By which I mean both that Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja has many buildings – in some parts most – in need of restoration, and that the visitor needs to be wary both of the undoubtedly treacherous pavement and also of possibly treacherous inhabitants. It is at best disconcerting to have one’s hostess announce that on leaving the building after dark one should on no account turn west towards the post office tower, while heading east would be quite safe. Especially when re-entering Casa Sarandi’s apartment building requires one to turn one’s back to the street while wrestling somewhat painfully with a large and recalcitrant iron key. Don’t misunderstand, I quite liked Montevideo, but it did occur to me that staying on the edge of the Old City was perhaps not my best idea.
It took me the better part of a day to get from Puerto Iguazu to Montevideo, flying via Buenos Aires, because I didn’t trust the short layovers offered by most of the options, and because I wanted to arrive in daylight. As it turned out, my inbound flight was an hour late, and I would have been hard-pressed to make the shorter connection. Even if I had made it, my luggage might not have done: the young couple who arrived at the Casa Sarandi my last evening had to wait around until 21:00 for their luggage to catch up to them. I, on the other hand, ate a leisurely if unimpressive lunch in the terminal building, and sauntered through security. (Note: don’t plan to eat or drink after clearing security, the service just for coffee was abysmal.)
Riding the shuttle in from the airport I was immediately impressed by how much nicer Montevideo looked than Rio had. Admittedly, we started out along the no-doubt upmarket waterfront, but even when we turned inland the low rise buildings were neat and well-cared for. Until we got to the Barrio Sur. Must be the wrong part of town, I thought, no doubt it will improve when reach the Ciudad Vieja. It didn’t. The shops had already closed, and the solid metal shutters had an unwelcoming effect, as did the graffiti – it wasn’t even artistic graffiti. During the day, at least Monday to Friday, when the shops are open, and the vendors out on the pedestrian streets, the eastern part of the old town is a nice place to wander, although even then I found the western section very run down and deserted, aside from the area around the Mercado del Puerto.
I did a lot of walking in Montevideo. Some in the old town – in daylight, some along the waterfront – not recommended as the views aren’t much and there is no shade at all, and some on the way to Parque Rodo – where I encountered mosquitoes, an ancient fun-fair and little else of note. From the Parque I made my way past some posh apartment blocks to the Punta Carretas shopping center. It seemed a pretty standard mall, with many brands I recognized, and also AC, drinkable coffee and wifi in the cafes. Montevideo’s best feature, though, may well be the pretty parks strung along Av. 18 de Julio, and the trees, currently a feathery spring green, lining many of its streets.
According to the map provided by the T.I., there are twenty museums in Montevideo, ranging from coins to Carnaval. I confess to only visiting two, and only enjoying one, the Decorative Arts museum in the Palacio Taranco (which I just noticed isn’t actually listed as a museum!) I also had a cultural evening at the Teatro Solis, which anchors the south side of the Plaza Independencia, across from the Radisson, but it was Swedish culture. I was in town for the last night of the Seventh Percussion Festival, and went to see a group called Kroumata. It was undoubtedly interesting, but clearly I have not kept up with the trends in percussion, for some of the pieces were way too avant garde for my taste. Thin metal rods and plastic plates? A bemusing assortment of items having nothing to do with traditional percussion instruments. Two pieces for oversized xylophones…
Since I travel alone, I generally eat alone, which means that I usually drink the house wine by the glass. So I was glad to notice a shop in the old town, Esencia Uruguay, offering tastings. Not free, but not too pricey, either. I tried three wines, with bread, a nice cheese, and a preserve. A Cabernet Franc, a Tannat, and a Cabernet Franc/Tannat blend. I preferred the Tannat, a grape I hadn’t met before, but not enough to buy a bottle.
One of my friends seems to think I write too much about food, but I can’t write about Montevideo without mentioning the truly excellent beef I ate in two different restaurants (with apologies to the vegetarian friend). One was at the very touristy Mercado – at a place just outside the entrance, to the left of a green iron sculpture, with red umbrellas – where I had kidney and steak. I like kidneys, but I was a little taken aback to be served one giant beef kidney, simply cut in half. I managed about three quarters of it, but needed to leave space for the best beef I’ve ever eaten. It was matched on my last night, when I skipped the tapas place I had planned on when I found it hosting some very loud music, and walked on in search of Fodor’s recommended El Fogon. Fortunately I stopped just short of what looked like a major tourist trap, and was talked into Locos de Asar by a combination of the host outside, and an English habitué inside. I had a nice chat with the Englishman, and another excellent meal.
A good cup of coffee or tea seemed harder to come by, especially if I wanted to drink indoors, and I downed an especially bad cup of green tea in especially attractive surroundings at a bookstore just off the Plaza Independencia. Unlike the lovely little apartment I stayed at in Budapest last fall, the Casa Sarandi came with pots and pans and china and glass, but essentially no comestibles, and I was reduced to drinking Nescafe for breakfast.