Azul – Located nearly dead center of the province of Buenos Aires is this small city founded in 1832 by Colonel Pedro Burgos under the name Fuerte San Serapio Mártir del Arroyo Azul. Initially, its population increased slowly – ten years later it had 1,600 inhabitants, another twelve and it had over 6,000, and by the end of the 19th century, 23,000. Today, it is home to, at least according to my local friends there, 102,000 people. It’s a charming, quiet town, that reminded me in strange ways of the city that I grew up in, Ann Arbor. Not really in any direct physical sense that I could put my finger on – the university is small rather than dominating local life, the architecture is completely different. It was more of a general feel – Azul is a place where the kids are out riding their bikes on the streets, playing on the sidewalks, in the streets, in the parks, people leave their doors unlocked, and neighbors drop by unplanned to say hello. There was also a noticeable increase in, well, size. Where porteños go out of their way, sometimes too far, to maintain a svelte physique, it was like going out to the midwest U.S. – girth increased rapidly as we headed that way – which was later more surprising, because portions in local restaurants aren’t “super-sized” like the midwest U.S. – in fact “normal” portions seem to be far smaller than those found in restaurants in the Capital.
The friend who was supposed to meet us at the station didn’t show, and he hadn’t given us the name or location of the hotel he recommended. I’d asked local friends here about it, and one had responded back that at one time THE hotel to stay at was Gran Hotel Azul. Since it turned out to be located right on the center square, Plaza Gral. San Martin, and though pricier than the one our friend had promised us, wasn’t expensive (95 pesos for two of us for the night), we decided to check in there. It is indeed a hotel that has seen some past glory days, obvious just from looking around, and while not still living in its heyday, is still a clean, well-kept hotel, with pleasant staff and decent sized rooms. Also, being right on the town square, meant immediate gratification in the form of seeing three of the city’s “attractions” – the cathedral, the municipal hall (where a large tae kwon do demonstration was in progress), and the Teatro Espa˜ol. Azul was, at one time, apparently populated by a large number of French aristocrat expats, and cultural events are a big part of the local scene.
Why had we come six hours out to Azul (Henry mistakenly booked the “local” bus service on the way out, though, the direct bus still takes over four hours to go the mere 300 kilometers, which I can’t quite figure out, since virtually the entire route is via autopista or highway, however, saving the two hours is worth paying 33 pesos versus 30 pesos, trust me)? It did make for an interesting ride though on the way out, as we stopped in at more than a dozen small towns along the way – my favorite being when we entered Cañuelas, greeted by a large sign proclaiming it the Land of Opportunities, followed a hundred feet later by a sign directing us to the Feelings Hotel (hourly) – so we know what sort of Opportunities are available. But, back to our reason for travel, not that we really needed one other than getting away for the weekend. A friend’s birthday celebration on Saturday evening – what turned out to be a relatively quiet affair – a couple of dozen folk sitting around, drinking beer or juice, eating hors d’oeuvres, and chatting. And, of course, the ubiquitous drag show – this one either funnier than the past three I’ve endured at other parties, or maybe I’m just getting used to them, or maybe I’m understanding enough more Spanish that the parts outside of the musical numbers now make sense to me. The party didn’t begin until midnight (though we dropped by briefly around 9 to check things out and say hello), so we had plenty of time to explore, plus the entire next day on Sunday (we only stayed at the party until 3, so we were up and about around 10 in the morning).
And, indeed, Sunday we spent out with a trio of friends – first wandering and seeing the architecture, which is fascinating in Azul. This building, by the way, an old mansion that was also the first building in Azul to get electricity – and not all that far back in time apparently. Most of the day we spent wandering Azul’s gorgeous municipal park, where the leaves are turning colors, the creeks are meandering, the playgrounds are active, fathers are teaching their teens how to drive in the parking lots, and in the end, finishing off the afternoon with a picnic of meats and cheese bought at a local carniceria just before he closed for siesta. Azul is a place where siesta is taken seriously, and at 2:00, seven days a week, virtually everything in town closes up. Everything. And they don’t reopen until around 5:00.