“Researching” San Telmo

August 25, 2011

This post first appeared on July 18 on the University of South Carolina’s study abroad blog.

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Our latest class assignment was to explore one of the 48 neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and give a presentation about the barrio to the class.  My group and I decided to explore San Telmo, the smallest barrioin the city.  Therefore, I spent last week exploring the various sights in this small corner of Buenos Aires.

Back in the 17th century, San Telmo was an industrial area home to the city’s dockworkers and brickmakers.  Later on, in the mid-1850s, the neighborhood started to improve with the addition of better housing, cobblestone streets, running water, lighting and the addition of the still popular wholesale market in the center of San Telmo.  These improvements drew the well-to-do porteños to San Telmo until a yellow fever epidemic struck in the 1870s, pushing the wealthy to Barrio Norte and Recoleta [for a previous post about the Recoleta Cemetary, click here].  During the wave of immigrants in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the large old buildings were converted to tenement housing that was home to communities of British, Greek, Italian and Russian immigrants. Beginning in the 1950s, San Telmo began developing the bohemian reputation that it still maintains today.  San Telmo’s multi-cultural history, cobblestone streets and artsy vibe makes it a wonderful place to go for a walk or sit in a café and people-watch.

The well-to-do history of San Telmo is obvious in the beautiful architecture that fills this small neighborhood and the narrow cobblestone streets can lead you to believe that you’re strolling through Rome (or at least, what I imagine Rome is like).  In the center of the barrio is a small antiques, produce and meat market that is always full of interesting things for sale. I even found a store that was selling a U.S. dollar bill – good thing I know where to find one of those now.  All joking aside, the market is filled with beautiful antiques, old record and poster shops, and some of the most delicious looking meats and cheeses I’ve seen.

On Sundays, many of the streets in San Telmo are closed for the feria – the artisans street market – where everything from jewelry to mate cups to underwear is peddled.  The feria gives San Telmo a very congested feeling on Sundays that causes many of the residents to flee, but it is a nice thing to visit once or twice.

My classmates and I certainly preferred San Telmo on days other than Sunday.  One Saturday, we went to a café called Bar Federal on the corner of Peru and Carlos Calvo (in case anyone’s in the area).  It was by far one of my favorite places so far.  After standing around awkwardly waiting for a table to open up, we pounced on a table in the corner by the window before the mozo even had a chance to clear it (that’s just how things are done here).

Our site director Gaby, a San Telmo resident, told us that Bar Federal is known for its “finger food” so we decided to go with an aperitivo platter – the Gran Federal, I believe.  After ordering some cervezas and Cokes for the table, the waiter brought us a heaping basket of various breads.  No one in Buenos Aires is ever in a hurry and this café was particularly relaxed, but about an hour later, the Gran Federal arrived.  It was a large wood cutting board covered with jamón, Roquefort cheese, bite size pieces of tortillas españolas, salami, olives, more cheese, pâté and hearts of palm.

After chowing down and resisting the urge to lick the cutting board, we decided to order another course.  About 2 and half hours had passed since we first arrived so this was already one of the longer lunches of my life.  Campbell and I decided to share a dish of papas fritas (French fries) covered with pancetta and fried eggs while Kenzie and Steph ordered a Spanish tortilla with chorizo and cheese.  Another 45 minutes later, we got our food and it was as delicious as we had imagined.  All told, the lunch was about 4 hours and we all had a fantastic time.  This café seemed to really echo the bohemian sentiment in San Telmo and it was, of course, necessary “research” for our project.  Even though the presentation has come and gone, we still have a list of places in San Telmo to explore.  And, after hearing all the other presentations, I have a list of places in other barrios to add to my to-do list.


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