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Destination: South America

Uruguay Uncovered

Discovering the capital city of Montevideo, rich with history and personality, but lacking crowds and crime

March 16, 1997|JILL KNIGHT WEINBERGER | Weinberger is a freelance writer who lives in New Britain, Conn

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — The January evening was hot and humid--high summer in Uruguay--and the ceiling fans did little to dispel the heavy, tobacco-scented air of Montevideo's Cafe Sorocabana.

Dressy women, middle-aged and carefully made up, sipped wine or mineral water and pulled fans from their purses, snapping them open in a flash of silk and lace. What could be more evocative of old-fashioned South American elegance than these women awaiting the music, so beautifully spreading their anticipation and perfume through the crowded club?

At the Cafe Sorocabana the tango is sung, not danced, a reminder that it is as much a musical genre as it is a dance form. The performance, however, lacked no drama. To the staccato rhythms of the guitar and bandoneon, a small accordion, singer Ernesto Camino stepped onto the floor, dressy, too, in his dark suit, his brow glistening from the warmth of the night. Handsome and emotive, he sang the tango's tales of lust and betrayal.

I brought home many such scenes and images, for if ever there was a place whose parts are more compelling than its whole, it is Montevideo.

The unpolished jewel of the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America, it was described to us by one resident as lying "at the ends of the earth." But Montevideo exudes no stale atmosphere of isolation. Uruguay may be resource poor and underpopulated--only 3 million citizens, nearly half of whom live in Montevideo--but several guidebooks note that it enjoys one of the highest standards of living and literacy rates and one of the lowest crime rates in South America. Life here is clearly muy amable, very amiable. Yet North Americans have been slow to discover what may South America's most pleasant capital. That is a shame, for it is rich in personality, if not in tourist sights; and it is generous in spirit, if lacking in luxury hotels. Comfortable, unpretentious, uncrowded Montevideo offers a respite from the usual stops on the South American itinerary: smoggy, crime-ridden Rio de Janiero and sprawling Buenos Aires.

There is no denying, however, that Montevideo exists in the shadow of the more sophisticated Buenos Aires, which lies across the Rio de la Plata. The two cities' common geography, language and European accents inspire comparison. But except for those links--and their shared passions for tango and beef--the cities seem more like distant cousins than siblings. If Buenos Aires is the Paris of Latin America, Montevideo is the Lisbon, once great and now gloriously faded, bourgeois rather than haute.

That suits us very well, although Montevideo appears ready to come into its own. While it remains a dear dowdy auntie of a city, attractively shabby and more than a little old-fashioned, it is poised on the brink of renewed prosperity, already dancing to the trill of the cellular phone as well as to the tango.

Such a transition makes for some odd juxtapositions. While newspaper headlines herald the city as the "capital of the Mercosur," the recently formed Southern Cone version of the European Community, boys on horse-drawn carts still scour the streets collecting cardboard and tin cans from curbside trash. Elderly gents with big box cameras snap photos of tourists in Plaza Independencia, but the tourists are clutching cups from a nearby McDonald's. And parked outside the new American-style shopping malls are automobiles last seen in "American Graffiti."

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My husband, G.J., and I have good reason to feel affection for Montevideo. The city welcomed thousands of European Jews during World War II, G.J.'s parents among them. Naturally, his childhood memories of the city, where he was born and spent his first 11 years, formed the impetus of our explorations. And to his delight, much remains as he left it decades ago. His apartment building still stands, facing a campito, a small park where he used to knock around a soccer ball. The market where his mother shopped is just up the street, still housing the city's kosher butchers.

The handful of guidebook sights--the tomb of Jose Gervasio Artigas, father of Uruguayan independence; the Legislative Palace; half a dozen tiny museums; the Iglesia Matriz--can be duly dispatched in a couple of days. But our recent 10-day stay invited opportunities to discover the details that stamp Montevideo's personality, from its rich array of architecture, green spaces and street markets, to its citizens and their characteristic kindness that G.J. remembers so well. Slow walks through shady residential areas and long rides on city buses acquainted us more thoroughly with the Montevideo of the past and present.

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