Part 4 - Montevideo, Uruguay
March 3rd, 2015 – Montevideo, Uruguay
„I see a mountain!“ This (Monte vido eu!) is what the Portuguese explorer Magellan is said to have shouted when in 1520, during his exploration of Rio de la Plata, he saw a mountain – or with a height of 132 meters (44 ft) probably more of a hill. Reminiscent of this exclamation, it is said that the city which was founded in this place was later called Montevideo.
Today, from the many stories about the naming of Montevideo, this version is considered the most likely. However, the only proven fact is that in 1724 the Spanish, in order to defend the bay, built a military base at the foot of a hill. This base has become the present city of Montevideo, home to some 1.4 million people of a total of 3.3 million inhabitants of Uruguay.
For a start, the view from the Ocean View Café’s outdoor deck onto a ship boneyard in front of the port of Montevideo wasn’t a very inviting sight. Aboard our beautiful Celebrity Infinity we didn’t want to think of the transience of ships. But it didn’t really keep us from enjoying a decent breakfast. Especially at the station towards the rear, where they served Eggs Benedict (among other treats), the service was far too good, and I was basically trained to become a regular …
We were in no hurry. I had found that on weekdays at 11.00 a. m. a free walking tour started from Plaza Independencia. The tour itself is free, but they ask for tips for the guides, who are usually students for whom this is an opportunity to make some extra money. We always enjoy walking tours, but you probably gathered this from previous reports already.
At the square in front of the pier we found some spruced relics of seafaring. It wasn’t until I saw the exhibited rangefinder of „Graf Spee“ that I remembered that in 1939 the famous warship was scuttled by its own crew outside the port of Montevideo.
Our walk towards the Square of Independence took us through the streets of Montevideo, which were just about to wake up. Greengrocers put their goods outside their shops, fashion boutiques opened and the owners took advantage of the calm before the storm to have little chats with their neighbors.
It was fast and easy to reach the Square of Independence through the streets of the old city. In the center of the large square, a proud General Artigas is riding on horseback on the roof of his mausoleum. In 1811, Artigas was victorious in his fight against the Vice Kingdom and is today admired as a national hero and regarded as a father figure to Uruguay.
The square is framed by buildings of different architecture and attractiveness. Besides the relatively modern building – the President’s office - and an administrative building whose glass front is disfigured by multiple air conditioning units, there is a gate at the western side of the square which has been preserved and which used to be part of the old city wall. The city wall itself was demolished when Montevideo grew far beyond its original limits.
The impressive Palacio Salvo is towering at the eastern side of the square. Between its inauguration in 1928 and 1935, this Art Deco building was the tallest building in South America. The architect had modeled it on the Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires, also designed by him. The latter, however, was smaller, which gave the inhabitants of Montevideo a certain satisfaction, as traditionally they see themselves in competition with Buenos Aires.
Today, Palacio Salvo is the city’s landmark and a reminder of a time when a prosperous Uruguay had ambitions to become the Switzerland of South America.
In front of Artigas’s mausoleum we soon found a group of young ladies in red T-Shirts showing the Free-Walking-Tour logos. They were just splitting those interested into one English and one Spanish speaking group when we discovered to our delight that Mary and Bob, with whom we had already done the Buenos Aires walking tour, were joining this tour as well.
With youthful charm and humor our tour guide introduced herself as Maria and immediately gave us first facts on Uruguay, Montevideo and some background information on the buildings lining the square.
We left the square through the old gate and entered Calle Sarandi, the city’s pedestrian zone. Maria showed us Montevideo’s version of the “Walk of Fame”, which consisted of black granite slabs in the ground with a laughing sun and the names of some celebrities.
Everywhere in the streets we noticed small multicolored mosaic tiles in between the monochrome ground slabs. According to Maria, the story goes that a stranger comes at night and replaces damaged slabs with those colorful little pieces of art. Nobody knew who it was but everybody was happy for him to continue … Could this story be true? It didn’t matter, but it looked very nice and had become part of Montevideo’s cityscape.
Maria also showed us a beautiful, historic Art-Nouveau building, the Edificio Pablo Ferrando, which was built in 1917 as headquarters of an optical company. This building of glass and metal is still magnificent today and hosts the bookstore “Mas puro verso” (More pure Poetry). Maria also mentioned the café on the first floor which, she said, was very popular with the young crowd.
Cheerful and very congenially, Maria led us through the streets towards Teatro Solis. This venerable theatre was opened in 1856 and was the first major theatre in South America. Even today this lavishly renovated cultural monument exudes the splendor of the old days.
Past the Anglican Church building Templo Ingles we carried on towards Cabo del Sur, the remains of a stronghold directly on the waterfront. We stopped for a little break, which Maria used to tell us more about the country and its people. Of course, no such lecture would have been complete without mentioning the Uruguayans’ consumption of Mate. For some, this tea is their everyday companion, something we had already noticed on our walks through the streets.
