Christmas BA style

20130117-152037.jpgWell, just like every year, and just like back home, Christmas soon came around. The great thing here was, I wasn’t sick of it by the time it arrived. Maybe it helped that I didn’t have nearly as much preparation to do, or nearly as many Christmas related events to attend. Though there was still plenty to keep me busy, it didn’t necessarily focus on Christmas. It certainly helped that the city Christmas trees and decorations didn’t go up until the 1st December! Just enough time to start getting a little excited and make an effort to check out the Christmas markets.

20130117-152417.jpgMy Christmas celebrations started on Friday, 22nd December with the Fuudis lunch tour – a fun group of people from different parts of the world, three different restaurants, three different courses, and a couple of nice wines. A fun day out, that a group of us backed up in the evening with Happy Hour cocktails at Fierro Hotel with a few friends who hadn’t been at lunch. I enjoyed time with friends I’d already made here, and met some great new people, including some fellow Aussies who had some great new BA tips for me. In fact, there seemed to be more Aussies in that beer garden that night than I have met so far on this trip.

Plans are not made very far in advance in BA, probably Argentina for that matter. Although each of us had plans for Noche Buena (the more celebrated Christmas Eve event in South America), and invitations from kind friends, there were a few of us foreigners who still wanted to celebrate on Christmas Day, so we finished the evening with some sketchy plans for the day.

On Christmas Eve, the temperature was soaring, hitting the high 30s but with such high humidity that people were quoting the “sensación térmica” or “feels like factor” in the mid-40s. It was oppressive. Nonetheless, fellow Aussie Cheryl and I, troopers that we are, braved the heat to head out in the early afternoon and share a bottle of refreshing Chandon in honour of Christmas. We both had respective family events planned that night and it was fun to compare our preparations.

20130117-152302.jpgI had been invited to spend Noche Buena with Veronica, her partner Nacho, and her family, and I was excited and honoured to be spending it with them. With my goodies in tow, I set off on the bus to get to Vero’s parents’ place, aiming to arrive by 9pm. The heat had really shown no sign of abating and, as I got close to the house, I noticed that power was out along Rivadavia, a fairly main road. Arriving at Vero’s parents, they luckily had electricity and, hence, cooling, but informed me that we weren’t staying there but were continuing on to an Uncle’s house. We loaded up a people-seater with all the food and goodies, and drove – two blocks – to the Uncle’s house! Uncle’s house was huge, and I mean HUGE, and very nice. Unfortunately, they were in the part of the block that had no electricity! Luckily, most of the food had been precooked, and for the time being, the house remained cool from the air conditioning during the day but the heat outside was still oppressive and we were all praying that the power would kick back in.

We set about getting ready for dinner, setting tables, plating up dishes, serving wine and beer, etc. I was given a tour of the cellar which, besides being the coolest place in the house at the time, contained an amazing amount of wine and also a jamon drying room housing numerous jamons destined for Uncle’s many restaurants. With the table ready, some emergency lighting, and all guests present, we sat down outside to eat a little before 11pm. It was still incredibly hot but, just as we started to eat, hooray, the power came back on and the cooling, inside and outside, got cranked up, much to our relief.

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Dinner contained some very traditional dishes, including the Italian influenced “vitel tone” (vitello tonnato), tartaletta de palmito and palta (a kind of mousse of avocado and palmhearts) topped with langostinos, and tongue cured in vinegar, all lovingly prepared by Vero’s mum. There was also an arrollado (a type of savoury roll filled with sandwich type fillings), lots of salads, and a “lechon” – whole baby pig cooked by one of Uncle’s many restaurants. The food was incredible and, like many an Australian Christmas, plentiful.

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As we finished eating the main course, now with the temperature considerably more manageable, Uncle started to serve the champagne. Before we knew it, it was approaching midnight and the count down began to ring in Christmas. There were “saluds”, besos, and “feliz navidad” all round, and the local fireworks began. Vero’s twin nephews got excited and convinced their Dad to let them buy some fireworks which, with the help of the adults, were set off from the backyard.

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We then cleared away the main course and out came dessert, also with many traditional dishes like pan dulce (panettone), turron (nougat), a layered dulce de leche cake with meringue, lots of lollies and sweets, fruit salad and, of course, a little taste of Aussie Christmas (no, not Pav, that would have been far to ambitious in my ill-equipped kitchen and in that heat!), rumballs, which were a hit with the kids.

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At some stage shortly after, the wind picked up and it was almost a Melbourne cool change. OK, not quite, that would be silly. But the temperature certainly dropped and the long awaited rain started. We remained under the cover of the outside patio, enjoying our champagne and merriment. The music was fired up, and Vero´s Dad even showed us his impression of Gangnam style!

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The rain, fortunately, didn’t last long but enough to cool things off, and the roads were safe and dry when Vero and Nacho dropped me off at home, I don’t know, around 4am?

It was a really pleasant night, with really lovely, open and friendly people and I felt truly honoured that they shared their Noche Buena with me. Thanks Vero, Nacho and family xx

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The next day was Christmas and my present to myself was a nice sleep in before getting up and getting ready for the famous Hernan Gipponi brunch at Hotel Fierro. I had heard great things about this brunch since I arrived in BA. Usually only available on Saturdays and Sundays, when they put it on for Christmas, without hiking the price up, it was an easy choice for our Christmas Day celebration.

