It’s hard to go anywhere today without being slapped in the face by that big wet fish called progress. Omnipresent broadband, high-speed rail networks, a Norman Foster-designed building and leaf-patterned lattés all turn up in the most unexpected of places. And then there’s Buenos Aires, a grand, dirty, proud, vain courtesan of a city, pulsing with an energy that is both the opposite of progress – a long and glorious decline – and its nemesis, a force resolutely itself and somehow disinterested in the trappings of soulless modernity. It’s the urban equivalent of the Duracell Bunny; you suspect it will fall over at some point, but it’s doing a mighty good job at keeping going.
Fittingly, Mr Smith and I experience the Argentine capital through the prism of an equally self-assured and eclectically stylish bolthole, Home Hotel, tucked away in the smart, laid-back suburb of Palermo Hollywood. Buenos Aires street lights give off a Soviet-era low glow, so our taxi passes the unassuming, ivy-clad concrete entrance before we realise. Inside, it’s impossible to miss the hotel’s seductive charms. Spindly cream-leathered Swedish sofas jostle with long-necked silver Arco lamps, colourful Fifties glass vases and white Saarinen Tulip chairs in a graceful tumult of retro chic. And with its bold vintage floral wallpaper and shag pile rug, our expansive first-floor bedroom picks up the old-new song and belts it even louder. Fresh off the 15-hour transpacific flight, we scurry out for a quick neighbourhood dinner – darting like locals across the huge, unfenced rail lines that cut through the suburban streets. Later, we crash out to the conversational barks of barrio dogs through open windows.
Jetlag usefully recalibrates our body clocks to Buenos Aires time overnight, delaying our delicious huevos rancheros from breakfast until brunch, and we don’t hit the streets until early afternoon. We kick off, as one-time devotees of the cult of Lloyd Webber, with a stroll to famous La Recoleta Cemetery, and the grave of plucky, despotic Eva Peron, where we pay our ironic respects alongside gum-smacking backpackers and native fans. Then it’s a jump in a taxi to San Telmo and the end of the famous antique market, where stalls of rococo tat jostle with trendy gentlemen’s outfitters; we toy with the idea of velvet Argentine polo jackets, but think better of it.
Next we catch some obligatory tango; we’re lucky enough to be in town during the World Tango Championships, and lap up the regional heats at a packed theatre. Strangely, competitors include a whimsical Australian couple seemingly straight out of Strictly Ballroom: a haughty Western Districts grandmother dancing with an ill-matched, cheap-suited man with a Woodstock ponytail. We cheer nevertheless. The day finishes in classic Argentine style – gnawing at the succulent ribs of a dead cow aromatically grilled on an iconic South American parrilla, and swilling down a bottle of smoothly robust local malbec.
Unsurprisingly, we wake even later the next morning, and ache all over from our rapacious culture-vulturing and taste for home-grown vino. Time for a massage, and the curative touch of Luis, in-house masseur and all-round body shaman. There’s something very indulgent about Home Hotel having its own small-but-extensive spa tucked away in the basement; the property is intimate enough without having half its impossibly attractive guests wandering about in white robes. Afterwards, we savour a hair-of-the-dog Home bloody mary and green martini, along with some delicious tortillas and meatball tapas at the bar. Then, with a wistful backwards glance at the leaf-strewn garden and pool area – why didn’t we come in summer and does this hotel have everything? – we get back on the sightseeing horse, and trot at a more relaxed pace around a couple of galleries, theatrical bookstore El Ateneo, and the old cathedrals, churches and set-piece city squares of Buenos Aires’ downtown heart.
Our grand coda has been planned months in advance – a rare concert by virtuoso pianist Andràs Schiff at the Teatro Colón, still one of the world’s great performance venues. Perched in our aristocratic box above the fur-clad and plastic-surgeried high-society porteños below, we get a perfect snapshot of Argentina’s former glories and current nostalgias.
An economist friend once told me that, at the beginning of the last century, Argentina and the US shared the same population size and GDP; it was a textbook case, he said, of ‘the effectiveness of free-market capitalism and the dysfunction of corrupt oligarchies.’ Whatever. All we know, wrapped in the sublime sounds of Beethoven and Chopin, and the vainglorious colonial opulence of the horseshoe-shaped theatre, is that it makes for a damn sexy time warp. Progress, we surmise, is overrated.