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Beautiful Buenos Aires:  A Place of Possibilities

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

“Honey are you ready for tango?” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It was Christophe Lorvo calling his wife Alicia one morning last fall. The young general manager of  the Hyatt Regency Madeleine in Paris had just gotten the word: he would be moving on to head the company’s new Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires.

By December, the couple and their two young daughters were settled into their new home, and construction of the 165-room, five-star hotel had begun. Set in the heart of Recoleta, a lovely gardened neighborhood of modern apartment houses, French/Italian-style palazzos, café-lined boulevards, and elegant shops, the property is running through the depth of a city block, linking a magnificent 1930’s neo-classical palazzo on Avenue Alvear to a 15-story tower rising on Posadas Street to its rear. Formal gardens surrounding an elaborate fountain and an underground gallery featuring works of Argentine artists are going to connect the dramatically different structures.

In consultation with historians from the University of Architecture where the original plans and blueprints of the palazzo are stored, restoration and refurbishing of the splendid high-ceilinged landmark, which is to be the main entrance of the hotel, are underway. The reception area will blend Italian marble floors with  Baccarat lighting fixtures. Original fireplaces and wooden doors, pillars with carved capitals and 300-year-old oak wall panels from Normandy are being meticulously restored by local craftsmen. A 3,000-bottle wine cellar specializing in Argentine wines will double as wine-tasting room. There will be a cheese room devoted mainly to artisan-type Argentine cheeses, three exclusive restaurants overseen by a chef Lorvo is bringing from Paris, a below-ground spa, and a dining terrace overlooking the gardens. By early December 2005 when the summer season in the bottom half of the world begins, Palacio Duhau--Park Hyatt (named for the family who originally owned the palazzo) should be welcoming its first guests.

Christophe Lorvo in hard hat before the palazzo that will  be the main entrance to the Palacio Duhau -- Park Hyatt

Christophe Lorvo in hard hat before the palazzo that will
 be the main entrance to the Palacio Duhau--Park Hyatt

The scope and ambition of this undertaking underscores international confidence in Buenos Aires’ luxury tourist market, a confidence amply manifest in Puerto Madero, a wide peninsula separated from the mainland by a narrow canal divided into four basins. Once a grimy industrial waterfront, it has of late taken on dimensions of new chic in a manner reminiscent of New York’s South Street Seaport twenty years ago or Tribeca nowadays.  A huge seaside landfill area having been left to its own devices has morphed over the years into an ecological preserve, but rows of square brick warehouses along the region’s cobblestone streets have been turned with deliberate intent into expensive apartment houses, high-end restaurants and hotels.

The Faena Hotel+Universe is one vivid case of Puerto Madero’s Industrial Age construction having been merged with 21st century design. A soaring, elongated entrée between walls of exposed brick and highlighted in burnished shades of browns, russets and golds leads to a darkly dramatic interior of mahogany floors and leather upholstery, fragile crystal chandeliers and solid brass lighting fixtures, and color schemes that typically combine scarlet and white. It is a Philippe Starck vision that suggests at once turn-of-the last-century South American cabaret and gleaming futurism.

A less dramatic but pleasing renaissance has settled on Palermo, the residential barrio northwest of Recoleta which borders on the lovely Botanical Gardens, home to Baroque statues and families of friendly, well-fed cats. There is a West (Greenwich) Village feel to Palermo’s shaded streets lined with small walk-ups and sidewalk cafés as well as a suggestion of New York’s SoHo in its pre-pricey and too-touristy days.  Like SoHo, Palermo was a neighborhood of light industry before its transformation into a graceful community of interesting new restaurants, art galleries and singular boutiques, most of them showcasing the work of young and creative Argentine designers. At the current exchange rate of three pesos to one American dollar, shopping in Palermo becomes an irresistible compulsion.

All visible signs in this dynamic metropolis, home to a third of the nation’s population, point to a nation on the rise. Despite Argentina’s refusal to follow conventional advice and cut deals with foreign creditors in the wake of the economic crisis in late 2001 that led to the worse depression in its history, the economy is recovering. Claims of bondholders, banks and the IMF were put on hold while internal consumption was stimulated. The result: more than two million new jobs and an 8% growth over the past two years.          

