Monday, 9 December 2013

Life and food in San Telmo

I am re-posting here a review that I prepared for Fabrizio, the owner of Chacabuco 1181 where I have stayed in 2010, 2011 and 2013. For those visiting San Telmo, this short guide offers a 30 minute or so walk to take in some of the delights of the bario.

"Living at Fabrizio’s, you are in the ideal place to enjoy the features and opportunities of bario San Telmo. Here we propose a short 30 minute walk to familiarise yourself with the neighbourhood, and we will point out places of significance on the way. Note that these are just a small sample of the delights that await discovery here in San Telmo.

Locking the door to the street, and wearing comfortable shoes, turn left in Chacabuco. Three doors down at 1169 is the butchers shop. Although of unlikely appearance, this is the best butcher in the neighbourhood, with excellent meat and helpful staff who will greet you as you pass. For your asado, shop here. Pre-order to get the best cuts, and collect the following day.

Across the road at 1108, before Humberto Primo is Graciela's pedicure. The shop has a narrow front and will be open from 10 am Wednesday to Friday (tel 4300 6789 or cel 15-6700-2479). A pedicure at the time of writing is 90 pesos (excluding a tip of 10 pesos which is customary). If you dance, value your feet, or simply want to pamper, this is the place for you. Tap with a coin on the door to attract attention. For those who do not speak Castillano, sign language is more than adequate, and the treatment lasts 20 minutes. One tip - remove your shoes in the treatment area, and ensure that you do not sit on the raised platform in front of the treatment seat. A second tip - be ready for probably the best treatment you have experienced. Mention ‘Stephen and Stephanie’, and Graciela will be kind to your feet (and to ours!).

Now continue to the junction with Humberto Primo. Should you turn left  (which we shall not do today) you would come to the laundry at the corner (Piedras 1006). For 25 pesos per wash, this is definitely the place to bring your clothes. Ironing is extra, and all of the clothes care is done by the Chinese family. If you call in here, note the vast Ombu tree at the junction.  Just round the corner at Piedras 1176 is an intriguing art studio.

On the right side of Chacabuco and Humberto Primo is your local supermarket (Autoservicio). In truth it is a small self-service shop run by a pleasant Chinese man, with separate fruit stall positioned at the doorway run by two Argentine sisters. Whilst it may be unprepossessing, it is my favourite, with a selection of basics and wines at reasonable prices (compared with Carrefour in Peru). You have to travel some distance to better it. The cost of your shopping will be added up on a large calculator and shown to you. This is a safe shop where your custom will be valued, and you will be helped with your change.

On the opposite corner of Chacabuco (Humberto Primo 689) is Moderna Pizza. I have to say that I have a fondness for this place (which stays open to about midnight). The empanadas may not be the best, but the pizzas and tostados on the other hand, are excellent. Order the medium size pizza for two, and try a glass of Malbec or a bottle of Quilmes. Pizzas here cost about 70 pesos. The staff are very friendly and will greet you on your return visits.

From Moderna, we descend Humberto Primo. Stay on the left side, passing Roli cafe at the corner of Peru, run by Manuel who always wears his spectacles on his head! To your left round the corner in Peru 1085 is Cosas Ricas, a bakery. This is a good place to buy medialunas, bread, cakes and tortes, and is usefully open on Sunday mornings when other bakeries are closed. Mid-week they also serve delicious boxes of salads. If you are prepared to wait seek out Diego, the young male assistant with the smile, who teaches English. At busy times, don't forget to take a ticket from the dispenser, or your wait may be long.

Opposite across Peru is Origen (Humberto Primo 599), a delightful breakfast venue where you can sit inside, or at the pavement to watch the San Telmo world. Breakfast coffee, fresh juice, and tostados with jam and cream costs 59 pesos and is the best way to start the day. The waitresses only speak Castillano, but this is never a problem. For lunch or an evening meal before the milonga, try one of the woks - delicious and sustaining.

For this walk, we shall not remain in Peru (a delightful street with Itame Sushi bar at the opposite corner (1112), and an architecturally interesting local police station just further down on the right in the direction of Carlos Calvo). We shall continue past Origen in Humberto Primo towards the next street, Bolivar.

Stay on the left side and note the Arab restaurant Habibi (Humberto Primo 523) as a fun place for a cosy night out with spicy food, and continue to Bolivar. On the right corner at Bolivar 1101 is Caracol, a very popular cafe with locals for Sunday lunch. Had we gone straight ahead towards Plaza Dorrego we would have passed the tiny Guebara in Humberto Primo 463, a bar for jazz and beer. Ask for the draft - it is only a few pesos, grab a chair if there is one, and listen to the band. But, on this occasion, we shall cross into the San Telmo mercado. Arguably the most famous market in Buenos Aires, this mercado combines fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and snacks, with antiques. Wander at will, and take a break on one of the tall stools at Cafe del Mercado in the centre, sample a deep-fried empanada; or try the best coffee at Coffee Town and watch the theatre of the market. Take time to glance up at the roof, and amble through the market stalls to Defensa. Here, turn right up towards Plaza Dorrego.

We are not to stay today, but will continue up Defensa in the direction of San Juan (towards 1000-2000) looking for Pasaje de la Defensa at 1179 on the right side of the road. Enter here, and browse the antique shops and cafés, ensuring that you take the stairs to the first floor gallery for the view and photos down into the courtyard.

We shall continue our walk on towards San Juan. …..Note that were you to continue across San Juan you would eventually reach Parq Lezama, flanked by the famous twin cafés Britanico and Hipopotamo…... But that is for another day. For this walk, we turn from Defensa left into San Juan, noting over to your right Café San Juan, the extremely popular french restaurant (San Juan 452 - tel 4300 1112 booking essential) and opposite at 451, step down into El Maipu, run by a delightful young couple (an excellent place for marinated pork).

Take the next left into Balcarce. This is my favourite street in this section of San Telmo. When you reach the junction with Humberto Primo, detour twenty paces to your left to 340, to photo the Parroquia de San Pedro Telmo, a stunning neo colonial church. Afterwards, retrace your steps to Balcarce and continue left downhill.  Call into Galerio de Viejo Hotel (1053) on the left - tour the balcony ateliers, and on the ground floor try the café El Patio de Cabo Verde for a quiet snack. Leaving, pop across the road to Alma Zen Arte at 1056 for genuine period clothing from 1920-60. For a quiet lunch or early evening meal remember Pasaje Solar (1024) which features a gorgeous shaded courtyard away from the noise of San Telmo. At the junction with Carlos Calvo, turn right and brave the 'yet to be paved' tail end of the street where on the right you will find Celine (242), a French cafe open evenings only (tel 4361 1269 to book) with a superb 1st floor terrace overlooking the picturesque German church. This is the place for early evening drinks on warm evenings (but take a shawl should the breeze lift). Retrace your steps back to cross Balcarce. Ahead at Carlos Calvo 319 is Antigua Casa de Cuchilleros (tel 4300 5798 to book) which offers Grand Parrillada for 225 pesos for two people. Then back to Balcarce, descending yet again. If you are vegetarian, note at 958 Naturaleza Sabia - run by enthusiastic veggies (tel 4361 1549 to book). Take a look in La Celina at 922 for interesting crafts and weavings. The candles you were looking for are available from Maria Jose Gomez at Prema, Balcarce 914, on the opposite corner at Estados Unidos 302 (tel 4361 5529 to book) is Cafe Rivas, a delightful restaurant with simple menu and excellent reputation. Two gorgeous cafe con leche and a shared cake will cost 55 pesos - worth the price just for the charming environment and excellent service. If you are seeking a very private triste, pop up to the gallery via the stairs near the door!

