Friday, 4 November 2011

Mendoza - Argentinian Wine Country - Muy delicioso.

We only visited two places in Argentina. Buenos Aires, and Mendoza, the heart of Argentinian wine country, so it's difficult to say with any certainty whether the whole of Argentina eats quite such magical amounts of Steak, but I can say for certain that Mendoza is not the place to give a rest to your poor overworked stomach. We thought we'd be able to lay off the meat for a bit but if anything, things went from bad to worse with the introduction of a communal Barbeque at the hostel we stayed at. Now we could eat fillet steak for about £3 from the local supermarket which was a two minute walk away and if anything the wine, was somehow cheaper and more delicious than it had been in BA. We would just have to ride it out.

The main attraction in Mendoza is just outside town and consists of a boozy cycle around the vineyards on a kind of mammoth Tour de Argentina, drink-a-thon. It's really good fun. Really good fun. You arrive at the jump off point by bus, the only public bus in Mendoza with foreigners on it, and alight about an hour from town to rent the bikes. We rented from Mr Hugo, a grinning veteran who is happy to ply you with free wine before you embark on a tour of wineries that include barrels of free wine. Health and Safety lies comotose with stained red lips in the garage, along with his poorly maintained mountain bikes. 'Are there any hills?' I asked whilst trying to find a hint of resistance from the brakepads. Mr Hugo looked a little baffled, let out a hearty laugh and went to fetch me another glass of his home brewed vinegeraitte. Mr Hugo's first language is not English.

We set out and luckily there weren't too many hills or we would all, almost certainly, have received quite serious injuries and arrived at our first winery. Which unfortunately was closed for lunch. I say unfortunately as the next closest visitable manufacturing outlet specialised in Absinthe which I can assure you is up there with the worst possible things you can put into an empty stomach. It was about 70% alcohol and as sweet as concentrated Haribo extract. I'm not going to lie, it was a real struggle not to spray it all over the group of scandinavians standing in front of us, who had sensibly opted for the coffee liquor. Resisting the urge to buy a 3kg packet of fudge from the gift shop, the only edible thing on hand, which may, or may not have provided sweet relief for our now inflamed stomach linings, we pedalled frantically towards the smell of food to have our first meal of the day.

Having sworn never to touch the stuff again, the last time I swore never to touch the stuff again was after I wandered for 5 hours completely lost in Barcelona, we eventually made it to our first winery. Stomachs sated we enjoyed a number of delicious wine tastings. Nathan and Shauna who we had met along the way, declared this to be alot more satisfactory and we easily slid into that routine for the rest of the afternoon. The picture below rapidly becoming a most familiar sight as we left each vineyard.

We must have visited 7 or 8 different wineries throughout the course of the afternoon but the way we looked at it we were cancelling out the wine by cycling 2 or 3 kilometres between each one, thus rendering our drunkennes completely guilt free, despite it being no later than 4 in the afternoon. We eventually wobbled our way back to Mr Hugos at about 5pm and having covered a fair distance on the way out were in for a fair old cycle on the way back. The journe would have been a lot worse if it had been along a non descript a-road on the outskirts of coventry, luckily we were in Argentinian wine country and we had Mr Hugo's welcoming grin and violently acidic wine to look forward to, so we left the final bottle of (decent) wine behind us and pedalled slowly back along the roads that had brought us here.

Only one more thing of note really happened after that, as we were unwinding with a glass of what could only be described as 'Rancid Ribena on the nose and downright methelated on the pallate' back at Mr Hugo's place having handed back our boneshakers, we heard an almighty crash as a cart being pulled at not inconsiderable speed, detached itself from a 4x4 that had rolled past. It careered off the fence protecting us from the road and completely desimated Mr Hugo's sign outside. Had we been pushing our bikes in 15 minutes later, having no breaks would have been the least of our worries. Siezing the opportunity to pour our wine onto the ground in the commotion, we went outside and joined those aimlessly milling around and staring at the offending trailer.

A bus ride back and still not completely convinced that Gout is actually a real, painful and very contractable affliction, we decided to keep the lush's lifestyle in full swing or should I say flow, by purchasing a handsome piece of fillet and banging it on that BBQ I mentioned earlier. Along with another, completely unnecessary bottle of wine. It took a while to fire the old girl up but when she got going she blackened that steak up like a champ. Here's a photo of Nathan and I looking absolutely delighted with ourselves and our steak.