20130117-152055.jpgThe streets were dead quiet, with everybody either still sleeping, or enjoying leftovers and quiet family time. Gil was waiting when I arrived, and it was to be his first “Christmas” lunch (not because he’s a newborn). Despite not celebrating Christmas, he celebrates good food, and he jumped at the opportunity to join us. Cheryl arrived shortly after and we were welcomed with a lovely glass of champagne, a fitting way to start, and I presented Gil and Cheryl with a little gift pack of rumballs that I’d prepared for them. (I also gave some to my very chuffed door men at the apartment building, who were pleasantly surprised.)

20130117-152320.jpg The flow of courses commenced, with a delicious 62-degree egg dish first, followed by a plate of little tastes, then veal for me and fish for the others, followed by beautiful slow cooked and deliciously tender lamb, an absolute hit with the Aussie girls! My hurried descriptions don’t do the dishes justice, but hopefully the pictures speak a thousand words. For those with sharp eyes, or a really good zoom on their screen, a photo of the menu is attached, or you can read another blogger’s previous comprehensive review here. The dessert was a right-sized piece of hot panettone with rich vanilla icecream. Perfect!

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20130117-152401.jpgIt was such an enjoyable meal, and nice company, and just a beautiful way to pass the time. We were all so excited about taking photos of the food though, that none of us took any people photos! A lesson for next time.

We each rolled off in our own respective directions, and my second gift to myself for the day was a long siesta on the couch.

Later in the evening, I got word from Anne, an Aussie living here and co-founder of the aforementioned Fuudis. She was having an asado (BBQ) at her rooftop apartment and invited me around. Armed with more rumballs and a bottle of champagne, I headed around. Anne’s friend and business partner, Marina was there, and the Columbian crew from restaurant iLatina who had their parents in town from Bogota, and their brother from Barcelona. Santi, head chef at iLatina, manned the parrilla but insisted it didn’t feel like his usually cooking duties in the restaurant. Despite earlier feeling that I wouldn’t eat again for the rest of the year, the meat was delicious and, unlike the heat of the day before, the night was beautiful. I had a wonderful, relaxing time and enjoyed speaking about Columbia with their parents. I think it is nearing the top of the list for next place to visit!

So, although I certainly missed my usual Christmas fun with friends, and our manic and enjoyable family time together back home, I really had an absolutely lovely Christmas in BA, thanks to many lovely new friends.

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Idyllic Uruguay

20130115-173014.jpgAs Christmas approached, I had a small window of opportunity to get to Uruguay before the silly season really hit.  I had planned to at least spend part of the weekend there, but then I got news that Fuudis was running a special edition pre-Christmas lunch tour on the Friday that I really wanted to experience.

So I decided to leave on the early ferry on Sunday morning, and come back late on Thursday night. Now, “early” ferry was going to be tough, given the late nights here, and being a Sunday too, but I thought it was an effort that needed to be made and I somehow managed to get there in plenty of time to clear two lots of immigration – Argentina and Uruguay.

If you didn’t look at a map, and your only experience of Uruguay was from BA, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking Uruguay was an island since it is most easily reached by ferry from BA.  There are a couple of bridge crossings further north, so it is accessible by bus or car, but it takes a lot longer.  You can also fly, but that means stuffing around at an airport, which I try to avoid at every opportunity.

20130115-171847.jpgThe closest available port from the city of BA is Colonia, or more specifically, Colonia del Sacramento and, if you pick the right, high-speed boat, the trip takes a little over an hour.  If you book far enough in advance, you can pick up a one-way ticket for less than AR$200, or about A$40.  For this reason, it’s a popular day trip from BA to escape the city and, dare I say it, a popular “hop” out of the country for anyone needing to renew their 90-day tourist visa.

I went to Colonia when I was last in South America, four years ago, so it wasn’t my primary destination.  Still, I had a couple of hours before I took a bus further west and wandered around the very pretty old town and grabbed some lunch in a little restaurant off the square.  The place is full of cobbled streets, old cars, colonial buildings, and is really quaint.  Definitely worth a day trip or a quiet overnight stay as it’s very quiet and relaxing, and very different to BA.

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In the early afternoon, I boarded my bus for Carmelo.  I had heard there was some nice wine and cheese in the area, and I also wanted to see something different of Uruguay.

I had booked a “hotel de campo”, or a country resort, and it was quite a few kilometres out of the small colonial town of Carmelo.  Travelling through the countryside, it reminded me a lot of country Victoria, with gum trees that the driver told me had originally been introduced from Australia and were useful in Uruguay as a renewable resource.  Everything was green, and very pretty, with lots of horses and cows grazing in paddocks.  At one stage, I could have been driving through the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford.  It made me very nostalgic, and sure that I would love Uruguay already!

20130115-172223.jpgMy hotel, Casa Chic, is very beautiful.  It is fairly new, having only opened in May 2012, and has only about 20 rooms, located in groups of two in small cabins separated from each other for extra privacy, and all with a little terrace and a view over the Rio Plata.  There is a beautiful central living space, full of interesting things and shelves full of books. There’s an impressive infinity pool, a gym, a pool table, and bikes that you can grab to ride around the grounds or surrounding area.  I felt instantly comfortable and relaxed in such a beautiful environment.  Even more relaxed when I had a nice afternoon mojito outside the bar area.  Unfortunately, mojito rhymes with mosquito, and I was soon to find out that there were plenty of those around too.  I was informed afterwards that Uruguay was in the middle of a particularly bad mosquito invasion at that time!

