This is the scene that awaited me when the car finally pulled through the gates of La Bamba de Areco Estancia, after a long, dramatic drive on a road that had become a river. It is the staff of the estancia, waiting to greet me. Seriously, how cool is that? Eduardo, my driver, (remarkably unruffled after the eventful drive) joined the receiving line, and each and every one of the staff introduced themselves and shook my hand. I felt like visiting royalty. Before I go on, a word about the estancia. es-tan-cia [esˈtansja] "Estancia" is a Spanish term describing a large rural estate with similarities to the English term "ranch." An estancia, most typically located in the southern South American grasslands, the pampas, has historically always been a livestock estate. The estancia's ranch worker on horseback, the gaucho, is of similar importance to national folklore and identity to the cowboy in North America. La Bamba is one of the oldest estancias in Argentina . . . originally built around 1830 just outside the town of San Antonio de Areco, it was one of the houses on the "Camino Real" (Royal Road) that linked Buenos Aires to the north of the country. The name La Bamba, derived from the Celtic word, "Bahamba," means "place of rest and hospitality." I'll vouch for that. La Bamba's main building and guard tower (a look-out for native attacks) opened to the public in the 1980's, and has recently been restored to its former glory. It was winter in Argentina, so it turned out that I was the ONLY GUEST. Yup, I had the place to myself. (I'll just tell you right now that this was, hands down, the highlight of my entire trip.) Emilia (in tan fleece, at the end of the receiving line in photo above) would be my host for the stay. First order of business: She led me to the office to check me in. This place is a designer's gold mine. My eyes were popping out of my head. Even the smooth stones along the edge of the brick veranda were the epitome of "functional and beautiful." I have very little idea of what Emilia told me while we were inside the office, because there were so many enticing design details that I couldn't concentrate. The floor is made of blocks of wood. (It's caldén wood, from the same trees in La Pampa, Argentina that the bathtubs in Mio Buenos Aires hotel were carved out of.) Under the window is a gorgeous antique wooden trunk with an equally gorgeous leather bag perched on top. (I spent a few minutes coveting the bag.) The woven rattan pendant light hung from the ceiling above heavy wood shelving holding neat and tidy binders, with perfect vintage "props" on top. I couldn't have styled it better myself. Room keys, attached to wooden replicas of a San Antonio de Areco gaucho's horse stirrups, are hanging on the wall in a handmade wooden box. Then it was time for the tour . . . we walked back into the main building through a courtyard that was pretty even in the rain. Inside the center hall, an immense ebony table, with carved pedestal, holds glossy art books and a bronze bull. Hand-woven gaucho ponchos hang under the stairs. I love the graphic patterns of red and black and cream. In the opposite corner, gaucho riding equipment hangs on hooks, including vintage stirrups that the guest room key rings were patterned after. Through French doors, the spectacular sitting room occupies one half of the estancia, front to back. Period colonial armchairs and white linen slipcovered sofas make up comfortable seating, with the perfect balance of old and new tables and accessories. Brown and cream woven textiles, accented with touches of russet, on a flawless polished wood floor . . . sublime. In a place of honor sits the 2009 gold cup won by the La Bamba de Areco polo team. The artwork above the mantle and on the walls are stylized paintings of polo players in motion by Alejandro Moy. Relics of the estancia's past fill shelves and sit on side tables. Through another set of French doors with ornamental iron hardware is the dining room. A glossy-surfaced table stands in the center of the room under a magnificent iron chandelier. On the wall at the end is a dramatic photograph of an elderly gaucho by Argentinian photographer, Aldo Sessa . . . stunning. The cocoa-colored leather chairs are embellished with decorative antiqued brass tacks. The tour continues . . . Emilia has just informed me that an asada, a traditional Argentine barbecue, is being prepared for me. We went out to see what was cooking on the parilla. On the way there, I am presented with a tray of fresh, hot, flaky empanadas, filled with spicy beef, onions, and herbs. Did I mention feeling like royalty? Speaking of which, see this feast on the grill? There's beef (of course . . . it's Argentina), chicken, pork, chorizo, and vegetables on the grill. All for me. (No I didn't eat it all . . . Emilia, my hostess, and Guillermo, La Bamba's general manager, joined me for lunch.) The La Bamba "B" hangs on the wall above the parilla. When its summer, and there's a crowd, the asada is served right here beside the parilla. While we wait for lunch, we head over to the Pulperia. Dating back to the 18th century, the building was formerly a stable and carriage house. On the veranda of the pulperia are big comfy rattan chairs that would be great to curl up in with a book if it wasn't cold