We had an excuse, of sorts, we would be moving soon, to the more barren and austere setting of Bolivia the next day.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Street Parties and Day Trips to Uruguay - Buenos Aires Pt. II

Those who know me will be aware of a familial link between myself and one of Argentina's most well known leaders Juan Peron. Personally I think 'President Peron' has a nice ring to it, but that's just me and I AM a meglomaniac so that shouldn't surprise you too much. Despite having been ousted in 1955 there remains to this day, much evidence of his political legacy, with Graffitti espousing the virtues of the 'Peronistas' and 'Peronismo' a political movement based, as I understand it, on something not much different to Fascism. I like to think of it more as a 'no nonsense' kind of viewpoint, much like a Jim Davidson stand up comedy set or a Daily Mail comments page. Luckily for Juans legacy he married the wonderful Evita unfairly portrayed by brash loudmouth and cause whore Madonna in the terrible film of the same name (this may be completely unfair as I have not, nor have any intention of ever seeing said film). Evita was declared the 'Spiritual Leader of the Nation' and after her death at the age of 33 became a saint like figure for the millions of poor Argentinians she had made it her lifes work to help. She is buried in La Recoleta Cemetry in Buenos Aires where the mausoleum remains a huge draw for Argentinians and tourists alike, who go to pay their respects to someone who had a huge impact on Argentinian history. Emma and I cycled to the cemetry on a scorching day, which in itself is an impressive sight. There are street names and the tombs, some as large as a house, are meticulously looked after by generation after generation of the families entombed there. 

We had heard reports of certain tombs containing piles of human bones which had somehow escaped the attentions of under zealous coffin makers and sat gently bleaching in the Buenos Aires sun. Macabre I know, but come on, like you wouldn't have a look.

After ticking that gruesome box off the list we eventually found our way to Evitas grave sight and after waiting patiently in a queue of whooping Americans took some respectfully sombre shots of my namesakes final resting place. Its a strange feeling to stand in front of a mausoleum with your family name on it. But stand in front of it we did. And here's the proof.

That evening, after a days cycling and mausoleum viewing we managed to convince ourselves that we'd somehow 'earned' a few beers which coincided nicely with a big street party, the reasons for which completely escaped us. There was a stage playing Argentinian folk music with impromptu traditional dancing breaking out everywhere like rhythmic epilepsy. We joined in with the dancing where there was scarves involved and also the one where there was alot of finger clicking, I have absolutely no idea of the significance of either but we had a lovely time joining in and the locals all had a lovely time openly pointing and laughing at us not having a clue what we were doing. A fair trade I think.

One of things I didn't know about Buenos Aires was its proximity to Uruguay and in particular the viability of a day trip over there. The boxes this would tick would be two fold. The first being that we would have a lovely day trip to a beautiful town in Uruguay called Colonia, the second would be that we would also be able to have an extra stamp in our passports. Yup, we are those kinds of arseholes. The ferry took in the region of about an hour and a half and we arrived at about 10am, Colonia is a really pretty wee town right on the coast so it didn't take long to box off the sights until the early afternoon. There was 4 of us, Emma and I of course, a dutch girl and an Ozzy guy. After the sightseeing our collective mindset soon turned, as one to the prospect of enjoying the early afternoon sun with a bottle of the cheap and delicious local wine. This soon turned to 2 and three and before we knew it things had deteriorated to this: 

In my defence, the wine was delicious and cheap so cheap in fact that at those prices you couldn't afford not to drink it. We made it back in one piece although not before nearly missing our return trip to Buenos Aires that evening. I also remember hazy snapshots of the Arsenal v Barcelona Champions League game that was being shown on the way back. I think Barcelona must have won.

Next stop, Mendoza, where the wine consumption really starts to spiral out of control. In a good way!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Buenos Aires - Carne, Carne, Carne!

