Packed with some of Buenos Aires’ best known historical landmarks, not least the presidential palace, the Plaza de Mayo is a microcosm of the city’s past: it’s been bombed by the military and crowded with Evita’s descamisados (literally “the shirtless ones”, or manual workers), while for many years it was the scene of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo’s weekly demonstration. Although it still often attracts small, noisy protests, including an eternal group of Malvinas/Falklands veterans demanding greater compensation, more often than not it’s sedately filled with gossiping old men batting away flocks of squawking pigeons while hawkers sell candied peanuts and Argentine flags. At its centre stands the Pirámide de Mayo, a snow-white obelisk erected in 1811 to mark the first anniversary of the May 25 Revolution, when a junta overthrew the Spanish viceroy, declared Buenos Aires’ independence from Spain and set about establishing the city’s jurisdiction over the rest of the territory. The headscarves painted on the ground around the pyramid echo those worn by the Madres. The plaza’s towering palm trees lend it all a wonderfully tropical feel.
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Perón, Evita, Maradona and Galtieri have all addressed the crowds from the balcony of the unmissable Casa de Gobierno, otherwise known as the Casa Rosada, or “Pink House”, the rose-hued government palace that occupies the east end of the square. The practice of painting buildings pink was common in the nineteenth century, particularly in the countryside, where you’ll still see many estancias this colour, and was originally achieved with the use of ox blood, for both decorative and practical reasons – the blood acted as a fixative for the whitewash to which it was added. After being a muted rose for many years, followed by a brief phase in a shocking pink – a legacy of the flamboyant Menem era – the building was restored in 2007 to a deep puce colour, patented as “Casa de Gobierno pink”. It has been strikingly lit at night since the bicentenary celebrations in 2010.
The present structure, a typically Argentine blend of French and Italian Renaissance styles, developed in an organic fashion. It stands on the site of the city’s Spanish fort, begun in 1594 and converted in 1776 to the viceroy’s palace. In 1862, President Bartolomé Mitre moved government ministries to the building, remodelling it once again. The final touch – the central arch – was added in 1885, unifying the facade. You can explore the building on a guided visit (online pre-booking required; bring ID). Highlights of the tour include the Salón de los Bustos, the Patio de las Palmeras and the famous balcony.
Behind the Casa Rosada, Plaza Colón features a gigantic Argentine flag and used to house a Carrara marble statue of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus). Former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, however, took umbrage with Cristóbal, replacing him with a 15m-tall bronze Juana Azurduy, a Bolivian freedom fighter, though Macri has also since removed her.
Along with temporary exhibitions, the museum hosts Ejercicio Plástico (“Plastic Exercise”), a sensual mural painted in 1933 by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, assisted by Argentine painters Spilimbergo, Berni and Castagnino (all three of whom contributed to the fantastic frescoes that decorate the Galerías Pacífico mall in the microcentro) and the Uruguayan Enrique Lázaro. To enter the capsule containing it you must don protective footwear covers. At the far end of the museum there is a decent café and a gift shop where you can treat yourself to Casa Rosada-related souvenirs.
Museo de la Casa Rosada
Uniformed grenadiers guard the Casa Rosada’s own museum, the Museo del Bicentenario, which opened in May 2011, a year after the national bicentenary it was intended to celebrate. An impressive subterranean structure behind the presidential palace, enhanced by handsome brick arches, it covers the role of the Casa Rosada in the city’s history, highlighting the various constructions occupying the site and the presidency past and present. Posters, clothing, furniture, writing instruments and even porcelain and carriages used by various holders of the office since 1810, help illustrate this slick propaganda.
At the opposite end of the square from the Casa Rosada is the Cabildo, the only colonial-era civil construction to survive the rebuilding craze of the 1880s. Its simple, unadorned lines, green and white shuttered facade and colonnaded front, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, stand in stark contrast to the more ornate nineteenth-century buildings around it. The Spanish administrative headquarters, it now houses a small museum whose modest collection includes standards captured during the 1806 British invasion, watercolours by Enrique Pellegrini and original plans of the city and the fort. Although the museum was painstakingly restored at great cost in time for the 2010 bicentenary (aptly so, since it is dedicated to the May Revolution), it is the building’s interior that makes a visit worthwhile, in particular the upper galleries’ exhibits of various relics from the colonial period onwards, such as huge keys and sturdy wooden doors. Behind the Cabildo, a patio area with an ornamental well hosts a café and small artisans’ fair.