and rainy. No problem . . . inside, it's a welcoming hang out place where deep, comfortable sofas on one end, and an enormous wood table in front of a fireplace on the the other, make you want to settle in and never leave. Remnants of the gauchos are everywhere. On the wall above a couple of saddle stands is another stunning Aldo Sessa photograph, of a farm worker's hands holding a mate gourd. (Mate is a traditional Argentine hot herbal drink.) Awaiting me on the giant coffee table is this beautiful board of artfully arranged meat, cheese, olives, breadsticks, and fresh-baked rolls. (Save this photo for your next dinner party, because it's really the perfect hors d'oeuvre platter.) After my snack, I went to see my room, back in the main building, where the guest rooms are located across the courtyard from the dining room. This one's mine. Heaven. Scalloped ebony headboards and tall, slender bed posts frame a mattress so high there's a tiny stool to get into bed. On the beds are homespun linen pillow shams, crisp Egyptian cotton sheets, and cozy blanket-stitched wool blankets. Tall shuttered windows, hung with silk draperies, look out to the countryside. Even on this rainy day, it's an awe-inspiring view. I love how the black and white photographs look hanging above the antique colonial furniture, like this campaign chest in my room. Check out the gorgeous black and white tiled bathroom. Vintage polo photos hang above the tub. I (naturally) took a peek into the room next to me . . . a grand four-poster bed with intricate carvings sits next to an antique armoire, on the same dark polished wood floors. Time for the asada . . . back to the pulperia. The table in front of the fireplace is set for three. A basket of those delicious home-baked rolls and breadsticks sits alongside a row of small bowls of salsa, mustard, ketchup, and the traditional Argentine chimichurri sauce (finely chopped parsley or cilantro, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano, red vinegar, red pepper flakes, and lime juice) . . . condiments for the asada. Glass bowls fitted into rattan baskets, with horn serving spoons, held arugula salad, tomato salad, and roast potatoes. Potatoes and salad were served with chorizo and, another traditional Argentinian food, provoleta, grilled provolone cheese topped with herbs. Then the meat was served, with tomatoes and grilled vegetables. I'm sure I don't need to tell you it was delicious. I was enjoying my food so much, that I didn't notice Federico, the chef, preparing the dessert by the fireplace. When I was told to "get my camera ready" I was confused, but did as I was told. Here's why: A crepe filled with dulce de leche and covered with sugar was literally branded with a hot iron, creating a burnt sugar crust. It was served with homemade vanilla ice-cream. The most dramatic and delicious dessert I've ever had. After lunch, I borrowed a pair of rain boots, and wandered around the grounds, serene and breathtaking even in the winter. Along with the wind, the sounds of chimangos (a type of hawk) circling overhead, and cotorras (parakeets) in the trees, were the "soundtrack" for my walk.
I went back to the main building, and up into the guard tower. Once used to watch out for danger, it is now a peaceful library. Custom made braid replicating the pattern on a gaucho poncho, trims the linen draperies. As if I haven't eaten enough yet today . . . it's tea time. Back to the pulperia, where homemade scones, and dishes of jam and dulce de leche await. After tea, it was time to see the stables, and the polo horses that belong to La Bamba. I'll be honest, I'm not much of a horse person . . . but these horses, in this setting, were very photogenic. This is my favorite horse picture. On the walk back, I said hello to a couple of rain-drenched, muddy llamas. At this point, I took a cue from the dog and decided to hunker down and relax. Several hours later it was, guess what, dinner time. Wine was served in the sitting room, which was now lit with candles. The girl who was serving was dressed in traditional gaucho-girl garb . . . gorgeous. The dining room table was set with pillar candles in a wooden tray down the center, rattan plate chargers, horn sauce bowls, linen napkins, and steak knives with woven lanyard handles. The first course is bruschetta with a perfectly poached egg on top, drizzled with balsamic and olive oil. The main course was panchetta-wrapped filet mignon was served with potatoes and chimichurri. Yes, my stomach is apparently a bottomless pit. No, I'll never eat again. If you thought the day couldn't be topped, wait for it. I had mentioned to Emilia during tea time (about 5:00 p.m.) that I'd had, and loved, dulce de leche ice cream in Buenos Aires. Dessert was served. Federico had made me dulce de leche ice cream. With bits of chocolate, and presented in a spun sugar nest. A lovely end to one spectacular day at La Bamba de Areco. But that's not the end of the story. This is what I awoke to the next morning. Before I had to leave, I had the pleasure of seeing this glorious place in the light of a spectacular sunrise. Fresh-baked croissants for breakfast, one last look at La Bamba, and I'm on my way. Surely the road would be dry by now . . . Well, at least it's not a river. Here we go again . . .