It may be a reflection of the country’s timekeeping that this tour starts a little late. When our guide Silvia arrives to pick us up from the lobby (on the Hipólito Irigoyen side of the building) at 4.15pm, however, she is friendly and quickly assures us that we will not have to climb too many stairs. Having called in advance to check times and availability of tours in English and been told by an impatient woman that I would have to call later as she was about to finish her shift, Silvia’s sunny demeanour is gratifying.
On the first floor, we stop by the main entrance to the building and our guide points out the “eclectic” decor; Italian marble, French floor tiles and a large stained glass window which, like lots of other things in the building, is apparently awaiting renovation. The ‘Blue Room’ houses a huge chandelier, hung directly under the impressive copper dome. The patriotic significance of its decoration is explained and my father has a chance to stand at the lectern and pretend to address the rows of empty chairs.
My mother, who speaks no Spanish, is left not much the wiser by Silvia’s explanation of the “gorro frígio” symbol which appears on lots of the heraldry; she is offered a translation into French which only confuses things and has to content herself with a vague understanding of the symbolism. It is certainly worth collaring the guide to ask questions of your own; one of the North Americans in our group is keen to hear about politicians’ wages and seems satisfied by the information he receives.
Silvia clearly has a sense of humour; in the ‘Pink Room’, something of a shrine to Eva Perón, she draws our attention to the ashtrays and the attendant hypocrisy of those who legislate against smoking while continuing to indulge in it themselves. Having moved into the Senate room, we are treated to an evocative description of the slightly chaotic nature of proceedings; senators speaking out of turn and leaving the room and re-entering at will. We are amused to hear that each senator’s seat is equipped with a weight sensor so that the number of attendees in the room can be accurately calculated.
Our tour finishes in the main Congress room, where Silvia regales us with stories of scenes during last year’s “campo crisis”, which saw the country’s vice president vote against his superior Cristina Kirchner, much to the joy of the country’s agricultural workers. Silvia’s own views on the current state of Argentine politics provide an interesting balance to the comment available in newspapers.
The whole tour lasts little more than an hour as it is obviously confined to the areas of the building accessible to the public. We are at one point shown into a room clearly marked “Senators only”, but this only adds to the excitement. My curiosity about the inside of a building whose imposing exterior is a distinctive sight in Buenos Aires is satisfied; I was most surprised by just how dingy it is. Hearing the personal views of a well-informed native is an unexpected bonus. All in all, this is a great way to spend an hour for anyone with an interest in Argentine politics and something slightly off the beaten tourist track for anyone who isn’t.
Don’t forget to take along some identification which is requested when you arrive for the tour. Ever the difficult tourists, both my mother and I did not have passports or driving licences with us, but my student card and my father’s driving licence mollified the official at the desk and none of us were refused entry.
Hipólito Irigoyen 1849. Tours are free of charge and run daily (except Wednesday) at 11am and 4pm. Confirm availability by calling 4010 3000.