Thursday, 19 November 2015

Palermo, Boca, Jazz and more - Buenos Aires for beginners part two.

In my first post from Buenos Aires I concentrated on the San Telmo neighbourhood in the centre of the city. This post covers Palermo and Boca two very different areas, takes a brief look at the city's jazz scene and a few of it's best art nouveau buildings.

Decorated house, Palermo
In recent years, the Palermo neighbourhood has become extremely fashionable with its many cafes, restaurants, design stores and other stylish destinations. Steak restaurants are ubiquitous (and excellent) in Buenos Aires but in Palermo it is easy to find alternatives. My favourites included the design conscious Fifi Almacen at Gorrita 4812 which offers colourful salads and very fresh sandwiches and soups as well as bowls of fresh fruit salad. All nice and simple and all delicious. Of course they also have excellent patisserie and good coffee. I also enjoyed Mott Cocina de Mercado, an open fronted super stylish bar and restaurant at El Salvador 4685 which sources most of its food locally. Some good vegetarian dishes are available alongside the meat and fish choices. I enjoyed ravioli stuffed with pumpkin in hazelnut cream and sun dried tomatoes, but the dessert - banana soufflé with dulce de leche and a shot of Baileys topped the bill for me.

The best Mexican food is found in Mexico (!) but Xalapa at El Salvador 4800  has quesadillas and other standard dishes as well as a very interesting (and very strong) coffee laced with an orange liquor. And if you or your traveling partner absolutely must have steak,  La Choza at Gascon 1701 is a great choice. You are unlikely to see other tourists here. The service is attentive in an old fashioned and unobtrusive way and for those who don't want steak, grilled chicken, large salads and pasta dishes are also on offer. A nice touch is that the coffee arrives with a tiny ice cream served in a shots glass - so no need to order dessert!

Palermo also has a number of book shops. Libros de Pasaje at Thames 1762 combines a book shop where the stock is set out on a series of tables as well as on beautiful wooden shelves, with a good cafe where you can linger over the latest titles. There are a few volumes in English including translations of some of Argentina's leading writers - but it is generally quite hard to find English language books in the city. I asked about this in a couple of places and was told that there are high import duties on books from overseas so this may be the reason why.

A couple of other shops that are worth a look are Gorrion at Gurruchaga 1783 which sells bags and other accessories including colourful socks and hats and has helpful, friendly staff, and Bolivia in the same street at 1581. Bolivia stocks a wide range of t-shirts, jeans, sweaters, socks and other mid-priced casual pieces, including a few items for children. 

Apartment building, Palermo
Stained glass feature, Hotel Magnolia
Roof top terrace, Hotel Magnolia
 I chose to stay in Palermo during my visit, in a small (just eight rooms) boutique hotel - the Magnolia - in Calle Julian Alvarez. The hotel is located in two nineteenth century houses that have been knocked into one whilst retaining many original features, especially in the common areas. There is a beautiful stained glass window in the ceiling at the top of the stairs and some beautiful large scale vintage photographs in the lobby. There are also a couple of patios and a fantastic rooftop terrace with views of the Palermo skyline. My room was large and comfortable and the staff extremely friendly, helpful and able to give advice on many aspects of the city. There are a number of good cafes close to the hotel and you can walk to the Bulnes subtle (metro) station in about ten minutes.

Painted houses, La Boca

El Caminito, La Boca
Like Palermo, the La Boca district attracts many visitors, but that is where the similarity ends. In the nineteenth century La Boca was home to thousands of Spanish and Italian immigrants, many of whom arrived during the 1880's to work in the booming beef industry and were employed in meat packing plants, warehouses, processing and shipping. Still a working class area today, it is famous for its brightly coloured houses and shops which are painted in bright reds, yellows and blues as well as for its main tourist street, El Caminito. At the weekend, thousands of tourists come here, many on tour buses to shop in the small crafts fair (some stalls are better than others) and to see the tango dancers performing outside the cafes and restaurants or on street corners.  It is a photographer's paradise with its riot of colour and activity but be warned that the dancers and those who pose in fancy dress will expect a few pesos if you want to take their picture. El Caminito's most photographed feature is the narrow corner where the two main streets meet and where, at the moment, there is a mannequin of Buenos Aires born Pope Francis, welcoming visitors to the area from the window above the Havanna sweets shop..

In addition to the painted buildings, there is a painted wall in the centre of La Boca where a mural shows the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers of some of the "disappeared" - people who were taken, often from the street, during the dictatorship of the 1970's and 80's, and who never returned. More of the mothers later. The mural is the work of artist Lucas Quinto with assistance from La Boca art students. Clearly influenced by the Mexican muralists, the women are shown with Mayan features whilst the names of some of the 30,000 plus who were "disappeared" are included in the work.

