The Man with the Gleaming Gun. Graf Zeppelin brewpub, Buenos Aires, 2007.

The Man with the Gleaming Gun. Graf Zeppelin brewpub, Buenos Aires, 2007.

After 30 years of travelling to search out interesting beer and visiting more bars, brewpubs and other licensed (or not...) premises than I can remember, I now look back and smile about some of them and cringe about others; some conjure memories for things apart from beer whilst others were so unmemorable I only recall visiting when I nostalgically go through old photos on the PC or happen upon an entry in my beer database (yes, I'm that sad and don't trust Untappd!)...

 

So, here's an extract from my years of beery travels; I've visited 5 continents, over 40 countries and countless cities and have drunk nearly 30,000 unique beers so you don't have to; I'm nice like that

 

 

Buenos Aires is a fascinating city full of contrasts; in five minutes you can go from immaculately-lawned mansions complete with tennis courts and associated polo pitches to abject squalor with people living in shacks slung together with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting, literally on the railway lines.  The city centre, by day like many other capitals with it’s hordes of suited drones and bustling shoppers, transforms by night into the realm of the cartoneros (those people living on the railway tracks) who go through the rubbish left out in search of recyclables which they take away on ramshackle home-made trolleys to who knows where… there are even special trains laid on for them to take their trolleys on to wherever they go.

 

A city of contrasts, indeed, but one which I truly love and is as engaging, fascinating and downright edgy as any I’ve been to and, despite having visited twice now, one I still yearn to return to and remember gazing back longingly over my shoulder at the twinkling grid of orange streetlights receding into the night after my last visit in 2007, vowing to return… which I will do one day, Bacchus willing, and was hoping to in 2020 until Covid 19 put paid to that.

 

The city had a brief craft beer explosion in 2005/6 and, although a lot of the brewpubs which flowered briefly then closed (I visited many and ran up against quite a few bolted doors) there is, or was before Covid, an incredible beer scene in the city with some excellent beer being made there and many quirky, sociable bars in which to drink them, although the physical scale of the city is an obstacle; I still remember, as we descended towards the airport for the first time during our 2006 visit, passing over mile after mile of grid-like suburbs and realising just what an enormous city Buenos Aires is.

 

During my first visit I drank way more beers than I imagined and found some stone-cold classics amongst these brews and so, when I visited for the second time, I had a list of places which were either new since the last trip or ones I’d run out of time to visit during the previous visit but was determined to score this time.  Our first visit (24 hours late thanks to British Airways) was Santiago in Chile, then a quick hop over the Andes to Argentina where, the following day, we were driven round all day by the brewers from Murray's brewery and treated to amazing hospitality, visited places we'd never have reached under our own steam, and encountered nothing but warmth and friendship.

 

After a lie-in the following morning it was time to hit the brewpubs on my list; amongst these was a brewpub ( as far as I could tell it was a brewpub) out in the western suburb of Palomar, the “garden city” (Ciudad Jardín) of Buenos Aires which, fortuitously, has multiple rail connections.  We (me and old friend Jim) ambled across Retiro park past the Malvinas monument, taking in the spring sunshine, to the scruffiest of the three San Martín stations; there are three in a row, going from a King's Cross facsimile to a corrugated shed, and our train went from the scabby one!

 

The train passes through the leafy suburb of Palermo with it’s expensive shops and trappings of opulence but, just a mile or so further out, the landscape changes suddenly and the sidings and lineside are covered in the shanty towns of that lower class of Buenos Aires’ society – the cartoneros – who scratch a living from collecting cardboard, paper, plastic, glass or anything which they can sell for a few pesos.  Okay, so they’re not as dangerous-looking as the slums I saw in Johannesburg, but it’s still a little unnerving to see the transition from wealthy Palermo with it’s polo pitches and tennis courts to wood and plastic shacks on the railway in such a short space of time, and begs the question as to whether a slight redistribution of wealth might be worth a go?

 

We alighted at El Palomar and milled around in the chaos outside the station trying to find the correct bus stop; I had some information as to which bus we should catch in the general direction of the pub and, no sooner had we found the stop, than one bearing the correct number pulled up.  We boarded and I attempted to convey to the driver, in my best Spanish, where we wanted to go but he was having none of it and was adamant the bus went nowhere near our destination so we reluctantly got off again; this wasn't a great start to the day!

 

Road signs appeared to have been deemed unnecessary in El Palomar, so I tried to make sense of the map I’d printed which had appeared perfect back home but now, over 6,000 miles away with no signs to help, it’s deficiencies were glaringly obvious; I realised that without a pointer in the right direction we might end up completely lost, although at least it seemed to be a reasonably non-dodgy area of the city meaning wherever we ended up should at least be safe.

 

From our current location I scanned our options; across the road was an imposing archway – looking rather like Admiralty arch in London – which concealed what seemed to be some kind of recreation field complete with groups of running men - but, however much I scanned around for signs or landmarks, there was nothing useful anywhere to be seen.  So, with no better options available, we headed over to the arch to see if we could get some directions to the brewpub.

