A Cultural Walking Tour of Montevideo, Uruguay
The city of Montevideo, Uruguay is designed around European-style plazas, each one offering the visitor insight into the cultural fabric of the city. Let me take you on a day trip touring the downtown on foot, sightseeing and exploring some of the urban highlights.
We'll start in the very heart of the city, where a huge bronze equestrian monument depicting Jose Gervasio Artigas (1764-1850) serves as the focal point for Plaza Independencia. The man riding the horse is regarded as Uruguay's most important hero, a military leader who in 1811 commanded a patriot army in a war of independence against Spanish monarchists.
The ashes of Jose Artigas are preserved in a mausoleum located directly below the statue. As we descend the stairs and enter the dark underground chamber the atmosphere becomes sombre. Uniformed guards stand at attention on either side of a case containing a large funerary urn. A shaft of light illuminates the vessel, while along the stone walls engraved notes relate the significant events of Artigas' life. He died in exile in Asuncion, Paraguay in 1850, and it was not until 1977 that his remains were repatriated and interred here.
Our next stop is Teatro Solis, located a few steps away at the west end of Plaza Independencia. The neoclassical style building was constructed between 1842 and 1856, using lavish materials imported from Europe. Originally there was a red lantern on the roof of the building which was lit on evenings when performances were taking place and at the time, would have been visible from many points in the city. A recent renovation of the building added an electric light as a nod to the past tradition.
Combining old and new elements is something that Uruguayan architects are very good at. The Philippe Starck lamps commissioned for the makeover of Teatro Solis are slender, minimalist shapes with textured posts suggesting the trunks of palm trees. It's a very understated, elegant solution for illuminating the facade without detracting from the building's classical details. Let's go inside for the official guided tour offered in English or Spanish, which starts at 11:00 am.
The tour guide, Fernando, tells us that the eight marble columns in the foyer were shipped in large segments from Carrara, Italy. The dazzling Empire style Baccarat crystal chandelier was designed and cut in France and then assembled in the Osler factory in Birmingham, England.
The theatre can accommodate an audience of 1500 people, with four balconies rising above the ground floor. The red velvet covered seats and gold trimmed panels of the Sala Principal create an atmosphere of Old World luxury. Overhead, we see the ornate ceiling rosette painted with the names of 11 important composers and playwrights.
During renovation of the Solis, both the height and depth of the main stage were increased, while lighting and acoustics were updated. The stage is used for musical concerts, opera, plays and dance performances. This is home for the Montevideo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Comedie Nacional, and an ideal venue for visiting international artists. Before leaving the theatre you'll have a chance to visit the box office and purchase tickets for tonight's performance.
Walking back along Ciudadela, we arrive at the gate marking the entrance to the old section of Montevideo - Ciudad Vieja. The original stones that fortified the city walls in 1726 are incorporated into this structure, which perfectly frames the monument of Artigas on one side and leads to a pedestrian street called Peatonal Sarandi.
This beautiful building was constructed in 1917 to house an optician's shop. Today, it's a charming bookstore called Puro Verso and is protected as a national historic site. We can look around inside, browse the extensive stock of books and have lunch upstairs at the PV restaurant.
It's the 29th day of the month which is "Gnocchi Day" in Uruguay. This tradition evolved as a smart housewife's answer to meager means near the end of the month, an alternative to meat that is filling, inexpensive and easy to prepare. It may be a poor man's lunch, but the PV version is a plate of delicious spinach/potato dumplings served with a rich cream sauce and Parmesan cheese. Another local tradition - placing a coin under your dish while eating gnocchi - is said to bring money your way in the month ahead.
There's a magnificent stained glass window that adds a golden glow to the landing of the central staircase and mezzanine. The Latin motto "Veritas filia mendacii est" which can be roughly translated as "Truth's daughter is flawed" seems like a strange motto for a bookstore. One has to remember that this building was home to an optician in order to understand the meaning of that phrase in this context.
