their weak currency, have turned inward for artistic inspiration, Buenos Aires has seen a revival of interest in its own storied musical traditions — especially Andean-tinted folk music (check the local magazines for concert listings) and the tango of international fame. While it’s true that tango salons attract tourists, a beloved tune will elicit enthusiastic responses from locals, who clap along and join in singing the chorus. This is, after all, a city where the ‘20s tango singer Carlos Gardel is still a national icon, his portrait adorning murals and metro stations, and where the composer Astor Piazolla is as revered as Bach is in Leipzig.

Tango salons throughout the city offer high-quality performances, though many are tied to dinner packages and are priced high for tourists. One of the best bets is the nightly series of shows at the Café Tortoni, a historic, faded-elegant Buenos Aires landmark where generations of Argentine writers, poets and musicians have gathered. While you can drop by anytime for a café con leche or a basic meal and soak in the atmosphere, Tortoni is also a terrific and inexpensive place to see top dancers and tango orchestras ply their craft in a musty, intimate theater.

La Boca, a touristy but distinctively Porteno waterfront neighborhood, is another place to see tango in a less formal setting. In a city often compared to its European counterparts, La Boca is a barrio that’s distinctly Latin American: red, yellow and turquoise buildings sprawl in a colorful jumble of corrugated steel, and cobblestone streets host open-air markets and tango dancers.

Foodies are raving about the new wave of innovative restaurants that blend local ingredients — imports having become prohibitively expensive — with the best of Argentina’s main culinary influences, Italian and Spanish cuisines. While the elegant, European-feeling Recoleta neighborhood in central Buenos Aires is home to many world-class restaurants — among them Piegari, my personal favorite for memorable Italian cuisine — the hottest buzz comes from the neighborhood of Palermo Viejo, until recently a sleepily affluent residential area. Two of the most-talked-about eateries are the elegant Italian Casa Cruz, on Calle Uriarte, and Olsen, a coolly modernist Scandinavian restaurant on Calle Gorriti.

Argentina Tourism:
www.turismo.gov.ar/eng/menu.htm
Museo del Holocausto:
www.fmh.org.ar
Cafe Tortoni:
www.cafetortoni.com
Gran Templo de Paso:
www.grantemplopaso.org.ar/jewishSynagoguePaso.asp.

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