Montevideo Moods by Daniel Gabriel
In the Plaza Zabala, a young man in a backwards baseball cap sees me studying the gaucho herdsman statue and says, “To understand this one, you must see La Carreta. “In Parque Batlle,” I say. “I have seen it.”
“Ah, wonderful.” He beams. “Belloni. What he shows is our true heritage.” And then, eagerly, he tells me about his uncle living in the States and his desire to visit him soon. During lunch in a Ciudad Vieja cafe, two waiters in crisp brown-and-white uniforms spot my camera and offer to be photographed at the bar, bearing enormous cups of cappuccino on trays. “We are waiters with pride,” one says.
In a dockside neighborhood, I’m puzzling over the picture tiles of tango songs on a corner house when a workman in the nearby auto repair shop downs his tools and we share a lengthy, halting conversation in mixed Spanish and English about the history of Uruguayan tango and the popularity of “La Cumparsita,” the tune most prominently featured on the facade of tiles. “This is ‘La Casa de Becho,’” Osvaldo explains. “When first I started working, Matos Rodriguez—the one they called ‘Becho’—was still living here. He was the writer of one of tango’s most famous tunes. See the students marching there on the tile?”
As dusk tinges the streets around Plaza del Entrevero to deeper grey, I stroll out of the park and past a shy preschool girl sharing a hug with a crouching, gap-toothed old man on the pavement. I drop down quickly to their level, hoping to catch a telephoto shot of the moment, but the old man sees me, encourages the shot, and then asks if I can send him a copy of the photo. “Sure,” I say. “Write down your address.” Surprisingly, he has no address, only a name: Andres. But at the corner kiosk he gets the magazine vendor to list his shop’s address, where Andres can pick up the photo when I send it. We part with big smiles and a firm handshake. I feel as if I’m the only foreign tourist in town.
This is Montevideo, Uruguay, a capital city and one of the great seaports of the world. Yet the only visitors appear to be portenos from Buenos Aires, across the vast Rio de la Plata. Admittedly, there are no tremendous must-see attractions here, but between the casual, friendly ambience and the astonishingly low prices, this is a destination worth pursuing; the city has 37 museums, 19 performing theaters, and eleven major parks.
But before we dive into the moody, stonewashed streets, consider for a moment some history: A century ago, which country had the most progressive social welfare state in the world? A place with an eight-hour workday, unemployment insurance, pensions, free health care, free education, legalized divorce, no death penalty, and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press? Canada? Switzerland? Somewhere in Scandinavia? The answer is Uruguay.
The tiniest republic in South America, Uruguay is an integral part of Mercosur, the common market of the continent’s southern cone, which also includes Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. And while North Americans may think only of its prized beef cattle, and Europeans may know it mostly as the winner of the first football World Cup, Uruguay has quietly forged a strong social compact that has withstood the economic pressures of the past few decades.
The original architect of the welfare state was Jose Batlle (pronounced bah-zhay), who used his two terms as president to overcome the strong-arm rule of the landowning elite which stifled so many other Latin American countries. Since the heyday of Uruguayan beef and wool exports declined a half century ago, the country has struggled to maintain its standards of living and civil compact, but I saw less extremes of wealth and poverty—and a greater sense of public ownership—than in any other Latin country I’ve visited.
Some of this is due, no doubt, to Uruguay’s stubborn separateness from its giant neighbors, Argentina and Brazil. The country actually achieved its independence not from Spain, but from Brazil, in 1830. And to counter the overweening influence of nearby Buenos Aires and its vast hinterlands, the Uruguayans proudly label themselves Orientales because they live on the oriental, or eastern side of the Uruguay River. Against the chaotic flash of Brazil, and the silky-smooth sophistication of the urban Argentine, Montevideo offers a faded old-world gentility that is surprisingly affecting. They may be struggling to maintain the old standards, but the commitment to it remains.
