Friday, 22 January 2010

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 8

Río Colorado & La Adela

Before returning to Buenos Aires I spent a last week with friends in Río Colorado.

This town and village respectively sit either side of the Colorado, a wide and stately flowing river born in the Andes which runs 1000 km (620 miles) south east to the Atlantic. 

It marks the northern end of that southern cone known as Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina.  Separated only by a short bridge,

(Photo:  Leandro Palacios)

...they’re nevertheless very different, located as they are in different provinces.  La Adela is in the province of La Pampa, and has the dusty charm and slow pace of life which characterises villages with modest municipal funds – La Pampa is not a wealthy province.  Río Negro, its neighbour, on the other hand has rich soil and a good water supply in the east where fruit plantations flourish – plums, cherries and pears, and in the cooler west where the best apples in the country are grown. 

Viedma, the provincial capital, is near the Atlantic, where that stretch of coast has very attractive beaches, a rich cultural tradition teeming with literary and artistic clubs, educational buildings, theatres and many cultural events.  Sheep-farming is an important industry, and there is tourism nearer the Andes.   
The town of Río Colorado, situated about 50km from the eastern seaboard, benefits from this bounty, and is helped along by a progressive and energetic mayor – Juanchi Villalba -

who is trying to improve the look of his town.  It has an unsophisticated yet prosperous air about it.

Take its symbol for example:  the wild boar is not native to Argentina.  The smaller peccary was found in those latitudes, until the arrival of Pedro Luro,

a rich landowner of humble French/Spanish origin who had emigrated to Argentina in 1837 aged 17 and eventually came to own at least 6 estancias.  It was said of him that he used to light his cigars with one peso bills…  He decided on a trip to Europe to bring back with him a few wild boar specimens, with the intention of letting them loose on one of his estancias in Río Negro for hunting purposes.  The inevitable happened in due course – several escaped and thrived in the scrubland, displacing the peccary, which eventually died out. 

Aah.. well, his mother loves him…

They are bulky, aggressive creatures – as well they might be, for tournaments are held every year in Río Colorado to see who catches the largest...  I was told they make good eating, though the relish with which the hunting stories were recounted put me right off.  In a tournament the animals are hunted with dogs and despatched with knives, but there are many families whose men go out in a pickup truck with rifles. This picture is a fairly common sight:

There is frequently a distinctly unsentimental view of animals in Argentina, where they are judged solely in terms of their usefulness.  I never noticed this as I was growing up, and now that I live in England where animals are if not cherished then at least respected, I cannot reconcile the two. 

Perhaps inspired by the Osborne bull dominating the Spanish skyline, the local powers that be decided to adopt the wild boar as their regional symbol, and to make it as visible as possible:

I can't help but make the negative comment that in both cases, the symbol is not used to celebrate life, since Osborne's bull is I believe the type used for the bullring, where it is sacrificed in the name of sport.  But that's just my own opinion.

La Adela across the river has beautiful views, irresistibly combining woods and water.  It boasts two notable man-made features, both worth mentioning.  The first is the plaza, built according to the specific instructions of the mayor of the time, Leonardo Tomassone -

It has a fountain with a spotlit mermaid in the middle surround by swans,

a further fountain topped by Cupid,

and two structures built of brick simulating little caves (or ovens?).

(Translation of sign propped inside 'cave':
"The Municipality will not be held responsible for accidents")

It was never destined to achieve the childhood glory Tomassone had probably planned for it, as the fountain was never filled with water due to the potential danger of electrocution to minors who wanted to paddle within ('potential' because the power was never switched on), and together with the brick structures all were fenced off in case children should drown or otherwise hurt themselves on the sharp protuberances.  It would  be merely sad if they hadn’t slapped copious quantities of paint on the figures – the ‘armless mermaid in silver, the other fountain in sky blue, and the Cupid in gold – which lend it an unmistakeably comical air.  I have never seen any children play there.

