Just like Casa Calma Wellness Hotel, the second of my hotels in Buenos Aires, I was initially turned off when I approached my first. Exiting my taxi on a seedy street in the heart of the Argentinian capital, I looked at Rooney’s Boutique Hotel, a nondescript century-old building two doors down from a strip joint. Cables from a utility pole festooned above me; a cheap sandwich shop on the ground floor didn’t seem particularly appetizing. I had to be buzzed in, like a prison visitor, through the wrought-iron entrance gate next to the graffiti-spattered wall of the building next door.
But, just like Casa Calma, Rooney’s improved immediately upon entering. I was suddenly tossed back to the Old World glamour of Buenos Aires during its belle époque in the early 1900s. A marble staircase rotated around a cage elevator, which I rode up to the hotel, occupying only the third floor of the building. Throughout the hotel — in the lobby, the sitting room, the bar area — I was bathed in the glow of high style from the city’s heyday. Crystal chandeliers, wainscoting and archways, original wood floors, period furniture, and French doors all exuded the elegance of a small-scale Parisian palace fit for, if not Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, then easily a count or a baroness.
The wood floors continued into my room, one of 14 in the hotel. An 18’ ceiling generously accommodated the swooping arch with matching sconces above the bed’s headboard. The dark chartreuse wallpaper straight out of the Loire Valley and the antique armoire and marble-topped night tables filled the room with character.
Older establishments, of course, often come with a few hiccups. My tiny terrace next to a grumbling air conditioner looked into the sad building next door, the aged bathroom proved stingy with its supply of hot water, and the television’s snowy reception meant I was spending my pre-slumber hour reading and writing rather than watching.
As such, Rooney’s is a prime example of having to adjust your knee-jerk expectations when traveling. With the right mindset, however, these kinks grow to become quirky mental souvenirs once you surrender yourself to them in a tradeoff for the reward of the pleasure of an evocative place. And Rooney’s has that in abundance. Black and white photographs from the 1920s decorate the walls, and a phonograph with an enormous emerald-green horn looks like it would still aptly fill the room with music. Vogue México y Latinoamérica finds the whole place stylish enough to employ it as a choice site for its photo shoots.
Along with its sophisticated gentility, Rooney’s comes with a staff who are particularly helpful, aiding me in a city where English is not as widely spoken as I had imagined. They assisted me in securing tickets to a dinner/tango show, and in getting updates on my upcoming flight to Iguazú that was subject to potential delays caused by an exploding volcano in the Andes.
The hotel also boasts a singular history, as the former residence of renowned Argentinian poet, journalist, author, and diplomat Leopoldo Lugones for a while, sometime before he committed suicide in 1938, ushering in an era of the same self-inflicted demises that would also strike both his son and his grandson.
Breakfast was another example of adjusting your expectations when traveling. In the cozy dining room, I made my selections from the buffet, where leche caliente for café or té was offered — but no cold milk for cereal. The tasty ham omelet, with half a pig thrown in, could have doubled as a pork dinner. Still, supplemented with juices, breads, and yummy mini muffins, my morning meal energized me for the day and probably bumped up my cholesterol levels.
If you start your day here with a satisfying breakfast, you can also end it pleasantly in the small bar, nursing the popular cocktail of Coke and bitter fernet while waiting for your tango instruction to begin in the next room. Rooney’s offers a free lesson in this most passionate dance to its guests. On my last night here, instructors Horacio and Maria gave us a brief history of the dance, born in the brothels and cabarets in the La Boca neighborhood in the late 19th century. Considered too risqué for women to dance it, the tango was originally just for men. But then it soon became too risqué for anyone — both Kaiser Wilhelm and Pope Pius X completely banned it. Eventually, it found its way to Paris, where it gained respectability and widespread popularity until the 1950s, when Juan Perón banned it, fearing it would generate political gatherings. It came back to the fore in the 1990s and has remained an indivisible element of Argentinian culture. Performed by me and the even heavier hoofing of a Russian couple from New Zealand, however, it certainly didn’t seem as sensual. Then Horacio and Maria showed us how it’s done, neatly sealing my appreciation for both the cultural landscape of this city and Rooney’s Boutique Hotel.
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