It seems like just yesterday that we were standing on the border between Thailand and Laos trying to get a lift into town with a local who we had mistaken for a taxi driver. That was January, now suddenly it was the end of June. Out of the blue, my birthday had snuck up on me, on us, and so Martin was tasked with trying to make one particular day in what felt like and endless string of memorable days even more special. So what did he do? He decided to book a tango lesson.
I must admit that on hearing that my birthday present was going to include a dancing lesson I was tempted to protest, to feign illness, arrive late, or to do all three. I kept mentally fast-forwarding to a mirrored dance studio, which magnified my every mistake. I imagined an over eager teacher chastising me for not being able to replicate the arrogant elegance of the tango and disapproving of my flat pumps. My trepidation, which must emanate from a suppressed childhood ballet trauma, was palpable, but I need not have worried.
Our tango lesson at Complejo Tango turned out to be one of the most hilarious things I have done in a long time. The class had an unusually large number of male participants including a rugby team which was on tour in Argentina. Our effeminate instructor wasted no time whipping the motley crew of would be tango dancers into shape. The group included a trio of Japanese women in hiking boots, a rugby player in a bright pink pair of pyjamas who appeared to have lost a bet with the boys, and several haughty Brazilians, who were clearly perplexed by the lack of rhythm emanating from certain corners of the room.
Most of us spent the entire hour crying with laughter, as our instructor critiqued our attempts to repeat the steps and tried to resist the temptation to smile when mimicking the sultry poses which tango demands.
By the end of the lesson all the women had learned to surrender into the arms of their male partners and a photo session ensued in which we attempted to capture high kicks, arched backs and head rush inducing positions on camera.
Next, it was off to a three course dinner with copious amounts of wine from Mendoza, followed by a show performed by professional tango dancers. The show took us on a jaunt through the history and development of tango from its early origins to its current day revival. The live band featured haunting violins, an accordion and a perfectly postured pianist who played various styles of tango music over the next hour and a half.
The spinning, flipping and high kicks were effortlessly executed, but knowing how difficult it had been for all of us to master the most basic of tango steps, such as the ochos (named after the number eight in Spanish because it requires the female to make move in a figure of eight), we watched as the dancers with respect and envy as they glided athletically across the stage, changing costumes and scenes countless times to perform an awe inspiring show.
We had heard that Córdoba is a favourite among ‘culture vultures’ and from the moment we arrived in the city we were impressed with its colonial architectural beauty, sophistication, myriad museums and galleries, and the contagious laid-back pace of this stunningly beautiful university town.
The University – Universidad National de Córdoba
Entering the site of the Jesuit school and university in the centre of the Old Town, we were transported back several hundred years during a brief tour, conducted by a current university student (the primary and secondary schools share the same site as the university).
This proud institution has been educating boys for 400 years (girls were only admitted recently) and still has classrooms equipped with antique desks and black boards, as well as a teacher’s room with a huge fireplace which you could literally walk into. The museum exhibited telescopes, globes and microscopes which were several hundred years old, it was very Hogwartseque.
Museo de la Memoria
The area surrounding the school was so lovely that it was almost inconceivable that one of the neighbouring buildings played a now infamous role in Argentina’s recent history. In the pedestrian zone photos of some of Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ strung up on cord between the buildings, flutter in the wind. The term ‘disappeared’ refers to the 30,000 people arrested by the military dictatorship which took control in the mid-1970s.
These ‘disappeared’ were targeted because they were suspected of being dissidents, having communist ties or having the misfortune to have known someone who came under the regime’s suspicion. We later found out that it was common to target all those people who were named or whose addresses or phone numbers appeared in the diaries and correspondence of those arrested. It was chilling to imagine living under such a government today – Imagine if every ‘friend’ you have on Facebook was targeted for disappearance? What would it be like if every person in your mobile phone book or Hotmail/ Gmail/ Yahoo! accounts could be tracked down and was arrested, tortured and killed for their perceived guilt by association?
Many of these people have not been seen since their arrests; their whereabouts continues to be a difficult theme in Argentinean politics, with the Madres de Mayo faithfully protesting outside the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires every Thursday at 3:30 pm appealing for information on their children, whose bodies have yet to be found.
