I’m used to the 6.30am starts at my favourite local trash ‘n’ treasure haunts at home. Even in Europe, I know they start early. So the advertised 10am commencement of the weekly Feria de San Telmo in Buenos Aires doesn’t ring true to me. Surely all the best things for sale will be snapped up by then. But 10am is what all the guides say.
I decide to split the difference, catching the train from my accommodation in Palermo Hollywood around 8am to get into San Telmo, the Argentinian capital’s oldest barrio, no later than half past.
But on the train this Sunday morning, it’s just me and a couple of sleepy night clubbers making their way home. And when I get to San Telmo, shutters are almost uniformly closed on the lovely old buildings that line the cobbled streets. All is quiet.
This is a city that likes to stay up late. So it should have been no surprise that its famous Sunday market really means it when it says it doesn’t open till 10am. It’s probably so the nearby residents can sleep in.
Fortunately, San Telmo’s ornate 1863 Bar el Federal begins service at eight. So I ensconce at a window seat with a coffee and pastry and watch the neighbourhood wake up. Then I take some time exploring the nearby covered market, the 1897-built Mercado de San Telmo, which is largely a foodie affair, but has booths of collectables such as antique dolls, secondhand records, vintage jewellery and clothing.
I amble into Plaza Dorrego, the centre of the Feria de San Telmo around 9.45am, before the crowds (and before many of the vendors have properly set up.)
The first thing I see, I fall in love with. It’s a giant, sparkling crystal table centrepiece, an expansive, finely-cut bowl on an ornately-carved crystal stand. With much hand gesturing and faltering language skills, I establish it costs $ARS12,000, which is around $A600. And yes, he can ship. I’ve never seen anything like it; probably never will again.
Sense prevails. Shipping antique crystal from Argentina to Australia? Good luck with that. But it’s hard to keep up the sensible. The San Telmo Fair spiderwebs out from here for blocks and blocks and the further away from Plaza Dorrego you get, the less the quality and authenticity is. But here, in the square and adjacent to it, is where the market started with only 30 stalls in 1970 and today it is where the real, licensed antique dealers are. Their wares are dizzying for a bowerbird such as me.
There is stall upon stall laden with the bright and shiny: used copper kitchenware, vintage buttons, military regalia, toys, magazines, books, posters, records, ancient telephones, lamps, pieces of lace, exquisite art, tortoiseshell spectacle frames, fans, beaded bags, fragile antique clothing, memorabilia from the Peron era, and all manner of ornaments that show the South American, Spanish and Italian influences of modern Buenos Aires.
I can’t take it all, so settle on a remarkable set of turn-of-the-century mother-of-pearl rosary beads with unusual art nouveau styling to the crucifix.
Down Calle Defensa, I find young local artisans and buy some gifts of leatherwork and silverware. Some stores stay open for the passing trade and wandering in and out, I find a place specialising in fine traditional weavings, including gaucho ponchos and down the road, fantastic suede bags in every colour of the rainbow.
Wandering back towards Plaza de Mayo, things get cheap and cheerful. Tango dancers and other buskers find space to ply their trade.
Stallholders sell souvenirs of the cliched ilk that are probably made in China, slogan T-shirts, gaucho water bottles, cattle figurines, puppets and trinkets. But it’s all about atmosphere and fun, stopping in a cafe for a break, or lunch in a parilla, or, as I do, hanging out a while in a yard behind a restaurant where there’s a great band playing, beer, barbecue and a dancing, clapping crowd.
Balancing a drink in one hand and a paper plate of delicious meats on my knee, I summise: the way to having a fantastic San Telmo Sunday is to submit to the rhythm and flow of this remarkable weekly event, to keep firm hold of your personal belongings in the crowds, to resist the ridiculous purchases – and to remember, that when they say it opens at 10am, they mean it.
Air New Zealand flies to Buenos Aires from Australia with one stop in Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au
Feria de San Telmo, or the San Telmo Fair, is on every Sunday. Religious and other holidays will see a scaled-down event.
You can walk in from Plaza de Mayo, the main city square, or take the subway. Take Subte (subway) line C and alight at Avenida San Juan. You’ll still have a bit of a walk to Plaza Dorrego.
Julietta Jameson travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.