I am by no means an authority on Montevideo. My visit to Uruguay’s capital city lasts less than 48 hours, and I arrive with no guidebooks, no local friends, and no set plans except to renew my 90-day tourist visa.
By most accounts it is a coy city; one that opens itself to visitors petal by petal over a number of weeks, until the sweet aroma becomes so overpowering that they fall into a deep sleep and settle there permanently, not unlike the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz.
In other words, many short-stay travellers find it lethally boring. However, a weekend in Montevideo is not without its charms, and I will do my best to outline them below.
Coming from the sweating, heaving, 13 million-strong metropolis of Buenos Aires, Montevideo literally provides a breath of fresh air. With only 1.4 million inhabitants and a girth that can be traversed by taxi in 15 minutes, it’s an easy city to get your head around.
On a weekend in early summer when everyone in their right mind has flocked to the bluer waters up the coast, I feel like I could spread my arms and do a twirl in the middle of a downtown sidewalk with little danger of colliding with anyone.
Aside from one rogue cab driver who shouted unsavoury things about my mother after trying to swindle us, Montevideanos strike me as being warm and expressive.
In broad daylight on the main avenue, 18 de Julio, we watch a dolled up 60-something woman dance a hearty tango, first with a suited dandy, and then on her own, prancing dramatically across the pavement to the sound of a crackling radio. Across town on La Rambla, the street that runs parallel to the beach, teenagers wave banners and honk horns in support of their political candidate.
The porteño pride to which I’d grown accustomed is replaced by a more upfront attitude in Montevideanos. In Buenos Aires you rarely encounter a beggar; whether it’s a song, a pack of tissues or a pair of socks, you are usually offered something in exchange for your monedas.
In Montevideo, I get the impression that people are less concerned with façades. In our first hour we encounter four or five unashamed beggars, but we also notice that, when we walk into a bar or restaurant, strangers are less inclined to give us the judgemental stare-down.
Montevideanos make porteños look like the kinder choir where mate consumption is concerned. Young and old, they cradle thermoses in the nooks of their arms like newborn babies, sucking on their bombillas as if yerba held the answers to the mysteries of the universe. Far beyond a social custom or patriotic symbol, one gets the impression that mate to a Uruguayan is like sunlight to a radish plant.
Our first night, we wander into the old town guideless and peckish. How relieved we are, after an hour’s ramble, to stumble upon what looks like a quaint diner, populated nearly exclusively by locals, on Plaza Constitución. There I sample the requisite chivito: a steak sandwich, onto which an entire pantry has been dumped, topped with a fried egg.
Each french fry is made more virtuous in my mind by the knowledge that I am having an authentic experience, dining in an establishment where the bathroom wall is graffitied with ‘amor y anarquía’ (love and anarchy). You can imagine my bitter disillusionment the next day, when we stumble across three identical establishments within walking distance from our hostel. Alas, La Pasiva is essentially Uruguay’s McDonalds.
Thank goodness for Tandory. Our second night we visit Chef Gabriel Coquel’s dimly lit, tastefully decorated restaurant in Punta Carretas for some delicious non-parrilla fare. His menu advertises flavours inspired by India, Vietnam and Morocco, and his kitchen is armed with the spices to prove it.
Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Coquel has lived all over the world, and chooses Montevideo as his beloved home for its drug-free streets (ideal for child-rearing) and leafy tranquillity. He personally introduces himself to every table, looking to adjust his cooking style to suit each customer’s taste. There are meatless options for vegetarians, gluten-free options for celiacs, and spiceless options for Argentines. My vegetarian curry is the hottest thing I’ve consumed in 90 days, and I’m in raptures. The overall effect is a world-class, custom-tailored culinary experience that I would repeat every night if I had the chance.
There is much less of it.
Buy ferry tickets to Montevideo at www.buquebus.com. Tandory is located at Scoseria 2547, tel. 7124951