It is late Sunday morning and the Feria de San Telmo in Buenos Aires is teeming with activity. There is the smell of food drifting from the cafes that line the square, beckoning this visitor to stop for a cortado and sit at a little outdoor table near the tall shuttered windows. The neighborhood’s stucco buildings and cobblestone streets have a graceful, faded grandeur. The thrum of a tango can be heard mixed with the banter of the vendors. I don’t know where to turn first: perhaps the booth lined with copper pots, or to rummage through a box of vintage address plaques, hoping to find my own address in Atlanta. Should I examine the vintage seltzer bottles glittering blue and green like stained glass, the antique embossed lettering glinting in the sun or pick through the boxes of old photographs? Shall I look at the old telephones or the chemistry bottles, probably from some long-ago pharmacy?
As a graphic designer and type aficianado, few things inspire like a great flea/antique market: especially if it is far from home. The San Telmo Market, held each Sunday in one of the oldest and architecturally distinctive neighborhoods in Buenos Aires is a particular delight. The market began as a 270-stall antiques market in 1971, and has grown into a huge street bazaar that draws over 12,000 people every week. The vendors fill the Plaza Dorrego, booths spilling out into surrounding blocks making it impossible to see the whole market in just one Sunday.
Market treasures: a peek at some of the antique booths:
San Telmo History
San Telmo is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires and dates back to the 17th century. Initially, the neighborhood was home to dockworkers, brick-makers and other industry. The neighborhood was named for San Telmo, the patron saint of seafarers.
San Telmo began to attract wealthier residents after the establishment of gas mains, lighting, sewers, running water and paved, cobblestone streets. These residents moved into the newly built mansions and grand homes. This splendor ended very quickly after a cholera epidemic arrived in 1871 that killed more than 10,000 people. Cholera caused many people living in San Telmo to flee and move to neighboring Barrio Norte.
Due to this, San Telmo became extremely diverse, as waves of European immigrants made it their home. During the middle of the 20th century San Telmo starting attracting artists. Today San Telmo reflects all of this history: it is a Bohemian enclave, a gritty but charming city neighborhood, and a center for tango dancing.
San Telmo has become one of my favorite barrios in Buenos Aires: not as trendy as the Palermo neighborhood nor as posh as Recoleta, its streets lined with designer shops. I have been happily absorbed by the sights of the market and the grand old neighborhood each of the three times I have had the occasion to visit: content to wander with my camera to try to capture images and inspiration from the vintage prizes, forgotten objects and antiques from Argentina’s glory days. San Telmo and the Sunday market has it all: beauty, history, life and decay and especially the promise of treasure buried in the next carton. I cannot wait to return.