When you get invited to a wedding in Buenos Aires, it's easy to say "I do."
My boyfriend Grant and I were lucky enough to be included in the August nuptials of his dear friend David. God bless the vivacious fiancée, Alejandra, for being Argentinean. Or Porteno, to be exact, the word these port-city dwellers use to describe themselves. After a few days spent exploring the city, I wanted to be a Porteno, too.
Buenos Aires has always been an intriguing city. Jorge Luis Borges lived and wrote here, Evita was loved and lost by the masses, and celebrities and socialites have long made it a chic destination (poor Christina Onassis overdosed here in 1988, but we didn't let that kill our buzz). And because B.A. is a Latin American amalgam of the food, fashion and culture of European cities like Milan and Madrid -- not to mention that it's dead cheap, owing to the crash of the Argentine dollar in 2001 -- the city has reemerged in the new millennium as a sizzling international hot spot.
Of course, no one wants to cheer the bad fortunes of a country in the interests of shopping and dining. But Portenos are so busy setting up chic little boutiques and trendy restaurants, and running them with exuberance and optimism, that it's hard not to be swept up in all that positive energy. It's so contagious I suspect this city won't be a bargain for long.
For now, though, if finances are a little tight after the holiday season, B.A. is a pleasure that's not too guilty. Price tags read the same as at home -- except you get to divide by two or more.
A tasty, thrifty touchdown
We arrive on a Tuesday afternoon and head for our borrowed apartment (it belongs to the bride-to-be's Uncle Rudy). It's tucked into what will become our favourite barrio, Palermo Viejo (Old Palermo).
Alejandra has blanketed our bedroom with shopping maps given out at fashion boutiques, as well as little foil-wrapped discs she explains are her favourite treat: alfajores, layered cookies filled with dulce de leche, a Buenos Aires staple. These are fitting power bars for our locale.
The happy couple rushes off to do wedding stuff and we head out for a late lunch. The weather is cooler than we expected -- it's the tail end of winter, so we wear thin jackets over sweaters and jeans.(January, however, is the height of Argentine summer.) We wander through the aptly-named Palermo Soho, one of two sub-districts (the other is the nightclub district, Palermo Hollywood).
The sidewalks are crumbling, but the bohemian low-rise buildings and abundance of groovy shops evokes the NYC Soho of the 1970s. There's one square that keeps drawing us in: Plaza Cortazar, ringed with cafés and streets named for other Latin American countries, each leading off to a thousand possibilities.
Although it's also home to museums, a zoo and botanical gardens, Palermo Soho unfolds before us like a hipster theme park. Around every corner is a gem of a shop -- this one selling pretty architecture-themed dresses, that one selling colourful wools or baby gear.
We quickly learn that it's hard to make a wrong turn when you're hungry or thirsty at just about any café, restaurant or traditional grill house called a parilla. (To further distinguish themselves, Portenos don't pronounce the double "Ls" in the way you'd expect. Instead, it's "parizha.") We randomly pick Reencuentrro, a parilla, at the tail end of lunch hour (about 2:30). It's smoky and people are nursing their coffees. We order chorizo sausages and rib steak, the first of many encounters with delicious Argentine beef. And we partake of a very classy salad bar.
An older American couple is getting up to leave as we await our meals. "We've been here every day!" shouts the wife. "We just love the salad bar."
We are pleased that we've hit on a favoured spot, but also dismayed that this couple clearly hasn't pounded enough pavement.
After a reconnaissance trip around the neighbourhood, we hook up with other wedding guests at their breezy, bright apartment (rented through alojargentina.com.ar). Across the street is an Italian restaurant, La Parolaccia, a busy high-end spot where they've made a reservation for all seven of us at the proper B.A. dinner hour of 10 p.m. This is the kind of place you'd reserve for a special occasion back home, but we happily splurge on antipasti, pasta, lomo (the Argentine word for beef tenderloin) in a mushroom cream sauce, risotto and other treats. The final bill: $382 Argentine dollars. This is my first introduction to B.A. math. We each end up owing the equivalent of $25. Imagine a week of being pleasantly shocked every single time you get out your wallet.
Wednesday shopping spree
We wake up refuelled, refreshed and ready for some serious shopping, thanks in part to a mere one-hour time difference.
Colourful separates and leather goods make a store called Prune seem like a candy shop. Nearby, a boutique called Uma favours more trendy pieces, such as shrugs and skinny jeans and multicoloured handbags to match. A summer's worth of hippie-chic and spangly accessories are found at Rapsodia, but for more formal cocktail attire, we browse Maria Marla Facchinelli.
