I have a soft spot for Buenos Aires’ San Telmo barrio. It was the first place I stayed on my first ever visit to Argentina a dozen years ago. I loved its cobbled streets, historic buildings, lively bars, good restaurants, old churches and pleasant plazas. A return visit was long overdue, and I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the fading grandeur and bohemian vibe of the city’s oldest barrio. Although it’s a bit of a tourist trap, visiting on a Sunday during the Feria de San Telmo, is worthwhile for the energy and entertainment that it brings to the area.
Part antiques fair, part tourist kitsch with tango dancers and stalls selling knick-knacks, the Sunday market is a lot of fun. It has certainly grown in size since I was last here, the stalls now spread several blocks outwards from its central hub, Plaza Dorrego. It was a hot day and walking the busy streets soon worked up a thirst, so we headed to Bar El Federal for a drink and to drink in some history. Dating from 1864, El Federal is one of the most historic and atmospheric bars in the city, and a legendary San Telmo haunt complete with an antique wooden bar and friendly staff.
Refreshed, we headed back into the streets and made our way towards Plaza Dorrego. In the square a group of tango dancers were just getting going so we joined the crowd that had gathered to watch. Amidst the whirl of activity in the area, there were others playing music, doing puppet shows and mime artists performing. We made our way to the Iglesia de San Pedro Telmo, an imposing early 18th century Jesuit church. It was a Sunday so there was a service. We stood at the back to view the church interior, the calm church and buzzing streets were polar opposites.
The area was the early home of sailors and dockworkers, as well as those working in a range of other industries. No surprise then that the church and the barrio are named after a 12th century Patron Saint of seafarers, San Pedro González Telmo. A working class, industrial area whose population often suffered very badly in times of economic hardship, the arrival of public works such as gas mains saw it go upmarket in the 19th century. Most of San Telmo’s grandest houses date from that period.
A cholera epidemic in 1881, led to the flight of wealthy residents to newer northern barrios and San Telmo slipped into decline. The newly empty mansions were converted into tenements to accommodate a wave of new and poor immigrants from Europe who arrived between 1890 and 1930. New arrivals from Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia and Britain made the area’s cobbled streets some of the most multicultural in the city. The area was poor but vibrant which attracted artists and musicians, giving it the bohemian reputation for which it’s still famous.
Next on our exploration of the area was the Mercado de San Telmo, an indoor market designed by Juan Antonio Buschiazzo, an Italian architect who was also responsible for designing the Recoleta Cemetery. It has a lovely wrought iron and glass interior atrium, which is now a national monument. Built in 1897 as a fruit and vegetable market, it’s a stylish addition to the barrio. Today, there are still produce stalls dotted amongst more modern additions: trendy food stalls, bars, coffee shops, antique stalls and a bakery. It’s an interesting place to wander, and to have a snack.
When we came out of the market, we meandered through the surrounding streets. We came across an alternative feria where the local community had gathered to listen to music, eat and drink, while demanding improved job opportunities for a better future. It was a reminder that, even while cocktail bars and boutique hotels slowly colonise these historic streets, at heart San Telmo is still a working barrio with an edge. I hope that history isn’t be lost in a new wave of gentrification.