Buenos Aires – Feria de San Telmo
Buenos Aires is divided into barrios and each has its own character and style. San Telmo is the oldest neighborhood and oozes with history, character and tradition. It is situated in south Buenos Aires next to the colourful La Boca that sits along the mouth of the Rio Plata (hence the name La Boca, meaning the mouth).
The time to visit San Telmo, at least once, is on a Sunday. Sunday is Feria day at the barrio and antique shops, craft stands, food stalls and street tango dancers fill an area of some 20 blocks from Plaza Dorrego all the way to Plaza de Mayo along Calle Defensa and its side streets. It’s a party not to be missed.
We took a taxi from our apartment in Recoleta to San Telmo and asked to be dropped off near Plaza Dorrego in the center of the barrio. The taxi could not take us all the way there as the streets were blocked all around for the Feria day. He dropped us off a couple of blocks away and we walked up the side street leading to the Plaza among craft and antique stands that lined the street on both sides. My head was spinning trying to take it all in.
We soon arrived at Plaza Dorrego and it was such a sight of people, stands, tango, music, cafes and all that we decided to sit at the café on the corner, watch the going on for a bit and then explore.
The café on the corner happened to be the Bar Plaza Dorrego that was on my list to visit as the historical café of San Telmo. This café has been serving locals and visitors for more than 130 years at that location and looks like it belong in another era. Photos on the oak panels inside depict tango memorabilia and photos of regulars from past times as well as some contemporary celebrities that include the Clintons and De Niro. The black and white tile floor set against the dark wood paneling and old fashioned bar must have stories to tell. We settled at a table outside and were served by a waiter that looked like he has worked there all his life. The other tables were full of Porteños, although tourists were mixing in as well. We ordered our cappuccinos, freshly squeezed jugo de naranja (OJ), croissants and toast and settled in to watch the elderly couple dressed to the ninth dancing tango at the corner right in front of us. What a scene. I must admit that unlike the porteños I could barely sit still and had to get up a few times and check this or that and take a few pictures around the street and the café. What a fun place to be.
Eventually we finished or delicious café and had to leave. After inquiring with the waiter about the produce market I wanted to visit and a couple of other items on my list we set on foot to explore the area.
We walked along Calle Defensa, the center street of the barrio where most of the shops and action were, spilling to some of the side streets from there. The street center was lined on both sides with weekend vendors selling crafts of various quality along with some food stalls here and there. The more permanent antique and craft shops situated in the buildings along this street were simply amazing. China, silver, crystal, old linen, antique furniture, lamps, books, rugs, gaucho tools and more filled the dusty shelves and spilled over the floors. I could picture all these treasures in their original homes which I am sure used to be the grand palaces in Buenos Aires, especially in our own barrio of Recoleta. I was very tempted at many of these items, including a silver tea service and some gorgeous old linen but for some foolish reason did not have my bank card with me with access to extra cash that day and cash is the prevalent currency it seems. I did spend what cash I had on a few items before running out of money rather quickly. Lesson learned: bring cash and plenty of it. Things were inexpensive in my opinion. A huge and gorgeous linen bed spread that I was going to convert into a beautiful table cloth cost only $60. Old linen napkins were oversized and starched and were selling for a few dollars each. I don’t know what I was thinking going there without enough cash.
One store right at the edge of Plaza Dorrego caught my attention immediately: everything Dulce del Leche aptly named La Casa de Dulce de Leche. It’s obviously for tourists because everything is packaged so nicely and easy to travel with. Of course I bought a bunch of things, what do you think? I had to feed my addiction. I bought a few different dulce jars, a dulce de leche liqueur that I was assured is great on ice cream, some honey (I always buy honey when we travel), a few alfajores (two cookies with dulce de leche filling in between) and a few dulce de leche candies to enjoy as we walk. I plan to keep most of these for home so I am not opening them here.
We kept walking down Calle Defensa towards the Mercado San Telmo, the produce market I was assured was just down the block. We found the small and unassuming entrance to this market, home to many more antique shops and a few produce stalls and food counters in the center. You already know how excited I get in a produce market. This one was not a large, only a few vendors selling produce but, the food, to die for.
One place completely grabbed me. It was a Spanish food stall, De Lucia Tapas, with only a few seats a counter but the food: gorgeous and I had to have it, never mind that we just got up from breakfast a minute ago. They had tortilla español, paella, roasted potatoes, beautiful roasted eggplant, roasted pumpkin and a few more dishes that I had to have, no matter what.
After snapping a bunch of pictures we settled at the counter and ordered a few things and sat there amazed at the flavours these guys coaxed out of a few simple vegetables. The eggplant was cut in half, flesh scored, seasoned with cinnamon and roasted to perfection. The refreshing carrot salad consisted of thinly shaved carrots dressed in olive oil, lemon, sugar, chile and some other spices. The paellas was made in a large paella pan and individual portions transferred to individual paella pans and finished over fire before serving. The vegetables were cooked to perfection. To top it off large glass containers were filled with sangria ready to be served. We sat as the counter watching the kitchen activity and enjoying our lunch as the counter seats were filling up with other people. Sadly eventually I had to pull myself away. The food was simple, fresh, delicious and special. If you are in the area do not miss this experience Espanol.
Afterwards we kept walking and spending the last of the cash we had, leaving just enough for taxi back home. Back at Plaza Dorrego we settled to watch a couple dance the tango. The older maestro dancing with them actually came and asked me to dance but foolishly I got intimidated and said no. I wish I had said yes. He was agile and danced beautifully. An opportunity lost.
With food still on my mind in spite of all we have eaten so far we begun to make our way to the restaurant whereI had planned to have lunch. Café San Juan has reputation of being authentic parilla place that is a must try if you are in the area. It is located only a few minutes walk from the plaza and we were heading there for lunch. I am sure there are other good restaurants but I chose this one.
We arrived to find the restaurant full with people inside and outdoors but the door was actually locked and you had to knock on the door to speak to the waiters. We were advised that it will be a 40 minutes wait and he stepped back in and closed the door. Okay, you know I never wait in line but I do make exceptions: we were in Buenos Aires and I wasn’t going to let some rigid principles about not waiting ruin my experience. I knocked on the door again to say we’ll wait but then he said he should have a table for us in less than 5 minutes. Well, that worked nicely.
Within a couple of minutes he let us in and gave us a table in the center of the small dining room. Every table was full and I was cranking my neck as discreetly as I could (not very successfully) to see what people were eating. I saw meat, meat and more meat with French fries, that goes without saying, but also lovely looking pasta dishes, prawns served in skillets, salads and a some other foods served in iron skillets. We had fun sitting there with our food observing, tasting, talking to the waiters and being amazed at how authentic it all felt and wanting to make the experience last. Eventually we had to leave but were not ready to end the day yet.
We walked from there all the way back to Plaza de Mayo hoping to visit the Casa Rosada but unbeknownst to me we needed tickets to do that. I was frantically going on line to get last minute tickets but unfortunately they were sold out for the day and we had to forgo this experience. We took a taxi back home and do you think we went out again late that evening? Why not? They missed us at the small neighbourhood restaurant and we wanted to say hello.
More later, thanks for checking in.