Córdoba: Hotel Nazi, la Salamanca, and Other Tall Tales and Adventures

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The city of Córdoba, capital of the province of Córdoba, Argentina, was founded on July 6, 1573 by Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, a Spanish conquistador.  Cabrera named the city after Córdoba, Spain.  Córdoba was one of the first Spanish colonial capitals of the region that is now Argentina (the oldest city is Santiago del Estero, founded in 1553).   The U of Córdoba is the oldest university in the country and the second oldest in Latin America.  It was founded by the Jesuits in 1613.

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Córdoba has many historical monuments preserved from Spanish colonial rule.  The most recognizable is perhaps the Jesuit Quarter (la Manzana Jesuíta), declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. 

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This beautiful barrio consists of a group of buildings dating from the 17th century, including the Colegio Nacional de Monserrat and the colonial university campus.

recova Plaza San Martín

recova Plaza San Martín

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In January we flew up north to the province of Córdoba. The original Córdoba, in Andalusia, Spain, was built by the Romans and conquered by Muslim armies in 711.  Córdoba became the capital of the Islamic Emirate and the Caliphate of Córdoba, which included a great swath of the Iberian Peninsula, not to mention my favorite Andalusian cities: Granada, Málaga, Sevilla.  According to archeologists, Córdoba had upwards of a million inhabitants in the 10th century, in a time when only one other European city had more than 30,000: Constantinople.

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Córdoba was famously cultured, enlightened and stunningly beautiful, and is credited, as I will illustrate, with jumpstarting the Renaissance.  The city was known for its gardens, fountains, artificial lakes and public baths fed by an aqueduct.  Muslims bathed daily, unlike their fragrant European neighbors who were averse to cleanliness, and instead resorted to the invention of perfume.

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General San Martín

During these centuries, Córdoba became a society ruled by Muslims, in which all other groups had second-class status but lived together in relative peace and poverty except for the noble classes, who were exempt from paying taxes.  Spain returned to Christian rule in 1236, during the Reconquista.  In 1492 Fernando and Isabella, los Reyes Católicos, forced all the Muslims, Jews, gypsies and other “deplorables” out of the country in the name of Catholicism.  (Many converted to Christianity to avoid being deported: los conversos)  The ebb and flow of tolerance seems to be a recurring pattern worldwide.  We humans just can’t seem to rise above the avarice, ego, and drive to dominate others, which is apparently encoded in our DNA.  History repeats itself. 

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Because of its enlightened rulers, Córdoba was home to a university, medical schools, a library of 400,000 volumes, and 27 free primary schools for children of the poor.  The literacy rate was high for both males and females …. encouraged by a famous king, Alfonso X, el Sabio.  Alfonso the “wise” was crowned in 1252. He is known for his interest in science and literature.  Under his rule, early Greek and Roman texts (Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sappho, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, et al.) were translated into Castilian Spanish.  Alfonso X sponsored, supervised and often participated with his own writing and in collaboration with a group of Latin, Hebrew and Muslim intellectuals known as the Toledo School of Translators, in the composition of an enormous body of literature that kick-started the production of literature in Spanish as we know it today.

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Córdoba has many historical monuments preserved from Spanish colonial rule.  The Colegio Nacional de Monserrat and the colonial university campus, as I have mentioned, all date from the 17th century. The campus belongs today to the historical museum of the National University of Córdoba, which has been the second-largest university in the country since the early 20th century (after the University of Buenos Aires), in terms of the number of students, faculty, and academic programs.

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January and February is school-free summer vacation time here in the far southern latitudes.  Trees are in blossom all over the place.  The Córdoba countryside reminds me so much of California; the Santa Lucias, the Gabilanes, Los Padres, Ojai…  Seeing Córdoba adds life and depth to an understanding of our California missions.

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Isn’t she lovely?

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a Dominican convent in the Jesuit quarter

Segue to the 20th century: a beautiful bronze bas-relief in the historic quarter of Córdoba, dedicated to the women of Córdoba.  Just in time for International Women’s Day!

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monument to the women of Cordoba, 1956

In case you might not know about or have forgotten about a very difficult period in Argentina, there is the Museo de la Memoria in Córdoba.  The coup d’etat of March 1976 was a civic-military rebellion that led to the establishment of a military junta, led by Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla.  The junta called their state-sponsored terrorism the Process of National Reorganization.  People called it “la Dictadura” and “el Proceso.”  It was not the first, but by far the bloodiest dictatorship in the history of Argentina. [Wikipedia]

Museo de la Memoria

More than 30,000 people were “disappeared,” tortured and killed.  The junta remained in power until December 10, 1983, when Raúl Alfonsín was elected president by free and fair elections.  In Buenos Aires you will see many bronze plaques set into the sidewalks, in every neighborhood, where the names of the disappeared are listed, along with with the date they were kidnapped from their homes at that location.  On the facade of the Museo de la Memoria are hand-lettered the names of those who were “disappeared” in Córdoba.  I saw quite a lot of politically-inspired street art in Córdoba.  People having a voice is what democracy is all about.

we want to live   …    we exist because we resist

 

El Cordobazo: a student – worker uprising against a previous dictatorship in 1969.

When reality gets too depressing, you have to just forget about it all, for a while.  C’mon, let’s go dancing.

Saturday night Milonga in Plaza San Martín, Córdoba.

If you’ve got a bad case of the blues, and the Cathedral at Plaza San Martín is just too damn lovely, take a walk on the Goth side, near the Plaza España.  It’s absolutely wild!

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Gótica extremensus!

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You would think this cathedal, la Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón, was built in the 1700s… that’s what I thought!  I mean, it’s positively crawling with grotesque and beastly gargoyles.  But I was soooo wrong, just like the Beatles’ song.  Also known as the Iglesia de los Capuchinos (let’s just call it the Cappuchino church, even if it doesn’t have an espresso bar), it was built by the Franciscan order between 1926 – 1934.

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Gothic my ass!  The brickwork gives it away.  It’s pretty amazing, just the same.

Hmmm… prehistoric Legos?  Holy Friars!  What were they smoking?

Córdoba Day 1.

Our first destination in Córdoba was La Cumbre, a pretty little town 500 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.  We loved La Cumbre… we stayed there for a whole week.  You can keep your yurts… La Cumbre is the best base camp anywhere.  It’s friendly and picturesque, and the dozen or so sidewalk cafés and bistros serve up some really delicious food.  How about a plate of crusted stuffed Patagonian trout?  Rúcula and radicheta salad with caramelized pears and melted brie?  We’re talking’ some really good eats in this town, not to mention the BBQ, the empanadas, and the quintessential malbec: in vino veritas!  In La Cumbre the Tourism office doesn’t close till midnight.  Argentines are all about their night life!

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La Cumbre has a lovely willow-lined creek on the edge of town.  

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We discovered the creek while wandering about town the next morning, trying to find the 10K trail we were told about.  It starts behind the statue of El Cristo Redentor and ends at the San Gerónimo reservoir.

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It’s a 10 minute climb up a series of steps to get to the lookout.

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Nice view of La Cumbre.  The best part was getting to pet the adorable cuddly vicuña for 10 pesos.

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The trailhead starts right behind the statue and we nearly missed it, but our new friends, las Gaby, pointed out what looked like a rabbit trail going straight up, a few feet from the backside of Christ.  The four of us spent most of the day climbing with hands and feet up a narrow, rocky trail to the top of the ridge. Lush, grassy green hillsides with horses and burros grazing.  My kind of paradise!

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There was a cute burro hanging with the herd but he kept moving away and I couldn’t get a good shot.  As we climbed up the views of La Cumbre just got better and better.  Santos added the “the bear went over the mountain” to his repertoire of Latin American hiking music.  After living in Buenos Aires for most of the last 6 years  – that big beautiful cognitively-dissonant city that I love –  it was delightful to be up in the hills with the sweet air, the fresh breeze.  The  warmth of the sun was absoutely glorious.  A wonderfully healing and energizing day.

We had to ditch our sneakers and socks to ford a creek that was only a few inches deep.  Our happy feet dried in the sun as we kicked back in the tall grass munching trail mix.  We scrambled up faint paths on all fours, rock to rock, like, seriously climbing!  On the downhills we scampered and skittered like clumsy goats, concentrating on each split-second landing, not afraid, but keenly aware of the possible unfortunate consequences of one poorly placed foot.  Luckily I had brought along a good pair of hiking shoes, and with zen-like concentration I donned the spirit cloak of a mountain sprite.

We finally made it over the ridgetops and scrambled down, down, down to the San Gerónimo reservoir.   The water was still a little muddy from recent rains.

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Dique San Gerónimo after the rains

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web photo: cobalt blue water!

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a spillway: built to last!

It was about 4 pm when we made it to the reservoir.  After a short break our 4-person team set off down the dirt road towards La Cumbre. Riders on horseback passed us ponying a mare with a colt skittering alongside.  It was about a 4K walk into La Cumbre.  After a while we turned onto the main road (also dirt) and to our right was a sight for sore eyes: la Estancia Rosario!  It was a hot and sunny afternoon, and the gate was OPEN!

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La estancia welcomed us with beautiful sweeping lawns, benches all over the place, a café, a restaurant, huge nice restrooms, and a shop that sells an enormous variety of alfajores (saddlebags in english).  Alfajores are cookies sandwiched with jam or dulce de leche.  Sometimes the cookie dough is made from almond paste and nuts, or breadcrumbs mixed with honey and spices.  Speaking of breadcrumbs, I spent so much time in the ladies’ room washing off the sweat and trail dirt, and rebraiding my hair, that the team sent one of the Gabys to drag me out.  Then I had to stock up on alfajores… dulce de leche is my favorite, dusted with coconut instead of dipped in chocolate.  Estancia el Rosario makes the best alfajores I’ve ever had.  Ah, alfajor heaven!

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So, rested up, full tummy = happy heart.  We set off to hike the last couple of miles into La Cumbre.  Piece ‘a cake!  Flat, no stones in my passway….

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

Robert Johnson, 1911-1938, King of the Delta Blues

A stray dog decided to join our wolf-pac.com.  Maybe he liked the scent of dirt, dust and alfajores?  After awhile he changed his mind and headed back to his comfort zone.… the familiar.  He didn’t want anything weird to happen at the next crossroads.  Happens to all of us at some point, right?  If not, there may still be time…

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After a day of climbing nearly vertical rabbit trails, walking on the flat was sooo easy.  We were NOT complaining.  But then, as if the universe wanted to applaud our efforts, we heard a vehicle approaching, bouncing and jolting its merry way along the washboard.  We all turned to look.  It was a white ’64 Ford pickup.  Its driver spotted us and slowed down to have a look.  Three women and one guy.  The odds are good but the goods are odd!  Just kidding, he was a good guy.  There were 4 or 5 tires in the back of the truck which looked liked couch cushions to us.  Santos spoke to him, he gave a nod, and we jumped in.

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Gabriela la Morocha and Gabriela de Córdoba: las Gabys

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Back in town, we celebrated under the umbrella of a sidewalk cafe downtown with Quilmes, empanadas and a spiked mango licuado for yours truly. Good times and best friends forever!!

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Later on Santos and I drove to Cosquín to go to a peña.  What’s a peña?  It’s a club where you can sit and have a nice meal and a bottle of wine and listen to live folk music, and sometimes other local musical offerings.  Santos was really jazzed to go to Cosquín, because it’s THE center of Argentine folk music and dance, and he’s way into all that.  They have music festivals there all year round, and the biggest ones are broadcast live on Argentine public tv, night after night. 

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During the day they have rodeos where you can watch gauchos in Argentine style caps and sombreros ride outlaw bulls and broncs. It’s kinda funny for me cause, being a cowgirl myself, I’m used to American rodeos with clowns and dumb-ass announcers and lots of flag waving and team roping and steer wrestling, barrel racing and all the rest.  In Argentina, especially in the provinces, they’ve got guys riding broncs and bulls with folk singers singing at the same time!  Crazy!  But that’s how it’s done here.  Their rodeos are called domos.  Later on, for the folks at home, the tv broadcasts hours of folk dancing, all in very elaborate and beautiful costumes, very much like our baile folklórico in California and Mexico.

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dancing la Zamba at Peña La Salamanca

So that evening we went to la Peña Salamanca.  The food was great (we had locro, a traditional corn and beef stew) and there was a stream of different groups performing… a dozen at least.  It was the week leading up to the big festival weekend, so lots of performers were in town doing the rounds of the peñas.  We got up and danced to the chacareras, and when a group played some Piazzolla, we were the only dancers brave enough to get out there and show our stuff.  The audience went wild for us!!  Blame it on that bottle of tinto we were drinking.  

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The fact that we were visiting “la Salamanca” made Santos spill the stories his mom told him when he was little, about the Devil and la Salamanca.  

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According to the Santiagueño version, la Salamanca is a place where people go to make a deal with the devil (Zupay) in exchange for knowledge and powerful gifts.  La Salamanca is usually a cave in the mountains.  Zupay may teach the initiate the musical arts, such as playing the guitar or other instruments, dancing, horse breaking and training, or the evil arts of brujería (witchcraft).  Tradition tells that if you hear the music of la Salamanca, you will fall into an evil life, full of fear and horror.  People of good faith can avoid falling into the temptation of the Zupay by carrying a rosary.  It is said that those who have made a pact with the devil can be spotted because they cast no shadow.

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“As always, there are many versions of this legend, but most of them agree on the main points.  This story was well known in Spain during the 14th and the 16th centuries and was so famous that it went with the first Spanish sailors who took part in the colonization of Central and South America. This is why … people still refer to … caves and dark places as “Salamancas.” [spanishinspain.blogspot.com.ar]

While I was writing about la Salamanca an old Robert Johnson song came into my head.  I remember stuff like that instead of people’s names and what I had for breakfast.  Weird, right?  Are you seeing a connection here between the singer and la Salamanca?

          I got stones in my passway
And all my roads seem dark at night

          – Robert Johnson, “Stones in My Passway”

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[The following story is from Henry Goodman, excerpted from Vagabonding, Rolf Potts, June 26, 2015]

Meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads  

Robert Johnson been playing down in Yazoo City and over at Beulah trying to get back up to Helena, ride left him out on a road next to the levee, walking up the highway, guitar in his hand propped up on his shoulder. October cool night, full moon filling up the dark sky, Robert Johnson thinking about Son House preaching to him, “Put that guitar down, boy, you drivin’ people nuts.”

Robert Johnson needing as always a woman and some whiskey. Big trees all around, dark and lonesome road, a crazed, poisoned dog howling and moaning in a ditch alongside the road sending electrified chills up and down Robert Johnson’s spine, coming up on a crossroads just south of Rosedale. Robert Johnson, feeling bad and lonesome, knows people up the highway in Gunnison. Can get a drink of whiskey and more up there.

Man sitting off to the side of the road on a log at the crossroads says, “You’re late, Robert Johnson.” Robert Johnson drops to his knees and says, “Maybe not.”

The man stands up, tall and black as the forever-closed eyes of Robert Johnson’s stillborn baby, and walks out to the middle of the crossroads where Robert Johnson kneels. He says, “Stand up, Robert Johnson. You want to throw that guitar over there in that ditch with that hairless dog and go on back up to Robinsonville and play the harp with Willie Brown and Son, because you just another guitar player like all the rest, or you want to play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? Make a sound nobody ever heard before? You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?”

“That’s a lot of whiskey and women, Devil-Man.”

