There’s nothing like the sight of smoke from a hundred barbecues billowing up from the market to banish any ‘what should we have for dinner?’ indecision. Ok, so it may not quite have been a hundred, but every stall inside Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo’s old town was a miniature parrilla restaurant serving up delicious barbecued meat, cheese and vegetables Uruguayan syle.
Uruguayan style has two key differences to the Argentinian style we’d been devouring in Buenos Aires a few days earlier. Firstly, it’s cheaper. Secondly, rather than using coals, the Uruguayans use wood. Aside from a better flavour, one of the nice things about this is that there’s constantly a roaring wood fire next to the grill from which the parillero collects embers for cooking on. This wasn’t our first taste of meat cooked this way. Many years ago the technique, which also involves a simple marinade of nothing more than salt, pepper and onion, was exported from South America to Germany by gemstone traders working at the local mines. Specifically, to a small gemstone town called Idar-Oberstein which happens to be where Timian’s family come from, and where they still grill meat this way today.
Compared to its South American neighbours, Uruguay has taken a Mary J Blige approach to drama, and has a peaceful but progressive recent history. Montevideo was rated as having the highest quality of life of any Latin and South American city – which set the bar pretty high for us arriving straight from laid-back charmer Colonia del Sacramento.
Staying with Anita would increase most people’s quality of life. It was our first time in an Airbnb staying with the host, rather than having the whole place to ourselves, and it was great. We had a cosy little attic room in her apartment, and came down each morning to a breakfast she’d laid out for us. She spent the day teaching Armenian in private classes across the city, we spent the day exploring and checking out her tips and recommendations. We reconvened at the dinner table for some delicious home-cooked Armenian food, and to chat about our days – with her English and trusty Google Translate to fall back on when we’d maxed out our Spanish.
Anita’s apartment was right in the middle of the Old Town, practically opposite Mercado del Puerto. Whilst not the nicest area after dark, it was perfect for sightseeing during the day. The old town’s crumbling colonial buildings were mostly a weathered shade of grey, but all the way from the market to Plaza Independencia, which divides the old town from the modern downtown area, there were little pockets of bright colour; the paving slabs covered in mosaic tiles every few metres, a mural-covered wall, ribbons draped through a doorway, the colourful mats put down by street sellers, and some eclectic Walk of Fame gold stars embedded into the pavement. Enrique Iglesias probably never expected to end up between the Rolling Stones and Nelson Mandela, but who does?
Walking through Puerta de la Ciudadela gate (the only remnant of the original citadel destroyed in 1833) into Plaza Independencia, we were faced with the imposing 26-storey art deco Palacio Salvo ahead. Behind us, an office building that, in all its air conditioning unit glory, was so ugly it came full circle to be weirdly beautiful. Rebecca spent more time photographing this than the historic architectural gem, anyway.
Our two favourite buildings in the Old Town were the Libreria Puro Verso bookshop just off Plaza Independencia, and Palacio Taranco in Plaza Zabala. The bookshop was an art deco masterpiece, with comfy armchairs upstairs to sit and admire the decor (if not the disproportionate number of Lee Child books in the English book section).
Palacio Taranco is a grand family home built in 1908, now restored as the Museo de Artes Decorativas. It has some temporary exhibitions and other rooms decorated as they would have been at the turn of the century. This means red carpets winding up grand marble staircases, chandeliers, long velvet curtains, a lot of portraits and some chintzy wallpaper. Oh, and apparently accessory of choice for every room back then was a grand piano!
Whilst these rooms put Rebecca’s home decor Pinterest boards to shame, the best part was a temporary exhibition that tapped in to her inner (who are we kidding: outer) font geek. The exhibition was about British-Uruguayan ‘father of modern calligaphy’, Edward Johnston who, amongst a lot of other beautiful typography projects, designed the original logo and font for the London Underground.
Part of Montevideo’s quality of life credentials must surely be thanks to the beaches that start in centre of town and stretch north up the coast. Whilst the weather was more Baltic than beach bum, taking a stroll along a stretch of the 20km long Rambla footpath by the waterfront, looking out over the Rio de la Plata, was a great way to round off our time in the city. It looked like a great place to just hang out, an activity which Uruguayans seem to have perfected. We saw groups of people who’d met up for a mate (rhyming with pâté, not plate) session. Mate is basically a Uruguayan (or Argentinian) cuppa, that manages to be both beautifully ceremonious – with a specially designed mate cup carved out of a gourd and a silver ‘bombilla’ drinking straw – and simultaneously laid back in a way you can’t help but love.