San Telmo is the oldest neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with old houses, with a handful dating back to colonial times. San Telmo used to be a well-to-do area until the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1871, when the rich fled to the healthier northern side of the city, in what is now known as Barrio Norte and Recoleta. The larger homes became tenement houses, called conventillos, to house the increasing numbers of European immigrants. Living conditions in conventillos weren’t always ideal: a whole family would often live in one room and share the bathroom and kitchen with the rest of the tenants.
Nowadays, San Telmo is the hub of the antiques trade. Many of those conventillos reinvented themselves as shops and art galleries. Plaza Dorrego (at the corner of Humberto Primo and Defensa streets) is famous for its weekend flea market and street performers – mainly tango dancers. During the week, the plaza is covered with from nearby cafes and bars and there are a few stalwart street vendors as well.
Plaza Dorrego is where Sean and I strolled to after a wonderful lunch at Café San Juan (Avenida San Juan 450 – fantastic tapas). We looked at some of the shops, Sean headed straight for the plaza and I wandered around. I used to walk along Humberto Primo from Plaza de Mayo twice a week when I taught at Editorial Sudamericana. The area has changed but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Or maybe it’s me who’s changed.
There’s an old building with a brick façade, next to the church of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which has always intrigued me: the Museo Penitenciario, or Prison Museum. The museum opens Thursdays to Sundays from 2 to 6 pm and the admission is free.
The building dates from the early 18th century and was originally a Jesuit convent. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and her colonies, the building became first a barracks, then a mental hospital and then a prison for women, run by a religious order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, until 1974. The museum was opened in 1980, after the inmates were transferred.
The museum is rather small. Each room is a former cell and has a different theme, like tools and uniforms from the early 20th century, a replica of a modern cell, lethal weapons manufactured by inmates. That particular collection rattled me; it spoke of violence, thirst for blood and the need to survive at all costs in an extremely hostile environment. It was time I went back outside and joined Sean.