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“The pope and I once had a fight,” says Nelso, miming fisticuffs with his hands. “But that was 30 years ago. Back when we were young and I had hair!” He slaps his balding head and laughs.
Nelso Lenarduzzi, charismatic and white-whiskered, is the director of the Jesuit Museum in Argentina’s central province of Córdoba. We’re in the middle of a tour of his exhibition – which includes Jesuit tapestries and relics from long-lost local Indian religions – when he suddenly lets slip on his heated clash with the man now known as Pope Francis.
In the early 1980s, Jorge Bergoglio, then a relatively young priest acting on behalf of his superiors, visited the museum and announced he wanted to take 30 items back to a chapel in Buenos Aires province. Nelso was horrified as the priest listed some of the museum’s most-treasured pieces, including a valuable altar.
“We didn’t actually have a fist fight,” he admits, laughing again at the idea, but strong words were exchanged and Bergoglio would not budge. “Now, at least, I can say I’ve seen him at his toughest and I know he’s no pushover.”
The Vatican’s recent selection has shone a spotlight on Argentina. Yet although Bergoglio’s Argentinian life has been largely dissected – from his football allegiances to his politics – a lot less has been made of his Jesuit connection. For those interested in finding out about the country’s Jesuit history, Córdoba is probably the best place to start. This, after all, is where the order once had a base so powerful it was seen as a serious threat to early Spanish rule.
The province of Córdoba is famed for its warm, dry climate, and green, fertile sierras. At its heart is Argentina’s second city, also called Córdoba and nicknamed La Docta (or the learned one) on account of its large student population. Since 2000, the city has also boasted Unesco world heritage status, thanks to its Jesuit block, which includes a stone church, priests’ residences and one of the oldest universities in South America (1613).
Bergoglio lived within the block for two years in the 1990s and now his bespectacled face gazes back at you all over town: on a celebratory banner outside the church, on a caricaturist’s easel on a tourist-filled pedestrian walkway, and even on the pavement as a street trader sets out papal souvenirs in the late summer sun. Back in the late 16th century, the pope’s predecessors arrived here from Europe and set about spreading their scholarly branch of the Catholic faith. They were so successful and efficient in their work that the Spaniards ultimately withdrew funding, scared that they were forming a state within a state. So, to keep the funds flowing for their evangelistic work, the Jesuits came up with plan B: the working estancia.
Five examples of these estancias still stand, scattered across these central plains. My first stop was Estancia Caroya, surrounded by green fields and orange trees, 44km north of the city. Its design is typical for the era: a colonial-style mansion, built around a courtyard, with arched walkways and its own chapel. The whitewash walls and terracotta roof certainly look attractive against the cloudless blue skies, but aesthetics were not the Jesuits’ main motivation. Estancias were working farms, heavily involved in the mule trade, and each plying its own specialist trade, from wine production to making bayonets.
Only one to two Jesuits would live onsite, with labour from hundreds of African slaves.
“This is something that was not talked about for years,” says Claudio Videla, director of the Caroya estancia. “It was a dark part of history. Slaves were considered sub-human. Even after their sons were freed, the next generation was sent to their deaths when they were put in the front line [in civil and foreign conflict].”
This explains why today’s Argentina has hardly any people of African descent, compared with Brazil or Uruguay.
Jesuits also worked with local indigenous populations, who received a wage (to prevent an uprising) and completed much of their artisan work. Look up to Córdoba’s cathedral, for example, and you see angels’ faces with Indian features, rather than traditional European cherubs.
I made it to three out of the five estancias on the tourist route: Caroya; neighbouring Jesús María (where I find Nesto’s museum); and finally, 35km south-west of Córdoba city, Alta Gracia, which squats at the start of the sierras, amid miles of cornfields.
Visiting the town of Alta Gracia gave me the chance to drop in on one of Argentina’s other famous sons. In the 1940s, the Guevara family moved to the province, hoping the dry air would help cure the asthma of their oldest, Ernesto. The boy, who grew up to be known as Che, is now depicted in a bronze statue on the family home’s front porch. Rooms of the small suburban home have been turned into a mini museum, featuring family photos and various memorabilia, including his last-ever diary entry before he was executed in the Bolivia jungle. Back in the early 2000s, this tiny museum might see about 5,000 visitors a year. Then, one day in 2006, two VIP guests popped in – Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. After that much-publicised appearance, annual visitor numbers shot up to 100,000.
It’s the mix of high-profile visits and Unesco recognition that has given Córdoba’s tourism a real boost in recent years. Once famed only for lomito (steak) sandwiches and fernet (the bitter Italian spirit drunk here as if it were water), the province is now trying to relaunch itself to appeal to the more sophisticated traveller. The Azul Real (the city’s first boutique hotel) scored a coup earlier this year by persuading three hugely talented chefs (and siblings) to move a successful restaurant in their own home into the premises (+54 351 152 275476, casagalan.com.ar; try the spectacular £25 tasting menu).
Directly opposite Estancia Jesús María, Restaurante El Museo opened in December. Featuring reclaimed wooden furniture and cushions made from Brazilian coffee sacks, it’s full of rustic charm. A hotel extension is due to open here next year.
But will tourism grow as result of the new pope? According to Nesto, the boost will only become a major deal if Pope Francis ever makes a return visit. (No fighting please, chaps.) Meanwhile, Córdoba continues to pick up a range of unlikely fans from across the world.
“We had another British visitor, not long ago,” Tomas, from the local tourist board, tells me. “She’s an actress. Well, no, not an actress. She’s, erm … Well, her name is Katie Price.” Yes, Jordan was here in 2011, accompanying her Cordobese boyfriend Leandro Pena (he spoke no English; she spoke no Spanish; Tomas acted as their translator).
Córdoba: from the Pope to Che Guevara to Katie Price. Hardly the Holy Trinity, but there must be a tourist board slogan in there somewhere.
If you don’t make it to Córdoba, you can also get a taste of Argentina’s Jesuit past in the north-eastern, rainforest-dotted
Misiones province. The area’s four missions have been reduced to ruins by the area’s humidity but are still impressive (especially San Ignacio Miní) and they make a worthy detour from Iguazú Falls (200km further north). Day trips can be arranged from Cuña Pirú or Don Enrique lodges (more here).
Journey Latin America (0208 747 8315, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has a seven-day trip to Argentina, including stays in Buenos Aires and Córdoba, for £1661pp, including flights, accomodation, transfers, excursions and most meals.
A stay at Azur Real Boutique Hotel (azurrealhotel.com, +54 351 424 7133) costs £145 per night.
For more on Córdoba, see cordobaturismo.gov.ar.