I’m now researching the fourth edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay, and I’ve just left Montevideo after a week in the city (also visiting a few adjacent towns and wineries) – I’ve always liked it, but as soon as I arrived I could see that it’s improved in various ways, there’s craft beer all over the place, there are recycling bins, there’s a bike-sharing system and lots of new bike lanes. Marijuana is also now legal, but in fact it’s much less visible (smellable) than in Vancouver and many cities on the West Coast of the US. And WhatsApp is compulsory, which is a bloody pain if you have big fat fingers like me. I do have it on my laptop now, but the phone still has to be connected.
And the Uruguayans have suddenly (in the six years since I was last here) become the most-tattooed people on earth.
I was immensely impressed when I first came here, ten years ago, by a coffeetable book on the traditional boliches of Montevideo (Boliches montevideanos, Bares y Cafés en la memoria de la ciudad – now out of print, alas), bars that were originally shops and still play an important rôle in their communities. I listed quite a few in the Bradt guide, and most are still more or less viable, although many now open only in the evenings – opening hours are tricky here, as many city centre restaurants open for lunch only. In fact Café Gourmand, a superb American-French brunch spot, only opens Friday to Sunday, but they spend several days more on cooking and baking, as well as sourcing local supplies.
There’s actually been a gastronomic revolution in the last couple of years, especially in the barrios of Ciudad Vieja and Cordón – this has been driven by markets as well as restaurants and cafés, with the Mercado Agricola, the Mercado Ferrando and now most recently the Mercado del Inmigrante (formerly the Mercado de la Abundancia) all transformed into gastronomic hubs, with delis, craft-beer bars, artisan coffee outets, and restaurants offering sushi, poke, felafel, you name it, as well as local specialities such as chivitos.
Meanwhile, at the end of a dead-end street, behind an anonymous housefront (ok there is a sign), I found one of Montevideo’s first microbreweries, Shelter – a lovely friendly place with good beer and pizza, and surprisingly, a live podcast being recorded on gangster/noir films, with clips (no idea how that worked on the podcast) of Le Samurai and The Big Lebowski…. My Red Oak, a red ale matured in oak barrels, was fantastic – to be honest it’s more effective than oaking a wine. Mostly though, I have to stress that this craft beer is in no way ‘real ale’, it’s not live beer served by handpump or gravity, but something that tastes a bit pasteurised.
Otherwise, I didn’t expect to find many new tourist sights in Montevideo, but I did come across the Holocaust Memorial while cycling along the Rambla (the busy 22km-long waterfront path) – it’s impressive, a long wall (symbolising the Jewish people), broken in two, where you cross by the Bridge of Doubt to leave by the Stairs of Hope. Then, as I arrived in Piriápolis, the small beach resort that was my first stop after leaving Montevideo, I saw a sign to the Castillo Pittamiglio and remembered that I’d vaguely heard about it last time I was here but not had time to follow it up. This time, I was able to get back to visit it, and while in no way a major destination, it’s quite fun to see – built in 1956, it’s like a Lego castle, almost two-dimensional, but with space inside for some interesting displays on the alchemical symbolism behind both Piria’s and Pittamiglio’s construction projects. I could go into detail, but it’s easier to read up on them all in the book.
So, two surfer dudes decide to leave the city and create a boutique hotel by the beach – and you know what? it worked. There’s clearly some family money involved (I met both sets of parents on consecutive days) but Casa Flor is absolutely delightful, a little haven from the craziness of summers in Punta del Este, the beach resort just to the west. It was Karen Higgs (from Wales, living in Montevideo for a couple of decades and publishing all kinds of great tourist information at Guru’guay) who hooked me up with Juan and Alfonso, and she also sent me to Soledad at Chacrita del Sur (she’s very keen for me to use the hashtag #chacritadelsur), in the wine country just north of the capital – for years I’ve been banging on about how strange it is that there’s no accommodation at the wineries and people have to drive out from Montevideo, and now here it is, a delightful spot for a leisurely visit to some amazing wineries. As at the Castillo Pittamiglio and Casa Flor, I really appreciated the birdlife – there are just so many birds here, not particularly afraid of humans and busy getting on with their birdy lives – such a contrast to our sad denuded northern climes.
I am trying to use a credit card more consistently to pay for food and accommodation – it’s really most gratifying to see that foreign cards are automatically recognised and the VAT is deducted. A very practical way to encourage tourism. I usually have a huge stash of US dollars in cash and just change them, but the VAT savings are too good to miss.
Tomorrow (Sunday 24 November 2019, for those visiting from the future) the second round of Uruguay’s presidential election will take place – it looks as if the centre-right will take over from the leftist Frente Amplio alliance after three five-year terms (although probably without an overall majority), and it’s probably about time. Bad things tend to happen when parties stay in power for too long – New Labour started well but ended up taking us to war in Iraq, and as for the present mob of Conservatives supposedly running the UK, words fail me. But luckily we too have elections in a few weeks.