I write this as I’m on my way home, already gone from Uruguay, and suddenly I feel I have left behind a very special place. The people of Uruguay have been beyond friendly, they are among the most gracious and warm people I have ever met and I should add they are also among the most proud people I have ever met, willing and eager to enthusiastically share their culture and country with a newcomer. I feel fortunate to have met such wonderful people. Here is a recap of my last few days in Uruguay;
On Thursday, our original plan was to drive a few hours to Colonia Del Sacremento, an old Portugese colony that sits on a river bank about 25 miles across the River de Plata from Buenos Aires. When I woke up however, I could hear the raindrops falling on the roof above along with loud, clamoring thunder rolling in and out through the morning. We all decided it would be best to visit Colonia the next day when the weather forecast called for sunshine, and instead head down to the Mercado Del Puerto yet again.
The Mercado Del Puerto houses multiple parillas (BBQ restaurants), that vie for your attention as you wander through. We first stopped at Roldo’s, famous for its Medio y Medio (half wine, half spritzer). Here, Pola, Michelle, and I ordered a bottle to start off our adventure in the Mercado which began with a rather bizarre encounter with an older man sitting next to us at the bar. Clad in a white, sleeveless undershirt, the man seemed harmless at first. But, though I am far from fluent in Spanish, the expression on Michelle and Pola’s face told me that the conversation, which had started off light and congenial, had now taken a strange turn. At one point, the man removed his glasses to reveal an eye that glared into nothing; he was somewhat blind and mentioned his desire to travel to American for eye surgery? Again, I’m not sure the exact conversation, but Michelle did translate something along the lines of how his friend, or someone another tried to kill a woman for her eyes. Suddenly, we had the eerie sense that he was scoping out our eyeballs. We quickly finished our Medio y Medio, and headed to a different parilla to order some asado.
From Roldo’s, we made our way over to Estancia Del Puerto, a place highly recommended by Anthony Bourdain and numerous guidebooks. Walking through the Mercado, one passes rack after rack of various types of meat being cooked; no parts are spared. It’s important to note that there are about 3.5 million people living in Uruguay, and there are 10 million cows.
When we arrived at Estancia Del Puerto, I stood in awe at the size of the parillas and the various chorizos, asado, guts, blood sausage, and pretty much anything else you could think of being cooked right out in front for everyone to see.
We grabbed a table and quickly ordered a bottle of Don Pasquale vino and bbq’d provolone to start off. My fear of turning into a gordita was no match for my palate’s inquisitive nature when it was time to order. We ordered a mixed plate of steak, a chorizo, intestines, and sweetbreads, the latter two barely touched by Pola or Michelle.
Though at the time, I enjoyed everything, my stomach felt like I was carting around bricks for much the rest of the day.
Lunch was long and leisurely, as it often is in European and Latin American countries. With the clouds and periodic rain still looming outside, we ordered another bottle of vino with no where to rush off to and sat around telling stories and chatting with those at the table beside us.
When we finally decided to get up and leave I was pleasantly buzzed and a little concerned about heading to the artisan market we had planned. When sober, I suffer from what I’ll call “only when I travel” justified spending, and I was sure alchohol would only enhance this effect. Nevertheless, we headed to the first of the two artisan markets we visited that day.
My passion for souvenir shopping has somewhat subsided over my last few trips as I’m realizng most of the trinkets “unique” to a place are often mass produced in another place, say China perhaps. Earlier, while traveling along the coast, we came across exact replicas of masks, drums, dancing turtles, etc that we had seen earlier this summer in Bali. Thankfully, the artisan market Michelle and Pola took me to was different; everything is hand-made, often with the artists right before you selling their goods from a stall they rent for the day. There are unique wool clothes, high quality leather made goods, wooden boxes, and different varieties of mates, which is what I had my mind set on. Just outside the market, there was a woman who displayed mates as well, and before I knew it, and against much protest, Pola generously bought me one. My obsession of people drinking mate from earlier in the week has grown, perhaps suprisingly, into a genuine taste and liking for it. I plan to enjoy it occassionally at home on my porch, with gypsy:)
In between shopping, I also had a chance to check out a little bit more of the old city, particularly Independence Plaza where the masuleum of Jose Artigas; the man who is credited with bringing independence to Uruguay, stands center, surrounded by neo-classical delights such as the Palace Salvo.
I particularly enjoyed walking around the old city again, marveling at the archictectural wonders that line the streets, some painted with homegrown Uruguayan flair, such as this picture of candombe, the wild drumming that takes place throughout Uruguay during Carnival.
Others with more universal symbols of economic struggles and politics found throguhout the world.
Still, there are certain things unique to Montevideo that I have not experieced or seen in other cities I’ve visited. For example, while it is quite common to see first and second floor windows of apartments protected by bars, in the old section of the city we came across windows that were filled/blocked shut with giant cement bricks. The explanation? When a home is left alone without someone occupying it for whatever reason, others can come in and set up house. According to both Michelle and Pola, these people would then have squatter rights, making it virtually impossible to remove them from your home.
As “dangerous” as Montevideo might seem to some, there is much charm and genuine happiness to be found if one looks past the barred windows and protected entrance ways to find the friendly and laid back people who kindly welcome visitors with open arms.
Friday: Off to Colonia! It was a gorgeous day when we set out on the road, heading inland away from the coast. Driving past estancia’s, wineries, and little towns, I was able to see a side to Uruguay I had yet to witness. In addition to the small farms that advertised homegrown vino, queso, and dulces, we came across some interesting signage, such as this:
After driving for about three hours, we finally arrived at the picturesque old cobblestone streets that line Colonia Del Sacramento. Originally founded as a Portugese port, Colonia eventually lost prominence to Buenos Aires by the end of the 19th century. Today, the town is so well preserved that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage sight and is a major stop for any visitor to this region of South America. We spent the day strolling down by the riverside past the old city walls, browsing too expensive boutiques, and enjoying lunch by the water at a place called El Torron.
Saturday morning, bright and early Michelle headed to the airport to start her first class journey home. I on the other hand had one more full day in Uruguay, which could be problematic being I don’t speak Spanish. Earlier in the week, I had fancied spending the day roaming around the old city by myself, exploring the Saturday morning market, then later in the evening sipping wine in the hotel bar while I caught up on my writing. When the notion of me staying in a hotel was brought up a few days earlier however, Michelle’s cousins Walter and Arianna were appalled I would even consider such an option and insisted I stay with them; an offer that I gratefully accepted.
Saturday: I opted not to take the ride with Michelle to the airport and sleep in a little. Around noon, Pola and Pablo came to the apartment and we all headed out to La Feria; a movable market where one can find housewares, clothing, souvenirs, paintings, cds, cell phone accessories, books, and pretty much anything else you could think of. I enjoyed wandering through the different sections of covered stalls, away from the tourist section of the city, among the real inhabitants of Montevideo.
Walking back, we strolled along La Rambla, a beautiful road, bike/walk path, that travels the length of the coastline of the city. Montevideo is particularly beautiful here.
Afterwards, we had lunch back at the house, then drove about an hour east of the city to hit the beach. Around 9pm I was treated to a picture perfect sunset (of course, I didn’t have my camera) to which everyone on the beach applauded. This is a tradition in Uruguay, which, like many other things I’ve observed this week, exhibits the pleasure with which Uruguayans embrace life. Things as simple as a sunset, which I often take for granted, here are applauded on a regular basis.
Beautiful coastline beaches, classical architecture and great food are all reasons enough to come to this little gem of South America, but most importantly, for me it has been the people who have made it special…oh and the canines too.