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Editor's Note: In April 2009, Jake Biddington updates this installment of The Bentley, with restaurant, hotel and nightlife notes. This article was first published in April 2005.
Port of Montevideo, Uruguay
April in Montevideo, jacketed passersby walk quickly. Mornings bring a crisp autumnal chill to the capital situated on the vast Rio de la Plata. This morning the water has turned to a steely blue--far different from the café au lait colored waves that eerily lapped the shore yesterday. Formed by the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, the wide Rio Plata estuary chronicles the weather upstream: storms north in Argentina and Brazil produce murky silt runoff that makes its way downstream clearing only when the storms end or the tide washes it away. Montevideo has a maritime aspect: it feels like Boston with a touch of Lisbon.
Water is its abiding feature. Montevideo's shoreline is devoted to miles of beaches, a small craft marina and an active working harbor with heavy shipping traffic. Its port constantly loads and offloads cargo, the container cranes working without pause even through lunchtime.
Montevideo is not chic city, but as in other mid-size cities in South America and in Europe, a certain decorum is respected. Businessmen go to work dressed in coats and ties, but they leave their jackets in the office when they duck out for lunch at a local parilla. Lunch begins at 1:30 and extends to 3:30 or 4. Between 4 and 9pm, everyone is at work, at home or at school. Except for Avenida Julio, Montevideo's streets become neutron-bomb quiet in the late afternoon and early evening hours. Unlike Buenos Aires, Montevideo is not a town where the visitor can while away the afternoon drinking coffee, reading newspapers and eavesdropping on locals in animated conservations. The only whiling here is done by those sitting in doorways hugging a maté thermos and sipping the traditional herb tea from a gourd through a metal straw.
Montevideo has the reputation as a sedate, and reasonably secure, city. Relative to the intermittent political and economic upheavals of its neighbors, Uruguay has maintained a degree of stability. Argentine friends tell tales of stuffing their bras with currency and hopping the shuttle flight from Buenos Aires to Montevideo to deposit the money into banks here. After 25 years of rightist regimes, the political climate in Uruguay turned leftward with the November 2004 elections. Testimony to this change, the refurbished grand Teatro Solís recently hosted two aging lefties: poet Mario Benedetti and singer-songwriter Daniel Viglietti. They reprised a music/spoken word recital from 1978--a performance that would not have been tolerated in the intervening years. The remarkably young standing-room-only crowd greeted the two codgers with warm enthusiasm.
Uruguayan Food and Drink
At this season of shortening days as South America turns toward winter, the rhythm of the week begins softly and crescendos toward the weekend. Dinner on Monday might be as early as 8:30 or 9:00pm in a nearly private restaurant. Come Friday, even family groups don't materialize until 11:00pm when tables are at a premium in popular, casual restaurants such as Don Peperone downtown on Sarandi, (the pedestrian street leading to old town), or at its branch out east in the upscale Carrasco neighborhood.
Produce Market in Carrasco Neighborhood
Not surprisingly for a capital whose backcountry is a sea of grazing land with eucalyptus and palm trees, beef is the key player on most menus. Small neighborhood spots and more ambitious parrillas use wood fire for grilling the tasty grass-fed beef. Menus list as many as 10 cuts, and a good parrilla chef at a restaurant such as Las Brasas can cook the selected beef to exact specifications. The signature local sandwich the chivito consists of a grilled, thin-cut steak on good bread with lettuce, tomato, mayo, egg and cheese. Like a Philly cheesesteak, it has its own integrity of taste. Were Calvin Trillin to ply his trade across the equator, the Uruguayan chivito would surely find its way into his regional cheap eats category.
Another Uruguayan food specialty morcilla dulce is best sampled at one of the many (fascinating) open parrilla restaurants in the covered market at the old port. Morcilla dulce is a blood sausage sweetened with raisins and sweet and aromatic spices rather similar to the way that mincemeat was spiced in long ago British cuisine. Tourists not enamored of red meat or its by-products will find plentiful offerings of fish, fresh vegetable and salad, as well. The large contingent of Uruguayans of Italian decent ensures the presence of pasta and pizza joints in all neighborhoods.
Uruguay has a 250-year-old history of wine production. The predominating local grape is tannat. Not a subtle grape, it has a hard and, as the name suggests, a tannic edge when young. Blending tannat with merlot doesn't help much. Older oak (roble) aged tannats or those blended with cabernet sauvignon or cab franc show more complexity. Local wineries include Juanico, with a lighter style for current consumption, and Carrau and Pisano with more structured wines better in older vintages. Because most wineries also produce very modestly priced supermarket lines, it is advisable to choose a wine marked reserva or roble to get a higher quality product. For beer drinkers, the local beers Pilsen or Zimmerthal served in .66 liter bottles complement the local cuisine nicely.
