Two Uruguays

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Lately I’ve been reading too much news, and none of it is encouraging.  The loud little voice inside my head wants to scramble off the map and hide out somewhere for a couple of milennia.  A few Portuguese on the other side of the Río de la Plata found their patch of paradise back in 1680, on a beautiful little spit of sand surrounded by water.  Manuel Lobo, founder of the colony, should be recognized as the inventor of modern soccer because he and the Spanish kept kicking ownership of la Colonia del Sacramento back and forth until 1828, with Brazil and Spain coaching.

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Full steam ahead to the 21st century.  Colonia became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus attained tourist trap status, but managed to maintain its sweet and idyllic vibe, keeping the plastic and trashy side of commercialism at bay.

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The polka dot place serves free art with every meal, and plenty of locally crafted cerveza.  A chopp [pronounced like the o in slope] is a draft beer; a choperia is a pub.

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In Colonia you can fish or picnic under a ceibo,

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or grab a cold one at the Casa Grande.

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There’s an ancient stone lighthouse (el faro) that you can climb up for the panoramic view,

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and cool vistas to the south, looking across the river towards Buenos Aires.

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The Basilica del Santísimo Sacramento was built by the Portuguese in 1808.

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I think it’s pretty cool.  Like the fountain, too.

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Colonia’s massive portals and high stone walls hide secrets and forgotten stories; maybe even pirate treasure!

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Felix Luna, Argentine historian and writer, lived here.  Santos really likes his books.

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We stayed at the Posada Don Antonio, which has a lovely breakfast room and a beautiful patio and pool.

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From there it’s a two minute walk to a quiet abandoned cala (cove),

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and just past it, a block or two from the water’s edge, you pass the old map of Colonia, embedded in a wall.

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The dock, on the sheltered side of the peninsula, was warm and sunny the day we visited.

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We had a snack at the polka dot place, in the shade of an ancient sycamore.

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Fast track to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Montevideo has an historic district, la ciudad vieja, and parts of it are worth seeing.

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We took a tour of the neoclassical Teatro Solis, built in 1856.  Beautiful inside and out!  It belongs to the city now, and they have done much to repair and restore it. The list of world renowned singers, dancers and musicians who lit up the stage there is absolutely mind-blowing:  Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, Arturo Toscanini, Ana Pavlova, Margarita Xirgu (actress and friend of Federico Gárcia Lorca), Rudolf Nureyev, Josephine Baker, actresses Lola Membrives and Eleonora Duse, dancers Isadora Duncan and Tórtola Valencia, Astor Piazzolla, and Italian actor and director Vittorio Gassman.

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There’s a couple of French style Baccarat crystal chandeliers inside which even I, lover of funky ranch and mission style, was drooling over.

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While the Big Baccarat might feel quite at home in the new winter white house (if it could stand the company) it would be be seriously slumming in my dream fixer-upper:

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Oops! Did I unconsciously lapse into an alternative reality?  I didn’t see that comin’… did you?

The tall white building in the background, across the plaza from the old customs house, is home to the mercado del puerto … where you can buy fruits and veggies, beef and freshly caught fish, and all the other stuff you’d rather not buy at the supermarket.  We did go to the supermarket a couple of times, and it was a nightmare. It was small, super jammed (the aisles were narrower than the legroom in economy class) and an altogether unpleasant experience.

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The old customs house is still beautiful:

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Back of the old customs house is the river, where a couple of pitiful boats were tied up. We went for a sunset happy hour cruise, live tropical music on deck.  I was hoping for a cocktail to go with the tropical beat, like a Mojito or a Daiquiri, but to my dismay they only serve beer and soft drinks.  I guess they don’t want customers drinking, dancing and falling overboard.  So who’s gonna feed the fish?

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The bronze horseman in Plaza Zabala is Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, founder of the city, who no doubt wrested the land single-handed from a bunch of native fishermen who were tragically underinformed vis-a-vis the use of explosive powders in modern colonial warfare.

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We heard rumors of a milonga at a place called La Pérez, and we found it, but there hadn’t been a milonga there for a really long time. However, checking the local milonga listings, La Perez is still happening, but at a place called Lo de Maria, on a different night.

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Undaunted, though it was Sunday, we did find a milonga: Joventango, at Mercado de la Abundancia.  Calle Aquiles Lanza 1290 esq San Jose.  9:30 pm – 2 am.

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The developed part of Montevideo, aka the banking district, rumored to be the Latin American version of a money laundering automat, like the Caymans, contrasts starkly with years of mismanaged and stalemated development.  Oops!  I forgot that’s called progress.

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Reminds me of Texas: saving unborn lives is a top priority, or so they say; but once those babies are born, hells’ bells kid, you’re on your own!  No guarantee of education, housing or healthcare or jobs… but you can carry a gun.  Here in Montevideo the ubiquitous A/C units look like a blight of tin boxes on the facades of almost every building.  When was the last time you bought a new car that didn’t come with air conditioning?

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Thankfully the local stevedores still have a labor union. The average daily pay is better than the minimum wage in Mexico.  Impressed?

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If you think President Ban/Trump is going to support the higher minimum wages the AFL-CIO or AFW will be asking for when they build all those new auto factories they’ve promised in Michigan, guess again. Maybe they’ll be relocated to Uruguay, now that Mexico won’t have us. ¡Pobre México, tan lejos de Díos, tan cerquita a los Estados Unidos! (Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the U.S.)

The “historic district” of Montevideo is block after block of hopelessly rundown and deteriorating buildings. Such a shame.

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Rumor has it that when the government expropriated most of the properties in la ciudad vieja, it was given to the military generals, who kept it but didn’t keep it up. Here you see the results. This story was told to us by someone who’s family has been living in the same house continuously for over 100 years.  And now I’ve probably said too much.

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Note the sign: no free parking on this street.  Gracias, mi general.

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This building’s classical beauty begs for restoration.  Somebody fix me up, please!

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Despite all the issues facing the people of Montevideo, they still have a collective sense of place:  I Love my Neighborhood!

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The upshot: of the two Uruguays, Colonia gets my vote.  The worst day in Colonia beats the best day in Montevideo.  Sorry, Montevideo!

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Happy to be back home in Buenos Aires

Stay tuned:  your travel guide to the beautiful province of Córdoba coming soon!

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