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Published: March 8th 2012
It was only an hour’s boat ride away. With ten days in Argentina’s capital before we joined the overland trip that should take us from Buenos Aires to Quito via Patagonia, it would have been rude not to spend just a few of them on the other side of the Río de la Plata. Uruguay would be Jo’s third new country in little over three weeks; at this rate, she was racking up destinations faster than I have ever done.
“Montevideo” has an air of romance that I can’t quite place – as a setting for one of the Bond movies perhaps, or in sounding fictitious, not a real place in this world. For me, it’s up there with “Timbuktu” and “Mongolia” as somewhere I want to see for myself, to see what lies behind the myths conjured up by the name.
We had time only for an overnight stay in its Cuidad Vieja. With an early start from central Buenos Aires, a bumpy ride across the river on the Colonia Express ferry and a couple more hours in an admittedly luxurious coach, we were feeling somewhat tired by the time we arrived. I wouldn’t generally hang around even
through the old gate
Gen. José Gervasio Artigas and the Palacio Salvo through the Puerto de la Ciudadela
the most comfortable bus station, but both our wallets and our internal tanks needed topping up, and we needed to buy return coach tickets for the next day. Montevideo’s bus station is impressively well provisioned, and answered all of our most immediate needs. Duly fortified, we tackled public transport and found the right bus to take us into the old city.
The Spléndido Hotel was the kind of kooky place I love to find. Our first few days in Buenos Aires had been based in one of the comfortable-but-functional-and-could-be-anywhere hostels run by Hostelling International, the Youth Hostel Association as was when I first meandered round the world. I don’t generally go abroad to meet other backpackers, and I prefer the sense of achievement that comes from working out my own way around, rather than relying on the often pre-packaged simplicity of a hostel’s facilities. But Hostel Suites Obelisco had been convenient and clean and friendly after the sleep-deprived trio of flights that had brought us to Argentina from Nicaragua (via Guatemala – for reasons best known to COPA Airlines – and Panama), and I couldn’t really knock it. However, the Spléndido was altogether different, housed in one of South
singer outside El Drugstore, Plaza de Armas
America’s amazingly high-ceilinged colonial buildings and close to the Plaza Independencia. We were shown around its maze-like corridors by one of the delightful and flamboyant members of staff, and greeted cheerfully by the group of Latin Americans hanging out in the lounge area. We opened the high, narrow shutters at the corner of our room on what was technically the building’s second floor (more like the fourth or fifth in the average London house, given the height of the floors) and found ourselves with a view of the river in two directions, the waiting-to-play daytime tranquillity of one of Montevideo’s main party streets, Bartolomé Mitre, to our right, and the newly revamped and gorgeous Teatro Solís to our left. Tiredness evaporated; we had a new place to explore… and even less time in which to do so than we had anticipated, thanks to an unexpected time-change (Uruguay is GMT-2 hrs, as opposed to Argentina’s GM-3). We had no time to lose…
By the time we slumped into our first chopp (a half-pint glass) of chilled “Patricia”, one of Uruguay’s numerous home-brews, at a bar in the charming old Mercado del Puerto we felt hot and walked-out. The temperature was
in the mid-30s, with a decidedly sporting degree of humidity as the weather prepared for the evening’s storms. But at least we’d skimmed the surface of the Ciudad Vieja. The central square, the Plaza Independencia is dominated by a vast statue of José Gervasio Artigas. Although he failed to prevent Brazil’s takeover of Uruguay, he is regarded as THE national hero for his role in leading the country, in alliance with the United Provinces of the River Plate, against the then-colonial power of Spain in the early nineteenth century. He is also credited with inspiring the “33 Orientales” who liberated the country, with Argentinean support, in 1825. As with the great hero on the other side of the Rio de la Plata, his remains have a 24-hour guard, though General José de San Martín’s guard is in ceremonial dress at the entrance to the Catedral Metropolitana chapel that contains his tomb, and Artigas’s are invisible, below ground in his mausoleum.
The Plaza is overlooked by the tower of the Palacio Salvo. Ornate in a way that reminded me of Edinburgh’s North British Hotel (now – confusingly for the tourists – called the Balmoral), it was completed as recently as
1927 when it could take the title of tallest building in South America. But the rest of the Plaza’s surrounding buildings were disappointing. A greyish apparently-concrete finish characterises a number of Montevideo’s buildings, and only the glorious blue of the sky prevented parts of the old city from being actively depressing.