After settling into my room, and testing the bed with a little afternoon siesta, I watched the sunset from my little verandah with a glass of the complimentary wine that had been left in the room.  I got dressed for dinner and headed to the living space where I had my choice of seating.  Along with a family with two young children, I had the impression that we were the only people in the hotel.  Then again, that could just be the privacy of the setting.

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I chose to have my meal on a comfortable chesterfield sofa, propped up with lots of cushions, and overlooking the pool area from just inside the doors, enjoying the breeze whilst trying to escape the mosquitos as much as possible.  I had heard that Uruguay was renowned for its beef, as is Argentina, so thought I should try the steak in order to make a comparison.  Of course, it matched well with a glass of wine from their own bodega, the national grape Tannat, a punchy and highly-tannic but delicious red.  The food was amazing, and honestly the best steak I have had in a long, long time, lending credence to Uruguay’s beef reputation.

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I managed to squeeze in a lovely dessert too – delicious apple pie in a beautiful short pastry topped with a crunchy nutty crumble, served with a rich vanilla icecream and a salted caramel sauce.  Divine!

I slept incredibly well!

The next morning, I grabbed a bike and rode around the grounds, followed for a while by one of the hotel dogs, until he thought I was going a bit far for him.  I then enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in my same prime position as the night before, with a beautiful view.
20130115-172338.jpgIn the early afternoon, I had the hotel driver take me to nearby Bodega Narbona, a winery and cheese dairy.  An old general store, refurbished yet retaining its original character, now houses the restaurant and tasting room.  I chose a wine and cheese tasting, which was incredible, favourites being the mozzarella de bufala and the parmesan, and I picked up some wine and cheese for a Christmas presents.

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After enjoying the incredible tasting, I was given a short tour of the wine making facilities, and the six boutique suites on site, before being picked up by the driver.

I had time back at the hotel for a short siesta before getting packed up to check out.  I certainly got my money’s worth out of that comfortable bed!  I was driven into the nearest town for my bus trip to Montevideo.  The bus trip took close to four hours, and went back through the beautiful Colonia area full of artisan cheese makers, and provided a beautiful sunset before arriving in Montevideo.

It was quite late and I took a taxi to my nearby guest house, where I was met by my lovely host, Ingrid, who showed me my apartment and settled me in with a lovely bottle of wine and some reading material that she had lovingly prepared containing suggestions for the area.

20130115-172441.jpgThe following morning, Ingrid showed me around the neighbourhood a little and I had time to explore and buy a few groceries, stocking up on the last of the mosquito repellent in the supermarket!  Yes, the invasion continued.  In the early afternoon, I jumped on a very comfortable bus (with wifi!) to Punte del Este, where I had arranged to join a sunset wine tour.  It had been suggested that I meet the guide at the Serena Hotel, where I was able to have a nice lunch and a cocktail in the pool area while enjoying a view over the stretch of beach. Beautiful!

I was met at 5pm by my guide, Ryan, and one other guest, Melody, and we were driven to the first winery while taking in the countryside and hearing stories of how our Rhodesian-born, South African-accented, British-heritage host came to be in Uruguay.

20130115-172534.jpgThe first winery was Alto de la Ballena, or Heights of the Whale, a fairly new winery with the first vines planted at the beginning of this century.  We took a little walk up the hill and through the vines.  The countryside was very rocky and hilly, and along with the gum trees, reminded me of where I grew up, not far from Heathcote, and you can see from the land why they have had success with similar varieties as that area.  We returned to the rustic open tasting room, where co-owner Paula gave us a delicious tasting of several of their wines, along with some more delicious local Uruguayan cheeses.

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Our next stop was Playa Vik, an award-winning resort in Jose Ignacio, a beautiful beach area with fishermen boats dotted along the shore, much less developed than the crowded main beach area of Punte del Este.

Here, we were welcomed with a refreshing cocktail and shown around the luxurious grounds. As the sun started to set, we were equipped with comforting wraps to protect us from the cold, and Ryan led us through a tasting of three different wines, including a beautiful aged tannat, and some more lovely cheese and olives.  It was an idyllic setting, and a nice way to end the tour.

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As Ryan had a wine tour booked in a different area the following day, I decided to tag along again, and was picked up early the next morning from my guest house, this time headed for the wine region of Canelones, just outside Montevideo.  Ryan gave us a little explanation of the city as we drove out of town, and we soon arrived at our first winery, H Stagnari, a family winery with a large number of awards.  We were given a tour of the facilities where we saw the girls still labelling bottles by hand, super busy at that time of year with customised Christmas orders, before being treated to some generous tastings.

20130115-172724.jpgThe next stop was Bodega Bouza. Yes, Bouza, except it’s not pronounced “Boozer” but still, a good name for a winery.  This winery was established by a family who made a large fortune in the processed food business and, well, really had nothing better to do with their money.  Luckily, they make some decent wines.  Here, the tour was more extensive with our cute multi-lingual Dutch guide taking us through the beautiful grounds and vines, visiting the barrel rooms and facilities, and ending in the personal vintage car museum before hitting the restaurant for the tastings.

