The Smooth Guide to Montevideo (Financial Times How to Spend it)
For all the world’s savoury foams and sweet reductions, sometimes all you really want is a really good sausage. With all apologies to the vegetarian gourmet, can there be many more things as satisfying in life as fresh chorizo, grilled over charcoal, with a cold glass of beer on the side? The dockside Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo, with its wrought iron pillars, is a shrine to the parilla – a thronging, aromatic circus of slaughterhouse culinary seductions. Clouds of smoke emanate from dozens of open-kitchen grill restaurants, beckoning you to their stools and counters to order steaks and stuffed poultry. It’s difficult to tell where one establishment ends and another begins, and apart from a few Pantone and font differences, it’s all much of a muchness and it’s all good – one huge social gathering abuzz with banter, ketchup and chimichurri – just like all the best barbecues. The Mercado del Puerto is the heart of Montevideo, and in many ways the embodiment of red meat loving, hot-blooded, amped-up South America.
The port and beachside capital of Uruguay marches on its stomach. On a Friday afternoon, waitresses scurry through the streets of the Ciudad Vieja (old city), huge silver plates held aloft, with businessmen’s lunches being ferried around wrapped in crisp white linen. As sun sets and the weekend begins, its time to head to Hemingway, a modernist white-on-white glass box of a restaurant, set into a hillside by the water with widescreen views across the city. On a fine evening, book an upstairs terrace table with a corner sofa, order some seafood, a salad and a glass of South American Chandon and watch the sky turn amber and fuschia over the Rio de la Plata.
It’s the beach that defines Montevideo. To live here is to enjoy as much of the 12 miles of waterfront Rambla as frequently as possible, whether jogging, swimming or people watching with a café con leche. As well as being the safest capital in South America, Montevideo is one of the most laid back cities in the world, thanks to its not-technically-seafront situation. You’ll want to join the locals on the sand at some point, but hold fire on the surf until you’ve covered all the urban ground first – particularly as many shops close at lunchtime at the weekend.
While the city is expansive, the best stuff is all easy to cover on foot, starting out from the Radisson hotel in Plaza Independencia. Though the nearby Four Points by Sheraton is the most brand spanking hotel in a city that could really do with a few more, Montevideo’s default, haute business residence by virtue of facility and location remains the Radisson. Walk through the palm tree dotted square, away from the Palacio Salvo, which dominates the downtown skyline like a Victorian space rocket by way of Georges Haussmann, past the stone arch remnants of the original fortifications of the Ciudad Vieja, and onto Sarandi. Here’s where the small peninsula of the old town starts.
At the start of Sarandi there is a huge cubist mural in yellow, red, blue and white; Pax in Lucem. This arresting 1940s piece by Joaquin Torres Garcia, Uruguay’s most influential artist, overlooks the adjacent Museo Torres Garcia. What he was doing with colour and form parallels Matisse’s output of the same era, but with unique Latin American exuberance. The museum is an essential retrospective of the work of a man whose imagery adorns tea towels and coffee cups in Uruguay as ubiquitiously as Lichtenstein or Haring do elsewhere. Some of his best work can be taken home in the form of the simple cubist wooden toys he created, still on sale at the museum.
Head two blocks along to Museo Gurvich, devoted to the work of José Gurvich, a student of Torres Garcia. Though Gurvich died at the age of 47 in 1974, he was extraordinarily prolific. The collection of paintings and sketches of Gurvich’s adopted home of Manhattan are amongst the highlights, detailing a landscape familiar to all, but in a unique, unfamiliar, even alien way.
There’s some rather lovely modernist jewellery on sale amongst the gifts at the Museo Gurvich, but for the broadest selection of the country’s best new design walk further into the old city, to where Montevideo is regenerating itself as exportable style. Fashion in Montevideo is conservative, but there are exceptions: The sexiest and most divinely crafted women’s shoes and boots, many with a wild west tinge to their styling, are a short cab ride across town away at Sonsoles. Back downtown, wander along the most artfully decayed street in Ciudiad Vieja, 25 de Mayo, to a small block where a row of up and coming designers are in business. There are some wild and beautiful knitted shawls at Imaginario Sur, taking traditional South American handiwork and throwing in some experimental twists. The gem in this little colony of high style is ARA, which sells local designer Ticiani Passerini’s faux vintage print dresses and cowhide bags by Carolina de Cunto, amongst other labels you’re unlikely to encounter across the Atlantic.
