Only a street away from the traffic hubs and port depots of Retiro, Recoleta is altogether another world. This area was adopted by upper-class porteños after yellow fever broke out in San Telmo in 1871. Since then it has blossomed into a model of bourgeois refinement with old masters at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and book signings at Centro Cultural Recoleta.
Visitors can roam the labyrinth of Cementerio de la Recoleta or watch canines being pam pered by hired walkers in the parks. In recent years, a hippy market has established itself in the area and attracts visitors from less wealthy districts, but, for all its newfound democratic appeal, Recoleta shimmers with old-style glamor and appeals as much for its inaccessible wealth as its accessible pleasures.
1. Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Donated to the monks of Recoleta in 1716 by Zaragozaborn entrepreneur Don Juan de Narbona, this church takes its name from Zaragoza’s patron saint, Señora del Pilar (Virgin of Pilar). Jesuit archi tect Andrés Blanqui built it along the lines of a classic Spanish church of the period. Later refine ments include an exterior clock made in Britain and Pas-de-Calais ceramic tiles. The exterior murals are inspired by the work of Spanish painter Fernando Brambilia, an 18th-century specialist in perspec tive.
They show a panoramic view of the river and recount the history of the church as well as the area. Inside is a beautiful Baroque altar, featuring Inca motifs, which was brought along the Camino Real mule-train route from Peru. The church is often open between services, and visitors can wander down into the crypt and see a small but interesting collection of religious art contained in one of the adjoining cloisters.
2. Centro Cultural Recoleta
This complex of buildings dates from the 17th century and is one of the oldest in the city. The plot was donated to the monks of Recoleta in 1716, and Jesuit architects Juan Krauss and Juan Wolf drew up the plans. Andrés Blanqui is thought to have worked on the façade and interiors of the on-site monastery. During the 19th century the building served as an art school founded by liberation hero General Manuel Belgrano, and also as a refuge for the local homeless.
The Recoleta barrio became popular with the middle classes in the 1870s. During this time, the first mayor of Buenos Aires, Torcuato de Alvear, began a campaign to Europeanize and embellish the city, and this prime chunk of real estate was reclaimed for the barrio. Architect Juan Buschiazzo was responsible for the refurbishment, adding the pavilions, elegant Italianate terraces, and a chapel, which is now an auditorium. After a brief period as a home for the elderly, the complex was remodeled in 1980 and became the Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR). The barrio may be ultrabourgeois, but there is nothing conservative about the schedule of art events that take place at this sprawling cultural center. About 20 galleries are used for stimu lating visual arts exhi bitions, various theatrical works, and film projections. A number of small dance and theater companies use the CCR as a rehearsal space.
3. Café La Biela
If it lacks the atmosphere and artistic ghosts of the grand Café Tortoni, La Biela still has a certain old-world appeal. The terrace could be housed in the streets of Rome or Paris, except for the tentacle-like branches of the ancient gum tree that cast a cool, leafy shade. Super-efficient waiters come and go, carrying weighty silver trays of masitas (fine pastries) and perfectly machined cups of espresso.
There has been a café on this corner since the early 1850s but La Biela became what it is today during the 1950s, when racing-car drivers met here for their post-race drinks. Monochrome photographs hanging on the inside walls hark back to this period. Nowadays it is a favorite for people-watchers, wealthy tourists, and artists who moved into Recoleta before estate prices skyrocketed.
4. Alvear Palace Hotel
Built in 1923, the Alvear is considered by many to be Buenos Aires’s only truly grand hotel. Occupying a city block where the British Embassy used to stand, the grand 16-floor building (five of them are subterra nean) is a monu ment to Francophilia both inside and out. It is a lasting emblem of the city’s aspiration to be seen as the “Paris of South America.” This luxury hotel has modernized its facilities by adding a spa and keeping its restau rants at the cutting edge of culinary fashion.
Fortunately this has been done without losing any of its romance or sacrificing the impeccable personal service that the richest and most powerful visitors to the city expect. Over the years, these guests have included Spanish kings, Japanese emperors, and American presidents, as well as just about every journalist and media boss from all around the world. The bars and restaurants are popular and open to the public. The most pleasant is the lovely glass-roofed L’Orangerie, where guests can indulge in a lavish breakfast spread out beneath the streaming rays of the morning sun. Also highly rated is the La Bourgogne restaurant.