The Catedral Metropolitana, with its severe Neoclassical facade, is not a particularly beautiful church, but it’s in the spotlight for being the most recent place of employment for Jorge Bergoglio – also known as Pope Francis I – before he moved to the Vatican. This, its central location, its status as Buenos Aires’ main cathedral and its housing the mausoleum to Independence hero General José de San Martín inside – solemnly guarded, and frequently mobbed by schoolchildren on history trips – ensures a steady stream of visitors.
The cathedral assumed its final form over many years. Built and rebuilt since the sixteenth century, the present building was completed in the mid-nineteenth century, complete with Venetian mosaic floors, gilded columns and a silver-plated altar. The twelve columns at the entrance represent the twelve Apostles; above them sits a carved tympanum whose bas-relief depicts the arrival of Jacob and his family in Egypt.
Naturally, it became the focus of jubilant celebrations and international attention when Bergoglio, ex-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was anointed pope in 2013. He is the first Latin American pontiff and the first to hail from outside Europe in 1300 years.
Centenary and bicentenary
On May 25, 1810, locals gathered in Plaza de Mayo to demand the withdrawal of the viceroy and to form the Primera Junta – the first move in throwing off the yoke of Spanish rule and creating an independent nation.
The centenary in 1910 was cause for great celebration: Argentina had gone from being a small colonial backwater to one of the world’s richest countries, still in the throes of an unprecedented immigration and building boom, and bursting with confidence. Several foreign nations gifted monuments, many of which are still standing in Buenos Aires, including the Torre Monumental from Britain and the Monumento de los Españoles from Spain.
Argentina has failed to live up to its original heady economic promise, but in 2010 its citizens nonetheless passionately celebrated their two-hundredth birthday, with lasting legacies of the party in Buenos Aires including the Museo de la Casa Rosada.
Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo
Many of those arrested – and, in many cases, tortured and executed – during the 1976–83 dictatorship that is also known as the “Dirty War” were young people in their teens and 20s who were kidnapped from their homes and streets with no acknowledgement from the authorities as to their whereabouts. In 1976 some of their mothers, frustrated by the intimidating silence they faced when they tried to find out what had happened to their children, started what would become the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) movement. When it became apparent that pregnant prisoners were kept alive to give birth to babies that were then adopted by “Dirty War” supporters – estimated to be around 500 children – the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) NGO was also founded.
Just a handful of women in the beginning, the Madres and Abuelas met weekly in Plaza de Mayo, the historic centre of the city, as much to support each other as to embarrass the regime into providing answers; wearing white headscarves emerged as a means of identification. As their numbers grew, so did their defiance – standing their ground and challenging the military to carry out its threat to fire on them in front of foreign journalists, for instance. Some were themselves “disappeared” after the “Blond Angel of Death” – notorious torturer Alfredo Astiz – infiltrated the group, posing as the brother of a desaparecido (disappeared). He was sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2011.
In 1982, during the Malvinas/Falklands crisis, the Madres were accused of being anti-patriotic for their stance against the war, a conflict they maintained was an attempt by the regime to divert attention away from its murderous acts. With the return to democracy in 1983, the Madres were disappointed by the Alfonsín government’s reluctance to delve too deeply into what had happened during the “Dirty War”, as well as by the later granting of immunity to many of those accused of kidnapping, torture and murder. The group rejected monetary “compensation” and both the Madres and the respect in which they are held were key in finally getting amnesty laws overturned in 2005. The Madres and Abuelas continue to protest, walking around the Pirámide de Mayo every Thursday at 3.30pm, and some have branched into other areas of social protest and human rights: the emblem of the white headscarf was at the forefront of the movement to demand the non-payment of the country’s foreign debt, for example.
Today both human rights organizations are renowned for their work, a relentless task which has included setting up a DNA database that can be accessed by those grandchildren who doubt their origins. To date, the Abuelas have reunited 128 adults with their birth families, which recently included the grandson of lead activist Estela Barnes de Carloto.
Top image: Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral in downtown © Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock