Sights in Buenos Aires: Monserrat Catedral al Sur and Vicinity

Map of Monserrat/Catedral al Sur and Vicinity

Monserrat/Catedral al Sur and Vicinity

In 1580, Juan de Garay reestablished Pedro de Mendoza’s failed settlement on what is now the Plaza de Mayo, surrounded by most major national institutions. The barrio’s axis is Avenida de Mayo, linking the Casa Rosada presidential palace (1873–1898) with the Congreso Nacional (National Congress, 1906); the broad perpendicular Avenida 9 de Julio splits Monserrat in half.

At the northeast corner, renowned architect Alejandro Bustillo designed the Banco de la Nación (1939). Immediately south of the Casa Rosada, the marble facade of the Ministerio de Economía (Economy Ministry) still bears pockmarks from strafing naval planes during 1955’s Revolución Libertadora that sent Juan Domingo Perón into exile.

One of Avenida de Mayo’s literal landmarks is Mario Palanti’s Palacio Barolo (1923), an office building topped by a rotating semaphore visible from Montevideo’s Palacio Salvo (the work of the same architect). In 1923, when Argentine heavyweight Luis Angel Firpo fought Jack Dempsey in New York, the Barolo erroneously announced Firpo’s victory with a green light from the tower.

South of the Plaza de Mayo, most landmarks are modified colonial buildings. From the roof of the Casa de la Defensa, porteños poured boiling oil on British invaders in 1806–1807. The building now houses Télam, the official government press agency.

Plaza de Mayo

Colloquially known as the “Plaza de Protestas,” the Plaza de Mayo has often played center stage in Argentine history. The Peróns, in particular, used it for spectacle, convoking hundreds of thousands of descamisados (shirtless ones), their fervent underclass disciples.

Internationally, the plaza gained fame for some of its smallest gatherings ever. From the late 1970s, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo marched silently around the Pirámide de Mayo, its small central obelisk, every Thursday afternoon to demand the return of their adult children kidnapped by the military and paramilitary gangs. Most of the disappeared died at their captors’ hands, but the mothers brought Argentina’s shame to world attention.

Ironically, throngs cheered the dictatorship here when it occupied the British-ruled Falkland Islands in 1982. As the war went badly, though, crowds turned on the de facto regime, whose collapse brought a return to constitutional government.

Following the December 2001 economic meltdown, the Plaza de Mayo witnessed major protests and a police riot that killed several demonstrators and forced President Fernando de la Rúa’s resignation. Other demonstrators included leftist groups who deplored the “model” ostensibly imposed by international lending agencies, and bank depositors outraged at banking restrictions that effectively confiscated their savings.

Catedral Metropolitana

On the site of the original colonial church designated by Juan de Garay in 1580, the cathedral opened in 1836; Joseph Dubourdieu’s 1862 pediment bas-reliefs compare the biblical reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers with the battle of Pavón, where Bartolomé Mitre’s Buenos Aires forces defeated caudillo Justo José Urquiza.

Within the cathedral, a lateral chapel holds the Mausoleo del General José de San Martín, the independence hero’s tomb. Disillusioned with post-independence turmoil, San Martín lived in exile in France until his death in 1850; his remains were returned to Argentina in 1880, after President Nicolás Avellaneda ordered construction of this elaborate crypt, marked by an eternal flame.

The Catedral Metropolitana (Avenida Rivadavia and San Martín, tel. 011/4331- 2845) is open 8 a.m.–7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.– 7:30 p.m. weekends.

Museo del Cabildo

The Plaza’s only remaining colonial structure, the Cabildo was a combination town council and prison, and the site where criollo patriots deposed Spanish viceroy Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros in 1810. The present structure preserves part of the recova (arcade) that once ran the plaza’s width.

The museum is thin on content—a few maps, paintings, and photographs of the plaza and its surroundings as well as a portrait gallery from the British invasions (1806–1807) and the Revolution of May 1810. Only part of the building survived 19th-century mayor Torcuato de Alvear’s wrecking ball (which made the Avenida de Mayo possible).

The Museo del Cabildo (Bolívar 65, tel. 011/4343-4387, US$0.30) is open 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday–Friday, 11:30–6 p.m. weekends. Guided tours (US$0.80) take place at 3 p.m. Friday and Sunday; a free tour takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Casa Rosada (Casa de Gobierno Nacional)

For better or worse, the presidential palace has been the site of contentious spectacle, the place where Perón and Evita summoned the cheering masses who later jeered the ruthless dictatorship after the 1982 Falklands War. In late 2001 it witnessed the shooting of demonstrators by federal police under the inept De la Rúa administration. The building owes its pinkish hue to President Domingo F. Sarmiento, who proposed blending Federalist red and Unitarist white to symbolize reconciliation between the two violently opposed factions of 19th-century politics.

The Casa Rosada was not originally a single building; in 1884 Italian architect Francesco Tamburini merged the original government house with the former post office to create the present asymmetrical structure. On the east side, facing Parque Colón, pedestrians can view the excavated ruins of the colonial Fuerte Viejo (fortress) and early customs headquarters (buried beneath landfill in the 1890s).

Entered from the south side, the basement’s Museo de la Casa de Gobierno contains memorabilia from Argentine presidents, but unfortunately its charter prohibits material more recent than 30 years ago (and does not even require it to be that timely). Visitors can, however, stroll among the colonial catacombs visible from outside.

The Museo de la Casa de Gobierno (Hipólito Yrigoyen 219, tel. 011/4344-3804, free) is normally open 10 a.m.–6 p.m. weekdays, 2–6 p.m. Sunday, but as of press time it was undergoing a major reorganization. Free guided Casa Rosada tours take place 10 a.m.–6 p.m. weekends and holidays, at the main entrance (Balcarce 50) facing Plaza de Mayo.

Manzana de las Luces

Since the mid-17th century, when the Jesuits established themselves on the block bounded by the present-day streets of Bolívar, Moreno, Perú, and Alsina, Monserrat has been a hub of intellectual life. The Jesuits were the most intellectual of monastic orders, but they were also the most commercial—the two surviving buildings of the Procuraduría, fronting on Alsina, stored products from their widespread missions, housed missionized Indians from the provinces, and contained defensive tunnels.

After the Jesuits’ expulsion from the Americas in 1767, the buildings served as the Protomedicato, which regulated medical practice in the city; but the block later housed, in succession, a public library, a medical school, and various university departments. After 1974 the Comisión Nacional de la Manzana de las Luces attempted to salvage them for cultural purposes, opening the tunnels to the public and restoring part of the “Universidad” lettering along the Perú facade.

The Iglesia San Ignacio (1722) replaced an earlier structure of the same name. In 1836 the Jesuits returned, at Rosas’s invitation; in 1955, at Juan Perón’s instigation, mobs trashed the building, but it has since been restored. The church shares a wall with the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (1908), the country’s most prestigious and competitive secondary school, taught by top university faculty. The re-created Sala de Representantes housed the province’s first legislature.

The Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas de la Manzana de las Luces Doctor Jorge E. Garrido (Perú 272, tel. 011/4342-3964) conducts a series of guided tours (1 and 3 p.m. Mon.; 3 p.m. Tues.–Fri.; 3, 4:30, and 6 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) for US$1.50 pp. English-language tours (US$3 pp) require 15 days’ notice and a minimum of 20 people.

Museo Etnográfico Juan B. Ambrosetti

Affiliated with the Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Ambrosetti museum has first-rate archaeological, ethnographic, and ethnohistorical material on the Andean Northwest (bordering the great civilizations of highland Perú), the northern Patagonian Mapuche, and the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Well organized with good narration in Spanish only, it does a lot with what it has—and what it has is pretty good.

The Museo Etnográfico (Moreno 350, tel. 011/4345-8196, US$0.30, free for retirees) is open 1–7 p.m. Tuesday–Friday and 3–7 p.m. weekends, except in January, when it’s closed. There are guided tours at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Museo de la Ciudad

Above the remarkable Farmacia La Estrella, the city museum specializes in elements of everyday urban life, including architecture, floor tiles, furniture, and postcards; the pharmacy’s exterior windows have been turned into display cases.

Except in February, when it’s closed, the Museo de la Ciudad (Defensa 219, tel. 011/4343-2123 or 011/4331-9855, US$0.80, free Wed.) is open 11 a.m.–7 p.m. daily.

Café Tortoni

One of BA’s most quietly traditional places, >Café Tortoni (Avenida de Mayo 825, tel. 011/4342-4328) has made no concessions to the 21st century and only a few to the 20th: Upholstered chairs and marble tables stand among sturdy columns beneath a ceiling punctuated by stained-glass vitraux, the wallpaper looks original between the stained wooden trim, and walls are decorated with pictures, portraits, and filete, the traditional porteño sign-painter’s calligraphy.

Acknowledged on the walls, past patrons include singer Carlos Gardel, La Boca painter Benito Quinquela Martín, dramatists Luigi Pirandello and Federico García Lorca, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein; more recently, it has hosted Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The original entrance faced Rivadavia, on the north side, but Torcuato de Alvear’s creation of Avenida de Mayo forced it to reorient itself.

Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo

Since late colonial times, the mid-18thcentury Dominican church (also known as Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rosario) at Avenida Belgrano and Defensa has witnessed some of Argentine history’s most dramatic events. It still displays banners captured by Viceroy Santiago Liniers from the Highlanders Regiment No. 71 during the 1806 British invasion, and the exterior shows combat damage from the British occupation of 1807. Near the church entrance, an eternal flame burns near sculptor Héctor Ximenes’s Mausoleo de Belgrano (1903), the crypt of Argentina’s second- greatest hero; Belgrano was an indifferent soldier, but he did design the Argentine flag.

Following independence, President Bernardino Rivadavia secularized the church, making it a natural history museum and turning one of its towers into an astronomical observatory. In 1955, during the coup against Juan Perón, anticlerical Peronists set it afire.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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