Most of the guide books advise visitors to remain in El Caminito and certainly not to stroll alone here after dark as away from the main street it can be a little rough and there is a risk of being robbed. I went during the day and felt safe enough to explore a couple of the streets away from El Caminito and to see where the locals buy their food, stand and chat with their friends and even where they go to church. There are also a number of once very grand buildings that will eventually attract the attention of either developers or wealthy people wanting to live in a more "edgy" area. Let's hope things don't change too much.

Mural by Lucas Quinto
Vintage car, La Boca
Colourful buildings, La Boca
Whenever I travel I try to find live music and in my previous post on Buenos Aires I wrote about the tango. Regular readers will know I am a jazz devotee. Buenos Aires has several venues that feature jazz as part of their programme but Club Thelonius at Calle Salguero 1884 in Palermo is the real thing with concerts by both local and international artists. Situated in a long narrow room on the first floor of a former mansion building, there are two shows most nights with a 9pm (ish) house and then another show starting at half past midnight. I managed to get to two concerts during my stay, both featuring local artists and both excellent. The first was a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie with some of his compositions being played and other tunes being performed in the style of. The second time I saw a great (great!) concert featuring several local young people performing the music of Charles Mingus. The line-up included a fantastic woman sax player and a woman vocalist who gave us some very cool interpretations of Mingus' music. Unfortunately I didn't catch their names.

Still on the subject of jazz, there is a great little music shop in Buenos Aires, Jazz 46 at Esmeralda 482 in the centre of the city where the owner recommended albums by Barbie Martinez, Paula Shocron and Ricardo Cavalli when I asked for some local jazz recordings. I bought all three - and like them all.

Rivadavia 2009 - the dome
Entrance, Rivadavia 2009
It is possible to find almost every architectural style of the last few hundred years in this city, including contemporary, art deco, modernist, classicist, a few colonial style buildings (although surprisingly very few) and lots of art nouveau. There are several buildings in the art nouveau style along Rivadavia, Buenos Aires' longest street which I am advised has building numbers up to 20,000!

Rivadavia 2009 is one of the city's best examples of the art nouveau style. Built in 1907 and designed by the architect Eduardo Rodriguez Ortega, it was originally designed as an apartment block, but fell into a poor state of repair and was semi derelict when restoration work began in 1999. The sensitive restoration included works to the fabulous glass dome - the block's crowning glory. When the sunlight catches the glass, it reflects rich, vibrant colours that can be seen from the opposite side of the road. There is also a magnificent main door to the apartment - all glass and metal and a wonderful (original?) lift cage in the lobby. The ground floor and mezzanine levels are occupied by a car dealing company and the upper floors are once again residential. On completion of the restoration and in homage to  Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, the architects placed the phrase No hi ha somnis impossibles - Catalan for there are no impossible dreams. There are replicas of some of the decorative items from Gaudi's Casa Batllo on the front of the building at 2009 Rivadavia.

The House of Lilies
Ortega was an admirer of Antoni Gaudi and his influence can de seen in the design of both Rivadavi a2009 building and his other apartment block at Rivadavia 2031 - the House of Lilies, built between 1903 and 1905. The house takes its name from the lily stems, flowers and other botanical features on its facade. In the centre of the uppermost level there is a stone sculpture of a man's head, said to represent Poseidon and reminiscent of some of the decorative features found on Riga's art nouveau buildings. There are shops on the ground floor, with residential properties above. The House of Lilies was recognised as a national monument in 2006 and now enjoys official protection.

Still on Rivadavia, at 3216 and on the opposite side of the road to Ortega's buildings, there is a fabulous ensemble known as the House of Peacocks. Designed by Italian architect Virginio Colombo and completed in 1912, it was originally a shop selling shoes for women and children, trading under the name "Rossi Brothers". The business operated on the ground floor with residential space above. Today the building houses a gym, a bed and breakfast hotel and some private flats. I especially like the ornate, pink balconies and the riotous colours of the adjoining building which dates from the same period and which features typical art nouveau motifs with the stylised heads and decorative discs.

The House of Peacocks

Much as I love Rivadavia, my favourite art nouveau facade is at Paraguay 132. It features a stunning ceramic tiled facade depicting a pastoral scene in greens and yellows. The metal balustrades on the balconies have classic art nouveau motifs with grapes and other botanical representations. This slim building was designed by another Italian architect, B. Trivelloni and was completed in 1911.

Paraguay 132
I promised to return to the subject of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. I was able to visit the Plaza on Thursday afternoon and to see the elderly women arriving in a mini bus and staging their weekly march around the plaza. Each one wraps a white kerchief around her head in reference to a baby's nappy and the children they lost during what became known as the "Dirty War" during the dictatorship. Many of them do not know where their children's bodies are and some still hope to be reunited with the grandchildren, taken from those who disappeared and given to families sympathetic to the former regime. It is an extremely moving experience to see these women and one which will be a lasting memory of my time in Buenos Aires.

