'Paris of the South'

PLAZA DE MAYO has been the stage for many of Buenos Aires' significant historical events. -- Photos...

PLAZA DE MAYO has been the stage for many of Buenos Aires' significant historical events. -- Photos by Barbara Bagnell

KENNETH BAGNELL -- Special to Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:27 PM ET

From the harbour, Buenos Aires seems to take great pride in itself, basking in the sun as if to let you know it's no ordinary place. For years some people have called it the Paris of the South. That's an exaggeration. But partly because of its streetscape, partly because of its massive Italian immigration, there's a ring of truth. The harbour is vast, so that on the morning we arrived, it took the ship, The Crystal Symphony, about an hour to make dockside. We said our goodbyes and in a half hour were in a hotel Barbara, my wife, found on the Internet -- an unpretentious Best Western called the Art Deco, clean, central and with a front desk that was obliging and competent.

We stayed most of a week at the Art Deco, and saw much of the city on foot, some by bus, some with a guide, a history lecturer who showed us sites commemorating Argentina's notorious Eva Peron.

We even worked in a trip to the Pampas, the sprawling countryside, eventually stopping at a ranch, where we watched the country's cowboys, the gauchos, handle horses in a ride called a sortija, then had a meal of Argentina's renowned beef and newly popular wine.

The shadow of the country's troubling past is ever near in Buenos Aires. Perhaps it's because of the numerous military dictatorships when, as it's put, many young people were "disappeared."

Perhaps it's because of the paradoxical legacy of the Perons, Juan and Eva, who captivated Argentinians even as they exploited them. It's not that streets are unsafe, but with iron fences around homes and guards at buildings, there's an ominous hint in the air.

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And yet. Buenos Aires, despite its economy being a shambles -- its peso is worth only a third of a U.S. dollar -- does have something special. It has the usual things that attract, a pedestrian-only street called Florida where shops, especially those with leather jackets, are as elegant as any in Paris.

It has stately Teatro Colon, one of the finest of opera houses and Museo Historico Nacional, a museum with artifacts from the 1500s. And it has about 150 parks, many perfumed with the scent of colourful trees. Finally it has its Old Town, La Boca, where we watched people do the Tango in the open air.

But Buenos Aires has a singular and highly practical advantage for a visitor: It's compact. So, our hotel, in a downtown neigbourhood, Microcentro, was on the doorstep of history -- Plaza de Mayo, a square which has been a crucible of Argentinian history, and where, one Thursday at 4 p.m., we watched the poignant, slow march of the remaining mothers of the so-called "disappeared."

And it was only a two-minute stroll to the wide Avenue 9th of July, (it has over ten lanes) named for Argentina's Independence Day, where the country's signature symbol stands, a white obelisk rising over 67 metres.

We did go beyond the city centre several times, including the day Natalie Westburg, a bright historian at the respected University of Buenos Aires, took us with her. We went by car, and on foot, to sites marking the life and death of the loved and despised Eva Peron, a magnetic presence after she married Juan Peron, and even after she died in 1953.

As for the Perons, Natalie gave her personal opinion: "They began with humanitarian conviction. Along the way they acted like dictators." She took us to an office building where Lorenzo Olarte (whose eyes can fill at the mention of Eva's name), opened a room where she once lay in state. "She gave us," he told me, "a sense of our social rights."

But most memorable was what we saw at a new museum of indulgent homage to her: A black and white film of her funeral in the early 1950s. Millions lined the streets, with flowers banked up to first-floor balconies.

We ended at Buenos Aires' famous cemetery, Recoleta, in its wealthy district where in the mausoleum of her own family, the Familia Duarte, Eva's much-travelled body (first in cemeteries in Milan, later in Madrid) was finally buried.

Even here, the controversies of life continue in death: The aristocracy resents a woman of suspect reputation resting among the nobile. Be that as it is, in the few minutes we stood there, a steady trickle of visitors came, many to place flowers. In Argentina, you may bury Eva Peron's body, but you can't bury her legend.

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BOTTOM LINE

- Crystal Cruise, now offering major reductions on many itineraries (1-800-590-1331) or crystalcruises.com.

- The Art Deco (artdecoapart.com.ar). Rates are good: $60 US for double with bath and kitchenette. The Art Deco's front desk is very helpful in arranging any bus or customized tour.


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