Not my Uruguay
Text and photographs Jonathan Cane There were three reasons for me to go to Uruguay: the first was shallow, the second was a necessity and the third was born of convenience. To begin with, I liked the fact that Montevideo is a nice-sounding word and I could imagine myself saying it: ‘I went to Montevideo, M-o-n-t-e-v-i-d-e-o.’ Superficial perhaps, but the name also seemed to have a patina of romance and colonial charm that made it appear a proper place to satisfy my second reason, which was to recuperate from a few mad months in Johannesburg, talking, shouting and cooking. Thirdly, Uruguay is very close to Buenos Aires, where I had begun my vacation. I set off for Uruguay having fallen in love with Buenos Aires and its residents, the porteños. I had found the city hot, smart and sexy. The restaurants open for dinner at 9pm, bars open at 11pm and clubs at 3am. There are 1 000 bookshops, all university education is free and people kiss (and sometimes more) on street corners in the unbearable summer sun. Luckily for me, half of Buenos Aires was also on the Buquebus ferry heading across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay for their yearly beach holiday on the Uruguayan Riviera, Punta del Este. I was unsure at this point what to expect from the Riviera, but if the porteños liked it, I thought, so would I. I was wrong. Punta del Este was not what I was looking for. Granted, the miles and miles of perfect beaches were pretty, as were the South American models and surfers splashing about in the waves. But the peninsula was just way too glitzy for my mood. I wanted fishermen and church bells, but I was in a South American St Tropez surrounded by polo players, Argentinean aristocrats and Eurotrash. The peninsula is overdeveloped with characterless casinos and architecturally forgettable high-rises. For this reason, travellers in the know go just further up the coast to the sleepier but super-chic village of José Ignacio. This tiny windswept hideaway, once the secret retreat of wealthy Montevideo families, is now the most fashionable holiday resort in South America. It has remained as it was 100 years ago – shy and charming with small beach cottages. If you can get a table at any of the highly rated beach-shack restaurants, however, you’re likely to sit next to Ralph Lauren or Naomi Campbell sipping Bollinger behind Dior sunglasses. The entire coast is really quite beautiful. No matter how polished it tries to be, it retains a kind of rough edge that is common to all of Uruguay and much of South America. And there’s no better place to experience that rougher edge than in the faded and peeling capital of Montevideo. Before you head off to the capital, there are two special things worth tracking down if you do go to Punta del Este: find the shrine to the Virgin Mary, the Virgen de la Candelaria, and eat a chivito completo at Chiviteria Marcos. The shrine is located on the eastern tip of the peninsula next to the surfing beach. Out towards the waves, surrounded by rock pools and plastic flowers, is an insulated, salt-smeared, glass-fronted sanctuary. Porcelain prayers and thank-yous from the faithful, encrusted with mussel shells, are embedded in the rocks. Not only is it very beautiful in itself, but it also provides a poignant counterpoint to the bikinis and casinos that tend to overshadow it. A short walk from the shrine brings you to the western side and the yacht club, next to which is Chiviteria Marcos. The chivito, essentially a giant steak roll, is something of a national dish for Uruguay. They’re such an institution that a special name, chiviteria, has evolved for shops that sell them. In Uruguay, a chivito should be eaten completo with a beer. In a country where English is rarely spoken, ordering can be difficult, but completo is pretty easy to interpret. Although local variations exist, in Spanish it is generally translated as: with cheese and ham, and egg, and bacon, and mayonnaise. And almost anything can be ordered completo. I left for Montevideo feeling optimistic, and spent the two-hour journey hoping for a city lost to modernity that I could explore, and where I could drink a dark cup of coffee. I didn’t have a guidebook with me because I find they just lead me into the tired and obvious, and they make me feel like a tourist. I find it better to have the addresses of the 10 best coffee shops that I compile from blogs, Wallpaper* City Guides and The Guardian. The top-10 list works well for me because it draws me into the kind of areas I like, and I can fold the printed pages in my pocket and look less obviously like a tourist. When I arrived in Montevideo, I did not have a list. That’s because there aren’t 10 coolest coffee shops in Montevideo – there aren’t any coolest coffee shops. The capital is just not that sort of place. It’s an old city that opens itself onto the beach, relentlessly hot, spray-painted, forgotten and very rough around the edges. I took a room in the new part of the city, which stretches out promiscuously along the beach. The sun sets at 10pm, which leaves many lazy hours of walking, flirting and mate drinking on the rambla, the avenue that follows the coastline. I find mate the most monstrous kind of drink: it’s a bitter tea prepared from the dried leaves of the yerba mate herb, drunk through a metal straw out of a pokey little calabash gourd that needs to be refilled constantly from a flask. It’s old-fashioned and parochial and is popular mostly with Latin American cowboys, although more and more youngsters can be spotted on the beach with flasks under their arms. The old city is wedged between the port and coast and is terribly run down but has the most beautiful, charming architecture. Empty balconies and quiet turrets provide no shade from the sun. Entire streets seem to have been left derelict. Their 19th-century town houses are decorated in graffiti and groups of menacing, noisy Spanish boys posture around them. I felt uneasy on the quiet, hot, old streets – the packs of young men reminded me of the boys outside the gym lockers at school. It didn’t help that I looked particularly vulnerable. I was carrying what was basically a coffee-table book that I had found in a beautiful, library-style bookstore boasting a huge stained-glass window above the stairway at the back. The book, written in Spanish, was about the boliches (taverns or cafés) of Montevideo, which are a dying institution. They range from 19th-century, Parisian-style wooden bars to 1950s tiled, pale- green beer halls, and they were the reason I was walking around like a tourist with a target sewn onto my daypack. I worked my way up and down the streets drinking a beer at each one. Some were quite chic, others full of octogenarian dock workers and many, many more had closed down and were shuttered up. If I hadn’t been drunk on cold beer, I might have felt sad. I found out later that the silent streets and tattooed boys really were dangerous, and that I had been lucky. I was relieved when I went back to Argentina eventually. I could have a good cup of coffee and wouldn’t be murdered in the docks. But most of all, I was glad I had found my list of the coolest boliches in Montevideo. Jonathan Cane, jonathancane.com.