Two styles for Carmelo

A modern international resort synergizes with the past.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Ever since it was inaugurated in 1999, the exclusive resort with the Four Seasons brand in Carmelo has been an architectural benchmark for home builders in that part of Uruguay. When its management was taken over by the the Canadian chain in 2001, its service set a standard to be imitated on both sides of the River Plate, and the massages and beauty treatments done in its Balinese-style spa are still unbeatable.
Its 18-hole par 72 golf course, designed by a prestigious architectural firm, is the venue of many important international tournaments. Most people go there to relax in the spa, play golf and be pampered. There are, however, additional options in the surroundings, including a surprise connection with the region’s colonial past.
One of the most interesting excursions offered by the resort is a horseback ride to Finca Narbona, a farm with dairy cattle, an artisan cheese factory, a vineyard, an old winery that harbors a two-room inn, and a restaurant where you are served prime cold delicatessen accompanied by a full-bodied Tannat wine, and maybe a plate of pasta later if you have room for more. The ride through the forest and hills takes two hours, and after lunch a minibus will take you back to the resort if you feel more like a nap than further riding.

But there is much more than this upscale undertaking to be found in the Uruguayan countryside halfway between Carmelo and Nueva Palmira. Finca Narbona occupies only a tiny part of what was once Estancia Narbona, an extensive colonial estate that lived more off limestone quarrying and lime making than cattle. The property belonged to Juan de Narbona, an enterprising Spaniard who in 1707 arrived in Buenos Aires young and illiterate, but endowed with a keen business sense. Like many other entrepreneurs of his time, he was involved in a vaquería business, tanning hides and making tallow from fat obtained from wild cattle hunted by gauchos. However, he found slave trading and limestone quarrying to be more lucrative. Less than 10 years after his arrival in the New World, he was Buenos Aires’ leading lime producer and Governor Juan Valdez Inclán gave him the land on which he built the Pilar Church, inaugurated in 1732. It was said at the time that he did very well in smuggling and usury as well. The tunnels between his Buenos Aires mansion and the river were the talk of the town.
It was also rumored that Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, the governor of Buenos and founder of Montevideo who helped Narbona get a concession to the land in Uruguay where he established a new limestone quarry, was one of his debtors.
Narbona built his Uruguayan estate house with its adjacent chapel on a hilltop above the Víboras River around 1735. The lime kilns he installed there were the first in that part of the River Plate Viceroyalty. Firewood from the virgin forests in the region and the hides provided by the enormous herds of wild cattle that roamed there were additional sources of income that helped him consolidate his fortune in Buenos Aires, get further construction contracts, and build the Catalinas monastery and church, inaugurated in 1745.
When Narbona died in 1750, he was buried beneath the floor of the Pilar Church, long before the Argentine government banned such enterrements and built the present Recoleta Cemetery.
The Jesuits, who began operating the Estancia del Río de las Vacas in the vicinity of Narbona’s estate in 1742, also quarried limestone. They too had slaves and were the ones who introduced viticulture in what is now Uruguay. But grapevines were not planted around the present-day Finca Narbona until the beginning of the 20th century.

Motorists coming from Carmelo find the entrance to Finca Narbona a little past the 150-year-old Castells bridge and water mill on the Víboras River. The dirt road to Estancia Narbona, on the other hand, is immediately to the right after crossing the bridge. It leads to another dirt road that branches off to the left and up to the hilltop where the main house is located.

Surrounded by an informal park graced by large native trees, the grey, humidity-besieged house looks a bit like a fortress with its thick walls, high gabled roofs, tall windows with wrought iron gratings, and three-floor lookout tower. The “L” that it forms with the chapel embraces a broad paved patio enclosed by a low wall in which the wrought iron entrance gate is flanked by massive pillars.
In the chapel two wall niches contain religious images, and a wooden door in the floor leads to a sepulcher in which local people and the family’s slaves were buried and, it is believed, to a tunnel leading to the river.
The tower was built by Narbona’s son-in-law, Martín Camacho, who continued exploiting the property after the death of his father-in-law.
When I was there in 2006, several long ceramic “thigh tiles” used for roofing – so called because slaves formed them atop their thighs – lay in a pile beneath one of the windows of the church.
The resort does not encourage guests to visit the old Estancia Narbona estate house because it has had little if any maintenance work, despite being a National Historical Monument and property of the Uruguayan government since the 1950s. However, they will tell you the open hours and you can go in a remise.
The Narbona estate house and chapel can be visited every day but Monday and Friday, from 9am to 5pm. Call the caretaker at +598-540-4154 to say when you plan to arrive.
The phone number of Finca Narbona is +598-540-4778, that of the Four Seasons resort in Carmelo +598-542-9000.
PHOTO CREDITS: Golf course and swimming pool of the Four Seasons resort in Carmelo, Bonnie Tucker. Finca Narbona restaurant entrance and window of winery, Bonnie Tucker. Pilar Church in Buenos Aires, Bonnie Tucker. Entrance to patio of Estancia Narbona main house, Bonnie Tucker. Patio of Estancia Narbona main house, Bonnie Tucker. Interior of chapel and "thigh tiles" at Estancia Narbona, Bonnie Tucker.