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The setting was fabulous, and I could quite easily have stayed for a lazy lunch, if they didn’t once again fill us up with delicious cheeses and other local products while we enjoyed the wines.

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I chose to be dropped in town a few blocks from my guest house to give me the chance to explore a little more, and walk off a little of the food and wine.  Back home, the hammock in the courtyard proved too tempting and, although I equipped myself with plenty of reading material, I was soon napping away.

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In the evening, I wandered off to the Christmas markets that had been set up in nearby Parque Rodo.  An amazing array of local products, and a great community atmosphere, with lots of families out together.  I marvelled here that, overnight, the stalls were shut up with little more than canvas doors and small locks, and yet remained in tact in the morning.  I somehow doubted that would be the case in Australia.

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I decided to check out one of the restaurants that had been recommended by both Ingrid my host, and Ryan the tour guide, La Cocina de Pedro.  After so much cheese over the last two days, I could hardly do it justice, but the food was wonderful and the place was full, predominantly of locals, which is always a good sign.

Arriving home, I managed to finally catch my other host, Marco, who had been working most of the time since I arrived.  Marco is passionate about Uruguay, and knowledgeable about it’s history and political situation, so was able to give me quite a bit of information about this beautiful country and it’s current situation. Although their President, with an interesting history, is considered by some to be a little strange due to his informalities, he is well regarded by most for giving away the majority of his salary, living simply, and organising fund raisers for local charities.  Although Marco told me about some of the local issues, there certainly doesn’t seem to be the same problem of inflation, or the same complaints that are often heard in Argentina, and life seems a whole lot simpler.

Marco and Ingrid also showed me their “party” room in the basement of the house, which was created after unexpectedly discovered an extra room during a major renovation of the house.  Bonus!

20130115-172823.jpgThe next morning, I was up relatively early, and took a walk to nearby Pocitos to find a coffee and walk along the boardwalk.  The weather was threatening rain, but in the meantime, it was so humid and sticky, it was almost unbearable and my clothes were wet through!  Still, I enjoyed my walk along the esplanade where any whisper of a breeze was most welcome.

After wandering home through the local neighbourhoods and parks, I freshened up and got changed, and headed into the old town area for lunch and further exploration.  Marco was kind enough to give me a lift as the wind had lifted and the storm threatened to land any minute.  Based on that, I decided to lunch first and explore later and, sure enough, no sooner had I sat down than the rain came in great force.

I had chosen a restaurant called Corchos, being one of the few, if not only, restaurants that offer a range of wines by the glass.  I chose the wine flight, which was four small serves matched with four different tapas.  I was attended by the owner, who explained each of the wines and their pairings.  It was delicious, and I followed the tapas with a refreshing wine icecream made from Tannat.

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After lunch, I had time to explore the Mercado del Puerto, or Port Market, then opportunistically decided to jump on the new hop on/hop off bus that was passing just as I came out of the market.  The bus gave me a bit more of a perspective on the further reaching parts of the city before I got off about halfway, and walked back to the house.

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I had time for another nice walk through the Christmas markets with Ingrid before it was time to get a taxi to the port.  I checked in and took the late ferry from Montevideo to BA, which took well over the scheduled 3 hours and got into BA after midnight. By the time I eventually got a taxi and got home, I was exhausted, and very happy to be sleeping in my “own bed” again, albeit having sweet dreams of idyllic Uruguay.

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Fuudis “Green” dinner

There is no shortage of things to do in this town and the last few weeks have flown by.  Aside from all the regular, fixed venues like the range of restaurants and bars, there always seems to be something special scheduled.  My endeavours to check out certain places are often postponed to take up an opportunity that presents itself less frequently.

One of the events that popped up was a themed dinner run by a group called Fuudis, established by an Australian girl, Anne, and her Argentinian business partner, Marina.  Fuudis regularly run Foodie Restaurant tours, progressive dinners that focus on one neighbourhood at a time and take their guests to a different restaurant for each course, with a matching drink at each stage.  There is a big emphasis on mixing and meeting new people and the events attract both locals and visitors alike.

wpid-VerdeFUUDIS_esp.jpegThe themed dinner was a little different to the regular tours and was held in one of the popular Puerta Cerradas, iLatina. The theme – “green” – representing the fast-approaching Christmas season.  Guests were asked to wear something featuring some green, or a little red, and the meal was designed so that each course featured something green.

We met on a designated corner and, once our crowd had gathered, we were led to the nearby restaurant.  The place was huge and, unlike the other Puerta Cerrada I’ve experienced, was set up much more like a permanent restaurant and looked less like someone lived in that part of the house when the restaurant wasn’t operating.

20121215-161541.jpgAfter taking our seats at one of four communal tables, we were served a delicious welcome cocktail, a Cynar Julep with a pink grapefruit hit. We were then presented with a beautiful bread basket featuring three different green-themed breads, a banana and coriander bread, a spinach loaf, and a zucchini focaccia.  Bread is BA is notoriously not good.  Well, bad actually, so it was nice to eat some fresh home-baked bread, albeit a little on the sweet side, but soft, fresh and delicious, three things that BA bread generally is not!