I took the bus to Montevideo from the former Portuguese smuggling port of Colonia del Sacramento on Uruguay’s southwestern coast, on through cattle country and tidy villages with Alpine names. I leave my bag at Tres Cruces Terminal—an airy, clean shopping area as well as bus terminal; Greyhound could learn a lot here—and wander the embassy district and the huge Parque Batlle. Everywhere there is green. Horses nibble at the long grass. In the distance, a pair of lovers huddle on a stone bench, sharing each other’s warmth. The park has an under-wraps fun fair, impressive sculptures, a velodrome, and the Estadio Centenario, the site of the first World Cup in 1930. That Cup was won by Uruguay and there are still bronze plaques honoring the team, as well as foreign stars from the event. Outside the stadium, a local team is running drills on a practice pitch and two workmen in coveralls hose down the cement arrival area.
But everything in Montevideo starts with the harbor. Here was the first settlement of the city, by the Spanish in 1726. Here the freighters of the world once loaded their holds with rich pampas beef and thick merino wool. And here the hydrofoils still glide back and forth on the three-hour run across the Rio de la Plata estuary to Montevideo’s dominant sister city, Buenos Aires. While the romance of the port is now greatly transformed due to container shipping—a boring demise suffered by all the world’s classic seaports during the 1970s and ’80s—the harbor is still Montevideo’s main link with the outside world. As a reminder of how close that world can come, outside the customs building sits a cannon from the German ship Graf Spee, which was sunk in the harbor during WWI.
Just across the Rambla 25 de Agosto (celebrating the date Uruguay declared its independence from Brazil), is the famed Mercado del Puerto, the old fish market down by the harbor. A cavernous wrought-iron and wood building with distant skylights and a British rail station clock tower inside, the Mercado now houses a handful of tiny shops selling tango memorabilia and the work of local artisans and—most importantly—a dozen parilladas, whose collective lunchtime smells of wood-fired ovens cooking fish and buttery pampas beef can make the driest mouth water in anticipation. I make the rounds—in classic Montevideo fashion none of the restaurants are overly elegant, yet reputation says that all offer tasty food. I finally choose a quick chivito (steak sandwich with the works) and salad, then head back into the streets. There are also forces which bind all the lands of the River Plate together. Catholicism and football are obvious, as was the onus of dictatorship a generation ago. Uruguay experienced a rare spike in global consciousness at the time of the Tupamaros, one of the earliest urban guerilla groups, whose brief eruption of violence paved the path for a military takeover that lasted from 1973-85.
But beneath these as a shared cultural trait is the healthy addiction to the humble yerba mate plant. The drink made from its leaves was first cultivated in southern Paraguay by the Jesuits, after being introduced to them by the local Guarani Indians. Mate is something of a communal religion throughout South America’s southern cone, but nobody is more fervent in their devotion to it than Uruguayans. Many people carry a drinking gourd and thermos of hot water around with them wherever they go. Sips are shared among friends. An elaborate etiquette of preparation is known and performed by all. Shops even advertise hot water refills for on-the-go citizens.
To the visitor, it lends a casual atmosphere to busy commercial streets and recalls what is now a long-lost era in Britain, when even shops and shoppers stopped for teatime. This neighborly feel carries right through the city barrios. There are no chain stores, no massive supermarkets, just tiny groceries and family-owned shops that make each street its own self-contained world. With garbage cart horses plodding past, and tiny food wagons offering a takeaway lunch, and flower vendors at tables on the sidewalks, I feel enveloped in the atmosphere of bygone days.
I spend my time in Montevideo walking, walking, walking. I eat in little workingman cafes; have breakfasts at Oro del Rhein, a 75-year-old classic German bakery/cafe, and watch the clusters of mate drinkers form and dissolve. I walk cobbled streets past flower vendors, and dip in for cappuccino whenever my energy flags. There are remnants of 19th-century French and Spanish colonial architecture everywhere, especially above the ground floor. Long-haired artisans display their creations on street side blankets. Vendors of herbs and oddments set up little tables and bargain with the passersby. The clopping of horses’ hooves from the garbage carts is constant throughout the day, and adds to the air of shabby gentility that seems to hang over the city.
