LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 55
Page. 100 - 107
By: Soledad Gil
For more than a year an oven-bird has nested on the shoulder of the statue of San Martín. They have dismantled the nest three times out of respect for the national hero - but the bird always returns and builds his home in the same place again. People eventually became fond of the bird and it's nest is now as much a part of the Plaza Independencia as the Cathedral and the municipal building. Or the National Bank, of admirable Italian inspiration, the house of Vicente Casco - the first two floors with corner doors and in which many scenes from Camilla were filmed, and the pelota court, where the Basque immigrants used to meet back in 1925. In 1779, Captain Pedro Nicolás Escribano of Blandengues founded the fort of San Juan Bautista de Chascomús on the site where the municipal palace now stands, as did the original, dating from 1856, which it replaced.
It is better known as the "Cabildo" because of its arched gallery. The old fort was a landmark in the advance of the white man over the Indian. A struggle that today could inspire some suspicion, in the light of the resulting total extermination of the Indian, but at the time was less apparent to those who took part. Chascomús conserves signs of its troubled past. The barred windows that left no chance of forced entry, the houses with removable steps to enable the second floor to be out of reach and the secret passages in which the people hid to escape the savages. Here at the end of the 19th century, and only 125kms from Buenos Aires, panic spread in the face of sudden Indian attacks. It was their land ...today they have left only native words. In the case of Chascomús the original Mapuche word appears to be formed of Chadi, which means salt and Co for water. The problem is the last syllable mus, a real mystery associated with the "rumen" voice meaning "much". When added to the rest it gives "much salt water", something which abounds in the area. The Chascomús Lake is effectively one of the links that unite the Vitel, Adela, Chis Chis, del Burro, La Tablilla and Las Barrancas lakes, all stitched together by the Salado River.
To talk of lakes here is to think of the pejerrey (a type of freshwater mackerel). A noble fish, long and slim and not in the least oily, with a silvery stripe on each side from the brachial fin to the tail. A species that does not warrant the fate forced on it by those who catch it without respecting the spawning season or its size. This began to affect the pejerrey population. Luckily, last season was promising: lovers of this sport caught an average of 20 to 25 fish per day. Not bad for a lake that is so ill-treated. So far this year it hasn't appeared, whilst in the nearby lakes of Vitel and El Burro they started to appear in good quantity towards the end of the summer. One has to be patient, and wait until the icy cold of June freezes the fields and then, well wrapped up, one can venture out before dawn on the calm water of the great lake in pursuit of the silver fish.
More than Pejerrey and Croissants
Avoid the more popular places if you can. Not that they are in any way bad. A campsite is a campsite, the croissants from Atalaya are croissants, but time has passed - even in Chascomús, and there are new and interesting options now. Among the classic attractions are the pink sunsets that extinguish into blues and violets over the lake. The best ending to a different kind of weekend where it is essential to breathe in the history of the place without forsaking the lake and countryside in this strategic location, at the end of the motorway. The renovated Route 2 has had its effects on the calm Chascomús. Distances have been shortened and people have noticed how close it is - for living. The golf country club is now full of newly built houses, spreading the fear that Chascomús will lose its tranquility. Cabins, apartments and some restaurants are signs of this activity. On the lake, De la Guarda surprises with its modernity. It is the fashionable restaurant and is full on Saturday nights. The menu is a synthesis of the famous "pejerrey a la romana", very fresh and well-cooked, and oriental cuisine like chop suey and chow mein. The atmosphere is pleasant and instead of a blaring TV there are poufs and sofas of impeccable white linen where local families gather for a drink. But, apart from this the town remains very much the same. La Capilla de los Negros, a modest building dating from 1862 that served as a hospital during the times of the smallpox, yellow fever and cholera epidemics. It is open only when Antonio Luis, a descendent of those mulattos for whom the chapel was built, is at home and closed when he has to go out on an errand.
