Colonia; every house a museum?

Trip Start Jun 15, 2009
Trip End Jun 14, 2010

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El Viajero

Flag of Uruguay  ,
Saturday, November 28, 2009

We made our way onwards to Colonia, a small town by the side of the river plate which has recently been given Unesco World Heritage status. Partway through the bus journey we encountered, once again, a scottish couple that we met some days ago who are following a similar route to ours. However, they have a boat in a very small town nearby that they sailed here over a period of eight years. In their words, the boat is now in a bit of a state and needs some concentrated re fettling before they can sail it back again. However, they are not living here but make frequent journeys back and forth. They are going to spend Christmas at home for the first time for 8 years while we are now beginning to contemplate the very strange notion of being so far away from family and friends!

The sun grew stronger during the day and by the time we reached Colonia it was shining brightly. It's amazing how much better anywhere looks when the sun is shining! Although Colonia is only the same size as Fray Bentos, the constant stream of visitors, particularly through the port (direct access to BsAs) means that the infrastructure is much stronger. Everywhere there are cafes, bars and small hotels (sadly with incredibly inflated prices!) The roads buzz with the motorcycle engines of small 2 and 4 seater buggies that are rented out to tourists. Some of these look rather sporty, low slung with retro racing car looks but a few observations showed that they have hopelessly underpowered engines and would give more frustration than fun! We decided to walk, our usual mode of transport around towns.

The early Colony of Sacramento (hence Colonia) was fought over and traded over time, particularly by the Spanish and Portuguese (although the English had a bit of a look-in too!) The big square was originally a parade ground for the soldiers defending the town. The whole encampment was surrounded by walls of which only a gatehouse and a small section remains, although even this shows a lot of renovation – some might say complete rebuilding. The old part of town has lots of single storey small houses from the earliest period, constructed from rough stonework and standing on crudely paved roads. However, the continued use of the town meant that some of these were also extended upwards and backwards to form more substantial places befitting the 'ímportant’ traders and dignitaries living there. Some ‘new’ houses were also built although for some reason the ruins of the convent remained untouched and now form the base of the lighthouse. We climbed up the steel staircase to get a good view of the town but forgot to count the number of steps.

Colonia has a number of museums and a useful system for admittance. You buy a combined ticket for UR$50 (about GBP1.60) that lets you into all the museums. They all have the same opening times so you’re not left trying to plan a complex logistics problem like some other towns. Unfortunately all logic went at that point as all the museums have a different day when they are closed! And the Museum of Spanish Settlement is seemingly permanently closed (at the the time our Lonely Planet was published is supposed to be closed for renovations, must be a big job. When we walked past we could see no sign of activity at all). This information was carefully written all over our map by the lady at the first museum (who had obviously taken lessons from Thai people on how to treat other people’s maps).

When you get into the museums thay are very small and sometimes a bit pointless. Some of the actual buildings are interesting but the contents are often the mish-mash of donated stuff that doesn’t really give any clear message I’m sure the town would like to give. One had some furniture and tablewear from the period but it was all replica. A few show noticably third world standards of safety etc and almost all have lots of staff with very little to do. The exception to this was the archive museum, where a sole woman held fort, almost literally as the lights were out and the huge doors soundly closed to discourage visitors. She was plainly put out that we had dared to venture into her private world and start looking at things. Luckily for her there is very little in her museum, so visitors can rarely trouble her for long.

There has obviously been some recent rearrangements of some museum exhibits. Our trusty Lonely Planet suggested that we would see a whale skeleton in one museum but it was not immediately apparent. Let's face it, a whale skeleton should be pretty obvious since nowhere did it intimate that it might be a miniature whale or anything like that. We were obviously disappointed but learned to live with this bitter pain.  However, the next day we were wandering a back street and found the skeleton under a corrugated iron shelter in a little park with a couple of concrete prehistoric animals! Colonia Council, ever keen to promote their town, have created a little walled park in what maps showed as just empty space but they have put gates on it to keep tourists out. All we were able to do was to peer through the bars to see the skeleton!

There is also a lot of overlap between their collections, we saw several exhibitions of stone balls made by indigenous peoples of the area. Interesting to a point but when you’re onto your seventh glass case of these things and you still can’t see the differences between them, you know you’ve seen too many stone balls. (Aplogies to any of our readers who are intensely interested in the development of tools used by indigenous peoples of South America. Perhaps you’d like to give some pointers of what to look for because we have the sneaky feeling that we may see more of these before our trip is over!) You're not allowed to take photo's in any of the museums but we sneaked you a few shots. The risks we take to keep you informed!

The delight in Colonia is really just to wander and enjoy glimpses into other ages. At every corner there are interesting buildings at different stages of development, decay and renovation. There are lots of quirky bits of architecture and details like tiles and inscriptions to be spotted and plenty of calm places to take the weight of the feet and enjoy a coffee or something stronger. The steady stream of tourists does clog up some of the cafes close to the waterside. However, most of the town has only sprinklings of wandering visitors and frankly one has doubts whether some of the cafes can make a decent living. We had a long chat with Kristina, the owner of a beautiful gallery/cafe called 1717, who felt that summer and weekends are better for her but lamented that winter is completely dead.

We visited a couple of bars with music and our final evening we hoped to attend the Luz y Sonido at the old church. However there was a complete lack of Luz when we were there and no other people either so we guessed that it had been called off because of the doubtful weather (it had rained all day but was actually dry in the evening).

We ate in The Drugstore, a lively (by Colonia standards) bar with walls covered with posters, an open kitchen with two disinterested chefs and a unique dining nook outside the bar housed in an old car. You can be served your food and drinks at a rickety table inside the car although one of you must suffer the indignity of sitting on one of those accursed beanbag things that are supposed to be young lively and informal but nobody ever points out are extremely uncomfortable.  (Now we are mostly staying in hostels we are seeing more and more of these things and TP, for one, is not best pleased). Anyway, the chilly and damp air meant that we ate inside and were regaled at intervals by a crooner who wanted to banter with his audience. Our spanish does not yet include banter and he was lucky that TP looked up when he did otherwise we wouldn’t have even known that we were being spoken to!

However, the food here was great because they actually cooked us some vegetables. You cannot believe how excited we both were to have some boiled potato, pumpkin, carrots and peas on our plates.  The South American diet largely rejects anything that is not meat and most people simply discard even the limited salad garnish that fills the corner of the vast platters of charred flesh that are served. Those salad dodgers amongst you would love it! Our alternative has primarily been weeks of pizzas and pastas. Even when we’ve had salads, most have been variations of tinned vegetables with some lettuce and not very inspiring. We had just reached the point at which we both said ‘I have had enough cheese and starch! I need real vegetables!’ It all came to a head on Thursday when  Jen ordered trout, the only thing on the menu that included some vegetables, and was told ‘sorry we have no trout today‘. So she asked whether they could do a different fish with the vegetables and was told, ‘no, we have no trout so we have no vegetables!’ How can a restaurant not have any vegetables? In The Drugstore we had a big plate full of fresh vegetables along with some grilled pieces of fish and an equally big plate of lovely fresh salad to go with it.
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