City Tour, Cemetery & Drums – Day 214

Mon 3rd Sep

Monday morning and it’s time to get up and out to explore some of Buenos Aires through one of the city walking tours. Wanting a bit more in depth history, I opt for one by Free Walks. This tour focuses on the wealthy area of Recoleta and starts by the beautiful Teatro Colon.

It was inaugurated in 1908 and is world famous for its excellent acoustics. Apparently Pavarotti didn’t want to perform there again claiming the acoustics were so good, you would be able to tell if he went ever so slightly off key.

This was once the area of the aristocracy. If you had money, this was where you lived. But what was the draw? Buenos Aires wasn’t a sought after city. When the Spanish conquered they found no gold or silver so didn’t settle here. They therefore didn’t build any of the beautiful colonial buildings you see through many other parts of South America. There are also no indigenous ruins or long held religions and beliefs so they don’t have any feelings or attachments to long held cultures.

Up until the late 19th century, the country was relatively poor. 2 things changed this – one was the geography and realising and utilising the richness of the land and the second was to use it and it’s boundless fruits to trade with Britain.

As business boomed, these rich landowners realised that they needed to have a city to show off to the great businessmen of Europe, that matched the beauty of the buildings in Paris and such like. This was why there are so many beautiful humongous buildings in Buenos Aires today. They even sent a team around Europe to look at and then construct buildings in the same style here.

People with money live in the north of the city. The poorer south was filled with immigrants. Buenos Aires is the second most popular immigrant city after New York. At one time, 50% of the population were immigrants for 50 years and 25% of those were Italian. It was in fact the Italians that founded the Boca Junior football team.

Despite a boom in trade, the 1930s saw a steady decline in trade and economic strife. This was brought on by the Wall St crash, the rise of communism and the British favouring their own and commonwealth countries to do trade with. Argentina couldn’t sell its products and prices started to fall. They fell from country number 5 to 55 in GDP.

The tour takes us past a synagogue. Buenos Aires has the biggest jew population outside of Israel. There was a mass migration at the beginning of the 19th century due to Russian persecution. Apparently here is one of the only places you can get a kosher McDonald’s! There are bizarrely a lot of German settlements here too as many Nazi soldiers fled Europe to avoid being caught and tried for war crimes and set up here under a whole new identity.

Our next stop is the Palace and Plaza of San Martin. The aristocracy of the area – politicians, rich land owners etc, started to believe they were the royalty of the country and built these magnificent houses. The palace here is just an example of that and it’s incredible.

During the economic collapse, people could no longer afford these affluent homes and lifestyles and many houses were sold to the government or to other countries as embassy buildings. This palace now houses the equivalent to our Foreign Office.

As within every country I visited in the north of the continent Bolivar was the prominent figure, here in the south, it’s San Martin and here in BA it’s no different with another square and statue to honour this pivotal figure in the war for independence.

As a reminder from my other posts, this was the guy who surprised the Spanish by leading an army across the Andes to Chile and then taking the fight up to capture Lima. All of which was a success and independence from the Spanish won.

Not far from here is a clock tower they have nicknamed Big Ben.

It was the centennial gift from the UK. At that time Argentina was, as said, one of the biggest goods and textile providers to the UK. This gift is kind of testimony to that trading partnership on the celebration of their independence.

Sadly, just a stones throw from this lies a war memorial to all the lives lost in the last war this country has seen. Sadly one initiated by the British…the Falklands war of 1982.

So how did this war actually start…? There had been a dispute over sovereignty for decades. The British arrived in the mid 19th century and claimed them. The Argentine’s however claim they inherited control of them off the Spanish in the 1800s and that their close proximity to the mainland adds to bolster their claim to ownership also.

In 1982, Argentina’s ruling military junta was facing an economic crisis and General Leopoldo Galtieri hoped an invasion would bolster his fading popularity at home. With a country facing economic depression, nationalism seemed one way to lift spirits and to claim back colonised land. Tensions grew when a group of scrap metal workers descended upon British controlled land on 19 March and raised the Argentinian flag. 2 weeks later, Galtieri had sent in 3000 Argentinian troops to storm Port Stanley – the epicentre for all the conflict.

This caught Britain and ruling Prime Minister at the time Maggie Thatcher off guard. It has been said that Britain didn’t want to go to war and it was later discovered that Britain was attempting to give the land to Argentina but with waning popularity also, Thatcher took a gamble to boost her power base and sent a task force to reclaim the lands. This shocked Argentina, with issues back in the UK, they weren’t banking on this reaction.

The war lasted 10 weeks with Argentina facing many more casualties than Britain (approx 655 to 255). Thatcher’s apparent gamble paid off and the following year’s general election gave her the biggest election victory since that of Labour in 1945.

On a geopolitical level, the Falklands have remained firmly in British hands since 1982. In 2013, 99.8 per cent of islanders voted to remain part of the UK, with only three voting against. Tensions between the 2 countries have been fraught ever since, especially between 2007-15 when it was speculated then Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who many critics accused of fanning the flames of the dispute to take the spotlight off her administration’s domestic shortcomings.

Her successor, Mauricio Macri, seems to have chosen a less confrontational path. Although he upholds Argentine sovereignty over the islands in principle, he has remained relatively quiet on the subject and his administration has so far seen a thawing of Argentina’s relations with the UK. This is the first time on my entire trip I have been embarrassed to be British. The land was not really a strategic strong holding for either nation but just a popularity contest and for land that wasn’t really ours in the first place.

Luckily after this, there’s a comfort stop and a chance to grab a cuppa then it’s on to see more posh buildings of the area including the 4 Seasons Hotel, a nice church, the French Embassy and a walk down one of the most affluent streets – Calle Alvear and the tour ends at the Recoleta Cemetery.

