Monthly Archives: November 2013

Montevideo – the last three days

We returned to Montevideo from our 48-hour side trip to Colonia del Sacramento just one hour before the storm arrived. In Montevideo, it didn’t tun out to be nearly as bad as predicted, but compared to Costa Rica it turned cold and windy. We definitely had no clothes suitable for early spring temperatures in Uruguay. Montevideo is at approximately the same latitude as Los Angeles, only in the southern hemisphere – but it felt more like Oregon in late April than Southern California.

For our final days in Montevideo we had rented a loft in an art deco building, right on the pedestrian mall called Calle Sarandi. We had previously walked by several times and were looking forward to actually staying in the heart of the old district.

Apartment“Our” art deco building. The loft is just above the store. The round window on the left above the door is the kitchen; the other windows look out from the loft.

We had previously met Karen, the care taker, to get the key to the loft because she would be unavailable at check-in time. We unloaded our gear and returned the rental car, getting a nice discount by paying cash.

We walked back to the loft and were thrilled to find that it surpassed our expectations, being even more stunning than it seemed from all the photos and descriptions we had seen and read. I immediately fell in love with the interior, which was light and airy, charming, stylish and tastefully arranged.

Room IIDecorated in black and red with high ceilings and wooden floors, it stretched across the entire building and provided views to the north and east of the pedestrian walkway below.

Room

We unpacked, freshened up and were determined to lunch at the Rara Avis, the basement restaurant in the Teatro Solis which we had missed but then stumbled across the last week.

Rara AvisThe restaurant was packed and very lively, and we had no reservations. The waiter seated us at a small table in the corner, which was just fine. We had a good view of the hubbub. A very reasonable prix fixe menu offered a choice of appetizer, main dish and dessert plus a glass of wine. But there’s no way we could get by on less than a bottle.

Although the place was really busy, we were not hurried to eat and run. So we enjoyed another two-hour lunch.

Fish dish

Pasta dishOne could easily get used to this rhythm!

Since the weather had taken a turn for the worse, we just walked back to our room and spend the evening enjoying the lovely loft and a couple of movies And of course, cold cuts and a bottle of wine.

The next day (Saturday) was my birthday, the raison d’ètre for the entire trip. For this special occasion  we had booked a private, custom-tailored wine and lunch tour offered by The Wine Experience. Ryan, the young owner, picked us up at the loft at 10:30 AM and told us about himself as he drove the 30 minutes to the winery. Ryan was born in Rhodesia, but his family fled to South Africa. As a young man he moved to the UK,then worked for years on ships and in hotels where he acquired his knowledge of and appreciation for fine wine and food.

During our previous e-mail exchange I had made it clear the we weren’t interested in a “regular” wine tour. Having owned a vineyard ourselves, we were intimately familiar with things like terrain, weather, soil, pruning, year-round vineyard work, and the subsequent wine making process. We were more interested in meeting a vintner or two, chatting and tasting.

So instead of one of the usual, large and very commercial wineries, Ryan took us to Bodega J. Chiappella in Sauce, región Canelones. We were greeted by Karina, one of the two sister-owners. The operation is small by Uruguayan standards, with around a hundred acres in vines. We were invited into the wine “cellar”, an above ground metal warehouse . . .

Winery. . . and ushered into a corner where a table had been set with appetizers and several bottles of estate wines ready for tasting.

Karina and RyanKarina and Ryan

A lively conversation ensued. Karina spoke some English, we fumbled with our Spanish, and Ryan translated when necessary. We tasted, talked wine, told stories, compared notes. The tasting culminated by Karina using her “wine thieve” to extract her own special reserve wine from its oak barrel  hidden in a corner.

Wine thiefIt was a thoroughly enjoyable morning – and didn’t we feel special!

We walked around vineyard for a little bit, undeterred by the light rain, cool temperatures, and a bit of wind.

Irina in vineyardAs this was the southern hemisphere, the 2013 harvest was long over. Grapes had been picked in February. Bud break had occurred just a few weeks ago, and the new shoots were about 15 cm long. Just like Oregon, in early May.

We hugged, exchanged private e-mails, and left to drive back to Montevideo for lunch. The restaurant was Ryan’s big secret and surprise. A half-hour later we pulled up in front of Al Forno in the Punta Carretas district of Montevideo.

Al FornoRyan unpacked two bottles of wine he had carefully selected to pair with the lunch he had pre-ordered. Al Forno is a small place with only a few tables. Federico, the chef and owner, came to our table to say hello . . .

FredericoFederico

. . . appetizer-treat in hand.

Quail eggsQuail eggs with red caviar

We were next served a beautiful salad . .