Turn left in Estados Unidos (another favourite street), to find Vinotango at 488, a useful wine shop run by Juan, who sings tango songs to his customers and speaks perfect English. Juan and his mother will give excellent advice on what wines to try. Crossing Defensa to Yauss Club at 509 - (formerly Waffles Sur) operated by Javier and his pretty girlfriend Valentina. Opening times here can be a lottery but try the breakfast waffle with bacon, scrambled egg, salad drizzled with honey. Together with coffee and fresh juice they make an excellent start to the day. Just a little further up Estados Unidos at 617 is Walrus Books ( - worth a mention because all of their stock is in English. Before you leave San Telmo, make sure you drop of your unwanted paperbacks here as a gift for the proprietor, and mention that you are staying at Fabrizios.

We shall turn left, back into Bolivar just in time to book a seat at Fellini at 933 (tel 4361 4679 to book). The  family serve a set meal  involving 14 dishes! For the full description of this terrific, favourite restaurant (formerly Maria Fedele), visit my blog at Stephen Twist Tango. Whilst returning up Bolivar, note Pedro Telmo, the cafe under the market at 962. This is one of the oldest original cafes in San Telmo - skip the main meals, but it worth a visit for pizza and beer or glass of wine. In the day, see the 80+ year old Manuela and give her a gentle hug, and at night greet Horacio, the larger-than-life waiter. We return we miss Antonnino at Bolivar 1087 - which used to be the one place locally to buy fresh or prepared fish. Now you will need to track out to Defin at Azara 99 -  a 19 minute walk down Tacuari, crossing Av Martin Garcia). So to continue, back to Humberto Primo, where we turn right towards Chacabuco.

On your return to Fabrizios, turn right to Dylan Ice Cream Parlour at Peru 1086.  As you may know, Portenos take their ice cream seriously, and you will need a half litre tub at least, perhaps with a triple mix, to take back with you to share at Fabrizios".

If you wish to contact Fabrizio for accommodation in his shared house at Chacabuco 1181, email

Friday, 6 December 2013


In October the sun rises early with flashes of light from the windows of passing taxis, that are ubiquitous here in Buenos Aires.

It is Tuesday, and today Stephanie and I are to meet with Cristina, a lawyer and mediator, whose practice mirrors my own. Our destination is the banking district in the micro centre of the city.
'Micro centre' is somewhat of a misnomer, as the area stretches eight blocks each way, and contains the heart of commerce, banking and shopping for Buenos Aires. In daylight hours, it is busy, and during working hours thronged with bankers, office employees, messengers, traders, tourists and just about everyone that makes a city work.

Our rendevous is in Calle Reconquista, a principal banking street - part pedestrianised to allow only the security trucks which carry cash and bullion to the Bank of Argentina. These are bomb-proof, with heavy plated steel, wheels of huge dimension and weight, and are invariably accompanied by police and security outriders Yamaha and BMW motorcycles.

Reconquista has not always been the centre of Latin American civilisation. This was the place where in 1806, the Spanish immigrants of Buenos Aires gathered to swear allegiance to their cause - the removal by force of their recent British overlords. After 46 days of occupation, William Carr Beresford was forced to surrender to the Spanish general, Santiago de Liniers, and the Rio de la Plata was returned to Spanish control.
Today's visit will not be quite so dramatic, involving discussions about legal process and mediation of disputes - over lunch with knives and forks, without a cutlass to be seen.

As we meet in the sun-drenched calle, the convent bell of tolls to call the monks of this last surviving order to prayer. The steps up to Convento San Ramon Nonato lead to a wide, dark corridor; but ahead is a fierce splash of light as we exit into the cloisters that surround the convent garden. Like none other in Buenos Aires, here is an enclosed place, festooned with the richest diversity of trees and flowering shrubs, and surrounded by tables set for lunch with white cloths and glinting glasses. The waiters bob from kitchen to customer, ensuring that the menu executivo is available for all of the diners.

We order steak, served with chips and salad, preceded by mozzarella in a light tomato and tabasco sauce, and followed by coffee or flan. It is accompanied by a glass of Malbec within the set price of 89 pesos (about £6.00).

Conversation ranges over business, mediation, politics and the cultural differences and resonances between Argentina and Britain. As we chat, birds fly from tree to flower under the canopy of palms. Around us sit business people, bankers and lawyers, ours being the only English voices. Elsewhere under the cloisters peep small antique shops and the indoor eating areas.

The convent's principal bell tolls - perhaps the end of mid-day prayer, and we rise from the square. With further legal meetings ahead we leave the tranquility of Convent San Ramon Nonato to head down Reconquista towards Avendia Corrientes, the street that never sleeps. For those seeking quiet moments in the sea of humanity that is Buenos Aires, here is your oasis.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

El Afronte

It is 10.30 pm but a warm breeze blows up Balcarce when we leave the restaurant. A colectivo on diversion rattles the cobbles as we pass the gay lights of Cafe Rivas towards Defensa, Bolivar and Peru.
Our destination tonight is the Bendita milonga at Peru 571 and five of us pick our way along the broken pavements. Our table is reserved only until 10.45 pm so we haste.
From the outside, Peru 571 is just another doorway in another San Telmo street. It gives little away, save that you know it must be a milonga by the five or six smokers who linger on the footway to stub a cigarette with their dance shoes. The staircase rises steeply straight ahead, to turn at the top through double doors to the salon. Whilst the stairs are dark, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the room which is darker still. Lighting in Bendita is strategic rather than effective. We pay 40 pesos for entry and turn to our table directly beneath the stage. It bears a large sign, 'Reserva Twist'.
Bendita milonga is all about El Afronte. Eleven musicians meet each Monday and Wednesday night to play tango here. They comprise three violins, cello, acoustic base, piano, four bandoneons and the singer. Their hallmark is a deep, heavy base line, searing melodies, and complex contra-rhythm. The effect is explosive.
We arrive as the DJ concludes her set. For a moment there is total darkness; and the orchestra appears. Their opening song is instantly recognisable as tango, yet the timing laminates to catch and release the beat. Tradition dictates that the audience will sit for the first piece, but as the second song starts, dancers rise and move onto the small pista encompassed by tables. Now the drama of the music is enacted on the floor. Tangueros circle in close embrace, to be brought to that single breath that is tango.
We sit, and we dance. We listen with all of our senses, including the diverse vibrations we feel through the original oak floor. Each pair of dancers enters a private world which they alone own, in which they make the rules and interpret the music. The light tenor voice of the singer lifts with emotion and he wipes away tears. The audience of watchers and dancers erupts at the end of the performance. Lights flash and people call for more. The last Gardel song encapsulates the craggy history of tango - its moments of joy and deep crevasses of sadness. At one moment it is as if we witness Carlos Gardel's last moments of life.
Suffused with sound and dance, we depart into the now cool San Telmo night. A taxi slowly cruises to a halt and our friends depart to Palermo. For us, this is a moment of collection, as we walk and chat, rising through Humberto Primo towards Chacabuco and home.

Thursday, 14 November 2013


On few occasions in a lifetime, you have a meal that you rate as pivotal - for food, service and atmosphere. Last night at Aramburu was one of these, so let me share it with you.

To book a place at Aramburu, you need to plan well in advance, choose a mid-week evening, phone or call in one afternoon, and be lucky.

