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- Category: Uruguay (2005, world trip)
I tempted fate again. There was no thunderstorm last night and this morning I could see the horizon when I woke. Par for the course, within 20 minutes it was raining again, although this time it was a short burst and was over quickly.
Fishing boats in Punta del Este
"I'm a helicopter"
Our plan for today was a boat trip to Isla de Lobos where around 200,000 sea lions live. Unfortunately, the bad weather means its too windy and the boat isn't sailing! Initially we thought this was a low-season fob off because the crew couldn't be bothered - as we worked our way around the point later thought, you could see that the conditions were bad around the island.
The sky started to clear slowly and as we made our way around the harbour wall it heated up. The harbour wasn't full but there were a couple of swanky power launches moored up. They were a stark contrast to the local fishermen who were preparing their nets. A lady who was fishing with her family, shouted with glee as she had a catch - a tiny tiddler but her excitement was catching and we laughed along with her.
With no boat trip we walked around the point, stopping as we went to comment to each other about the houses, their design and which ones we would or wouldn't like to have. A number of times we passed by people (mainly of the older generation) who were out in their tracksuits and trainers walking briskly along the coast - obviously a regular constitutional. We later came across numbered signs for the exercise route. Not only do people do the walk but there are recommended stretches and other exercises on these signs to make a rounded work out. No-one we saw doing the walk stopped to do the exercises!
We also found the helipad and under duress I did a helicopter impression as James was late bringing ours!! (James is the fictitious Voogd family chauffeur). At least we now know where to direct him for the next time round so he's on time. Nearby was a fountain with drinking water - Stef predictably soaked me but the sad thing was that I subconsciously knew he was going to do it and still let him.
Walking round the point the buildings changed. On the side by the yacht club were mainly private houses, gated and secure. On the other side, which is more exposed to the ocean, its mainly flats and apartments. Interspersed between the blocks are still some of what we think are the original houses. Over the years people have simply sold out to property developers. Everywhere we go the lawns and gardens are beautifully maintained and perfectly "manicured".
For the first time in days we actually saw blue sky in the afternoon. With the sun out it became quite hot - sunnies came out and we wished for sandals rather than our boots. These thoughts tempted fate and the clouds rolled back in until the sky was totally overcast, although we were spared rain.
We spent most of the evening updating the website (loading pictures into the gallery is taking ages so we hope you're all looking at them!!) and had a very late dinner at El Mondo del Pizza (which we later found out was a chain). This came as a recommendation from the French and Belgian guys we'd met later. It was only after eating the worst pizza I think I've ever had that Stef mentioned that the recommendation was for the meat, not the pizza!!
- Category: Uruguay (2005, world trip)
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.
- Category: Uruguay (2005, world trip)
Fishing on Uruguay's Atlantic coast. What's for tea I wonder?
Today started badly. I knocked my toilet bag off the sink and half of the contents fell into the loo!! Stef, realising this was an omen for a bad day, retreated quickly and quietly down to the lobby to "upload some pictures quickly while you get ready for breakfast" - coward!!
We had a final walk around the main square in Minas before leaving. We've both enjoyed our short stay here - the town is pretty (or we've simply adjusted our benchmark of attractiveness) and the people we've met have been very friendly. We left town by a different route to how we came in, passing some fancy houses along the way. Our route takes us past only the second sign of non-agricultural industry I've seen so far - a mine. The first was a car parts factory, also in Minas.
Our first stop is at Parque Salus, home to one of the main mineral waters in Uruguay and the site of a brewery (Patricia beer, not as good as Pilsen in our opinion). We can't visit either site but there are gardens around them open for visits. There are paved walkways that lead you through a collection of indigenous and imported plants and trees - in some senses its a mini botanical garden.
Close to the water bottling plant there's a small fountain in the shape of a puma, spouting water into a pool. Behind it there's a small cave where you can see (with the help of lights and music activated as you walk in) the stream itself. Local legend says that it is the water that gave the puma its courage and strength and if you drink from the stream you will have this too - we'll see if it makes a difference for Stef and me.
Leaving the park we decide to head for the beaches again as the weather has cleared up for the first time in days and its hot and sunny. We stopped at Atlántida but find it hard to get a feel for the town. There are lots of people milling around but there's no sign that any restaurants or hotels are open. When we asked at Tourist Info we were pushed heavily towards the Hotel Colonial but we also managed to extract details of a couple of other hotels - only to find they were closed. The Colonial is the only hotel in town that's open and as we arrive we're the only guests.
As the sun is still shining we headed down to the beach with a picnic lunch to while away the afternoon. The bay stretches for miles and the sand is beautifully soft. We got stern looks from a couple who pass us on their afternoon walk but they're friendlier on their way back - they obviously don't expect picnics on the beach off season.
