San Telmo: Stories behind an amazing place
Welcome to San Telmo, one of the most emblematic neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. When you live in a city you get used to it. You get used to its streets, its neighborhoods, its people, its food.
You are not a traveler but an inhabitant and as such, you often lose that innate curiosity of someone who knows a place for the first time. As beautiful as Buenos Aires is, the fact of living in it many times leads you to miss those details that only a traveler can see.
That’s why we decided after starting this blog to seize the opportunity to dress up as a traveler and begin to walk the streets of our city as if it were the first time. So withouth further ado, here is San Telmo. Shall we start?
SAN TELMO: CONVENTILLOS AND POVERTY
Unlike what would come in later decades, the neighborhood of San Telmo was home to the wealthiest families in the city, who lived in huge colonial mansions. But in 1871 a great epidemic of yellow fever hit the region and the survivors decided to move their wealth to the north and west of the city, leaving San Telmo almost in neglect.
It was during that time that the opportunists saw in the European immigrants who escaped poverty from the other side of the ocean an immense source of wealth and decided to take advantage of those huge colonial mansions left in oblivion to transform them into what was known as “conventillos“.
Those mansions that were once the home of a single rich family, became a series of tiny rooms where dozens of families lived crowded and all together. The central courtyard began to take a leading role as it was the place where all families met and shared their anguish and dreams almost impossible to fulfill. In 1887, at the height of the growth of these dwellings, the number of conventillos in Buenos Aires was an alarming 2835.
As described by Silverio Domínguez in Palomas y Gavilanes (1886):
“The conventillos presented an animated picture, the same in the courtyards as in the corridors. All the ages, the nationalities, the sexes, mingled together, constituted a kind of wormhole, where everyone came and went around, crossing each other, with that diverse activity of the conventillo.
There, where the central courtyard was wet, the sediment of the population was scattered; the narrow hallways, the open doors leading into grimy rooms, full of cots and trunks, rickety chairs, broken tables, with moldy mirrors, with brownish pictures, with cartoon newspapers stuck to the wall and that peculiar disorder of the room where six of them slept and where it was necessary to give good or bad placement to everything they owned.”
Nowadays you can visit some conventillos to imagine what it would be like to be one of the dozens of families that lived there. Such is the case of the Casa de los Ezeiza, where there is currently an antique market known as Pasaje de la Defensa (Defensa Street 1179).
This huge two-story house was built in 1876 as the home of the Ezeiza family, who a few years later, after the yellow fever epidemic, moved to Barrio Norte. It has three interconnected courtyards: the Patio del Arbol (Tree Courtyard), the Patio del Tiempo (Time Courtyard), and the Patio de los Ezeiza (Ezeiza´s Courtyard).
In the first one the dining room, library, and working space were located; in the second one, the rooms, and in the third one, the service rooms and generally a garden.
When the Ezeiza left the residence, it was not until 1930 that it was transformed into a conventillo where up to 32 families lived. Before that, it was used as a primary school (1910) and as the headquarters of the National Institute of Deafness. It was in 1980 that it began to be recycled after long years of neglect.
Nowadays it is a very interesting gallery to visit (not only for the antiques but also because it allows you to see how those conventillos were inside).
But undoubtedly the most beautiful example of those huge villas built by high society is located in one of the most emblematic parks of the city: Lezama Park.
LEZAMA PARK: FROM A PRIVATE PROPERTY TO A PUBLIC PARK
What we see today within the space demarcated by the avenues Paseo Colón, Brasil, and Martín García, and Defensa Street, is a huge park full of trees of all kinds, with large white vases along the extensive roads that run through it, and stairs that take us to different heights. But a few centuries ago, all this was owned by one person. And several centuries ago, more precisely in 1536, Don Pedro de Mendoza founded the first settlement of the city here.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the area of San Telmo began to be popular among the upper class as a holiday destination, and that is why they began, as I said before, to build their ostentatious villas. The English merchant Daniel Mackinlay took over the property that included the current Lezama Park and built there what would be his resting place outside the city.
