Wandering the Streets of Córdoba

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, June 24, 2005

One of the best ways to check the pulse of a Latin community is to sit quietly in the plaza for an hour or two, and watch life go by. In Córdoba - the second largest city in Argentina, with a population of about one and a half million - life centres around the Plaza de San Martin. Although surrounded by a busy commercial centre, with high rise buildings, noisy traffic and crowds of hustling pedestrians, the plaza is a quiet and peaceful oasis, steeped in history. The dominant feature is a massive marble monument commemorating the General's victorious Liberation Campaign of 1817 - although the details around the base look gory rather than glorious. Back in the days of the late 16th century when the city was founded, the plaza must have been even more gruesome at times as it served as the site for public executions. Today, however, all is peaceful, the sun is shining, and everybody is going about their daily business - or, like us, taking a break on one of the park benches.

Over in the far corner of the park a crooning concert in underway and a crowd is gathering to enjoy the music and encourage the amateur performers. We are reminded of the performing group that we met in Puerto Deseado - 'Las Tortas Verdes' (The Green Pastries) and wonder if we will meet up with them again at some point. Suddenly the plaza is full of teenage schoolgirls in their smart jogging suits of a local private school - they cheer and give the current hirsutically-challenged performer a real boost. The lovers stealing a lunchtime kiss are oblivious. On a bench opposite a young couple are busy perusing the classified ads - maybe looking for an apartment, or more likely a job. The economic situation in Argentina is still very depressed, and for many people finding a decent job is quite a challenge - especially if you are fresh out of school.

We're starting to feel a little peckish, so we join the lunchtime line-up at a vendor's cart and get our obligatory Super Pancho (a glorified hot dog, fully dressed) and then sit on the park bench and feed crumbs to the birds. On one corner another vendor is selling small bags of cracked corn specifically for feeding the pigeons, and we watch in amusement as a young boy is almost engulfed by a large flock of his hungry feathered friends. We are joined by three teenage girls on an adjacent bench, who seem to be playing 'hookie' from school - or maybe they're just having an extended break from their studies. They nibble on their alfajores (a special kind of Argentinean cookie) - a very popular treat, but probably not that nutritious. At the moment they seem to be concentrating on something other than textbooks, namely young members of the opposite sex. Time to move on!

Within a few blocks of the plaza we find ourselves right in the historic centre of Córdoba. In the Pasaje Santa Catalina separating the 1577 cathedral from the Municipal Calbildo, a group of chess enthusiasts have set up some tables and are intent on their strategies. Although it's sunny, the air is chilly - it is early winter, after all - and warm jackets are the order of the day. Above them on his lofty perch, Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera - the founder of Córdoba - keeps watch on their manoeuvring schemes and dreams of more worthy opponents than a bunch of messy pigeons. We find ourselves in the courtyard of the Compañía de Jesus Church - dating from 1645 the Church is the oldest one in Argentina. The polished tile floors and graceful arches around the gardens are impressive, but we're here to see the special nave ceiling. It is constructed from cedar in the shape of an inverted boat's hull - yes, the Flemish designer was apparently originally a boat builder. Today we're out of luck however, as both the Tourist Office and our trusty Lonely Planet Guide failed to mention that it is closed until 4:30 pm - everything is locked up tight. The same applies to the next-door Capilla Doméstica, so we won't have a chance to examine its ornate ceiling made of stretched cowhide decorated with pigments from boiled bones.

Wandering the nearby alleys we are confronted at every turn by reminders of centuries past - from the classic lines of the Provincial Legislature (currently undergoing a gorgeous renovation job) to the ornate curls of a 1613 wrought iron coat hook. In the Municipal Museum of Fine Arts we are struck more by the turn-of-the-century building with its ornate ceiling decoration (Janine, you and your harp came to mind right away!) than the collection of 19th and 20th century cordobés art works. Never mind, it was a nice place to warm up for a few minutes. On the street again fruit and vegetable stands provide a splash of colour, and an apparently body-less pair of studying legs in a courtyard a moment of levity We finish the afternoon off with visits to the National University of Córdoba and the adjacent National College of Montserrat and feel we've done justice to a day of museums, monuments and marble floors.

On the walk back to our apartment hotel - no cabañas here, and it's still a tad cool for camping - we are reminded of some of the grimmer realities of life in a country which, although blessed with abundant natural resources and well educated people, can't seem to get its economic and social act together. The industrial area on the outskirts of the city is very run-down, with many abandoned warehouses and factories, and poignantly epitomizes the economic chaos of the past few decades. Another reminder of an era beyond imagining - the so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983, when an estimated 30,000 people were "disappeared" under the mindlessly brutal military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla - is a plaque on the wall outside a police station. It is a gruesome reminder that this site was once a clandestine centre of detention, torture and death: "We maintain it to keep the memory alive".
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