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The Argentinian capital is sensual, seductive and unforgettable, says Santa Montefiore
The slightest hint of an Argentine accent, the scent of gardenia or the mere mention of Buenos Aires, and I am overpowered by an onslaught of memories. I cannot think of that country without a stab of pain, like the pain of unrequited love.
Like all first loves I was young and inexperienced when I first visited Buenos Aires, having just left school. I had never travelled alone or lived in a foreign country before. But my mother is Anglo-Argentine and I had been brought up on colourful stories of her childhood in the English colony of Hurlingham, now a suburb of Buenos Aires. I was set to read languages at university so it was a natural place to spend a year before starting my course.
My Mexican godfather arranged for me to live with his best friend and Finnish wife who had three small children in need of some English tuition. The family had a heartbreakingly beautiful estancia west of the city where I stayed and I’ll never forget my first impressions: the dusty drive into the property lined with towering plane trees; skinny dogs roaming in packs; the colonial-style white house with green shutters and heaps of red bougainvillea; and mahogany-coloured ponies on the polo field. I lost my heart in an instant and I’ve never really got it back.
Buenos Aires is a city built on the memories of immigrants who left their European homes for better lives in the 19th century. They came in droves and re-created in the architecture echoes of their homelands to stave off homesickness. Retiro station, with its scalloped roof and wrought-iron railing, is just like London’s Waterloo; the grand tree-lined avenues, elegant townhouses and Parisian-style cafés are reminiscent of France; the Avenida de Mayo and shady plazas with their Rodin statues and subtropical trees remind me of Spain; and the vast Colón Theatre faithfully emulates La Scala in Milan. The very air is infused with nostalgia.
I arrived in the summer of 1989 and, after my spell in the country, I settled into the family’s uptown penthouse on Cerrito and Alvear, a stone’s throw from the necropolis where Eva Perón is buried and where elegant restaurants sit beneath the shade of vast sinewy rubber trees imported from Australia. The humidity was stifling, the air a mixture of diesel, caramel and cooking, but I breathed it in with relish and looked down from the balcony onto the black and yellow taxis hooting their horns down the widest avenue in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio.
There was something old-fashioned about Buenos Aires then. The apartment buildings had porters, uniformed chauffeurs and maids flirted in the reception halls, and the Porteños (people of Buenos Aires) strolled along leafy boulevards after lunch.
When I arrived, inflation was at an all-time high. I made weekly trips to Calle Esmeralda to change my valuable dollars for the poor, uncertain austral that climbed daily. Underwear was sold out of shoe boxes in kiosks, and you had to give the pharmacist your shopping list, from shampoo to aspirin, and wait while another man put it through the till and yet another wrapped it up. Just a year later, Carolina Rabollini had opened her Victoria’s Secret-style boutique and I was able to buy any European brand of face cream from the marble and glass Patio Bulrich mall.
At night Argentines eat out late. Buenos Aires comes alive when darkness falls, like a magnificent vampire sucking up the atmosphere charged by cinema, theatre, nightclubs and restaurants. Having lived in England where dinner is over by 11pm, it was extraordinary to be picked up for a date at ten. Oh, the thrill of walking those bustling streets at 2am and stopping for a dulce de leche granizado ice cream (try one, it’s like boiled condensed milk with chocolate chips).
Buenos Aires is a very sensual city. In springtime the streets are ablaze with blue Jacaranda trees, flower sellers offer jasmine at traffic lights, the heat is damp and fragrant. One inhales the melancholy air of a city in a perpetual state of longing. The people are beautiful, too, due to the melting pot of so many nationalities. And then there’s the language. Yes, it’s Spanish but with the expressive rise and fall of Italian. To me there is nothing more seductive than the voice of an Argentine. It’s all a distant memory now.
Santa Montefiore’s latest novel The French Gardener is out now (£6.99, Hodder).