The town's other landmark is the Museo Pampeano, the unexpected jewel of the Los Libres del Sur Park. The building is a replica of the Casa de Postas "Mensajerías Argentinas" of San Isidro and was founded in 1939 to celebrate the centenary of the Battle of Chascomús, in which the rebellious landowners lost to Rosas on the banks of the lake. It has been endowed with the powerful character of the Pampas, and is dedicated to the gaucho and his customs. Its rooms provide a record of the history of the region from prehistoric times - including a gliptodont, through primitive man, the aborigines, the culture of the forts, the federal stage, right up to the traditional Chascomús society, marked by the presence of Basque, French and English immigrants.
The silverware, bolas, spurs, knives, saddles and gaucho regalia merit special mention, as do the bright red insignia and portraits of the Libres del Sur and their working drawings.
To the Shelter of an Estancia
To ensure that the healing effects of the weekend are complete, a stay at an estancia is the best option. This restful life-style, the regime of the siesta and full board goes marvellously well with the Pampa countryside. The most one can manage is a brief contemplation of the rural lifestyle, the harvest, the nandus and the vizcachas that run across the road.
Lcr Josefina is some 30km off Route 2, on Route 20 towards Magdalena. The first sight the newcomer has is of the immense overhanging veranda at the end of a road lined with eucalyptus trees. It would be only a small exaggeration to describe La Josefina as a gallery with an estancia. The owner, Angela Behrendt is fascinated by the personality María Jáuregui de Pradere, from whom the Behrendts bought the farm in 1943. Angela, and all those who enjoy the pleasure of eating in the 20m by 10m gallery, would love to know what kind of person could order a construction of these dimensions in 1910. It is enough to go to the modest country store at Vergara, only 10km away - to compare, imagine and conclude that LaJosefina is the work of an extraordinary woman.
The red roofed house is immaculate and was built to replace the one that is hidden behind, which was built in the middle of the 19th century. These two houses, together with the converted granaries, the vegetable garden and the drying house that has been converted into a mini-museum, form the heart of this 2,500-hectare estancia. Since 1995 the land has been certified as organic, a success of which Angela is very proud. As proud as she is of her new role as a documentary film and local music producer, a new and unknown field for her, for which she is full of enthusiasm.
Close by is La Fé, the house of Marcela Tuccio, an enterprising woman from Buenos Aires who exchanged the urban smog of an apartment in Barrio Norte for 200 hectares of the vast pampa. She cleared the overgrown area next to the house and organised everything to be able to welcome country lovers - with a nearby river, quite dry at this time of year, but normally the source of pleasant afternoons fishing and swimming.
On the other side of the town, on the same road, La Horqueta is enigmatic, half-hidden in an abundantly forested park of oaks, willows and linden trees. The main house, which dates from 1928, has four bedrooms and there are another five rooms in the well-renovated "quincho", where breakfast is served. In addition to the barbecues, the swimming pool and walks in the country there are water-sport activities available on Lake Vitel, only 100m from the main house. La Mamaia began receiving guests five years ago, when the architect, Maurette, revived the house of Mercedes Campomar like a phoenix from the flames. Thus, the chicken-houses became a study and saddle room, the four bedrooms were all given a comfortable size, the lounge was arranged around the fireplace with big windows looking out to the gardens ...and the house was ready to open its doors to anyone who wanted to experience a 1000-hectare working farm, go pony-trekking or share Mercedes' daughter's passion for Arab horses. The magnificent swimming-pool, set beside the wire fence with cows in the background, the children's play area, the ping pong table and the large park with high trees and well cared for flower beds is ideal for families and offers a delightful place to rest.
The option of visiting Ranchos, with the unequaled skills of Gómez, the local artisan, to the west; and the historical - even more historical than Chascomús - city of Magdalena, complete the journey for those who enjoy the flat Pampa landscape, just taking it easy or dreaming of the past, the Indians, the times when history was made on those lands, when the towns were forts and the vast stretches of land beyond, a threat.