It was still overcast this morning when we woke and didn't change all day. We headed out of town aiming to spend the night in Minas, a town up in the hills named after the local industry - mining.
Our route took us along the coast and through Maldonado. There's no clear distinction of when Punta ends and Maldonado starts. Most of the bay is lined with high rise hotels and apartment blocks but every now and again there is still a single house - they look slightly lost amongst the high rise and it makes me wonder why people haven't simply cashed in and sold out to the developers. There are still new buildings going up and it probably won't be long before more of those from the '60's and '70's are demolished to make way for new blocks. They have the feeling of self sufficient mini villages - several have dentists, doctors and pharmacies (a passion Uruguayans seem to share with mainland Europe) on the ground floor.
The beaches are long and sandy but they don't have the same beauty as those at La Pedrera and Cabo Polonio. In the summer they will be a heaving mass of people, our roasting in the sun - a South American equivalent of the Spanish costas.
We took a short detour out to Punta Ballena, another outcrop where in the right season you can see whales and tuna migrating. There are views from here back across the bay to Punta, but as the weather still isn't great all we really saw were three bands of different shaded grey - sky, town and sea.
Our main reason for the detour was to visit Casa Pueblo, the home of Uruguayan artists Carlos Páez Vilaró. I've not heard of him before but the video at the start of the "tour" gave a run down of his artistic commissions. He's now 81 and seems to have had a very colourful life traveling the world pursuing his art. I was left with the impression of someone who was wealthy and well connected (he had diplomatic assistance more than once to get himself out of tricky near death situations) who was able to follow their personal passion.
After seeing the video, which catalogued commissions in airports, schools and other public buildings around the world, as well as others for famous celebrities, we were left to browse through some rooms displaying his art. It was similar to other work we've seen in Europe - abstract, bold colours with an almost childlike interpretation of his subject. As well as paintings, he made films (highly regarded at Cannes), sculptures and pottery. The very attentive staff, who kept opening up opportunities for us to buy a memento of our visit also commented that "the artist is at home today and can add a personalised greeting to any print you buy if you would like him too." Had we liked his art we probably would have done but we came away empty handed.
To me his best work was the house itself. It is a total fantasy which Carlos designed and built himself over 30 years. It has grown organically so it's now a myriad of rooms, balconies, terraces and secluded pools. It reminded me of buildings by Gaudí and brought back strong memories of Barcelona. The complex is now very large - explained as part is now a hotel and conference centre, but Carlos still lives and works on this sight. He has fabulous views of the bay round to Montevideo and the light is superb. But even here on this small rocky point, the building work is going on apace.
We followed the bay round to Piriápolis - another resort which is very quiet. The main attraction, the Argentine Hotel, is a statement symbol of better times. It's huge and conjures for me images of 1940/1950's wealthy families spending the summer on the coast.
Wine cellar underneath the confiteria on the plaza de armas. Más vino!
Stepping back in time in this bar in Minas
The road then leading up to Minas takes us past Cerro Pan de Azucar, one of the of the highest points in the country. On the top is a huge cross, partially covered in clouds. Even though we have taken the panoramic route, which winds and climbs slowly uphill, the cloud cover was too low for us to be able to enjoy the view. It cleared enough for us to see Minas before we arrived (the first time this has happened - all other towns were on flat landscapes and we literally just drove into them).
Minas appears quite large and from a distance is dominated by the bell towers of the church - a useful signpost to the main square and our hotel. With a town plan in hand and reassurances that if we get lost everyone in town knows the Hotel Verdun and will be able to direct us back we set out to explore the centre.
At one corner where we stop to get our bearings, an elderly gentleman strikes up a conversation. I can't follow his Spanish and even Stef seems to be struggling - he now claims he was purposely playing dumb as he was trying to work out if this friendly chap was genuine of not. Turns out he was and if we're ever in Minas again, we've got his number and should call him to go to his house for a coffee!
On the main square we popped in to the Confiteria Irisarri for a quick coffee - its a local institution and a real find. Its been around for 108 years, originally just making cakes and pastries but now also with a tearoom as well as a shop. Its famous for its alfajores - shortbread style biscuits sandwiched together with a dulce de leche filling. There is a steady trade of people stopping off to buy cakes and pastries on their way home from work.
With not many tourists ever visiting town we're a bit of a novelty and the waiter tells us about, and then shows us, the cellars they have downstairs. One long room has a table that can seat up to 40 for dinner. Around the walls are opened ended wine barrels filled with bottles of wine and champagne, stacked and ready to go. Another smaller room is more difficult to see because the floors under 6 inches of water. In the middle is a roughly hewn table and chairs - the type you can picture the Three Musketeers sat around plotting and planning their next escapade. There's also a small collection of old typewriters, moulds for making sweets and pictures charting the progress of the shop over the years. The waiter showing us around seemed really pleased that he'd had the opportunity to show off these local treasures.
Late in the evening we popped into a bar across the hotel for a final digestif. It was run by an elderly chap and his wife and has the musty smell you sometimes associate with old people (it reminded me of the smell of Mr Canderlin's house, our piano teacher who lived with his elderly mother). It was a time warp location with a very high ceiling and lots of small rectangular marble topped tables, just big enough for two people. The bar was also marble and behind it was a huge old fashioned fridge with wooden doors. At the back a narrow flight of steps leads up to a peluqueria (barbers/hairdressers). At the front a small kiosko opens out onto the main square. Trade has been slow for the last 15 years. In an effort to maintain business there are a few booths around the bar with internet access. Two were in use and we were the only other customers. As we left, we noticed that the building is up for sale.