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20121215-161639.jpgYou can see more photos here, so I won’t run through each course but the highlights for me were the delicious prawn skewers – juicy and tender with a pistachio and mint crumb, and the lime and lemon verbena pie for dessert.  The chef was kind enough to switch out the fish course for me …. for veal sweetbreads!  Be careful what you wish for!  But they are a popular dish here and were actually quite tasty.

20121215-161647.jpgWe were served some lovely wines along the way, my favourite being the La Guarda malbec served with the main meat course.  In form true to their networking spirit, half of us were asked to move tables before the dessert course in order to meet a new group of people.  The crowd was about half locals and half foreigners and it was great to mingle with both and practice my Spanish.  There were a couple of raffles after dessert and I seemed to be on a lucky table with 4 of the 7 of us winning something, and me taking home a lovely bottle of Chardonnay.

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It was a great night – a lot of fun, a lot of nice people, and a lot of great food and wine.

It was supposed to be the last Fuudis event for the year, but I was very happy to hear the other day that they have scheduled a Lunch Restaurant tour in San Telmo on Friday 21st December.  Needless to say, my place is booked!

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A long weekend in BA

The last weekend in November brought with it a “dia feriado” or public holiday on the Monday, making it a long weekend.  Nobody really knew what the day was for, but apparently Cristina (Kirchner, la Presidenta) has given a lot of new public holidays in the last year, and the locals are not complaining.  It’s a day off after all and, as it turns out, was National Sovereignty Day.

I started my weekend with a trip to a nearby Market, or Feria Itinerante, that pops up each Saturday in Plaza Almagro not too far from where I’m living.  It was a small market, with only a couple of fruit and vege stalls, a poultry stand, a cheese stall, a health food stand, and a few other small vendors.  It was popular with the locals, and they formed an orderly line along the fence, patiently waiting their turn to be served by the fruit and vege man.  Very different to the “dollar bag, dollar bag” mayhem at the South Melbourne market!  I recognised a couple of stalls from another Feria Itinerante I had visited a couple of weeks before on a Sunday in a different location.  The produce was fresh, well presented and, by our standards, cheap!  I also found some nice, simple and natural muesli at the Health Food stand and stocked up.

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20121215-143622.jpgI love a good market, so after dropping my goodies off at home, I set off to explore another market, the BA Open Air market.  Focusing on organic and health food, it is held (apparently) one Saturday a month in the Bosques de Palermo, part of the large, public green space that is a popular spot for Porteños to get out into the fresh air every weekend.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I caught the “colectivo” to the zoo then walked down to the Open Air market from there.  There were people everywhere, and a lot of colourful food stalls, most of which were serving deliciously healthy ready-to-eat food, which was great because I was hungry after my walk.  It was hot (what’s new) and I was also thirsty, so I grabbed a “limonada con jengibre” (traditional lemonade with ginger) and did a circuit to check out the available options.  There was such a variety of food, and all with a healthy twist – soy empanadas, vegetable tortas, different types of bruschetta, vegetable quesadillas, wholegrain muffins and cookies, vegie burgers, bruleed cheese on a stick.  OK, I’m not so sure about the health benefits of this last one – slabs of cheese that they “bruleed” with a little blowtorch like you would, well, a creme brulee – but I guess at least they didn’t deep fry it!  There were tables set up down the middle of the market, and I chose an irresistible looking chickpea burger on wholemeal bread served with a range of accompaniments including a light spiced carrot puree, peas, and sprouts, and found myself a little corner of table in the shade.  Delicious, and I felt like I was eating something that was really good for me, and topping up the vegie quota after so much protein in this city.

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There were also a lot of stalls sampling and selling their products to take home – the usual range of olive oils, preserves, and cheeses, organic wines and beers, and a variety of other goodies.  My favourite was a stall with premixed spice grinders and a yummy chilli sauce by a woman called Narda Lepes, who I’ve since found out is an established chef and one of the organisers of the Feria Masticar.  With her face on the label of her products, she reminded me of “our Marion” back home.

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After my time in the open air market, I took a little walk through the beautiful Rosedal, the Rose Garden.  It’s beautiful green and manicured, and has a little canal and lake in it with some very ornate bridges.  On the day I was there, it seemed a popular spot, particularly for boy and girl scouts, and for young couples wanting to express there affection by the waterside.  Public Displays of Affection are a common pastime in BA and nobody is going to let a group of scouts get in their way.

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Outside the Rose Garden there are many walking and bike tracks, and there were people everywhere, exercising in some form – running, riding, using the fitness circuit, roller blading, etc.  I ended up walking most of the way home, quite a way, which deserved a well-earned afternoon siesta on the couch.

After my nap, I freshened up and headed out to check out what has been lauded as BA’s one true, authentic Mexican restaurant, La Fabrica de Tacos.  As predicted, there was a line out the door but, being one person often has its advantages and I was seated straight away in the bar area.  As much as I’d been picturing a nice margarita to go with my tacos, the Happy Hour special of the day was a Kiwi Daquiri and I was converted. The restaurant had a “trompo”, much like what is used for souvlakis, cooking meat for the Tacos al Pastor, and a couple of different hot sauces available on the table.  The service was slow, even slower than the crowd may have warranted, but the tacos were tasty and the drink refreshing.