Aramburu is a special restaurant, currently rated on TripAdvisor as the second best in Buenos Aires, and in the top 50 restaurants in the world. It is tucked away at Salta 1050 -  only five blocks away from San Telmo, on the other side of Av 9 Julio, the widest road in Buenos Aires. Salta is a slightly dark and threatening street, but is in fact quite safe. The entrance to the restaurant is narrow, and at walking pace in the day, you would pass by un-noticing. The door, as for most restaurants in Buenos Aires is gated, with a small bell to the left side.

We were welcomed by Carolina, the sommelier. The restaurant caters for between 30-40 covers on three levels - a step down to the right, street level with two group tables to the left and straight ahead, the Chef's Table for two. Decor is dark and restrained, but the lighting is good, with white linen cloths and glinting glasses. The wall to the right of the Chef's Table is a chalk board, bearing recommendations and chef Aramburu's drawings.

We had booked the Chef's Table. This comprises a high glass surface directly against the two metre square window to the kitchen, providing the best culinary floor show imaginable. Behind, the kitchen is totally open, so from Chef's Table you are able to see each dish prepared and served by the five chefs headed by Aramburu himself.

The menu is set at twelve courses, paired if you choose the option, with six wines. Each course is a piece of theatre in minature, and each wine allows you to travel the length and breadth of Argentina.
Words fail to convey the taste, and pictures show only the shapes. But enough to provide an appetite to eat at Aramburu next time you visit Buenos Aires.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Time to learn tango

Readers have pointed out to me that, for a tango blog, I have written relatively little about tango.
Yes, you are right. I have visited numerous tango blogs and read about a blogger's  experience at a milonga - 'the milonguero from hell', and 'the tanda from heaven'. I have to say that they leave me quite cold.
What is it they say about tango....'a feeling that is danced'? The fact is that if we could simply write about it, we wouldn't dance it. Any number of words can only give a shaded reflection of the feeling of a joyful tanda with a skilled tanguera.
So, I shall spare you the disembodied descriptions of my dances. Instead, I shall tell you a little of the fascinating and sometimes frustrating process of learning.
Having been dancing Argentine tango for six years, I consider myself a beginner. The old milongueros say that it takes a lifetime and a half to learn to dance tango, and they are right. Few if any reach a stage where they are content with their dancing, and those that have are almost certainly not worth dancing with. There is always another stage to which the tanguero should aspire to transcend.
The basis of tango is walking. For something that most of us do, this appears very problematic within the tango embrace. It is made more difficult by the fact that there is not just one way - the methods of walking seem to mirror the number of teachers and tangueros!
I will avoid the 'lead with the toe, lead with the heel' debate, and focus on the joys of tango from this visit to Buenos Aires. Let me introduce you to Hector Corona y Silvina Machado.
The sharp reader will remember that on our first visit to Buenos Aires, Stephanie and I danced with them at DNI - a famous dance school here in the Capital Federal. In those days, the directors Pablo y Dana would bring their teachers together every morning before classes started, to teach and re-inforce their particular teaching technique. Experienced tangueros can instantly recognise a DNI trained dancer by the elasticity with which they form and control movement. What results is a safe and attractive form of youthful dancing, contrasting well with the traditional milonguero style.
In the intervening six years, Hector y Silvina have moved on, and together with their friends Sebastian y Eugenia formed new dance and business partnerships, underpinned by a distinctive teaching method which is very much their own.
Many experienced dancers are quite cynical about dance teachers. A few students have had many teachers, each one insisting that 'their method' is the right way to dance, and the only way to learn tango. In truth, tango was originally never professionally taught, but handed down and developed on the floors of the milongas. At most, small groups of young men would meet to practice together before venturing to the milongas, and the girls would show and watch each other, learning the art of following a lead.
This resulted in a plethora of styles, some distinct to a bario, others to a particular milonga. Now, the better dancers can be identified to a particular teacher.
Our first lesson was with Hector. We arrived at Junin 143 just before 2.00 pm to be met by Hector in the street. The venue is a private suite of practice rooms that may be hired by the hour. Each one is equipped with the smoothest of floors and a music system. Some, like the one in Tte Gral Juan Peron, are in delightful old buildings, marble corridors leading to panelled rooms with inward opening windows to allow a fresh breeze.
Hector's approach to teaching tango is to strip from it all pretension and over-stylised movement. He reminds us that tango was from African roots, developed in the barios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo by working people who danced socially, often on courtyard flags. It later moved to the ballrooms, especially after the middle classes had embraced it, on it's return from Paris.
Hector's foundation is that of walking within the embrace. Although Oscar Casas had set me on the right path in 2007, Hector re-visited the way to walk. It involves a lead from the torso, with a following bent knee, arriving on the heel, rolling to the toe, then pushing from the ankle. Properly executed, the walk resembles that of a cat. To this, he links the importance of the collect and change of weight.
For the follower, Hector suggests that after arrival on the inside toe, weight is quickly transferred to the heel, which should always touch the floor. The hip should not open, for the key to the movement comes from the core - a set of abdominal muscles that control the backward movement of the leg from the pelvis. The result is a smooth and responsive, but deliberate backward step with a brush collect.
Turning for the giro involves an opening of the torso in the direction of the movement. He suggests that assistance can be given to build momentum through the embrace, which should be kept flexible. It is clear that for him, the two partners for excellent tango are walking and the embrace - offering stability, security and a more dynamic lead for the follower.
The result - a simple and very positive lead, but one permitting subtlety of expression. For Hector, the rest - footwork and variations - will fall into place if the lead is sufficiently clear.
Of course, the magic of Hector's walk and lead and Silvina's decorations and adornos, is yet to be mastered by us. But the foundations are clearly there, and we are moving forward slowly and surely to a new dimension of tango.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Feria de los Mataderos

Its Sunday in the spring, and we decide to go to Feria de los Mataderos.
Stephanie, Silke, Francesca and I meet outside Bar El Federal at the corner of Peru and Carlos Calvo for colectivo 126. This will take us the full journey of 13 kilometres to bario Mataderos. With relatively empty streets, we race along Carlos Calvo, negotiating Av 9 de Julio, and following Humberto Primo to its source, skirting Parque Avellaneda arriving in Av Lisandro de la Torre 45 minutes later. We know the stop, for this is where the Sunday bus decants most of its travellers. What a draw is this feria!

Stretching out into the distance is a huge market of small stalls, covered with tarpaulin and plastic sheeting to shade the wares and the vendors. To our left is a parilla, already in business, with masses of sausages and steak on the grill. The air is heavy with smoke from the charcoal wafting along the street. A band has arrived to play in the park, and visitors are strolling up and down the rows of produce - food, crafts, clothing, jewellery, mate cups, carvings, paintings and shoes.
We make our way to the stage area, positioned in the centre of the feria, with small streets leading off in four directions. With others, we remove our hats and bow our heads as a national hymn is sung, and then the dancing starts.

Feria Mataderos is a folk market, populated by local people. This is far distant from the tango trail, and the dances here are principally chacarera and zamba. Some of the dancers are in costume - the men wearing pleated trousers gathered at the calf, raglan shirts, with riding boots, waistcoats, silk scarves and leather belts. Inside the belt are sashes and a decorative dagger. The women wear brightly coloured dresses, cut above the ankle, with white petticoats. They are joined by the people of the market, simply dressed for their Sunday out at the feria. The music is bright and dramatic, drawing passersby in to dance or to watch. There will be over 100 in this group alone.

