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Pope's birthplace well worth a visit

Published 16/03/2013




With the eyes of the world on Argentina this week thanks to the papal election, Dominic Kearney found that a trip to the land of the new pontiff's birth can be four holidays in one SPENDING 13 hours on a plane is not quite my idea of hell but if the destination's right I'll happily tolerate it. And as destinations go, I'd say Pope Francis's birthplace is as good as you can get.

Yes, it takes a long time to get to Argentina, and no, it's not the cheapest journey you'll ever make. But plan a journey there right and you can get at least four holidays in one trip.

When my visit began it was summer in the southern hemisphere and with temperatures in the 80s on arrival in Buenos Aires a wet, grey, Irish winter was forgotten the moment I left the airport.

It felt an urbane city and European too. The influence of waves of immigrants from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Britain could be seen in its architecture: tall, elegant apartment buildings entered through wooden doors guarded by slender iron gates with curving art-nouveau flourishes.

There was a sense, though, of the Americas in the floral colours of the buses and the big, bold-snouted trucks making their city deliveries.

With its galleries, museums, antique shops and chic designer boutiques, Buenos Aires was an easy city to spend time in; a fascinating place too, full of juxtapositions.

There were wide avenues and narrow crossstreets. Expensive apartment blocks opened out onto broken pavements. Diners sipped coffee at pavement cafes while yards away the less fortunate rooted through bins for food or rubbish to sell on.

Walls shone with surreal street art or menaced with warnings of danger - 'Fuera los Ingleses de Malvinas' (English out of the Malvinas); 'Inflacion = Violencia'. Regenerated and derelict existed side by side.

It was there in the icons too. Evita Peron was either a saint or devil, depending who you talk to: her image smiles on the south, where the poor live, and frowns to the north, where the rich reside.

And then there was the tango - stiff and proper and stern above the waist; flashing limbs and bare flesh below. Sexual, swirling, passionate, precise.

Speaking of passion, I was in luck. There was a game on at La Bombanera, home of Boca Juniors: Argentina versus Brazil. Only a friendly, but think Cliftonville against Crusaders turned up to 11.

Boca is an area full of atmosphere and life and never more so than when there's a match on. Barbecues lined the streets, so the air was full of smoke and cooking, and anticipation. Inside the ground, vendors patrolled the stadium steps - hot dogs, ice cream, cola - while the spectators bounced and sang and jeered and shouted, and occasionally watched the football. The noise lasted the entire game, until, with the last kick, Brazil won the match on penalties. Cue instant silence.

From Buenos Aires to El Calafate, 2,000km south of the capital, close to the tip of the continent. A place with little surface charm, the town itself is not the attraction. People come here to see the glaciers, principally Perito Moreno.

Perito Moreno is an ice river 5km wide and around 180m high. It stretches back 30km.

Perhaps stupidly, I'd been expecting a monolithic structure of sheer planes and surfaces. It was certainly monolithic, but there wasn't a shred of smoothness to it. A massive icescape of ravines, towers, blades, fissures, fractures, spikes and wizards' hats, it shifts and inches remorselessly forward.

The blue-white ice was run through with lines of black ash. And there were noises too, of the water lapping against the ice, of ice rocks falling and crashing into the water and gunshot ice cracks. The water ahead of it - Lago Argentino - is full of minerals, dragged by the glacier, turning the blue-green milky and cloudy like Pernod.

From here I flew north to Mendoza, the flight following the line of the Andes, jagged and snow-splashed.

Mendoza sits hard against the Andes, at the western edge of a desert. It is a city of vineyards - not just grand farms producing thousands of bottles a year; even the airport has a vineyard.

Almost every one offers tours and tastings and it was wonderful to hear the joy and passion in the voices of the winemakers. The Malbec tasted of red fruit and vanilla and liquorice, deep, full, and rich. They tell you to tip glass to the light, so the edge of the wine catches the light and its colour softens.

Puerto Iguazu: the last stop on my trip. It is a small, unplanned, misshapen town in the subtropical rainforests of northern Argentina and overlooks the junction between the Parana and Iguazu Rivers.

To the north is Brazil; to the west, Paraguay.

To the south east, about 20km away, are the Iguazu Falls. The temperature was in the high 90s. The dense, humid air swaddled and smothered.

The Iguazu Falls can be seen from both sides of the Argentina-Brazil border. My first view - the more panoramic - was from Brazil. I headed down Route 12 and crossed the Fraternal Bridge, moving from blue and white to yellow and green, from gracias to obrigado.

It is hard to enclose the falls' impact in a sentence; they are full of force and potency. There is a series of waterfalls, rather than just one. And waterfall is too gentle and soothing a word. Cataract is better - harsh, violent, urgent.

The sky was full of birds - eagles surfing lazily on currents and swifts darting, knifing, fighting the air. And there was the sound of cicadas, a bickering parliament, making a noise like static on an old radio.

The Argentinian side gives a close-up view. A series of low walkways take you out across the vast river.

There are viewing platforms, some of which have you standing right over a precipice, so you can see the water stumble and crash. The last platform shows you the grandest of the falls, La Garganta del Diablo, the Devil's Throat. It was like nothing I have ever seen.

The water was cruel, careless, and tumultuous but gloriously beautiful too - nature vast, magnificent, and indifferent. It roared and hurtled. Spray and vapour exploded together higher than the original drop. Through the mist and down the river, further waterfalls could be discerned, just. And through the mist again flew the swifts, assured and quick.

Factfile

Dominic Kearney went on a tour organised by Trailfinders, Belfast (www.trailfinders.com;

028 9027 1888), flying from Dublin to Heathrow by Aer Lingus, followed by a direct flight to Buenos Aires with British Airways.

Best for: a wide-ranging holiday experience - vibrant cities, sports, spectacular sights.

Don't miss: the Iguazu Falls.

Need to know: check with your doctor regarding vaccinations. You'll need a Yellow Fever jab before visiting Iguazu.

Don't forget: to try the wine. The steak is fantastic too.

■ COOL SIGHT: The Perito Moreno glacier ■ DOWNTOWN: Plaza de la Republica, Buenos Aires ■ WATER WAYS: The Iguazu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil ■ SEAT OF POWER: A cast of Rodin's The Thinker outside the parliament building in Buenos Aires