“I know you, Robert Johnson,” says the man.

Robert Johnson feels the moonlight bearing down on his head and the back of his neck as the moon seems to be growing bigger and bigger and brighter and brighter. He feels it like the heat of the noonday sun bearing down, and the howling and moaning of the dog in the ditch penetrates his soul, coming up through his feet and the tips of his fingers through his legs and arms, settling in that big empty place beneath his breastbone causing him to shake and shudder like a man with the palsy. Robert Johnson says, “That dog gone mad.”

The man laughs. “That hound belong to me. He ain’t mad, he’s got the Blues. I got his soul in my hand.”

A few more notes about the legend of Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist who supposedly made a pact with the devil to become the greatest blues guitarist of all time.  Robert was the 11th (and illegitimate) child of a poor Mississippi family.  He was 17 or 18 when he found out the name of his biological father, and he then took on his real father’s last name.  Robert married at 19.  Perhaps due to bad luck, as some say, his wife Virginia died in childbirth, losing the baby, too.  She was only 16.

A few years later,  Johnson made the mistake of fooling around with the wife of the owner of a club where he was playing.  The outraged husband sent a bottle of poisoned whiskey to Robert’s table.  Apparently Robert drank a fair amount of that whiskey, ’cause later that evening he stopped playing, walked outside, and passed out.  He died three days or two weeks later, as the tale spins, from the strychnine-laced whiskey.

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Everyone knows a deal’s a deal, especially if it’s a deal with el diablo.  When your time runs out, you’re done.  Robert didn’t collect a lot of time in this world, but the devil sure got his due.  That’s the story of Robert Johnson, part history and part fiction.  For me, the truest part is the mesmerizing sound of his soulful voice, the genius of his music and his technical skill on the guitar, for all of which he earned the title “King of the Delta Blues.”

          I went down to the crossroad

          fell down on my knees

          I went down to the crossroad

          fell down on my knees

          Asked the lord above “Have mercy now

          save poor Bob if you please”

          – Robert Johnson, “Crossroad Blues”

[Check out this YouTube history in Spanish: Historias y Relatos – El Pacto de Robert Johnson]

Did we earn our Adventuresome Tourist badges on day 1?  Yikes!  Segue to another sketchy location about 30 miles away:  La Falda.  Home to the  decrepit, deteriorating, notorious Hotel Eden, the world-famous Nazi vacation retreat and watering hole.  Córdoba Day 2.

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Hotel Eden is an enormous building… about the same size as the Hotel Palace.  But you can’t book a room; it’s actually not habitable.  The second floor has big holes in the floors and walls, so the guided tour only took us up the decaying stairs (that was scary!) to the 2nd floor landing.  The hotel hasn’t been open for business – except guided tours – for many years. 

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view from the back

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section of the ground floor

The main event was a long boring documentary about all the rich Germans who stayed there before the war.  Albert Einstein did visit the hotel in 1925.  It was widely rumored that Hitler was also a visitor but there is no supporting evidence.

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Santos and his brother Einstein, 2017

During Einstein’s visit to Argentina he met with an Argentine physicist, Enrique Loedel Palumbo, who had written his doctoral thesis on the optical and electrical constants of sugar cane.  Is that, like, what color is it and can it bite you back?  According to Wikipedia, the two had a conversation about the differential equation of a point-source gravitational field, which resulted in a paper published by Loedel in Physikalische Zeitschrift.  I’m guessing that was a German scientific journal.  It’s claimed that this is the first research paper on relativity published by a Latin American scientist.  You go, Enrico!

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Enrique Loedel Palumbo, 1925

Another influential character, George Strausser Messersmith, was the U.S. ambassador to Austria, Cuba, Mexico and Argentina.  Messersmith also served as head of the U.S. Consulate in Germany from 1930 to 1934, during the rise of the Nazi party.  He was best known in his day for his controversial decision to issue a visa to Albert Einstein to travel to the United States.  Good move for the USA!  ICE, get a clue!

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George Strausser Messersmith

As America’s consul general in Berlin in 1933, Messersmith wrote a dispatch to the State Department that dramatically contravened the popular view that Hitler had no consensus among the German people and would not remain in power, saying,

“I wish it were really possible to make our people at home understand how definitely this martial spirit is being developed in Germany. If this government remains in power for another year, and it carries on in the measure in this direction, it will go far toward making Germany a danger to world peace for years to come. With few exceptions, the men who are running the government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.” [Wikipedia]

We enjoyed walking about the ruins of the pool and adjacent servants’ quarters.  Guys on one side of the pool, girls on the other.  How convenient is that?  How about I swim over to your place later, baby?  Our tour guide, noting the sparse accomodations of the maids who took care of the children of rich Germans, and their proximity to the equally spare quarters of the male wait staff, gave rise to amusing speculation about how much hanky panky was going on after hours under the noses of the fat cats.

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The scariest part of the Nazi hotel tour, besides the mala onda (bad vibes – which apparently have at least an 80 year half-life), was the crowded squeeze of our tour group into a basement wine cellar full of empty wine bottles arranged into low walls on every side, kinda like the bones in the Paris Catacombs.  Spooky. 

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The last and worst part of our 60 peso tour included a wine and cheese tasting in the bodega.  A little taste was all there was.  A 3 oz. plastic cup half full of an unidentifiable anemic red wine, and a piece of cheese literally no bigger than my pinky fingertip.  No little toothpicks, no cute little umbrellas; 50 tiny cheese bits piled on a wooden board so you had to grab a morsel with your fingers, touching many other cheese bits in the process.  Yikes!  Where’s the city health inspector?  Where’s the building code inspector?  AWOL and for good reason.

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After waiting 20 minutes in line for the formidable aperitif, we had to do a U-turn and leave the way we entered.  There was only one staircase, and it was barely wide enough for 2.  If there had been a fire or an earthquake, we would all have been buried under that low-ceilinged hell hole, like so many cans of bait.  No wonder the municipality of La Falda washed its hands of the hotel, and left its care and upkeep in the hands of a park concession business: imagine Curry Village in Yosemite turned into a FEMA shelter. 

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We couldn’t wait to get the hell out of La Falda.  Others seem to like it just fine… dozens of cafés and food joints lined the road up to Hotel Eden, and they were all jumping.  We grabbed a parking spot, walked into a place across the street, found a quiet booth in the back, and zoned out.  We took our sweet time consuming a plate of fries and cool drinks, basking in the A/C.  (It was a hot day in La Falda.)  When we finally made our way back to the rental car, we found a small dent in the front fender.  Did some lurking evil spirit follow us back from the Nazi Hotel?  

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One of the young guys who works at the hotel spotted us trying to pop out the dent in the parking lot when we returned that evening.  The next morning he brought over a dent restoration specialist friend.  They restored the fender to near perfection in about 5 minutes… and didn’t charge us anything.  Another star for the Palace Hotel!

On Córdoba Day 3 our first stop was El Cajón Reservoir, just a few kms north of La Cumbre.  We spotted a dirt road leading towards the river that spills out of the reservoir to the south.  We rattled along that first dirt road and finally got to the creek, but there was no place to park except sand dunes, and only one sketchy turnaround.  Later we realized we could have just parked in the road and waded across the river.  No problem blocking traffic at a dead end.

But I was a little shook up from all the big potholes and treacherous sandy spots.  So we headed back to the highway and took our best shot at the next dirt road.  Bingo!  It seemed like a long ways and practically all washboard, but finally we found the river crossing.  I parked on the other side, pointed in the return direction.  I always like to be ready to get the hell outta Dodge; must be all those 007 movies I grew up watching.