Nightlife in Montevideo
After dinner on the weekends, the bars and joints transversing Sarandi throb with the music and voices of 20-somethings on the prowl--it feels like 2nd Avenue in New York City. This age group--and even younger--makes a lively presence in the Pocito neighborhood as well. A more sophisticated and mixed crowd makes its way to the casual beachside dining + music spots along the Rambla Peru or to Don Trigo on Plaza Matriz in the old city.
"Montevideo", Gobelino Wool Woven Tapestry
Montevideo likes to tout its tango credentials, but except for tourist events in hotels or theatres, this seems largely a nostalgic memory. The keeper of the cultural flame, Teatro Solís (named for Juan Díaz de Solís the first European to navigate the Rio Plata) offers milonga and tango lessons twice weekly in its lobby. A floating tango/milonga dance circuit exists in Montevideo, but it's less evident than those in Buenos Aires and Nueva York. In the old city, the lively bar aptly named Fun Fun features authentic tango musicians (without the dancing); these accomplished performers play several sets nightly (on weekends) to a varied and interesting crowd.
M. Arregui and T. Mateos for Manos del Uruguay
Specialty Shopping in Montevideo
Uruguay is a predominantly rural country, and Uruguayan goods reflect that reality. A substantial cottage industry of hand-knit sweaters is built on the backs of Uruguayan sheep and the fluffy wool they produce. The wool yarns are hand-dyed then knit into sweaters in interesting styles and in nuanced colors not represented on a Pantone chart. In 1968, a group called Manos del Uruguay began harnessing the traditional skills of rural craftspeople building a chain of stores around their carefully-edited handmade textiles including sweaters, scarves, capes, gloves and tapestries as well as some wood items and leather goods. A cleverly run, non-profit cooperative, Manos insists that the merchandise continuously change in style as well as seasonality. So, they avoid the limitation inherent in selling traditional goods: Who needs 2 classic Irish fisherman sweaters?
Beach View in Punta Carretas Neighborhood
Leather items, especially leather coats and jackets, represent the second major specialty consumer category. Shop upon shop offering leather clothing in soft antelope, rabbit and more standard skins and pelts line the streets near Plaza Independencia. But the design and tailoring are inferior to the quality of the leathers themselves. Montevideo style falls into two camps: traditional or Texan. Still, the prices are so low that it's impossible not to buy at least one. Given the abundance of raw materials at hand, leather manufacturers would do well to venture back to the old country and import some design talent from Milan or perhaps from across the river in Buenos Aires.
Uruguayans like paintings on their walls. Montevideo's art dealers are rich stores of information, and, despite heavy foot traffic through their galleries, tend to be generous with their time. The quality of tourist art--culturally representative works priced from $200-$3000--is among the best anywhere in the world.
Montevideo Tourism Tips
Blanes Museum--Millán Avenue 4015, in the Prado Park
By itself, this neo-Palladian villa (built by some 19th century financial scoundrel) is worth a visit. Add to that the heroic scale paintings of Uruguayan artist Juan Manuel Blanes, ongoing temporary art exhibitions a mature Japanese garden and it becomes clear why the Blanes Museum qualifies as a prime "culture vulture" stop. The Prado neighborhood can be reached by taxi. Also, the 522 bus that crosses the city passing through Pocitos, Punta Carretas, Palermo and other neighborhoods has a stop directly in front of the museum on Avenue Millán. Bus fares all over Montevideo cost 15 pesos. The fare can be paid in coins or in smaller bills upon boarding the bus. Exact fare is not required.
Montevideo, Uruguay Restaurants:
Restaurant Tandory--Libertad and Masini--In 2004, Cordon-bleu trained, world-class chef Gabriel Coquel returned to his native Montevideo to open a remarkably sophisticated restaurant featuring food from around the world.
The varied dishes from cuisines as far ranging as French, Thai, Indian and Moroccan are so intensely flavored and authentic tasting, it's hard to believe they are cooked in the same kitchen. Now well-established and in a new location (in Pocitos), Tandory has opened the door for many adventuresome, quality restaurants and has raised the level of cuisine in Montevideo. Reservation advised. Tel: 712 4951
Cru--Guayaquí 2985--As an alternative to Tandory, try this spiffy spot only two blocks away. Its spacious two-floor open design and stone walls make an inviting space--fashionable with a distinctively Uruguayan twist. The very good cooking including meats and fish dishes are complemented by excellent home baked breads, marvelous cheeses and a solid wine list.
