Merry Christmas! Up early because we have booked an early tour of Montevideo. On the bus by 9 am. Our guide is Hector, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of his city and country. The day is overcast, temperature of 22°C. But Hector tells us that yesterday it hit 40°!
Uruguay is a small country nestled between Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west. It has been claimed and occupied by both those countries, as well as by Britain and Spain. The early Spanish explorers had to contend with unfriendly native inhabitants and eventually systematically exterminated them. The country achieved independence in 1808 but had to repeatedly fight off invasions from Brazil. The country has only about 3 million people (fewer than the city of Buenos Aires proper), and almost half of them live in Montevideo.
Montevideo is first and foremost a port city. Its architecture is much like that of Buenos Aires but it is much less well preserved. The buildings are crumbling and the entire city infrastructure is in desperate need of repairs. Some buildings are little more than ruins but there are still people living in them.
We drive first through the historic old city, which has many beautiful buildings that sadly are mostly in poor shape. We pass the football (i.e., soccer) stadium and Hector explains in great detail and with great pride why Uruguay is the top football country in the world if you factor in population size. Our first stop is Plaza Independencia, dominated by a status of liberator Gervasio Artigas on horseback. He is surrounded by several impressive government buildings. The Canadian embassy is on the north side of the square. Nearby is the one remaining section of the original citadel gate, built in 1746.
We then drive through some more affluent neighbourhoods, boasting some gorgeous villas with manicured grounds. All are securely enclosed by wrought-iron fences, although Hector assures us that there is no crime here. We stop at a couple of statues honouring the perseverance of early settlers. We notice that even though there are some attractive parks where rich people jog with their dogs, the streams are filled with garbage and emaciated homeless dogs prowl around looking for anything edible. Definitely a city of contrasts.
We drive past or through several more city squares, including the Plaza Constitución and Plaza Zabala, the latter named for the governor who gave the city its name, after the high bluff where he built his fortress. We drive by the President's residence, protected by armed guards, although Hector tells us the current president lives on a farm outside the city. Presidents and representatives are elected at the same time for 5-year terms. Presidents cannot stand for re-election. We have another stop at the Legislative Palace, the home of Uruguay's two legislative bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate. This is a truly magnificent building in Romanesque style, surrounded by spacious gardens.
The return trip takes us along the riverside. We have a stop at a park and monument honouring the city's mariners. Montevideo lies at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata and the waters here are a mix of fresh and salt water. The beaches are lovely and we have to admit that the city presents itself well from this perspective. The bluff where Zabala's fort stood is across the river. As we drive, Hector relates the tale of the Graf Spee, a German warship that was trapped and eventually sunk here during WWII.
It's about 2 pm by the time we're back on board and we are famished. After some lunch, we participate in team trivia and relax. Over the past few days, the ship has gradually become more Christmassy, with decorations appearing in odd places. Tonight's dinner is another formal affair, so we dress up like penguins and head for the dining room. Very busy tonight and for the first time, we have to wait for a table. A Christmas theme to the menu, and most of us have the turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, cranberries and veggies.
After dinner we head for the theatre. Santa apparently visited earlier, but we were held up by dinner and missed him. However, we enjoy a great concert by singer Lumiri Tubo from NYC, who specializes in Nat King Cole tunes. After that, the entire crew has been working on some Christmas songs and we are treated to serenades from the Indonesian choir and the Phillipino choir, as well as songs from the professional musicians on board. All ends with a sing-along and we go to bed well after midnight feeling at least a tingle of that magical Christmas spirit.
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