Getting brave in the New World

Jeremy Atiyah had never danced the tango, but gave it a go in Buenos Aires. It was his first taste of the city's passion for nostalgia
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The Independent Travel
A short fat tango teacher called Senor Castello was walking a strange, low-strung walk, with a dozen students in tow. "A total beginner?" he shouted to me, swivelling on his spats. "You go and dance with my daughter!"

Jewel of the New World? Beacon to the Old World? Buenos Aires had probably once been both of those things. What a shame if this great modern city had degenerated into a theme park of dusty old dance halls and slicked back 1940s hair styles.

If it really had of course. That was what I was trying to find out, hence the dance class. The local tango newspaper had listings of nightly classes around the city and I, a total non-dancer, was daring to try one.

Meanwhile Senor Castello was paying diligent attention to ensuring that none of the pretty girls was without a partner. And his daughter, stepping out of line with a sulky expression, was explaining that all I needed to do was learn the eight basic steps. "And then the rest," she declared haughtily, "will be a question of naturaleza".

But whose naturaleza? After a stiff little strut around the hall, the whole thing quickly descended into an assault on my national identity. "You should be seeking the woman!" she shouted, using the terms "seeking" and "woman" in some ancient, primeval sense. She grabbed at reluctant girl friends in order to demonstrate the movements. "Front to front, you see? Yes or no?"

Meanwhile a character known as El Indio with a long, black pony-tail and shiny shoes had turned up. Gliding through the dust with a woman glued to his chest, he too did his part in shedding light on the meaning of naturaleza.

"It looks more difficult for the woman," I lied.

"Only at the beginning," came the retort in my ear. "Then it becomes a man's job."

Sexily Latin yes, but modern? New World? Hmm. San Telmo in the south of town was the big tango area. Earlier, I had walked there through narrow streets under crumbling plaster facades and weed-infested balconies, where old codgers still wore wedge-shaped heels and white leather uppers just in case they needed to pop in for a dance.

Buskers performed their stuff in public. I watched one divinely young couple, a tangle of baggy white shirt, gangster fedora and fishnet stockings - pure reminiscence industry. Which is not to say that the passion wasn't real. After that couple had finished in a sudden clinch, they promptly withdrew to a corner where they savaged each other with kisses.

Was Buenos Aires a bit like Britain, hankering after a lost era? To judge by the ostentatiously pompous chandeliers and gilt sofas in the many San Telmo antique shops, Argentina was hankering after a style that made the French Empire look minimalist.

Or maybe it was just the area. In the Plaza Dorrego bar, in the heart of San Telmo, waiters in bow ties scurried across cracked marble floors under wobbling fans, peeling plaster and ancient wood panelling scratched with years of graffiti. At least nostalgia saved on renovation costs.

As for lunch, nothing much had changed here since the 19th century. Charles Darwin in his Argentinian foray was surprised to spend several days "without tasting anything besides meat". Most of the venues I saw still comprised enormous grills in windows, with guests mobbing the entrances. On offer were kidneys, udders, intestines, as well as conventional cuts sprinkled in oregano. Luckily I had not expected New Age vegetarian dishes.

Or anything else new. This is a city where the dead are in the ascendancy. Up in Recoleta, the posh end of town, I visited the local cemetery under pine trees and cypresses, where the aristocracy of Buenos Aires have established their family tombs. Shades of ancient Pompeii.

There were blocks, streets, pavements and intersections - of dwellings for the dead. Each tomb was a small, purpose-built little mansion. I saw a skyline of crosses and angels, lamp-posts and military friezes.

Evita Peron was there, in a grand family tomb, giving the lie to any romantic idea that she had risen from the slums (all that could be said was that her tomb was no grander than the rest).

"But Evita was the ultimate proof" - a strange woman suddenly growled to me from behind large sun-glasses - "that behind every successful man there stands a woman. Don't you DARE to disagree with me."

No amount of early summer sunshine and flowering jacaranda trees could quite dispel the spirits of the past. In a park above the train station I came across a monument to those who fell defending the Falkland Islands; an engraved plaque showed the islands in the clutches of a vicious lion's claws. A tribute to Baroness Thatcher? The nearby Torre de los Ingleses (tower of the English) also sounded a defeatist tone. At least there was a spark in the location, which has recently been renamed the "Square of the Argentinian Airforce".

As for the train station itself, it reminded me of Rome's pantheon: an epic creation whose original purpose had been long forgotten. It comprised huge domed ceilings, with holes for the rain to come in, towering columns, grand waiting rooms and restaurants. But, excepting the coastal service - roughly the equivalent of Waterloo to Woking - no trains.

Perhaps the city centre would turn out to be the modern, living heart of Buenos Aires. And certainly the 14-lane highway that blasts through the city had a promising look about it.

On the other hand, the supposed jewel in the crown of the city's architecture turned out to be the Opera house, perhaps one of the last non-ironic Versailles- style creations anywhere. Built of Italian marble on the eve of the Great War in Europe, this is still a grand society affair with special boxes for the President of the Republic and the mayor of Buenos Aires.

No less pompous was the monumental National Congress building, so vast that it seemed to be superhuman. Perhaps this really was the building with columns a mile high, with entablatures so mighty that only a race of giants could have raised them. Rather less pompous was the grass outside, wild and pitted like an open field. It occurred to me that this was how all cities must have looked long ago.

Resigned to the melancholy pleasures of nostalgia, I finally decided to flee to La Boca in the far south of town, a decrepit docklands described optimistically in guide books as a "colourful working-class district".

My taxi driver advised me to hold my nose when I got out of the car, and he had a point. The green-gray water was literally fizzing with noxious chemicals. The docks were full of rusting hulls so ancient that large shrubs were growing in the bottom of them.

But apart from a Bohemian street full of valiant artists promoting the Paris-of-the-south, the main point of interest was the stadium of Boca Juniors, one of the world's great soccer clubs. I walked round high walls covered in murals of labouring dock workers, mulling over the astonishing idea that Diego Maradona had been playing in this very stadium until his latest run-in with the authorities just a couple of months ago.

Why would any team serious about winning the championship have picked that drug-ridden, blustery little has-been? It was as if George Best were suddenly wheeled out to play for Manchester United again. Gloriously nostalgic. But not quite what I expected from the New World.

Buenos aires factfile

Getting there

Journey Latin America or JLA (tel: 0181 747 3108), who helped the author with accommodation in Buenos Aires, put together packages for visits to most cities in South America, including Buenos Aires. A typical five-night stay, including breakfast and airport transfers, would cost pounds 230 per person (in the three-star Hotel Continental) on the basis of two sharing. Return flights, also obtainable through JLA, are from around pounds 600 per person including tax.

The author flew as a guest of British Airways, who fly three times weekly from Gatwick. If you buy direct from the airline, the PEX fare (which can be booked any time up to the day of departure) is pounds 1,185 + pounds 21.90 tax, though World Offers, sometimes available during low season, drop to around pounds 600. Aerolineas Argentinas can get you there for pounds 583 return (+pounds 28 tax) via Trailfinders (tel: 0171 938 3939).

Where to dance

The tango newspaper, 'El Tanguita', is available from local tourist kiosks, such as the one at the intersection of Florida and Diagonal Roque Saenz Pena. The author paid US$6 for his one-hour dance class at Riobamba 416.

Information

Guide books on the area include the 'Buenos Aires City Guide' (Lonely Planet, pounds 6.99). Footprint Handbooks have a new Argentina book coming out early next year.

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