After a few days in Colonia we got a bus three hours East to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. Over one third of the 3.5 million Uruguayans live in Montevideo, and you get the sense that it’s a mini Buenos Aires (montevideanos probably wouldn’t like it being described as that!). We stayed for two days by the beach and then five days on the edge of the old town, which was a good way to see different sides of the city. It was a place I could not make my mind up about. Some days I’d think it’s a really nice city, and some days I’d think it was just a bit run down with not too much to do.
For our first two days by the beach we stayed in a nice and cosy hostel which was a 20 minute bus ride from the main part of the city, but was a good place to stay for windy walks along the beach (pretty cold at this time of year) and nice little cafes. Something common in Argentina and Uruguay is trendy bookshop-come-cafes, we found a stylish one by the sea, where we spent a good few hours drinking coffee, eating fruit tarts and reading. The second day by the beach was particularly windy and rainy, so we took shelter in another cafe (eating and drinking being somewhat a main part of our trip), where Toby got to try a traditional Chivito. This is a Uruguayan classic mega monstrous sandwich containing steak, ham/bacon, egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, olives and mayonnaise. It, of course, came with chips on the side and Toby enjoyed it very much but ended up feeling a bit ill and immobile afterwards.
For the five days in the centre of the city we stayed in the Palacio Salvo, one of the most famous buildings in Montevideo. It used to be a fancy hotel and now the rooms have been made into apartments big and small and offices. The apartment we rented was owned by a slightly barmy old lady (who when we asked where she was from replied ‘we are all just people of the world’), and was teeny weeny. The Palacio Salvo is in the perfect location to explore the old town, which I think is the best bit of Montevideo (although I wish there was more of it).
Most of the pretty buildings and museums are in the old town (or Ciudad Vieja), and it’s much more picturesque than the rest of the city. We found several nice places to eat, most notably a delicious fish restaurant and the Mercado del Puerto (the port market). The Mercado del Puerto is ‘real Uruguayan food’ as the owner of our hostel described it. It’s a large wrought iron structure which is home to lots of restaurants serving asado (a mixed grill over a wood fire made up of a variety of meats including beef steaks, pork, chorizo and more). At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to eat anything as a pescetarian, but they all also serve a variety of grilled seafood and vegetables, which was a relief. We went on a Saturday, which meant it was full of locals and their families, men wandering around playing guitar, and it was also the final of the Copa America, which meant lots of booze and noise. This is probably the thing I would recommend most about Montevideo as the atmosphere was excellent, and Uruguayans are very keen to make friends over a bottle of wine or two.
There are apparently several museums to visit in the old town, but we tried to visit a few on several days and they all seemed to be closed. It is common knowledge that nothing will be open on Sundays, which is a family day, and many things are also closed on Mondays, but we tried on a Tuesday and a Wednesday to visit both the Museo Romantico and the Casa Rivera and both were shut. This is the vibe Montevideo gave when we were there, everything was a little half hearted, and lots of things were closed. It is the winter in the Southern Hemisphere at the moment, but in a fairly big capital city you would expect most things to be open year round. I feel like it has a lot of potential, it has some very impressive buildings, the people are very friendly, and it is surrounded by the sea, but it’s just not quite there.
I think this is depicted quite aptly in its train station which closed in 2003. We stumbled across it one afternoon, and it’s a very impressive building with beautiful statues and imposing columns. As we walked closer we realised it was closed and completely taken over by homeless people. It seemed such a shame that the walls were covered in graffiti and the place stank of urine, as it looked like it ought to be a museum or theatre, a renovated train station, a cultural gem of the city. It had just been forgotten about.
I felt a lot more warmly towards Colonia del Sacramento, which was small but welcoming, and a lot prettier than Montevideo. Montevideo is a pendulum swinging between good and bad; I can’t quite tell whether it’s time has passed, or whether the best is yet to come. I really hope it’s the latter.