 

Upon reaching the arch I noticed, carved above the entrance, that we’d reached Argentina’s Colegio Militar de la Nación (National Military College) and also, a sign officiously informed us, the HQ of the 1st Air Brigade; admittedly this wasn't how I'd imagined the day would pan out, but hoping the guards would be helpful to two lost beer tourists we attracted the attention of the soldier on gate duty and, proffering my piss-poor map at him, I enquired – in my best Spanish – if he knew the whereabouts of the Graf Zeppelin pub... for some reason I didn't foresee any issues with the scenario which was unfolding, as outlandish as that sounds now; the impetuousness of youth I guess!

 

The solider seemed amiable enough and studied the map carefully but, deciding he needed backup, walked back through the arch and called out to what I presume were some officers who strolled over purposefully to see what was going on at the gate; this was the moment when I began to suspect that asking the Argentine air force for directions to a pub may not have been the best idea I’ve ever had when I noticed that the shortest of the 3 officers approaching, who was presumably the most senior going on the size of his cap, had a pistol holstered in his belt and it seemed to be gleaming in what I can only describe as a sinister manner as he walked slowly towards us.

 

I had no idea what the guard had said to the officers but, trusting in humanity where beer was involved, I explained that we were beer lovers looking for the Graf Zeppelin brewpub; I guess we must have been the first British tourists to have asked for directions at the gate of the National Military College and, much to my relief, all three important-looking officers - and in particular the short gleaming gun-carrying one - obviously thought so too, as they suddenly broke into huge smiles as they pointed at the map and laughed heartily amongst themselves... I glanced at Jim and realised that he'd obviously twigged the potential seriousness of the situation long before I had and was looking very relieved at the outcome thus far.

 

The head honcho, who looked even shorter close up but the sheer size of his cap made up for this, stepped forwards and, with a serious expression on his face, prepared to speak; his gleaming pistol looked even more prominent now he was a metre away and the potential for problems seemed high as he looked of an age to have been involved in the Guerra del Atlántico Sur which, after all, was only 25 years ago... revenge on the English might have come to him on a plate!

 

“Hola” he began, in an unnervingly stern military tone.

 

"Hola" I replied, nervously.

 

“You look for the pub called Zeppelin, yes?” he continued, and I was massively relieved to see a smile begin to crack his stern officer’s façade; he'd obviously twigged we were English and how uncomfortable we were suddenly feeling at that moment and, thankfully, wasn't about to enact some summary retribution upon us; we were far out in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and, looking back at things now, I'm sure an "accident" could have been contrived if they had been so inclined...

 

I replied that yes, we were indeed looking for the Graf Zeppelin pub to try some of their beer, and if he could help us find it that would be fantastic, thank you very much sir, please don't shoot us (but I said that last bit to myself...)

 

He nodded in understanding and continued, in halting English accompanied by sweeping arm gestures, that if we carried on along the road by the side of his college we’d soon see where we were on the map and reassured us that it wasn’t actually that far away, maybe ten minutes at most.

 

Vastly relieved that he'd been sociable, with how a potentially dangerous situation had panned out and thankful that he had spoken English to us in his country, with smiles, handshakes and a chorus of “Gracias!” all round we bid our new friends goodbye and hurriedly set off before he changed his mind (along Rua Matienzo , even if no sign would admit to it) towards the brewpub under an increasingly ferocious midday sun.

 

After five minutes' walk, passing squads of cadets dressed in white running around the leafy expanse of the Colegio Militar, we ascertained, as General shiny-gun had promised, where we were and so pressed on into the quiet, cool and leafy heart of El Palomar.  The almost deserted streets make up a kind of fan-shaped explosion from an epicentre square near the station, just the way you’d expect streamers from a party popper to look, and so it was with relative ease we found the brewpub although I was quietly concerned that, the time being only 13:00, it may not be open – after all, very few bars in Argentina seemed to open before 18:00 – meaning that it would have been a long hot slog for very little if the bar were indeed closed… 

 

I tried to think positive and reassured myself that of course it would be open for refreshments on such a glorious day; how could it not be, especially after our good experience at the military college gate?  Surely we were riding a winning wave… the door of the bar, which looked bizarrely like a ranch from a wild west film, was open with the reassuring sound of clinking glasses came from within and so, happy for respite from the ferocious sun, in we went and bagged a table.  The waiter seemed surprised to see us but over he came with the menus on which I saw, with great joy, several of their beers were available on draught along with more in bottle and I clocked a couple of other rare bottled beers behind the bar too. 

 

The beers, truth be told, weren't great, but with thirsts still raging from our walk this wasn’t seen by either of us as a major issue as we relaxed in the comfy chairs, savouring the breeze which wafted in through the open windows as the sun baked the patio outside; I half expected a posse of cowboys to come clinking into the square outside such was the uncanny resemblance to a frontier town!

 

All draught beers and a couple of bottles were duly polished off before it was time to retrace our steps back to the station.  The garden city’s tall trees sheltered us from the blazing sun almost all of the way back and, passing the college gate, we received a barrage of smiles and a friendly wave from the soldiers still on guard duty as we passed to which we reciprocated enthusiastically with much beer drinking hand-signals and a chorus of " Gracias, Adiós"; that's diplomatic relations in action!

 

So, with our UK-Argentine bridge building mission complete, we caught the next train back to the city centre and on the way reflected what a strange day it had been thus far, being probably the first English beer tourists to visit the pub, along with the thankfully sociable encounter with the Argentine air force; this had been a brewpub encounter I’d remember for a very long time.


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