Salad. . . followed by  brotola, his signature dish: fish baked in a clay oven and served in a rectangular cast-iron “box” with several different vegetables, the fish perfectly steamed, the vegetables still crisp and fresh,  everything enhanced with the rich flavors of caramelized red onions.

Fish in a boxIt was culinary and visual masterpiece. And the wines Ryan had chosen – a white viognier, and a red 2013 tannat reserve – were perfect and also unforgettable.

WinesAfter lunch Ryan took us back to our loft. We thanked him for an absolutely wonderful, memorable day.

That evening, you guessed it: cold cuts and wine in the loft for a light dinner, accompanied by a bottle of wine and a couple of movies.

Sunday was to be our final day. We packed it with things we had wanted to do but hadn’t done yet, beginning with a guided tour including a couple of live sketches at the Teatro Solis. Morning tours were only offered in Spanish or Portuguese; an English tour wasn’t available until the afternoon. We opted for Spanish and joined a large group of tourists from Europe, all speaking Spanish – including the Austrians and Germans. We missed a lot of information but still enjoyed the inside of the theater, its stages and performance halls, art work on every level and richly decorated interiors inside the theater itself.

Teatro solisThe tour was “interrupted” several times by “spontaneous” sketches performed by three actors, which kept the tour quite entertaining.

Performance

After the theater we walked to Independence Square and down into the mausoleum of General José Artigas. His ashes – in a highly decorated urn placed on a pedestal – were guarded 24/7 by two guards in period uniforms. What a job! Stand guard for hours, motionless and expression-less, not letting tourists affect your  face or composure. What if you have to pee? Don’t drink coffee before your shift!

We then followed Avenue 18 de Julio to the Sundays-only street, flea and everything market. La Feria de Tristan Narval takes place in an area of 20 square blocks where everyone displays everything imaginable – either on the sidewalk, in the street or on tables and shelves. We strolled through several streets, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of wares: old, new, broken, whole, useful and useless, edible and plastic, alive or long dead. Fortunately, we were in need of nada, so just took in the sights and sounds for a while.

Flea market

Bras and vegetables anyone?

We then walked a dozen or so blocks to La Cosina de Pedro for lunch.

La Cosina de PedroParilla at La Cocina de Pedro

Ryan had told us it was not to be missed – and he was right. The place was very popular on Sunday afternoon.

Cocina de Pedro interiorWe were “appeased” for having to wait with a glass of  local bubbly. A nice gesture, I must admit. After  yet another great meal, we walked along the Rambla back to our loft, enjoying the expansive river views.

Strolling along Rambla

Irina on the Rambla

We turned in early that night, having to get up at 3:30 AM for our 6:30 AM flight back to Costa Rica.

We had done and experienced just about everything we set out to do. Except, we never had a cup of mate, the popular Uruguayan drink. Almost everyone goes around with a drinking gourd known as a culha in hand (complete with pecial filtered straw called a bombilla) and a thermos filled with hot water under arm, for refills.

Mate drinkers on motorbike. Wikipedia photo.

The looks of the mate didn’t inspire us to taste, and the fetish surrounding the practice seems a little whacked.

And we never made it to a tango bar. Maybe if someone had offered to take us, but not knowing where to go and what to expect . . . and then there’s the fact that we habitually go to bed early!

Although this trip  was pretty expensive, it could have easily been even more so: Uruguay is famous for its leather goods and its woolens. Both were available everywhere, in fabulous designs, styles and quality of craftsmanship. Glove-quality leather shirts, patchwork skirts, amazing textures and colors. The yarns and woolens come in exquisite dyes, bold patterns, outrageous finishes. Bu we can’t wear any such clothes in Costa Rica. It’s too warm, and leather molds, so buying woolens or leather products made no sense. Jim breathed a sigh of relief.

A private taxi (arranged for by Karen, our loft-lady) picked us up at 5:00 AM for the drive to the airport. We saw only three cars during the 25-minute ride, this in a city of 1.8 million!

We landed in Costa Rica right on time. Dear Jennifer, who had taken us to the airport 10 days before, picked us up, her car filled with snacks, and even wine and beer, to welcome us. Lair and the dogs were glad to see us. All was well.

We had a great trip, but were happy to be back home. Sleeping in your own bed is not over rated.

Cheers¡Salud!

Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento was the earliest settlement at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. For our trip there from Montevideo we had initially planned to take one of the frequently running busses but ended up renting a car, for two reasons:

  1. The strap on our pull-along suitcase broke so rolling it to the bus station was no longer an option, and
  2. The roads in Uruguay were fabulous! Almost unimaginable to anyone from Costa Rica: wide, straight roads without potholes, almost empty of cars.

Rambla at middayRambla Gran Britaña

Who could resist?

