Sophie Campbell looks between the frames of `Evita' for the real Argentina. Or is that Hungary?
Turn up to Alan Parker's sumptuous new film Evita hoping to "be a part of BA, Buenos Aires, Big Apple" -as the libretto promises -and you're in for a frustrating couple of hours. The soaring modern skyline of the city - not to mention spirited local resistance - made filming difficult and controversial. So once the scenes of Eva Duarte's early life in an authentically dusty town on the pampas are over, you are cast into more international waters.

For instance, the boliche (bar/ restaurant) where Jimmy Nail first performs as Magaldi (Geordie tango singer and first man to seduce Evita) and the louche bars and hotels where our heroine begins her long slog to the top, were sets at Shepperton Studios. Tanks rumbling into the city's plazas in fact rumbled into Liberty Square in Budapest. The magnificent funeral cortege, in which even the horses look depressed, slow-marched not down the Avenida de Mayo, as it did in 1952, but up Constitution Avenue, near Budapest's appealingly Westminsteresque parliament building.

But for all that, the production team did pull off the greatest coup of the lot; the real Casa Rosada, Government House, which stands on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Madonna and co-celebrities had to grant a personal audience to President Carlos Menem (or was it the other way around?) to secure its use. This building - called Rosada because it is the colour of an underdone bife, originally painted with lime, beef fat and blood - is probably the most powerful existing reminder of the Peronist era. It was built in 1894, when Argentina was so wealthy from its meat, hides and grain that the expression "as rich as an Argentine" was all the rage in Paris. It was also a time of mass immigration, mainly from southern Europe, bringing labour for meat-packing factories and dockyards; workers who 40 years on would become Juan and Evita Peron's main power base - their beloved descamisados, or "shirtless ones".

So if the heart of Argentina is Buenos Aires, and the heart of Buenos Aires is Capital Federal (the inner city area bounded by Avenida General Paz and the Riachuelo Canal), then the heart of all three is the Casa Rosada. And although Evita's offices, from which she showered gifts on the poor, were in fact in the Ministry of Labour, she is remembered as a tiny figure on the balcony overlooking mighty "May Square".

The Plaza itself was built on the edge of the River Plate, long before the docks were constructed. It started life as a 16th-century fortress, was later a market-place, and only after the Casa Rosada was built did it become a litmus test for the mood of the nation. The 300,000-strong crowd of workers which turned out to demand Peron's release from prison in October 1945 - brilliantly recreated in the film with 4,000 extras - was the first mass demonstration to take place there.

Three years after Evita's death it was bombed by the air force in an attempt to get rid of Peron (it worked - for 18 years, at least) and in 1982, when the Falklands War broke out, a leaping crowd gathered to shout "If you hate the English, jump!" The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still circle the square each Thursday afternoon, demanding to know what happened to their missing children during the "Dirty War" of the Seventies.

There are other snippets from Buenos Aires, too. If you love the place, you can't help smiling as Madonna takes her first ride in a colectivo, a period version of the chrome and metal buses which roar up and down the grid of streets, carrying everyone from blue-smocked schoolchildren to classy ladies in fur.

The railway station of Retiro, built by the British in a doggedly Victorian style (the rest of the city was a rash of mansard roofs and elegant French facades) still serves the provinces to the north and west. And sadly, the villa miseria - a shanty town of the type which seems to ring every great South American city - where Che (Antonio Banderas) dances with a little peasant girl, looked entirely authentic. These were not just an aberration of the Forties.

In the absence of dialogue, perhaps this is what the film conveys best: the contrast between rich and poor that fuelled Evita's hatred of the middle and upper classes. Those early scenes of life on the pampas are familiar to anyone who has driven out across the flatlands to visit friends in Buenos Aires province. While the estancia houses hide from the vastness in cool thickets of (imported) trees, the pueblos lie out there in the sun with their one-storey houses, square plazas and somnolent dogs, waiting for something, anything, to happen. Given the choice between that and the big city, what would you do?

Personally, I found Evita achingly long. See it for the crowd scenes, for Jonathan Pryce, for the criollo faces, for Madonna's 85 costume changes, 39 hats and 56 pairs of earrings. But after the 15th reprise of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina", you may find yourself sympathising with the graffiti that went up in BA when filming began, saying "Puera (Go Home) Madonna!" I thought Evita was never, ever going to die.

And when she finally did, the religious implications of an actress called Madonna playing a saint called Evita in a film about a dictator's wife were all too much for the Basilica of St Stephen in Budapest, which flatly refused to let either of them lie in state under its portals.

The coffin ended up in Hungary's Museum of Ethnography instead. The remains of the real Evita, meanwhile, have finally come home to rest at the Recoleta cemetery - some of the most expensive real estate in BA - where she eventually joined the Establishment she so despised.

Location hunter

Getting to Budapest: the only airlines flying from London to the Hungarian capital are British Airways (0345 222111) and Malev (0171-439 0577). Fares are around pounds 200 return.

Getting to Buenos Aires: Quest Worldwide (0181-947 3322) has a return fare to Buenos Aires on KLM from most British airports via Amsterdam of pounds 362 including tax. This fare is extremely good value, and availability is strictly limited.

The Evita trail: as yet, there is no museum dedicated to the Perns, though there are mutterings about setting up a special "Evita tour" of Buenos Aires. Until then, you can visit the rather dull basement museum of the Casa Rosada, do a backstage tour of the Colon Opera House where she made some glittering appearances, and visit the Recoleta cemetery. Tonight at 8pm, Channel 4 is showing Evita: the Unquiet Grave.