The Paris of South America

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Argentina was believed to be the sixth most prosperous country in the world, and in Parisian salons people were said to be as "rich as an Argentine". It was one of the southern hemisphere's great cultural capitals: dance, music, art - they all came to Buenos Aires.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Argentina was believed to be the sixth most prosperous country in the world, and in Parisian salons people were said to be as "rich as an Argentine". It was one of the southern hemisphere's great cultural capitals: dance, music, art - they all came to Buenos Aires.

The glitter has faded somewhat now, but the city still exudes style and, like Paris, with which it is often compared, it trades off its cultural cachet and old-school Bohemian atmosphere. Intellectual debates here are earnest and impassioned. Recently, the city's chattering classes were greatly exercised about a play in which the main character - the recently deceased father of the family - spent the entire performance naked. "I told him to go to a sauna before the first night," said a local friend, who knew the actor. "Otherwise the audience would be unable to concentrate."

One of the centres of Bohemian life is San Telmo, the barrio (district) with the oldest buildings in the city and a place which indeed brings to mind the atmosphere of Paris. Narrow streets are overlooked by balconies with wrought-iron balustrades, and the area is sprinkled with small bars in which the great issues of the day are discussed over red wine.

This neighbourhood also conveys something of the longing and nostalgia expressed in the tango, being filled with shops selling Argentine memorabilia such as mate gourds and straws, wind-up gramophones with trumpet loudspeakers, old accordions, rusting trumpets, and photographs of Carlos Gardel, king of the tango.

Away from San Telmo, the city has elegant boulevards and quiet streets lined with plane trees. Buenos Aires is filled with places that hark back to a time when money could be lavished on civic pride. Next to the polo stadium are the immaculate gardens of Palermo, where the walkways and flowerbeds perfectly evoke the atmosphere of well-tended Parisian parks.

Meanwhile, avenues such as the Avenida 9 de Julio - one of the widest in the world - are more reminiscent of the Champs Elysées than the Pampas.

But the grandest venue of all is the Colón Opera House. This extraordinary neo-classical building lies in the heart of the city, opposite the courts of justice, fronted by grand stone pillars that support a large portico above which animal heads and gargoyles have been carved.

The interior is even more impressive, glittering with chandeliers and studded with marble pilasters and plush gilt-lined salons, some decorated with sequinned velvet costumes from past productions. On a previous stay in the city, and after travelling for a long time, I had spent an uncomfortable evening in the gallery of the Colón. Under these circumstances the opera had been a terrible idea, and I had been alarmingly underdressed when nothing less than elegance would do.

This time, I vowed to do the Argentine opera justice. I donned my suit and cufflinks, and set out to hear British soprano Lynne Dawson sing a mixture of French and German ballads.

My previous visit to the Colón had given me little insight into what a night of music involved in Buenos Aires. Before, I had been so far from the singers that it was easier to concentrate on the frescoes adorning the domed ceiling than on the music. Admittedly, these images of travelling players and musicians were captivating, but now I was in a proper position to appreciate the performance.

The upper circle of the Colón is ringed by three layers of stalls, fronted with ornate gilt and furnished with velvet-covered chairs and benches. The stage - illuminated by light falling from two red lampshades - is covered with old floorboards. Even from a distance, you suspect that there's a musty smell. A heavy and luxuriously thick, embroidered curtain frames the performers. Despite this plush opulence, the acoustics are magnificent.

Sharing our box was a woman from France, who had emigrated to Argentina when young. She wore long white gloves, pearls, and an old-fashioned white fur chapeau to set off her ebony black dress. Now in her seventies, she delighted in being reminded of her connections with Europe. As if I had passed some unmentioned test, at the interval she pressed us to go with her to the salon. Here the sheer style of the evening was writ large. There was no choice of beers, wines, and soft drinks, nor was there a distressingly long queue at the bar. The only drink on offer was champagne from Argentina's great vineyards. After a week of great Merlots, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons, it confirmed that the Argentines are clever enough to keep their best vintages for their own consumption.

After the interval, Lynne Dawson completed her programme. Each song was concluded to shouts of "Bravo!", and, after the final piece, "Du Meines Herzens Krönelein" by Richard Strauss, she gave three encores. (This paled into insignificance against the 20 encores which the local virtuoso Daniel Barenboim had given on a recent visit to the Colón, but nevertheless the reception was very warm.)

"You see how British artists are admired in Argentina," my friend said to me. Indeed. Before arriving I had anticipated a barrage of questions about the Falklands - but the only people I met who touched on the issue were from Uruguay. "The Argentines are far too polite to mention it," I was told by a writer from the English-language Buenos Aires Herald.

The performance over, we went out into the wet streets and made for a restaurant in old Palermo. It was 10.30pm, still early to dine out in Buenos Aires where the tables don't really fill up properly until after midnight. London's altogether tamer nocturnal habits had already been brought home to me by my experience at an Argentinean dinner party I had attended, where guests had been invited for 9.30pm. One had not arrived until 11.15pm, and the starter was not served until midnight.

In Palermo Viejo we found an Italian bistro. The menu was like any that you might find in a comparable place in Europe, with fashionable fusion dishes - partridge with shitake, and risotto with aubergines and porcini, rich chocolate puddings. Buenos Aires is a good city for indulging oneself. During my previous visit I had had little money, but this time I felt I had experienced at least some of the sophistication of the city that they call the Paris of South America.

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