LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 57
Page. 52 - 61
By: Rossana Acquasanta
MAR DEL PLATA IN WINTER
Far from being the fruit of a successful summer season, Mar del Plata began 143 years ago when, long before it was a holiday resort and meeting place for the wealthy at the end of the 19th century, it was a hide salting centre and was the port on the Laguna de los Padres. Spread over 6,000 hectares, it was founded on 10 February 1874 by Patricio Peralta Ramos after buying the salt-house and land there.
Much later Pedro Luro came on the scene. Chroniclers of the times described him as a successful Basque who quickly bought many local properties. In his hands, progress was fast, inevitable and welcome. By 1880 several people from Buenos Aires had Mar del Plata in their sights. The more enthusiastic had to travel 150kms by carriage from Maipú, where the railway ended. It was then that the provincial Governor, Dardo Rocha, promised to extend the line and, in Easter Week of 1887 the Vice President, Carlos Pellegrini, together with José Luro -son of Pedro -and Paul Groussac, a well known intellectual from Buenos Aires, arrived by train. In January 1888 José Luro opened the 67 room Bristol Hotel. The hotel was built over three city blocks interconnected by tunnels, some of which remain to this day.
Nights at the Bristol gave birth to many a story as well as its famous carnivals- Mar del Plata grew in splendid style over the very end of the Tandil hills, those that dip gently and dangerously under sea spray at Cabo Corrientes and Punta Mogotes. In the Atlantic coastal enclave, 404kms from Buenos Aires, a home-grown version of Biarritz was created.
A small but beautiful handful of mansions and palaces remain from that golden age. As does the old lighthouse, the Pueyrredon Tower, built by Ernesto Tornquist previously called the Belvedere and now known as the Torreón del Monje (The Monk's Tower). This landmark, the casino and the Bristol Hotel (now closed down), overlooking the beach that bears its name, all carry the essence of Mar del Plata. The real Porteños truly love it. They can walk freely on the beach and the pedestrian precincts just to feel a part of the community of just over 500,000 residents. They know Juan B Justo Street (The Road of the Pullovers) like the back of their hand. They know that the locals prefer Güemes Avenue, with its water fountain in the Plaza de Agua and its nice shops, and will not miss a walk on the more popular San Martín, or stopping for a coffee at any of the Havanna shops or the sea front Boston coffee shop.
The cold suits Mar del Plata, it reveals all the distinction of its famous houses. There are Italianate ones like the imposing Villa Normandy (1918), today the Italian Consulate. This mansion overlooks the corner across from the new Museo del Mar and, only 100 metres away, is another historic mansion - that of the Ortiz Basualdo family, now the Museo Municipal de Arte Juan Carlos Castagnino (1909). Its original French style recalls the aesthetics of the castles on the Loire. The ground and second floors are given over to the Museum while, cm the first floor, there is an exhibition of period furniture, a blend of late art nouveau/art deco and Louis XVI. They are all outstanding pieces, designed and made by the talented Belgian Gustav Serrurier-Bovy. Through one of the windows, and only a few steps, away one can see the Blaquier residence.
Pablo Sisterna is the young heir of the Havanna empire who sold his shares to be able to carry out the family mandate: to continue the shell collection begun by his late father Benjamín, a noble destiny indeed. The idea of a museum of the sea (Museo del Mar) began to form in his mind and is now a four storey building of aquariums with many local fish specimens and displays of 30,000 other specimens from all over the world. There is also a coffee shop and souvenir boutique.
One has to go to the forested and tranquil neighbourhood of Divino Rostro to see for oneself that all three mansions there, Villa Victoria, Villa Silvina and Villa Mitre are very close to one another. The latter is now the Museum Roberto T Barili, and Villa Victoria was brought in 1912 by the author's father Manuel Ocampo. Victoria Ocampo later donated the house to UNESCO, and today the house is not only an art gallery, but also a prestigious forum for artistic and educational activity in the city.