There's a few people fishing and we wander along the bay to watch. The further we go the more I'm left with the impression that all the men in town head down to the beach in the afternoon to catch their dinner. There's a real mix of ages, most in their twenties or thirties but we noticed in particular one old man with his back hunched from years of hard work.
As the sun started to set we turned around and headed back to watch it. The sky has virtually no clouds so its a simple sunset - a golden, orange ball of light quickly sinking below the horizon. Having Chico with us we decided to drive along the bay to look at the rest of Atlántida. The map from Tourist Info indicates a huge town but only a small part has street names, most simply have numbers. There are four separate areas, named after their respective beaches. Its simply miles of holiday cottages. Every now and again lights indicate that someone is home but most look empty, closed for the "off" season.
Although there' still the regular grid pattern to the streets, it's also crossed by diagonals. We're forced to turn off the beach road by a sand dune that blocked the way and soon get disoriented in what seems to be a maze of streets. There are few lights in any buildings, let alone lights to tell you what road you're on. Hitting a main one we follow it back through to the centre of town. This too is unusual as there is no focal point central square.
As our room is a bit gloomy, we stopped at Don Vito's pizzeria and bar for a drink or two and to catch up on diaries. I thought it was odd that they had about 5 waiters lined up and ready for the evening shift. All became clear when we came back later for dinner (only this and another pizza place, which wasn't as nice, were open) - Uruguay were playing Perú in the qualifiers for the next world cup.
Not being a footie fan, and knowing nothing of the rules, I can't tell you if it was a good or bad match. Uruguay had loads of attempts at goals, yellow cards were being flashed left, right and centre but the game ended up as a 0-0 draw. Each missed attempt was accompanied by a groan from the restaurant. Each groan became audibly and visibly more frustrated as time went by. As soon as the final whistle blew there was a mass exodus from the place, us included.
I've had a grouchy day today. I don't know why but I've just felt out of sorts. I suspect its the change of pace settling in the need for re-adjusting. We've moved on pretty much on a daily basis and whilst the general patterns of life are the same, the routing differs slightly in each place we go to. It's also hard not having a comfy chair or settee to chill out on - it's not the same propped up on a bed!
- Category: Uruguay (2005, world trip)
No explanation needed...
Having had a beautiful day yesterday, the rain was back in force today. It was also noticeably colder, the first time I've started the day wearing my fleece.
Our bathroom was a bit dingy, but the decór didn't have a patch on the plumbing! After 2 seconds the water stopped running, the pipes made really nasty banging noises and then with a cough and a splutter the water came through full force. This happened with both the hot and cold taps on the sink and the shower. The routine was repeated when Stef hit the bathroom a bit later.
The hotel's curiosities continued when we headed for breakfast. At the end of a dark corridor was a single light leading the way into a large room. On the left was a pool, spa and jacuzzi. On the right tables, chairs and a mini stage were all laid out and ready for a big entertainment night. With nothing to separate off the pool I'm sure there's some drunken mishaps with people going for unintended late night swims. The rain was pounding hard on the corrugated iron roof - it sounded like someone was pouring bags of gravel onto it.
Not heeding the receptionists warnings that it was very dangerous to drive in the rain we set off along the Balneario to Montevideo. Dual carriageway most of the way, it spread into 3 lanes as we reached the capital. Before long we were driving through the leafy lanes of the suburbs, heading down to the Rambla so that we were driving along the river shore all the way.
We checked into our hotel (the London Palace can you believe it!), unpacked and sent out laundry - about 30 minutes in total. We then went to put Chico into the hotel car park only to find that we'd been clamped!. All the hotels have space in front of them for arriving guests to park. It was full when we arrived and neither of us thought to move the car quickly. There were no obvious signs that you needed to pay and the guy from the hotel who helped us with our bags didn't give us any warning either. The next hour was spent finding where to pay the fine (first office sent us somewhere else because it was a hire car) and then waiting to be unclamped. It cost us the equivalent of £11 so not bad by UK standards.
We'd planned to spend today arranging what we wanted to do in Paraguay and booking flights, leaving the sight seeing of Montevideo until tomorrow. We found a cafe at the Plaza Independencia and shared thoughts on what to do next. We've got a broad outline of a plan - the challenge will be seeing how easy it is to do.
Flights booked we ambled up and down the Ave 18 de Julio, the main shopping street. It was strange to be thrown in amongst people going about their normal daily business again. The cafe we stopped at had a steady flow of suited and booted business men and women and there was a general bustle of activity around the city.
Neither of us warmed to Montevideo initially as we had done with other places but it grew on us more as the afternoon passed. At the Plaza Cagancha we stopped to watch waht I think was some sort of demonstration about homelessness. About 10 - 15 young people wrapped in blankets walked randomly around and invisibly cordoned off square and then all laid down on the pavement for a minute or so pretending to be asleep. They got up and repeated it all over again. There was nothing to explain what was happening so it could equally have been a piece of live performance art.