You can see more photographs from Buenos Aires here.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Cecile Mclorin Salvant - perfection at Cadogan Hall

I first came across Cecile McLorin Salvant a couple of months ago when I heard a track from her new album, For One To Love, being played on Jazzfm. Soon afterwards I purchased that album, her third, and the  the previous one, Woman Child. Both recordings are excellent, showcasing her vocal range, versatility across a range of styles and respect for jazz history. Delighted to discover that she was to perform at this month's London Jazz Festival,  I went to her concert at the Cadogan Hall last night and came away completely hooked.

Supremely confident at just 26 years, she led a sell out audience through gems from the great American song book, compositions of her own and re-imaginations of some of the all time classics of vocal jazz. Throughout she demonstrated her creativity and improvisational skills which also stretch to song writing and producing the artwork for her new album. Tres elegant in silver shoes and silk, she sang in French as well as English partly in acknowledgement of Friday night's terror attacks in Paris and partly because she is as comfortable in both languages. Her parents are both French speakers from Guadeloupe and Haiti and Cecile studied both law and music in France. Opening with a French song from the 1930's she also included the Monique Andree Serf song La Mal de Vivre in her programme, describing it as a song about the blues and adversity but which ends in optimism.

Cecile has been compared to some of the all time greats and her reading of Gershwin's Let's Face the Music and Dance and It Ain't Necessarily So as well as the three Cole Porter songs she gave us demonstrate why. Great phrasing by the way on It Ain't Necessarily So - "Fo' he made his home in that fishe's ab-do-men". Oh yes. She sang with the clarity and inventiveness of Ella - every word being audible and whilst closing my eyes during Porter's So In Love I found myself in 1950's Carnegie Hall listening to Sarah Vaughan's rich tones. These are some of the best songs ever written but they require sensitive handling and respect. She gave them both - demonstrated superbly on Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's When In Rome - the ultimate in sophistication and understatement giving it a straight  reading. 

Serious stuff but Cecile McLorin Salvant also understands humour. There was off mic banter with pianist Aaron Diehl throughout the performance and she teased the audience mercilessly throughout the double entendre filled Bessie Smith number You've Got To Give Me Some - accompanied solely by piano. Cole Porter's less well known Gentlemen Don't Like Love raised a few laughs too. Not to mention that thing she does with the voice "falling" at the end of some lines. 

Throughout the concert, our heroine was supported by a world class trio led by Diehl and accompanied by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers. Diehl also arranged several of the songs. And his arrangements were something else too. I loved the live recreation of the Bacharach and David song Wives and Lovers featured on the new album with its urgent opening and piano punctuation adding impact to the "warning" of the lyrics. Also outstanding was Diehl's arrangement of the Judy Garland classic The Trolley Song - so strong that you really can feel the trolley clanging, bell dinging, motor chugging, buzzer buzzing and all the rest of it. It was her recording of this song that made me realise that Garland is another of her vocal influences, especially in the last line ".…and it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine, to the end of the line…" where I am sure that she purposely pays tribute to dear Judy. Listen to it here to see if you agree.

Other treats included Somehow I Never Could Believe, the aria from the Kurt Weill/ Langston Hughes opera Street Scene, written in 1946 but rarely performed, her own composition Monday and another excellently re-arranged classic, Something's Coming from West Side Story. She received a standing ovation and wasn't going to get away without coming back at least once. She stunned the audience by singing another blues number unaccompanied and without mic and then left with a bow and a backwards wave 

Already the winner of a sack full of awards, Cecile McLorin Salvant is surely a megastar in the making - watch out Dianne and Dee Dee! The concert of the year for me, and I've been to some big ones. More please.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Jewish Buenos Aires

At least 250,000 Jews live in Argentina, making it the seventh largest community in the world and easily the largest in Latin America. The Argentine Jewish community has contributed significantly to the country and has produced many outstanding writers, artists, sportsmen and women and other prominent people. These include musicians Giora Feidman, Daniel Barenboim and Lalo Schifrin, several football players, world judo champion Daniela Krukower and world boxing champion Carolina Duer.  The vast majority of the community live in Buenos Aires and on my recent visit I took a guided tour of some of the city's historic Jewish quarters and sites.

