Buenos Aires’ Café Tortoni is a famous bohemian place, frequented by Garcia Lorca, Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel and others illustrious Argentinian artists. It’s a place where history blends with legends..
Café Tortoni: Taste of Bohemian Times
It is not a secret that Argentinians love soccer (football). But after few days in Buenos Aires you will realize that coffee drinking may easily top the list of national sports.
Actually these days thanks to omnipresent TV screens porteños often combine their love for both – watching endless soccer games while (also endlessly) sipping a “cafe con leche”….
Among countless Buenos Aires’ coffee houses, some became cultural landmarks of the city with their own history, famous customers, unique style and ambiance.
Names like La Giralda, 36 Billiards, La Biela, Bar El Britanico, Confiteria Ideal or Café Retiro are just some from the list of the so-called "Notables Cafés" of Buenos.
But since the beginning of time the first place on this list takes unanimously Café Tortoni. And simply speaking you cannot leave Buenos Aires without visiting this famous place - an artistic and intellectual hangout since its opening back in 1858.
Café Tortoni : Old view from the street (painting)
Let me make it clear – you do not go to Café Tortoni for great food, heavenly tasting coffee and desserts (postre). As the matter of fact you can just order there a regular “café con leche con medialunas” (croissants).
This is because the main reason you are here is to taste Tortoni’s bohemian past. To tune your soul to voices of great artists, poets, musicians, painters that once upon a time chose Café Tortoni as their “home”, to feel the vibes from the glorious past still present in every corner, to savor countless memorabilia displayed on the walls…..
Without a doubt, Café Tortoni is a living memory of such illustrious artists as Alfonsina Storni (poet), Baldomero Fernandez Moreno (poet), Carlos Gardel (tango legend), Federica Garcia Lorca (poet and playwright), Jorge Luis Borges (poet, critic and short-story writer), Benito Quinquela Martin (painter), Luigi Pirandello (Italian dramatist), Juana de Ibarbourou (Uruguayan poet), Molina Campos (illustrator and painter), Juan de Dios Filiberto (violinist, conductor, poet and composer), Raúl González Tuñón (poet and essayist) …..
In early 1920’s they formed a group La Peña meeting exclusively in Café Tortoni. As Celestino Curutchet (Tortoni’s owner) graciously pointed out – artists spend very little, but they bring splendor and fame.
Frequant guests- From the left - Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel and Alfonsina Storni.
While these days The Famous are gone, ghosts of the past are still hanging in the air and that is what makes Café Tortoni so fabulous place.
Tortoni was also a place frequented by famous politicians and statesmen like Marcelo de Alvear, international figures and intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Arturo Rubinstein, Juan Carlos and many celebrities…..
Café Tortoni: Salon de Alfonsina
Unfortunately, due to exploding tourism Café Tortoni became a victim of its own popularity. Artists and intellectuals are long gone or moved somewhere else. Lines of visitors (mostly foreigners) piling up at the front door and loudly inside does not help in “getting in touch with the past”. Actually you may not be able to hear even yourself, so forget any meaningful conversation. ….. Despite these “annoyances” Cafe Tortoni is still worth of your time!
For a better experience you may try to visit Tortoni weekdays early morning when the coffee house and most tourists are still waking-up after the busy night….
Café Tortoni: Evening tango show
These days Café Tortoni makes home for different artists. The back room (called Sala Alfonsina) with the little stage every evening holds tango shows (very modest as per Argentinean standards). It is also a place where every Saturday (summer time) the Fénix Jazz Band performs concerts for aficionados of New Orlean’s-style music.
There are also frequent poetry readings, but honestly, to taste these “delicious events” - just speaking Spanish may be not enough. Probably you have to be able to dream in Spanish to feel the tunes from poems…..
