Uruguay PLUS 48 Hours in Ky­oto



iwould like to make a re­trac­tion. Four years ago I wrote an ar­ti­cle about Uruguay where I listed the nu­mer­ous rea­sons why I re­ally, re­ally hated the coun­try.I can’t re­mem­ber the rea­sons any more or why I was in such a hor­ren­dous mood on that failed trip.I was wrong and I want to make amends.This lit­tle meat-eat­ing state, where gays can marry and cannabis is le­gal, is my new favourite South Amer­i­can coun­try. Uruguay has great food and style, ex­cel­lent wine, and a can­tan­ker­ous, scruffy pres­i­dent who gives away 90 per cent of his salary and lives in a ‘shack’ with a three-legged dog called Manuel. Pres­i­dent José ‘Pepe’ Mu­jica, an ex-guer­rilla, chrysan­the­mum farmer and (scan­dalously) ru­moured veg­e­tar­ian, uses ev­ery pub­lic podium to warn the world, in his avun­cu­lar way, against hy­per-con­sump­tion, waste and ar­ro­gance. Uruguay is the lit­tle coun­try that could.

Uruguay can be di­vided roughly into four sec­tions: the rugged coast­line in the north, with beaches from Brazil down to Punta del Este; the cap­i­tal, Mon­te­v­ideo, with its beaches and winelands; Colo­nia del Sacra­mento and historic sur­rounds; and the hin­ter­land

Men put on their hats and ladies their heels to flirt and dance in a man­ner we’re taught to imag­ine isn’t pos­si­ble for oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans

of cows and cow­boys. Most peo­ple would en­ter Uruguay via Buenos Aires af­ter land­ing in Ar­gentina, but I came from Brazil, and there can be no bet­ter in­tro­duc­tion to the na­tion than its border con­trol of­fice: a sin­gle-storey farm­house with fire­place, wine-drink­ing officials and dogs shel­ter­ing from the cold.

Win­ter is out of peak sea­son in Uruguay. It can be ro­man­tic, windswept and cheap, but ex­pect se­ri­ous hi­ber­na­tion on the res­tau­rant and ho­tel front. In summer, ex­pect late lunches in the sun, Chardon­nay-Pinot Noir blends, square piz­zas, Span­ish ro­mances, celebrity spot­ting. There is nei­ther sun nor Chardon­nay in the most northerly fish­ing vil­lages Punta del Diablo, Cabo Polo­nio and La Paloma in July. Punta del Diablo is one of my top places in the world. It’s thor­oughly un­pre­ten­tious, un­de­vel­oped in the best pos­si­ble way, with an en­dear­ing ver­nac­u­lar shack-like hous­ing style. Lit­tle cot­tages and wood cab­ins in­ter­spersed with pampas grass and tall cacti have been beaten by the wind and burnt by the sun. You can rent a shack on the beach and start learn­ing about Uruguayan wine (by the fire in July or on the sun­deck in De­cem­ber). There are only the most ba­sic sup­plies – no banks, no ATMs – so bring money, food and good wine.

Fur­ther down the coast, to­wards Mon­te­v­ideo, is the Uruguayan Riv­iera of Punta del Este, which some lo­cals re­fer to as the Hamp­tons. The cen­tre of Punta is a lit­tle glitzy for me – polo play­ers with shiny hair, Euro­trash with luridly shiny fin­ger­nails, casi­nos – but as the beaches stretch out they be­come lazier, gen­tler.At the fur­thest point is the world’s coolest fish­ing vil­lage, José Ig­na­cio. Uruguay’s top eatery, the lux­ury beach-shack res­tau­rant Parador La Huella, is here on Playa Brava, and so too, with spec­tac­u­lar views of the coast, is the de­signer bou­tique ho­tel Playa Vik. No one ac­tu­ally stays in José Ig­na­cio dur­ing the va­ca­tions though, ex­cept peo­ple who own he­li­copters and horses.

