The railway, a British legacy in Argentina

On my recent trip to England I realised that some areas or buildings reminded me of my own country, Argentina. Even my Argentinean friends, who were on holiday in London, too, made similar remarks.

One of the aspects that caught my attention was the architecture of railway stations. Waterloo Station put me in mind of Retiro, one of the three railway termini of Buenos Aires and our local station, Haslemere, looked eerily similar to my home town’s station. I knew that the British had built and operated most railway lines between the 1850s and the 1940s, as this is the kind of thing we learn in history class at school but seeing the similarities really brought it home to me.

I decided to look into the British legacy in Argentina for a new series. The history of the railway is the first installment.

Haedo Station (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Haslemere Station (Surrey, England)

The economic growth of Argentina in the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with the laying of the railway lines. Many modern towns and cities began as small settlements around train stations, like my own hometown of Ramos Mejia.

A family photo of Ramos Mejia station in the 1950s

Britain had always been interested in Spanish America in general and Argentina in particular and signed various treaties in the 1850s, which laid the groundwork for massive investment in transport, communications and navigation.

The Western Rail Company was formed in 1855 with mainly local capitals in order to build the first railway line. This line ran from Parque Station (where the Colón Opera House stands today) to Flores, eight miles to the west. This line was officially opened in August 1857 and was subsequently extended. (And it happens to be the line that I took everyday to work.)

Several smaller rail companies (and lines) were created after the Western Rail, like the Northern Railway of Buenos Aires, the Buenos Aires and Ensenada Railway, the East Argentine Railway or the Buenos Aires to Campana Line. These companies were eventually absorbed by bigger British-owned outfits like the Central Argentine Railway Ltd. and the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Co. Ltd. The latter quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

In 1948, President Perón decided to nationalise the seven railway companies operating in Argentina at the time. This was considered a turning point because it was thought to bring about economic independence. All it did was deepen the economic crises from the 1950s onwards by contributing heavily towards the national budget deficits and deteriorate the quality of the rail service and the rolling stock in a downward spiral.

Interesting facts

  • The first engine to pull a train in the country was La Porteña, which is now on display at the Enrique Udaondo Museum of Luján (Buenos Aires). La Porteña was originally built in Leeds to use in the Crimea War. After the war, the engines and carriages were put up for sale around the world and that’s how it ended up in South America.
  • John Allan, the first engine driver of La Porteña, had the sad duty of driving the train that transported the victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1870-1871 to the cemetery on the western outskirts.
  • The rail companies imported absolutely everything from Britain, from railway terminals to signal boxes. The modern-day La Plata Central Station was originally built for India but news of disturbances and economic problems on the Indian Subcontinent caused the station to be re-routed to Argentina.

IMG_7228
La Porteña

Sources

Extracts for The Forgotten Colony by Alexander Graham-Yooll, 1981

Wikipedia (various articles)

Photos: my own. See more on Flickr

What to see on a day trip to Chichester

I left the train station and followed a few people who looked like they were going to the town centre. I had no choice because I didn’t have a map or guide. Then I followed the signs to the Tourist Information Centre, a shop on South Street. I bought a guide in the form of a leaflet called “A walk-around guide to Chichester: where to go, what to see – with map,” which set me back 75 p. Also, some postcards to send home (yes, good old-fashioned postcards sent via snail mail!.)

ChichesterI went straight to the Cathedral. I took Cannon Lane, which leads to the Cloisters via St. Richard’s Walk. There was a modern sculpture exhibition on the green but unfortunately, I had to take shelter from the rain, so I saw a few works of art. Not my cup of tea but kudos to the Cathedral people for staging it. The Cloisters are not directly connected to the cathedral itself -at least not for the public- so I had to walk around the gardens in the rain. What would England be without rain, I wonder?

Upon entering the Cathedral, a volunteer gave me a map with all the most interesting things to see. It’s worth mentioning that there is no entry charge and they rely on visitors’ donations. This Norman Cathedral was consecrated in 1184, its spire was added in 1330 and re-built in 1865 (spanking new!). Some tiles on the ceiling still have traces of colour, it must have been astonishingly beautiful in its time. My two favourite things were the Marc Chagall window, based on Psalm 150 and unveiled in 1978, and the Arundel Tomb.

What I find moving in this tomb is that the couple are holding hands, which to me speaks of eternal love. It inspired a poem by Philip Larkin.

After having lunch at the Cloisters Cafe, I went to explore the town. I walked past the Market Cross on the intersection of the four main streets laid down by the Romans (Chichester is essentially a Georgian town with a medieval layout surrounded by Roman walls.) The Market Cross was built in 1501 for those who couldn’t afford a market stall.

I peered inside the Saxon church of St. Olaves, built around 1050 and which now houses a Christian bookshop. The shop assistant said she saw me take a photo of the place from the street and wasn’t surprised to see me come in. Am I that predictable? I also wanted to see the remains of the Roman walls built 1700 years ago. So much history in one place.

