CITY OF ANGELS
For a city as lively as Buenos Aires, it seems bizarre that one of the tourist attractions is a refuge for the dead. La Recoleta Cemetery is found in the best part of town befitting the rank of its celebrated residents. Marble palaces line the narrow corridors resembling a classic city in miniature. No broad sweep of lawn punctuated with traditional tombstones is seen in this revered cemetery.
My first visit to Recoleta was on a bright fall Sunday when the city dwellers relax and play in the shade of the city’s magnificent trees. The park outside of the cemetery’s imposing archway entry was bustling with children, sun bathers, and street performers. Ever popular are the tango dancers strutting their stuff with portable boom boxes. Hardly a funereal aura for nearby dead.
Luckily, I was with a guided group or I never would find my way out of the maze. Returning another day when it was grey and about to drizzle seemed the proper atmosphere for the cemetery. Without a guide, I did get lost and had to be pointed to the gateway several times by polite caretakers who understood my problem.
Why should tourists visit such a grotesque place? Most obvious is a macabre interest in seeing the tomb of Eva Durate Peron. Once there, any visitor can’t avoid a fascination with all the glorification devoted to the dead. These are monuments fit for kings and queens usually seen in national cathedrals.
One predominant adornment to many of the Palladium palaces are angels. They are like a huge flock that settled in stony perpetuity on the roofs, spires, and alcoves of the silent mansions. I promptly saw it not as a place for the dead, but a City of Angels, not to be confused with Los Angeles!
With so many unique attractions available in Buenos Aires, my strongest memories of being at Recoleta Cemetery still resonate 17 years later. It was the last stop on a South American cruise by small explorer ship down the Pacific Coast of Chile and through the Straits of Magellan to the very tip of Cape Horn. We were flown to Buenos Aires to return home. I stayed extra days in Buenos Aires to tour the gracious city of Bel Époch architecture, wide boulevards and city parks.
Besides the ubiquous tango street dancing, the primary sights were the presidential palace, Casa Rosada, where Eva Peron was greeted from the balcony by thousands as the First Lady when the Peron’s took control of the country. I recall a vast flea market at San Telmo full of exotic products and, yes, dozens of tango dancers and mimes painted like statues mounted on pedestals with only an occasional eye wink movement.
A performance at Teatro Colón is not to be missed where most of the great opera artists and musicians of the Golden Age performed in the 1908 jewel with perfect acoustics. For fine dining the old shipyards were renovated at Puerto Madero on the river front with a wide selection of restaurants. The best evening entertainment is at a tango supper club where the expert dancers dazzle you with the traditional dance.
The City of Angels at Recoleta dates back to a monastery founded in 1732 and became a public cemetery in 1822. The 14 acre site is laid out like a miniature city with many of the narrow lanes twisting around in a haphazard manner. That’s why it is easy to get lost. The burial vaults are fashioned like small palaces and temples suggesting an ancient Roman ruin of crumbling marble with life-size statues.
Many notable Argentines are entombed at Recoleta’s 4600 vaults including past presidents, famous celebrities and of course the main attraction, Eva Duarte Peron. Evita rose from the slums to become a powerful idol for the poor of Argentina and died young in an era of political and military controversy in a nation that was a refuge for many Nazi exiles.
It is not an elaborate vault decorated with plaques for the Duarte family with no special display for Evita. However, on both visits there were fresh flowers on her plaque. Even 48 years later, the “angel” for the poor was still revered despite her personal life of self-indulgence and corruption. Evita knew how to sell the sizzle with great style!
There is no record of how many angel statues hover over Recoleta, but they definitely are the monument of choice to honor the dead. While traveling in Europe, I saw many cemeteries and churches with angel images. On these encounters, I never I saw as many life size angels as those in Recoleta, truly A City of Angels.