Libertad synagogue
Accompanied by Jessica Cymerman, a native of Buenos Aires and guide for the wonderful Milk and Honey Tours, our tour began in Once. Once is a heavily Jewish area with many tailors and shops dealing in textiles and "shmatte". There is a very visible Jewish presence with a significant Orthodox community as well as shop signs in Hebrew. A theatre which once staged plays in Yiddish still stands here although it performed its last Yiddish production many years ago.  There is even a Kosher Macdonald's in the Abasto shopping centre - don't expect to get a cheeseburger there! The shopping centre occupies an art deco building and the site was the central wholesale fruit and vegetable market from 1893 to 1984. It stood empty for some time before being converted to a mall in 1999. The area also has a significant Chinese and Korean presence which is reflected, amongst other things in the sign outside the district police station which includes Hebrew script in addition to English, Spanish and Chinese. Once was immortalised in the film El Abrazo Partido (translated to Lost Embrace for English speaking audiences). Made in 2004 and directed by Daniel Burman, it follows the fortunes of a Jewish family living in this barrio, with many scenes shot in Once's streets. Well worth seeing.

Textiles shop, Once
Sign for Once police station
It is difficult to visit a synagogue or community organisation in Buenos Aires without making arrangements in advance due to strict security measures being in place which include it being forbidden to photograph the exterior of Jewish institutions. More of this later. Jessica took care of all of this in advance and we made a visit to Once's Gran Templo de Paso at Paso 42. Built in 1929 and opened in 1930 by Russian and Polish Jews it was designed in the Ashkenazi tradition and is still in use today although only attracting a large congregation during the holidays. The synagogue has a large and impressive collection of Torah scrolls - several having been added as other communities closed and integrated into the Gran Templo. I had the honour of drawing back the curtain and opening the Aron Kodesh to reveal the scrolls. Jessica explained that she has a personal connection to this synagogue as her parents were married here.

Gran Templo de Paso
Torah scrolls, Gran Templo de Paso
Gran Templo de Paso
A little history. The first Jews arrived in the country following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and fleeing the Inquisition. Many lived as secret Jews and gradually assimilated into the wider community. More came following independence in 1810 when the Inquisition was abolished and religious freedom declared. They came to escape persecution and poverty in Europe and in 1889, 824 Russian Jews arrived by sea, purchased land and established a colony called Moiseville with the intention of becoming gauchos - Argentinian cowboys! Short of pesos they appealed to Baron Maurice de Hirsch who funded the Jewish Colonisation Association which at its height owned more than 600,000 hectares of land and housed over 200,000 Jews in co-operative ranches. Today, most of these are owned by non Jews. Perla Suez' book The Entre Rios Trilogy captures the spirit of this period as well as the many challenges and obstacles faced by the Jewish immigrants.

Whilst the gaucho story has become romanticised, the means of arrival of another group of Jews from Europe was far from romantic. Zwi Migdal was an organised crime organisation trafficking Jewish women from Eastern Europe to Argentina, having promised them marriage or employment but instead selling them into prostitution on arrival. Originally known as the Varsovia (Warsaw) Jewish Aid Society, it changed its name in 1927 following protests by the Polish Ambassador to Argentina. At its peak in the 1920's it controlled perhaps 200 brothels and several thousand women held as prisoners and forced to work as sex slaves. An embarrassment to the Jewish community who feared they would be tarnished by association, Zwi Migdal tried to buy respectability by offering funds for community buildings and charities but were largely shunned and their donations refused. In some cases members were even banned from synagogues. The organisation was eventually brought down by one Raquel Lieberman, a former prostitute, robbed by men from Zwi Migdal. Lieberman bravely involved the police and the courts, with a resultant legal case resulted in 108 criminal convictions and the end of the organisation in Argentina. Unfortunately, the activities of the Zwi Migdal provoked expressions of anti-semitism in some quarters including in neighbouring Chile.

There was little anti-semitism in Argentina until the 1930's when as in other countries, fascist organisations and activities were prominent and although Argentina gave sanctuary to some Jews fleeing Europe, it also took in prominent Nazis at the end of the Second World War, sheltering them from detection and justice. This included Adolf Eichmann who was famously caught and kidnapped by the Israeli secret service in 1960, spirited away, tried and executed in Israel. It is interesting to note that following the kidnapping, the Argentinian government protested and sought reparations for breach of sovereignty at the United Nations. In later years Jews suffered disproportionately under the dictatorship in the 1970's and 1980's, accounting for 1,900 of the 30,000 "disappeared" constituting 12% of the victims but only 1% of the population. Some of the mothers of those who disappeared still demonstrate every Thursday afternoon in Plaza de Mayo - both Jews and non-Jews.

Commemorative window that survived the 1994 AMIA blast intact
Back to the tour. The Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), is a short walk from the synagogue. It provides a range of services to Buenos Aires' Jewish community including health and welfare support, education, cultural activities and a home for various Jewish organisations. The building is striking and modern. The original AMIA was destroyed in a major terrorist attack on July 18th 1994 when a suicide bomber drove a van containing 275 kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and fuel oil mixture into the building creating an explosion so powerful that the entire structure collapsed. The attack is known to have been masterminded and carried out by Hizbollah operatives. No-one has ever been charged with organising the attack and there is much controversy about the way in which the investigation has been handled over the years. Some of this is reflected in the various monuments to those murdered such as the ironic murals in the Pasteur Subte (metro) station just around the corner from the AMIA building, one of which shows the hunt for justice represented by a blindfolded woman being led through a maze by a tortoise. A pretty clear message I think. The AMIA bombing followed a similar attack on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 which killed 32 people.

