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

A Perspective on Lima

Lima is a pretty city,” reckoned Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Lima is an atrocity,” insisted Matthew Parris in Inca Kola.

Parris’s impression is the one generally held, especially by those who have never been. Lima has a shocking reputation. It is ugly, they say; it is dangerous. There is nothing much to look at while you are being mugged at gunpoint. Parris noticed concrete and tin, dead dogs and cars without windscreens.

The city is smothered in fog for much of the year, which cannot help to endear it. “The white veil,” Melville called it in Moby Dick. But I was there in late January, when the sky was blue more often than not, and the sun was hot enough to redden my neck. The fogs came, all right; but ephemerally, like dry ice from a smoke machine.

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I think Lima must, in any case, have smartened itself up in the twenty-four years since Parris was there. I never saw a dead dog – although strays were everywhere – and saw only one car that was missing a windscreen. Most were in a lot better fettle than the minibuses, which roared along with blowing exhausts, great gashes down their sides and several important bits missing.

Hotel development in the Miraflores district has been about as unsympathetic as it could be (Guevara would have been spared that in 1952); but next door Barranco is full of character with its shabby-gentile colonial buildings in jaunty, contrasting colours like forest green and lilac, anorak blue and orange, and dogshit brown and dayglo pink. It would be a stretch, though, to call it pretty.

The Centro Historico is genuinely pretty with its plazas, its fountains, its grand public buildings and a cathedral to which Guevara devoted a long and exuberant paragraph. You might, for a moment, imagine yourself in an important city in Spain; but the illusion cannot last for long. A shanty town spreads round and up the surrounding mountains, painfully visible from all over town; and just a few blocks from the grandest plaza are workaday districts with litter in the doorways and broken chairs slung onto roofs.

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In short, it is not as irredeemably ugly as popularly believed, but it is hardly Cuzco either. The danger is apparently real, but even at night it feels a lot less edgy than somewhere like La Paz.

My guidebook – never knowingly underwhelmed – reckoned Lima “the gastronomic capital of the continent”. That sounds like windy exaggeration, but two of its restaurants are listed among the World’s 50 Best: equal with London, one fewer than Paris. It is the place to go to eat ceviche, Peru’s most famous dish: a buzzword, now, on fine-dining menus in the English-speaking world.

The chef squirts lime juice over sliced raw fish, and then flavours it with garlic, chilli, coriander and red onion and leaves it to marinate so that the acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. “Better than it sounds,” said Parris, who seems to have the classical Englishman’s approach to food and usually only mentioned it when it upset somebody’s stomach.

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The version I had at a smart restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores used chunks of sea bass, crab claws and scallops, and came with the Peruvian staples, sweet potato and corn. “Una experencia incomparable,” the menu declared with a good pinch of hyperbole, but it was very good.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Salteñas in Sucre

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Freshly cooked pastry, sizzling beef, garlic, oregano, cayenne. The smells from a hole-in-the-wall salteñería wafted after me down the street, caught me up and marched me back.

“Uno salteña por favor.”

¿Pollo, cerdo, o carne de res?”

“Sí.

¿Que?”

“Err, carne.”

¿Carne de res?”

“Sí.

I knew about four words of Spanish, then, and didn’t really know what I was ordering (beef), but I sensed it would be good. Salteñas are pastries stuffed with meat and vegetables in a mildly spiced broth set with gelatine. When they are baked in the oven, the gelatine melts as the pastry crisps, so the filling stays moist and the casing stays dry.

The broth overwhelmed the serviette after the first few bites and started to trickle through my fingers, but the explosion of flavours made me too happy to care.

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It was the middle of the morning of a glorious day. The sun reflected off the uniform white of the colonial buildings. Only turrets and bell towers disrupted the line of terracotta roofs. Only mountains looked down on the cathedral. It was much as the Spaniards would have seen it when they took a last look as they left in the 1820’s; but the flags which now flutter from every tenth building are Bolivia’s red, yellow and green.

The government has sat in La Paz for more than a century, but Sucre is still the nominal capital, even if it nowadays feels as provincial as Bath. Old men sit on benches in the shade of the palm trees on Plaza 25 de Mayo. Younger men kneel and shine shoes. Drivers stop when the policewoman blows her whistle. No one seems to drop litter or tag walls. It even feels safe late at night.

It is nothing like La Paz.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014