Saturday, September 8, 2007

Underrated Uruguay

We first decided to visit Uruguay 10 years ago, after a dinner in its pavilion at Expo 97 in Lisbon. It’s a small country with a very small population. Although most people are Catholic, there has been a longstanding separation between church and state. As a result, the population has stopped growing due to the government's extremely effective family planning programs.

Half the country's 3.3 million people live in the capital of Montevideo, a 2 ½ hour fast ferry ride from Buenos Aires. We arrived on Thursday night at a hotel near the old city waterfront without a reservation. Much to our surprise, it was full

The clerk was very helpful and recommended a nearby Holiday Inn. For 8 months we have managed to avoid Holiday Inns; but the hour was late, so we agreed. It turned out to be a good decision, since it appeared to be in a livelier part of the city. The new reception clerk asked if we wanted to book a City Tour and a tour of Punte Del Este, Uruguay's popular beach resort. Again, contrary to our normal practice, we agreed; and this too turned out to be a good decision.

The next morning we set off for Punte Del Este in a small van with four other people; a mother and son from Brazil and a husband and wife from California. She was the most stupid person I have met on this trip. One of her typical questions? "What country is Uruguay in?"

Punte Del Este is located on a long narrow peninsula, 140 km from Montevideo. Initially developed as a summer resort for locals and Argentineans, in recent years it has started to attract an international clientele with its beautiful beaches lined with apartments. It was surprisingly sophisticated. We were told Ralph Lauren rented a house last season for $12,000 a day. Although we were out of season, it was still an interesting place to visit. In addition to wandering through the small town, we watched mating sea lions, and fisherman pulling fish off their nets. We also saw the famous hand in the beach.

The town included every architectural style imaginable. Some of the new low rise apartments, with their elegant clean lines, could have been on the Vancouver waterfront. There were some outstanding buildings designed by Carlos Ott, Uruguay's internationally celebrated and award winning architect. However, I was impressed by the buildings with Uruguayan thatched roofs. These roofs are quite different from English thatch and are still regularly constructed.

I was also delighted by a small bridge that had been designed like a roller coaster! Can you imagine that being approved in Vancouver? While it was justified on its structural engineering properties, it was a thrill to drive over.

The highlight of the tour was a visit to Casa Pueblo, a large building complex overlooking the ocean just outside of Punte Del Este. It was designed and built by Carlos Paez Vilaro, an internationally renowned Uruguayan artist, adventurer, and philanthropist. From the air, it looked like a small Greek village with its white walls terracing down the hillside. But it was also a fantastic, organic sculpture containing a studio, gallery, restaurant, hotel, and private residence for its creator who is now 83.

Before touring his property, we watched a film about Paez Vilaro’s life story. It was an extraordinary tale. He got his start when he was asked to paint a mural at Marlon Brando's Tahiti house 55 years ago. Since then, he has explored the world, painting murals everywhere he goes. He also does other work, including large colourful paintings, sculpture and ceramics. But his mission is helping underprivileged people, especially blacks around the world. In Uruguay, he is a major celebrity. The gallery was full of photographs of him with famous international figures. There he was with Picasso or in an embrace with his friend Brigitte Bardot. There were pictures of him with Fidel Castro, JFK and Sophia Loren. In addition to everything else, one of his sons was a survivor of the famous plane crash in the Andes that was immortalized in the movie 'Alive'. And yet, we had never heard of him.

Our tour of Montevideo the next day was not quite as interesting. But as our guide forewarned us, Montevideo is a city of contrasts. While many areas are very run down and disturbing, there are many beautiful buildings and areas, including a waterfront road lined with high rise apartments overlooking the city’s beaches. I was impressed with many of the large sculptures around the city.

But the downtown office high rises could have been in any North American city.There are impressive 18th and 19th century buildings just waiting to be renovated. Unfortunately, the economy, which is very much dependent on beef exports, and closely tied to the Argentinean economy, is still recovering. But one day there will be money to restore the properties, especially if the recent influx of foreigners buying real estate continues, and Ralph Lauren and his friends keep spending $12,000 a day for accommodation.

Before leaving Montevideo for Colonia, we did what the locals did. We went to the waterfront market for lunch. The place was full of parillas or barbq restaurants. We had never seen so much barbq'd meat in one place in our lives. It was difficult to decide where to eat, especially with each restaurateur trying to get us into his place. In the end, we picked one, and my only regret was that I couldn’t eat at all the others. But we’ll be back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a URUGUAYAN living in Denver. Have not been back for 22 years...I left when I was 16, not by choice.

Miss my URUGUAY....thanks for the memories..U really captured the country's soul.

Hope you liked our country. I LOVE AND MISS It every day ....:)

Bea ( in Denver )