A couple of items that survived the blast intact are displayed in the lobby of the new AMIA building, including a stained glass window given to the community in 1968 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Israel's independence and the 75th anniversary of the AMIA. There is a memorial inside the AMIA courtyard designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. It consists of nine poles, each 3.7 metres high decorated in bright colours and which form different patterns depending on where the viewer is standing. These include representations of destruction, a Chanukiah, a white Magen David, a rainbow, a menorah, a coloured Magen David and the AMIA symbol. The pillars are placed on a large platform in the shape of a Magen David, complying with the Biblical requirement that "You must not make image or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth".

The AMIA bombing was the subject of an excellent film Anita made in 2009 and which followed the experience of a young woman with Downs Syndrome whose mother is killed in the bombing and who is temporarily lost to her family and unable to explain who she is or where she lives. Directed by Marcos Carnevale, it features a wonderful central performance by Alejandra Manzo. The bombing is also referred to in a more recent Argentinian film, God's Slave, directed by Joel Novoa and made in 2013. 
Yaccov Agam's memorial in the AMIA courtyard
AMIA memorial, Pasteur Subte (metro) station
The tour concluded with a look at several other monuments, including one to Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg and a visit to the small but interesting Jewish Museum at Libertad 769. It holds temporary exhibitions and stages cultural activities as well as showing items from its permanent collection including paintings, textiles, religious objects and documents. From the museum, visitors can enter the exquisite Libertad synagogue. Built in 1932, close to the Teatro Colon, the synagogue is home to the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica de Argentina. It has a beautiful interior which includes a dome decorated in gold leaf (pictured at the top of this post), pink marble and beautiful stained glass windows.

Buenos Aires is a very big city and the tour took about four hours, but the time passed very quickly and Jessica was an excellent guide - friendly, entertaining and able to answer all of my questions - including those about non-Jewish sites in the city. Thanks Jessica and thanks Milk and Honey Tours too!

Libertad synagogue
You might also like Cafes, tango and a marvellous market - beginners guide to Buenos Aires part one.

You can see more pictures from Buenos Aires here.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Montevideo - Art Deco Capital of South America

Montevideo is a relatively small capital city, but it has one of the largest collections of art deco and modernist buildings in the world.  These architectural treasures date from a period of social and economic advancement in the 1920's and early 1930's and include many (very many) apartment blocks, cinemas, sports stadia, shops and commercial buildings in almost every corner of the city.

Detail, Palacio Lapido
The adoption of art deco and modernism fits well with wider social developments in Uruguay in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Church and State  were separated before 1910 and the country declared secular in 1917, whilst access to education was expanded, an eight hour working day and unemployment pay introduced (in 1914!), divorce legalised and the death penalty abolished. Although some of these advances were overturned during and following the Great Depression, Uruguay was for a time, possibly the most socially advanced country in Latin America.  This is reflected in the architecture of the period.

I recently spent a few days there and was able to make contact with Marta of Arquitectura Tours Montevideo who led me on a tour of some of the city centre's art deco and modernist buildings. I saw many fine examples of the style on the tour but there are many I have yet to see. The city has many other delights too, which I have already written about here, and together with the deco almost certainly means another visit is in order! I have picked a few of my favourite buildings to write about here.

Palacio Lapido on the main boulevard, Avenida 18th July was one of the highlights of my visit.  Built in 1933 and designed by architect Juan Aubriot, this modernist building was originally the home of the People's Tribune newspaper. It ran from 1879 to 1960 and was a liberal daily promoting free trade and acceptance of different religions and minorities. Constructed from reinforced concrete and cement columns and slabs, the Palacio makes a spectacular impact from its corner location with its differing staggered heights, a fin at the apex and the  glazed "ladder"on the stairwell. Best of all are the contrasting square balconies giving on to the Avenida and the delicious curved ones at nine of its 12 floors. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989, today it houses retail and office spaces.

Palacio Lapido
A short walk away, Calle Juan Carlos Gomez runs across Plaza Matriz where the city's cathedral and a popular park are located. Number 1388 was built in 1931 and designed by architects Vazquez Barriere and Rafael Ruano, in an elaborate art deco style. The main entrance to the building is extremely ornate with decorative panels above the door and to each side as well as wonderful 'sun-rays" metal detailing set into the glass of the doors themselves. You will see the doors first, but do make sure to look up and look down too. Look up to see the central part of the facade, which features decorative panels and square windows and the balconies to each side. The balustrades change as the building rises with a classical style cement balcony at the first level followed by a deco design in cement and then a series of differently designed metal rails at the upper levels. Beautiful. Look down at the pavement to see one of ten tiles to be found in the city identifying important art deco buildings and, where known, the details of the architect and the date built. The plaques were the work of Arquitectura Tours Montevido who won a competition to carry out this project and have produced a map and small booklet to help visitors and enthusiasts to find the buildings.

