It doesn’t happen very often in these days of conveyor belt serving multinational coffee chains that people are happy to queue in front of a cafe and wait for the best part of an hour before claiming their seat.
This however is not an uncommon sight at 825 Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires where coffee (and art and literature) lovers from all over the world want to walk in the foot steps of Albert Einstein and Frederico Garcia Lorca to enjoy the hospitality at Cafe Tortoni.
This Argentinian cultural institution is a manifestation of the close link the city has to Paris and to Mediterranian Europe. Established by a French immigrant in the middle of the 19th century, inspired by a similar cafe on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris, the establishment became fast a magnet for writers, artists and tango dancers in the Argentinian capital.
Following a entertaining chat with two British travellers in the queue who – as it turned out – lived not more than 10 miles away from my house in Surrey, I was finally guided to my table in this timeless temple of Art Noveau, of busy waiters, of continental pastries and artisan coffee.
Just a few days ago I had finished reading Paul Theroux’s “Old Patagonian Express” and the account of his time in Buenos Aires when he was enjoying the cafes and restaurants of the city with Jorge Luis Borges as his tour guide.
As Borges was apparently a very frequent visitor here – as indicated by a wax model (of not quite Madame Tussauds’ standard) in a corner of the cafe – I was wondering if they might have ended up at one of these tables as well ?…..
If so, they must have made an odd couple with the blind spiritual leader of a whole nation guiding one of the world’s most famous – yet surprisingly negative – travelwriter through the best restaurants in town while jousting constantly with their extensive knowledge of but differing opinions on central figures of world literature.
While the main hall of Cafe Tortoni was exclusively frequented by foreign tourists (like myself….), the side rooms and the basement continue to be the setting for readings, intellectual gatherings and both jazz and tango events.
No such things today though, so that I am left just with my imaginations while enjoying the grande surroundings, one of my final coffees in Argentina and a somewhat average Tiramisu which I recall to be much better on the other side of the big pond…..