Buenos Aires – Recoleta Cemetery, Myths and legends and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
After lingering over breakfast at our Recoleta neighbourhood cafe we left and headed up the street towards Plaza Francia where a Sunday market was going on. The entire area was a lively scene on Sundays with crafts fair they call Feria des Artesanos de Plaza Francia. We looked around a bit but were not taken with the scene so we headed over to the Recoleta Cemetery situated at the edge of the park.
Entrance to the cemetery is free but the tours are offered in Spanish only. The city tourism department offers tours in English that you need to organize in advance. Left on our own we bought a map and followed it to see at least few of the famous house-size tombs situated along the streets of this 60,000 square meters cemetery-town. It is quite a remarkable place.
The oversize monuments are built in different architectural styles including art deco, Italian baroque, classical Greek, modern and gothic, all featured side by side and creating an intriguing visual and skyline. The details are as interesting as the structures, featuring wrought iron gates and windows, marble in every colour, sculptures, statues and religious symbols that even include a 7 candle Menora (not the traditional 9).
Some of the mausoleums have sitting rooms inside where living family member can come and visit the deceased in privacy and comfort. The largest mausoleum with the menorah symbol, has a large church like interior constructed especially for that purpose as the family was not allowed to be buried in a church.
Most of the people buried here are buried in caskets and very few are cremated. The caskets are mostly in plain view, not covered underground and if you peek through the wrought iron gates you will see the caskets inside. Some of them are placed in rooms below the ground but they are not covered with earth, rather, they are all placed in open spaces.
The cemetery is surrounded with a wall so no expansion of the grounds is possible and no new space is available for burial. To be buried there today a mausoleum must be purchased from its current owners. This apparently happens, the name of the previous family removed or hidden by new plaque with the name of the new owner and life (or death) goes on. At least on two of the mausoleums the new plaque barely covers the name of the previous owner family name.
Those who are buried here were among the elite of Buenos Aires, including political leaders and presidents, scientists, military men and the wealthy elite that could afford the high cost of posterity in this place.
Eva Peron, a.k.a Evita, is buried there and her memorial is the most visited one on the site. It is surprisingly understated and not easy to photograph as it is built along one of the side “alleys” making it difficult to get perspective. It was covered with flowers from recent visitors. After decades of being move around her remains were brought back to Argentina where she is buried 5 meters below ground in her own family’s mausoleum while her husband Presidente Peron is buried at his former summer residence, rebuilt as a museum, in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Vicente.
The stories and legends surrounding some of the memorials are quite interesting and some heartbreaking. One tells of Liliana Crociati, a young wife who died during her honeymoon in an avalanche while skiing in Austria. Her family buried her in her wedding dress and constructed a vault where they reproduced her bedroom and placed her sculpture in the entrance accompanied by her inseparable dog.
Another young woman, Rufina Cambaceres, is said to have been buried alive. She was merely 18, getting ready to go shopping with her mother when she collapsed in her room and presumed dead. Some time after the funeral, cemetery workers noticed that the top gravestone was slightly ajar. They opened the grave to find scratch marks and the collapsed body of the girl. They did not have the medical means to determine death back then. Did it really happen? who knows?
Probably the only person without wealth buried here is the Recoleta Cemetery Italian gravedigger David Alleno. Alleno worked at the cemetery for a few decades at a time when wealth in Argentina reached its peak (1880-1923). Apparently he became obsessed with the cemetery and the status it entailed and saved all of his wages to buy a small plot and be buried on the grounds of his beloved cemetery. He hired an Italian architect to create a sculpture depicting him in his work clothes with tools, set up the gravesite just the way he wanted it and unfortunately, as the story goes, went home and killed himself. Of course this may be urban legend but the truth is that the caretaker is really buried there, this is his final resting place. Some say that if you walk the cemetery late at night you may hear the sound of his keys as his spirit rolls among the graves, still making sure that all is well with his beloved cemetery
Might as well finish the cemetery post with a funny story about one of the graves. Dominique Carill died in old age in 1898 and her husband predeceased her. The story goes that she liked to shop and he was quite a miser and hated paying for her purchases. After trying in vain to stop her from shopping he took up a full page ad in the local newspaper advising shop owners that from that day on he no longer intends to pay for any purchases his wife makes and if they sell her anything, they are on their own. The humiliated wife never spoke to him again, although they stayed married and after his death commissioned the gravesite so he is featured facing one way and she another, sitting with their backs to each other, as you see in the image. She said she never wanted to look at him again. It’s kind of funny, and she got the last laugh.
There is too much to see at the cemetery for just one visit and although we walked most of the streets and alleys, we need to go back. Early evening would be an ideal time to visit, when it’s not too hot, but the cemetery closes at 5:30 to the sound of the small bell above the entrance (can only see it from the inside).
Where to eat – La Biela
After visiting the cemetery stop for a bite at the historical La Biela across from the cemetery with an outdoor patio under the shade of a gigantic rubber tree. The restaurant has been there for more than 150 years in various forms serving as a gathering place for car racing professionals, politicians, artists and celebrities. In 2000 the City of Buenos Aires declared the restaurant a place of cultural interest.
La Biela has a large historical style dining room sitting as many as 400 people. Service on the patio includes a premium on the price of the dishes. I guess they want you to eat indoors, but this did not seem to deter anyone as the patio was full in spite of the oppressive heat that day. We sat by the window in the air-conditioned dining room and orders salads, french fries and lemonade, trying to cool off. Salad ingredients are listed on the menu and you choose as many or as few as you wish. The salad comes in a bowl without any dressing. Olive oil and vinegar are provided to make your own dressing. There were also some un-openable packets of mayo. Humm……….good thing they didn’t ask us to go to the kitchen and make our own food. I prefer to have salads come fully dressed as they serve them in France. This is more Italian style where they bring the salad greens and let you make your own dressing. The waiter did not hear me right as the salad I got was different than the one I ordered but I let it go, it didn’t matter and I was enjoying cooling off after walking the cemetery for a few hours in the heat. The papas fritas were delicious.
Museo Nacional de bellas Artes
After lunch and cooling off we decided to continue exploring and walked across the park and down the hill to see the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes on Ave. del Libertador. This is the largest collection in Latin America featuring some 12,000 works of art from 19th century Europe and a collection of Argentinian art.
There are paintings by by El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Degas among many other notable artists. It was interesting to see Modigliani and a couple of Picasso in the collection as well.
The special exhibition featured Rodin (The Kiss and other works) and a roomful of Miro. We spent a few hours making our way through the 24 exhibition halls (maybe less, some where closed) immersing ourselves in the beautiful art and history it depicts.
Admission is free to the entire museum but you do need to pick up a free ticket stub to enter the Miro hall.
That concluded our day and we walked home along the beautiful streets of Ricoleta to our apartment, only 15 minute walk away. We are definitely in our travel groove now. Where shall we go for dinner tonight? So many restaurants to choose from.
Next post: Argentinian food