Nearby are La Barra and Manan­tiales, which are far from hum­ble but don’t re­quire you to raid your trust fund. I stayed at Casa Zinc, a world-renowned ho­tel fash­ioned by an­tique dealer Aaron Ho­j­man. La Barra now has some smart apart­ment blocks, but in gen­eral small cafés, an­tique stores and houses (from cot­tages to mod­ernist mas­ter­pieces) run along the beaches. Five min­utes up the coast is Manan­tiales, a sleepier and more re­fined beach vil­lage. On the cor­ner of nowhere and nowhere is La Linda, a bak­ery that opens early, serv­ing ex­cel­lent bread, pasties and cof­fee. In the hills re­cessed from the coast is the lux­ury ru­ral re­treat Fasano Las Piedras. The Fasano ho­tels in Brazil are fa­mous for their so­phis­ti­cated de­sign and their first in­ter­na­tional ho­tel ex­tends this tra­di­tion. Brazil­ian ar­chi­tect Isay We­in­feld has de­signed a hand­ful of mod­ernist con­crete bun­ga­lows set in the un­com­pro­mis­ing land­scape and man­aged to re­tain a strong ru­ral char­ac­ter in the stonework, land­scap­ing of cacti, pampas grass and laven­der, and ver­nac­u­lar de­tail­ing. I spent two deca­dent days lux­u­ri­at­ing there, walk­ing, read­ing and drink­ing more wine. Like a small an­i­mal be­fore win­ter I had stored up some La Linda bread and em­panadas, which I ate with the Uruguayan Tan­nat wines I was test­ing on my bal­cony.

Uruguay has not tra­di­tion­ally been known for its wine but the Tan­nat grape has be­come to Uruguay what Mal­bec is to Ar­gentina. Tan­nat has a very high con­cen­tra­tion of tan­nins and is de­scribed as com­plex with black fruit flavours, like black­berry. Most of the wine es­tates are lo­cated near the cap­i­tal but one cool new farm, Bodega Garzón, is lo­cated in the Punta area. Garzón’s name­sake is a dusty lit­tle town, where Ar­gentina’s most cel­e­brated chef Fran­cis Mall­mann has opened El Garzón, a bou­tique ho­tel and res­tau­rant. His neigh­bour, chef Lu­cia Soria (an ex-pro­tégé of his and owner of Jac­into in Mon­te­v­ideo), opened her charm­ing res­tau­rant Lu­cifer in the gar­den.

Soria’s Jac­into was my first stop for lunch when I made it to Mon­te­v­ideo. The segue from countryside gar­den to big city isn’t par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced; Mon­te­v­ideo is es­sen­tially a farm with high­rise build­ings and an opera house. This is not to say that Mon­te­v­ideo doesn’t look like a city, in fact it does, but at its heart it’s just like Pepe’s

chrysan­the­mum farm: un­pol­ished, folksy, adorable. Jac­into has high-bar­relled brick ceil­ings, large street win­dows, grey mar­ble ta­bles and chalk­board menus, and is one of a num­ber of hip down­town eater­ies in Ci­u­dad Vieja or the ‘Old City’. This zone, di­rectly ad­ja­cent to the port, used to be dodgy, and even now many build­ings re­main un­in­hab­ited with grand wooden shut­ters per­ma­nently closed.

The clas­sic lunch spot down by the port is Mer­cado del Puerto, an iron mar­ket hall that has been serv­ing bar­be­cued meats (asado) since 1868. Dur­ing peak sea­son this dimly lit venue is a hot, busy, gringo-mag­net but in win­ter there are only old men wear­ing hats, eat­ing meat and drink­ing beer. If you’re not up for an an­i­mal smor­gas­bord, Café Brasilero, open since 1877, is wood-pan­elled, has its name in­scribed in gold let­ter­ing on the win­dows, and serves clas­sic Euro­pean café food and ex­cel­lent wine. For a more con­tem­po­rary lunch you could go a few blocks up to Estre­cho, where loyal din­ers eat at the bar. Through­out the old city are char­ac­ter­ful din­ers and pas­try shops run by un­fash­ion­able old peo­ple who are warm and hos­pitable. Eat square piz­zas sold by the me­tre, crumbed schnitzel Mi­lanesa with cheese, and honey/dulce de leche/ sugar-cov­ered pas­tries, breads, crois­sants and doughnuts. The old city was de­signed at a par­tic­u­larly op­ti­mistic point in Mon­te­v­ideo’s his­tory. While the scale is low – three to four storeys – there is drama packed into each door­way, win­dow and lin­tel. This ex­ag­ger­ated flour­ish, once in­tended to be pompous, now looks en­dear­ing, like car­toons of old Euro­pean build­ings.The fan­ci­est of all these is the Pala­cio Salvo on Plaza In­de­pen­den­cia.The mus­cu­lar tower has a Gothic sen­si­bil­ity and was the tallest build­ing in Latin Amer­ica for a long time. Across the plaza are Pepe’s of­fice and the ex­ten­sively pho­tographed neo­clas­si­cal Teatro So­lis.

