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Part of the Life of the City:  The Sofitel Buenos Aires

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

After a delayed takeoff, it was not until the early hours of the morning that our plane finally landed in Buenos Aires. The glaring lights of the terminal at Aeroparque were blinding. The line at Passport Control was long. An eternity seemed to pass before our luggage finally tumbled out of the tunnel. It was one of those times when the hassles of flying seemed not worth the effort. But then we passed through the exit doors and immediately spotted a smiling man holding a sign aloft. “Hello Tours,” it said. “Hello!” we said. The man took our luggage cart; we followed to his limo. We were on our way.

Already those muscles in the back of the neck were beginning to relax. It was a mild, starry night. Little traffic.  Soon we were turning off the multi-lane Ninth of July Avenue into a residential neighborhood and an oasis of quiet calm. Another turn onto Arroyo Street, silent and empty at this hour with streetlamps casting leafy shadows onto the road. The car stopped before an enormous, elaborate iron and brass gate. A uniformed doorman came forward in welcome. We had arrived at the Sofitel Buenos Aires.

They call Buenos Aires the Paris of South America, and the comparison is hard to deny especially on the stately boulevards and shaded streets of Recoleta and Retiro lined with white buildings in the Beaux Arts and Art Deco mold. But if Paris is the melody, the beat belongs to the Argentine capital, a combination realized in perfect harmony at the Sofitel.

Built in 1929 by architects from the famed Argentine firm Calvo, Jacobs and Giménez, the distinctive Art Deco and neo-classical elements of the original design remain intact in this 2002 version re-imagined by the French architect Daniel Fernández and designer Pierre-Yves Rochon.  Actually the hotel merges three structures. The tall building at the center and set back to nearly the center of the city block was originally an apartment house belonging to a ship owner who wanted a building so tall he could see his ships sail into the Rio de la Plata. He aimed for thirty stories, but only got twenty. Still it is high enough to loom over two seven-story buildings that extend on either side from its facade to the street. The space between them has been filled with a soaring atrium that unites the three components into a stunning 21st century complex.

The atrium is the entrance/lobby to the Sofitel, and no matter how many times you enter, you’re never quite prepared for the long sweep, the floor gleaming with huge diamond-shaped black and white marble slabs, the sky visible through a glass roof  braced with brass and iron moldings, the tall green plants that stand like sentries along  a concourse that ends triumphantly at the front desk -- a horizontal bank before a free-standing, cream-colored marble wall adorned with bas-reliefs of Ionic pillars. The elevator bank on the other side is brass and black and decorated with Egyptian motifs. It faces a lounge with plush gold upholstery accented with cushions in a leopard print.

 All of which makes for a grand and glamorous effect from the marble floors and walls, to the great iron and bronze chandelier with 48 tulip-shaped lampshades, to the Art Nouveau sunburst clock. There’s a floral fragrance in the air and a bevy of young and cheerful people behind the desk whose friendliness and attentiveness are quick assurances that despite the grandeur, this is a place where you’re going to feel at home.

A bevy of young and attractive people behind the desk - click to enlarge
A bevy of young and attractive people behind the desk

The Gallic sensibility at the Sofitel B.A. is enhanced by Géraud Vigier who took on the role of general manager in May 2005. “I began my professional life as assistant maitre d’ at the Plaza Athenée in Paris,” the elegant Frenchman told us over lunch in Le Sud, the Sofitel’s restaurant, a striking space in gold and black  which continues the atrium’s Art Deco/contemporary ambience.

“This part of Buenos Aires reminds me of Paris very much in the many art galleries and antique shops, the style of the buildings. And the Provencal cuisine of Le Sud reinforces the French connection. Our French chef, Thierry Pzonka, is a very interesting and talented person who knows the product. There is, of course, the excellent beef, but we also have good fish and wonderful produce.”

The inviting summer lunch menu offered a choice of soups: gazpacho, onion, tomato, pumpkin, leek and potato; as many as eight entrées including quiche with roasted tomatoes, grilled salmon, a terrine of small grilled vegetables and miniature mozzarella cheese; and a variety of salads, among them one that combined mescaline with cherries, grapes, beets, strips of chicken and baby eggplant that was quite marvelous.

Although he has thirty years of experience with Accor (the parent company – Sofitel is its prestige brand) at hotels throughout the world, Géraud Vigier is a relative newcomer to the Sofitel B.A. Yet from the start, he maintains, he felt very much at home. Perhaps the  Provencal kitchen proved a nostalgic reminder.