We had been told that it was extremely expensive to own a car in Uruguay. It’s not just the initial cost of purchasing an auto. On top of that, there are annual ownership fees, road taxes, maintenance and repair, and high gasoline prices. Hence car ownership is just not wide-spread. People rely on public transportation. Consequently, the fine roads seem empty. Renting a car was not particularly expensive, about $40 per day, all inclusive.

We drove the 170 km in two hours, arriving in Colonia del Sacramento before lunch. Jim, who was desperate from an early age to get OUT of Sacramento (California, that is),  found himself once again back in Sacramento.

Colonia del SacramentoBut this Sacramento turned out to be charming and quaint, with a picturesque barrio histórico. Only 51 km straight across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, frequent ferries bring day travelers from Argentina to Colonia. Almost all tourists are Spanish-speaking. However, most shop owners and restaurant help spoke English.

We had rented a secluded room at the Posada Plaza Mayor . . .

Hotel Plaza Mayor

. . .  located, as the name implies, on the main plaza in the barrio histórico.

We found our habitación  very comfortable, quiet and clean. It was unique and quaint, featuring plastered walls with exposed stone work – and a low doorway. Jim never had to duck entering a room before. We dubbed it the “hobbit room”.

Hobbit roomAfter a quick unpacking, we were off to explore the village and find a place to have our by now normal three-hour lunch. The weather was very pleasant as we strolled about, marveling at the cobble stone streets . . .

Cobblestone street. . . and most unusual objets d’art along the way . . .

Car artCar art

Bicycle artBicycle art

. . . until we found El Drugstore, a charming outdoor café with whimsical, polka-dotted interior.

El DrugstoreIt so happened that María Inés Alonso from Buenos Aires was setting up to sing and perform. We enjoyed another fabulous, leisurely lunch, complete with wine and musical entertainment. We chatted with her during her breaks and then bought her CD as a souvenir of a lovely afternoon spent on the plaza underneath plane trees.

Maria Ines AlonsoThe ambiance was reminiscent of the South of France.

RestaurantAgain we skipped dinner that evening, sharing wine and cold cuts in front of a TV for a change. The weather was taking a turn for the worse. It turned windy and cooler, and sitting in the lovely court yard of the posada . . . 

Courtyard. . . was not an option.

The next day was Halloween. We went out for breakfast (we’d later remember that breakfast was included in the price of our room) and decided, since it had become still colder, that we’d take a drive to the center of town to find out where and how “normal” people lived in Colonia. We took a wrong turn and suddenly found ourselves behind a tour bus. Why not follow it around, thereby being guided to all the various barrios and sights of Colonia? And right we were! We were led through different neighborhoods and passed several monuments and sights. Unfortunately we were missing the audio from the bus, so we had to rely on our own maps, brochures, and whatever other materials we had, to figure out where we were and what we were seeing.

Back at the hotel, we asked for directions to La Florida, a restaurant we had chosen from the list of options because it sounded great. After a half hour or so of wandering around, we still hadn’t a clue where it was, and asked again, this time someone else. Then, again, another person. At our wits end, we tried the tourist information building right by the old city gate.

Old city gateThe young woman behind the counter kindly left her post, walked us to the door, and pointed. There it was, tucked just beyond the wooden draw bridge and without any sign or advertisement.

La Florida exteriorThe restaurant is in a charming older house with several rooms, all lovingly decorated with antiques and artifacts.

La Florida interiorAs we found out later, the chef and owner just didn’t care if he were found, didn’t want too much business or too many tourists. We thoroughly enjoyed our surroundings and  didn’t mind waiting patiently for Ana, the sole server, to wait on us.

AnaAna was very busy, but once she came to our table, she made us feel like we were her only customers. Her presence was a colorful performance, setting the stage for and then accompanying what was to prove a most extraordinary meal.

A bottle of white wine, a bottle of water sin gas, and some appetizers got us started. We were in no hurry. We ordered raviolones negros de salmón con salsa de langostinos (black salmon ravioli in orange shrimp sauce – did I mention it was Halloween?) for me . . .

Raviolis. . . and mackerel for Jim.

MackerelThe food was divine! Ana found out it was my birthday (well, it was a few days early, but who’s quibbling?) and then appeared with a slice of cake and a candle. She and chef/owner Carlos Bidanchon sang “Happy Birthday” in English. Then we laughed, danced and hugged.

Dancing at La FloridaSuch is life in Uruguay!

An after-meal stroll around the old town . . .

Colonia steet sceneAnother old Portuguese street

Colonia sights

France or Uruguay?

. . . then back to our hotel and another couple hours in front of the TV until we fell asleep.

Friday morning we found the breakfast room of the hotel, paid, packed and departed for Montevideo. There was a storm brewing. The outside tables were stored away, the plaza was empty. We tried (and succeeded) to beat the storm by leaving early, arriving in Montevideo one hour before the rain arrived.

To be continued . . .