If you want to spend more time in Café Tortoni eager to immerse in the charm of its past you may want to go beyond the traditional cortado (fine white coffee). Menu includes variety of picadas and quesos (cheese), “specialite de la maison” in form of chocolate con churros (fried pastry with chocolate) not mentioning all sorts of sandwiches (although the word “sandwich” alone seems uninspiring in this 150-years old environment)….
Otherwise, just sipping the coffee you may contemplate words of the poem Viejo Café Tortoni by Baldomero Fernández Moreno (provided you know Spanish).
Viejo Café Tortoni
A pesar de la lluvia yo he salido
a tomar un café. Estoy sentado
bajo el toldo tirante y empapado
de este viejo Tortoni conocido.
¡Cuántas veces, oh padre, habrás venido
de tus graves negocios fatigado,
a fumar un habano perfumado
y a jugar al tresillo consabido!
Melancólico, pobre, descubierto,
tu hijo te repite, padre muerto.
Suena la lluvia, núblanse mis ojos,
vomita el subterráneo alguna gente,
pregona diarios una voz doliente,
ruedan los grandes autobuses rojos.
If by chance already being in this nostalgic mood you also have a cup of coffee next to you, let me suggest spending few minutes listening to this video clip: Viejo Tortoni
Recitation: Susana Peiro,
Music and singing: Eladia Blasquez
Lyrics: Hector Negro
Café Tortoni's History
Café Tortoni opened doors in 1858 - initially on the corner of Rivadavia and Esmeralda streets. It was founded by Frenchman Jean Touan as an “overseas extension” of the Tortoni Bar in Paris established in 1798 by a Neapolitan street-vendor Giuseppe Tortoni.
22 years later in 1880 the local was moved to its present location - previously occupied by the Templo Escocés ("Scottish Temple") with the access from the Rivadavia Street. The entrance from the Avenida de Mayo was opened in 1898 after the architect Alejandro Christophersen redesigned the façade of the building. That was also the time when Tortoni changed ownership to another Frenchman – Don Celestino Curutchet.
Café Tortoni has preserved most of the decoration of its early years. Its intricate moldings, leaded glass ceilings, splendid chandeliers, stained glass windows, oak tables, abundance of green marble, paneled walls with paintings and of course countless memorabilia– it all makes you feel that you have been transported into a different époque (“Belle Époque”, by the way).
Carlos Gardel by Andres Sabate Oliver;
from the left - Jorge Luis Borges (by Juan Carlos Ferraro), Luigi Pirandello (by S. Gurrieri), Julian Centeya (by Antonio Pugia);
from the left - Benito Quinquela Martin (by Luis Perlotti), Alfonsina Storni, Juan de Dios Filiberto (by Luis Perlotti),
Tango room (stage at the back)
Interior preserved authenticity of the "old-good-times"
"Cronica del Angel Gris" by Cristina Granata,
Easier to say who was not here....
"Terceto en el Tortoni" by Leo Vincii.
No matter what time you visit Café Tortoni, you will find that the corner table right across the main entrance is already taken by Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel and Alfonsina Storni.
These life-size wax figures are work of an Argentinean sculptor Gustavo Fernandez to honor Café Tortoni and its most illustrious characters: Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel and Alfonsina Storni.
In this way hundreds of everyday’s visitors can be part of the wonderful history confined behind the walls of the oldest coffee house in BA. The project was supported by the Paris-based Art Saint Michel.
Our short visit to the Cafe Tortoni is coming to the end. I hope you enjoyed this tour and the "story from behind the walls".
Being in Buenos Aires you will certainly read and hear a lot of opinions about the Cafe Tortoni. Well, please keep in mind that beyond its legendary past, artistic and nostalgic values and regardless of crowds of tourists and long waiting lines, Tortoni is still a magical place to have a cup of coffee
Not sure yet where to go and what to see in Argentina? You may find help selecting:Tourist Destinations in Argentina
However if you are falling in love with Buenos Aires (I do not blame you, it happened to me) then please select: Buenos Aires Walking Tours
If you want to prepare yourself for vacation in Argentina then please select:
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