With interior design stores seemingly around every corner, we start to form fantasies of buying and furnishing our own B.A. apartment. At Quiere Espace, for example, we eye an upscale patchwork duvet cover. Not exactly carry-on material, so we wistfully move on. At Pret, we ogle chic upholstered sofas and pretty ceramics.
But in my unofficial survey of the shopping landscape, the coolest stuff is in the menswear arena. Felix is a brick-walled T-shirt and Nikes-heavy destination for B.A. hipsters. On the same street is Bolivia, carrying everything from paisley-lined cotton sports jackets from French line Bensimon to in-house one-of-a-kind fringed piano scarves that all the jeans-clad sales dudes loop lazily around their necks. We buy some of both after I get the go-ahead that girls can wear the scarves, too. I also leave with a burlap shopping bag printed with an image from sixties spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Although it's a hike, we visit another men's hot spot, Hermanos Estebecorena, which is in the Palermo Hollywood district. Here, the streets are silent until the nightclubs get rolling in the wee hours. HE's menswear is industrial design meets simple, almost 50s, fashion. But it's worth the trip just for the little $12 tins of striped socks.
On the recommendation of our hosts, we visit an "It" resto simply dubbed Lomo. My beef-loving man is full of anticipation, but as we move through the huge industrial space, past low-slung lounge seating and up a set of stairs to a second-floor dining area, I'm loving the fancy-casual effortlessness of it all. There's even a record shop suspended halfway up the stairs; we return later to buy tango and bossanova albums.
Grant sighs over sweetbreads, and follows with lomo he declares is top-notch. I nibble on langoustines, and then seven-hour-braised wild boar. There's a raucous French group next to us, which, when paired with the fine food and wait staff fumbling along with us in Spanglish, makes us feel like we could be almost anywhere in the world.
The modest civil wedding service -- the traditional Argentine precursor to the religious union -- is the next day at the city's municipal offices. Afterward, we eat our way through a catered lunch of lomo burgers, traditional corn-and-cheese dishes and an astounding layered dulce de leche cake. Kudos to the catering company, El Cierro de Oro, for the fare -- and their funky napkins adorned with deer heads.
Later in the evening, a group of us stop by the Palermo club of the moment, Mundo Bizarro, which predictably turns out to be a crowded, thumping zoo. We decide the more casual, high-ceilinged Viejo Indecente a few doors away suits us better.
Cemeteries and Cartier
On Friday, before we wrench ourselves out of "our" neighbourhood, we discover Maldito Salvador, a mish-mash of a restaurant featuring red, white and blue tiles so haphazardly arranged it looked like a deconstructed Mondrian painting. There's a stage at the back and lots of flyers for "arty nights" to drill the point home.
Our waitress returns to our table, asking if I want something with my smoked trout salad. Something specific that I can't understand. I nod my head, just to find out, and she brings ice to keep my red wine chilled. After all, café culture is firmly entrenched here, so guzzling your drinks just isn't done. (This proves challenging, since one of my goals is to sample as many of the under-exported Argentine Malbecs as possible.)
We decide to visit Eva Peron in her final resting place: the La Recoleta Cemetery, which dates back to 1822. We travel across the city to the Recoleta barrio in a Radio Taxi and, like the other throngs of people seeking out perhaps the nation's most famous historical figure, we enter the maze of mausoleums armed only with a map.
It's easy to imagine that Evita and the others interred here have been reincarnated as the army of stray cats that prowl around. We watch one feline not so much jump as creepily levitate onto a stone ledge, and decide we should leave well before dusk.
We move on to the Avenida Alvear district, the Fifth Avenue of Buenos Aires, where posh hotels and ritzy boutiques such as Louis Vuitton and Cartier abound. We browse upscale leather at Lopez Taibo, where we try on buttery jackets and eye sturdy brown carpet bags.
Then I strike gold at Filia Artisanis y Cultura, where hand-crafted furniture meets delicate scarves and fashionable ponchos. I buy long wool scarves in cream and mocha for about $40 each.
We check out the menu of La Cabana, a famous steak house nearby, but decide instead to hit a classic snack bar. The Confiteria La Rambla is a wood-lined spot filled with bourgeois families grabbing a post-prep-school snack, and fabulously dressed older gents stopping for a quick coffee.
Here comes the bride
Saturday is the wedding day. "I'm serious. You have to take a nap," David tell us, warning that the party will last till dawn. So we stick close to "home," which is no struggle.
We start with espressos and mini-croissants called medialunas at Calera on Plaza Cortazar. Out in the Palermo labyrinth, I adore a store called Mariana Dappiano, a cavernous space filled with wooly art-chick clothes in rich fall colours, along with inventive handbags and Costume National-like ballet slippers. A few doors away at Tienta Tres, it's girly handkerchief dresses and floaty tops.