The old ar­chi­tec­ture of Mon­te­v­ideo is summed up in an old ho­tel on the far edge of the city, now fully re­vamped, and run by the French ho­tel group Sof­i­tel. The Car­rasco was built in 1921 as a get­away for the best fam­i­lies of Buenos Aires and Mon­te­v­ideo who schlepped their but­lers and cooks and nan­nies to this neo­clas­si­cal re­sort.The build­ing is struc­tured by a se­ries of in­ter­sect­ing ovals, which face the es­planade and the sea, and has bom­bas­tic stained-glass ceil­ings.The ho­tel was the only place to host a debu­tantes balls and en­ter­tained artists, in­tel­lec­tu­als and van­guards. Af­ter be­ing shut­tered for some time,it has just re­opened with an ex­ten­sive re­fur­bish­ment of which I can­not say I ap­prove. The in­te­ri­ors are stiff and charm­less, which is to say, noth­ing like Uruguay or Uruguayans. Dur­ing my stay I struck up a friend­ship with the ho­tel’s som­me­lier, Fed­erico de Moura. The coun­try’s most awarded som­me­lier kept me ap­pro­pri­ately ine­bri­ated, shar­ing wine gos­sip, ed­u­cat­ing me about the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of Uruguay wine, pre­sent­ing to me the wide va­ri­ety of non-Tan­nat wines he liked and sug­gest­ing wine tours in the countryside for my next visit.

On Sun­day the en­er­getic street mar­ket Feira Tristán Navaja had me back in Ci­u­dad Vieja. On sale were trin­kets, wo­ven things, jars, things in jars, em­panadas, rusted Swiss army knives, rolling pins, dogs, bud­gies, fruit. There were hip­sters with nose pierc­ings and bi­cy­cles flog­ging knick-knacks, dried flow­ers, bas­kets, trop­i­cal fish, door han­dles… As the sun sets on Sun­days, the oldies come out to dance the tango. In front of a non­de­script diner in a nowhere-park, men put on their hats and ladies their heels to flirt and dance in a man­ner we’re taught to imag­ine isn’t pos­si­ble for oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans. Some women sit in their fur coats – real I’m sure – and re­play the steps in their minds, ges­tur­ing to them­selves what move will come next.The mu­sic sounds slightly tinny and plays through a por­ta­ble speaker. (Some­one’s grand­son must be mak­ing good off pocket money.) The star cou­ple move grace­fully, if ten­ta­tively. She wears a yel­low scarf with a dark aqua­ma­rine crushed vel­vet dress, a hat, fish­net stock­ings, danc­ing shoes and a fur coat. He wears a hat, a suit and a blue cardi­gan, and every­one wants to dance with him. (He’s had his share of women I’m sure, and men per­haps too.) He dips her, and she goes down a lit­tle stiff, but with no ap­pre­hen­sion.

For this, and all the other rea­sons why I was wrong about Uruguay, I’m sorry.

Clock­wise from above The beach at Punta del Diablo;

Pala­cio Salvo in Mon­te­v­ideo; an­tiques at Casa

Zinc Trad­ing Post; the pool at Fasano Las Piedras; the tango, oc­to­ge­nar­ian-style; ho­tel-res­tau­rant El

Garzón; lunch at Mer­cado del Puerto

in Mon­te­v­ideo’s old city; La Rambla

runs along the coast; nat­u­ral flora; Ba­bilo­nia Li­bros, a plant-filled

book store

Clock­wise from top left Casa Zinc Trad­ing Post; trea­sures

in Casa Zinc; shop­ping at Feira Tristán Navaja;

the beach at Punta del Diablo.

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