Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

Not Such a Big Night

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Sean Connery’s Bond scaled up the façade in Diamonds are Forever; he met Plenty O’ Toole at the craps table.

The hotel, called The Whyte House in the movie but in real life the Las Vegas Hilton, was in its prime then, in 1971. It was the biggest hotel in the world with its 30 floors and 3,000 rooms; to this day, it has the biggest sports book in Vegas.

Elvis performed at the Hilton year after year, eking out the last of his credibility. It was at the Hilton, too, that Muhammad Ali lost his heavyweight title in 1978, and Mike Tyson won his seven years later.

But nothing stays fresh for long in Las Vegas.

The LVH, as it was known when I stayed there, had long been overshadowed by the theme hotels. It is a block from the Strip, which in Vegas might be a hundred miles. But it had its own stop on the monorail and still looked impressive, if dated.

I was only there because I had got a mid-week deal with a double room for the price of a bed in a hostel. But as I stood in line in the cavernous lobby, with its marble floor and abundant staff, behind guests with designer luggage and look-how-rich-I-am watches, I felt out of place with my scruffy old backpack and started to worry that I had made a mistake and was going to be hit with a bill I could not afford.

There was no mistake, though: I had not overlooked a nought when I booked the room. More or less everything was extra and the extras were ambitiously priced, but they gave me a free credit line to try to entice me to the tables.

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Sin City. An agglomeration of modern-day temples of Bacchus. What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas. You can – you are strongly encouraged to – leave all restraints at the city limits, do everything to unashamed excess, indulge your favourite vices, do what you like, so long as it looks somewhere near legal.

You can get luminous cocktails in four-foot long glasses, a family-sized bottle of Jim Bean or jeroboams and upwards of Champagne. The bars stay open all night and you can drink round the clock, if you want. I saw a woman in her fifties whom I imagined to be something like a partner in a big firm of accountants walking down the Strip with a glass of red wine in the middle of the day, and a girl in her twenties so hammered she could do nothing but slump in a doorway and sway.

You can lose your shirt, in circumstances forgotten halfway down a four-foot long cocktail or at any of the 197,000 slot machines, the 231 blackjack tables and goodness-knows-how-many roulette wheels.

You can splurge at celebrity chef restaurants – three Ramsays, two Robuchons, a Guy Savoy, a Pierre Gagnaire and half a dozen Wolfgang Pucks – or go to a buffet and pile your plate as high as the Stratosphere Tower.

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But none of that appealed half as much as a big hotel room with a bath and a sumptuous bed. For the best part of six months, I had slept in a succession of Asian guesthouses, overnight trains, Australasian hostels, sailing boats, and a notorious budget hotel in LA. The LVH might as well have been the seven star Burj Al Arab, for me. I had not seen a bath since I left London, and looked forward to seeing one again.

I was in bed by nine, without so much as a beer or a symbolic $1 bet, and very happy about it.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

Picton Picked On

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I spent the night in Picton because that was where the ferry docked.

It is on the same sort of scale as the arse-end-of-nowhere village I grew up in, with about half a dozen streets and a harbour. Notable people who have lived there are said to include the 37th-to-last man to be hanged in New Zealand. It has at least one heritage building, and Katherine Mansfield wrote a short story, The Voyage, about people leaving it for Wellington.

My hostel had the air of a seafront hotel in winter. I had a four-bed dorm to myself. A clock ticked oppressively in the communal room. A Japanese guy, sitting alone, was working his way through a big box of beers and there were two rows of empties on the table. There was a European guy at the other side of the room, ignoring him. He mimed deep concentration on his book as I walked in, so he could get away without saying hello. The Japanese guy was too distracted by the beer. We three seemed to be the only guests.

It felt wrong, somehow, to make noise in the kitchen, so I cooked as if someone were sleeping nearby, ate quickly and had an early night; I was asleep well before ten.