I have time to grab a quick lunch before I embark on tour number 2 but I bump into Sian and Josh in the same place. Having booked on something for tonight too I realise I don’t have time for this tour so decide to do the Cemetery tour with them instead. This one isn’t free but has a flat rate of 150pesos.

To set the scene for this tour, some of the info I learned this morning is repeated. Independence to civil wars to by 1860 transformation happening, the state of Argentina was being formed and by the second half of the 19th century things were on the up and land was key to the country’s success.

Recoleta Cemetery was the first and original one here created in 1822. All the land of the cemetery once belonged to the neighbouring church and the San Franciscan Friars ir Recoletas as they were known but these got thrown out so the land could be used.

For the first 50 years, debtors e was buried here but a 1871 yellow fever epidemic with horrendous a death toll meant the cemetery couldn’t cope. Worried about another epidemic, people moved out to the nicer more spacious parts of Recoleta and th n it became a cemetery for the wealthy. In 1881, the then mayor said the status of the cemetery needed to be elevated and that’s when the grand entrance and walls were built.

We walk through this mammoth site with graves matching the grandeur of the neighbouring homes. You could see what people thought of themselves and the legacy of what they wanted to leave behind also. The grandiose of the tombs is insane!

There is no more space here so if you do see a funeral, you’re either part of an important family or maybe even bought a plot or space in mausoleum off another family! Usually, if there is a funeral, due to the money and power of those buried here, the place is usually closed for the day. It could be someone that important too that there’s loads of media coverage too.

The most expensive grave here is a 1/4 million dollars! A lot have glass fronted doors which is pretty freaky but to show off the type of coffin you could afford is again another sign of wealth and class.

It also shows empty shelves where there is space awaiting other family members! Some on the outside, some down in the ground. The biggest one holds up to 60 people!

The question comes up about how it doesn’t smell etc with so many coffins and corpses above the surface. Apparently you have to be buried in a special sit tight metal box first then comes the fancy wooden or marble casket etc. All a bit grim and morbid I agree!

Many of the monuments we pass have gone to ruin.

This is because the upkeep and tax has passed down the generations and the descendants refuse to pay. The government can pay for the upkeep in some cases depending on who it is, others are just left in this sad state.

The grave of Rufina has an interesting story.

She died suddenly whilst getting ready for her 19th birthday party. In shock, her mother only wanted a small ceremony without fuss and she was buried in the family slot. The guards however had noticed that the coffin had moved. They called in the parents to ask and with no plausible explanation, they had to open up the casket and apparently found scratch marks. It was said she had catalepsy and hadn’t actually died! In 1902, this cemetery for this reason introduced a no burial rule until after 30 hours had passed! I’m not sure but I believe this is just another of the many urban myths and stories that surround many of the graves here.

Despite being one of the most beautiful cemeteries around, one of the main rescind so many tourists flock here is to visit the grave of Eva Perón. The First Lady of Argentina and wife of President Juan Perón. She didn’t live life in her husbands shadow and she spoke out against social injustice and labour rights, even setting up her own charitable foundation. Her personal touch and way of working shot her into the limelight.

Unfortunately, Eva Perón died of cancer at just 33 years old on 26 July 1952. Her I’ll health caused to to withdraw her nomination from the running to be Vice President of Argentina. However, just before she died she was given the title of Spiritual Leader of the Nation by the Congress. Such was her stature within the country, she was even granted a state funeral. This was an enormous event which lasted 16 days and over 3 million came to the funeral alone. The city ran out of flowers and people died and were hospitalised in the ensuing city queues to go get a glimpse of her body.

Her body was embalmed ready to be put in a monument in her honour. However, in 1955 a military coup overthrew Perón and he fled the country without ensuring the safety of his wife’s body. This new government wanted to remove every trace of Peronism including that of the body of Eva and she subsequently entered missing for the next 16 years. During the years 55 to 71 under this dictatorship, it was not just a crime to own pictures of Juan and Eva Perón but to even utter their names. In 1971, the military finally revealed that Eva’s body was in Milan under the false name – Maria Maggi. She then went to Spain where Juan and his new wife lived. Juan Peron came out of exile, returned to Argentina and again became president, only to die 2 years later. His current wife became president and it was she that decided to bring Eva Peron’s remains back to Argentina. There was more drama surrounding this and the capturing of Aramburu’s corpse that was used as leverage to get Eva back.

Her current resting place is quite sedate considering how much of a national treasure she is but it is said that she is hidden under several trapdoors beneath the ground. There is talk of moving her again but a lot think the poor old soul has been through enough.

We visit a few more mausoleums but my brain is now fried n not much more info is getting in but they’re very impressive!

It’s now rush hour and we have to get back pronto to get ready for tonight’s plans. A lot of us from the football last night are heading to a percussion show that is famous here – La Bomba del Tiempo. We have no idea what to expect but have heard it’s a must whilst in Buenos Aires.

Again we get there earlier than need be as the show doesn’t start till 9 so pop to a corner bar for a beer. Once inside we get our beer token and get given 1 litre beers in a cup! Cue courtesy of Taylah a lethal drinking game which entails sneaking a coin into someone’s cup meaning they gave to down the remains of their drink – or for poor Matt – the whole thing after just returning from the bar! We’re pretty smashed pretty quickly and in just the right mindset to thoroughly enjoy the set.

The drum playing and the music was awesome and it ended all too soon.

Some fun ensues outside as we all clamber on a truck.

Alex and I lose some of the others whilst we look for a cash point but do catch up with his mate and girlfriend for a drink

and then we dance the night away somewhere. The end of the night is a bit of a blur but was definitely a late one getting to bed between half 5-6!!!

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