At the Museo de La Memoria, which is housed in one of the former detention centres used for torturing and interrogating suspects, we were able to learn about the methods used by the military regime to repress opposition, as well as the underground attempts to circulate banned material, including communist publications and magazines which criticised the regime. The museum is small, and does not have any English explanations, but it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into creating this tribute to the ‘disappeared’ and is an important piece of the jigsaw which makes up modern Argentina.
Art and Architecture – Celebrating the Bicentenary of Cordóba
Córdoba is pleasant to walk around and has numerous plazas where you can relax either in the shadow of bicentennial commemorative hoops, fountains or statues of conquistadors. The city is brimming with beautifully maintained public spaces making it one of the pleasantest places we visited in Argentina.
It is also a great place to fuel up on excellent food which is reasonably priced (after all it is a university town) and good wine before heading on to the next museum, which for us was the Palacio Ferrerya and the Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Emilio Caraffa.
Set in a lovely colonial house, which is itself a work of art, it is filled with the sculptures and paintings by Argentine artists. A small modern art installation, accessed by a staircase covered in metres of cow hide, is open on the top floor and is worth a peak, too.
Our only regret regarding Córdoba is that we did not have more time there. It literally oozes sophistication and with so much art and culture, we could easily have spent a week there. If we had to decide between Mendoza and Córdoba, the latter would win the contest every time!
Consistently recommended by travellers we have met, Mendoza was high on our ‘must see’ list for Argentina. The Lonely Planet describes its reconstruction following the earthquake which devastated it in 1861 by stating that:
‘This was a tragedy for mendocinos (people from Mendoza), but rebuilding efforts created some of the cities [city’s] most-loved aspects: the authorities anticipated (somewhat pessimistically) the next earthquake by rebuilding the city with wide avenues (for the rubble to fall into) and spacious plazas (to use as evacuation points). The result is one of Argentina’s most seductive cities – a joy to walk around and stunningly picturesque.’
So you can imagine our disappointment when we instead found it was more 1970s dilapidated concrete prefab jungle than colonial architecture and spacious piazzas. Perhaps it was the autumnal weather, choking diesel fumes, the neglected pavements, or the forlorn fountain in Plaza Independencia; I am not really sure, but it was everything but picturesque. There were some nice vinotecas and restaurants, but McDonald’s and Carrefour were not seducing us.
Almost at the point of giving up on Mendoza, we decided to head out to the countryside to see what actually put Mendoza on the map for foreigners: its vineyards. Half an hour out of town by bus, the vineyards, olive groves and orchards surrounding Mendoza proved to be the perfect antidote.
Disembarking at the one street town of Maipú, we walked past barking dogs, shuttered houses and along sun baked dusty streets, where jalopies lazily rusting away. We were en route to our appointment for a wine tasting at the bodega La Rural when we got sidetracked by a sign advertising homemade chocolate and stumbled into a building owned by …. Who specialise in homemade chocolate, olive oil and preserves.
We spent the next half an hour (it would have been more but for the appointment) knocking back shots of their ‘Russian Death’ and Rose Schnaps; munching on olives as we learned about the different grades of olive oil; eating sundried tomatoes and indulging in teaspoonfuls of Dulce de Leche followed by homemade chocolate. Everything was delicious!
Realising that we were expected at the bodega imminently, we purchased a couple of jars of our favourite things (we would have purchased crates of stuff if we were not on such a long trip!) and jogged down the road to La Rural.
On entering the main building, we were transported to a bygone era of wine making; our guide took us through the museum which exhibits over 5000 items used in European and Argentinean viticulture over the last 500 years. The collection is the most important in the Americas. We also saw some of the cellars and toured the modern production facilities.
At the end of the fascinating free tour which had galloped through several centuries of wine making in Argentina and given us some background on the Italian founder of La Rural, don Filipe Rutini who established it in 1885, we tasted Museo, a wine which can only be sampled at La Rural’s bodega in Mendoza.
Walking past the sundried vines as we returned to the main road for the bus back, it became clear why a visit to Mendoza is high on many visitors’ lists. There are approximately fifteen bodegas, olive oil producers and family-run establishments producing everything from fine wines to chocolate in Maipú, making it a genuine foodie paradise. It would easily be possible to fill several days exploring it at leisure, it is well worth leaving the city for.