The ghost of Buenos Aires past

The splendid Teatro Gran Splendid, El Ataneo in Buenos Aires

Saturday afternoon was spent wandering sedately towards, and then around, the Japanese Gardens just off nearby Avenida del Libertador with a possible Maria. A place of painstakingly-maintained shrubbery and colourful, over-sized koi carps floundering below arched wooden bridges, this little piece of Japan is exactly what you would hope for. After this Japanese jaunt, the evening unfolded into a rather more philosophical journey however – prompted by three visits from the ghost of Buenos Aires past.

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Following much discussion in the office, it was democratically decided that El Palacio de la Pizza would be the place for my first authentic porteño pizza. Its location on Corrientes was reassuring, an avenue famously lined with pizzerias and truly the only part of town that any serious contenders in this category were based.

An attack of beige under the starkish overhead lights, amidst a continuation of the oak theme from the outside panelling in its canteenesque layout, El Palacio de la Pizza treads the line between timeless and tired well. As for the food, although the bacon/egg/mozzarella a la piedra (thin crust) was delicious, it was the classic fugazetta al molde that most delivered on its promise of authenticity. Comprising cheese, onions, and more cheese, this trademark of Buenos Aires cuisine finally knocked me down after I had kept getting back up for more.

The Italian influence here is no more unmistakable than through its pizza parlours. Fugazetta however represents a reassertion of identity, borne of a tolerance yet local reinterpretation of an Italian tradition brought here by migrants in the late nineteenth century. A taste of proud longevity in each slice, fugazetta is a note to all that a porteño will always be an Argentinian first, and an Italian second.

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As mentioned previously, the subjunctive is an element of Spanish that I am grasping in a somewhat measured fashion so far. To help me practice, one of my recent lessons involved a listening exercise to immortal Soda Stereo hit, En la Ciudad de la Furia. This is because the words contain many examples of that tense I love to hate. The soundtrack to the 1980s here, the band Soda Stereo – and, more specifically, its late lead singer Gustavo Cerati – represents rock and roll in Argentina.

Imagine my feeling of unease, whilst humming that same song in the street, when I heard its familiar riff and haunting vocals finish off my chorus instrumental but could not identify the location. Following the hubbub of a crowd chanting the chorus in unison, we reached the bottleneck on Santa Fe. Translating as ‘Stars in your neighbourhood’, this was part of a Buenos Aires government arts initiative. Across multiple parts of the city’s main streets over the weekend, local bands including this Soda Stereo cover outfit were literally given a stage on which to perform.

Their vocalist nailed both the look and the sound of Cerati with eerie precision, his star shining brightest during said belter. Telling the tale of a winged man unable to fly away from his problems, the fable is profound, and its reading remains open to debate. One thing that is certain from the lyrics though is that ‘the city of fury’ in its title is Buenos Aires. The year of its release coincided with the infamous 1989 riots, sparked by hyperinflation in Argentina spiralling out of control. Almost thirty years on, and both the song’s appeal and its dire economic backdrop endure as if in a time warp. The impact of inflation perhaps felt most sharply in the capital, Buenos Aires continues to be a city as furious as ever.

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Probably the highlight of the evening was discovering the bookshop with a difference on Santa Fe. Already set off-course from the promise of pizza by a stint at a couple of the street stages, by this point I was beginning to get seriously hungry. Yet because we were basically there, we had to go into this bookshop, just quickly, my compañera insisted. Instructed to keep walking up the stairs without looking around me, to ruin the surprise, I wasn’t disappointed at the top.

Originally opened as the Teatro Gran Splendid in 1919, this extravagant feat of architecture was famous firstly as a theatre and then cinema. Almost a century later, and this ornate timepiece of a building has been fabulously repurposed as the El Ataneo Gran Splendid bookshop. Despite this change in direction, it retains all the artistic touches that made it so special. Auditorium lighting lining the gilded theatre boxes guide bookworms from shelf to shelf, in the new open space where the original seats used to be. Flanking the stage itself are the crimson red curtains that no longer fall, instead suspended above a café that serves from within the right-hand side of the wing.

There are only a chosen few that have witnessed these multiple transformations over time however, and they can be found on the elegant fresco ceiling. The wise men and angels that are poignantly stationed in the clouds in this religious scene help form El Ataneo’s crowning glory.

Although this great city has had a mixed history and is all the better for this enriching experience, inherently sentimental porteños are only permitted to reflect on the promise that they do not dwell. Indeed, this bookshop serves as an upbeat reminder that it is always best to look onwards and, of course, upwards when the ghost of Buenos Aires past comes to visit.

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