The girl who died twice and other secrets of Argentina's La Recoleta cemetery


No matter how wealthy and powerful, we all, of course, die. This existential truth is a melancholy accompaniment as you wander the beautiful byways of one of the world's loveliest cemeteries – La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.

This 5.5-hectare necropolis with its 4787 art deco, neoclassical, art nouveau and neogothic vaulted tombs – 94 of them historical monuments – is a reminder that those within once were powerful, and many, including dozens of Argentine presidents, vainly assert their potency even in eternal sleep. 

Their remains are sometimes displayed in above-ground coffins, meaning visitors peer in through mausoleum glass as you might with a David Jones window display, to view these well-to-do Portenos gone, perhaps, to a better place.

And yet, cemeteries are far more than a simple reminder of our mortality. They allow people to feel a profound connection to life, loved ones and history. Hence the word "taphophile" – someone enthralled by death and graveyards.

I'm no taphophile, though some favourite places are indeed cemeteries, like Pere Lachaise in Paris, final resting place of Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf among hundreds. 

And Savannah's haunting historic Bonaventure Cemetery, still beautiful despite the absence of the bird girl statue, now in the city's Telfair Museum. Bird girl graces the cover of John Berendt's bestselling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Or Romania's Merry Cemetery with its colourful crosses, or Sydney's Waverley Cemetery.

We've come to Buenos Aires, and specifically the exclusive neighbourhood of Recoleta, as part of our Captain's Choice private jet three-week South American tour, visiting Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile's Easter Island.

The origins of Recoleta provide a microcosm of Porteno history. Recoleta attracted the wealthy from the city's south fleeing yellow fever and cholera at the end of the 19th century. Its higher terrain discouraged disease-transmitting insects.

Once ensconced, the wealthy built notable buildings in the European style  – Loire-esque "chateaux", Parisian-style petits hotels with boiseries (sculptured panelling), slate tiles, marble staircases, bronze and ironwork and chandeliers. Buenos Aires, which, from 1880 to 1930 was one of the world's richest cities, quickly became known as "the Paris of South America". 

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Many grand buildings from this golden era have sadly been demolished, yet Recoleta still displays a fine architectural legacy. We are fortunate to stay at the belle epoque Alvear Palace Hotel, within walking distance of the cemetery.

La Recoleta, "City of the Dead", set on the city's most expensive real estate, is packed with stories, some ghoulish, some tragic, some confronting. Beyond the neoclassical, Doric-columned entrance on the hilly Plaza Francia, the miniature metropolis spreads into its own city blocks, stone streets with street names, shadowed alleys, even a tree-lined city centre. 

Marble mausoleums with cathedral domes, winged angels, statues by notable Argentine sculptors, stained glass fronts and brass plaques rub stony shoulders, drawing attention to their occupants – presidents, politicians, potentates, literary laureates, military leaders and scientists.

The most visited is that of Argentina's beloved former first lady, Eva Peron, who died at 33 from ovarian cancer, weighing 32 kilograms. That this champion of the "descamisados" – the poor or shirtless ones – should be interred along with the rich is controversial among the country's still passionate Peronistas.

Born illegitimate, her wealthy rancher father, Juan Duarte, kept her at arm's length and when he died, the family cut her off. After her death, anti-Peronist military dug up her corpse and viciously displayed it, before she was taken to Milan and buried under a false name, to banish her from history.

She was brought home in 1971 and eventually buried in the Duarte family crypt five metres underground under protective cement and steel. The relatively simple, black marble mausoleum is flower-decked as people come to venerate her. In fact, we are encouraged not to linger, so pressing is the queue.

Near Evita's tomb is the creepy mausoleum of "the girl who died twice". Rufina Cambaceres, a 19-year-old socialite died suddenly in 1902 while preparing to see a show at the Colon Theatre. She was taken to the cemetery and left in the chapel to be interred later.

When they returned the next day, the casket had been moved and the lid displaced. Suspecting a grave robbing, the family had the lid opened. Rufina's jewellery was in place but the coffin and her face were scratched. She had in fact suffered cataplexy – a condition where a person stays awake but cannot move. 

She died in the casket from a heart attack due to panic and lack of air. Rufina is represented as a life-size art nouveau statue of a young woman with her hand on the door of her own mausoleum, and her face scratched.

Look out for "the wild bull of the Pampas". Luis Angel Firpo was a Latin American legend in the 1920s, named one of the 100 all-time greatest boxers. He died in 1960 and his mausoleum sports a life-size statue of him in boxing uniform, which looks like a rather natty dressing gown to me.

Another hauntingly beautiful bronze statue is that of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak in her wedding dress with her beloved pet dog whose nose is shiny from rubbing. Liliana died at 26 on her honeymoon in Austria. Her parents reconstructed her bedroom within her tomb. 

Isabel Welewski Colonna, the illegitimate grandchild of Napoleon Bonaparte, also resides in this salubrious city. There's a touching example of filial love in the stony vault of General Tomas Guido, whose son built it with his own hands. The son was clearly a politician, not a builder, though the lumpy crypt has a certain Hobbiton charm, compared with the surrounding lavishness.

Now full, La Recoleta's mausoleums rarely come up for re-sale – two years ago, someone forked out $US250,000 for a spot on the eternal rich list.
Grab a map before venturing into the necropolis, otherwise you will wander blindly, possibly stumbling upon the ghost of David Alleno, a young Italian immigrant said to wander La Recoleta's narrow streets, his keys clinking horribly.

The grand frieze leaves us this on our departure: Expectamus Dominum – We expect the Lord. That just leaves the small matter of the camel and the eye of the needle.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/buenos-aires 

captainschoice.com.au

TOUR

Captain's Choice Discovery of South America is a 22-day journey by private jet from Sydney to Buenos Aires, Iguassu Falls, Rio de Janeiro, Havana, Machu Picchu, Panama City, the Galapagos Islands, Cuzco and Easter Island. Departs Sydney on August 23, 2018, and costs from $89,500 per person twin share. See captainschoice.com.au or call 1800 650 738. 

Alison Stewart was a guest of Captain's Choice.

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