Nearby are the stalls for food. Just to the right is an empanada stall. Four women sit making these small savouries, whilst two men deep-fry them in a large pan of oil. Each one is a work of art, with delicate patterns in the pastry to seal the contents. Just across from here is a churro stall, selling freshly made sweet pastries filled with dolce de leche and chocolate.

The main focus of the feria is horsemanship. Shortly, I will take you further down the street to a place where there are no stalls. Instead, the centre of the road has been covered with a strip of sand, and placed centrally is a light steel gantry carrying a short piece of rubber strip, below which is affixed a steel circle, the size of a key ring. On the pavements under the shade of trees are the gauchos - some mounted, others tethering their horses; and they wait.

Back here in the market is everything to support your equestrian needs - riding boots, spurs, ropes, harness decorations, bridles and sashes. You may buy gaucho costume, especially the daggers - bearing intricate detail in silver and bone.

A bell rings and we hear the sound of thundering hooves. Even for race goers or those used to attending point-to-point, nothing can prepare you for this specacle. A young gaucho, perhaps 25 years of age, wearing a boina (Argentine beret), has spurred his horse to a gallop. The speed is astonishing, as is the noise. He charges down the sanded strip. Between his lips he carries a small steel tube the size of a pencil.  It is a mate straw, used for drinking the special Argentine 'tea'. As he approaches the gantry, though which he will pass, he takes the tube from his mouth and holds it aloft. The crowd roar as he just misses the tiny ring. It will be another 100 metres before he can bring his horse to a canter. His return brings commiserating applause from the crowd. He wipes the sweat from his brow with his kerchief. In the meantine, the senior gaucho, mounted on a huge chestnut bay, reaches up to reposition the ring for the next pass.

We are now directly beside the gantry. The oldest gaucho turns his horse from the pavement and he mounts swiftly, despite his 60 or so years. Under a flat topped hat with wide rim, his hair is silver as a fox, as is his moustache. Across his saddle is a full sheep skin, his dagger slipped into the back of his belt. He rides a bright grey mare, the sort that will cut fast. A coil of rope rests against his knee. His turn of speed is remarkable. One moment gaining the saddle, the next at lightening pace. His speed must be too fast. He is approaching the gantry, his hat having flown off, to be captured by a string tie. But the horse knows this task well. She is dead centre of the gantry. At the last moment he removes the steel tube and holds if aloft. It happens so quickly, that the eye cannot see the point of contact. It is only after he has passed below the gantry that you realise that the ring has gone, speared and possessed. The crowd goes wild as the thundering recedes down the street. Pesos slip from one hand to another. His return is gladiatorial. He holds the tube to show the crowd, and he sits back on his horse.

Thoughout the afternoon, more gauchos take their turn. Some succeed and others fail. The crowd has their favourites, but the skill and courage of each one is appreciated.

With the smell of leather, sweat, sand, mate and parilla in the air, we take our leave. Departing this place brings a sadness as well as a sense of peace. It is in this quiet moment that we talk and review the excitement of the afternoon. Colectivo 126 is waiting at the stop, and we run, catching the bus just as the doors swing closed. We return, bunched and standing with other revellers, back along Avenida San Juan towards Chacabuco. We grap half a kilo of icecream from the corner, climbing the turned staircase to Fabrizio's. A day at the races, well spent!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Dinner at Fabrizio's

We offered to cook, but our offer was rejected. Maybe this was because our offer was made to two superb chefs - Carlos and Silke with whom we share our first floor corridor here at Chacabuco.
Instead, we were given instructions. 'Do not enter the kitchen until you are invited', and 'Don't forget to dress for dinner'.
So it is approaching 9.00 pm and we are hungry. Despite admonishment, we have kept the door to our room open, so the wonderful smells of cooking waft our way along the balcony.
I am now dressed in black with a scarlet/pink silk handkerchief in my breast pocket, and Stephanie wears her matching 'Vivien of Holloway' orchid in her hair. We will have to walk fifteen paces for dinner, and Stephanie takes my arm. Ahead is the sound of tango, the clinking of glasses and a plume of steam from the hob.
Here on the first floor at Fabrizio's, the dance studio and kitchen are en suite, separated when needed by large floor-to-ceiling doors which form a sound proof wall. Tonight, they are open and the kitchen table has been positioned in the centre of the studio. Glasses gleam in candle light, and rose petals decorate the place settings. To one side is the small bar divider, bearing bottles of Malbec and Etchart Privardo Torrentes.
We are not the first to arrive. Cristina is here, elegantly attired in black tango trousers. Arianna is preparing an aperatif with Schnapps, and Carlos conceals his latest surprise dish. It is at that moment that Fabrizio and Silke arrive.
For the first time, we see Fabrizio in a different light. He wears a cream/white jacket to compliment his new hair cut, his style accentuated by his combats. Silke wears a 1920's dress, her hair cut to a bob, with a 'Vivien' flower to the left side, so that she can dance tango. This is a moment of searing elegance, and a fitting pre-requisite for the meal that is to follow.
Seven of us are seated at the table. Carlos, both chef and waiter, serves the first course of aubergine, with melted goats cheese, blanched pink and white onion on a bed of rocket. The first sensation is that of smell, which rises longingly from the plate. A mouthful reveals that the ingredients I have described are only a small part of the magic. The taste to the tongue is like small busts of joy.
We toast each other, the chefs, and the food. We toast tango, Argentina and Bolivia, from which Carlos hails. Malbec splashes into glasses and the gentle haze across the room becomes diffused with delight. Conversation dismantles and re-builds republics, democracies and the world order. We speak of art, music, and of life.
Love must wait for the next course. This has been a closely guarded secret of Carlos'. But we have noticed several bottles of white wine, and know of the special risotto rice. We have also seen a blue cheese, and tub of cream peep emptily from the servery. The recipe is a family secret, not known outside Bolivia, and its taste transports us to new levels of ecstacy. Each mouthful, accompanied by the smallest of miniature tomatoes, causes gasps from the diners.
In my rush to describe the food, I fail to properly describe the timescale. We have arrived, drank, eaten and danced between courses. Each topic of conversation has been highlighted by personal experience and aspiration. Time has rolled, just as the candles have burned down. The row of empty bottles reveals its true passage.
I sense that this is the moment you have been waiting for. The culinary delights have risen and surfed and we are drunk with taste. But here is Silke's delight - the desert. Between dancing at DNI and dressing for dinner, she has created a special memory. To speak of cake does not disclose the nature of this offering. With cream and fresh strawberries, this is a cake of cakes. We look hopefully that our's will be the largest slice, and are not disappointed. It melts on the tongue, and adds the finish to a memorable meal. How is it that such talent can combine in one small place, here on the outside edge of San Telmo?
Federico and his girlfriend join the party, just in time for the last slice of cake which they share. It is now time to dance again - still in candle light, with a nod of approval from Fabrizio who departs for the night. That our senses are blurred with wine simply adds a new dimension to our tanda of Di Sarli. Now four beautiful tangueras, each with 'Vivien' orchids in their hair, take to the floor. For two songs, Silke leads Stephanie, and we all look longingly at their talent. Later, the tangueros take over, and the evening is sealed with a taste of tango in a truly Argentine way.
I am not sure when or how I reached our room. The fifteen paces became but one short dream. The candles burned to a distant flame, and this night became one of a thousand memories of Buenos Aires - and one of the most special of its kind.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Maria Fedele