We soon concluded that Montevidean architecture is, quite simply, a mishmash. Nearby Plaza Constitución is home to the city’s oldest building, the Iglesia Matriz. Its simple but classic façade is largely disguised by the wonderful proliferation of trees in the square, and its interior charmed me in its relative simplicity, the cream marble with only limited gold ornamentation strongly reminiscent of Buenos Aires’ Catedral Metropolitana.
The Puerto de la Ciudadela should have been old and dramatic – or so I thought – as it is one of the few remains of the colonial citadel that was demolished in the 1830s, but it is concretely blank on one side, and sports only columns in relief on its outward face. Yet it makes for a good frame through which to look back at the Plaza Independencia – artistic merit in what it lends to its context, if not to
The pedestrianised Sarandí provided us with much needed additional reading matter in English (the Book-recommended Walrus in Buenos Aires having disappointingly now closed). Around us was Art Nouveau décor on the side of a building in one direction, and wrought iron balconies in the other. 1960s concrete blocks punctuated classic colonial architecture.
Heading for the river – which is easy to confuse with the sea here, the Río de la Plata being more than 100 km wide at this point – we found ourselves on the Rambla Francia, part of the esplanade that lines much of Montevideo’s riverside. I had had visions of Beirut’s gorgeous Corniche when I read about it being the place to go on a weekend afternoon to hang out with family and friends, but it is stark and entirely lacking in shade or protection from the neighbouring expressway. We mooched along the southern section for a while, but turned inland again, up Calle de Guaraní, in order to avoid the commercial port.
Here was another contrast. No tourist glitz on this street of crumbling one- and two-storey houses. Here was off-the-beaten-track Ciudad Vieja. A red-crested cardinal (thanks to Jo for her research
on ornithological identification) bobbed along the road impervious to our existence, let alone our proximity, and hopped around remarkably generously for our clicking shutters.
Colonia del Sacramento, the old colonial town whose Barrio Histórico was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995, was much easier to love. Its narrow cobbled streets and quaint old houses give the impression of a South American Rye or a much younger, less densely-historified cousin of Lebanon’s Byblos. This is where smart Argentina comes for a weekend break, and the town is commensurately pricey and chic.
Accommodation can be a challenge; we hadn’t managed to book ourselves a room in advance, so took our chance on the doorstep when we arrived. The budget options listed in the Book were all full, so we stopped in at a somewhat classier establishment and followed their generously-given recommendation for somewhere a little cheaper than their good selves. And so we came to the delightful – if un-succinctly named – Hotel Posada Casa los Pinos, where our chatty hostess gave us a pretty little room with a balcony and (a first for this trip) air conditioning, and produced enough “incluido” breakfast to last us the rest of
character in every cobble
the poignantly named Calle de los Suspiros (the Street of Sighs), Colonia
the trip, or at least until we got back to Buenos Aires later that day.
One thing I learned early on in travelling with Jo, and that’s that teenagers need to be fed. And if they’re not, the result isn’t pretty. On my own, I tend to be far more lackadaisical about eating during the day, particularly in hot climates. But I like to think that I’m adaptable (well, sometimes… and if I really have to…), so our first stop after checking in was to locate Lunch. El Drugstore is, improbably given its name, one of Colonia’s entertainment highlights. A pretty restaurant at the corner of Plaza de Armas, it plays host to live music for much of the day and, presumably, the night. We found ourselves the first of the day’s lunchers – though, by the time we dragged ourselves away, all the other outdoor tables had been filled – and were soon joined by a middle-aged man and his guitar. Latin guitarists, with their flying fingers and lively melodies, have always amazed me, and this one was no exception. While not quite displaying the verve and panache of Rodrigo Y Gabriela, the fabulous duo I’d seen on
stage at the Falls Festival in Tasmania in 2010, he nevertheless held us rapt.
Iglesia Matriz, across the road from El Drugstore, has claims to being the oldest building in Uruguay, though, as it has been rebuilt twice since its original construction in the 1680, I couldn’t quite see how its current form deserved the accolade. Semantics to one side, one step through the door and it soon won the Church-Of-The-River-Plate Award in my mind – at least on the basis of the four or five we’d clocked up in Buenos Aires and Montevideo over the preceding few days. Its whitewashed archways, dark wood pews and stone-faced altar wall were charmingly understated – more restrainedly Presbyterian than decadently Catholic, perhaps.