20121215-143801.jpgAfter dinner, I went to a nearby bar, Sheldon, where the Happy Hour (which run for about 6 hours here, if they ever finish at all!) Cocktail was a “Caipicuya” – a deliciously refreshing passionfruit caipirinha.  I managed to secure a little couch seat in the corner of their leafy courtyard, and past the time enjoying my drink and the beautiful evening.

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The next day, I was up and out to take a trip to Mataderos and then had plans in the evening (can you call it “evening” when you know you won’t go out until close to midnight?) with some local girls, Gi and Andy, that I’d been put in touch with by a mutual friend.  That definitely required a “pre-match” siesta.

Sure enough, the girls swung by and picked me up in a taxi at about 1.30am, and we went straight to a nightclub in Palermo, Rosebar.  The girls had a name that they dropped at the door which, if you got there “early” (before 2am), gets you in free and gives vouchers for free food and a free drink.  The club was large, and there were a few people there already, but it wasn’t close to full yet.  There was some outside seating and we sat outside, enjoyed the fresh night air and caught up over our drinks since it was the first time we’d met.  Once the crowd started to build, we went back inside to dance for a while.  When we came back outside again, it had been raining and the night had cooled off and, with the sun starting to light up the horizon, we decided to call it a night.  With a lot of people having the same idea, it was a little hard to get a cab at first, but I was soon home and ready for bed … at 7am!

At 11am, I dragged myself awake to go and have lunch with some American friends I had met here, Tony and Scott, who were leaving that day.  I met them at a nice, health focused cafe in Palermo, BBlue, for a salad filled sandwich and a nutritious juice.  It’s close to my new yoga class, so has since become a regular juice or lunch stop.  They had just come back from Mendoza and had a couple of cartons of wine specially packed to take back to California.  They also had a couple of stray bottles that they didn’t want to have to carry back with them so, lucky me, I was the recipient of two lovely bottles of Argentine red. Thanks guys!

After saying goodbye to them, I spent some of the afternoon wandering around Plaza Palermo Viejo.  Although it was Monday, being a day off, it was just like a Sunday, with market stalls set up around the plaza, families out in full force enjoying the day, and musicians and buskers entertaining the crowds.  A nice way to end an enjoyable long weekend.  Thanks Cristina!

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Tigre

Right from the time I arrived here, before even getting off the plane actually, one of the things that the locals suggested I do, was take a day trip to Tigre.  Mind you, when I mentioned that I was thinking of going and staying overnight, they looked at me like I had two heads and said “Por que?”, explaining that there wasn’t much to do unless I went to one of the islands, where it would still just be me and the mosquitos.

Tigre is a town just a little north of BA, where the river delta system starts to spread out, creating a maze of little islands and a web of rivers.  It is a popular weekend getaway for city dwellers, some of whom keep holiday houses there.  Deciding to beat the weekend rush, I decided to go on a quiet Tuesday, when the rest of the city was working.  It’s only an hour away on the local train – when they run on time!  The train services seem to have been having all kinds of trouble here lately, so it took me a little longer than anticipated to arrive, but I was still there by midday.

20121211-164027.jpgTigre is ALL about the river system, so the first thing I did was go in search of a nice little boat trip.  I’d already been warned that tours of any more than an hour or two, although a relaxing way to pass time, were really just more of the same thing.  Plus, we all know what happens when you book “a three hour tour” (queue music!).  I bought a ticket for a one hour boat circuit, which included a free ticket for Tigre’s version of the hop on/hop off tourist bus.  I had an hour to kill before the boat trip, so I had a quick walk around town.  I could see now why friends had warned me that there wouldn’t be a great deal to do here had I stayed overnight!  The town is split in two by the river running through it, with only a small city centre.  There are some beautiful buildings, like the Buenos Aires Rowing Club, Argentina’s first and most important Rowing Club.

It was a steaming hot day, so the best spot to be was by the water, where there was at least a slight reprieve if you caught the whisper of a breeze, so I spent the last 10 minutes of my time sitting under the shade of a big tree and snacking on a yummy meat empanada.  The temperature had been building over the previous few days and a storm was forecast to break the heat, but didn’t show signs of arriving for a day or two yet.  Add the already high heat and humidity with the proximity to the delta and, whooshka, it felt like having a second skin.  I was happy when the time came to board our little boat for the tour, and I positioned myself in a breeze maximising position.  There were only four other tourists on the boat, a Spanish couple and a Canadian couple, and we were welcomed with a very sweet mini cup of coffee and an alfajor, the popular sweet shortbread biscuits sandwiching a layer of dulce de leche.

20121211-164035.jpgWe got a nice view of some of the town’s sights as we left the port, like the beautiful Museum of Fine Arts which was once a casino and has been preserved for its current, more cultural use.  We were then into the river and island network, and our guide explained to us that the islands have no connection to the main town other than by boat.  There are no roads on the islands and, although some islands have foot bridges across the canals between them, there’s no bridge that connects to the main town.  The houses along the river range from very large and pristine, to delapitated, tiny and run-down, but most have piers built out into the main rivers, even if they don’t have boats.  There is a “colectivo” local boat service, much like the bus network in BA but on a much smaller scale, that can be flagged down from your own private pier or one of the colour-coded public piers.  Locals use the colectivo either to get back and forth from Tigre, or to move between islands, but a particular hazard is missing your stop because, unlike the city, you can’t just hop and walk back a stop!

