As the road turns into cobblestones, uneven underfoot, the first signs you’re going back in time become clearer. The colonial buildings lining the street look sturdy but weary from the struggle of existing for centuries. For San Telmo, the oldest neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, has seen many changes over the past 300 years as the dockworkers, the vagrants, the bourgeois, and the artists each took turns to call the area their own.
These days, like many old neighbourhoods of large cities, there’s been a level of gentrification but San Telmo has not relinquished its spirit of bohemia. The artists still call it home and within the cafes, bars and tango parlours is a sanctuary from the modernity outside.
On the weekends, the area is popular with tourists, drawn in by the street fair and market each Sunday. The antique stalls seem so natural in the locale it’s as if they have grown from seeds in the cracks of the road. Amongst them are the stalls of the artists – photographers, painters, sculptors – who have often found inspiration from the neighbourhood itself.
Tango dancers perform on one corner, an old man with his guitar serenades the passing crowds and a speaker in a shop plays the Spanish soundtrack of Evita on a loop. These are clearly scenes created for the tourist herds and the travellers obligingly snap their photos, buy the albums and drop a few spare pesos in the donation buckets.
You can’t blame the locals for taking advantage of the tourist influx. And there are certainly plenty of stalls selling Buenos Aires magnets, traditional-style mugs and t-shirts. Those are the vendors the tourists tend to move towards. The tables that are relatively empty are there for the locals. If you stay a while and watch the crowds you’ll see the Buenos Aires residents slowly move towards an antique stall, look carefully at the items, chat with the owner and eventually leave, pleased and with a special item wrapped in newspaper.
That’s where the charm of San Telmo lies – in the special little places where the locals find their pleasure. It’s a relatively large neighbourhood and it’s very easy to visit on a Sunday, walk the cobblestones and wander through the market. But to truly experience the birthplace of Buenos Aires, you need time to explore. Thankfully I’ll be staying in the area for the next month and already I’ve realised that the longer I’m here, the more I’m discovering.
Related posts from Buenos Aires:
- The art of the oppressed
- Don’t cry for me…
- The little girl who challenged a nation
- I’ll take the wide road
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