by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
Montevideo is one of the youngest capitals in Latin America, founded between 1724 and 1730, and it did not become the capital of Uruguay until 1828. It is the Southern-most capital of the Americas. It is often considered to be a playground for Argentineans and Brazilians on their summer holidays. About half of the population of Uruguay live in Montevideo; thus, it thrives as the center of Uruguayan culture, education, business, and tourism.
Just a quick aside: Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking nation in South America, and it is bounded on the west by Argentina, on the north and northeast by Brazil, and on the southeast by the Atlantic Ocean.
Having been there—after writing this essay—there are several observations that can be made. First, the city does not have the "whirlwind vibe" (says our Fodor’s guide to South America (p. 673)) that Rio de Janeiro does. Second, Montevideo has many of the same traits as other large cities in South America—the downtown shopping areas, markets, pedestrian esplanades, plazas, old versus new areas of town, historic buildings, and monuments.
Our ship docked in the old city, and sitting on Deck 18 (where I wrote this essay) in Skywalker’s Nightclub, I look out over a vast array (as far as I can see!) of old-city buildings in their dark gray and beige style of "worn, colonial architecture" (p. 673). There is no doubt about their age nor about their number. They fill the area between the Puerto de Montevideo (where we are located) and the other side of this broad, short peninsula and the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver). We are docked at the end of this peninsula.
We disembarked the Star Princess at the Graff Spee Monument. The first thing you see in the harbor is the tower of the Graff Spee sticking up from the sea. The Graff Spee was a German warship that was scuttled after being denied safe harbor for repairs in Montevideo. The monument is the ship’s anchor at the main dock (gathering area) after getting off the ship.
Knowing nothing about this city or how to get around, we joined with three others, and with the help of a local police officer (who spoke no English but who was standing just outside the port gate), we were able to locate the beginning portion of La Rambla. South of the Gulf of Montevideo, La Rambla offers opportunities for people to jog, walk, bike, skateboard, roller skate, fish, fly kites, or drink maté. It stretches for 13.6 miles along the coast and is made of enormous blocks of red granite. Although we didn’t follow it, it links the Old City with the eastern suburbs and changes names about a dozen times.
The day we visited (Tuesday, February 21, 2012) was a holiday, and thus, there was no way to get a feel for the 1½ million people who live here.
As my wife and I walked to Plaza Independencia, we could clearly see, as we looked down the long, narrow streets in either direction, that we were surrounded by water. Plaza Independencia is Montevideo’s most important plaza. It splits Ciudad Vieja (the oldest part of the city) from downtown Montevideo, with the Gateway of The Citadel on one side and the beginning of 18 de Julio Avenue on the other. Many important buildings, such as the Solis Tfheatre and the workplaces of the President of Uruguay (both the Estevez Palace and the future Executive Tower) are located by this square.
Clearly visible at the Plaza Independencia is the Palacio Salvo. It is a building from which a unique designed spire rises, and it still dominates the skyline and nicely contrasts some of the newer construction around it. At the time of its construction it was the tallest building in South America, although today it has been surpassed several times over. The original intention was for it to be a grand hotel, but this never worked and now it serves as an office building.
To get to the Plaza Independencia, we strolled through the Plaza Constitution, which is located in the old city and from which you can see Montevideo’s oldest building, the Cathedral. Although the Cathedral has been restored, it still retains its colonial charm and external structure. The plaza is also home to the town hall.
Like any big city, and despite the many city workers using brooms and dust pans, there was litter and dirt, but it was not to the point of being overwhelming or disconcerting.
We walked several blocks along Av.18 De Julio —the main shopping area—but most shops were closed, and the only pedestrians we saw were cruisers. Another large cruise ship, the MSC Armonia, is docked at close to right angles with ours, and the noses of our two ships are nearly touching, so it would make sense that the city (at least in the area where we walked), would be full of cruisers.
We turned and followed the same path back to our ship so that we would have time to purchase two souvenir items: 1) an ornament we could use for our Christmas tree (my wife, for the first time ever, found an Uruguayan coin made into a key chain, and 2) a tee shirt for me (I found a black one with Montevideo embroidered in brilliant red) which cost $14.00 U.S..
In both these cases, we found the souvenir shops closest to our ship (just outside the port gates) were the cheapest and had the best selection.
Inside the large marketplace at the dock, we noticed several "elegant" restaurants. The numerous tables were set with tablecloths, crystal wine and water glasses, and silverware. Indeed, the place wreaked of "elegance"—to the extent possible in this massive, open, building, with food preparation areas clearly in view.
At the food preparation areas meat of various kinds (I saw beef, pork, and chicken) and vegetables (I saw whole red and green peppers) were cooked at about 30-40-degree angles on grills. In the center were logs burning very hot and on rotisseries near the center flames were full chickens turning slowly.
At the preparation areas a cook (or several cooks) were closely watching everything being cooked and turning things constantly. The grills were full of food.
Our overall impression of Montevideo, without having taken an excursion, is a simple one. We didn’t need an excursion. Even though the history of this place is interesting, we are likely to remember little about this port or this tiny country (excursion or not!). It is interesting, but there is nothing we saw to make it stand out.
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Lonely Planet offers a brief introduction to Montevideo, Uruguay
The Wikipedia website offers a great deal of information on Montevideo
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Copyright March 7, 2013, by and Then Some Publishing LLC