The other structure is my particular favourite – a statue to General Don José de San Martín (1778-1850) who was instrumental in freeing Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spanish rule in the first quarter of the 19th century.  These days generals may have fallen into disrepute in Argentina – there are too many terrible stories to tell, and this isn’t the place for it – but in all the post-mortems by historians when former heroes prove to have been disappointingly human or had feet of clay, they have yet to find very much on San Martín that wasn’t altruistic, charismatic or scrupulously honest.  The fact that he led an army across the Andes on horseback also adds drama to his story.
Every village and town has statues to him, whether a bust, full size on foot,

 on horseback in normal position

 and with the horse rearing heroically on its hind legs,

and also in old age, now exiled in France, sitting with children clustered adoringly around him (far from the truth – he died virtually alone and in poverty).  There are villages, towns, suburbs, streets, avenues, plazas, buildings, stations and railways named after him everywhere, and though well deserved, it can get very confusing.

Plaza San Martín, Río Colorado (Photo by Leandro Palacios)

La Adela was not going to be left out.  They sent away to Buenos Aires for a bust of the great man (“El Gran Capitán de América”), and commissioned a local artist to design the plinth on which he would rest.  Both outcomes were unexpected.

The artist must have adored concrete as a means of expression, and was probably going through a triangular period.  Looking at the completed work with the inevitable fondness typical of the creator, he clearly didn’t spot what everybody else has ever since – or perhaps he didn’t stand well back before looking up... or (who knows)... his eyes were misted by self-congratulatory tears.  The fact is that this structure has been known since the beginning as the Monument to the Clothes Peg. (El Monumento al Broche)

But wait, I haven’t quite finished.  People were so busy laughing at the shape of the plinth, that it was some time before anyone looked closely at the bust.  Like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, a lone voice announced in tones of shocked disbelief that it was not San Martín! 

The ‘monument supermarket’ in Buenos Aires had sent the wrong bust.    The military hero destined forever to share space with a giant concrete clothes peg is Carlos María de Alvear, (1789-1852), soldier and diplomat, Argentina’s first ambassador to the United States.  A brave and worthy man, but not San Martín.  (Rumours abound that they had commissioned a job lot on Alvear by mistake and needed to farm them out discreetly – but it’s never been proved).

San Martín had similar looks, I grant you...
    Carlos María de Alvear

José de San Martín

...but if you saw a bust that was sort-of-but-not-quite Winston Churchill, you would know, wouldn’t you?  I confess I’m puzzled that the situation was not straightened out, and suspect that money may have had something to do with it, but this is just a guess.
Still, it’s the most photographed monument in the area, if not the province – and you wouldn't hear Sr Alvear complaining, except that the brass plate is now of course also wrong...

(With thanks to Ramón Minieri, who told me these stories)

The next - last - instalment will be about a tea party in Buenos Aires with my schoolfriends of 35 years ago before I returned to England...



Zanna, travelling tart said...

Definitely a very "clothes peggy" look. But so interesting to hear how these things happen. Sad about the statues and the fountain - could have been very beautiful. Not happy we're coming to the end of your stories. Might have to send you off again!!! Zxx

Ramón Minieri said...

¡Qué relato tan fresco y divertido! Aunque ya conocía estas historias, tu manera de narrarlas las hace tiernamente cómicas. Es bueno sentir que compartes el interés por lugares y gentes de Río Colorado y de todo Río Negro. Gracias por haber elegido esas imágenes y esas anécdotas, Caroline. Ramón.

THE DASH! said...

Oh dear,
What was the artist thinking. I don't get the animal thing, either. Funny how different cultures work in different ways.

Caroline, thank you so much for your great message about my post. I read your problem (when you were ill on the Sunday) with disbelief. I'm so glad you got it sorted (I hope you are better now.. ouch..)and that there was help at hand. I agree, sometimes the help from a passing stranger can mean so much.

matvi said...

You have a very interesting AND amusing blog. Both seldom go together. I'll be following you.

Un abrazo patagón

Lonicera said...

Thank you all for your kind remarks - both Australian and Patagonian! (Wish I could spend all day writing for my blog and didn't have to work for a living...)

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