When writing about Argentina, one can not very well ignore its little old neighbour just over the River Plate. La República Oriental del Uruguay is, of course, a tiny little country wedged rather tightly between two mighty siblings, Argentina and Brazil. The whole country is smaller than the Province of Buenos Aires and has a population of three million. (Buenos Aires alone has ten mil).
There is no doubt that Uruguay is a beautiful country. The historical charm of World Heritage town, Colonia, the beaches and glamour of Punta del Este, and even the quaint little Carmelo up the delta with its sleepy 1950s U.S appeal.
But what is the point of the place some might ask? It’s so teeny and insignificant. Should it even be its own country?
These are things many porteños joke about this side of the river, often referring to Uruguay as the twenty-fourth province of their own country. Some say it is a place where nothing seems to happen. Where people do little but wander around, hot water flask in one hand, and maté in the other (which they often manage to do while riding a scooter). Its capital is devastatingly and deathly boring and the only good thing the country does is banking. Get anal about time and that soiling rep as the Switzerland of South America comes a calling.
|La Rambla in Montevideo|
Now I like Uruguay, but I must confess that when it comes to Montevideo; boring, dull, dreary, sad, lifeless and lacklustre are all words that have wearily left my lips as even talking about the place almost always sent me nodding off into the deepest of deep sleeps.
And then a friend came around claiming that it was an excellent place, and he would prove it. Excellent? Was he bloody kidding?
A zip over the River Plate to Colonia and then off on a bus ride through the countryside. The journey is actually, particularly pretty. Even the dated hamlets the road cuts through are not so shabby. Ignore the palm trees and you might think you were riding through Oxfordshire.
Two hours later and the skyline of Montevideo pops up on the horizon. Well, one skyscraper pops up; the rest of city is still well down below four stories. This is the first reminder that to enjoy this city, one must resist the ever present temptation to compare it to its big brother Buenos Aires.
It’s a little grey and run down, and the atmosphere is sombre, like that of a family returning from holiday. But the city faces the river to take full advantage of the sandy shores and the people are friendly and relaxed. This is not a metropolis and that is important to understand. It is a small city which offers simple pleasures. An early evening coffee in the run down yet charming old town, or perhaps join the locals for a whisky sat at the bar.
Now this I like. Uruguay, unlike Argentina, is a whisky drinking nation. Real Scotch actually from Scotland flows into glasses of Montevideños as they relax and chat with the barmen and waiting staff. Yes chat. The staff is always chatty and friendly and polite, and all in an unrushed, non-neurotic sort of a way. Life is like that in Montevideo. The city may look more like Anne Widdencombe than Marilyn Monroe, but the lifestyle is a refreshingly low geared contrast to the F1 paced Buenos Aires.
|El Chivito Canadiense|
And then there is the food. The city may well feel like a stingy portion of urbanity but the food, well there is nothing low-key about that.
Let that late evening peckish urge guide you to a Chivito Canadiense. A mother of a sandwich, filled with beef, bacon, ham, fried egg, olives, peppers, cheese, and well I’m sure I forget the rest of the fatty ingredients, but the end result is a greasy smile and an unbuckled belt.
But save room. In Montevideo, always, always save room.
You do not want to, and I repeat in words which I wish could shout it out, arrive at El Mercado del Puerto with anything other than the emptiest of hungry hollow rumbling ready bellies.
This place is what meat is about. A giant space down by the port filled with bars where since 1885, parrilleros have been cutting up every imaginable chunk of an animal and hurling it all onto wood fuelled grills surrounded on all four sides by ravishing meat loving customers. Saturday lunchtime is loud, it’s hectic, and the aroma of sizzling treats fills the air as you shovel it down and only wish you had unlimited space.
My weekend was excellent and my stomach was fuller than that of a fat kid chomping on chomp bars all day long. And while some might argue that Uruguay’s very minuteness hinders the shaping of a true and inspiring national identity, I would now suggest that a visit to its capital is a sure way to understand its true uniqueness.
At least you will have one almighty whisky lubricated meat-feast of a feed while you’re there.