Entrance, Calle Juan Carlos Gomez, 1388
Look up! Calle Juan Carlos Gomez 1388.

Hall, Treinta Tres, 1334
Another building in the plaque project is Palacio Piria, an apartment block at Calle Treinta Tres 1334. Designed by Alberto Isola  it was built in 1928 with shops on the ground floor and apartments at the upper levels. It has highly decorative features in the ground floor common areas and I was lucky enough to be able to see the hall with its symmetrical arches, speed lines and fabulous stained glass windows in the side recesses. The block was built at the request of businessman Juan Fernando Piria who started life in the tailoring industry. Fittingly, the adjoining property is a tailor's shop and has a spectacular art deco floor. The shopkeeper knew Marta and was very happy for me to photograph the parts of the floor not covered with carpet. Piria was also responsible for the development of Piriapolis, a summer resort with a grand hotel.

Stained glass window, Treinta Tres, 1334
Detail, shop floor, Treinta Tres
Unfortunately, the dates and architects' details for several buildings are unknown. There are two examples of this in Sarandi, the main pedestrianised thoroughfare and shopping street in the Ciudad Vieja. Both are buildings I particularly like and are pictured below. The first, a corner building with the central curve dates from between 1930 and 1940. It was originally designed with retail on the ground floor and residential above. The building opposite with the layered windows, fins and glazed stairwells was built between 1940 and 1950 as a department store. Both require some care and attention but it is not difficult to imagine how striking these neighbours would be if repaired and cleaned up and what an impressive street this must have been in the past.

Details unknown, Sarandi
Details unkown Sarandi
Palacio Rinaldi stands in one corner of Plaza Independencia and has distinctive decorative stripes at the upper levels as well as different balconies at different levels, metal grille work and facade reliefs. There are several entrances to the building, some of them with grey marble surrounds, patterned lintels and glass and metal doors. Unfortunately some of the doors have lost their glass and in one lobby the lights no longer work. The building has nine floors and built in 1929, it was one of the country's first sky scrapers. It has competition for dominance of the square as the better known Palacio Salvo stands on the opposite corner. Salvo has some deco elements too, but is an "unusual" looking building to say the least. I find Rinaldi much more attractive although it cannot compete with Josephine Baker having once danced in the Salvo! Our friends Alberto Isola and Guillermo Armas, responsible for the Palacio Piria also designed the Rinaldi building. The Rinaldi also has one of the tiles from Marta's project.

Entrance, Palacio Rinaldi
Detail, Palacio Rinaldi
Away from the city centre, Pocitos is a lively residential, business and commercial area which looks onto the gorgeous waterfront and is sometimes referred to as Uruguay's Copacabana due to its beaches and skyscrapers. It is also home to several art deco buildings including Edificio El Mastil at Avenida Brasil 3105, designed by Vazquez Barriere and Rafael Ruano whom we met earlier. El Mastil has a definite nautical feel with those central balconies resembling a ship's prow and (for me at least) the side balconies looking like lifeboats! The main door is also special with its stylish lettering, gold coloured metalwork and wonderful porthole. Unfortunately on the day I went to Pocitos a thick fog descended from the water making my pictures darker than I would have liked. Still, it did add to the nautical illusion with El Mastil surrounded by a sea fog! 

Edificio El Mastil 
Entrance, Edificio El Mastil
Work is going on around the centre of Montevideo to regenerate the city, improve the environment and to attract more visitors from overseas. Interestingly, art deco seems to be playing a part in this. Down in the port area, a former apartment building has been turned into a hotel - Hotel Don - which at Piedras 234 faces the Mercado del Puerto (market of the port), which is filled with restaurants serving the Uruguayan speciality - grilled steaks. Built in 1938 and designed by the architect Nin, the hotel represents a real leap of faith as the port area is not deemed to be the best part of town after dark. 

Back on Avenida 18th July, the Jockey Cub is a spectacular art deco restaurant hidden inside a classicist building dating from 1932 and designed by French architect Joseph Carre.  It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975 but stood closed and unused for many years until the Portuguese hotel chain Pestana acquired it in 2010 and restored the restaurant to its former art deco glory. As well as offering lunches, afternoon tea and dinner, the Club also has a cultural programme with musical and literary events being held there. The next stage of redevelopment is to open a 100 rooms five star hotel in the rest of the building.  The restaurant is a must see for all art deco devotees.