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I was full of energy and cheer in the morning, then, and went for a run around Picton. It did not take long. Once I had showered and changed and tidied my backpack to kill some more time, there was nothing to do but check out and walk slowly to the bus interchange. There was still plenty of time to see the hulk of the tall ship, Edwin Fox, before I caught my bus.

It was built in Calcutta in 1853 (Edwin Fox, that is, not the bus) and took troops to the Crimea, convicts to Australia and migrants to New Zealand before it was retired and used as a bunker for coal. It was left to rot on a beach for decades and it is in a shocking state now. But that makes it more interesting, to my mind, than a carefully-restored ship on which the only original thing is the name.

It is claimed as the Oldest Merchant Sailing Ship in the World and the Ninth Oldest Ship Afloat, but I find it hard to believe assertions like that because they rarely turn out to be true.

I was bored enough to check the point, this time, and sure enough a quick Google search threw up a merchant sailing ship named Charles W Morgan which was built twelve years before Edwin Fox and still sails around New England. Edwin Fox, moreover, is in a dry dock, so it is not afloat at all, let alone the ninth oldest ship afloat.

But none of that matters much. It is an interesting old ship, and they ought just to leave it that.

© Richard Senior 2015

Staying in a Japanese Ryokan

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“Two person?”

“One.”

Two person.”

“No. There’s only one of me.”

He huffed and searched through his papers until – like prosecuting counsel presenting a witness with an incriminating letter – he showed me the message from the booking site. “Two person!”

Well that must be a mistake.”

“Hmph. Two person.”

It was a small ryokan* up a quiet side street in Nagasaki. The owner, it seemed, would never quite forgive me for only being one person, but reluctantly showed me to the room.

I had left my trainers at reception and changed into the Crocs supplied to walk through the building and now changed from those to the slippers inside the door of the room. There was a separate pair to change into when using the toilet.

The hallway led off to a small bathroom and a separate toilet with all the accessories you come to expect in Japan, the heated seat, the hot water jet, the sound effects to spare your embarrassment. Beyond them, through a sliding screen, was the main tatami-mat room. At the other side of the room, there was a paper screen on a wooden lattice which filtered the light from the windows overlooking the street. Behind it was a narrow room, like an indoor balcony, with polished wood floors, a fridge, a garment rail and space to put luggage out of sight of the main room.

There was a low table and a cushion to kneel on and a kettle, tea pot and cups for green tea, and a neatly folded futon and traditional clothes. The walls were painted a peaceful taupe and were bare except for discrete ornaments in the alcove. Even the mirror attached to a small set of drawers was covered with a drape so as not to disrupt the harmony of the room. “Owner does not say a busybody,” it said in the information pack.

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A bell sounded as I went downstairs and the owner, who does not say a busybody, came out of his office and supervised me while I laced up my trainers. He was a taciturn, expressionless man and it was unnerving to have him standing there, silently, as if watching to make sure I did not slip behind the desk and steal the petty cash. I suppose it was just his idea of customer service.

Another bell sounded when I came back in, and the owner – still not saying a busybody – stood and watched me take my trainers off. He did it every time.

He had been in the room while I was out and straightened things up. He must have despaired of my gaijin** untidiness. Clothes strewn about, now perfectly folded; a discarded t-shirt placed on a hanger; scattered books, stacked. A dropped towel replaced with a fresh one. Even an empty carrier bag crisply folded into four.

I changed into the yukata, like a long, thin dressing gown with flowing sleeves, tied the obi sash around it and pulled the haori jacket on over the top, then made a cup of green tea, and laid out the futon for the night.

Each evening when I came back to the ryokan, the futon had been neatly packed away, the yukata folded, the tea replenished and whatever clutter I had brought into the room tidied behind the screen.

When I checked out and got the bill, the prices had all been scored through and replaced in neat manuscript with lower figures. The owner had given me a discount because I was not, in fact, two person.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Traditional Japanese inn

**Foreigner