21 August 2013
To get to Montevideo I take the bus 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. After leaving my bag at Tres Cruces Terminal—an airy, clean shopping area as well as bus terminal; Greyhound could learn a lot here—I wander the embassy district and the huge Parque Batlle. Everywhere is green. Horses nibble at the long grass. In the distance a pair of lovers huddles 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.
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 streetside 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 flower-strewn 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.
All along Montevideo’s peninsula setting are Las Ramblas, recalling for me the famous Ramblas in Barcelona. But where in Catalonia these walking streets bisect the center of the old city, here they ring it, working around the edges like a fishing net scooping up the crumbling art nouveau buildings from the grey rush of the river estuary. Further east, Montevideo sports a string of fine beaches, exceptional in such urban surroundings, and the Ramblas form a handsome esplanade with palm trees and apartment blocks, but here, embracing the Ciudad Vieja (the Old City) the meandering stone walkways are windswept and tatty. Lone fishermen work the undersides of jetties; in the lee of statues are remnants of last night’s furtive parties, and cats glide in silence from outcropping to outcropping. The wind is loud in my ears.
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.
As dusk tinges the streets around Plaza del Entrevero to deeper grey I stroll out of the park and past a shy pre-school 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.
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 the working class clings to the traditional ways, knowing that while gentrification might mean fresh tourist pesos, it would inevitably end their pattern of life. The stevedore jobs are gone. The life of the port seems to retreat like the tide, further and further away from their doorsteps. But there’s no sense of surrender. Not yet.
Ahead of me the massive customs office—an exemplar of socialist realist architecture—leads through to a stretch of road and the gleaming hydrofoil to Buenos Aires. 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.