The cup, ideally carved from a pumpkin, and its bombilla tubes always in one hand and the thermos flask tucked under the arm for a permanent 24-hour-a-day infusion – this is how Maria caricatured the typical Uruguayan. She joked that there was even medical evidence that, because of this, a proper Uruguayan had an extra muscle in his upper arm. In addition she explained that, similar to smokers, there were two kinds of Mate drinkers: Those who always had a thermos flask on them and the others, who would always scrounge from the first. Self-critically she included herself in the second group.
The next stop of our tour was Plaza Constitucion, also called Plaza Matriz by the locals. It marks the center of Montevideo’s historic district and got its original name from the oath on Uruguay’s first constitution, which was taken here in 1830.
In the center of the square, water was trickling away in a white marble fountain, and an arts and crafts market was held on the gravel paths around the park.
Maria gave us half an hour of spare time here, which we used to visit the cathedral at the end of the square. This monumental building from 1790 is one of the oldest churches in South America and has many supporters among church dignitaries. In 1825, a mission that also included the man who was to become Pope Pius IX named it the most beautiful church in South America. In later years, Pius IX declared it a basilica and finally a cathedral.
Personally, I particularly liked the side altar with glass artwork. The sober, apparently modern picture of cut glass matched the old, magnificently decorated altar. Despite their different styles, both formed a very harmonious unit.
A small baptistry at the side hosted a marble font dating back to 1753. Even national hero Artigas already received his Christian consecration from this font.
After we met Maria back at the fountain, we continued on our way to Plaza Zabala. This square is named after the city’s founder, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, who, also high on horseback, overlooks the city from a monument. At his monument, Maria entertained us with the various versions of the story of how Montevideo got its name.
Further along the side streets, past Uruguay’s National Bank we were about to reach the last stop of our tour – Mercado del Puerto, the Port Market. The market hall with its iron support structure was once commissioned and built in Liverpool to serve as a trading center for years to come. Behind the hall and the touristy sales booths we could see the mighty customs building.
After a group photo for the Free Walking Tours’ Facebook page we said goodbye to Maria and thanked her with a well deserved generous tip. She had done an outstanding job and managed to teach us a lot about the city in a relatively short time with much genuine enthusiasm.
The Port Market, where fruit and vegetables were equally traded in the past, is today the culinary heart of Montevideo – and hell for every vegetarian. Inside the beautiful hall we found countless BBQs and steak restaurants.
The best advertisement for a steakhouse is its barbecue, which is why they were all arranged clearly visible from the aisles. Tons of steaks, sausages and South American grill specialties sizzled over the coal and exuded a smell which to me was absolutely irresistible. To any meat lover, the sight of those barbecues had to be more beautiful than the most elaborate painting, as artistic as it might be.
It didn’t require much imagination to dream about how wonderful these delicacies would taste with the sauces on the tables.
Together with Mary and Bob, who had also come to see the inside of the hall, we immediately knew: we couldn’t and didn’t want to leave Montevideo without a meal at the Port Market. We found a small table in one of the many restaurants, and the ladies promptly ordered a bottle of Medio y Medio, a local specialty which Maria had recommended.
The food was excellent and surprisingly inexpensive. But above all, this would be one of those moments which we would remember for a very long time.
After our meal we meant to go for another stroll through the pedestrian zone but were soon surprised by some heavy rain drops and a sky which grew darker by the second. We remembered the café in the bookstore Maria had mentioned. Luckily, we reached the shelter of the building before the rain turned into a hefty thunderstorm. As soon as we entered the building, we stopped in awe.
The collected works of literature from all around the world and the historic ambience of the old building created a unique and very inviting atmosphere.
At the top of the grand staircase, behind more rows of bookshelves, we found the café Maria had mentioned. With a delicious coffee and free Wifi we nestled down in a cozy leather sofa and spent the rest of the afternoon in this tranquil location: from the comfort of our couch and with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto gently playing in the background, we looked out on the grey and rainy streets of Montevideo through the large windows of Edificio Pablo Ferrando.
Unfortunately, the rain wouldn’t do us the favor of stopping before we had to return to the ship. With heavy drops falling down on us, the way suddenly seemed much longer than in the morning. When we reached the Infinity, we were soaked and water was dripping from our hair and clothes. That’s why we weren’t only happy to reach the dry interior of the ship, but also grateful for Celebrity’s kind gesture to greet each passenger with dry towels even before security.
The fierce downpour of the afternoon hadn’t clouded our experience or perception of Montevideo. On the contrary. Over dinner at the Blu we talked with Jenny, our incredibly friendly waiter, and told her about the beautiful moment with just the right music at Café “Mas puro Verso”, which surely we would have never experienced without the rain. Nomen est omen – to us it was pure poetry.
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