Hotel Don
The Jockey Club
Lobby lights, the Jockey Club
As I noted at the beginning of this post, Montevideo has one of the largest collections of art deco and modernist buildings in the world - probably enough for another post at some point in the future. Until then, another favourite of mine to whet your appetite! This is one of several small police posts built in the 1930's opposite the waterfront in modernist, almost Bauhaus style. When I visited, there was no evidence of them being used for police purposes. They would make very nice ice cream kiosks or even small coffee and cake stands with a few external tables and chairs in the summer. Sounds like a job for me...

Police post, Rambla.
You might also like A Few Days In Montevideo

You can see more pictures from Montevideo here.

Contact Arquitectura Tours Montevideo on their Facebook page.

Friday, 30 October 2015

A few days in Montevideo

Montevideo is a city whose charms are not at first obvious but which soon reveal themselves given the chance. Often seen as a side trip of a couple of days from Buenos Aires, Montevideo is worth much more than that. The city boasts one of the best collections of art deco buildings anywhere in the world (which I will post about separately), has a lively arts scene including a great theatre and live music programme, eclectic cafes and restaurants and some interesting museums - most of which are free to visit. But perhaps the city's best assets are its 25 kilometres of promenade water front and its exceptionally friendly people.

Sunset on the water front
That friendliness is exhibited over and over again - the woman who crossed the street to explain that the restaurant I thought was closed would be opening in 15 minutes, the museum staff who allowed me to come in to the buildings to take pictures, the elderly waiter in a Pocitos cafe who put the wi-fi password into my phone for me despite us not having a language in common and the assistant at La Pasionaria who happily explained many of the design items to me without applying any obvious pressure to buy. Very refreshing after a week in beautiful but frenetic Buenos Aires.

Regular readers will know that I love to stroll in a city, happening upon its secrets and delights. Montevideo is full of unexpected treasures including the wild parakeets that gather in the park adjacent to the Decorative Arts Museum in Plaza Zabal. And the marching band in Plaza Matriz on Wednesday morning where an appreciative crowd politely applauded Cherry pink and apple blossom white and La Cumparsita.  Written by Uruguayan Matos Rodriguez, La Cumparsita is one of the most famous of tango dances and was first performed here in 1916. Tango is an important part of Uruguay's cultural heritage and there are often performances - both dance and singing at the beautiful Solis Theatre in the city centre. I attended a performance there by tango vocalist Malena Muyala during my stay.

Guard accompanying the marching band in Plaza Matriz
One of my other passions is spending time in cafes, reading and writing, observing the people coming and going and of course sampling the coffee and cake - or possibly the hot chocolate. Hot chocolate might be listed on menus here as "submarino"- hot milk with a small bar of the sweet stuff dropped into it, which gradually melts to give a chocolate drink. Montevideo has many good cafes, several of historical importance such as Cafe Brasilero at Ituzaingo 1447. Housed in an art nouveau building and once the haunt of writers and artists, including Eduardo Galeano, the cafe retains a number of original features including its beautiful bar, and attracts both locals and tourists.  Good cake, soups and sandwiches can be had here. 

Cafe Brasilero
Not too far away and also in the old city, heartier meals are on offer at Cafe Misiones. Established in 1907 and originally a pharmacy, the cafe has a beautiful green majolica front as well as a wonderful stained glass ceiling piece.  Las Misiones occupies a corner space at the junction of Misiones and 25 de Mayo streets and is very busy at lunchtime with workers from the nearby financial institutions tucking into grilled meats or sandwiches. I was very good and had a caprese salad which was very tasty. So were the chips I had with it. 

Cafe Misiones
Courtyard, La Pasionaria
La Pasionaria at Reconquista 527 is a more recent addition to Montevideo's classic cafes. Opened seven years ago, it serves high quality soups, sandwiches and light meals during the day in a light and contemporary space within a refurbished 19th century building. I enjoyed a bowl of carrot and orange soup followed by ginger and passion fruit ice cream with excellent coffee. As well as a cafe, La Pasionaria has a well stocked design shop where many of the items are made with recycled materials. Upstairs through a beautiful courtyard, there is a cutting edge boutique - mainly for women but with one or two men's items too. The staff are friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the products. A great place tucked away just a couple of minutes from the main tourist streets and one of my favourites from my visit.

The courtyard at La Pasionaria is filled with colour - the rich blue ceramic tiles of the planter, the lush green plants and the red flowers set off against the whitewashed walls. Montevideo is filled with splashes of colour including the spectacular painted pavement in Paraguay street and the occasional pieces of broken ceramic tile set into the path that you come across, set into the street by an anonymous artist. I am told that she or he wanted to fill the gaps with colour rather than leaving them empty and unattractive. A lot of the old city is being restored and no doubt the pavements will be too at some point but until then it is important to be careful. 