Río Dolores diquecito El Cajón

We were delighted to find ourselves in a nearly empty riverside retreat with a few acres of natural lawn sloping gently down to the water.  Families and kids were up and at it, splashing around in the water, and a couple of barbecues were already in high gear, making us hungry.   As we walked upstream I was blown away by the number and size of my namesake trees along the river.  Do you remember Kenneth Grahame’s famous children’s book, The Wind the the Willows?  Almost all the characters are animals.: Ratty, Mr. Badger, Mole, Otter, Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, and a “mixed lot” of rabbits and squirrels, weasels and stouts.  Nice to catch a glimpse into the willowy land of make-believe.

“Please, Ratty, I want to row!”

 

grandma willow

There was a little snack shack where we bought sodas and choripan.  If you’ve never had a choripan I feel really sorry for you.  Think Ray’s Own Brand Pork Sausage from San Luis Obispo, hot and juicy in a french roll with a little salsa criolla on top.  Extreme yumminess.  Actually they weren’t the best choripanes ever.   That honor goes to the first one I ever tried, at an authentic gaucho asado in the middle of a day-long ride in Bariloche, in 2012.

Santos and I sat in the shade of a willow to eat our choripanes.  Then we strolled upriver aways to get our bearings.  We didn’t go in the water, cause we hadn’t brought towels or swim clothes, but we lounged contentedly in the sun, like a couple of cats.

Rio Dolores choripan shack

We eventually hit the road, cause we had a number of places we wanted to check out.  We stopped in Los Cocos.  It was perhaps once a quaint town but shows every sign of death by tourist trinket shop overdose.  They have a pretty park that you have to pay to go in.  It looked nice from the sidewalk, but we didn’t take the bait.  You can also pay for a ski lift ride (el teleférico) that hauls you up and down the mountain.  Instead we stopped for coffee in a quiet café that had a shady deck and a resident feline.  That was the best of Los Cocos. 

We continued north to Uritorco, a peak known for its healing energies, complete with a creek for swimming.  It’s all private land so you have to pay for the privilege of river access.  We paid the man, parked, and walked along the river a ways.  There were lots of people camped there.  We wanted to hike to the top, only about a half hour hike, but turns out it cost extra!  We hit the road again.  

I guess I’m used to the immense free, or nearly free, state, county and national parks we have in the U.S.  The concept of private land on mountain tops seems odd.  But we had ol’ Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and Aldo Leopold.  They set the standard for all time. 

Rio Quilpo, San Marcos Sierra

Santos and I headed north again, this time to that quintessential hipster paradise and land of enchantment, San Marcos Sierra.  A little ways off the beaten track, but not too hard to find.  The roads of San Marcos Sierra are unpaved, but there is wifi, and I hear they’re putting in their first stoplight.

Like most colonial towns San Marcos Sierra is built around a big square.  There’s lots of tall trees and a few patches of grass… some of it cannabis, judging from the lingering scent about town.  San Marcos Sierra really is a hippie magnet.  The local economy depends on apiculture (bees and honey), olives, goat cheese, and tourism.  You can rent a room, a tent, a sleeping bag.  The beach along Rio Quilpo is a big draw.  We saw hippie grandmas herding their grandkids to the beach and back.  Reminds me of California beaches in the sixties and seventies, minus the sand.  

Río Quilpo swimming hole

We had coffee and medialunas at a cute place in the shade across from the church.  I read that the local environment is pure and unspoiled.  They probably have a town ordinance prohibiting pesticides.  That explains the clouds of flies buzzing around everywhere.  Nice idea but things can get out of hand in that tropical heat.  We were under constant attack from the buzzing little black nano-drones.   I always used fly spray on my horses – maybe that’s why my brain has more than a few crossed wires.  

The Río Quilpo is crystal clear.

I guess the town looked a lot different 400 years ago.  Amazing that this beautiful colonial church survived. 

San Marcos Sierra church

 

church interior

We walked to the river and found a few rocks to sit on.  Santos sat in the shade with his back against the riverbank, and I found a quiet spot below where I sat on a rock with my feet in the water, reading.   There were whole families camping in tents above the riverbank, kids playing in the water.

reading Middlemarch by George Eliot

I had a lovely time reading by the river for a couple of hours, with my toes in the water.  That alone was worth the journey.  I’m not sure what Santos was up to, but it turns out he took a few surrepticious photos.  Friends wanted to know what huge book I was reading.  Middlemarch, by George Eliot (an English woman writer), published in the 1870s.  I was reading it cause I heard it’s considered the greatest novel in the English language.  But no, not my cup of tea.  I found it monotonous and depressing, like a Downton Abbey episode that keeps repeating.  Nowhere near as good as the novels of Jane Austen.  If you’re into 18th century British women’s literature, I did enjoy this good critical comparison of both novelists: “Without Austen, No Eliot,”  Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker,  Jan. 28, 2013. 

Later we walked into a few shops looking for algarrobo flour for Santos’ homemade bread.  They grind the algarrobo pods into a delicious dark brown flour.  In San Marcos Sierra we parked the car, walked around town, splashed in the river and no one charged us anything.  Way to go!  Santos wanted to try the locally brewed beer, but the pub was closed for mid-day siesta.  Wow.  This town is nothing if not laid-back.  We had to be satisfied with a photo of the Quilpo microbus, and a glimpse into the Hippie Museum.  

Museo Hippie  …  Peace and Love!

We got a bit lost heading back to La Cumbre that evening.  Blame it on all that lovely sunshine making algarrobo guacamole of our brains.

On Day 4 we spent a couple of hours swimming and lounging around by the pool.  Later on we went for a 10K ride.  Late afternoon drifted into sundown as we climbed up the high ridges.  For the first hour or so we followed twisting dirt roads wide enough for vehicles.  We forded a lot of creeks.  Our horses were amazing.  They had one speed, and it was non-stop.  They never slowed down unless asked.  Higher up we forded stony streambeds and clambered up rocky, slippery trails; those criollo horses never missed a beat.  Best trail horses I’ve ever rode, and I’ve been riding since I was a wee one!  Santos, who grew up playing hooky in the dirt streets of the barrio, had no riding experience whatsoever.  But after the first half hour he was sitting his horse really well.  A natural, that guy.  Santos is the Man. 

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our horses Zamba & Gurí

We rode past ranches, a polo field, and 3 or 4 drop-dead gorgeous homes straight out of the magazines.  We were met with plenty of attention by 3- and 4-packs of dogs.  The horses were unfazed. 

polo field @ Estancia La Triana

polo field @ Estancia La Triana

Our trusty guide, Pedro, had the keys to multiple gates crossing private ranches, enabling us to continue ever onward and upward.  Climbing the last few switchbacks up to a trail along the ridge, I spotted a faint crescent of moon topping a far ridge.  The rising full moon gleamed incandescently.  The moon’s powerful presence hijacked me to another realm of consciousness, where I remembered just how small and insignificant we humans are in the grand scheme of things.   I felt as if I was light years away from civilization.  A magical moment, indeed.

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The moon lit our way as we rode along the hills and ridges above La Cumbre.  By the time our horses began to pick their way back down the rocky paths it was getting late.  The meandering trails turned into broad, well-travelled dirt roads leading to town.  We walked back to our hotel, dog-tired.  We celebrated the great ride and moon viewing with shots of Tequila.  We rested and showered and went out for midnight pizza at Rhapsody, a hoppin’ joint just across the street from the Hotel Palace.  The sidewalk tables were all full but for one… the one that was waiting for us.  We shared a Rhapsody specialty, pizza al fuego… with their special spicy jalapeño sauce.  Así nos gusta!

