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The Antique Spirit of Tango in San Telmo



What could be more perfect than walking over cobbledstoned streets in the warm sunshine, warm sweet coffee in one hand, empanada in the other and being surrounded by the sounds of a market complete with live tango music? Everything about this atmosphere is addictive - the colours, the sights and the smells. Small antique coffee cups nestle amidst coloured glass bottles, rusting old tins mix with old brass door knobs and antique jewellery hang like beaded curtains from every nook and cranny.  

This is the San Telmo market - a pure treasure trove of delightful pieces of the past and handmade artesanal products San Telmo is the oldest barrio of Buenos Aires and its cobblestoned streets are ladened with antique stores and cafes, and every corner is haunted by the soul of tango. Its buildings have the spirit of Parisian memories attached to their street fronts which forms a nice juxtaposition against the recent and vibrant graffiti that has been left by its resident artists.  This barrio oozes bohemian charm, packed full of cafes, museums, tango history and book stores, all of which have the old world charm appeal.

Held in Plaza Dorrego every weekend (with Sunday the largest day), this huge street market is guaranteed to have something for everyone and tango is at the heart of it. Laid spread out in the middle of the plaza is a portable floor which is home to several tango street performers which are there every Sunday. Tango music blares from a set of small speakers, doing its best to compete with the noisy buzz of the crowd that gathers at the edge of the floor. Exhibitions are given throughout the afternoon so you can feel free to take a break by wandering around the stalls. If you show any interest at all, chances are that you might be picked up by another tanguero in the crowd and given the chance to dance in front of everyone.

The tango is not just limited to the main plaza Hidden down calle Humberto Primo, opposite the large church, the band El Afronte gathers every Sunday afternoon to entertain the market goers with dark and dramatic interpretations of many famous tangos. Not content to electrify any part of the music, this band drags a piano out onto the street to join the cello, three violins and four bandoneons. The band plays at a local San Telmo milonga on Monday and Wednesday nights and are well worth checking out as they are fresh off the back of a tour of Europe. The players are dramatic and serious to match the melodrama that tango encompasses.

Music keeps the market breathing all the way down Defensa. There are the traditional music performers, occasional stilt walkers, buskers with guitars and accordians, colourful brazilian drummers, plus acting characters including ´Caught in the Wind´guy and the Argentine Captain Jack Sparrow. Located just near the plaza is a living memory of Carlos Gardel. Complete with a fedora, this guy stands in a doorway singing out the passionate tangos of a bygone era, attracting many a tourist for a photo with him.

Lining the streets around Plaza Dorrego are small bars and coffee houses, some of which offer their patrons small and intimate tango exhibitions as well. My favourite haunts are on the second floor of the buildings, as their balconies offer a view over the plaza and it is easy to pass an afternoon in the sun with a wine and friends, watching both the market goers and the tango dancers. The many bars and cafes usually have a front of house person on the street who is more than willing to explain any tango exhibitions and music that they offer, so do not be afraid to ask.

As late afternoon falls and the stalls begin to pack up, the drumming starts. There are several groups that occasionally join together and create an atmostphere that has almost the entire crowd dancing. It´s a great way to warm up the muscles before the milonga in Plaza Dorrego starts. Surrounded by old buildings and dancing outside in the warmth of a summer Buenos Aires night is the perfect way to end an afternoon of vibrant colours, people, music and treasure hunting.

Things to Know

San Telmo Market is held every Sunday from 10am until 5pm. The main plaza houses the antiques stores and the other stalls run all the way up Calle Defensa until Plaza de Mayo. The street is closed to traffic and the stalls are numerous. You will need at least a couple of hours to enjoy the entire market.  Note, the antique stalls usually pack up first so head to that part of the market before walking down Defensa.

San Telmo can be reached by buses (4 - 9 - 10 - 17 - 20 - 22 - 24 - 29 - 33 - 54- 64 - 74 - 82 - 86 - 93 - 111 - 130 - 143 - 152) but the easiest route is to take the Subte on Linea C and get off at the station Independencia. Walk down Independencia (against the traffic) until you hit the Defensa, easily identified by the market stalls on the corner.


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