A night away from tango means 'let's go out for dinner'! So tonight, we are heading for a special meal at 'Maria Fedele', at the time of writing in Bolivar 933 - three blocks away from our home in Chacabuco (now Adolfo Asina 1465).
Passing on the way back from the micro centre, we had noticed the lace curtains of Maria Fedele, with the glow of soft lighting and candles beyond, and the tanned, relaxed faces of Portenos dining there.
This is a small, family run business, with forty covers in pairs, fours and groups. The entrance is narrow and leads straight from the street. Outside, a trusted retainer waits to ensure safety on entry. To the right is the bell, and the door will be unlocked for visiting diners.
Inside, the single room extends back to a bar area, beyond which is the kitchen. Waiting is done by members of the family, with the owner as head waiter. At the turn of the 20th century many Italian families like this made their way to Buenos Aires for a new and prosperous life. Clearly, we have a reservation and as early diners, are given a choice of tables. We choose the single against the window that looks back out to Bolivar and beyond to the San Telmo Mercado.
Here at Maria Fedele there is no point in looking for a menu. Typical of traditional Italian restaurants, the meal is set for the day, and diners eat what is prepared. The set price of 180 pesos (£12.40) provides a meal of four courses and fourteen dishes and an aperitif.
We start with antipasto - and here we are speaking of a collection of eight plates, including two hams. The aubergine with parsley is divine, and the pate smooth and buttery. The art is to resist the bread, for the meal with bread would defeat all but the most devoted gastronome. Our taste buds are zinging, and we order a Reto Malbec 2011 as a treat.
Between courses, we glance around the restaurant. To the left, mahogany shelving containing the wines rises high to the ceiling. Here too are pictures of the family - and above us to the right is a montage showing it's history from the arrival of the owner's grandparents, seated centre-stage with their progeny spreading out to the edges. At the far end of the room, next to the bar stand the iconography - Mary and baby Jesus, with the effigy of a priest in full robes.
After the antipasto comes the pasta dish. Tonight it is spaghetti with a light tomato sauce, tossed in a bag full of mozzarella with fresh basil. It is served in a bowl large enough for four, and the danger is to try it all. The pasta is beautifully al diente, giving a soft-crisp feel to to tongue.
Whilst diners have arrived at different times after 9.00 pm, by now we are all synchronised for service of the next dish. Across, six men relax together, their conversation intense and peppered with laughter. Further to the centre is an extended family who have brought their small children, aged between 4 to 5. As the evening progresses, they remain bright eyed at the table, contributing fragments of speech and taking photographs with their disposable cameras. In one corner, two young men romance their girlfriends with subtlety.
Today, the main course is risotto with wild mushrooms. The sauce is a source of delight and the taste is indefinable.
At this point, the desire for a sweet is overwhelming, but the capacity shrinks. But here come four deserts. Each has a medium sized plate to itself, with cream, chocolate, pastry and dustings of cocoa. To follow, a cafetierre with cream sweetened by liquor.
With a bill of 490 pesos (just over £34 for two) we rise and bid the owner farewell. This has been a memorable meal - for quality, taste, quantity and ambience. We feel as if we have been embraced by the Fedele family and treated as their own.
Outside the air is fresh, but not yet cool. It is 1.00 am and we have dined for three hours. As we saunter in Bolivar, we see the local residents sitting on their steps eating ice cream from half litre polystyrene tubs, and at the corner, waiting for the colectivo to take visitors to their homes. We drop a right turn, via Humberto Primo and into Chacabuco, and home.

Stormy Buenos Aires

After a delicious brunch of waffles with bacon, scrambled egg, and salad drizzled with honey, fresh orange juice, and coffee at Javier's 'Wafles SUR' Estados Unidos 509, we returned to Chacabuco to escape the storm.

Unlike Britain, episodes of heavy rain here in Buenos Aires are common. Today, a month's rain was forecast to fall in the day. When it does, streets flood and the shops - hopefully prepared for the event - sweep out the water from the ground floor areas with large handled blades. On occasions, those out and about are stranded and forced to book into a nearby hotel. The rain gorges the culverts until eventually they cope, and the water filters through to underground caverns deep below the Capital Federal.

With rain drumming on the roof here at Chacabuco, and washing across the balcony between our rooms, we stay safely at home and avoid the temptation to travel to Nuevo Chique milonga today. Astor, the house cat joins us on the bed as we peer out to the row of flowering plants that edge the balcony. At least they appreciate the rain.

Two issues with going out when the storm is due are, first, the threat of lightening. Massive electrical discharges fork across the sky and earth where most convenient - hopefully a lightening conductor on a tall block or church. The chances of being affected are remote, but they are accompanied by crashing thunder almost overhead - where the shock compresses and compacts the air.

The other is not the rain that is falling. Here, the trusty umbrella takes the strain in the short distance between taxi and milonga door. It is the rain that has fallen and rests, expectantly, between the paving flags.

Pavements in Buenos Aires are a luxury. They exist, but only so far as the house or shop owner's property extends - and then they stop - to be replaced by broken flags or simply compacted rubble. For the unwary, and worse for the visually disadvantaged, pavements rest somewhere between inconvenient and treacherous.

After the rain, water lodges under the small, uneven flags that rock under foot, causing spouts of muddy water to squelch up, covering trousers and legs and stockings. Foot placement on street flags is as important at these times as it is in the milonga.

The storm appears to be passing. Up above the sky is once again turning to an intense blue. Spring swallows are rising on thermals to feed from a new crop of mosquitos, and a light, fresh breeze blows away our concerns. Perhaps now is time for pizza and beer at Moderna?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Manolo y Salon Cochabamba

Crossing Avenida San Juan after dark is not for the feint hearted. Here, you leave San Telmo for Constituion - a bario with a chequered reputation. Portenos who are unfamiliar with the bario will avoid walking there, preferring to travel by taxi.

Intrepid, Stephanie and I decide to set out on foot. Our first stop is Cochabamba 444, the home of Solon Cochabamba, a lively young milonga. The street is grey and overcast by the autopista which travels out of the city towards the airport on huge concrete gantries. The milonga salon leads straight from the street. Inside is bright, with seating each side and tables across the far side adjacent to the bar.

The milonga is filling as we arrive, but Gerry and Lucia have reserved a large table for their guests. We settle and look across the pista. D'Arienzo's Lagrimas y sonrisas is playing, and this is our prompt to dance.

Here are some excellent tangueros, mostly younger and full of vitality. We are able to step out and break away from the tight milonguero style whilst the floor is relatively quiet. As the evening progresses, Salon Cochabamba draws a larger  contingent of ever younger dancers, and the floor becomes tight, requiring precise definition and expression.

It is Lucia's birthday, so we stay for the birthday vals and the cutting of a huge cake in three separate tiers - so large that everyone seems to get a piece.

After the heat of the milonga, the air outside is cool and fresh. The large tree at the junction with Defensa is opening into full spring-time leaf and shadows dance in the breeze. We turn left - our next destination being Bolivar 1299 - the Restaurant Manolo.

I am yet to decipher the history of the eighty year old Restaurant Manolo, so if you can help, do contribute below. The restaurant appears suddenly and inauspiciously in Cochabamba, with windows on two sides. Arriving at the door, we press the bell, and the door catch is released. As elsewhere here in Buenos Aires, security is taken seriously.