We had a second night of football - this time Argentina against Brazil. The interest in the game was less personal for the locals this time so the groans at missed goals weren't so loud. I have absolutely no idea what the final score was. (Arg 3, Bra 1)
- Category: Uruguay (2005, world trip)
This morning we decided to head out to Fortaleza del Cerro before taking Chico back to Thrifty. There's a military museum there and the views of Montevideo are meant to be good. Our route took us through a different part of the city, stopping briefly at the Estacion Central General Artigas. This is now totally closed and we could only peer through locked gates and dusty, dirty windows. Its a sad sight. In its day the station must have hummed with people but now its deserted. It would make a great hotel but I doubt anyone has the money to spend on it though.
From the station to the Cerro we drove through a fairly industrialised part of town - main electricity station, oil refinery, port and docks - and then through another residential area before we got to the fort. The fort is small and it was incredibly windy. For 10 pesos you can have a look around. There's information about the various wars and battles that Uruguay has been involved in, collections of rifles, pistols, uniforms etc and a small prison in the dungeons downstairs. It was worth coming for the museum but the views across to Montevideo are stunning.
Heading back into town we passed the Palacio Legislativo before making our way to Thrifty. The traffic felt manic to me and I was glad that Stef was driving. Paperwork all completed we handed over the keys to Chico (finding the panel for the radio later back at our hotel!). He's been a great little car, not much poke but he's taken us around Uruguay with no problems at all.
From Thrifty we headed down to the port - our first trip on a bus. From the outside they look slightly dodgy and not particularly well maintained. Inside they're fine, its just a bit disconcerting that there's a policeman with a pistol on board (seems to be one on every bus).
The old port sector helps to shape our overall views of the city. Like most it could do with being spruced up - the difference here is that the city almost feels sad. There are very few buildings that look clean and in a good state of repair. Most have crumbling plasterwork and some look so dejected that you feel they'll simply give in and crumble around you. Every now and again a horse and cart comes by - the local rubbish collection service. The carts look solid enough but they're piled high with bags with more handing over the sides. The horses look thoroughly miserable and dejected.
The Mercado del Puerto isn't what we'd expected. There is no market! The building is full of parillada's vying for trade. Its a lively and colourful spectacle. Seeing so much grilled meat got Stef's taste buds going and we stopped for lunch at the place with biggest grill. They had a bar counter around the grill that you could sit at as well as a restaurant style section in the middle which was mostly full of suits from the nearby banking quarter.
At this place the grill was huge. It has joints of pork, whole chickens, big slabs of steak, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage) and ribs as well as other bits I couldn't recognise (probably tripe and offal). There's some friendly banter as we take photo's and they let us come closer to the grill for some more shots. The grill is incredibly hot and I feel for the guy who spends his day in front of it. Every now and again he gets logs of wood from a pile at his feet and slings them onto the fire at the back. He's continually adjusting the meat, turning it over, throwing salt on it (most food here is salty) and chopping up cooked bits to dish out to customers.
Its mainly men who seem to eat the asado de tira - a selection of ribs and steak Although there's a fair amount of fat (which most people seem to eat) and bones its still a huge plate of meat. Stef was staggered that the chap next to him worked his way through 3 platefuls.
Crystal Palace, aka "the lads"
We ambled back and up through the old quarter passing squares and churches, happy just to be soaking up the place and seeing that some renovation is starting to take place. The Teatro Solis is one such place and has reently re-opened (they are still working on the ticket hall and restaurant). Tonight's performance is sold out and the next tour of the theatre is tomorrow - we seem destined not to see theatres on this trip!
On Plaza Independencia we marveled at Artigas' mausoleum. There's a high plinth with a statue of him astride a horse (with a bird on his head in the photo's Stef took). Either side of the statue, stairs lead down into an underground chamber where and urn with his remains are on display. Two soldiers were on guard.
Back towards the hotel we made it just in time to see the Gaucho museum. Its in an old building, a narrow entrance leads off the street and through an inner door. The marble staircase winds round to open up the view of the inside of the building - its stunning and took my breath away. The darkness of the entrance was contrasted by a light and airy inner courtyard, the light coming from a glass ceiling decorated with blue panels. The marble stairs double back on themselves with the next floor up being reached by an elegant flight of wooden stairs with beautiful parquet inlaid panels
I can't work out if this would have been someone's house or if it would have been offices. The rooms inside are all interconnected making me err on the side of house. There's also a huge room at the front of the first floor which would have made a fabulous reception room with views over Plaza de Entrevero.
The Gaucho collections are small, mainly intricately carved bridles, spurs, stirrups and daggers all in silver. There's a whole room devoted to maté cups and bombilla's. On the next floor down there's a collection of old notes and coins dating back to the early 1800's, charting the different denominations, styles and issuing banks over the years. Most of the rooms on this floor are closed - they seem to be preparing an exhibition about Carlos Gardel and have the same images and photos that we saw in the museum about him in the Valle del Eden.
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