The first religious space in Mar del Plata was Santa Cecilia Chapel, founded by Peralta Ramos in tribute to his wife and inaugurated in 1873. The city streets were built around it. The Stella Maris church was inaugurated in 1910 and was the first temple in Argentina to worship the Mother of Christ, the patron of the Navy. The style of the church is neo-gothic, as is the Catedral de los Santos Pedro y Cecilia on San Martín Square with its French stained glass windows and a central Baccarat crystal chandelier that once hung in the Bristol Hotel. Inspired by the art nouveau of the Viennese secession, and declared an Historical National Monument in 1985, the Oratorio Unzué (1912) is an amazing marble and gold construction. Ten o'clock mass on Sundays and weddings, which are celebrated with the doors open to the Atlantic, are sacred rites in this oratory. It forms part of the almost abandoned Institute Saturnino E Unzué. In the grand gardens, beyond a short but old avenue of plane trees, there is a marble statue of San Francisco.
An unusual museum to visit, is Vilas'. Yes, the tennis player Guillermo Vilas, prodigal son of Mar del Plata, as were Piazzola, the musician and Castagnino, the artist. The museum is located in part of what used to be the Unzué residence on the corner of Bolívar and Boulevard Marítimo. The house is so big and has so many nooks and crannies, that it has even been used to take people on spooky tours. Dreadful! But for the past three years it has been the headquarters of Vilas' iconography combined with restaurant and coffee shop, large hall and reception, a brightly polished Harley Davidson at the back, a pizza patio, his convertible cars and four magnificent suites where anyone can stay. There is a discotheque in the basement with lots of original crystal chandeliers, a pool table with golden lion heads on the corners and legs, incredible mirrors ...Wow!
If you are able to visit all the museums, churches and houses, and still have time to kill, we recommend you visit the Los Troncos neighbourhood to see the stone houses with their tiled rooftops, the archetypal Mar del Plata architecture. You could also stroll through the Paseo Marítimo, to watch from a distance (the smell will keep you away) the sea lions on the southern jetty.
If you have children with you, the Punta Mogotes lighthouse is an accessible target. The surrounding park offers additional entertainment, although we must warn you, the "bailanta" music played at full volume is unbearable. Chief Petty Officer Jobel Elbio Palacios is in charge of supervising the lighthouse, an expert after 30 years of service in the Navy, and ensures that the lighthouse continues to illuminate the route for mariners. It was built in France by the same company that built the Eiffel Tower: Barbier Bernard Turene. The parts arrived by boat assembly began in 1890 and the metal watchtower was inaugurated on 5 August 1891. By the lighthouse, the Mar del Plata Aquarium is a mandatory stop, with or without children. This well organised complex is a long and sinuous tour along the coast, linking outdoor and indoor enclosures inhabited by different water fauna species, and also offers food stalls and souvenir shops. The Oceanarium, with Argentine marine specimens is entertaining as well as educational. The dolphins and belugas are always extraordinary to watch.
More outings for the family: visit the mini zoo at the entrance of the Sierra de los Padres neighbourhood. Or the three natural reserves; the nearby Reserva Natural del Puerto, between the YPF and Gas del Estado tanks, the Reserva Forestal Sur, and the Reserva Integral in the Laguna de los Padres. In this location, where the first Jesuit settlement took place 300 years ago, one can visit the José Hernández Museum, once the author's house during his adolescence.
There is also the La Piedra educational farm (Granja Educativa) near the stone quarries, where children can see where farm animals are bred, how cheese is made and what an organic vegetable farm is all about, as well as other aspects of rural life.
If the weather allows, you could spend a day at the La Trinidad Estancia, belonging to the delightful Inés McGuire de Bengolea. The main activities here are agriculture and polo, and she has been taking in guests over the weekend with a fixed price country menu for the past six years. Close by is Camet, a small town which has had a train station since 1886, and is where the first train to Mar del Plata arrived. The locomotive is still there. Castagnino had his studio nearby and many locals have his paintings hanging on their walls.
Opposite the monumental Sheraton Hotel is the Mar del Plata Golf Club, "the cathedral of golf', also known as the Playa Grande old course. Its narrow and sloping fairways, the abundant rough, and the strong and ever-changing winds make the 18 holes of the 100 year old links course a great challenge for golfers. Golf fans are encouraged to stay in the ultra comfortable hotel overlooking the greens and the sea. All they have to do is cross the road and they're there, and will be granted preferential rates if they are staying at the Sheraton.
The city has its own special rhythm, it is alive during the winter season, even during the afternoon social gatherings at La Cuadrada, an old residence turned into a tea house, which has been a venue for non-conformist meetings for many years. As is Antares, a micro-brewery in town, where they serve their own beer in the noisy and euphoric atmosphere, while the evening settles in outside along with the biting cold. It is because of all this that I love Mar del Plata.