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Gran Café Tortoni: Buenos Aires

Alfonsina Storni, Carlos Gardel and Jorge Luis Borges

“Actually, the floor is only about 100 to 110 years old,” Laura confides. Ah yes, but how many tens of thousands of people have walked how many possibly millions of kilometres on it? The proverbial well-worn path on the terrazzo tiles of the Gran Café Tortoni speaks volumes about Buenos Aires’ oldest café.

Close your eyes for a moment and think of Alfonsina Storni, Carlos Gardel and Jorge Luis Borges. They strolled down the same path you just walked. If you find it difficult to conjure up images of these people, check the two jam-packed display cases of photos and memorabilia as you come in the door. Or stroll to the back and gaze at their paper mache figures.

Going to the Gran Café Tortoni is an opportunity to imbibe history: paintings, books, photographs, furniture, cutlery. Even the staff – such as Pastor who has been working there for going on 30 years – reflect longevity. And the way to pick out their length of service is by the way they are dressed. “The older waiters wear formal dress,” Laura informs me, “but the ones who have been here for less than six years wear the black Italian-influenced collarless shirts.”

If the walls of this café – built in 1858 – could talk they would rival Scheherazade with tales of business deals, lover’s chatter, underhanded schemes, poetry readings and illicit trysts. But the secrets of the famous and infamous are safe here.

While the physical appearance of this regal establishment hasn’t changed all that much in 154 years, the cliental has. Nicolos comments that in the last ten years the customers have shifted from locals to tourists. He attributes the change to the Argentine economic crisis and the Internet. 

Particularly on the weekends, the café attracts foreigners, mostly from Brazil and the United States. If you want to mix and mingle with the porteños – which is what the people who live in the federal capital district call themselves – your best chance is to go there for lunch during the week.

Jim, a tourist from America enjoying a coffee before his afternoon flight commented, “Yes, it is touristy, but not as bad as I thought it would be.”

So even if you are only in BsAs for a short stay, a visit to this historical icon is practically compulsory. Be sure to take your camera so you can join in the flashbulb popping contest. And once you have your happy snaps, linger over a cup of coffee and let the history seep in through your pores.

Contact Details:

Avenida de Mayo 829 – Rivadavia 826

Telephone: 5411- 4342-4329


Jody Hanson

Jody Hanson is a Canadian-born freelance writer who recently moved to Phnom Penh.

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