Córdoba Day 5:   Cuesta Blanca

The four of us renewed our mountain climbing skills the very next day.  It was a long drive… almost 2 hours.   A typical LA commute, right?  We had to pass through the city of Carlos Paz, which we didn’t like much.  We had already driven about an hour south towards Córdoba, and we needed a coffee break.  We found a place to park, close to where I took this photo.  Then we hoofed it 4 or 5 blocks to the main drag where we claimed a couple of tables at a sidewalk café.  The good thing was we had a spot in the shade, and the waiter didn’t waste any time bringing our café con leche, jarrito, lágrima, café solo, cortado, etc.  Argentine coffeespeak: it’s another language.  But Carlos Paz was hypercrowded, noisy, full of traffic fumes and annoying trucks blasting promotions from loudspeakers.  El infierno. 

with las Gabys in Carlos Paz

with las Gabys in Carlos Paz

We drove out of that hell hole all the way to Cuesta Blanca, the Hippie Beach or La Isla Hippie, as some call it.  There are only two ways in. 

playa-hippie

First you have to drive up a steep, twisty, dusty dirt road for a few miles, till the road drops back down to a spot near the river.  You hike to the dam, then uphill to the top of the dam – 5 minutes –  where a guy paddles you upriver in his canoe to the beach landing.  

Some folks don’t bother hiking in; they just splash around below the dam.

The second way in (or out) is a 40 minute hike up and over a steep hill; a snaky, rocky trail full of brush and boulders.  We took the canoe.  I love the slow, steady drifting along, riding the water.  Easier than swimming and you can bring all your gear. 

Cuesta Blanca

a glimpse of Cuesta Blanca from the top of the dam

 Check out these horses!  How beautiful is that?

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Cuesta Blanca is an idyllic, laid back, no rules but respect others and pack out your trash kinda place. If you need to use the restroom you have to take a hike, ’cause this site is privately owned and wonderfully unspoiled.  We swam, sunned, kicked back in the shade, lunched on salame and bread and cheese and drank vino tinto.  A really cool place, and not in the guidebooks.  It was las Gabys who knew how to get there.

Santos took this awesome shot

Playa Hippie from the other side, upstream

When you get to the top you’re rewarded with a view of the whole scene.  Quite a few people bring tents and kids and stay for days.

We paid 50 pesos apiece for the canoe ride, and returned via free climb, as you can tell in the above photo because the sun was setting when we left.  None of us had thought to bring a flashlight… hey!  We’re on vacation!  We don’t need no stinkin’ flashlights!! 

la Casa Jipi along the path to Cuesta Blanca

la Casa Jipi along the path to Cuesta Blanca; 4-legged guardian on watch duty

The light was fading as we hiked out, and we had to backtrack several times to find the trail.  But we made it back to La Cumbre just fine, later that evening.  The four of us went out for beer and empanadas, and I had my fruit smoothie.  We had to put up with a karaoke bar on the sidewalk at the café next to our café, where we listened with amusement to the assorted bunch of nut cases who thought they could sing.  That put us in an entertaining mood, and las Gabys wanted to take us to their new favorite bar around the corner from the Palace, la Biblioteca.  They had been in there a few days before and the bartender had refused to make them Daquiris.  “No es para vosotras, señoritas,” he told them, “Es un trago muy macho.”  (“It’s not for you, ladies,” he told them, “It’s a very macho drink.”)  We decided to head over to la Biblioteca and show them how girls can throw down tequila shots.  Mission accomplished.  Delicious with a good kick in the ass!

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Our last two nights in Córdoba we stayed in the capital, right in the historic district.  We ate out at nice cafés and restaurants and walked all over town.  I used to dread getting lost in strange cities, but I’m beginning to realize it can be a fine and passionate experience of the here and now.  And if I have someone to keep me company I don’t end up in a panic with tears running down my cheeks.

dancing la Zamba in Plaza San Martín

 

Over and out from Córdoba, Argentina

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Two Uruguays

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Lately I’ve been reading too much news, and none of it is encouraging.  The loud little voice inside my head wants to scramble off the map and hide out somewhere for a couple of milennia.  A few Portuguese on the other side of the Río de la Plata found their patch of paradise back in 1680, on a beautiful little spit of sand surrounded by water.  Manuel Lobo, founder of the colony, should be recognized as the inventor of modern soccer because he and the Spanish kept kicking ownership of la Colonia del Sacramento back and forth until 1828, with Brazil and Spain coaching.

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Full steam ahead to the 21st century.  Colonia became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus attained tourist trap status, but managed to maintain its sweet and idyllic vibe, keeping the plastic and trashy side of commercialism at bay.

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The polka dot place serves free art with every meal, and plenty of locally crafted cerveza.  A chopp [pronounced like the o in slope] is a draft beer; a choperia is a pub.

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In Colonia you can fish or picnic under a ceibo,

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or grab a cold one at the Casa Grande.

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There’s an ancient stone lighthouse (el faro) that you can climb up for the panoramic view,

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and cool vistas to the south, looking across the river towards Buenos Aires.

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The Basilica del Santísimo Sacramento was built by the Portuguese in 1808.

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I think it’s pretty cool.  Like the fountain, too.

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Colonia’s massive portals and high stone walls hide secrets and forgotten stories; maybe even pirate treasure!

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Felix Luna, Argentine historian and writer, lived here.  Santos really likes his books.

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We stayed at the Posada Don Antonio, which has a lovely breakfast room and a beautiful patio and pool.

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From there it’s a two minute walk to a quiet abandoned cala (cove),

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and just past it, a block or two from the water’s edge, you pass the old map of Colonia, embedded in a wall.

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The dock, on the sheltered side of the peninsula, was warm and sunny the day we visited.

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We had a snack at the polka dot place, in the shade of an ancient sycamore.

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Fast track to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Montevideo has an historic district, la ciudad vieja, and parts of it are worth seeing.

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We took a tour of the neoclassical Teatro Solis, built in 1856.  Beautiful inside and out!  It belongs to the city now, and they have done much to repair and restore it. The list of world renowned singers, dancers and musicians who lit up the stage there is absolutely mind-blowing:  Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, Arturo Toscanini, Ana Pavlova, Margarita Xirgu (actress and friend of Federico Gárcia Lorca), Rudolf Nureyev, Josephine Baker, actresses Lola Membrives and Eleonora Duse, dancers Isadora Duncan and Tórtola Valencia, Astor Piazzolla, and Italian actor and director Vittorio Gassman.

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There’s a couple of French style Baccarat crystal chandeliers inside which even I, lover of funky ranch and mission style, was drooling over.

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While the Big Baccarat might feel quite at home in the new winter white house (if it could stand the company) it would be be seriously slumming in my dream fixer-upper:

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Oops! Did I unconsciously lapse into an alternative reality?  I didn’t see that comin’… did you?

The tall white building in the background, across the plaza from the old customs house, is home to the mercado del puerto … where you can buy fruits and veggies, beef and freshly caught fish, and all the other stuff you’d rather not buy at the supermarket.  We did go to the supermarket a couple of times, and it was a nightmare. It was small, super jammed (the aisles were narrower than the legroom in economy class) and an altogether unpleasant experience.

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The old customs house is still beautiful:

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Back of the old customs house is the river, where a couple of pitiful boats were tied up. We went for a sunset happy hour cruise, live tropical music on deck.  I was hoping for a cocktail to go with the tropical beat, like a Mojito or a Daiquiri, but to my dismay they only serve beer and soft drinks.  I guess they don’t want customers drinking, dancing and falling overboard.  So who’s gonna feed the fish?

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The bronze horseman in Plaza Zabala is Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, founder of the city, who no doubt wrested the land single-handed from a bunch of native fishermen who were tragically underinformed vis-a-vis the use of explosive powders in modern colonial warfare.

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We heard rumors of a milonga at a place called La Pérez, and we found it, but there hadn’t been a milonga there for a really long time. However, checking the local milonga listings, La Perez is still happening, but at a place called Lo de Maria, on a different night.

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Undaunted, though it was Sunday, we did find a milonga: Joventango, at Mercado de la Abundancia.  Calle Aquiles Lanza 1290 esq San Jose.  9:30 pm – 2 am.

