By Amy Lively Jensen
Abuzz with joie de vivre, the people of Argentina happily share their culture, food, sights and wines with six million tourists who visit annually. Being one of the fortunate travelers to experience this captivating country, I had incomparable adventures.
Our starting point in Argentina's capital city of Buenos Aires was fascinating and you can feel its vibrancy. Buenos Aires is the birthplace of the tango, so experiencing a tango club was imperative. This steamy dance has been described as "making love in a vertical position." One of the most highly rated theatres is Tango Porteno, decorated lavishly in art deco style. The whirlwind, precise dancers showed different styles of tango with glittery black costumes. The skilled footwork of these athletic, passionate dancers along with first-rate singers and a 12 piece orchestra made for a mesmerizing evening.
Also at the pinnacle of the arts scene is Teatro Colon, one of the top opera houses in the world. Infamous opera singer Lucio Pavarotti called the acoustics "perfect" so no microphones are needed. The brilliant gold dome, intricate stained glass and a 1-1/2 ton chandelier with 500 bulbs were remarkable. Our timing for the tour was perfect; the fabulous opera singers and orchestra were practicing for their evening performance in the 2700 seat hall.
Like Chicago, Buenos Aires has diverse neighborhoods. In the city center, Plaza de Mayo is Argentina's most famous square. It is dominated by Casa Rosada, known as the Pink House. This is where the president works surrounded by government offices. Although there have been dramatic events on the square, they usually have peaceful protests in the square nearly every day. On our visit, the veterans of the Faulklands Island conflict who guarded Buenos Aires rather than being in battles, wanted a military pension. Also towering on the square, is the impressive Metropolitan Church where Pope Francis had preached.
Just off the square is the oldest residential neighborhood of San Telmo. It is best known for its vibrant, colorful Antiques Fair on Sundays. This was shopping nirvana. At the 45 year old arts and crafts market, silver jewelry is abundant; a ring with the country's national stone, the rose inca was about $30. Two miles of tables have thousands of antiques like vintage license plates and crystal, artisan crafts, supple leather goods, handmade ponchos and everything else imaginable can be found at reasonable prices. Street musicians, performers, bands, tango dancers , gauchos on horses vying to put a ring through a tube, and local foods gave me five hours of pure pleasure.
La Boca is the Italian bohemian section. Some artists with Picasso-like style were painting and displaying their work amidst the multi-colored buildings. Devoted Futbol (soccer) fans come here to the two most famous stadiums in Argentina; the blue and yellow Boca Juniors Stadium is shaped like a box of chocolates and the red and white River Plate Stadium is the largest with a capacity of 62,000.
In Recoleta, one of the most expensive and elegant neighborhoods, is a very unusual cemetery that CNN listed as among the top 10 most beautiful cemeteries in the world. La Recoleta is the number one tourist attraction in Buenos Aires which seemed a bizarre ranking in this city
of amazing landmarks, but after wandering through sections of the 14 acres, we understood. A veritable neighborhood of ornate marble mausoleums and sculptures, it is both eerie and fascinating. One of the 4691 vaults houses Eva Perone, the famous first lady of Argentina known as Evita. We were surprised that she was laid to rest in a modest family crypt bearing her maiden name, not befitting her beloved status. Apparently her husband Juan, the former president, had remarried and his new wife wanted an opulent monument just for them. We were amused by one large monument showing an angry-looking couple with their backs to each other. It was designed by the wife who had an unhappy marriage and didn't want to spend eternity looking at her husband.
After a two hour flight, we discovered Mendoza, Argentina's wine country in the heart of the Andes Mountain range. There are 1,000 bodegas (wineries); many are gleaming state of the art facilities. Mendoza is the world's largest producer of Malbec, a richly flavored red wine of blackberry, plum and black cherry undertones. Like nature's finest masterpiece, the view here showed acres of golden vineyards framed by the snow-capped Andes Mountains. We followed the wine path, and enjoyed the Catena Zapata Winery. The winery has a pyramid-like design based on Mayan architecture. Four generations of this family have made fine Malbecs and Chardonnays at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Owner Nicolas Catena Zapata is recognized as bringing Argentina wines to international attention.
Serendipitous timing provided a highlight of our trip. We reveled in the chance to go to the Wine Rock Tour at Monteviejo Winery, a wine-rock festival held every May. There were large wooden barrels filled with many regional wines which we poured out of spigots. The crowd of hundreds danced to the lineup of rock and roll bands on stage in the vineyards. Soaking in the beauty of the mountains with pulsing music, heavenly wines and mouth-watering traditional foods from renowned chefs saturated our senses. While dancing and laughing at our purple stained teeth, we were startled to hear "Sweet Home Chicago" in English. Who would expect to sing Chicago blues with a crowd of exuberant Argentineans?
Another day was spent at the extraordinary Vines Resort, Spa and Winery. Here the 1500 acres of grapevine leaves were turning yellow, coloring their fall landscape. One unique aspect of The Vines is that they sell three to 10 acre plots to wine lovers who want to produce their own wines. They offer a world-renowned consulting winemaker and expert team to guide owners to plant, harvest, bottle and label and ship their wines. Sixty five percent are US owners, with several from the Chicago area.Their 21 villas are luxurious. After a day of tasting, soak in the outdoor handmade clay hot tub of your private deck and watch the majestic sunset over the Andes. It doesn't get much better than that.
It does sound like all we did was drink wine in Mendoza. But, the rivers, valleys and mountains offer action-packed outdoor adventures like horseback riding in the Andes, zip lining and rafting.