Concurrently the mood in Buenos Aires is upbeat. Shops are crowded; so are the many excellent restaurants featuring famed Argentine beef; city services are apparently functioning smoothly; cruise ships linger in the port  long enough for passengers to fill the many hotel rooms; and companies like IBM are holding international conferences in huge downtown hotels.

Again one hears Buenos Aires referred to as “Paris of the South,” and how apt the metaphor seems on a stroll through Recoleta past the sand-colored stone palazzos and high-end boutiques or across the swaths of plazas and public gardens. Perhaps even moreso seated at an outdoor café along a broad boulevard among elegantly-dressed Porteńos – surprisingly of Italian as much as Spanish origin – who linger over coffee through the afternoon as the world passes by.

The stately museums of Recoleta and nearby Palermo bring New York as much as Paris to mind. Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a beautiful classical building facing a fashionable boulevard and embraced by greenery. The most important fine arts museum in Argentina, its substantial collection includes masterworks of national and European origin from the 19th and 20th centuries. Malba, the glass-walled showcase for contemporary Latin American art is, as the Guggenheim is to the Met, further along the boulevard and, like the Guggenheim, a striking work of art in itself.

Despite the comparisons, however, Buenos Aires is ultimately a place apart from and unlike any other. Its distinctiveness goes beyond a location near the bottom of the world where summer comes in December and winter in July. For all the light and brightness, the upscale stores and restaurants, the vast parklands and enormous boulevards, a melancholia tempers the typical Latin joie de vivre, and it is this mood which emerges from and defines Argentina’s most famous export: tango.

The haunting, nostalgic melodies played on the bandoneón, a small concertina-type instrument, backed by emphatic rhythms from bass, guitar, and piano, can be heard wherever one goes. At crosswalks on Florida Street, the long downtown pedestrian byway, sensuous pairs perform the complex dips and intertwinings of the dance. They’re seen amidst the lively street fairs of the waterfront Bohemian barrio La Boca with its structures of corrugated zinc sheets painted in vivid primary shades and on the streets of working class San Telmo famed for a Sunday flea market where genuine antiques are mixed with the usual array. With the ubiquitous coined-filled hat nearby, the dancers may be putting on impromptu performances for tourists. At the same time, they convey a sense of engaging in something real, something close to the heart.

Across the way from the huge shopping mall in Abasto, an old market neighborhood that had been home to the legendary tango performer Carlos Garden, a young man in white shirt, black pants, and requisite black fedora dances with a woman wearing a slit skirt and high heel pumps. She is maybe forty years older than he. They are sensational. A small crowd gathers; the upturned hat on the ground is filled with change. Just beyond on the site of the local restaurant Gardel frequented nearly a century ago, the restaurant/theater Esquina Carlos Gardel features tango performances by professional dancers.

All are unsmiling, dead serious, and it is this attitude combined with the heart-tugging yearning of the music that reflects a sadness which seems to lie beneath the surface of this brilliant and beautiful city. The military dictatorship of 1976-1983 and the horrors of that time are still very much part of living memory. Every Thursday, women in headscarves continue to march around the central Plaza de Mayo in an unrelenting campaign to learn what happened to their children who “disappeared” during the so-called “Dirty War.”

Still, with a democratic government in place and an economy in the process of recovery, the future of this sophisticated and elegant South American capital seems filled with possibilities, certainly a destination worth encountering. “I will always have Paris,” says Christophe Lorvo whose apartment is not far from where the Palaco Duhau  Park Hyatt is coming up. “But Alicia and I were ready for something different, and we have found it here. Buenos Aires is such an artistic city. It has so much to offer. For us it is a wonderful opportunity to come to this city and be connected to this wonderful product. And,” he added, “there is such a French connection. You walk the streets, and it seems like Paris.”

Photos by Harvey Frommer

Argentina Government Tourist Office
12 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019, USA

Phone: 212-603 0443
Fax: 212-586 1786.

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

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


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