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Along the way, other than private residences, we saw a couple of holiday spots, reminiscent of holiday camp sites along the Murray, and a small beach with imported white sand that gets topped up from time to time when the sand has been washed away.  There were a few people swimming or jumping off docks, but the water is dirty and polluted and there’s no way you’d get me in there.  We saw a group of school kids coming out of school for the day and waiting for their school boat to do the school run home. It must be a completely different way of life out here, and the locals biggest worry is high tides and flooding, which can occur in the wet season and, for this reason, many of the houses are built on stilts.  Our guide pointed out ex-President Sarmiento’s prior home, which has now been encased in glass to protect it from the elements, and also showed us the garbage collection boat filling up with fuel to start his run.

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20121211-164243.jpgWe were soon back to town, having enjoyed our relaxing meander along the rivers, and I decided to take advantage of the hop on/hop off bus to see a little more of what the town has to offer.  I got off at the furthest most spot, the Museum of Fine Arts, but the driver told me that it’s shut on Tuesdays.  I took a nice walk along the water, back towards town, and decided to sit at probably the only true riverside restaurant, Il Novo Maria del Lujan.  I sat on the large deck, catching the ever so slight breeze, and ordered something to eat and drink.  It was too hot for a wine (yes, I really just said that), so I ordered a “licuado”, basically a blend of fruit, water and ice and, given this nation’s sweet tooth, probably a fistful of sugar.  I was also not that hungry given the heat and the earlier empanada, but ordered an appetiser of Milanesas de Mozzarella, sinfully delicious little discs of mozzarella, crumbed and fried and served with a little homemade tomato sauce.  For what I had, the restaurant is not cheap, but the location was great and it was worth it just to enjoy the Riverside deck and the breeze for a while.

I then took off walking back towards one of the other museums that I knew was on the bus route, and got back on the bus.

20121211-164300.jpgOne of the main attractions to Tigre is the Puerto de Frutas, an old fruit port that has now been converted to a shopping district for all kinds off things, but particularly furniture and household items made from the wood of the local area.  The bus driver told me that you can’t move in the place on weekends, it’s so busy with all the people that come into town, but that it would be quieter today and a lot of stalls would be closed.  He was right, and although there was some nice stuff in the stalls that were open, I’m not exactly in the market for furniture and household items, so it didn’t take me long to look around.

As I left the port, I saw the station where the Tren de la Costa, or Coast Train, leaves from. It is 8 times the price of the local train I arrived on but, at 16 pesos, it’s still only about $3.50, and it is apparently cleaner and more scenic.  I decided to take a look but a train left just as I walked up, and I couldn’t be bothered waiting for the next one in 20 minutes so instead, walked back into town to the main train station to get the local train back to Buenos Aires.

It was still steaming hot, and I had time to stop and buy an icypole at the train station, where the lady told me that she has just about been bought out. I’m glad it wasn’t just me feeling the heat!  Thankfully, the train was cool and not too full, although the trains still weren’t exactly running all that well and, much to the disgust of many people who needed to continue on, the train terminated two stations early which, fortunately for me, was my stop anyway.  Phew!

A great day out, and something very different to anything I’ve seen before.  I can see the appeal of renting a house with a group of friends and escaping the city for a long weekend, but my friends had been right about not needing more than a day trip.

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Polo Argentina

20121210-182846.jpgI had been told since I arrived here that the Polo is famous in BA, and a must see. The Argentinian Open Championship was in progress right here in Palermo, and it was something I fully intended to do one weekend but, picturing a hot, dry, dusty polo field, and considering the hot weather, I continued to put it off.

I was talking to a friend, Roxana, one Saturday evening, and she told me that it was the last weekend before the final the following weekend, and that it was really something I should do while in BA. She also offered to put me in touch with a friend of hers, Miguel, who is a Polo fanatic and was going the next day. I was convinced, and committed myself to getting there on the Sunday.

For some reason, after searching on the internet, I got the times wrong and arrived at the ground at 11 am, thinking I had missed the beginning of the first game at 10 am. Well, it turned out that the first game didn’t actually start until 2 pm and gates would not open until 1 pm.

20121210-182854.jpgLuckily, the Polo fields are directly in front of BA’s racecourse, the beautiful and historical Hipodromo.  I took a walk around the beautifully kept grounds, and sat in a lovely cafe for lunch and a coffee while reading (to the best of my ability) the newspaper. I also made contact with Miguel, who was not arriving until the second game and we arranged to meet at the end.

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I headed over to the ground and quickly learnt that my earlier assumptions had been completely incorrect. Unlike any polo I’ve ever been to in Australia, the grounds are really well kept with fixed buildings in place and good facilities. There were a number of classy demountables set up, some containing information on polo-related subjects, others as meeting and entertaining points for sponsor companies and the teams, and a large store “La Martina“, a popular brand of polo apparel. There was also a large Stella Artois bar with a replica trojan horse, in reference to a recent marketing campaign here, and a big Chandon champagne bar/restaurant. It was only just starting to fill up but the atmosphere was already amazing.