Sometimes you arrive in a city and you just know you're going to like it. Its impossible to put your finger on why, but as the bus pulled into Buenos Aires I had that feeling. It just has a good atmosphere. European colonial architecture, a lively nightlife, an open disdain for vegetarians reflected in every menu of every one of its thousands of cafes and restaraunts. The place is a melting pot of French, Spanish, Italian and countless other influences which makes for some of the best food, wine and nightlife on the planet as well as being home to one of the most hotly contested footballing derbies, El Superclassico - you'll see what I mean if you click on that link. In short, Buenos Aires has everything you need to become one of the worlds great cities. It was one of the few places Emma and I decided we could happily live in and we spent over a week there, and that wasn't nearly long enough.

We checked into our hostel and imediately went for a walk around the historic San Telmo district, home to one of the largest antique/art/food markets in South America as well as to countless hole in the wall eateries specialising in meat in general but specifically in a simple sandwich known as a 'Chori Pan' as you can see this consisted of nothing but a bit baguette with a sausage, unceremoniously sawed in half and cooked on an open grill and then liberally covered in two different types of garlicy pesto, one red, the other green. Best served with a glass of red or cold beer dependant on ones preferance of course. All this would set you back around £1.50. These sandwiches became part of our daily routine, as you can probably tell by the photo, they weren't the most nutritionally rich, particularly when washed down with wine or beer, but my goodness they were delicious.

Staying in hostels means you meet all kinds of people, those screeching 19 year old gap year girls travelling on their parents credit cards who 'paaahty awl night, yah!' and wake up at 3 in the afternoon never seeing or experiencing anything but the hostel bar. Those irritating, constantly smiling blond guys who insist on strumming Bruno Mars' I wanna be a billionaire over and over again. Those guys with dreads who end up acquiring a street dog and living in a squat selling friendship bands. The old guys with tattoos, whose story you never quite get to the bottom of and then you got Levi. Levi was a very strange Brazilian gentleman who spoke perfect English and worked on a cruise ship. Its hard to describe exactly why he was weird, but weird he most certainly was. We first met him in the hostel bar when he approached the group we were sitting with and asked if anyone was hungry. Yes we replied, it had been 6 hours since our last Chori Pan after all. I have a friend, he continued, a friend who owns a very nice restaraunt not 10 minutes walk from this hostel.
Now, I don't think we would have gone anywhere with this very overtly strange man if it had just been Emma and I but we were sitting with an Ozzie guy called Tim and the safety in numbers he represented emboldened us and we agreed. And I'm glad we did. The restaraunt was called 'Rosalia' and it was absolutely brilliant. Probably the best all round dining experience I've ever had. We arrived at the restaraunt still a little dubious of Levi's claims. 'The owner is a very close personal friend of mine' etc. etc. but sure enough, on arrival we were whisked directly to the best table in the restaraunt, directly in front of the stage, pausing only to let Levi creepily kiss each waitress that we passed on both cheeks.

The menu was just varying sizes and cuts of steak, with varying different types of offal to start. Doesn't sound great, but even the offal was delicious. The steak was brought out by an officious waiter who unashamedly cut each of our steaks with a spoon. It was without doubt the best steak I've ever tasted and made me understand finally why each Argentinian personally ingests 100kg of red meat every year. The US is a distant second with 45kg per person. The steak was amazing, the wine was amazing and the Tango show that began halfway through the meal was incredible. 4 impossibly good looking couples suddenly emerged from behind the curtains and did some of the sexiest dancing its possible to do whilst fully clothed. At one stage I was pulled off my table and awkardly spun around for a while by a smouldering Argentinian woman until I think my awkwardness started to make her look bad and she let me sit down again. It ended up costing us about £10 per head, I'm still not sure whether this was because of Levi's bizzare influence or whether it really was that cheap, either way though, we were delighted and I maintain that this was the single best dining experience I've ever had. Cheers Levi, you odd, odd fellow! We heard unconfirmed reports a few days later, that Bono aka Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ ate at that very retaraunt the day after we did. Must have heard we were there.

We didn't get any less debauched for the rest of our time in Buenos Aires, with Steak featuring highly on most of the meals we ate for the rest of the duration of our stay. At one stage, we'd eaten a fillet steak lunch and I'd polished off a bottle of wine by half past two in the afternoon. I felt contented and ashamed at myself at the same time. I would do it all again given half a chance, so I don't know if I've learned any lessons.....

Too much happened in Buenos Aires to pack it all into one blog so going to end this one here and continue in another one. Next stop, mas de Buenos Aires.