The Pope’s Buenos Aires
People worship in Buenos Aires’ Catedral Metropolitana the day after Pope Francis was elected at the conclave on 14 March 2013. (Mario Tama/Getty)
A few short weeks ago, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was riding the subway to work like any other Porteño. But on Wednesday 13 March, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis I, the first Jesuit pontiff and the first pope from Latin America – and the world suddenly became transfixed with 76-year-old cardinal’s career.
Though he’s now taken up residence in Vatican City, there’s no clearer window into Bergoglio’s cultural background and down-to-earth lifestyle than a stroll through Buenos Aires to the places where the Argentine priest worked, slept, chopped vegetables, read Borges and enjoyed the occasional fútbol match.
The former archbishop presided over Mass at the city’s 19th-century Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana on the famous Plaza de Mayo, a church perhaps best known for housing the mausoleum of General San Martín, the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spain. When Bergoglio was pronounced the new pope on Wednesday, a celebratory Mass was held and the plaza was flooded with revellers and critics, international media and vendors of Argentine flags and choripan (sausage sandwiches).
Bergoglio was born on 17 December 1936 in the middle-class Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Flores, known for its Italianate architecture and a famous tango song entitled San José de Flores. He was the child of immigrants from Italy: Mario, a former railroad worker, and Regina, a homemaker. As you walk the streets of his former neighbourhood, it’s interesting to note that the area was not originally considered part of the city of Buenos Aires: it was a leafy suburb where many of the city’s most illustrious citizens, including controversial 19th-century governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, had their country homes. Many of these weekend getaways still exist, contributing to the barrio’s unique architectural landscape.
Before he became a priest, the young Bergoglio had a girlfriend – and, according to the profile by Argentine journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin in their 2010 book The Jesuit – he liked to dance tango. Try your own hand at the dance form in some of Buenos Aires’ old-fashioned milongas (tango halls), such as Flores’ Salón El Pial.
Bergoglio lived alone in a simple apartment on the second floor of the Curia building, adjacent to the Catedral Metropolitana in the downtown neighbourhood of San Nicolás. According to Bon Appetit magazine and Argentine newspaper La Nacion, he prepared his own meals – primarily fruit, salad, chicken and the occasional glass of wine. He also reportedly enjoyed listening to opera and reading novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges. Today, visitors to this part of town are charmed by the neighbourhood’s Parisian-style architecture and bares notables (notable bars and cafes), including the famous Café Tortoni, Buenos Aires’ oldest café, founded by French immigrants in 1858.
Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA)
When AMIA, a Jewish community centre in the Balvanera neighbourhood, suffered a brutal terrorist bombing in July 1994 – one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in Latin American history – Bergoglio was quick to respond, earning praise for his leadership from the community’s religious leaders. Today, the neighbourhood is a magnet for seamstresses who scour the barrio’s fabric shops for materials, and foodies seeking Jewish cuisine in the neighbourhood’s ethnic restaurants, such as traditional Kosher eatery Sucath David, locally famous for brisket and melt-in-your-mouth pastrami.
Centro Cultural Recoleta
The archbishop made art world headlines in 2004 when he demanded the closure of an exhibition installed at Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR) a well-known cultural centre in the upscale Recoleta neighbourhood. The works, by the famous Argentine plastic artist León Ferrari, depicted Christ and the Virgin Mary in a blender, a toaster and a frying pan. Today, visitors to the CCR should look for excellent rotating (and free) exhibits by Latin American artists, plus film festivals, photography workshops and contemporary tango-acrobat performances on the terrace.
Subte (Subway) Línea D
Last week, Buenos Aires’ subway was in the local news for a significant ticket price hike. This week, the same subway has made international news – because the humble Archbishop always insisted on riding only on Subte (mostly the D line) and colectivo (city bus), rather than having a driver or taking a taxi.
Like many Argentines before him, Bergoglio is passionate about fútbol. The pope is a fan of the San Lorenzo team, based in the central Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Almagro – in 2008 he offered to conduct a special Mass for the team’s 100-year anniversary and claims he never misses a match. For tickets and information, log onto the San Lorenzo website or contact Tangol, a Buenos Aires travel agency specialising in fútbol excursions.
Buenos Aires with Lonely Planet
Photos & videos