A Day in Montevideo
Montevideo is a city I entered completely blind. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Uruguay’s capital. I knew nothing about the country, let alone the city but was very pleasantly surprised by what I found…
Wedged between two South American giants, Uruguay as a country rarely used to feature on travel itineraries. The little neighbour of Argentina and Brazil, Montevideo is emerging as one of the continent’s coolest capitals, renowned for its architecture, spruced-up old quarters and thriving cultural scene.
Our ship cruised into the east bank of the Rio de la Plata and Mum and I had arrived at the southernmost capital city in South America – home to nearly half of Uruguay’s population.
We spent the morning wandering, admiring the ‘vintage’ feel to the streets and marijuana shops… The city had a weird vibe. And maybe it was the weird vibeyness or maybe it was the ‘fuck u bitch’ graffiti, but something about the city caused a moment of mother-daughter tenseness that started with a argument and ended with ‘I LOVE YOU’.
And as the city started to wake up and become alive, the weirdness was quickly transformed into lovable quirkiness and our day that started a bit low took a rollercoaster turn towards the sky.
The streets were filled with matte-drinking locals and street vendors – for a capital city it had a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere amongst the art deco and neoclassical buildings that seemed to be fighting for space alongside grimy, worn-out skyscrapers.
We wandered, we laughed and we browsed the street vendors array of second-hand treasures… And I became obsessed with a certain item that I HAD to have.
It was a pipe.
Yep – a Sherlock Holmes looking pipe.
A bit of background info here – I am a 21-year old who has never smoked a cigarette in her life but had recently met a ventriloquist who was a pipe-smoker and realised it must be one of the greatest conversation starters in the world and HAD to have one. Especially this one. A vintage Italian pipe found at a street stall in Montevideo. It was a MUST HAVE.
I asked the nice stall owner to put it aside for me so I could return with money.
Then there was a problem. No machine in the entire city would accept my Mastercard. Not one. Not even the one where some men with WW1 rifles knocked on the door – they were very friendly and there to restock the machine with money of course…. But guess what – it still wouldn’t work.
With a wallet full of useless Argentinian pesos I tried my luck.
In my Mum’s best Spanish (which is actually quite good) she explained our situation. The man pointed to a money exchange and headed off to exchange our ‘useless’ pesos.
In minor shock my Mum and I stood near his stall in awe of the trust this man had for us. He had left us all alone with all of his beautiful vintage goodies on the streets of this capital city.
After a short while he returned with our exchanged money and a receipt of the transaction. We were still in shock while the man sorted out the cash, gave us our correct change and we stumbled on our way.
I was now a proud pipe owner thanks to the nicest street vendor in
Montevideo the world.
As a proud pipe owner we spent the afternoon doing ,such of the same, exploring the cool city, wandering, laughing, browsing bookstores, walking along the waterfront, enquiring at ‘grow’ shops… Well I was a proud pipe owner after all…
Now I’m very sorry if my experience gives you no information about the city other than there is one particularly kind street vendor there but the truth is that’s all that I learnt about the city in the day I spent there. We did not do a tour, read book or even google the city so we came and left almost clueless about the wonderful city of Montevideo.
So I have included some
well-researched googled reasons to visit Montevideo for you from Traveller:
- Most of Montevideo’s 1.3 million residents are descendants of Spanish and Italian immigrants, giving the city a strong European feel. This former trans-Atlantic slaving port is also home to a vibrant Afro-Uruguayan community, which comes to the fore during the annual Carnaval. Played out to a backdrop of energetic drum rhythms, known as candombe, it lasts more than 40 days from late January and claims to be the world’s longest festival.
- Palacio Salvo is the most eye-catching sight on Montevideo’s largest plaza. Rising 105 metres, this part gothic, part art deco skyscraper was the continent’s tallest building when unveiled in 1928.
- The original fortifications of Ciudad Vieja are gone – barring the stone citadel gateway – but an enchanting bygone feel pervades Montevideo’s old town. Churches and mansions dating back to the 18th century adorn narrow cobbled streets. After decades of neglect, dozens of buildings have been restored and house smart cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants and boutiques. Others, all crumbling charm, are crying out for some TLC.
- Montevideo’s best museums spring off Calle Sarandi, the old quarter’s main strip. Museo Torres Garcia displays the abstract, cubist art of Uruguay’s most famous painter, Joaquin Torres Garcia, a contemporary of Pablo Picasso. A few blocks up, Casa de Rivera offers a potted history of Uruguay with intriguing exhibits such as “head breakers”, starfished-shaped stone weapons crafted by tribes 7000 years ago.
- You’ll get peckish wandering the Ciudad Vieja. For a sugar boost, try churros (doughnuts) or alfajores, sandwich biscuits stuffed with a sticky sweet caramel sauce. Montevideo’s Italian heritage means heaps of pizza and pasta joints. There’s also the truly monstrous chivito. A toasted bread roll crammed with beef, eggs, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, bacon, mushrooms, mayonnaise and ketchup, it’s so filling that if you scoff it at lunchtime you won’t have to eat again til 9pm or 10pm – handy, considering that’s when most Montevideanos pop out for their evening meal.
- Mercado del Puerto by the docks. This wrought-iron arcade is jammed with parrillas (barbecue restaurants) serving high-quality beef from cattle reared on Uruguay’s grassy pastures. The bife de chorizos (sirloin steaks) are every bit as huge, juicy and tender as those in Buenos Aires. Then there’s the parrillada – a jumble of ribs, spicy sausages and offal cuts. Saturday lunchtimes are particularly atmospheric. There’s live entertainment and plenty of Medio y Medio quaffing. This champagne-like bubbly is one of Uruguay’s signature tipples.