“I was born in the south of France,” he admitted, “and growing up, I was very close to my grandmother. She had a lovely house and was an excellent cook who loved to entertain. Seeing how she treated her guests, what a happy atmosphere she created, I was inspired to go into the hospitality industry.

“To create that kind of atmosphere has always been my goal. And so when I arrived here, the team and I spent a great deal of time and thought on how we could do that for our guests, and also on what kind of hotel we wanted to be. We have our grand entrance, our fabulous floral arrangements, the beautiful rooms, and the French ambience. The Sofitel is a French hotel. But it is located in Buenos Aires, and it is important for us to be part of the culture of this city.”


General Manager Géraud Vigier

He continued, “Therefore we decided to hold special events throughout the year that connect us to the community. In Buenos Aires, the last Friday of the month from April to November is ‘Gallery Night.’ It is a time when art galleries stay open until midnight, and people go from one to another. The Sofitel elected to participate by holding an opening every ‘Gallery Night’ for the works of a new Argentine artist.

“Leticia is very involved in this project,” he added, as a willowy young woman with deep soulful eyes and a musical laugh joined us for coffee. Leticia Lariviere, public relations manager, has been with the hotel from before its official opening in December, 2002. A native Argentinean who shares the Accor’s French connection through a French mother and half-French, half-Argentine father, she had studied art history at the university. Putting “Gallery Night” on the Sofitel calendar met with her enthusiastic support.

“Naturally ‘Gallery Night’ draws people who are interested in art,” she told us. “But it also brings out people who are not accustomed to going to galleries and museums. It was unusual for a hotel to take part in such an event, even moreso because  we not only invite Sofitel guests to the openings, but the public as well. And it has been wonderful. A special moment. Guests love it. Local people love it. They get a chance to come into this glamorous hotel and look around.”

“This is one of our main projects,” Géraud interjected. “It is a new concept, and it has worked out so well, we have expanded the idea in various directions. We have  poetry readings in our Bibliothèque by local poets; we do fashion shows several times during the year showcasing the newest designs of local designers. And we have begun working with a musical director who produces a concert of classical music in one of our private meeting rooms.

“Hotels are changing,” he added. “They are no longer isolated buildings for strangers. They are not just for people from the outside. They are becoming part of the community.”

“The Accor Group believes it is important to be part of the community, good citizens who grow with the city, help with some of the problems,” Leticia said. “So when we sell some art, we donate some of the proceeds to one of the civic organizations. At Christmas, we sing carols in the streets with neighborhood children and donate food, money and gifts to charitable organizations. It is quite a lot of work, but these projects give the hotel a marvelous boost. People in the area know us, our excellent restaurant, our comfortable bar. It has a local identity.”

Stars at the Sofitel -- from left to right: Food & Beverage Manager Emilio Bissoni, Public Relations Manager Leticia Lariviere, Chef Thierry Pzonka - click to enlarge
Stars at the Sofitel -- from left to right: Food & Beverage Manager Emilio Bissoni, Public Relations Manager Leticia Lariviere, Chef Thierry Pzonka
If Le Sud is the French face of the Sofitel, Café Arroyo is its Argentine soul. With an entry close to Arroyo Street and a design that recreates the atmosphere of traditional  Buenos  Aires cafés from the turn of the last century, the combination café and bar is a popular neighborhood destination as much as place where hotel guests have drinks and light meals. Black leather seating, a mahogany bar, and highly polished wood floors create a sophisticated yet convivial mood which persists into the adjacent library or Bibliothèque where the décor of dark molded paneling, deep leather sofas, wood-burning fireplace, and well-stocked floor-to-ceiling bookshelves is more reminiscent of an English club.
There is not a corner in this 144-room property that does not invite the eye and please the spirit. Guest rooms maintain the Art Deco/contemporary mood and gold and black color scheme. Bathrooms are pure luxury. The attitude of the staff from the bellman to the housekeeper to the waiter is of a piece, warm, professional, anxious to please.

“We pay a lot of attention to the guests,” Leticia said. “Each one is looking for something different, has different expectations. We have to sense what you want as a guest and provide that to you.”