Continuing along the cobblestones of Sarandi, past boutiques and restaurants, we arrive at Plaza Matriz, a tree-lined square centered on a fountain. In this park, the first Constitution of Uruguay was proclaimed on July 18, 1830.
Today there are a number of antique dealers selling their wares in a lively open air market. Here one can find old silver, jewellery, ceramics, textiles and vintage bric-a-brac. Don't be afraid to haggle with the dealers - this is an accepted practice and prices are flexible!
There's always music on the streets in Montevideo. We can listen to some young musicians playing classical pieces by Mozart and Brahms, and perhaps add a few pesos to their open violin case.
The Metropolitan Cathedral (Iglesia Matriz) located at the west end of the plaza, is the oldest church in Montevideo. Constructed between 1759 and 1804, the church has two clocks on its bell towers and sculptures by Jose Belloni depicting the Virgin Mary with Saint Philip and Saint James, the patron saints of Uruguay.
When the first services were held here in 1804, the floor was simply packed earth. In 1905 tiles of black and white marble from Belgium were installed. The church contains graves of the bishops and archbishops of Montevideo, the first President of Uruguay Fructuoso Rivera, and the revolutionary leader Juan Antonio Lavalleja who was his rival.
Don't be alarmed by the sight of police and their dogs patrolling the Ciudad Vieja at the height of the tourist season. The area is safe during the day when they are on duty, though it is still risky to walk along Sarandi late at night. If you do go out in the evening, it's best to take a taxi to your destination.
A short three block walk along Sarandi and we come to Plaza Zabala, with its central monument honouring the first governor of Montevideo, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. The square is surrounded by grand old buildings dating from the early 1900s when it was a very chic neighbourhood inhabited by the elite of Montevideo. You can see that several of these heritage buildings are being renovated as condominums. A revival of the inner city is underway, and the restored downtown will undoubtedly gentrify the derelict parts of the Ciudad Vieja.
The grand Taranco Palace that dominates the north end of the square was built in 1910 by the Ortiz de Taranco brothers, a wealthy trio of import/export businessmen. Their private residence, designed by French architects Charles Louis Girault and Jules Chifflot contains three separate apartments on the upper floor, one for each of the brothers' families. Theirs is a rags-to-riches story that is not uncommon among families who immigrated to Montevideo from Europe. When Jose Louis Taranco arrived in this city in the late 1870s, he was 14 years old, and had 17 pesos in his pocket!
The palace is now a museum of decorative arts, displaying a collection of ceramics, tapestries, paintings and sculpture. On the terrace adjoining the ballroom, a couple is demonstrating tango steps. Uruguayans claim that the tango actually originated in this country, not Argentina. If you visit Buenos Aires, the locals will tell you otherwise.
It is a fact that the famous tango song "La Cumparsita" was written by Gerardo Matos Rodriguez in Montevideo in 1917.
We'll take a walk along the Rambla to return to Plaza Independencia. This riverside boardwalk was constructed during the 1920s as a means of connecting and preserving 22 km of prime waterfront. It was an ambitious civic project that united neighbourhoods, made the beaches accessible to all classes, and cleaned up the seedier parts of the city in the process.
Today the Rambla offers public space for pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers and others who enjoy exercising along the shore of the Rio de la Plata.
Last but not least, we have Palacio Salvo, overlooking the Plaza Independencia, perhaps the best-known building in Montevideo. Construction was completed in 1928 and at the time, this was the tallest building in South America, measuring 100 metres in height. Italian architect Mario Palanti borrowed elements from Gothic and Art Deco styles in designing this landmark. Intended as a hotel, the building is now used for private apartments and offices. The details are absolutely incredible - just look at the sea creatures carved in stone on the pillars surrounding the arcade.
Hope you have enjoyed the walking tour of Montevideo! We've only had a small glimpse of one area, but the city's history, art, architecture, music and dance offer enough material to go on exploring for years.