Walk back up 25 de Mayo to Freccero, a beautiful antique silver and jewellery shop, richly wood panelled with an Italiante style and then weave your way north to the Mercardo del Puerto for a barstool, some chorizo and a lomo with fries.
After lunch, explore the rest of the old town. The patina of the Ciudad Vieja is candy bright but resolutely, gloriously, knackered out. Rag and bone dustmen patrol the streets by horse and cart, passing once-opulent homes, their windows bricked up, roughly plastered over and painted Mondrian primaries. Political graffiti has been rollered onto walls so perfectly and artfully that it resembles the lettering from a cover of a Herge Tintin book and, in its way, is as splendid as an hour’s guided tour of the lavishly refurbished 19th century Theatre Solis nearby. For an idea of how decadent life in Montevideo once was, visit the Museum for Decorative Arts at the Palacio Taranco, a 1910 mansion full of Empire grandeur, European antiques and furniture. It’s but one element in the museum that is Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja, slowly being reinvented and recolonised by young creatives.
Dinner is served as late in this town as anywhere else in South America, so after a siesta and a dip in the hotel pool, book a restaurant-bound cab for 10pm – making sure you have a ready stash of small 100 peso notes and that the tariff is on display and the meter on. You might want to use the hotel car, if only to enjoy the luxury of seatbelts.
Head towards the monied enclave of Carrasco, lined with embassies and mansions, and dine on fantastic parilla fare – sausage, grilled chicken, steak and sweetbreads – in the sexy bare brick and crimson restaurant Informal, where classic movies and concerts play, projected onto a black wall. Later, head to Café Misterio, the de facto hippest restaurant and bar in town, with scores of visiting Portenos from Buenos Aires ordering excellent, inventive sushi from pavement tables and interior booths surrounded by oversized 60s pop furniture and disco lighting that resembles a swarm of jellyfish silkscreened by Andy Warhol. It’s a scene that gathers momentum until the early hours, at which point it’s time to retire to the nearby chintz-plush Belmont House hotel for the night, or head back downtown for a nightcap at Baar Fun Fun, home of late, late, late tango and where you can try and acquire a taste for uvita, a sweet herbal-wine cocktail.
On Sunday morning walk the length of Avenue 18 de Julio, the city’s main artery, named to commemorate the date that the 1830 constitution was signed. On weekdays the avenue is chaos, but on Sundays it’s pin-drop deserted, revealing an uncluttered backdrop of sleek Deco and 19th century Parisian style apartment blocks with intricate mosaics, balconies and cornices. There was more money than there air here once, much less than a century ago, and it’s still very much in evidence. Segue to the Parque Central where the Estadio Centenario, built in 1929 for the first FIFA World Cup, still functions today, with Juan A. Scasso’s striking landmark Homage Tower, with its narrow finned amalgam of aviation and maritime silhouettes, standing to one side. The small football museum within the grounds is well worth a visit.
Viewed in the day and age of Herzog & de Meuron, the stadium looks positively prehistoric, but it has a purity of line and form that impresses, as does the nearby Velodrome, with its irresistible Deco signage and elegant symmetrical seating and ticket office. The city zoo is also worth a look, even if just for the Bauhaus meets Flintstones ‘ZOO’ legend above the front gates.
Back on Avenue 18 de Julio, your Sunday morning walk will lead you to Tristan Narvaja and its weekend market, where a jumble of fruit, incense, kittens and crackly old tango records pack the stalls. There are furry eight legged prospective pets too and by a block and a half arachnophobes will be expert at adopting a thousand yard stare whenever an aerated Perspex box comes into peripheral view. As you head north there is less tat, less tarantula activity and higher quality antiques. Pick up some beautifully illustrated vintage books on the Montevideo of yesteryear at Babilionia Libros, a bibliophiles daydream of a secondhand book store, where miles of worn leather and gold embossed spines fill the rickety wooden shelves, hung with Commedia dell’arte masks.
