A weekend in Montevideo

An escape from the pressure cooker.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is 40 minutes by air or three hours by ferry from Buenos Aires. The air and water entrances provide different first impressions of this city of a little over 1 million inhabitants, but both – and especially the stretch of riverfront between them – are valid representatives of its personality.
Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) and tourists from elsewhere go to Montevideo because they know it is different from BA. They realize the extent to which this is true only when they get there and look around. Topography has helped preserve the life quality of montevideanos.

Saved by the Rambla
Montevideo’s port, which concentrates truck traffic, operates inside a bay on its western side, and its international airport is far from downtown, in the opposite direction. The southern edge of the city that overlooks the River Plate, and runs between the port and airport, has been preserved as a middle class and upper middle class residential area, and is embellished by the Rambla, the 22-km-long riverside drive and promenade that has long given all residents free access to beaches and unmarred views of the water.

Buenos Aires’ Costanera Norte riverside drive suffers from heavy port traffic; the proximity of squatters’ slums; the airport that borders it; and the clubs, restaurants and events halls that block the view of the river. If porteños turn their back on the river, it is because they have been deprived of contact with their side of the estuary. So they like going to Montevideo, where the situation is different.
Montevideo is also a lot smaller than Buenos Aires (1,400,000 million inhabitants vs. 11 million for BA counting the Greater Buenos Aires urban sprawl). That means less stress in the Uruguayan capital. It is a pleasant, tidy time-warp city that has preserved most of its Art Nouveau and Art Déco buildings, in addition to the Spanish colonial fort that overlooks its harbor. Its only high building is the relatively new Communications Tower. Its people are amiable and seem more relaxed than their neighbors across the River Plate estuary.
Some tourists are irked by the fact that in Montevideo most shops are closed on weekends; one has to go to a shopping center to be able to spend one’s money. But when they discover the Rambla, they realize why montevideanos seem so relaxed. Porteños are more than a bit envious of the way that their neighbors across the estuary unabashedly take their weekends off and enjoy fresh air and open spaces on the broad sidewalk that overlooks so many kilometers of sand bathing beaches facing the River Plate. No clubs or events halls or restaurants or sausage stands get in the way of the view of water, water and water. They can stroll, run, cycle, walk the dog or sit on benches and read, sip mate or stare at the water for hours on end in a residential area that is free of noisy, smelly truck traffic.
It is said that the sight of water calms anguish in most people, and water has always been part of the lives of montevideanos. For them, the estuary is the “sea” and the Atlantic, which officially begins 120 km further east at the tip of the peninsula for which the upscale Punta del Este resort is named, is the “ocean.”

Too much for so short a time
Montevideo is an ideal city for people who like outdoor markets, street shows, art, crafts and antiques. It also has good restaurants, and several shops that sell high-quality leatherwear and woolen garments.
If you go for two days, you will soon realize that the things to see and do in the Uruguayan capital greatly exceed that time frame, and that you will have to return.
Most Buenos Aires residents on a weekend getaway opt for the ferries (Buquebús and Ferrylíneas) because the terminals are quick to access from the BA downtown area, they can take their cars, and Montevideo’s port is on the doorstep of its historic and commercial downtown areas. (Be sure to book a three-hour ferry, not one that takes five hours, or more.)
However, if you want to do all the markets or join a guided city tour in the Old Town that begins at 10am on Saturday, you will have to fly there or take a ferry Friday afternoon and spend a night in a hotel because the morning departures across the river won’t get you there in time.

Classic musts
For tourists, the two classic weekend musts in Montevideo are the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) and the Sunday morning flea market on Calle Tristán Narvaja.

The Port Market looks like an old English railway station, and there are several versions as to how it made its way to Montevideo. It opened in 1868 as a food market that supplied ships, and ended up as a picturesque food court. The former stalls inside are occupied by some fish restaurants and steak houses, and several grills that have a long U-shaped bar at which clients sit to eat barbecue specialties. One such grill serves a potent medio y medio cocktail (half sweet white wine and half white sparkling wine, or champagne, if you please) to a garrulous clientele that packs the aisles in the winter and spills out onto the mall in the summer while waiting for a table. On Weekends, itinerant musicians liven up the place and artisans arrange their creations on blankets out on the esplanade.

The Tristán Narvaja market, which on Sunday occupies more than 20 blocks of the eponymous street starting at its intersection with Avenida 18 de Julio, has everything you could dream of, and more. It is a favorite of collectors of antiques, coins, postage stamps, old books and used records. Absolutely everything is sold there, from clothing to plants and pets. It opens at 9am and the merchants begin to dismantle their stalls at 2pm; as there is a lot to see, it is best to get there before midday.
The antiques and crafts fair held in the Plaza Matriz square in the Old Town on Saturday is a good excuse to have a look at that square – the city’s oldest – and the rest of the neighborhood.