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The developed part of Montevideo, aka the banking district, rumored to be the Latin American version of a money laundering automat, like the Caymans, contrasts starkly with years of mismanaged and stalemated development.  Oops!  I forgot that’s called progress.

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Reminds me of Texas: saving unborn lives is a top priority, or so they say; but once those babies are born, hells’ bells kid, you’re on your own!  No guarantee of education, housing or healthcare or jobs… but you can carry a gun.  Here in Montevideo the ubiquitous A/C units look like a blight of tin boxes on the facades of almost every building.  When was the last time you bought a new car that didn’t come with air conditioning?

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Thankfully the local stevedores still have a labor union. The average daily pay is better than the minimum wage in Mexico.  Impressed?

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If you think President Ban/Trump is going to support the higher minimum wages the AFL-CIO or AFW will be asking for when they build all those new auto factories they’ve promised in Michigan, guess again. Maybe they’ll be relocated to Uruguay, now that Mexico won’t have us. ¡Pobre México, tan lejos de Díos, tan cerquita a los Estados Unidos! (Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the U.S.)

The “historic district” of Montevideo is block after block of hopelessly rundown and deteriorating buildings. Such a shame.

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Rumor has it that when the government expropriated most of the properties in la ciudad vieja, it was given to the military generals, who kept it but didn’t keep it up. Here you see the results. This story was told to us by someone who’s family has been living in the same house continuously for over 100 years.  And now I’ve probably said too much.

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Note the sign: no free parking on this street.  Gracias, mi general.

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This building’s classical beauty begs for restoration.  Somebody fix me up, please!

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Despite all the issues facing the people of Montevideo, they still have a collective sense of place:  I Love my Neighborhood!

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The upshot: of the two Uruguays, Colonia gets my vote.  The worst day in Colonia beats the best day in Montevideo.  Sorry, Montevideo!

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Happy to be back home in Buenos Aires

Stay tuned:  your travel guide to the beautiful province of Córdoba coming soon!

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Portland Tango Scene plus… Milonga Tips, Codes, and Advice for Newbie Dancers in BAires

NorseHallneon

If you dance tango in the U.S., sooner or later you’re going to gravitate to Portland, like a small planet unexplicably attracted to Saturn or Jupiter… a pull that can cause a small planet like Earth to… flip its axis! A Tango mecca like Portland exerts an influence on everything in its gravitational field. Where else besides Buenos Aires or Paris can you hear a musician playing Piazzolla on the street corner?

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So what’s there to do in Portland? Like, Tango every night!

birthday dance at Norse Hall

birthday dance at Norse Hall

The Portland Tango scene is really awesome. Partly because the music is traditional (but I miss those Buenos Aires salsa breaks) and also because it’s accessible: no more than 15 minutes to any of the milongas.

milonga at Berretín

Saturday night milonga at Berretín

Did I mention the outstanding DJs spinning classic tango every night of the week? …like tango DJ Joe Leonardo. He also creates retro black and white tango films. (tangosilentfilms.com).

DJ Joe Leonardo & girlfriend Hannah

DJ Joe Leonardo & girlfriend Hannah

Monday night you can dance in the dough… next to the vault!

Fort Knox North

Fort Knox North

the Treasury Milonga

in the old U.S. Treasury building downtown

The Treasury Milonga replaces the PPPA milonga, which was at a really cool location on the east side of the river. Kinda wabi-sabi, ¿qué no?

PPAAneon

Tuesday nights there’s a brand new, fabulosíssima milonga at the Bossanova Ballroom.

Bossanova Ballroom

Bossanova Ballroom

Wednesday nights are for all you Alternative fans…

milonga blah blah

they just call it Wednesday Tango!

What I just don’t get about alternative tango is, how can you call it Tango if it’s not TANGO music? Is Tango a dance, or is it a genre of music? Can you separate the two? We went to check out the Wednesday milonga, and when I asked if the music was alternative, aka Nuevo, the doorman told me  “it’s so far alternative it’s not even tango.” Wow! For an interesting discussion on traditional vs. nuevo, see The Rise and Fall of Tango Milonguero Style at tangovoice.wordpress.com. But we are so far from Buenos Aires, and so close to……. the Dark Kingdom.

Portland evening

beautiful Portland evening

Thursday nights at Norse Hall are unforgettable… what a great milonga!

cortina at Norse Hall... who is that guy?

Norse Hall

cortina at Norse Hall... who is that guy?

cortina at Norse Hall… who is that guy?

Let’s see, where was I… Friday nights is La Milonga Felíz Alternative.

Oops!  that's not it!

Oops! that’s not it!

I wish we were in BAires at Café Vinilo!

I wish we were in BAires at La Milonga de Vinilo!

Saturday nights is Milonga “aime comme moi” at Tango Berretín. Alex Krebs’ place, ¡buena música, buenos bailarines, buena onda! (Spanish lessons on the house.)

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De vez en cuando toca el quinteto de Alex: (sometimes Alex’s quintet plays):

with guest artists in this case

with guest artists in this case

Sunday evenings you can tango at Lenora’s Ballroom: beautiful space, friendly atmosphere, and all the traditional tango you need to get your endorphin fix for the night and all your mental faculties gratuitously upgraded and ready to face the work week.

another industrial chic tango venue

urban chic tango venue

“Tango invites you to become the protagonist of an ongoing story, which is danced with another through a mutual improvisation that depends on a deep, body-to-body communication, an entwinement of the spirit and the limbs. When you dance it, if you want to dance it well, you immediately understand that it is perhaps the only dance that requires the equal participation of both dancers in order to be fluid. Thus its difficulty, complexity and sensuality…. Tango anyone?” [Velleda C. Ceccioli, Psychology Tomorrow, May 2013].

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a good connection is essential…

A foto-cortina from a visit to the Peninsula (SF Bay Area). I know most of my readers will recognize Ben, el Rey de la Milonga, and tango teacher Igor Polk:

having' fun!

having’ fun!

girls making' friends while the guys dance! go figure!

Cecilia & Willow making’ friends while the guys dance!

OK, and finally, coming straight to you from my spies in Buenos Aires:

Advice for newbie dancers heading to BAires: milonga tips, codes, and what you need to know to get dances!

milonga at Aires Tangueros, Rivadavia 1392

milonga at Aires Tangueros, Rivadavia 1392

An Anonymous Tanguera speaks:

The reason guidebooks and friends contradict each other is that there is no way to answer your questions. Where would men be more likely to ask a stranger to dance? What kind of stranger? There are so many factors that affect whether you will get asked: your appearance, your height, your level of dance, the confidence you project, the warmth you project, your style of dress… and so on. I go to two or three milongas a week, and at any one of them I might dance nonstop or I might never leave my seat. I’m the same person each time, but there may be fewer men I know one week… or maybe I’m projecting a different energy.

milongueras

milongueras de BAires

Where do men who dance well go to dance? Maybe the men you consider good dancers are not the ones I would consider good. My friends don’t necessarily like the same leaders I do… we all have a different connection. In any case, it is not true that the afternoon milongas attract better dancers. I can’t think of an afternoon milonga that has a level of dance that matches some of the better night milongas. That said, I dance with some great leaders at afternoon milongas. It is sooo variable.

matinee milonga at La Ideal

matinee milonga at La Ideal

Anyway, as a 35-year-old woman, especially if you are attractive and look younger than your age, you will get asked to dance often. Unless the day you go there happens to be dozens of other young, beautiful women… many of whom are already known by the men. That happens. The best thing to do if things look hopeless is to go to another milonga.

Milonga Viejo Correo

Milonga Viejo Correo

My best advice would be to not stress about it. You will get to dance. You will have a good time. You will be here for long enough to find your own favorites. Some little milongas del barrio are much more fun than the famous ones that all the tourists go to. I mean, I wouldn’t go to Niño Bien with a gun to my head!

