A Love Letter to Buenos Aires

A bride starts her future with a nod to her past.

Some brides spend their whole lives dreaming of their perfect wedding, waxing quixotic on the dress, the band, the flowers, the cake. These were not my priorities. For a travel writer, the honeymoon takes centre stage.

I thought about overwater bungalows in the the Maldives, white sand beaches in the Caribbean, or getting lost in the lights of Tokyo. But when I settled on my top dream destination, the inspiration came from an unexpected place — a connection to my family.

Just before my wedding last summer, my larger than-life grandfather had passed away. He was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and he told grandiose stories of this city over family dinners and in his autobiography. He had built it up into a mythical, magical place, and I dreamed about it throughout my thoroughly American Midwest life, but I had never visited.

Our first impression of Buenos Aires was colourful. We walked through the vibrant La Boca neighbourhood, where houses are painted in a bright rainbow of colours as lively as the music that has couples literally dancing tango in the streets between shops and cafés.

In the city’s main square, Plaza de Mayo, just north of La Boca, I began retracing my grandfather’s steps.

On one side is the Casa Rosada (Pink House),the presidential palace from which Juan and Eva Perón addressed crowds in an impassioned speech immortalized in the movie Evita. Along another side of the square stands the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana (City Cathedral), which was the seat of Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis.

When my grandfather was in university, he joined a group of young protesters in this square. He describes the historic moment in his autobiography, Mi Vida. “Mounted police tried to disperse the crowd by flailing with flat swords, and then firing blanks. Our solution was to shinny up a convenient palm tree until they passed. Suddenly we noticed that the ‘blanks’ were clipping twigs from the trees overhead and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. We dived into a subway entrance and made our way home to follow the excitement on the radio.” This protest became the revolution that put Juan Domingo Perón in power.

My husband and I took that same subway entrance to go explore La Recoleta Cemetery, where each one of the over 6,000 mausoleums seemed more ornate and extravagant than the next. The mausoleum statues told without words the stories of people who walked the streets of Buenos Aires in days past. A life-sized bronze statue of the famous 1920s boxer Luis Ángel Firpo in his boxing robe and shoes marks his tomb. I squeezed my husband’s hand as we walked by a statue of a young bride in her wedding dress.

That afternoon, we rested at our boutique hotel, Legado Mítico. I loved its extensive library and the secluded garden patio where I could bring my book and coffee for a midday escape. It was in Palermo Soho, a part of the city that is young, bohemian, and spirited. It’s full of fashion and leather boutiques,bright art on the walls, sidewalk cafés, and lush parks.

At the intersection nearest our hotel, there were cafés on all four corners, each under strings of lights and tables for two. We ordered our favourite cocktail — which might as well be the official drink of Buenos Aires — Fernet Branca with Coca-Cola. This herbal liquor was created in Italy but became such a favourite in Argentina that a second Fernet Branca distillery opened in Buenos Aires around 1907 to keep up with demand.

The recipe is locked away in Italy and has only been handed down from father to son since 1845, but it’s rumoured to contain saffron,myrrh, chamomile, and cardamom. It’s bitter and complex on its own, but a perfect match for the sweet Coca-Cola.

I recalled how I had given my husband this cocktail on our first date; it was a test of sorts for him. His willingness to try this strange concoction and thoroughly enjoy it suggested a sense of adventure that has been a main theme of our relationship.

Argentines eat late in the evening, so at about 9 p.m., we headed out to dinner in a hired car,which took us to La Ventana Tango club. We ordered our first Argentine grass-fed steaks and smothered them with chimichurri, a simple sauce for grilled meat, made of parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano, red pepper, and red wine vinegar. I make this at home frequently to liven up a steak or hamburger.

We sat wide-eyed as six couples danced tango while a band played and a singer warbled. They were all on a stage smaller than a city bus. A gaucho (Argentine cowboy) came out dressed in a traditional outfit with loose-fitting trousers called bombachas, a wide leather belt, and a red scarf tied around his neck.

My grandfather had a similar outfit, and I remember taking it in for show-and-tell at school, displaying the leather belt with coins on it as the ultimate treasure.

The gaucho twirled two long ropes with weights, his boleadoras, into the audience. Like lassos, boleadoras are used on cattle. He swung them mere inches on either side of my husband’s head and joked that it was his first night. My husband pleaded, “I can’t die on my honeymoon!” to which I replied, “We’ve had a good run.” The crowd and gaucho laughed almost until the end of the number.

Having savoured some of the flavours, sights, and experiences of Buenos Aires, we spent the next day connecting with family I’d never met but had heard about all my life.

We met up with my mother’s cousin, Patricia, who lives just outside the city. She took us to the neighbourhood where my grandfather grew up. Belgrano is now an elegant and sophisticated place, a far cry from the dirt road and humble home he had described.

We indulged in gelato flavoured with dulce de leche, the Argentine variation of rich carmel, and walked down the tree-lined street, past stately homes and the market where my grandfather used to pick up groceries for his mother.

Patricia’s sister, Cecelia, met us at one of the city’s most authentic steakhouses, Chiquilín, for a proper asado (grilling of meats). With Cecelia’s husband and son, we toasted our recent nuptials with champagne.

It was when I ordered the entraña cut of beef instead of the more popular filet mignon that my uncle decided I was “his people”. He put his arm around me as we ordered traditional blood sausage, ham-and-cheese empanadas, and Malbec, Argentina’s most famous wine.

When we couldn’t possibly eat any more, the biggest flan I’ve ever seen arrived for dessert and we made more toasts to my grandfather, the past, and the future.

My grandfather used to say, “ La vida es corta pero ancha” which translates to “life is short but wide.” Taking my new love to see the history of my family made it feel very wide and very loving indeed.