At the southern end of Buenos Aires' Avenida 9 de Julio, street kids splash in marbled fountains, while others bash footballs against a dramatic bronze of Cervantes' Don Quixote. As they play, a dozen lanes of downtown traffic roar past, just metres away. The noise is overwhelming. The Avenida is 140 metres wide, has 12 lanes and it takes an eternity to cross.
Dignitaries in Buenos Aires hailed the Avenida as a great monument to progress when laying its foundations in the 1930s. It was to be an urban highway running through the heart of the city; a patriotic thoroughfare symbolising the vibrant modernity of the Argentine capital. The authorities modelled it on the Champs Elysées, only to build it twice as wide as the Paris thoroughfare in a display of cocky one-upmanship.
To construct the Avenida, city authorities smashed a brutal route through the centre of the city, demolishing 60,000 sq metres of city real estate and displacing thousands of residents to complete its first section. They said it would cement Buenos Aires' reputation as the Paris of South America. It took until 1980 to complete.
The buildings and monuments of the Avenida are heavily reminiscent of Paris. At the southern end, the Constitución train station is a Beaux-arts marvel. At the northern end you'll find the French Embassy, lavishly adorned with latticed balconies. A magnificent Neo-classical facade fronts the Teatro Colón opera house where Nureyev and Callas dazzled audiences, and at the very centre of the Avenida, the iconic Obelisco soars skywards. A 70-metre-high, brilliant-white needle, it was erected to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the city's founding.
Today, it is chaos. Cars veer wildly between lanes; drivers gesticulate and rage; street performers juggle fire for coins at red lights; amputees on skateboards whizz between car windows begging for change; and sections close to traffic because of political demonstrations. Thousands of demonstrators march, bang drums and wave Argentina's national flag in the name of justice.
Argentinians love to create noise and chaos. It is born of a desire to be heard in one of the world's noisiest cities – and the chaos of the Avenida is the most visible manifestation of that desire. Respite comes in the elegant green plazoletas and gardens that decorate the Avenida's one-kilometre length. They are relics of Buenos Aires'1880-1930 golden age, ringed by cast-iron railings and adorned with statuary and fountains. Little kids in 'Messi'shirts crash footballs against the statues.
At the Avenida's poorer southern end the beautiful facades of 19th century buildings now crumble. Their exteriors are painted with giant, brilliantly coloured murals. Towering neon billboards promote glitzy tango shows. In their shadows street kids kick footballs off the bronze sword of Don Quixote. Cervantes' anti-hero was the archetypal dreamer. It's fitting his effigy should adorn Buenos Aires' great thoroughfare.
For walking tours of Buenos Aires, including the Avenida 9 de Julio, try Eternautus Tours.