Trail Of The Unexpected: Cuba
Bohemian Bars, Barbecues And The Hidden Seeds Of Revolution
Saturday 17 August 2002
The walls of the café were dotted with pictures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The waiter, who was sporting a flowing white shirt and long, dark locks, which conveyed to him a touch of the bohemian, came over to us. "We have cappuccinos, caffe lattes, herbal teas. Maybe cheesecake?" Cafés themed around the British Empire and fashionable infusions can be found in many of the world's cities; but Rosario, the Argentinian birthplace of Che Guevara, the 20th century's poster boy for revolutionism, must be among the least likely of these.
I had expected the hometown of socialism's favourite son to be a Lowry-like sort of place, recalling the industrial north of England in the 1920s rather than the most middle-class of cities. There are a lot of myths surrounding Che, but one thing is certain: when he waged revolution on behalf of the oppressed masses of South America he didn't do so on a stomach full of gnocchi and Chardonnay.
As it happens, there is every chance the young Che would have been entirely at home in such a setting. He was born Ernesto Guevara on 14 June 1928 to parents from the wealthy bourgeoisie of Rosario, his father of Spanish-Irish descent and his mother, Celia de la Serna, from a line of Spanish aristocrats. He was a weak child, suffering from asthma – and, as was the case with any child born on the sunny side of the tracks, he was sent to a mountain resort in the hope of curing his debilitating condition.
You won't learn any of this from visiting the city, 185 miles north-west of Buenos Aires. There is no museum dedicated to the man, and there are few obvious signs that he was ever here at all. A large mural of him has been painted on a concrete wall overlooking a car park near his birthplace, in an apartment block just off Santa Fe Avenue; and we passed a parilla, or Argentinian barbecue joint, called The Morning Star.
Rosario is easy to like, as first impressions go. It is full of snug bars, while the architecture has touches of the neo-Classical, mixed with Moorish and Art Nouveau styles. On Sunday morning, we ambled through Park Independencia, where we sipped a cappuccino and watched the local middle classes do what they do on a lazy Sunday all over the world – read the newspapers. Others were queuing up, picnic hampers in one hand and well-fed offspring in the other, to take a boat across the Rio Parana to one of the numerous shaded wooded islands.
In most South American cities, you have to be wary of high-speed cars. In Rosario, it's the joggers who don't take prisoners. They run in squads, presumably organised by health clubs, of up to 30 people. Late in the afternoon, we came to Park Urquiza, high on a ridge above the city and surrounded by some of the wealthiest houses. There were more joggers there than in New York's Central Park, all wearing the latest gear, from brand-name trainers to sweat-absorbent tops.
We joined them the next evening, stopping all too quickly to refresh ourselves at Bar Munich, a smart café full of twentysomethings, the women caked in make-up, and the men drawing on Western cigarettes. The rest of the crowd were drinking mineral water. We were the only ones to order beer.
However, there is a darker side to Rosario. As we ate a triple ice-cream of banana, chocolate and lemon, we came across an indignant letter in a local paper, which referred to film footage, shot four years previously, of poor families skinning and cooking cats in the slums on the city's edges. Perhaps it was this ignored sub- culture of Rosario, rather than a revolt against his own privileged upbringing, that sparked Che's revolutionary anger.
Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315) quotes a fare in September of £440 on Alitalia from London to Buenos Aires; the hop to Rosario is about $100 (£66) return
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