Singles can eat comfortably at the bar. Groups can enjoy a pre- or post-dinner drink in the living. Tel: 709 0977
La Rueda--Miñones 452 at Joaquin Nuñez--The second Coquel restaurant is in the more traditional parrilla or bistro style. It is located in the chic little neighborhood up the hill from the Sheraton and the Punta Carretas Shopping Center, a zone home to several good new spots. Tel: 711 3214
Sacramento--Williman 594--For indoor, outdoor or wine cellar dining in Punta Carretas, this stylish restaurant is an excellent destination both in terms of wines and in its range of sophisticated international menu choices. Tel: 710 0245
Restaurant Dackel--Dr. Gabriel Otero 6438--For a languid Saturday lunch, visit this German restaurant in the exclusive, semi-suburban security-conscious Carrasco neighborhood. Try their specialty costilla ahumada Kassler: a thick pork chop that is smoked, and then grilled. As postre, don't miss the apple strudel.
Las Brasas--San Jose 909--Costilla al lomo (T-bone steak) to die for at this excellent parrilla.
Ristorante Panini--Bacacay 1339 (on Sarandi)--Rich and interesting cooking in what many consider the best Italian restaurant in Montevideo.
Don Peperone--Sarandi--Home of the classic chivito, sangria and cocktails.
Don Trigo--Sarandi--After work and into the evening, this chic spot draws a 30-ish business crowd from the nearby financial district. On weekend, music accompanies the casual food, wine, beer and cocktail offerings.
El Abasto Parrilla--Bacacay 1309 (near Sarandi)--Busy indoor/outdoor casual spot, good after Teatro Solís performances.
Don Tiburon--Perez Castellanos 1569 (in the Mercado del Puerto)--Sunny indoor/outdoor restaurant for Uruguayan beef and tourist watching.
Montevideo, Uruguay Specialty Shopping:
Manos del Uruguay--San Jose 1111 (and other locations)--Quality Uruguayan handcrafted goods.
Montevideo, Uruguay Hotels:
Radisson Montevideo Plaza--Plaza Independencia--A very good, full-service centrally located hotel equipped with high-speed Internet connections in executive floor rooms, an under-used Olympic size, glass-roofed pool and adjacent spa facilities. Ask for a tower room overlooking the busy harbor. By contrast, the hotel's basement level casino is as grim and seedy as any you'll ever encounter.
Sheraton--This hotel attaches to the Punta Carretas Shopping--the largest shopping mall plus cinema multiplex in Montevideo. Also, smaller hotels of the 4-star variety are starting to crop up in the cool, tourist-friendly Punta Carretas and Pocitos neighborhoods.
Montevideo, Uruguay Airport Transfers & Taxis:
Taxis from airport into town cost around $24US. Taxi meters are cross-referenced to a printed schedule of prices. Since the charges are higher at night and on holidays, be sure your driver is quoting from the proper schedule. Drivers usually accept $US as well as Uruguayan pesos which at the time of this article were valued at roughly 22 pesos/$US. Around Montevideo, many restaurants and shops quote prices in Uruguayan pesos, Argentine pesos and US dollars.
More South American Destinations:
Restaurant Guide to Buenos Aires
Mar del Plata, Argentina at the Beach
Touring Córdoba, Argentina
Argentina: Jujuy Province, Humahuaca and Tilcara
Northwest Argentina: Tucumán, Salta & Cafayate
Santiago & Valparaiso, Chile
Tigre, Argentina--Day Trip from Buenos Aires
San Antonio de Areco, Argentina--Weekend Trip from Buenos Aires
Colonia, Uruguay--Overnight Trip near Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires--Basic Guide
Travel Guide to Montevideo, Uruguay
Other Archived Destinations:
Touring Istanbul, Turkey
Visiting New York City 2007
Visiting New York City 2006 (Archive)
New Haven, Connecticut
Cultural Touring along Spain's Costa del Sol
Touring in Lisbon
Touring in Milan
Touring in Antwerp
Touring in Barcelona
I-80 Park City to New York City
Tourism New York City 2003 Update
Tourism New York City 2002
Hudson, New York (Columbia County)
Tourism Rome 2002 Update
Hartford & Wilton, Connecticut
San Francisco Jackson Square
New Hampshire Route 1A
Morris County, New Jersey
ABOUT THIS FEATURE
Here at BIDDINGTON'S, our work is also our play. When we're not exhibiting and discussing art online, we're learning about wonderful objects in shops, at great shows and in museums--or simply exploring the world's fascinating cultural diversity. In this article, Jake Biddington offers tourist information and descriptions of this interesting destination.
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