Sunday afternoon is the time to take to the beach, and you’d be churlish not to go with the flow. If you’d rather get close to, rather than in, the water, grab a table at Che for beachfront cocktails and unwind in readiness for another sunset.
If the idea of another barbecue dinner seems like one grill too far, end your weekend at the bohemian downtown bar, La Ronda – absolutely no reservation required. This is as low key as low key gets – eat a fiendishly delicious ‘masticables’ Mexican burrito off a paper plate and drink a glass of midyo midyo (half white wine half cava) while the DJ plays David Bowie. Then order another masticable (they’re addictive!). The walls of this dimly lit tavern are covered with 70s album sleeves and the manager, who recently hoaxed the local media into believing Bob Dylan had bought his bar just to amuse his regulars, worships his vast retro vinyl collection, even though he’s barely in his 20s. Like a lot of the best things in Montevideo, it’s a shrine to nostalgia and the best of the past, but with a youthful, modern, Latin twist.
Prices are for two people sharing, breakfast included:
Radisson, Plaza Independencia 759
005982 902 0111 radisson.com/montevideouy
Four Points Sheraton, Ejido 1275
005982 901 7000 starwoodhotels.com
Belmont House, Rivera 6512
Tel: 005982 600 0430 Belmonthouse.com.uy
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Prices are for a three course meal for one with half a bottle of wine
Baar Fun Fun, Ciudadela 1229
Tel: 005982 915 8005
Café Misterio, Costa Rica 1700
Tel: 005982 600 5999
Che, Rambla M Gandhi 630
Tel: 005982 710 6941
Hemingway Rbla Republica de Mexicos 5535 (Plaza Virgilio)
Tel: 005982 600 94 21
La Posta Informal, Obligado 1101
005982 708 0885
La Ronda, Ciudadela 1182 (no telephone)
ARA, 25 de Mayo 286
Tel: 00598 2 915 7981
Babilionia Libros, Tristan Narvaja 1591 casi Mercedes
Tel: 005982 400 8000
Freccero S.A Joyeror 25 de Mayo 561-563
Tel: 005982 95 85 42
Imaginario Sur, 25 de Mayo 265
Tel: 0005982 916 0383
Sonsoles, Av Bolivia 1342
Tel: 05982 600 1441 sonsoles.com.uy
Estadio Gran Parque Central
Tel: 005982 480 1259
Museo Gurvich, Plaza Matriz
Tel: 005982 915 7826
Museo Torres Garcia, Sarandi 683
Tel: 005982 916 2663
25 de Mayo 376
Tel: 005982 915 11091
Teatro Solis, Reconquista s/n esq, Bartolomé Mitre
Tel: 005982 1950 3323
LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY
It’s telling that the house wines at Jean Paul Bondoux’ legendary La Bourgogne, undisputably the best restaurant in the country (along the coast in Punta del Este), are all from Bouza Bodega. Visit the winery – a 20 minute cab journey from downtown – for a tour and wine tasting and order a few crates of the best Tannat to have shipped home.
Bouza Bodega Boutique
Cno. De la Redencio 7658 bis
Tel: 005982 323 3872
WHEN TO GO
Spring and winter tend towards the wet and windy. The hot summer and mild autumn (from November onwards) benefit from cooling breezes from across the Rio de la Plata.
HOW TO GET THERE
Mark C.O’Flaherty flew as a guest of Air France, who fly daily between London and Buenos Aires from £610 return. The Buquebus ferry runs regularly throughout the day between central Buenos Aires and central Montevideo from £35 each way. http://www.buquebus.com
Pluna fly three times a week between London and Montevideo, via Madrid from £2,617 return economy. http://www.flypluna.com