I dawdle in the plazas, which feel like the city’s barrio heartbeats: Plaza del Entrevero the flowerstrewn link to the city center; Plaza Independencia the nation’s pride, with the neo-classical Teatro Solis, the overwhelming bulk of Palacio Silva (once the tallest building in South America), and the last remaining remnant of the old Spanish city gates; Plaza Zabala, a spot to doze in the sun and dream of colonial days. My favorite is Plaza de la Constitucion, which is encircled by Iglesia Matriz, the oldest church in the country (1799) and the Cabildo, or old colonial town hall, which holds a museum of local artifacts.
In fact, the Ciudad Vieja, the old city, has several fine little museums, including ones featuring decorative tiles, city history, and the reconstructed interiors of noblemen’s houses. They are all free, in keeping with the Uruguayan approach. I’m struck by the frequent signs in plazas and other public spaces saying, in effect: This belongs to you. Treat it that way.
The best museum I visit is the Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda, housed in the Palacio Heber, an amazingly plush old French mansion. While I’m there the only other patrons are a school group in their white labcoat uniforms. “The life of the gaucho was extremely hard,” their guide is saying, though you wouldn’t know it by looking around the museum. One room is devoted just to the silver spurs of the gauchos. Another just to fancy mate gourds. Others have weapons, horse apparel, statues. Extremely fine work . . . but an odd setting for the legendary rough-hewn outdoor life.
After several overcast days, the sun peeks through and the city is suddenly filled with street life. Flower vendors blossom on every corner. The shoeshine men step sprightly and snap their cloths with a crisper touch. Schoolkids in uniform shriek past and make for the nearest park. Now the plazas are filled with old men arguing the results of the upcoming elections and mate drinkers sitting placidly as fountains play behind them. I can’t recall seeing a single rich person, nor anyone exceptionally poor. Birds flutter and chirp in the trees. Two little girls in red walk past, giggling as their ice cream dribbles onto their shirts.
Up near the center of town, at the north end of Avenida Libertador, is one of the finest buildings in the city. The 1908 Palacio Legislativo is a three-story neoclassical gem. Thick with burnished wood and marble pillars, it makes an appropriate culmination for my visits to Montevideo’s architectural highlights. While there are regular tours in English, I choose not to wait and jump in with a Spanish one led by a guide named Maria, who switches to English for my sake whenever she senses that I might be missing her drift. While the Senate chamber and the main entrance hall are clearly the focus of magisterial pomp, my favorite room is the library, lined with exotic wood. “Here the senators can withdraw,” says Maria. “To study . . .” She indicates the rows of leather-bound volumes, “or just to think,” and points out the deep leather chairs, so grand they look as if they could double as beds for weary legislators overwrought by tricky decisions.
At the outer door I nod goodbye at the youthful guardsmen in antique dress uniforms and imagine myself descending the great steps to the cheering masses. Except, I reflect, Uruguayans don’t really seem the “masses” type. They’re more refined than that. More sophisticated; less prone to hysteria. Not dramatic, perhaps, and this certainly makes for a livable land. On my last day in town, I catch a creaking bus down the length of the old city cobbles, disembarking on one of the slowly crumbling side streets, where gentrification not only means fresh tourist pesos, but an inevitable end to the current pattern of life. The stevedore jobs are gone. The life of the port seems to retreat like the tide, further and further away from citizens’ doorsteps. But there’s no sense of surrender. Not yet.
Ahead of me, the massive customs office—an exemplar of socialist realist architecture—leads to a stretch of road and the gleaming hydrofoil towards Buenos Aires. Once inside the hydrofoil, it’s like riding a spacious aircraft, but with extra decks and a working cafeteria. I settle in alongside a window, watching Montevideo’s first raison d’etre—the hill of El Cerro; still with a lighthouse flashing from its peak—and then we rumble out of the bay and slide westwards towards the all-consuming hub of Argentina.
Daniel Gabriel is the author of the novel TWICE A FALSE MESSIAH and two story collections WRESTLING WITH ANGELS and TALES FROM THE TINKER'S DAM. He's also authored hundreds of nonfiction articles on immersion travel, baseball, rock ‘n’ roll and the like. He holds an M.A. in Cross-cultural Studies and served for many years as statewide Director of Arts Programming for COMPAS. Daniel is also a lifelong vagabond traveler who has taken camelback, tramp freighter, and third class trains through over 100 countries (including Iceland in 2015).
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