Paraguay Street
Pavement tiles by the anonymous artist
Floor tiles in Carpe Diem salon de te, Pocitos
There are some good, small art museums in the city. I managed to visit both the Torres Garcia Museum at Sarandi 683 and the relatively new Pedro Figari Museum at Juan Carlos Gomez 1427. Both men were important to the development of modern art in Uruguay. Figari's style is best described as naive, with simple depictions of the countryside, people at work and at social events. He is perhaps best known for being the first artist of significance in this part of world to include black people in his work, showing their influence on aspects of Uruguayan culture, especially candombe - an African music form which is very popular here. At the time of my visit, the Figari museum featured several of his paintings, sketches and illustrations on the ground floor with a small but excellent exhibition of items from the National School of Arts and Crafts featuring works produced during his period of management from 1915-17.

Mas Pus Verso bookshop
Torres Garcia worked in Spain with Gaudi no less to produce the stained glass windows in Palma Cathedral and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. He also spent time in New York where he produced a number of expressionistic works depicting life in the city. These, and some of the wooden toys he designed, form the heart of the exhibition in the museum. It also has a good gift shop.  There is a beautiful book shop - Mas Puro Verso - in an art nouveau building next door to the museum. The star of the show here is the dramatic staircase at the rear of the shop and the huge stained glass window on the rear wall. There are some books in English as well as a range of CDs and a cafe on the upper level. I had a third museum on my list - the Jose Gurvich Museum. Unfortunately it was closed during my visit as it is relocating and will be open again later this year. Another reason to come back.

The majority of Uruguayans are descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants, but people came here from many other countries and communities during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them arrived through the port which as in many cities can be a little bit edgy at night but which during the day attracts many visitors to the indoor mercado with its several meat focused restaurants and the surrounding streets which have filled up with bars, cafes, design and fashion shops alongside the more traditional corner stores and residential streets. The Mercado de los Artesanos at San Jose 1312  has a good selection of items made from wood, leather and wool including toys, ornaments and clothing.  El Tungue Le is a quirky little shop selling vinyl records, CDs, musical instruments and objects for the home. There is even a vintage box-style record player used for playing the vinyl on. More stylish than Shoreditch.

El Tungue Le
View down Perez Castellano looking towards the port.
The old city, known here as the Ciudad Vieja can be a little quiet after the shops close but there are several good places to eat and drink. I especially enjoyed Dueto at Bartolome Mitre 1386 and Jacinto at  Sarandi 349. Dueto is a cozy restaurant run by a young couple - Pablo the chef and Mercedes who does front of house. Very friendly service and high quality food made me visit here twice during my short stay. Like most Uruguayan restaurants meat features prominently on the menu but Pablo is very happy to modify the menu to accommodate vegetarians - hence my excellent mushroom risotto. Jacinto is larger and more contemporary in its presentation. Good soups, salads and "modern cuisine" feature on the menu. A big eggplant salad followed by affogato made with dulche de leche for me here. Very nice. 

Something to note - most Uruguayan restaurants list something called cubierto on the bill - a cover charge per person. It can range from 50 to 200 pesos depending on the restaurant and sometimes can be more in the evening than during the day. Its not a tip, but part of the bill so you must pay it. Convert it back to sterling, dollars or Euros and you'll see its really a very small amount and the overall cost will almost certainly be less than you would pay at home for a good quality meal. Also, if you are not staying at an hotel where breakfast is part of the deal you might struggle to find something that you would know as breakfast at home. Urbani in Plaza Zabala serves eggs as you want them as well as coffee and fruit juice. Again, the service is friendly and if you manage to get a seat by the window there's a nice view too. 

I stayed at the Casa Sarandi guesthouse, a great little place in the old city, one short block away from the main pedestrian shopping street and in walking distance of most of the major sites.  Located in an art deco apartment, each of the three rooms has an en suite bathroom and there's access to a kitchen too. Owners Karen and Sergio welcome visitors and provide lots of information including a printed sheet listing places to eat, drink and shop, places to visit and lots of useful practical information about the city and beyond. Karen is also the author of the excellent website guruguay. This is a great tool for visitors to a city that does not yet have a single volume guide in English. Even better, Karen will be putting out the Guru'GUAY Guide To Montevideo in December this year with a lot more information and detail, so look out for that.

Finally, returning to my opening remarks, one of the best things about this city is its long long waterfront and an evening stroll along it is a great way to end any day.  

Look out for posts coming soon on Montevideo's great art deco heritage and also an exploration of the city's surprising Jewish history. A few more pictures to enjoy until then...

Decorated doorway, Perez Castellano
Stairway, Museum of Romance
Stairway, decorative arts museum
Plaza Independencia