Tours and activities
Also on Saturday morning, diagonal streets in the Old City are closed to traffic to form a grid with pedestrian streets where roaming musicians and dancers perform, and stalls selling art, crafts, book and antiques are set up. At 10am, City Hall guides conduct three-hour excursions from the meeting point at the Puerta de la Ciudadela (remains of a gate of the city’s first fort) on the edge of Plaza Independencia. For information on the City Hall’s “Paseo Cultural” Saturday program, visit http://www.cultura.montevideo.gub.uy/.
There are several interesting museums and tours for people who are interested in art, architecture and music.

Arteuy (www.arteuy.com.uy) takes you to artists’ studios in the Old City, starting from meeting points at three hotels and ending with a drink in the Port Market.
Downtown, an obligatory stop for those interested in early 20th-century South American art is the museum at Peatonal Sarandí 683, which showcases the works of constructivist painter Joaquín Torres García, founder of the Escuela del Sur (Southern School), whose students prioritized artistic expression with a Uruguayan and South American identity. The museum is open every day but Sunday.

Also downtown, the Teatro Solís, Montevideo’s recently refurbished 19th-century neoclassical opera house, offers guided tours in Spanish, English and Portuguese on every day but Monday. During the 50-minute tour, two actors appear from time to time to illustrate key moments in the history of the theater. See schedules at http://www.teatrosolis.org.uy/.

In addition to its splendid permanent exhibitions of the works of Uruguayan artists Juan Manuel Blanes (1830-1901) and Pedro Figari (1861-1938), the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes Juan Manuel Blanes (Av. Millán 4015 in the Prado neighborhood) has a nice coffee shop in a large winter garden setting where plays and concerts are given. Set in an Italian-style villa that was built for a wealthy family in 1870, it is open every day but Monday.

Finally, no one should leave Montevideo without attempting to devour an entire chivito – an enormous sandwich filled with thin beef fillets and a host of other goodies that range from tomato, lettuce, boiled egg and cheese to corn, marinated eggplant and fried onion rings. The diner orders the ingredients according to his or her taste, and may eat the result with a knife and fork on a plate, or in hand, washing it down with a good Uruguayan beer. Of all the restaurants that serve chivitos on the Avenida 18 de Julio, the most famous are the La Pasiva franchises.

Those looking for something a bit more upscale or bohemian should try the Molino de Pérez, an old mill in the Malvín neighborhood that has been transformed into a gourmet restaurant and cultural center. Art exhibitions and concerts are given there.

Night life
The three most famous pillars of Montevideo night life are old-time bars: Bacacay in front of the Solís Theater; Baar Fun-Fun (Ciudadela 1229), famous for its sweetish drink “la uvita”, whose recipe is treated like a state secret; and Tabaré (Zorrilla de San Martín 152), where famous singers from Carlos Gardel to Caetano Veloso have performed.

In addition to the aforementioned city fine arts museum, the Prado neighborhood is home to the city’s most important mansions of the 1860-1890 period, and the Uruguayan Rural Association’s fairgrounds.
This year, the Association’s big yearly livestock and industrial show will be held there from September 9 to 20. See http://www.expoprado.com/ for information.
Another date to look out for is that of the yearly National Heritage Day Festival, during which historic homes and other buildings open their doors to visitors, among other events of special cultural interest. It takes place during a weekend in September or October. This year the date is September 26-27, and the theme is “Rural Traditions.” See http://www.sociedaduruguaya.org/ for details.
PHOTO CREDITS: Montevideo seen from the old Spanish fort, Bonnie Tucker. The Rambla, Bonnie Tucker. A cannon of the Spanish fort, Bonnie Tucker. The Sarandí pedestrian mall, Bonnie Tucker. Port Market, Bonnie Tucker. Tristán Narvaja flea market, Bonnie Tucker. The Cathedral facing the Plaza Matriz, Bonnie Tucker. Artist Gustavo Vázquez, Bonnie Tucker. Inverted América (1943) by Joaquín Torres García, Museo Torres García. Teatro Solís, Teatro Solís. Assassination of General Venancio Flores (1868) by Juan Manuel Blanes, Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes "Juan Manuel Blanes." A Uruguayan "chivito" sandwich. The scene at Baar Fun-Fun, Baar Fun-Fun.