From then on his fabulous mansion became known as “La Quinta de los Ingleses” (The English Villa), even after having passed into the hands of the American Charles Ridgley Horne (brother-in-law of General Lavalle), who expanded the land of the property and began to fill the park with exotic plants brought from different parts of the world.
Horne was forced into exile after the fall of Juan Manuel de Rosas due to his close friendship with him and therefore had to sell his property, from his exile in Montevideo in 1857 to a wealthy Salta merchant: José Gregorio Lezama.
The land was enlarged after acquiring new lots and Lezama, passionate about plants and flowers, and with the help of a Belgian landscaper, began to transform the park into the most beautiful private garden in the entire city, while remodeling and extending the old house with an Italian style and a beautiful exterior gallery.
In 1871 when yellow fever hit the area, the large house of Lezama served as a home for several wealthy residents who considered this place as an ideal place of isolation where they would not get infected.
It was in 1889, after the death of Lezama, that his widow decided to sell the property to the Municipality “with the express condition that it was destined to a public space and that it was named after its last owner”.
Five years later, the famous Lezama Park was born. And the fabulous house of Lezama was destined to the current National Historical Museum.
Why do I tell you this story? Because when you know the history of the places, you learn to take care of them a little bit more. Nowadays Lezama Park is a beautiful place to visit, but without a doubt, it is still far away from what at one time must have been.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE AROUND
- Lezama Palace: This place, declared Cultural Heritage of the City, was the headquarters of the traditional Canale biscuits factory that accompanied the breakfast of thousands of children decade after decade. It was opened by the Genovese immigrant José Canale who went from having a small bakery with his name on Defensa Street, to having one of the most important gastronomic factories in our history. Nowadays, the Ministries of Modernization and Technological Innovation, Space and Public Environment, Urban Development and Transport, among other public bodies, operate there. But its facade was maintained in its original state.
- The National Historical Museum: First of the City of Buenos Aires. It opened its doors in the year 1897 and is entirely dedicated to the history of Argentina. There you can see, among other things, the historic flag that in 1812 accompanied Manuel Belgrano in the battles of Upper Peru, or the curved sword of José de San Martín, considered a symbol of South American emancipation as it accompanied the Liberator in the struggles for independence.
- Russian Orthodox Church: For those interested in learning about the Russian Orthodox cult, this church, whose foundation stone was laid in 1898, is a very good place to do so. But they must first be informed on the web to know the timetables and the right times to visit it (and the strict regulations): http://www.iglesiarusa.org.ar/visitas-al-templo.php
DORREGO SQUARE AND THE NEIGHBOURHOOD UPLIFTING
If there is something that stands out from San Telmo above all other things is the famous Plaza Dorrego, place of development of the world-famous San Telmo Fair on Sundays, home to crafts and antiques of all kinds and shapes. But beyond its tourist attraction, its “cool vintage” style, and its tango shows suitable for tourists, the square has its piece of history.
In the first place it was there where, in the year 1816, the Independence that had been declared months earlier in the city of Tucumán was announced to the people of Buenos Aires. It was around the square where they began to build many of the nineteenth-century mansions that housed the wealthy families and then served as home for the dozens of families of immigrants in the already described conventillos.
But above all things, it was there where in the year 1970 they began to rescue a neighborhood that had been left in oblivion, and in total neglect. The architect José María Peña, then director of the City Museum, had a brilliant idea. He wanted to save his neighborhood and convinced a group of 30 neighbors to sell “old things” they had stored and forgotten in their homes.
A year later, and with more than 200 antique stalls, the fair was already a success, and, since then, it has not stopped growing and becoming the most important symbol of a neighborhood that revolves around it.
Undoubtedly a visit to San Telmo, to be complete, has to be on a Sunday. Its fair, its outdoor tables, and its tango music playing in every corner transform the neighborhood into a place that after living its splendor and decadence, was able to capture the different worlds that inhabited it into an interesting and intense place.