Plaza de Armas itself is tranquil, with trees lining the surrounding streets and the paths across the park. In the centre are the remains of a house dating back to Portuguese times, and these have been thoughtfully restored with raised walkways and explanatory notices. Our Spanish wasn’t up to the translation involved – or, rather, I wanted to be off exploring rather than poring over my well-thumbed baby Chambers dictionary – so we admired the thinking behind the
restoration… and moved on, down the hill, to the reconstructed eighteenth century gate, the Portón de Campo and the remains of the defensive wall that runs down to the river.
From the river’s edge, we could see, in the far distance, a few ghostly peaks of Buenos Aires’ highest skyscrapers. From the top of the nearby “faro” (lighthouse) – built, incongruously, in the middle of the ruins of the seventeenth century Convento de San Francisco – we could see more of the Argentinean capital, a miscellany of scattered rectangles and spires on the horizon. Looking north were the twin dome-capped towers of the Iglesia Matriz; below us, the cobbled expanse of Colonia’s largest square, Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo; and over to our right we could follow the waterfront Paseo de San Gabriel between its shading trees.
The Paseo de San Gabriel was more the kind of esplanade I had hoped to find in Montevideo. Most of Colonia’s Barrio Históricois either pedestrianised or so unevenly cobbled that wheeled traffic has to go slowly, so the bars that front the Paseo have a largely uninterrupted view of the river. We road-tested one, of course, it now being time for
our late-afternoon chilled cerveza. I eavesdropped an Australian talking of his lifetime’s adventures on three continents to a couple of older Canadian women, listened to the efforts of a drunk guitarist propped up against a nearby tree, and caught up with diary-scribbling.
Our final stop of the afternoon was the Feria Artesanal further round the peninsula’s northern shore. After exploring the endless stalls lining the dozen or so blocks of Buenos Aires’ Feria de San Telmo on Sunday, we were a little handcrafted-out and, besides, it was getting late and many of the hut-stalls had already shut up shop – or, perhaps, not even opened this early in the week. But Colonia’s Feria provided us with a tiny take-home gift and souvenir or two, so I felt we had done our wee piece for the local economy.
Actually, come the evening, we were to do a little bit more. After Jo’s steak-fest on Saturday night – ordering the smallest piece of cow on the menu, what would have been a snack for her rugby-playing brother, a modest 350g – I was keen to find some local fish. We tried to track down another Book recommendation on the Plaza
statue of a national hero
Gen. José Gervasio Artigas in Plaza Independencia
Mayor 25 de Mayo, but found that that had shut up shop, so we settled for one of its erstwhile neighbours. Our table at Pulpería de Los Faroles looked down the Calle de Playa, due west into the setting sun, a wonderful setting for our rum cocktails. The menu readily provided us with an unknown-to-me local fish (whose name, irritatingly, I forgot to note down) and we ordered some gnocchi to go with it. (We often order dishes to share so as to extend our gastronomic experience.) Oddly, gnocchi (spelt “ñoquis” here) is a Uruguayan specialty, dating back to more austere times when all that people could afford to cook at the end of the month before the next payday were these potato dumplings. As a result, the twenty-ninth of the month is now the “day of the gnocchi”. What with ordering calamari to start, and a bottle of Uruguayan white wine to accompany our main course (I misread the menu, thinking that “3/4” meant three-quarters of a regular-sized bottle, not the full ¾ litre), it was a meal fit for several kings! To our great delight, a couple of the town’s canine population came to join us towards the
end of the meal, seemingly more keen to be being stroked than fed. The dogs here are in remarkably good shape, many of them appearing to be at least largely pedigree, possible cast-offs of departing residents. It made me wonder whether Uruguay regards them in the same semi-honoured fashion as Bhutan, where the dogs are considered vital for their night-time barking scaring off evil spirits.
And so ended our whistlestop tour of southern Uruguay. We didn’t quite “get” Montevideo – though I would have appreciated a little more time to absorb its eccentricities – but loved Colonia, dogs and cobbles and all.
Now an afternoon of domesticity back in Buenos Aires lay in store, followed by a flight up to the spectacular Iguazu Falls to celebrate the beginning of Jo’s last year as a teenager…
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