Described by Borges as “an older, more solid world”, the south is where Buenos Aires best preserves its traditions. Immediately south of the Plaza de Mayo lies the barrio of Monserrat, packed with historic buildings, churches and a couple of noteworthy museums. Heading south through Monserrat, you’ll emerge into the cobbled streets and alleyways of San Telmo, where grand nineteenth-century mansions testify to the days when the barrio was home to wealthy landowners. San Telmo is best visited on a Sunday, when its central square, Plaza Dorrego, is the scene of a fascinating antiques fair, although there are plenty of antiques stores also open during the week. At the southern end of the barrio, there’s the tranquil Parque Lezama – a good spot for observing local life, and home to an important history museum. Beyond Parque Lezama, and stretching all the way to the city’s southern boundary, the Río Riachuelo, the quirky barrio of La Boca is a great place to spend an hour or two, wandering its colourful streets and soaking up its idiosyncratic atmosphere.
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You have to be very hard-hearted not to be seduced by the romantically crumbling facades and cobbled streets of San Telmo, a neighbourhood proud of its reputation as the guardian of the city’s traditions. A small, roughly square-shaped barrio, San Telmo is bounded to the north by Avenida Chile (six blocks south of Plaza de Mayo), to the west by Calle Piedras, to the east by Paseo Colón and to the south by Parque Lezama. Like neighbouring Monserrat, its main artery is Calle Defensa, once the main thoroughfare between the Plaza de Mayo and the city’s port.
The barrio’s appearance of decaying luxury is the result of a kind of reverse gentrification. When the city’s grand mansions were abandoned by their patrician owners after a yellow fever epidemic in 1871, they were soon converted into conventillos (tenements) by landlords keen to make a quick buck from newly arrived immigrants. This sudden loss of cachet preserved many of the barrio’s original features: whereas much of the north, centre and west of the city was variously torn down, smartened up or otherwise modernized, San Telmo’s inhabitants simply adapted the neighbourhood’s buildings to their needs. It’s still largely a working-class area, and well-heeled Palermo-dwellers may warn you off coming here, but the area’s superb architecture also attracts bohemians, students, backpackers and artists, from Argentina and abroad. Together with rising rents, the recent appearance of designer clothing and homewares stores among the traditional antiques shops is an indication that San Telmo may once again be going up in the world – though this latterday gentrification is not a development that everyone welcomes.
San Telmo is one of Buenos Aires’ major tourist attractions per se, particularly for its Sunday antiques market, the Feria de San Telmo, held in the neighbourhood’s central square, Plaza Dorrego; there’s usually a smaller version on Saturdays. It’s also the barrio most closely associated with tango, and the place where many of the best-known tango shows and bars have their home. At the southern end of the barrio, the small, palm-lined Parque Lezama, containing the city’s well-organized Museo Histórico Nacional, makes a restful spot to end a tour of the neighbourhood.
Fileteado or filete art
Fileteado or filete art
As you wander around the city, look out for examples of fileteado or filete art, particularly on shop signs. Characterized by ornate lettering, heavy shading and the use of scrolls and flowers entwined with the azure and white of the national flag, this distinctive art form first made its appearance on the city transport system in the early twentieth century. Often associated with tango, its actual origins are a little murky, but it seems to have been introduced by Italian immigrants. Banned from public transport in 1975 – the authorities felt bus destinations and numbers should be unadorned – it moved onto signs above stores and cafés as well as more traditional canvases. Today it is synonymous with Porteño identity, particularly in the south of the city. As well as tango stars, a popular subject is the pithy saying, including the classic si bebe para olvidar paga antes de tomar (“if you drink to forget, pay first”) and the more obscure si querés la leche fresca, atá la vaca a la sombre (“if you want fresh milk, tie the cow up in the shade”).