Inside, Restaurant Manolo reflects its founding owner. The tables are dressed with linen cloths, and all of the waiters (exclusively male) wear white shirts and long aprons. Each carries a serviette over their left arm, and at their side all of the equipment necessary to open every bottle. There is a collegiate uniformity and calmness about them. Our favourite waiter takes us to one of his tables. We glance about the salon. At one end the restaurant's association with La Boca Juniors is evident. Football shirts and photographs festoon the walls.

La Boca Juniors is not simply a football team. For those who do not know about football in Argentina, it is arguably more important than politics. When La Boca do not win, depression sets in. In the barios of San Telmo, Constitution and of course, La Boca, the team is as important as family. Their blue and white strip reflects the colours of the nation, and a La Boca win can wipe out the national debt for a night in the imagination of its supporters.

The bife churiso mariposa is sufficient for two to share, with a mixed salad dressed by the waiter at the table and accompanied by a bottle of Bodega Septima malbec. For dessert we share a zabaglione, warm, frothy and full of Marsala wine. Limoncello is served as a digestif.

We are the only tourists - the clientele being local families and couples. The restaurant lies just sufficiently beyond the tourist safety zone as to be preserved for posterity. The bill (for those that need to know) is 350 pesos.

We leave and saunter into the night air. It is a full moon and traces of high cloud shadow its huge globe. We ignore the taxi that slides past hoping for a fare. The cartoneros are out, collecting cardboard and plastic from the large wheeled bins, in small handcarts. The sound of the city re-imerges as we make our way across Avenida San Juan and into Chacabuco and home.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Buenos Aires - return for 2013

Saturday 5 October just before 8.00 am, American Airlines Boeing 777 descends from a rich blue sky to the warm runway of Pistarini airport, Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, and we descend from the plane into our new life for two months of Argentine tango.

The journey has been eventful. The choice of American Airlines was dictated unwisely by cost rather than convenience, and this was accentuated by the need to exit flight-side on touch down in the USA, to go through immigration and customs, then to repeat the same process within minutes for the on-going flight to Buenos Aires. For this of course, you need ESTA clearance. Flight time and convenience come at a cost, but my advice is to select a European interchange in the absence of a direct flight.

As usual, I took the Tienda Leon coach from the airport to the city. Look for the booth in the arrivals hall flight side. New travellers may be tempted to book a taxi, but for 95 pesos (exchange rate 14 $ARS / £1) the coach is a first choice, taking you directly to Retiro, and then on in small grey taxis to your hotel, hostel or apartment. The coach is quick and affords views over the city as you enter on the Autopista 25 Mao.

The city, Capital Federal, is clearly about to burst into spring. A mild winter, followed by a cold September has confused the seasons. Unlike my visits in February (Argentine autumn) the roadsides are verdant with grasses and the city streets look fresh washed. Within the next few days the pink buds showing on the Jacaranda will unwrap into splendid vermillion.

Our little grey taxi pulls from Avendia Independencia into Chacabucco. We stop just short of Av San Juan outside 1181. This is the tango hostel run by Fabrizio Forti and used by me for two and three months respectively on two of my previous three visits to Buenos Aires. It could be said that returning to the same hostel was unadventurous, but this place is always an adventure in itself. Fabrizio is a slight built tango performer and teacher and has run the hostel for many years. He is there to greet us, and carries Stephanie's case to the first floor.

Fabizio's is run as a private home for tangueros and other visitors. The two floors are self-contained, but on our floor is the tango practice room with balcony overlooking Chacabucco. For tangueros this has distinct advantages. For others, the second floor access to the roof patio garden is a boon.

Our room is that recommended by our friends Rudi y Linda. They have been my companions here at Chacabuco for two consecutive years, but they travel here for two months in the autumn. The room is simple, but with a magnificent marble dressing table, soon to be festooned with visiting cards, candles and fresias. The ensuite bathroom comprises bath, with overhead shower, handbasin and bidet.

Our companions on this trip are Carlos, Silke, Cristina and Alvero. They each have rooms that access onto the little balcony that runs the length of our floor of the house. Carlos is a student studying at the Universidad in Av San Juan. A special cook, Carlos speaks six languages, most fluently without accent, and enjoys jazz. Silke, who we call Sally, is from southern Germany and is staying for two months. By profession, she is the director of a kindergarten, but by appearance a decade younger than her age. Sally too is learning tango, and will accompany us to milongas over the next weeks. Cristina is also a student and tanguera. She owns an apartment in Buenos Aires which she rents to support her on-going studies. Finally, Alvero is a long-term resident. His skill is that of musician, and he sells instruments in the street markets locally.

Life in the house proves to be a social as ever. "Join us for breakfast - we are cooking now" is a familiar call as Silke and Carlos mix their skills. At other times, tango music drifts from the practice room where new steps are perfected or visitors take lessons with Fabrizio. Sharing in a tango house may not be to everyone's taste; but it provides instant companionship with kindred tango spirits, whilst here at Fabrizio's - sufficient privacy when sought. For both sole tangueros and couples travelling to dance, I would wholeheartedly recommend the energy of a shared house or hostel.

The next step is to buy those essentials and luxuries that make a longer trip comfortable. We have brought a travel kettle and small Bodum coffee jug from England. Although it sounds ridiculous, we have also brought chocolate - for this is one area in which the Argentines do not excel. We add fresh towels, shampoo, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, spices, two wine glasses, a bottle of Malbec, fresh bread and empanadas to our shopping list and head out to the local shops.

Visitors should note that credit cards are accepted rarely in shops and occasionally in local restaurants. They are also a very costly way to pay, for the government takes revenue from transactions, especially cash withdrawals. Here there is an active black market for currency exchange - especially US$ - and a stroll along Calle Florida is beset by vendors. I have decided to use Azimo, a British company offering currency transfers at excellent rates. Check out the link on my Facebook page and sign up using the link provided. When doing so, it is worth increasing your allowance. This can be done at no cost by providing proof of identity (more easily done before you depart) - required to avoid money laundering.

So Argentine pesos it is, with simple conversion at the current rate of about 14 pesos for £1. As a guide, breaksfast for two costs 100 pesos, a meal for two with wine currently costs about 300 pesos, pizza an beer for two at 85 pesos. For tango, entrance costs between 25 and 40 pesos per person, with sparkling water at 14-18 pesos. Day-to-day living is thus highly manageable, especially if you prepare your own food with the plethora of fresh vegetables and fruit available from each street corner for a handful of pesos.

In the next entry, I will tell more about tango - after all, that is why we are here and you are reading the blog. Until then, picture this -
The sun is setting over San Telmo. Music and a distant smell of cooking rises in the air. Voices chatter and spring evening birdsong carries across the roof. We are preparing to dance at El Maipui - to stroll there across Avendia 9 de Juilo into Monserat. What could be better than this?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Irish Masters 2013

Me - "So, you've actually booked Murat y Michelle to teach and dance at the Irish Masters in Dublin?"

Anthony - "Yes, they're coming!"

Me - "Save me a room at the Marino".


It is Friday 13 September. A lucky day for us, for we are setting off for Dublin via Newcastle Airport. The Ryanair staff smile as we board the Boeing 737-800, clutching our two 10 kilo cases that contained all that we would need for the next three days. Did they know that we were off to dance tango, or simply that our bags conformed to their requirements?

Our destination is of course the 2nd Irish Masters Tango Festival to be held at the Marino Institute of Education just to the north of Dublin city centre. This year, in addition to Murat and Michelle Erdemsel, (arguably the most talented and popular tangueros of 2013), are Daniela y Luis Bianchi and Barbra Rasp y Charlie Fouchier. The music line-up is equally impressive with Fi Gosali from Brisbane, Christian Xell from Vienna, Jorg Haubner from Dresden and Anthony Cronin from Dublin.