We plan for a pre-nap late lunch at what is apparently a must-visit restaurant called Bar Uriarte. Behind a nondescript façade lies a stainless-steel kitchen. Then the room opens up into an enormous dining room flanked by a long bar. Grant noshes on potato pizza and entrada (skirt steak), while I choose hojas verdes (salad with beef strips on top).
David wasn't kidding about the wedding, which takes place in a beautiful old clubhouse in a massive equestrian centre called Tattersall. The invitation reads 8 p.m., the wedding starts at 9, we are sipping our first champagne at 10, with dancing shortly thereafter. The main course: lomo at 12:30 a.m.
A morning-after marketplace
We're surprisingly spry for a big tourist outing the next day in the celebrated San Telmo Sunday market in the crusty old Plaza Dorrego. We pass scores of dusty antiques stores, including Joe Camello Antiguedades and Las Pulseras de Popea, on our way into the square.
A number of market stalls display cool gaucho artifacts, including an antique striped blanket I'd have bought if it weren't for the $350 price. My beau circles the stalls, looking for a birthday present for his horse-riding mother (he settles on a 14-foot lasso). Owing to packing concerns, we pass on one of the de rigueur items of the market: vintage seltzer bottles in shades of blue and green. One stall owner says seltzer used to be delivered to the door, just like milk.
This makes us thirsty, so we drop in on the rickety Bar Plaza Dorrego where, shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbours, we have coffees and flat-pressed tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
Back outside, we watch a pair of melodramatic tango artists ply their trade for the crowd. We then high-tail it over to see the famous presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, named for the original practice of dying whitewash pink with ox blood. It's at the edge of the city's original main square, Plaza de Mayo, which dates back to the 1580s. And yes, you've seen Madonna on the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Evita.
Later that evening, wedding crew in tow, we pay a farewell visit to Lomo. What better way to spend our last evening in Buenos Aires than with a $15 plate of delectable beef?
Pack your bags
Most flights from Canadian cities to Buenos Aires connect in the U.S. Prices start at around $1,000.
WHERE TO STAY
Alojargentina Lodging and Services: 54 (11) 5219 0606; http://www.alojargentina.com.ar. Books apartments for visitors. A one-bedroom flat in the Palermo district, for example, costs about $320 a week.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Reencuentro: 54 (11) 4833 5666.
La Parolaccia: Juan Maria Gutierrez 3765; 54 (11) 4514 3220.
Lomo: Costa Rica 4659; 54 (11) 4833 3200; lomorestaurant.com.ar.
El Cierro de Oro catering: 54 (11) 4854 0111.
Mundo Bizarro: Guatemala 4802; 54 (11) 4773 1967.
Viejo Indecente: Thames 1905; 54 (11) 4775 2666; http://www.viejoindecente.com.ar.
Maldito Salvador: El Salvador 4960; http://www.malditosalvador.com.ar; 54 (11) 4832 1765.
Calera: Serrana 1598; 54 (11) 4831-3850.
Bar Uriarte: 1572 Uriarte;
La Cabana: Rodriguez Pena 1967; 54 (11) 4814 0001.
Confiteria La Rambla: Poseda 1602; 54 (11) 4804 6958.
WHERE TO SHOP
Prune: Florida 963; 54 (11) 4893 2634.
Uma: Honduras 5225;
Rapsodia: El Salvador 4757; 54 (11) 4833 5814; http://www.rapsodia.com.ar.
Maria Marla Facchinelli: El Salvador 4741.
Filia Artisanis y Cultura: Rodriguez Pena 2011; 54 (11) 4813 7869; http://www.filia-argentina.com.
Mariana Dappiano: Honduras 4932; http://www.marianadappiano.com; 54 (11) 4833 4731.
Tienta Tres: Armenia 1655.
Felix: Gurruchaga 1670; 54 (11) 4832 2994; felixba.com.ar.
Bolivia: Gurruchaga 1581; 54 (11) 4832 6284; boliviaonline.com.ar.
Hermanos Estebecorena: El Salvador 5960; 54 (11) 4772 2145; http://www.hermanosestebecorena.com.
Lopez Taibo: Alvear 1902;
Quiere Espace: 2172 Luis Borges; 54 (11) 4772 5533.
Pret: Gorriti 4802; 54 (11) 4831 8135; http://www.pret.com.ar.
Joe Camello Antiguedades: Defensa 1140; usarious.advance.com.ar/joecam.
Las Pulseras de Popea: Humberto 1-496.
Argentina Secretariat of Tourism: http://www.turismo.gov.ar.