At Priory Park there was a group of staunch bowlers wearing white raincoats and bowling away as if the weather was of no consequence.

The city of Chichester was founded as a military base by the Romans in what is now West Sussex and is located 54 miles (87 km) northeast of London. It is easily accessible by rail and bus.

Luján, between faith and history

The view of the basilica, with its looming spires, never fails to impress. It’s Luján, Argentina’s epicentre of Catholic faith, where miracles are prayed for and where thousands go on pilgrimage every year hoping that Our Lady of Luján will hear their pleas.

View of the basilica and colonial arcades

This time round we skipped the basilica and headed to the History Museum (Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo). It consists of a series of historical buildings such as the old Town Hall (Cabildo) and prison, chapel, and so on and it covers an area of three and a half city blocks.

The Cabildo and the Viceroy’s house date back to the late 18th century. I was excited that we have such old buildings (I know it sounds lame but ours is a relatively new country!). These buildings are a fine example of the Spanish colonial architectural style. I adored the courtyards with their water wells capped with elaborate wrought iron railings.

Each room is devoted to a theme, like the British Invasions of 1806/07 (and the creole victory over the invaders), the Wars of Independence from Spain, the Civil War or the Confederation Era. On display are personal belongings of our Independence heroes. That was very interesting.

Spanish Colonial architecture

It was a glorious but cold day so we decided to shorten our visit since one needs to walk between buildings and the staircases are on the outside of the buildings. We hurried to the Transport Museum, where we saw really cool things like a Popemobile (I remember seeing Pope John Paul II riding in it when he came to Argentina in the early eighties), stagecoaches, the first steam locomotive, the first hydroplane to cross the South Atlantic, and even a Victorian hearse.

It is always a treat to spend time with my parents and to see familiar places like Luján through the eyes of a tourist.

How to get there:

By car: Autopista del Oeste and then follow the signs to Basilica de Lujan (it’s 67 km from Buenos Aires).

By bus: from Palermo, Transportes Atlantida (Plaza Italia)

By train: from Estacion Once to Moreno and tranfer to the train to Lujan

What to see and do

Basilica

Complejo Museografico Enrique Udaondo

Picnic by the river

There are many cafes and restaurants in the area.

Some visitors should be taught not to litter. Such a pity.

Alfajores de maizena, an Argentinean sweet treat

An alfajor is a sweet treat similar to a sandwich cookie. Depending on the regional recipe, the cookie can be more or less moist, like cake, or harder like a biscuit. The filling ranges from dulce de leche to fruit preserve to meringue and they’re covered in chocolate or icing or dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

My mission was to make alfajores de maizena -Maizena is a traditional brand of corn starch and a household name in Argentina,- and since they happen to be my favourite kind of alfajor, I was more than happy to oblige. I made those alfajores for a dinner party my hubby and I threw in our Dallas home and got our American and British friends hooked on those little treats.

What you need

  • 5 oz (150 g) softened butter
  • 7 oz (200 g) sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) flour
  •  10.5 oz (300 g) corn starch
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp Cognac
  • 1 jar dulce de leche
  • Shredded coconut

How you make them

Beat the softened butter with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and the egg and beat well.

Sift together the flour, corn starch and baking soda and gradually add to the butter and egg mixture.

Add the lemon zest and liqueur and mix until the dough is smooth.

Sprinkle some flour on a work surface and start rolling out the dough to about ¼ inch thick.

Cut 2 inch rounds of dough and place on a cookie sheet (I did not grease it).

Bake in a preheated 300 ̊F oven for about 12 minutes. Don’t let the cookies turn golden.

Transfer to a cooling rack.

Once they’re cold, sandwich two cookies at a time with a dollop of dulce de leche. Press ever so slightly so that the dulce de leche oozes out and roll each sandwich on shredded coconut.

Recipe notes

  1. This recipe yielded 40 alfajores.
  2. I used a jar and a half of store-bought dulce de leche (actually, I smuggled it into the U.S. Shhhh!)
  3. I used some of my hubby’s 1974 Armagnac. Good quality booze equalled tastier treats.

 

Only in Paris, Texas

We searched high and low for the elusive Eiffel Tower. We drove around Paris for a good while, navigating unknown streets, scanning the horizon, trying to follow the GPS directions. At long last we saw it in all its 65 foot high glory.

And a red cowboy hat on top.

Welcome to Paris, Texas, the home of the second tallest Eiffel Tower in the world. Or it used to be, as the tower in Paris, Tennessee, is 70 feet high and the Las Vegas reproduction is 540 feet high. Although it proves that not everything is bigger in Texas, it is a display of local creativity and pride.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas

I’ve said this before, but I’m strangely drawn to old cemeteries. The historic Evergreen cemetery had a special appeal: a statue of Christ wearing cowboy boots. It marks the grave of a Mr. Willett Babcock, who died in 1881. I read somewhere that this statue caused some controversy at the time. I think it represents what Mr. Babcock believed in, but since I’ve never met him, I can’t say for sure.

