Saturday 23 September 2017

Buenos Aires: The Holy Trail

Chris Moss visits Buenos Aires and explores the favourite haunts of its local hero Pope Francis

Chris Moss

Drive around Argentina and you can't help noticing roadside shrines honouring Gauchito Gil, a sort of Robin Hood gaucho hero, and La Difunta Correa, a protective patron saint adored by lorry drivers and sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Broken Fanbelt.

The Argentine tourist industry is already tapping into the hard- currency potential of the latest shrine-candidate, Papa Francisco I, with local firms trying to link hotel openings to the Pope's homeland.

But a Pope tour might, in fact, open up a few new neighbourhoods and regions.

His birthplace, Flores, is at the end of the Linea A underground railway. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born here – on calle Membrillar (it's house no 531, by the way, for the true pilgrims) – in 1936, when the area was favoured by the middle classes for its fresh breezes wafting in from the pampas.

Like many residents, he grew up supporting the local football team, San Lorenzo de Almagro, whose nickname is The Saints. Their rivals, Independiente, are known as Los Diablos: The Devils.

The stadium, El Nuevo Gasometro, is just round the corner from the priest's house.

The Linea A is currently being extended and the next new station – due to open any time now – will be named San Jose de Flores, after the local church, though there's no doubt already a passionate lobby to call it Pope Francisco I.

The future Pope studied at the Inmaculada Concepcion seminary in Villa Devoto (Village of Devotion), a barrio on the western edges of Buenos Aires.

Though it's most familiar to locals for its large prison, it's a pleasantly leafy residential area and home to one of the city's listed cafés, the Café de Garcia (Sanabria 3302) – just the place to while away an hour over a cortado (espresso) and a lively theological text.

As a Jesuit novice, Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent time in Santiago de Chile and out in the pampas of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe (Holy Faith) provinces, where he taught literature, psychology and philosophy.

After a spell overseas he became the head of the Argentine Jesuits in the city of Cordoba.

The so-called Jesuit Block of university, church and residential buildings in the city, and the former Jesuit-managed estancias (ranches) in the province of Cordoba, are together designated as a single Unesco World Heritage site, but still don't attract the visitor numbers of the rather plain-looking Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, which was Bergoglio's workplace, from 1998, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. There has been a church at this spot since Buenos Aires was founded in 1580, but the current cathedral dates from the 18th century, though the facade is a harsh-looking 19th-century Neoclassical affair. The national 'Liberator', Jose de San Martin, is buried there.

If you really want to get under the skin of the Pope's homeland, however, you must go to the San Cayetano church in Liniers, on the fringes of Buenos Aires. San Cayetano, the patron saint of 'bread and work', is the Saint Francis of Argentina, and his big day – August 7 – attracts the faithful in their tens of thousands.

As Cardinal, Bergoglio asked the much-loved saint to help the poor and make the noquis – work-shy civil servants – get on and do the jobs they are paid to do.

Tourism, in Argentina, still takes the shape of pilgrimages for the country's working classes.

Since the inauguration of Francis, Roman Catholics have been flocked to Liniers to thank San Cayetano, while out in the far-flung provinces they are placing new bottles of beer on the roadside shrines to celebrate their most important future saint – after Maradona, that is.

NEED TO KNOW

GETTING THERE

Trailfinders (01-677 7888; trailfinders.ie) has return fares from Dublin to Buenos Aires from about €900.

British Airways flies daily direct from London Heathrow to Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires (13-14 hours). All other flights stop in European cities or Brazil – see Opodo to compare Iberia, Lan, TAM and other operators.

STAYING THERE

Enterprising Belfast man Kieran Rooney has launched a Pope Francis pilgrimage revealing details of the first Latin American pontiff's background.

Kieran, who owns Rooney's Boutique Hotel (0054 115 252 5060; rooneysboutique hotel.com) in the city, says the new tour will give people an idea of the life of Pope Francis when he lived in Buenos Aires as a humble Jesuit priest, where he was born and educated.

The tour takes in a visit to his childhood parish church, St Joseph's, San Lorenzo football club, where he is still an active member, and the church where he sheltered people on the run from the military dictatorship. A local historian will give an objective view of the situation in the country at the time.

Visitors will also be taken to Flores, the down-to-earth neighbourhood of Buenos Aires where he grew up, and the college where he studied chemistry until he was hit by a lung infection.

A six-night package costs from €750, excluding flights.

Alternatively, Hub Porteno (Rodriguez Pena 1967; 0054 114 815 6100; hubporteno. com) is a new 11-room hotel in upmarket Recoleta with huge suites, huge beds and a fabulous concierge-type 'experience' service.

The in-house restaurant, Tarquino, has just been voted best restaurant in the city by a leading local gastro magazine. Doubles €300 B&B.

Legado Mitico (Gurruchaga 1848, Palermo; 0054 114 833 1300; legadomitico.com) is a smart hotel with 11 individually decorated rooms, each celebrating an Argentine celebrity. Though it's right in the heart of Palermo Viejo – great for dining and shops – the hotel is quiet inside. From €222 per room B&B.

WHEN TO GO

March and April are warm and pleasant, as are October and November. January and February are very hot, and the city empties as locals head for the beach. Some museums and theatres close.

EATING OUT

• Los Galgos (Avenida Callao 501; 0054 114 371 3561). Here since 1930 and, on evidence, never redecorated, this lovely bar/café is archetypal and, in its way, atmospheric.

• El Globo (Hipolito Yrigoyen 1199; 0054 114 381 3926; restaurantelglobo.com.ar). A famous old-school Spanish restaurant established in 1908 that serves hearty stews and Iberian specialities such as suckling pig and Madrid-style tripe.

• El Obrero (Caffarena 64; 0054 114 362 9912). The best reason to visit La Boca, this atmospheric restaurant, opened in 1954, serves huge portions. Try the calamari or the pastas – good at night, but better at lunchtime when the port workers descend.

• Los Laureles (Av Gral Iriarte 2290; 0054 114 303 3393; barloslaureles.com.ar). In business since 1893 and far off the tourist map, come here, to the city's southside, to dine on milanesas (veal or chicken in breadcrumbs).

MUST DOS

• Foto Ruta (0054 911 6833 1030; foto-ruta.com). Join a tour led by keen, and technically expert, expat guides to photograph the backstreets and hidden plazas of the city's less obvious barrios.

• Coleccion Fortabat (Olga Cossettini 141; 0054 114 310 6600; coleccionfortabat. org.ar). Opened in 2008, this gallery shows off the private collection of Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, the late cement magnate. The Argentine works are particularly impressive. Entry $35 (€27).

READ

Andrew Graham-Yooll's 'Goodbye Buenos Aires' (Eland, 2011), a novel-cum-memoir about his father's arrival in the city in 1928 and subsequent flight. Try also to pick up a copy of 'Viejo Buenos Aires, Adios' (1980), with photos by Horacio Coppola.

AVOID

• Paying for water in your room – it's often about AR$40 (€7) a bottle, even though the kioskos sell it for almost a fifth of that price.

• Don't automatically take taxis, especially when travelling around by day – a bus ride costs two pesos (40c). Taxis cost many times that.

• Don't use ATMs at night: street crime is on the rise in Argentina.

• Protests, marches, riots are everyday occurrences. Stay clear.

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