A ONE-STREET JOURNEY
San Telmo is a neighborhood where you can discover the past of a city, its cobbled streets, its colonial buildings transformed into art galleries, its old pulperías, so to discovering by going through a street would be an injustice. But as if it were a treasure map, I leave this 2-kilometer journey through Defensa Street from which you can reach the most significant sites in the neighborhood.
In addition to all those described above, we can discover through this street the Cartoon Walk (a series of small statues of the most important literary fiction characters in our history), the Minimum House, a small building of just two meters and half wide and 13 deep (the narrowest house in Buenos Aires), the Museum of Modern Art, and the Convent of Santo Domingo of 1751 that houses the remains of General Manuel Belgrano.
THE BEST PLACE TO EAT IN SAN TELMO
If there is something that the neighborhood of San Telmo has, it is an infinity of gastronomy options. But to eat well you have to know how to choose, and above all, you have to try to avoid the typical tourist menu to enjoy the true Argentine gastronomy: a mixture of traditions with strong Italian and French influences, and that Argentine touch that makes it unique.
That’s why in our journey we let ourselves be carried away by a place that we consider that blends that perfectly, and that at the same time it feels like a small neighborhood of San Telmo inside a restaurant. We are talking about the Napoles Bar, a place where the Italian flavors stand out but with a local stamp.
Undoubtedly what most struck us about the place and the reason we chose it, is its fabulous and eclectic setting: in a huge space of the last century, with an architecture that mixes the industrial with the old; the tables blend in among antiques and various objects that would be the envy of any collector.
What is the great advantage? Everything that is there is for sale, including a scale replica of the Titanic that can only be found in 5 places in the world (one of them, the Bar Napoles) and that an Arab Sheikh wanted to buy. So between carousel horses, chandeliers and joinery jewelry, old cars, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and books that looked like they were from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, we enjoyed a very delicious lunch.
We also took the opportunity to interview the owner of the place, Gabriel del Campo, who on his first visit to the Italian city of Naples was amazed by its chaotic and exciting disorder. And it was in a gastronomic place where he wanted to leave that imprint, a place that is very far from San Telmo’s tango and closer to a beautiful conventillo where immigrants from all over the world coexist: from Chinese terracotta warriors to Egyptian dogs.
1) How does the concept of Napoles arise? And why the name Napoles?
Gabriel del Campo: The name and the concept join the real possibility of what we could do. We just wanted a bar that admitted a bit of chaos, not for palates that were too sophisticated but for people who come to eat something fresh and delicious in a fun environment. That is why we pointed to that kind of name, to a bar that transmitted this. An emotion, being in a different place and having fun with friends.
2) Where does the passion for antiques come from?
GDC: It is my professional activity and it has still been for many years, in fact, Napoles is one of my deposits that ended up in the bar.
3) What do you want people to take away when they live the Napoles experience?
GDC: We would like them to be excited, to change the paradigm of going out to eat at a restaurant, and fundamentally to have fun and have a pleasant time.
4) What kind of public does Napoles aim for?
GDC: We by decision do not make any publicity, we do not call out through brands, we do not work a lot around social networks, we simply want to guarantee that people mix. Argentines and foreigners, celebrities and people from the neighborhood, and from the youngest to the eldest.
5) They told me you are a Pet-Friendly restaurant. How is the current legal situation in Argentina? What do you think about that?
GDC: The Pet-Friendly theme is a personal conviction that animals improve any life experience, so far we have not had problems but we know that we are at risk. Even so, and at least for now, it is a decision we intend to sustain.
Where is it: Avenida Caseros 449, San Telmo
Phone Number: 011 15-5417-1802
Touring the San Telmo neighborhood from the eyes of an inhabitant of the city was undoubtedly a different experience than a traveler could have.
But it was from trying to change that way of seeing things that we began to discover its past, that we asked ourselves about its stories and its inhabitants, and that we began to want to continue touring the beautiful City of Buenos Aires and its 100 porteño neighborhoods.
Hopefully one day we will be able to say that we have seen them all.
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