Gothic comes to Buenos Aires

Gothic comes to Buenos Aires

The Palacio Barolo is a secret masterpiece of neo-Gothic extravagance hidden right in the heart of Buenos Aires, just down the road from Congreso (parliament). It’s not established on the tourist trail of must-see destinations, but for the culturally discerning or the visitor looking for something quite bizarre and incongruous, it should be. You have to book a guided tour at a specific time because the Palacio houses lawyers, accountants and the like in its ample office accommodation, so you need to be chaperoned by the engaging Tomas, of whom more later.

The ‘Barolo’ is related to the famous wine through the Italian who commissioned the building in the early 1920s and came originally from Barolo. Completed in just 4 years and opened in 1923, the Palacio was a gift to the city and a homage to Dante and his Divine Comedy. The architect fulfilled his commission in staggering detail with countless creative references to the poem – a sort of rendering of the Divine Comedy in architectural form. The hundred rooms represent the 100 cantos of the poem. On the ground floor, you are in Hell – actually I’d have liked a bit more of Hell as it’s arguably the best bit of the work. Fourteen floors are devoted to Purgatory. I guess that’s the Catholic thing wanting it big on pain and punishment, because Purgatory sure takes up a lot of space here. In a perfect example of life imitating art, it is also where the lawyers and accountants have their offices – haha! All of this you can reach by one of those wonderful old lifts whose double gate system makes that distinctive clatter as it closes – hmmm, sweet echoes of department stores of the  past. There are lots more references – to the 8 planets known in Dante’s day, to the nine chambers of hell, gargoyles of demons and all manner of hideous beasts and no shortage of deep and meaningful Masonic symbols scattered here and there.

To reach Heaven, however, you have put in some hard work. Six flights of a spiral staircase take you up the tower, a stairway to heaven and Dante’s destination on his search for his beloved Beatrice. I felt a bit sorry for Beatrice. The accommodation in Purgatory is eminently better than what Heaven can offer although Heaven definitely has the views. And they are cor blimey, jaw-dropping spectacular. Once you reach Heaven you are in a gallery encircling the spiral staircase with doors leading off onto tiny balconies all the way round so that you can step out and see the city laid out beneath you. The Palacio Barolo is a tall building, for much of its almost hundred year existence it was the tallest in all of South America so it gives good viewing. It was after sunset when we reached the top so we had the city lights stretching in all directions. Neon lights flashing on and off, colours changing in sequence after sequence, street lights, flood-lights, even massive screens beaming adverts, football clips or newsreels out over the city, and the perpetual parade of cars and buses with their lights on, and underneath it all, the throb of traffic – a kind of impromptu son et lumiere. And to top it all, there are two more narrow flights up to the lighthouse – a massive lamp inside a tiny glass chamber where Tomas has you edge your butt on miniscule rolled-up cushions whilst avoiding touching the lamp and at all costs not to sit on the glass – as if! This is not for the faint-hearted or vertigo-ee!

The place is crammed full of imagery and our charming tour guide, Tomas, has it all at his fingertips. He greets you dressed in the sort of office boy style of the 1920s, wide trousers, braces and a fetching sort of Derby bowler hat. And we discover he has a lifelong connection with the palacio; his grandfather and his father had offices here and it was coming here as a child that started his love affair with the place. And he knows his Dante!

This palacio oozes wow factor- a genuinely wacky place packed with all sorts of treats and surprises. Next time you’re in town, be sure not to miss it.