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I need to understand what style of dance you’re looking for. You mention “milonguero salon style,” which is really confusing. Milongas here are increasingly breaking down by age/style — unfortunate, but a reality. The young milongas are almost exclusively salon style… a more open embrace with more elaborate movements and adornments. Milonguero style is quite the opposite… very close embrace, with teeny movements (back crosses instead of ochos with pivot, for example) and almost no decorations. Since you said you liked Canning, I suspect you are looking for close embrace, but not true milonguero style.

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A friend of mine likes a couple of young, salon style places… Villa Malcolm and Milonga 10. If you don’t usually dance salon, you may find them a bit intimidating (not knowing anyone and facing a lot of stunning 20-year-olds). As he says, La Viruta is good only very late… and yes, the good dancers all dance with each other.

good friends at Sunderland

good friends at Sunderland

An Anonymous Tanguero speaks:

I think that the key is to understand and respect the codes. If I see a woman who stands up after a cabeceo and looks for the man, I just don’t invite her: beginner and super banned.

Unknown

If, when the tanda finishes, she stays talking with somebody on the dance floor, banned, too easy and I don’t want milongueras to think that I am fishing.

los Reyes del Tango en la Viruta

los Reyes del Tango en la Viruta

I also suggest you study the dance floor. It’s easy to see who is who. If nobody knows you, nobody wants to take the risk. If the milongueros see you dancing with somebody they respect, they are going to invite you.

milongueras de la Viruta

milongueras de la Viruta

If you don’t want a coffee invitation, go home early. At El Beso, after 1:30 nobody dances if there is nothing after, because then is when they invite, they expect to be invited.

El Beso

El Beso – I love the walls!

Basic but important, don’t dance more than 2 tandas in one night with anybody. Since I have a family I prefer to dance only one tanda per night so there are no misunderstandings.

kjhasdf

no misunderstandings here!

You sit with women, and if a man invites himself to sit down next to you, look at him as if he’s raping his own mother. In other words, give him a dirty look and DON’T DANCE WITH THE PENDEJO!

who, me?

who, me?

We have two reasons for inviting a new girl to dance: she is an outstanding dancer or she is super cute.

super cute!

super cute!

La Viruta is more a place to hang out with friends, to continue dancing with people you know after other milongas close, or to look for a hook-up.  If you are only interested in tango, it is best to enter when the entrance is waived between 2h30 and 3h30, since before you also have tandas of rock and salsa. At La Viruta, men typically do not cabeceo, but walk around and ask women to dance. The guys that ask women to dance are typically not the ones hanging out with friends, so you have to judge if they are the kind that looks for a hook-up, and if you want to dance with them. It is normal to say “no, gracias” if you are not interested. Don’t go to La Viruta on Thursdays, there are no tandas. And never dance after 5:30. The lights are off for a couple of seconds just before la Cumparsita.

Orquesta El Afronte en la Maldita Milonga, Perú 571

Orquesta El Afronte en la Maldita Milonga, Perú 571

Tango is the same all over the world but dancing in Buenos Aires is different from anywhere else you have ever been.

Teatro Colón

Teatro Colón

house band at Café Vinilo

house band at Café Vinilo, Gorriti 3780

Be friendly, smile, try not to dance with the vultures, be open to new experiences, have fun and leave plenty of room in your suitcase for shoes! You are going to have a great time!

el Obelisco en la Av. 9 de Julio

el Obelisco en la Av. 9 de Julio

Ciao from Portland!

Ciao from Portland!

And for my political commentary of the week, please take note:

hombres

Here’s Looking at Portland

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PORTLAND IS ALL ABOUT THE RIVER… broad and busy by day, stunningly elegant by night.

view of the the South Waterfront from further south

view of the the South Waterfront, taken from the Sellwood Bridge

Portland is a sprawling city of 600,000 bisected by the Willamette River, divided into quadrants, spanned by a dozen bridges, and bounded on its northern shore by the Columbia River and the state of Washington.

yacht harbor on a gorgeous day, taken from the waterfront bike trail

downtown yacht harbor, at the end of Montgomery St.

The Port of Portland, located about 80 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean, is the largest freshwater port in the U.S.A. Portland ships out more wheat than any other U.S. port, and is the second largest port for wheat in the world.

The northernmost bridge of Portland is so Gotham City:

St. John's Bridge, photo by Ben

St. John’s Bridge, photo by Ben

Each bridge has its own flavor and story… all impressively heavy metal, functional, and even inspiring.

Hawthorne Bridge and boats

Hawthorne Bridge and yacht harbor on a gorgeous May day

the cute version

the cute version

Under construction is yet another bridge which will facilitate multiple forms of public transport across the Willamette: Max Light Rail, Tri-Met buses, the Portland streetcar, pedestrians and bicycles: NO CARS ALLOWED! Popular Science magazine awarded Portland the title Greenest City in America in 2008.

TriMet bridge

TriMet bridge: completion expected in 2015

Portland is famous for its outdoorsy, tree-hugging, bicycle-riding, homemade beer brewing and coffee slurping liberals. There are more than 60 breweries here. In 2010, CNBC named Portland the Best City for Happy Hour in the U.S.

for those of you who go for the brew

for those of you who go for the brew

Ever seen the TV show Portlandia? It satirizes the city as “a hub of liberal politics, organic food, alternative lifestyles and anti-establishment attitudes.” [Wikipedia] What other city can happily negotiate such a dysfunctional but workable dynamic between guns, gays and greens? Perhaps that explains the weltanschauung behind the Keep Portland Weird movement.

images

Ben sums up Portland in 2 words: pedestrians vs. cyclists. He thinks walkers and hikers don’t like bicyclists ’cause they damage the environment… I mean, seeing a bike tire track in the mud of your favorite hiking trail would make anybody flip and run for their gun… wouldn’t you? …ja ja… and naturally bicyclists wish pedestrians would just get the hell outta the way!! But the real issue has, perhaps, more to do with primal fear: fear, that is, of being turned to toast under 2000 lbs. of steel and rubber. I found an intriguing apropos discussion on the City of Portland website, just for a reality check:

4 types of cyclists orange2

The intrepid few “Strong & Fearless” identify primarily as bicyclists, and ride everywhere without fear (or almost everywhere), under any and all road and weather conditions. Truly courageous or merely suicidal?

he's multi-tasking

a multi-tasking cyclist

The “Enthused & Confident” — like Ben — ride daily to work or school, for the pure joyful adrenalin rush of riding. (Also to save bucks and shrink their carbon pawprint). Who wouldn’t want to ride Portland’s beautiful bike lanes and bike boulevards?  There’s even bike lane stoplights and, lucky for me, no bike path traffic cameras! Not yet, anyway. Is it a crime to cross on the red when there’s no traffic in any direction?

OK, but... what if I can't find  the speedometer on my bike?

OK, but… what if my bike doesn’t have a speedometer?

As Portland has been particularly supportive of urban bicycling, it now ranks amongst the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Approximately 8% of commuters bike to work, the highest proportion of any major U.S. city and about 10 times the national average. [Wikipedia]

Main Map-v3

“The Interested but Concerned” group covers the vast majority of Portland cyclists. “They like riding a bicycle… they would like to ride more. But, they are AFRAID to ride. They don’t like cars speeding down their streets. They get nervous when a driver runs a red light, or guns their car around them, passing by too closely and too fast.” (City of Portland Bicycle Plan 2030) Sounds like me. I KNOW I’m taking my life into my hands every time I get on my bike. Duh!

weird cyclist

“No Way No How!” is the anthem of group four. Besides primal fear and equally primordial  laziness (aversion to exertion), not to mention the over-abundance of Pacific Northwest Stormy Mondays, they may be unknowing victims of an acute case of nostalgia for the gas-guzzling, chrome-dazzling Twentieth Century; back in the day when petroleum was plentiful, and joy riding in a true-blue Made in the U.S.A. cruiser was a sign of status and All-American Attitude. On a lucky day you may still catch sight of one around town:

'63 Lincoln

’63 Lincoln… yea, baby!

