After three days in Montevideo, Uruguay, we’ve gotten the lay of the land – especially in the Ciudad Vieja or Old City, the neighborhood in which we’re staying. Here are our impressions so far …
1. This is the most European city we’ve ever visited outside of Europe. Sadly, almost all of the indigenous peoples were wiped out in the 1830s. Therefore, as our tour guide, Valentin, explained, “We are an immigrant population. Most of us are descended from Italian and Spanish families.” It shows – many of the people are very tall and fair-skinned. Many of the older buildings were designed by famous Italian architects, and Italian restaurants abound.
2. It’s a very progressive country with a seemingly classless, egalitarian society. Gay marriage, marijuana, and abortion are all legal in Uruguay. It’s also the most secular country in Latin America, and, according to Valentin, most people don’t much care about attending church (although there are of course plenty of Catholic churches). The politicians here are famously down to earth; as a case in point the previous president, José Mujica, who served from 2010 to 2015, is known for driving a battered old car and living very austerely, as well as donating 90 percent of his salary as president to Uruguay’s poorest citizens. The current president, Tabaré Vázquez, is a physician who is known for his anti-smoking campaign. You can walk right into the presidential office building, and the president has to drive his own car to work and park in the lot behind the building just like everyone else.
3. These folks love their beef. There at least three head of cattle in Uruguay for each of its 3.5 million citizens – and they’ve elevated the grilling and serving of every cut of beef to an art form. The Mercado del Puerto, originally built as a train station in 1868, is a monument to meat, crammed with parillas (steak restaurants). In his show about Uruguay, Anthony Bourdain dubbed this place “meatopia.”
4. These folks love their yerba mate, a warm drink brewed from an herb in the holly family. The drinking of mate is considered a ritual and an opportunity for connection and for sharing some time with the people you care about. On any day and on any street in Montevideo, you’ll see people walking by with their mate gourd and bombilla (metal straw), together with a thermos of hot water. We haven’t tried it yet but we understand it’s bitter and an acquired taste. And, as Valentin explained yesterday, everyone has their own special blend that they take pride in sharing with their friends.
5. The city is chock full of fantastic old buildings from every architectural period, and in every state of repair/disrepair. We sense that Montevideo is on the cusp of change, and crumbling old buildings coexist with those that have been beautifully restored.
6. It’s $%$#@ cold! We made a calculated decision to come here at shoulder season, just as spring is turning into summer. We had perfect weather on our first day, but on Monday a very large storm system blew in with 50-degree-temps, rain and 40-mile-per-hour winds. The good thing about our timing is that the hordes of Argentine tourists haven’t descended yet, and everything is less expensive. And the other good news is that the weather is clearing tomorrow. Today’s a great day to hunker down and write a blog post!