Visiting Colonia and Montevideo Uruguay: Recipe for a great visit
In a melting pot, combine free range beef, colonial history and a wave of European immigration. Then season with gaucho (a South American cowboy) culture, third world prices and a laid back atmosphere. Let simmer for several centuries and then enjoy a sumptuous taste of the second smallest country in South America - Uruguay. Start with Colonia Del Sacramento as your first course, then it's Montevideo for the second course.
Colonia Del SacramentoColonia Del Sacramento was founded by the Portuguese in 1680 as a base for smuggling goods into Buenos Aires just across the Rio de la Plata. This small fortress town quickly became a bone of contention with the Spanish whose sovereignty was being regularly violated. Jurisdiction over Colonia would see-saw back and forth between Portugal and Spain over the next century. The latter would ultimately wrest control but the town would maintain its Portuguese flavor. The city gate and drawbridge are all that remain of the fortifications that once surrounded the old colony. Stealthily pass by the old cannon at the entrance into the historic district (Barrio Historico), reminiscent of the Alfama section of Lisbon. Winding cobblestone streets separate rows of white plaster houses decorated with bougainvillea-dressed wrought iron works. The Street of Sighs (Calle De Los Suspiros) is the most well-known of Colonia’s roadways but most sources do not indicate how it came to be named. Many of its scenic houses were once brothels. For some unknown reason the ladies-of-the-evening moved on when Colonia became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1970s. Located at the top end of the Street of Sighs, the spacious, tree-lined Plaza Mayor is surrounded by tourist sites. The pink Casa Nacarello, an 18th century Portuguese house, was once the headquarters of the Portuguese smuggling operation. The furnishings inside are not original to the house but they do reflect the period. If the head smuggler owned furnishings like a green canopied bed marked with a griffon/sea horse coat of arms, he must have been a man of status within the community and very successful in his illicit activities. The nearby Portuguese Museum houses items belonging to the original founders of Colonia. Most of the doorways in this house are no higher than 5 feet 5 inches in height; as such I was forced to bend in order to pass between rooms while my wife was able to move throughout the house without any inconvenience whatsoever.
MontevideoMontevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is the second course of your touristy meal. The Citadel of Montevideo was founded in 1726 as Spain’s response to Portuguese Colonia. Montevideo’s fortifications have long since disappeared along with much of its colonial architecture. All that remains is the Gateway of the Citadel (Puerta de la Ciudadela) at one end of the Plaza Independencia, serving as the symbolic entrance into the old city (Ciudad Vieja). Looking around the plaza, your eyes are immediately drawn to the tallest building in Montevideo – the Neo-gothic Palacio Salvo. This 26-storey light gray limestone structure has an almost “Jules Verne rocket design” to it. This building is unique, just like its twin in Buenos Aires. Upon lowering your gaze, you find the centerpiece of the Plaza Independencia – an equestrian statue of General José Artigas. The ashes of the hero of Uruguayan independence from Spain are kept in an underground room beneath the statue. Walking down a set of stairs into the mausoleum, you find an honor guard of two grenadiers flanking a wooden reliquary urn encased in glass. The surrounding marble walls detail the battles fought and major events in Artigas’ life. Quietly exit the mausoleum and enter the old city along Calle Sarandi. At the Plaza Constitucion, you find an outdoor market where people hawk everything from arts and crafts to household items. You also see people enjoying the national drink - a Gaucho tea known as yerba maté. No true Uruguayan would be caught dead without his/her own decorative gourd cup known as a bombilla and metal straw. The bombilla is stuffed to the brim with dry maté leaves before sugar and hot water are added. The flavor of this tea is somewhat reminiscent of straw. For some strange reason this drink of the people is not sold in cafés or restaurants. If you want to purchase your own bombilla and straw, this outdoor market is the place to find it. Shop around for the best price. In the late 19th century, the beef industry was booming and Uruguay actually had a higher standard of living than the United States. Cattle barons had money and they flaunted it by bringing Europe to South America in the form of “Parisian-style” mansions. Some of these are just beyond the Plaza Constitucion. As you are walking around, some sections of the Ciudad Vieja may appear run down but do not assume that you are in a bad neighborhood. Many restoration projects are now lovingly under way. Typical of the French-inspired architecture is the Palacio Taranco, circa 1910. This ornate mansion now houses a decorative arts museum with period furniture, draperies, statues and portraits. Musical rooms feature a grand piano and harpsichord. The grounds include a terrace and fountain but these are off limits and can only be viewed from inside or from the street. A few blocks away, the importance of Uruguay’s cattle and sheep industry becomes most apparent when you visit the Port Market (Mercado Del Puerta). Pass through the door into carnivore heaven. Here you find row-upon-row of reasonably priced Gaucho-style barbeque eateries called “parilladas”. Each has a grill crammed full with beef, lamb, chicken, pork sausage, organ meats and some vegetables. Touts tempt you with trays of fine raw meat and invitations to a table. If a barbeque is not to your liking, you may wish to try Uruguay’s national sandwich – the chivito. However to do so, you must leave the Ciudad Vieja. Exit the old town by way of the beach with a scenic walk along La Rambla. At La Esquina del Chivito, you can enjoy a reasonably priced chivito for two. The chivito filling varies but often includes combinations of beef, ham, chicken or pork topped with onions, olives, cheese, mayonnaise and a fried egg. A side of fries is usually included as well. When you finish your meal, whether it is barbeque or chivito, pretend you are one of the locals. Just relax on a quiet park bench and savor your surroundings because you will likely be too full to do anything else.
If You Go