One of my Facebook friends mentioned the existence of some beautiful old confiterias in Buenos Aires. A confiteria (as I learned from Merriam Webster) is “an establishment devoted to the sale of tea, coffee, chocolate, and other beverages and sometimes other refreshments (such as sandwiches).” I am 100% in favor of beverages and refreshments so this sounded promising. I promptly searched the internet for one near us.
Las Violetas, according to one website, was the goods. The reviews were complimentary. JJAdams85, for example, gushed “The atmosphere and delicious food make this cafe the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday morning. When you walk into this cafe, you’ll immediately feel as though you’ve been transported into 19th century.” John D from Wokingham, UK, wrote “An historical coffee shop and restaurant. Very high ceilings, columns, lights and spectacular stained glass windows. I could have been in Vienna.” These encomiums convinced me: it was imperative that John and I experience this little altar of elegance. Even better, I learned, there was a large flower market nearby. I looked forward to a morning of porcelain and roses, dainties and daisies. After all, Argentina is supposed to be a little slice of the Old World.
It was a hot, humid morning and we walked down the street to hail a taxi. The doorkeeper was outside our building taking the air and, as usual, took a moment to poke ‘good natured’ fun at our foreign selves. He knows we have a stationary bicycle so one of his favorite gags is to mime cycling like a maniac yelling, “Bici, bici!” at the top of his lungs. As usual, we nodded and laughed queasily before walking away quickly moaning softly to ourselves.
There are a lot of dogs in Buenos Aires. While most businesses are suffering in this time of economic uncertainty, stores that sell pet accessories are doing very well, and fashion-jackets for poochy are in high demand. This dog-loving side speaks well of Porteños in my opinion, but a side-effect is that there is an awful lot of dog pee and poo to step around. It requires intense concentration even to walk a short block and by the time we got to the busy corner, I was already tired.
Luckily, as usual, there was a taxi along in a minute and we set off for Las Violetas gazing at all the Saturday morning humanity on the way. On any ride in the city you are likely to see the following: single-item street vendors, jugglers, joggers, elderly shoppers, hopeless drunks, cheerful family groups, fit cartoneros (trash-pickers) and sedate police in bullet-proof vests.
The barrio we were heading for was Almagro, which is only a few kilometres from our place in Recoleta but has a different feel. It is poorer, busier, dingier, more intriguing but with fewer trees. The shops are smaller and older and still have hand-painted signs. There are more people congregating at the little parks and plazas.
The taxi pulled up outside a grand old building and it was quite obvious at the outset that this was Las Violetas. It had enormous windows, fancy stained-glass decorations above the doors and a plaque announcing its historicity. A sign painted with flowers that bore little resemblance to violets, gave some background to the building’s history:
“This corner of Medrano and Rivadavia in the decade of 1880 was a place “where the devil lost his poncho”. These tables were a meeting place for artists, writers and politicians of the time. The building was built in 1920, with stained glass windows, curved doors, French windows and Italian marble floors. It was declared an ‘Historical site of the City’ in 1998 by the legislature of the City of Buenos Aires.”
I have since (disappointingly) discovered that ‘where the devil lost his poncho’ is an idiom roughly equivalent to ‘nowheresville’ or ‘the boondocks’. Although Almagro is now considered practically part of central Buenos Aires, for most of the nineteenth century it was dairy farms and a few brick factories. In the early twentieth century it was settled mainly by Basques and Italians and later became a stronghold for the performance of the tango—there is even a 1930 tango named Almagro.
The café’s interior was impressive—high ceilings, polished fittings, beautiful woodwork on the counters and walls, stained-glass windows and black-and-white floor tiles. On display were tantalizing piles of hand-made pan dulce (in preparation for Easter) and medialunas (Argentine croissants). I was surprised to see that the hall was only about half full and not with tourists but with locals, most of them elderly, either poring over the newspaper or chatting with friends.
An elegant waiter in black waistcoast put an extra tablecloth down with a flourish of his wrist and solemnly handed us leather-bound menus. After a breakfast of oats, I wasn’t hungry so I just ordered a cappuccino. John ordered a chicken sandwich.
While we waited for our orders to arrive, I decided to snoop around and photograph some stuff, using a trip to the bathroom as my excuse. It was all nicely arranged but it left me feeling flat, like a film set or taxidermy. Maybe I needed some coffee.
Returning, the cappuccino was waiting together with a plate of complimentary cookies, which I promptly consumed.
“Have you noticed how dark it is in here?” John whispered. “In spite of the huge windows?”
Then the sandwich arrived, or more accurately the ‘sandwiches’. Somewhere between our Spanish and the waiter’s English, we had accidentally ordered two giant plates of food. I stared at what the waiter put in front of me in consternation.
“This is a chicken sandwich?” I asked John.
“Apparently,” he said with dismay, carefully removing a half-kilogram block of cheese from a small chicken steak.
It was certainly a lot of food, but it wasn’t high-tea-in-a-fancy-café. It wasn’t Vienna…unless you counted the underpass at Vienna train station. I had pictured delicate triangles filled with some gourmet filling, served on a silver platter. I’m sure it was tasty, but the architecture had led me to expect something else. My inner Marie Antoinette stamped a dainty foot.
We picked at the food and paid the confused waiter, who was sure that we must want to take the rest home with us.
Newly liberated, we strolled towards Acuña de Figeroa, which (according to one website) is the largest flower market in South America. The walk took us down a shady street past antiques stores, a colorful park, an Arab restaurant called Carthage and past a derelict school covered with graffitti. Turning onto Acuña de Figeroa, we found a few lacklustre florists, only a couple of which had outdoor displays, and the vast majority were daisy mums, the turnip of flowers. We walked down the street in silence, thwarted.
“I think, if it’s all right with you,” I said to John, my chin quivering slightly, “I would like to go home and have a nap.”