Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to... Argentina

Home on the range An MD giddies up with gauchos and savours the flavours in South America's flatlands

In the heart of the Argentine Pampa -- the vast flatlands embracing parts of the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Córdoba and La Pampa -- lies the privately owned ranch of La Porteñña. Just a two-hour drive from Buenos Aires, the historic estate offers cosy, well-organized retreats.

The Pampa is blessed with rich soil where wheat grows easily and cattle graze freely. It's home to the country's most emblematic figures, the gauchos. Once nomadic Argentine horsemen, they gradually settled down when large farms, or estancias, developed in the late 1800s. Possessing many of the rural skills needed to keep a ranch running -- from herding cattle to breaking in colts -- they soon became invaluable.

In the 19th century, estancias like La Porteña flourished. The dwellings, originally made of mud walls and thatched roofs, evolved to become elaborate complexes. La Porteña, while very charming with its low white square buildings and shaded galleries, remains unpretentious in style. What makes this estancia unique is its landscaping, with exotic Lebanese cedars, eucalyptus and oak trees as well as a wonderfully picturesque lane lined with majestic elms. Planted more than 150 years ago, the grounds were designed by the celebrated French landscape architect and botanist, Charles Thays. Thays was the man behind some of Buenos Aires' most beautiful parks, commissioned by the mayor of Buenos Aires, Manuel J. Giraldes, who owned La Porteña.

But without a doubt, the most acclaimed resident of La Porteña was Argentine writer Ricardo Giraldes. His most popular novel, Don Segundo Sombra, published in 1926, tells the story of a young gaucho growing up in the countryside around the nearby village of San Antonio de Areco. The ranch has been in the Giraldes family for generations and is now inhabited by Manuel Giraldes, a former polo champion and Ricardo's nephew.

I was fortunate enough to spend two wonderful days at Estancia La Porteña (tel: 011-54-02326-452-513; www. estancialaportenia.com.ar). After an uneventful bus ride from Buenos Aires, I arrived in the quaint village of San Antonio de Areco, where two animated main streets are bordered with leather shops selling an array of riding gear, shoes, boots, purses and belts. I lunched on a restaurant terrace facing the historic Puente Viejo bridge and a park where I could observe the occasional gaucho riding his horse. The gauchos made quite an impression with their large blue or red crocheted berets jauntily folded over on one side.

After lunch I crossed the Puente Viejo, known in Argentina for its appearance in the black-and-white film version of Don Segundo Sombra, and made my way to the Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Giraldes. The museum has exhibits of gaucho paraphernalia, including facones, long thin knives worn at the back of the waist and attached to the belt in a plated sheath; decorated gourds used to sip the traditional yerba matéea, complete with their distinctive silver straws; colourful woollen woven ponchos as well as the author's portraits and personal belongings.

EASY RIDER
From there La Porteña was only a 15-minute cab ride. It was a sunny fall day and Maria, Manuel Giraldes' wife, welcomed me in English and guided me to my room. The large room was simply decorated and heated with a small wood fireplace. From the old- fashioned white bathroom a narrow green door opened onto a sunny terrace. I would have been happy just sitting in the comfortable garden chair by the pink bougainvillea, watching the birds sipping water in the nearby feeder, but Maria reminded me that I was expected for a horse ride.

Not being an experienced rider, I requested a gentle, easy-to-guide horse and my gaucho chose Juanita, a golden-brown 16-year-old mare. The two of us departed slowly on our mounts for a one-hour-long promenade. First we rode along the dirt lane facing the estancia, where I could best admire the two long columns of elm trees leading up to the main building. The lofty branches of the trees formed an arch over the lane through which the white house emerged at the far end. We continued along several quiet country roads before entering the cool, fresh-smelling woodland on a trail that led us back to the grounds.

I concluded my lazy afternoon sipping matéea on the terrace under an octagonal pergola, adjacent to the old stained-glass doors leading to the house. This quaint spot reflected a bygone era, and from there I could see the large pink well where it's said Ricardo Güiraldes threw the unsold copies of his first published books. I strolled to the other side of the building to admire the sun setting on the Pampa while listening to the raucous calls of the green parrots returning to their nests in a tall pine tree.

Dinnertime is late in Argentina and at half-past eight I made my way to the dining room, still in its original state, furnished with a well-preserved French oval table and an ornately decorated English wooden cabinet.

An entrée of stuffed avocado was followed by homemade spinach ravioli covered with a chicken and tomato sauce, all accompanied by a red Argentine wine from the Mendoza region. Then followed the traditional dessert of flan with dulce de leche, custard served with a sort of milk jelly that Argentines find absolutely delightful. I finished the evening drinking tea and reading coffee-table books in front of the wide fireplace in the living room in a separate building. In the chilly fall night, I returned to my bedroom where, wrapped in the comforting warmth of the wood-burning fireplace, I gently slipped into the land of dreams.

HAPPY TRAILS
The next morning, I walked along the moss-covered pathway to the dining room where Angela, the chef, served me a simple breakfast of fresh croissants with butter, jam and coffee. After breakfast Maria graciously offered to give me a tour of the estate. We climbed the narrow stairs leading to Ricardo Giraldes' private den, where legend has it he wrote his popular gaucho tale. On his bookcase were translations of his novel -- 20 different languages in all. From his hideaway we could admire the landscape through the open French doors. Maria then led me back outside to an old Lebanese cedar where the family claims his novel, Don Segundo Sombra, was actually written.

I left Maria and went for a stroll into the park on my own. While walking back to the house through the shaded lane, I saw Angela pulling a round table onto the lawn and setting it up for lunch. We began with a thick earthy soup called carbonada, made with meat, corn kernels, pumpkin, potatoes and vegetables. The ubiquitous Argentine steak -- thick, tender and juicy -- followed. For dessert, I tasted the local dulce de leche ice cream. I ate slowly, enjoying the delectable meal and listening to the mesmerizing chants from the colourful birds. After the meal, I lingered on, savouring my wine and watching Maria's eldest son practising polo on the nearby lawn -- as it happens the estancia also runs a polo school.

That afternoon I rode with a gaucho to a campground surrounded by small houses. Their roofs were covered with the vines that produce the gourds used to make the traditional matéeacups. We continued past a windmill and the estancia's only omb£, the emblematic tree of Argentina and the only tall vegetation native to the Pampa. Argentines consider it a tree but Maria referred to it derisively as a weed. Its soft spongy wood means the tree is really only good for providing shade in the torrid summers.

Returning to La Porteña I packed my bags, sadly getting ready to depart. Maria offered me a ride back to the bus station in San Antonio de Areco and as I left her car, thanking her warmly for my time at La Porteña, she reacted with a smile: "You will come back, won't you?" Before I could stop and think, I heard myself answer enthusiastically, "Of course, I will!"

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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