ruta8-1280Along the route we travelled between Uruguay’s northern border and its southern coast, 350km of asphalt on Rutas 8, 12 and 60, the road passes through just two towns with populations larger than that of the Royal Albert Hall on a busy night. The Uruguayan interior holds few surprises, and the few travellers who head inland tend to spend their time in working ranches or farms – estancias – that now welcome tourists. Still, the vast skies and rolling roads suit us, as does the lack of activity. Camping out under a star-rich sky at Quebrada de los Cuervos, a national park reached via 25km of beautiful dirt road, we’re surprised to find that we have the place to ourselves.

escorial-640The road south from the agreeable town of Minas dips and crests constantly until Pan de Azúcar, then flattens as it delivers drivers to the coastal resort of Piriápolis. It’s possible – unlikely, but possible – that Piriápolis might be a nice place for a long weekend if you could choose your weather. In spring, though, it’s no better than any out-of-season British seaside town, weary hotels and no-thanks restaurants lining its windy promenade. The wealthy set – sweaters worn on shoulders, deck shoes worn without socks, Ray Bans worn whatever the weather – prefer Punta del Este to the east, a kind of Latin American San Tropez. We went west instead.

 


 

inglesas-1280Montevideo spent much of the 19th century under a certain British influence, and was even a British colony for six months in 1807. There’s little British presence here today, but walking the city with eyes wide open offers clues to the sway once held by Britons of various stripes. Way out east in Buceo, the small but immaculately presented Cementerio Británico holds the remains of Britons who made their homes here in the 19th and 20th centuries. At the Estádio Centenario, built in 1929-30 to host the first ever World Cup, displays at the Museo del Fútbol document regular matches played by visiting British teams. The country’s oldest football team, still playing today, was founded by Britons in 1891 as Albion FC.

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Perhaps the most unexpected example of British influence, though, comes at the city’s newish Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo. In the late 19th century, the building in which it’s housed opened as Montevideo’s first prison, having been constructed to a design directly inspired by HMP Pentonville in London. The jail’s separate wings – four here, five at Pentonville – radiate neatly from a central hub, like points on a compass or spokes on a wheel.

espacio3-1280Just one of the wings is currently open, staging temporary shows in the now-whitewashed cells on the ground floor and in the basement. (The galleried first-floor cells have been left untouched.) The other wings remain derelict, open only to the bats and the birds. Several are choked with furniture and masonry dust; on the wall of another are primitive paintings made by an untutored jailbird, parietal art not yet deemed worthy of comment by historians and critics.

 


 

ferrando-1280Montevideo feels like a major capital only in its business district, a gridded oblong of roughly 30 square blocks between the city’s main square and its port. The buildings are taller (though this is by no means a high-rise city), the streets are narrower and the walking pace is faster, and there’s a tangible sense that Important Things are being discussed, decided and enacted around here. The Uruguayan economy that such discussions help to drive is hardly a powerhouse. Still, it seems to have its feet planted firmly on level ground, which is more than can be said about the economies of neighbouring Brazil, where a period of explosive growth has ended and where the gap between rich and poor remains appallingly wide, and Argentina, more of which anon.

piano-1024Away from the financial district and the port, whose activities impinge little on the general day-to-day, the city quickly grows more mellow. It’s by no means sleepy: there’s culture (theatre, art, a slightly scratchy orchestra, a bewildering variety of bookshops), nightlife, activity in squares and streetcorners, even a chaotic Sunday market. But everything moves just a fraction slower here than in many cities its size, and at much lower volumes. Out in the traffic, carried at a pleasingly efficient clip along broad avenues, car horns sit untouched, and stereo speakers lie untested by last month’s club classics. The candombe groups who bring thunderous music to the streets of Palermo on Sunday nights get going around the decidedly un-Latino hour of 7pm, allowing those who want an early night to go home and get one. The peace is only disturbed on the city’s buses, all of which are equipped with blaring speakers tuned to a radio station of their driver’s choosing. The drivers, perhaps needless to say, don’t have terribly good taste in radio stations.

rambla-1280Many major cities with waterfronts tend to exploit or abuse them, soaking them with ghastly residential towers or unseemly commercial activity. Running the entire length of the city, from the port via pretty Punta Carretas and out to upmarket Carrasco and beyond, La Rambla has been kept in much better order, perhaps in part because capital-t Tourism seems unusually incidental to the life of the city. The buildings along this 25km shoreline aren’t especially distinguished but nor is the waterfront architecture out of control, and the absence of tacky restaurants and souvenir stalls is as welcome as it is surprising. Like the city itself, it’s not something you’d travel halfway around the world to see, but it’s little wonder that it’s Montevideo’s most treasured asset.

from Buenos Aires, Argentina