Statue of Christ wearing cowboy boots

After rummaging in an antiques shop (I did, Sean waited outside) and strolling around the main square, I wanted to go back to the Old Courthouse to see something that had caught my attention earlier.

It was a monument to the Confederate Army. Each side honours someone different: the heroes fallen during the Civil War (1861-5), the women of the South who supported their men, the sons of Texas who fell in battle and, I think, the entire Civil War as the inscriptions reads “From Ft. Sumpter to Appomattox”, the battles which marked the beginning and the end of the war. There are four busts, one of which is General Lee.

Confederate monument

Politics aside, I found the very existence of this monument very interesting. It speaks volumes of who the Texans are and what they believe in. In my opinion, it is not so much about secession now but about asserting their identity and sending a clear message: this is us, we fought, we lost but we are proud and we don’t forget. As far as I can see, this sentiment is very much alive in smaller towns than in big cities.

Road trip to the heart of Texas

Maybe the Mayans and Nostradamus are right. Maybe the end of the world is drawing nigh. An ice storm followed by a snow storm in Dallas left the city covered with an inch thick sheet of ice and a foot of snow on Super Bowl weekend -or maybe even thicker. This was the weekend we chose to meet our friends in Austin.

We were hesitant to brave the inclement weather. But what the hell. We decided we would risk going out and drive as far as we could without winter tyres. As a matter of fact, we made it all the way to Austin.

Our street

Our street was a sea of white. Practically the only visible objects were the traffic lights. Sean steered the car deftly towards the Dallas Tollway, which was tolerably drivable. There were more cars than I imagined. Traffic was slow because there were a couple of snow ploughs and gritters clearing the snow.

It was a bit boring but at least was safe. What seems like a good idea at the time turned out to be a mistake: exiting the Tollway to overtake the convoy using the slip road was dicey because it was very icy (and it rhymes too.)

Somewhat redundant warning signs…

Sean has experience driving on snow and ice and drove very carefully, never breaking suddenly or making brusque manoeuvres. But the same could not be said about other drivers. Some were texting, taking pictures of the signs that warned about icy roads (it was kind of ironic, though,) chatting on the phone or with their companions as if it were a normal day. Oh yes, and doing the same stupid things people do on a daily basis like not signalling when changing lanes. I’m not sure some people should be allowed behind the wheel.

Chunks of ice flew from the roof of the sixteen wheelers that rumbled past us, their wheels splattering slush all over our windscreen blocking our view. That was the really scary part.

The snow and ice followed (and preceded us) as far as Waco (yes, THAT Waco,) where it began to disappear gradually. In a way, it was a pity because the snow made the countryside and even industrial areas look quite pretty, especially when the sun was out and the ice glistened in the bright light.

Magic light on the road

It took us less than six hours to reach Buda, a town south of Austin. Not bad, considering the driving conditions for the first half of the way. We checked into the hotel and drove to Lockhart for a barbeque dinner with our friends.

We woke up to a gloriously sunny morning and hit the road after breakfast. Our plan was to get to Lexington as early as possible to attend a cattle auction and eat lunch. We’d heard of this barbeque place called Snow’s and decided that life was not worth living if we didn’t try their allegedly out-of-this-world barbeque. It was all that and more.

Lexington is such a tiny town that if you so much as sneeze while driving, chances are you’ll miss it. This is the quintessential rural town: rusty silos, a livestock exchange, wide empty streets, easy chairs on the porch, haystacks, barns, and lots of peace and quiet interrupted by the odd bellow or squawk.

Quiet streets

Unfortunately, the cattle auction was cancelled due to inclement weather. I was disappointed because I really wanted to see it, I wanted to touch and see the heart and soul of the Texan heartland.

I walked around the livestock exchange building to try to catch a glimpse of the few heads of cattle I could hear but not see. A very polite employee asked me if I needed help and gave me a strange look when I said I just wanted to have a look and could I take photos too? “Feel free to walk around.” So I did.

I climbed up a ladder to a sort of metal gangway from which one can see the cattle milling around in the pens. There were a dozen cows, calves, and a couple of goats. They all stopped doing whatever it was they were doing to stare at me in absolute silence. It was eerie. So I waved and said “¡Hola, chicas!”

 

 

The rural smells and sounds reminded me of home. Of traversing the grassy vast pampas sprinkled with brown dots that transformed into cows and horses as the car advanced. Of once thriving small towns whose fortune declined when the railway stopped running. Of abandoned barns and tiny cemeteries at the side of the road that can tell the history of the place.

Pickup trucks, tractors, seeders, cattle floats, old clunkers lumbering along. I could have been anywhere in the Argentinean pampas. But I was in the heart of Texas.

In a strange sort of way, I felt at home.

Grazing in the plains