We take the bus from the airport and walk the short distance to the Institute. Within minutes we ascend the estate drive towards the impressive former home of Lord Charlemont, a turn of the century college formerly run for and by the Christian Brothers. It is now a thriving centre of academic excellence - the perfect setting for a tango weekend, with panoramic views over Dublin City towards the hills of County Wicklow.

Our room is in the old 1905 building, reached by wide corridors and pitch pine panelled staircases. It feels as if we have stepped back 30 years or so to the simplicity of student life. Under the 2nd floor windows, grow glorious specimen trees, perfectly positioned in the grounds when the college was built. A gentle breeze rattles the casements and distant tango music wafts from below as we unpack our dance shoes.

The itinerary of events poses a problem. It is a chocolate box of delights, but our booking demands a careful selection. We chose the rich and creamy 'Our Embrace' and 'Crowded Floor Colgadas' with Murat and Michelle, to be followed by sweet and fruity ' Making Colgadas Effortless' and 'Secrets for a Cat-like Walk' with Daniela and Luis. That is the desert sorted.

Our main course however is more challenging. The purpose of our visit is to take private instruction from Murat and Michelle. Our two private lessons are strategically placed, so that we can savour the extraordinary flavour of both, whilst avoiding indigestion overload.

Tonight we shall dance in the Friday milonga with Christian Xell and watch Daniela and Luis perform. Tomorrow will be the highlight performance of Murat and Michelle to DJ Jorg Haubner, and on Sunday the gentle wind-down with Barbra, Charlie and Anthony. Mixed between performances, we aim to dance at the tango café with Fi Gosali and her authentic vinyl recordings, take tea with Sally Townsend Blake in the charming walled gardens, and admire Hazel McNab's delicious tango clothes.

There is something special about the Irish tango community. Is it their gentleness, the subtly of their approach, the lyricism of speech or simply the warmth of their welcome? It is our fifth return, but our first Irish Masters. We already feel at home. Anthony and Eddie, event organisers, prove that they are masters of detail. As we descend for the milonga, we follow candle light into a hall of perfect sound and a dance floor smooth as silk. This romance of the Irish is not to be underestimated in the choice of international festivals. In the walled, fairy-lit gardens Anthony has placed blankets to wrap against the cooling night air. The 'edge' of tango has been softened by the security of a delightful venue and attention to our needs.

The popular highlight of the festival is the performance by Murat and Michelle. They are to dance tangos and a vals. Tangueros are invited to close a circle of life to contain a performance space. They enter from the shadows. Here, a selection of words, however chosen, cannot weave the delight of what we witness. This is another moment to be etched in the memory of dance, when space, time, personality and movement coincide to give the perfect taste of tango. They dance, and we know why we want to be a part of Argentine tango. Simple, complex, clean, sensual, artistic, connected. Feelings suffuse into our souls. Starting with the agreement of their embrace, they take us on a journey, from which there is no return.


And to Irish Masters 2014?

Anthony - "Are you coming back?"

Me - "Most definitely!"

Monday, 26 August 2013

Milonga de los Domingos

It is Sunday - close and muggy. The August bank holiday has almost come and gone in a shower of rain and an overcast sky. No balmy late summer stroll; tonight is Milonga de los Domingos at The North Terrace, Claremont Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne. Martin and June are to be our hosts, and we are told by Osher that we shall enjoy wall-to-wall 'Golden Age' tango.

The little Smart car hums tonight with expectation. We cross the eighty five year old Tyne Bridge from Gateshead, and head out to the north of Newcastle on the A167. Claremont Road comes up quickly and there on the left is The North Terrace. This being Sunday, parking is not a problem, although visitors are advised to find an on-street space shortly before the venue.

Named after the small road to which it abuts, The North Terrace is an imposing public house with an 'events room' on the first floor looking out towards Exhibition Park and Town Moor.

We enter via the patio from Claremont Road. After the strong evening sunshine, the bar is dark. Our eyes take time to adjust to the gloom, focusing on two beautiful tangueras sipping Vodka, fresh back yesterday from dancing in Buenos Aires. With sparkling water from the bar, and our dance shoe bags tapping against the stairs, we ascend to the studio. Here is the sound of Edgardo Donato; and there on the pista are two lone dancers. As ever, we are early.

Our hosts greet us with a hug. We glance around at pretty red-draped tables, each bearing a cream summer rose and chocolates. Within moments, we change into our Darcos and Comme il Fauts and the salon fills with tangueros. We notice that here, tonight, are some of the best dancers in the region.

Milonga de los Domingos is a traditional milonga, with tango music from the 1920's to early 1950's, and where dances are procured by the traditional cabeceo. Whilst the evening is warm and close, there is something cooling about this gentle milonga. The mood is unhurried. Tangueros wait, then dance. The pace of the pista is leisurely, respectful and calm. Milonguero style, with close embrace is ubiquitous.

Martin's playlist is truly a catalogue of the Golden Age of tango. But for scale of venue, we could be at Club Gricel, Buenos Aires. Most of the favourite songs, and some traditional tangos new to us, bathe the evening with a suffused glow. Our invitations to dance are with skilled tangueros, who take time and show patience. Between tandas, with a fan in one hand, the tangueras sit and chat. Following our host's example, the tangueros ensure that everyone dances.

10.30 pm arrives too soon. The last tanda of Carlos Di Sarli seeds into the cortina, and the evening is over for another week. Dancers embrace and exchange notes. This is definitely a milonga for the discerning tanguero, showing that Milonga de los Domingos can pitch the North of England against any milonga anywhere.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Manhattan, Harrogate.

It is 18 August, and by rights should still be summer. The Smart car hums along the A1 south towards junction 47. Either side, the fields have turned from green to gold, and the Sycamore trees leaves are lifting with scarlet frills. The evening is soft, and Canaro plays on the MP3.

Tonight is our chance to dance with Dickson and Rosie at their Harrogate milonga. We have been before, and that is why we return. Originally the prospect of meeting with Sarah and Lloyd was an added joy, but that was not to be tonight. Instead, we determine that we shall dance for both of them,

Satellite navigation draws us into Beech Avenue. The Manhattan Club is cast carelessly into a residential estate, surrounded by a few offices and a car park. Were you not looking for tango, you could easily miss it as another suburban accident. As we come to a stop, we know what awaits, and that is what we now can now share with you.

At first glance, the Manhattan is another northern working men’s club. The wide corridor weaves beyond the bar towards the sound of Juan D’Arienzo’s Derecho Viejo. Double doors open into a tango salon to rival those of Buenos Aires or New York. To the right, above staging, is a huge mural of the Manhattan skyline surmounted by dramatic lighting. To the left, the sound booth where Dickson mixes his magic tango playlist. Around the edges are small tables bearing candles, flowers and sweets. And in the centre, a wood blocked floor, as smooth as silk.

We are early, so the pista is ours to play with. A Rudolpho Biagi tanda impels us to dance, with the chance of rhythmic expression, later to be joined by other tangueros who decorate the floor. From there, Dickson’s eclectic playlist encompasses all of the greats of tango from 1920 to 2007.

