Montevideo – out and about in the Ciudad Vieja

Please scroll down for a couple of other posts I’ve written on the Ciudad Vieja. Everywhere mentioned in the posts on Uruguay can be found on my Google map.

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I came to Montevideo with the idea of having a couple of week’s holiday before starting a month’s work in Argentina. The original plan was to visit the old town of Colonia (UNESCO listed), go on the industrial heritage trail in Fray Bentos (home of corned beef and the Oxo cube) and hop up the coast as far as Punta del Diablo (a hippy beach resort).

Unfortunately though the weather wasn’t very good so, rather than endure a week of rain, I cut the trip short and went back to see friends in Buenos Aires. Moral of the story: stay flexible and pack a mac! The weather was okay for the first few days though, enought to allow me to get to know the capital city.

Travelling from Buenos Aires to Montevideo takes about four hours on the fast ferry. Dominating the skyline when you arrive is the Administracion Nacional de Aduanas; an Art Deco monster that reminds me of the Ministry of Information in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’. As you can see, the building was too big to fit in a single photo.

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I love Art Deco so I chose to stay at the wonderful Hotel Don (234 Piedras St, www.donhotel.com.uy), a small but perfectly formed Deco boutique hotel in the Ciudad Vieja (old town), just two blocks away from the ferry terminal.

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It had been recently renovated while staying true to its Deco origins and I fell for it straight away. The rooms are a little on the small side but the bed, shower and general layout were great. The staff were all super friendly and on the ball and there was a sun terrace with a small pool at the back where I could kick back in the afternoon after hours of pounding the streets. Even the fruit salad at breakfast was Art Deco!

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It’s also exactly opposite the Mercado del Puerto, more of which in my post on Eating in the Ciudad Vieja.

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Montevideo was founded on a narrow peninsula which meant that the city could only expand inland. The oldest zone around the port (the Ciudad Vieja) is quite run down with lots of semi-derelict buildings and abandoned warehouses. However the atmosphere becomes more refined as you move inland, away from the port area and towards Placa Independencia, which marks the beginning of the ‘new’ town (see my post on the Centro and Avenida de 18 Julio).

Everyone was at pains to tell me to be careful when walking around, especially at night, and to stick to the main pedestrian streets, Perez Castellano and Sarandi, which run through the middle of the Ciudad Vieja. I didn’t ever feel threatened in the day time though and I walked around many of the backstreets without any problems.

On Perez Castellano there are a few old buildings with attractive door and window fittings.

I especially liked the pastel blue Art Deco police station at 2681 26 De Mayo.

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I also love the old fountain in Placa Matriz (the city’s oldest square) with its water-spouting dragons and cherubs riding sea serpents. It was built to celebrate the first source of potable water in the city. There’s a small antiques market here in the mornings.

Culturally speaking, Argentina and Uruguay, and their capital cities, have quite a lot of common. The people of both countries are from similar stock and share a love of parrilla, yerba mate and tango.

The Argentinian flag (pictured), featuring blue stripes on a white background with a shining sun in the centre (a reference to the sun-worshipping Incas) was emulated by several other South American countries after independence from Spain. The Uruguayan version is virtually the same except the face on the sun is happier!

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Things I’d do if I went again:

Try the Basque restaurants.
Visit a vineyard and try Tannat red wine.
Go to hear the Candombe drums in Barrio Sur at the weekend.
Walk around Barrio Reus which is famous for its colourful houses.
Visit the Agricultural Market (built in 1912).
Check out the beach, although the water from the River Plate looks pretty murky.
Take a rain coat!

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