5. Palais de Glace
Officially known as the National Palace of the Arts, the Palais de Glace (Palace of Ice) was inaugurated in 1910. It was initially designed to hold an iceskating rink, modeled closely on Paris’s own Palais de Glace. The ice-rink idea did not prove popular and in 1915 the palace became a tango ballroom, and during the 1920s it was the city’s key party venue. In 1931, the building was donated to the Fine Arts Institute and became an art gallery. From 1954 to 1960 it was used as a tele vision studio for the channel Canal Siete. The palace was later converted back into an art gallery and declared a National Monument in 2004.
The Palais de Glace, with its crowned columns and vaulted dome, can be enjoyed as one of the finest examples of Parisianstyle architecture in the city. It is also an impor tant exhibition space for national and international shows which include photo graphy, paintings, and sculp ture. The palace hosts the annual Antiques Fair organized by the Association of Friends of the National Museum of Decorative Arts. It is still held in high regard for its historic contribution to tango.
6. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
In 1932, Argentina’s National Fine Arts Museum moved to occupy one of the city’s major water works facilities, where it has remained ever since. The interior was comple tely remodeled under the supervision of Alejandro Bustillo, one of the country’s greatest architects. The Neo-Classical façade has changed little since the origi nal facility opened in 1870. Apart from some subsequent expan sion and renova tion work, the museum, with its spacious and well-lit salons, remains much as it was when President Justo cut the ribbon in 1933.
Currently the museum comprises 34 exhibition rooms divided over three sprawling floors. There are more than 12,000 works in the permanent collection, although only 700 can be displayed at any one time. The specialist art library, also open to the public, contains more than 150,000 volumes. The collection housed in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is one of the most outstanding in South America. On display are works by many of the canonical figures in art history, including Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Rodin, Klee, Renoir, Degas, Picasso, and Toulouse- Lautrec. The exhibits also include some of the most famous names in Argentinian art, including Antonio Berni, Xul Solar, Leon Ferrari, Raquel Forner, Prilidiano Pueyrredón, Fernando Fader, and Antonio Seguí, represented by some of their best-known and most influential works.
The influences of European art are vividly apparent in the Argentinian works, but the divergences the artists make to illustrate the local view point are interesting. For example, a painter like Berni used the tech niques of social realism to specifically portray his own unique criollo (mixed race) environment. The museum is gradually shaking off its reputation as a cautious, hidebound institution. In 2004, it opened its first branch in the Patagonian city of Neuquén, and in 2005 it added a permanent display of pre-Columbian art. Audio tours and a wellstocked bookshop have helped make it an excellent modern museum.
7. Museo Casa de Ricardo Rojas
This beautiful dwelling, set rather incongruously amid the residential high-rises of Barrio Norte, was the home of the notable writer and pedagogue Ricardo Rojas from 1929 until his death in 1957. The house was donated to the country by his widow and opened as a museum in 1958. Rojas remained fascinated by the relationship between pre- Columbian and colonial America, which he conceived as a dialogue as well as a clash of cultures. Built with a mix of Spanish and Inca styles, the house was designed to embody this doctrine.
This is particularly evident in the patio and cloisters, where the columns are deco rated with various traditional Inca symbols. The façade mimics Casa Histórica in Tucumán city. Rojas’s furnish ings and household objects have also been well preserved, along with his personal library, which comprises more than 20,000 volumes. The museum is a fascinating window not only into the mind, but also into the lifestyle of a brilliant writer-scholar.
8. Museo Xul Solar
Once the residence of the 19th-century porteño artist Xul Solar, this 20th-century town house has been converted into the excellent Museo Xul Solar. Described by Jorge Luis Borges as “one of the most singular events of our time,” Xul Solar was an eccentric visionary. On dis play at the museum are his otherwordly paintings, done mainly in watercolor and tempera.
His art seems to be a blend of ideas drawn from various sources, such as Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake, and Jules Verne, while at the same time being entirely original. The cryptic landscapes he depicts are inhabited by angels, demons, and jesters, flying reptiles and machines, ladders that lead nowhere, and sphinxes restyled as cave paintings. Solar takes the viewer through a very bizarre looking-glass world. Apart from these paintings, the museum contains a range of equally bizarre objects from Solar’s collection. These include quasi-scientific instru ments, masks, and sculptures.