Feb 8, 2015
“Travelers see what they see, tourists see what they came to see.” GK Chesterton.
We honestly didn’t know what we came to see in Montevideo. Forty seven years ago Suzi and I came within a hair’s breadth of moving here. We were assigned to the Peace Corps in Uruguay but just before we left for our three week honeymoon trip, our fling before going into Peace Corps, we got a call. Peace Corps was pulling out of Uruguay because of political unrest and our project was canceled. We took the money we had budgeted for three weeks in Europe and extended it to seven weeks. By the time we got back the University of Minnesota has made me a job offer so we never made it into the Peace Corps or Uruguay. This is a deferred trip. Before arriving we made no lists. Knowing a little history we set out to see, hear, feel, taste and smell. I noticed some small things right away. Street signs have advertising on them. Why not? (Plaza Constitution is brought to you on this corner by Movistar, your mobile phone service.) Gas stations still call themselves service stations and they look like they are prepared to do more than pump gas and sell junk food.
We encountered a downtown with a mix of architecture that started with 1880s “classic” style, flowed into Art Nouveau into Art Deco into Bauhaus into international. It was all shuttered on a Sunday morning. Some of it was more than Sunday shuttered, it was bricked up, boarded up and wired up. At street level downtown looks seedy, some of that is because of the shutters over shops but some of it was just run down. But look up and the buildings are beautiful. At street level some of the classic fronts with Doric columns and some of the classic art deco have been painted bright colors. The parks and squares are also beautiful, with only a handful of people enjoying them on a Sunday morning and early afternoon.
We took both the self-guided walking tour provided by the city and the city run hop on/hop off bus tour. For the walking tour we followed the route on the map, with some detours of course, not reading ahead about what we were supposed to see. When something caught our eye we looked to see if it was marked as significant on the map. If it was we knew a little more about it. If not, we saw it anyway. Montevideo likes to think of itself as European but the best known and most famous café in, say Vienna, would not be closed at 1 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. The one in Montevideo was. Downtown is dead on Sunday, we found the doors to the Cathedral locked.
We took the hop on/hop off bus through the downtown and the older art deco residential areas, with some well kept houses and many more run down and splattered with graffiti. One block was lovely the next seedy. This deco quarter world would have been THE place to live in the 50’s and 60s and may be again. We drove further toward the newer high rise sections of town with malls, and hotels, condos and beaches. We found the people. And as the afternoon progressed we found a lot of people at the covered market near the port where they looked at crafts and ate meat.
You can smell the port market blocks before you see it. It is one of those 19th century style cast iron and glass covered markets but it does not sell fruit and veg. It is a series of barbeque pits and meat grills. Uruguayans are carnivores and hundreds of people were sitting at benches and tables in this old market, filled with the smoky smell of grilling meat. The market has a dark cast, the glass covering it is smoked. All pictures look out of focus because of the smoke. The meat is hot, the beer cold and the mood convivial with tango in the streets. I might have liked living here.