From Buenos Aires to Salta

Dear Ones,

We arrived in Salta on Saturday morning, after a few delightful days in Buenos Aires. We caught up with old friends, dined in favorite restaurants, and discovered a marvelous bar in a formerly private palacio, now a hotel. Clad in gothic oak paneling brought from a 15th century chateau in Normandy in the heyday of Argentina’s boom days, it brings back the time when the French expression “riche comme un Argentin” had real meaning. This opulent mansion is right next to the palacio of the papal nuncio in Recoleta. On its other side, almost hidden in the luxuriant growth of an abandoned garden, is a grand house. The shutters are closed. Argentina’s history seems to coalesce in these three buildings – the cohesive force of the Catholic religion, instrumental in blending native and immigrant cultures from the beginning of the Spanish conquest to the present day, the rise and decadence of the 19th-century economic and political élite, and the transformation of the extravagant private lifestyle of the past, with its tight connection between Old and New Worlds, into a contemporary commercial venture.

Queen Victoria as bag lady on a wall in Palermo Soho.
Street art in Palermo Soho

We went to the palacio to meet friends, but our usual neighborhood in Buenos Aires is less staidly elegant than Recoleta, and more about an Argentine idea of bohemian chic. We stay in Palermo Soho, full of hip coffee shops, smart boutiques, and a hovering nostalgia for the populist causes of the 1930s, where the have renovated the once down-at-heel houses of a vanished bourgeoisie. Here we have become habitués of a small hotel just around the corner from our office

Street art in Palermo Soho

The Legado Mitico is full of objects and books drawing on Argentine cultural and ethnic themes in a Modernist setting. There is a backyard surrounded walls of buildings are covered in street art and fashionable architects by high walls clad in vines, where you can have your coffee in the morning or tea in the mid-afternoon, in the company of a Siamese cat.

Arriving in Salta early the next morning, we immediately ran into an old friend from the Molinos Valley, also on his way back from the sophisticated pleasures of Buenos Aires to his finca. It’s a small world, particularly in Salta.

A comfortable place to read
at the Mitico.

Our lawyer picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel. It was delightful to be back in this handsome casa salteña, a sister to that in Buenos Aires, and the original version of the Leyendo Mitico. In an old and ample mansion, beautifully restored, the theme here is the north of Argentina and its particular brand of myths – the fierce Indian revolts, the vanished Inca conquerors, the colonial terratenientes, the heroic fight for independence from Spain, the memories of the elegant familial society of the past and its hard-won opulence.

Bookshelves at the Mitico in Salta.

We had lunch in a jolly local restaurant, La Criollita. Out back, the adobe oven was smoking, and off in a side room, aproned women were pinching and rolling the edges of fresh empanadas. In the street outside our hotel, a parade of sorts went by. Children and teenagers were dressed in satiny band costumes, shining in the sun. Some played musical instruments, some danced, and some simply strutted –

– everyone was having fun. They gathered in front of the municipal building facing the square up the street, joining a crowd of men holding up banners that said “Urtubey.”

“It’s a demonstration,” Pedro informed me from the front desk, pinching his lips. Salta may be small, but all the conflicts in Argentine society are evident here. Salta’s governor is a Peronist, former ally of Nestor and Cristina de Kirchner. Pedro would probably call them the disgraced former demagogues of Argentina, but there is still plenty of support for the free-spending, business-bashing presidential couple whose 12-year rule ended in uncontrolled inflation, vanished state monies, and – obviously–political crisis.

Dancing for Urtubey — or
just for the fun of it.

Well, not our problem! But we understand where Pedro is coming from. He is not only the manager of the Leyendo Mitico here, he is related to all the socially prominent families of Salta. And for these families, whose fortunes and prestige have been steadily diminished by Peronist policies since Peron came to power in the 1940s, resentment of Peron and his political heirs cuts to the bone. Salta’s own fabulously wealthy Robustiano Patron- Costas was the opposition candidate in the election of 1943. It preceded the military coup that brought Peron to power a few years later. During these heated times, a

Peronist mob attacked the ostentatiously ornate headquarters of the Club Veinte, center of Salta’s social élite. And when Peron came to power, he had the Club’s headquarters confiscated. He seized and nationalized Patron-Costas’ vast estate outside Salta, San Lorenzo.

The property, where the family spent summers away from the heat of the city, became part natural reserve and part lots, cut up and sold.

Argentina was henceforth to be run for the benefit of Buenos Aires’ new political class and increasingly powerful labor unions.

El Señor del Milagro was discovered floating in a box on the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru in 1592, presumed victim of a shipwreck. It was addressed with instructions from the former bishop of Tucuman – then part of the Vicerrey de Alto Peru – for placement in the mother church in Salta. Its miraculous powers were tested a century later in September of 1692.

But that evening, our thoughts were not on Argentine political history. Our lawyer took us for dinner to the Casona del Molino. We sat in a courtyard under a spreading tree, and ate roast ribs and drank Argentine wine under the starlight. It would have been charming enough, but the Casona is also a place where guests bring instruments and their voices. Listening to a romantic gaucho lament, savoring a glass of wine, conversation flowed freely. Pancho told us about his ! winter trip to New York City with his wife and children. They loved it – the hurry and bustle, the avant-garde design, the museums, the shops, the long walks in the snow. And he told us a little about himself. His is an Argentine story: his father sold inherited farms in the fertile valley of the Lerma to invest in housing construction. He was wiped out by the financial crisis of 2001. Pancho and his siblings are rebuilding some of the family wealth more prudently — by dividing up a 19th-century landscape park surrounding the family’s country house and joining forces with a developer. The country house itself, with its extensive rooms for visiting aunts and uncles, for cousins and grandparents, friends and servants, was sold about a decade ago to foreign investors, and is now a fancy condominium.

Pancho is the great-grandson of Robustiano. We passed the Club Veinte as he drove us home. A couple of well-dressed men stood outside, in a pool of light from a lamppost in the garden.

“My grandfather gave the club that house,” he remarked. He was pensive, almost melancholy. “In Salta, you have to belong to the Club. But it is a very small world.”

The next morning, we got ready to leave for Gualfin. We paid a visit to Salta’s magnificent cathedral first. This is the last week of Lent before Semana Santa. Even at that early hour, the faithful were paying their respects to the famous images on display – particularly El Señor and the Virgen del Milagro. These images of Christ and the Virgin Mary are venerated for having protected the city from earthquake in September of 1692. The protection was only partial; the original church itself fell in an 18th-century earthquake. It was, however, rebuilt in even more splendid form as a cathedral. To this day, every year in September a procession passes around the city in their honor. Pilgrims walk to Salta from all over the province and from the heights of the Altoplano. Gualfin sends its faithful, too.


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