Pontiac Bonneville - 1965?

’64 Pontiac Bonneville

el Jefe chillin' in the back seat

el Jefe chillin’ in the back seat

You don’t have to be a cute mutt in a cool car to be in my blog, either:

Charlie & me

Charlie & me

But wait… we’re not done with the bridges yet! A block from our apartment in the Pearl District is the Broadway Bridge:

Broadway Bridge

riverfront walk near the Broadway Bridge

Portland’s urban growth boundary, adopted in 1979, separates urban areas (where high-density development is encouraged and focused) from traditional farm land (where restrictions on non-agricultural development are very strict). This was quite atypical in an era when automobile use led many areas to neglect their core cities in favor of development along interstates, in suburbs, and bedroom communities. Former industrial areas reeking of urban decay were “redeveloped” into prosperous new neighborhoods… like the Pearl District. The city has grown inward and upward, as opposed to sprawling outward. Impresionante, Portland! California, are you listening? 

Burlington RR Bridge

the Burlington Bridge: a railroad bridge with a vertical lift

the Steel Bridge

the Steel Bridge: bike & pedestrian path AND train tracks on the bottom, cars on top

Almost 200 years of industry (shipping, logging, manufacturing) went into making Portland the city it is today. This heritage is breathtakingly visible in the older parts of the city and all along the riverfront, especially around the industrial waterfront and deepwater port. Heat-forged iron and steel trusses and beams hold up bridges and docks. Old brick buildings and warehouses were reborn as shops, bistros, cafés, apartments and lofts, galleries and urban “outfitters.”

below the bridge

the poetry of steel, under the bridge

Portland is so modern and yet its history continues to underwrite its modernity. I really like this contrast, in which each flip side of the coin does not disavow its alter-ego. Past and present are connected in a wabi-sabi “…beauty that treasures the passage of time, and with it the lonely sense of impermanence it evokes.” [Diane Durston: Wabi Sabi, The Art of Everyday Life, 2006]

Morrison Bridge on a grey afternoon

Morrison Bridge on a still, grey afternoon

big train comin' thru the Steel Bridge, photo by Ben

big train comin’ thru the Steel Bridge, photo by Ben

lkjhasdf

random tango dancer in Biker Babe jacket checking out the income-producing side of the river

Portland has an impressive and beautiful downtown, lined by scores of trees, parks and greenspace, and the ultra-beautiful Japanese gardens:

Japanese Gardens

Portland Japanese Gardens

The International Rose Garden has a stunning amphitheater. We walked up there yesterday, in a light rain:

amphiteatro2*

We haven’t seen the Chinese gardens yet, but I’ve heard they’re stunning!

Portland Chinese Gardens

Portland Classical Chinese Garden

Portland is a fabulous and colorful city, well known for being cool, hip, fashionably eco-sustainable-everything, and ultra walkable (a walkscore of 98 in the Pearl District), with a kid-friendly, tech-friendly urban vibe.

Streetcars rock Portland!

Streetcars rock Portland!

Portlanders are friendly, multicultural, awake and aware of what’s goin’ on in their world and their town. Artists, hipsters, locavores, LGBTs, tree-huggers, tango dancers, Power-to-the-People progressives, retired hippies, fanatics of every stripe, wealthy young entrepreneurs and tekkie types…. and cool habitats for humanity from A – Z. The growth of high-tech startups and related businesses have earned Portland the nickname Silicon Forest. Powell’s Books, whose three stories above ground take up an entire city block, claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. Portland is also the karaoke capital of the U.S.!

Hoyt Street townhouses

Hoyt Street townhouses

What do I like most about Portland? My liveable downtown neighborhood, the Pearl.

pedestrian path

pedestrian path in the Pearl

Jamison Square reminds me of ___ Gardens in Paris

Jamison Square reminds me of the Luxembourg Gardens

kid-friendly waterfall/pond at Jamison Square

kid-friendly Jamison Square fountain

our friendly neighborhood Lovejoy Bakery

our friendly neighborhood Lovejoy Bakery

looking down on the bakery from our apartment on a sunny day

looking down on the bakery from our apartment on a sunny day

I also love the ubiquitious cafés with outdoor seating, reminding me of Buenos Aires and European cities. Here’s our favorite, authentic (all the staff imported from Italy), delicious trattoria, Piazza Italia, right around the corner from Jamison Square.

Piazza Italia

Piazza Italia

Downtown Portland’s numerous cafés remind me of Buenos Aires, Rome, Barcelona, Paris… they make you feel like the streets in your hood are an extension of your living room! Sustainable living abounds, complete with rooftop gardens, terraces, wind turbines, solar power, etc. What do I mean by sustainable etc? I know, I had to look it up too. See my notes at end.*

another lovely pedestrian path in the Pearl

another pretty pedestrian path in the Pearl

Portland has many different faces: cool steel under grey skies…

;jhasdf

reflecting pool

convention center

convention center

parks, pedestrian and bicycle trails all along the river…

waterfrontpark**

springtime waterfront

waterfront in spring

juxtaposition of old and new in the Pearl District

juxtaposition of old and new

colorful streetcars

green & yellow streetcar

blue streetcar

blue streetcar

old and new cottages on the south waterfront

old and new cottages on the south waterfront, a stone’s throw from the river

A perfect example of wabi-sabi: isn’t the one on the left so timelessly beautiful? (Maybe needs a little work on the interior…)

houseboats & sailboat on the Willamette

houseboats & sailboat on the Willamette

Ben says he likes the culture of Portland. Portlanders are quite courteous, both on and off the dance floor. They respect walkers and cyclists… they stop for you even when they don’t have to. Portlanders find value in music, dance, food, the arts… and in people connecting with each other. The pace of life is slower. Huge ships in port are constantly loading and unloading, while at the same time fishermen troll the river in small boats. Portlanders work to continually improve their quality of life; they don’t just care about the environment; they make it HAPPEN.

Sauvie Island - my favorite idyllic getaway only 10 miles upriver

Sauvie Island – my favorite idyllic getaway only 10 miles upriver

Sauvie Island rules & regs: but no one's watching

Sauvie Island rules & regs: overzealous verbiage to be sure

Portlanders also care about what goes into their food, i.e., Portland is NOT a fast-food paradise. Human beings are essentially the same everywhere (our DNA is identical, right?) but the culture here has developed favorably for a healthy, sustainable environment, and people-friendly transportation systems.

The climate is, well… I’ve written pages making fun of the climate. Seriously, I like it hot, humid and tropical! Sadly, today is yet another drizzly grey day here in Portlandia. Seems like there’s only one season here. The trees change but not the weather. But if it keeps the unwashed hordes from discovering and moving to this idyllic Pacific Northwest homeland… it’s okay.

wabi-sabi doorknobs

wabi-sabi doorknobs in a recycled building materials shop

That’s all for now, friends… stay tuned for my next post: the Portland Tango scene. You’re gonna like it!

*What do I mean by environmentally sustainable design? It’s the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability. McLennan, J. F. (2004), The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. More references: (1) Anastas, P. L. and Zimmerman, J. B. (2003). Through the 12 principles of green engineering. Environmental Science and Technology. March 1. 95-101A. (2) Fan Shu-Yang, Bill Freedman, and Raymond Cote (2004). Principles and practice of ecological design. Environmental Reviews. 12: 97–112. (3) Holm, Ivar (2006). Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture and Industrial design: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment. Oslo School of Architecture and Design. You gotta appreciate research and researchers! They help dummies like you and me make sense of the world we live in!

Ciao from Portland!

Ciao from Portland!