So, what is it about Dickson and Rosie’s Sunday evening milonga that makes it special? First, is the welcome and the embrace; second is the music and the floor. But above all is the feeling that you have inadvertently stepped into another place – far from Harrogate and England – a place that is licked by the rivers Hudson and Plata – a moment sealed in time somewhere between now and the centre of the last century, where the moment is the dance.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The story of Voodoo Café

Voodoo Café Milonga Club arises from the story of Tango a Trois and Café Banlieue.

One July, three musicians met by chance in Café Banlieue. Peter Ludwig, pianist, was playing tango in the café bar, whilst celist Peter Wopke and violinist Arben Spanhiu, both professional musicians in the Bavarian State Orchestra, stood at the bar and listened with wrapped attention. What they heard, they loved. Tentatively they took out their precious violin and cello and improvised. The music they played was tango.

After that night, each week the three met at Café Banlieue to play together when the café closed to customers. Some regulars asked to stay behind, sitting in the darkened shadows to listen. One, Nellie, started to dance. Thus Tango a Trois and Café Banlieue ascended into tango folklore - and our concept of the Voodoo Café Milonga Club was born from it's memory.

At Voodoo Café we have a small floor, contained but not surrounded by tables. For us, the floor is a resource rather than a focus. We dance, and encourage those who have never before danced - to try tango. Leaders are invited to forget their feet, and to concentrate on leading their partner through a soft embrace. This is how we learn dissociation - leading by the torso, allowing our feet to follow where we have led. First 'steps' are not steps at all, but leads. New followers simply to walk with the lead and beat, advancing to the giro (a turn), and the keystone - the ocho.

Part of our concept is to introduce people to Argentine tango without having to go through the too challenging process that can come with learning it. Those with established skills tend to be insecure when trying something new. For many men, dancing can be daunting - but dancing tango is beyond belief. So our focus is on the value of the embrace and the way it works to create direction and 'feeling' in tango.

Prominent is the importance of embrace and connection. Leaders are taught to 'invite' a change of direction or pace. The style owes more to Juan Carlos Copes and his daughter Johana than to a more modern and technical style. By learning this way we develop an affinity with Argentine tango, a dance where 'attitude' and 'feeling' is more important than 'steps'.

Of course, some come not to dance, but to watch, or simply listen to tango music. Here we capture the essence of the Buenos Aires milongas which accommodate everyone of every age, interest and ability.

On Thursday night, as the softening summer night closed in around Voodoo Café windows, I looked around the room. Lights were dimmed, and small candles flickered on the tables. Tangueras draped themselves across high stools, and tangueros cabeceod across the room to secure the next tanda of dances. I had an overwhelming thought - this was the moment of which memories are made - a snapshot in time to a feeling of pleasure, friendship - and tango.

Monday, 25 March 2013

2nd Oxford International Tango Festival

Whilst heavy snow seals off Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Lancashire, Cumbria, West Yorkshire and the Pennines, we set off from Darlington for Oxford – successfully skirting the snow falls of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Our destination is Miriam y Dante’s 2nd Oxford International Tango Festival, held this year as usual at Lady Margaret Hall just off Oxford city centre.

Calling via our guest house, Sandfield we head for The Simpkins Lee Theatre where Leandro Diaz (guitarra) and Mauro Mauceri (bandoneon) - Cosae Mandinga are to open the show. In truth, Cosae Mandinga are more than a band – they are the scent of autumn Jacaranda and  ripples of spring rain drops on a San Telmo roof.

Miriam y Dante have given me a task – to introduce the performers during this evening’s show. We arrive in the nick of time, catching Dante peering out over the snow covered lawns. “You’re late”, he admonishes, and leads me to the performers’ room. Here are tango dresses, bandoneons, shoes, maté and that delicious Argentine chaos. Yanina lifts a leg in greeting, and I turn to my task of learning names and the order of performance. Tonight Miriam Orcutt and Dante Culcuy will start the show, followed by Marcelo Ramer and Selva Mastroti, and finally Neri Piliu and Yanina Quiones.

The Simkins Lee Theatre was intended for lectures, but tonight it is the dramatic setting for Oxford’s top tango show. Seating 160 guests, the raked theatre is still sufficiently intimate to provide the closest connection between audience and performers. In centre stage are two seats and one microphone – all that is needed by Cosea Mandinga. I momentarily have the other microphone before the lights dim and the performance awakes with Leandro y Mauro’s ‘Milonga triste’.

This is the real start to ‘Oxford Aires’, the new, unofficial name for the festival – we feel the pulse of the Capital Federal – and the breath of a breeze from La Boca to Palermo. The dance performances have the skill of glittering professional dancers, whilst capturing the connection of friends – ours and theirs. The mid-show performance vignette from the students of Amarita Vargas adds an Andalucian colour and change of rhythm, and then back to Argentine tango at its darkest, and most vibrant.

Clutching our copies of Polenta by Cosea Mandinga, we leave for the Deneke Hall, but 40 metres away across the square. Here DJ Punto y Branca is already in full flow, with his seamless mix of tango, milonga y vals. We dance until 1.00 am, drag ourselves to a waiting taxi and return to a soft bed.

Saturday is the real day of action for the 2nd Oxford Tango Festival, with an early morning master class led by Yanina y Neri at 10.30 am, followed by beginner tango with Miriam y Dante. This year even Miriam’s brother-in-law has been tempted to tango and starts what will almost certainly be another fascinating tango journey. Marcelo y Selva deliver an intermediate workshop before we retire again to the Deneke Hall for our ‘Just Like the Old Times’ guided practica. For those not familiar with the concept, this is one of the most energising events – tango learned on the floor of the milonga, with ideas from each of the professionals, taking dance to greater heights – but without the anxiety of formal tuition. We took from it what we could, at the level we could access, and honed our skills across the floor.

Four more classes followed for leaders, followers, intermediate and improvers.

And then the Saturday Grand Ball.
The Deneke Hall provides something special for a Grand Ball – polished parquet flooring, oak panels and grand masters looking down on the dancers. Here is DJ Punto y Branca, followed by live tango from Cosae Mandinga; there the tangueras looking stunning in tango dresses and Comme il Fauts; with black suited tangueros and fancy footwork.

But the Oxford Tango Festival Grand Ball is not just about superb tango. It is about friendship, conversation – both danced and spoken – and about fun. Tonight, with tables removed, there is no place for cliques, but an open tango salon where tangueros from across Europe meet to dance and to exchange experience. This is one of the most inclusive places to ‘feel’ Argentine tango, and is the true realisation of 'Oxford Aires'.

After midnight, the tango performances. Miriam y Dante start the night with a tango and vals – Miriam’s expressive, flawless, ethereal delicacy  - Dante’s mastery character and humour. It has to end, but we do not want it to go. Our consolation is a following performance by Marcelo y Selva. They take tango from the air, and place it on the floor in a supremely exciting and totally connected performance of tango and milonga. The contrast adds joy to both. Finally, we turn to Neri y Yanina who dance tango with an expression that is, like a high altitude Malbec, infusing. But it is their final milonga that lights the night. This was one of those rare occasions that we experience perhaps once in a lifetime - where the performance transcends anything we have encountered before, and with the lift and excitement of the audience, moves far beyond that which was rehearsed. Here is a memory in the making – to which we can look back and say... “I was there”.

After another busy day of classes and guided practica on Sunday, tangueros gradually slip away to their distant homes, in France, Italy, Spain, USA and here in the UK. For us, a journey of 230 miles back to County Durham – from fantasy to normality, but taking with us the warm glow of friendship, companionship, and some fabulous dances.

Did you miss it? Well, if you are particularly good and book early, there is always next year!