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After a quick look around, I headed over to the field where the first game was to be played. It was a stinking hot day, and I was lucky enough to find a space for one in the shade on the concrete bleachers. The game was in progress, and I was fortunate enough to have a knowledgeable Argentine next to me who explained the status of the teams and some of the things that were going on. Given the late stage of the Open, the game was actually meaningless to the outcome of the Championship, but the crowd was still enthusiastic and passionate.

20121210-182940.jpgFor the second game, I transferred to the larger stadium where I had an undesignated seat in the bleachers. I had been warned that there was no shade in the main stand and I had my hat on, but the sun was relentless. After a couple of chukkas, I decided to take a little walk to get some relief from the sun, and as I was walking in the shade, I saw a woman who had pulled up a chair from a nearby icecream stand and was sitting in the shade under the bleachers. I thought it was a great idea, and did the same, ending up with an uninterrupted eye-level view of the game in a shady spot with a nice breeze! The only hazard was falling bottles from the stands above, but I managed to get through unscathed.

This game was the semi-final, and the level of skill was incredible, both of the horses and the players. I was fixated! It was a close game, and I seemed to be picking up the rules, which I’ve somehow managed to miss when I’ve attended the polo in Australia! (Much like the games there really!)

20121210-183049.jpgThe horses are obviously a huge part of this game, and are well treated and respected. It was great to see them thundering past at eye-level, either on the field, or off the field as they were changed out and ridden back to their shady enclosure for a well-earned rest. One of the booklets I was handed at the gate was completely dedicated to the horses and their breeding, listing every horse playing in the Open and their lineage, with the booklet containing related advertisements regarding artificial insemination and even cloning of champions! The scoreboard regularly shows which player is riding which horse, and posts the horses names at each change, and there is even a Best Horse of the Championship each year, which becomes super important in the breeding.

At the end of the game, I somehow managed to locate Miguel and his friend, Vicky at the designated meeting point. Miguel was ecstatic because it was his team, Ellerstina (pronounced here as “Esherstina”) that had won and would play in the final the following week. Vicky’s team, La Dolfina, had already earned their place in the final, so they were both happy about the coming week.

We made our way through the crowd and managed to get close to where the winning team was celebrating, before heading back to the Chandon bar to share a bottle of champagne. The sun had dropped a bit and there was a slight cooling breeze, there was music playing and people everywhere outside the bars, and the atmosphere had gone from amazing to truly electric.

I didn’t know anyone, but Miguel started pointing people out to me who were apparently famous, and I ended up having my photo taken with some people I have since had to google! One was a male Argentinian model who I subsequently saw on three billboards on the trip home alone, and one was the Captain of the winning team who is reportedly one of the best players in the world, Facundo Pieres.

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We stayed for a while, dancing a little, enjoying the music, the champagne and the atmosphere, and I left determined to jump online the next morning and secure my ticket for the final.

I managed to do so, and looked forward in anticipation to the following Saturday coming around. During the week, I also made contact with a “friend of a friend” from Melbourne, Cheryl, and arranged to meet her after the game.

20121210-183131.jpgThis time, I had a designated seat not too far from Miguel and Vicky’s season seats and, being only one game in the afternoon, there was no need to arrive too early. I already had my team, deciding to follow Ellerstina who I’d seen win the week before. It was another hot day, though not quite as bad as the week before, and I managed to persevere in my seat without escaping under the bleachers! The game was incredible, with the skill level just amazing, and I didn’t want to miss a thing! I couldn’t believe some of the shots, including some calculated shots between the player’s own horse’s legs to reach team mates on the other side. The horses were incredible too, and you could tell they were enthusiastic and loving the chase! I quickly decided that Facundo was my favourite player and his skills were particularly good (nothing to do with his looks of course!), at times bouncing the ball off the mallet several times before hitting it onwards. The crowd loved him too, calling out his shortened name “Facu”, which you have to be careful with in English!

The game was close, but Ellerstina brought it home 12-10 after having a particularly successful 5th chukka following the break.  I caught up with Miguel, Vicky and Cheryl after the game, and we made our way over to the winners podium where we saw numerous awards handed out, but most importantly, the Championship Cup, the Best Player of the Championship (Facu of course), and the Best Horse of the Championship.  In true form, Miguel managed to get our photo taken with someone famous, this time a hot international Polo Ralph Lauren model.

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We made our way to the Chandon bar where the group grew as Miguel and Vicky met up with other friends. It was another evening of great company, refreshing champagne, a buzzing atmosphere, and a beautiful climate. I’m hooked, and I think future trips back to BA will have to be organised around the polo!

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Mataderos

20121210-172553.jpgOne hot Sunday, I decided to make the 45 minute “colectivo” trip out to Mataderos for the Sunday fair – Feria de Mataderos. Mataderos is now a suburb, but once upon a time, it was a town outside of Buenos Aires – a town where cattle was brought in from the expansive countryside to be slaughtered and the meat distributed to Buenos Aires and surrounding areas.

Mataderos, literally meaning slaughterhouse, now hosts a street fair every Sunday. Originally the home of genuine “gauchos”, Argentinian cowboys, it still attracts people from
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