A framed statement from the founders of Accor hangs in the lobby. It reads, in part, “The spirit of Accor is the art of conjuring savoir faire, joy in tradition, and modernity with generosity and rigor, imagination, humanism in order to attend all the forms of excellence. The spirit of Accor is a vision conquered by this enterprise. The men and women of Accor are in different positions of a unique cultural patrimony. . . They know how to transform life and art into an art of living and simple service into a privileged moment.”

Happily, they have accomplished as much in this uniquely beautiful property that combines French style and Argentine spirit and, at the same time fulfills Geraud’s wish “to be a part of the life of the city.”

Sofitel Buenos Aires
Accor Hotel and Resorts
Arroyo 841
C1007AAB Buenos Aires
Argentina

Phone: 54 (11) 4131 0031

Member Leading Hotels of the World

TRAVEL BYTES      

Piazzolla Tango

A visit to Buenos Aires without Tango? Impossible. One of the oldest and most famous tango shows in the city, Piazzolla Tango’s roots go back to the early years of the 20th century when it was a café called Venezia where famous tango singers and dancers entertained. The theater looks like a gilded 1920’s movie palace except that seats have been replaced by long picnic-style tables along which patrons (who have paid about $100 a three course dinner, wine, the show and transfers to and from their hotels) sit. “Tango is an entire world,” says artistic director Marina Beluca. “The dancers you see tonight have trained in academies devoted to tango. In Buenos Aires, it is considered an art like classical ballet.” Expert, agile and sensuous, the four couples, accompanied by piano, two concertina-like instruments, violin, bass and three singers, keep the audience mesmerized through one and a half hours in vignettes where there is no clear story line but a powerful subtext of attraction and conquest.

Piazzolla Tango: (performances seven nights a week)
Marina D’Lucca, Artistic Director
Tango Entertainment S.A.
Florida 165 – 2 Piso
Galeria Gűemes
C1005 AAC, Buenos Aires
Argentina

Phone: (54 11) 4344-8201/02
Web:  http://www.piazzollatango.com

Adriana Tedesco - click to enlarge
Adriana Tedesco   

Tall, slender, and perfectly groomed, the elegant Adriana Tedesco was our guide last year in Buenos Aires. How delighted we were to see her again. Last time we focused on traditional destinations and ended our tour having coffee at Café Tortoni, Argentina’s oldest coffee shop founded in 1858 and famed as an artists’ hangout. This time, she showed us the Buenos Aires of tomorrow as it is evolving in Puerto Madero, once a neglected landfill, today an exciting new neighborhood on the order of New York City’s Tribeca.  There are two sides to Puerto Madero connected by the pedestrian “Human Bridge” – an upscale residential area of former warehouses that are now hotels and condominiums, shops, restaurants, and galleries on the one hand and an eco park on the other.

“The bridge is supposed to represent a couple dancing tango,” Adriana said, “but we think it looks more like a big harp. There is a constant struggle here because business interests would like to develop the ecological preserve. But they have been resisted. It is the only reserve that it is in the middle of a major city.” There are 200 kinds of birds in the park, much wildlife and many people jogging running, cycling, walking dogs, and doing some serious bird-watching.

Hello Tours is the place to contact for private tours with informed English-speaking guides, airport transfers, and local transportation.

Hello Turismo
Santa Fe 882, 8◦ D
1059 Buenos Aires, Argentina

Phone: 54 11 4314-2189
Web: http://www.
hellotur@elsitio.net

Airborn

Airborn
Airborn

Buenos Aires’ mall of malls: Patio Bullrich, just a short walk from the Sofitel, is filled with high-end and high-design shops. Men gravitate to Airborn for its stylish collection of casual wear from leather jackets, to jeans, sweaters, shirts, belts  – all fashionable and durable. The pleasant and helpful sales staff is in the know and will outfit you the right way.

Airborn
Patio Bullrich

Phone: 4814 7419
Web:  http://www.airborn.com

Mariana Dappiano

Trendy Palermo is where young designers set up shop. At Mariana Dappiano, the look ranges from the conventional to the offbeat -- sometimes diaphanous, sometimes satiny, sometimes flowing, sometimes clinging. An interesting place to browse and with the three dollar to one peso ratio an irresistible place to shop.

Trendy Mariana Palermo is where young designers set up shop.  - click to enlarge
Trendy Mariana Palermo is where young designers set up shop.

Dapp por Mariana Dappiano
Honduras 4932
(C1414BMN) Buenos Argentina

Web:  http://www.marianadappiano.com 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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