For our driver it’s just another job: a run from the airport to downtown Buenos Aires. But when we spot a gigantic portrait of Eva Péron looking out from the side of the Ministry of Health building up ahead, his eyes light up in the mirror.
“Evita, yes!” he says, smiling back at us. “She spoke to us for the last time from that very building.”
Eva Duarte, radio star and glamorous wife of post-war Argentine president Juan Péron, died in 1952. Like many a famous person to die young – she was just 33 – she lives on in the heart, her role as a champion of workers’ rights having acquired near-mythic status, reinforced when Madonna visited to play her in the film of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Venture to Evita’s final resting-place at Recoleta Cemetery in the city’s plushest suburb, and you’ll find single red roses adorning the wrought iron trelliswork, and huddles of out-of-town visitors taking photos beside the brass plaque that bears her name.
The cemetery itself is extraordinary – a walled and gated mini-city where family mausoleums in every conceivable style jostle for space in a fanning network of narrow passageways. But get lost among the deceased elite for half an hour and you’ll be desperate for signs of normal, everyday life – which fortunately are waiting for you at the pavement cafes lining the grassy Plaza de la Recoleta outside. Sit in the shade of the huge gran gomero tree – whose swooping branches and elephantine roots are so big they’re held up with metal props – and stare across to the fine 18th-century church of El Pilar, a city landmark. Then order up espressos and facturas – pastries filled with dulce de leche, a sweet,
soft caramel made with condensed milk – and watch the world go by. On Sundays, the capital’s biggest craft market sets up shop on the grassy knoll close to the church, with stalls offering handcrafted silver jewellery (silver deposits are what gave Argentina its name), finely worked leather belts and handbags, and much more besides.
In her short time as Argentina’s First Lady, Eva Péron made regular appearances on the balcony of the presidential palace, on the Plaza de Mayo across town. The Casa Rosada – named for its distinctive pink paintwork – has stood on the plaza since the late 1880s, but the square itself has been a feature of the city since the Spanish began construction on the banks of the Rio de la Plata in the late 16th century. In recent times the square has become a natural place of protest. This is where the mothers of “the Disappeared” and their supporters march in silence each Thursday afternoon, demanding the truth about events during Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship, a regime that toppled only after the miscalculated invasion of the Falklands – Las Malvinas – in 1982.
For Britons, the name General Belgrano conjures images of the Argentine battleship sunk during the Falklands War. So it’s a revelation to see the eternal flame at a memorial to the general himself, in a small courtyard in nearby San Telmo. A hero of the early 19th century independence movement, Belgrano is honoured for designing the national flag. His memorial stands on La Defensa, a street of symbolic significance in the city’s oldest barrio, a warren of narrow, cobbled streets that wears its faded beauty with pride. Here you’ll find lanes of antique shops (there’s a celebrated flea market on Sundays), stuccoed churches, leafy squares and some of the city’s most characterful cafes, restaurants and tango bars.
By Mary Crockett, Travel Journlist.