Six hills from east to west, wherever they are

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Unlike some other destinations, we really had no preconceived notions about what Montevideo might be like. We thought we'd want to leave in a day but allowed for the possibility of staying longer if we liked. And we did.

Montevideo, Uruguay's capital city and South America's southernmost capital by a nose, was originally inhabited by semi nomadic people who confronted the First European explorer, Juan Diaz de Solis, in 1516. Displeased that Juan was trodding on their land, these natives killed and ate the hapless explorer his men, thereby ridding themselves of further European intrusions for more than a century. After the Portuguese founded Colonia in 1680, the Spanish decided to give it another try and established the citadel of San Felipe de Montevideo in 1726 for the express purpose of attacking the Portuguese in Colonia and driving them out of the area, which the Spanish finally managed to do in 1777. The country was parceled into large estancias, or ranches, and divvied out to wealthy Spaniards. Like other parts of South America, an independence movement swelled in the early nineteenth century, and Uruguayan hero Jose Gervasio Artigas led the country to liberation in 1828. Artigas' own personal flag can be found flying everywhere, right next to Uruguay's national flag, which is adorned with light blue horizontal stripes and, in the upper left hand corner, a smiling yellow sunshine. In contrast, Artigas' flag looks somber and respectable.

But perhaps the happy yellow sunshine is the most appropriate emblem for Uruguayans. We were pleasantly surprised to find such an amiable populace (particularly given the proximity to their northern neighbor, Brazil), and we thought the capital was a nice blend between cosmopolitan and laid back. And, we suppose they have much to be happy about: Uruguay is often hailed as the safest Latin American country (and Montevideo has been ranked only behind Geneva as the safest world capital). Public education - even through university - is free, health care is some of the best in South America, and the oldest university in the western hemisphere is located in Montevideo.

Visually speaking, too, Montevideo is quite pleasant. Broad avenues shaded by massive poplars criss-cross the city, while a Rambla runs around the perimeter, tracing the edges of the harbor. A distinctly European feel pervades, but there is a mix of architectural styles, often right next to one another: Spanish colonial, Italianate, Art Deco, Belles Artes, etc. The city also boasts large squares, parks, and pedestrian malls - the most populated is the one located in the heart of the Cuidad Veija (old city), where more than 35 nightclubs and bars are located with a span of four blocks.

We can't say we did much other than wander around and take a city tour, which has wended its way into our repertoire for larger cities simply because the ease and interest that goes along with being shuttled from site to site and plied with interesting bits of info along the way. This tour was no exception, and it took us to the major highlights of the city (the cathedral, the squares, the parliament building), along with a few places we'd certainly have missed if we'd relied solely on Frommers and our own two feet.

First, we headed to the country's largest soccer field, outside of which sits a large bronze statute of a covered wagon or cart, pulled by half a dozen horses. Apparently, Montevideo's own symbol is a cart, so the cart is found referenced in names, depicted in post cards, plastered on tee-shirts, you name it. Seems like a rather uninspired symbol for a capital city, but there you have it.

Second, we headed to the citadel overlooking the city, built as a fort to protect the harbor. This is where, in 1939, the populace of Montevideo watched three English ships close in on the Nazi German ship the Graf Spee, which had been docked in the harbor, and where they watched the captain of the Graf Spee sink his ship rather than surrender, then commit suicide as the ship went under. After a lengthy question and answer session with our tour guide, we still couldn't figure out what a German ship was doing there (she steadfastly maintained that Uruguay maintained a strict neutrality in WWII), but we thought the story was interesting, regardless of the whys. The hill on which the citadel sits is also, ostensibly, part of the origin of the city's name. We always thought that Montevideo means "I see a mountain," which, after having seen how flat Uruguay really is, doesn't make much sense. We're not so sure whether the new and improved theory makes any more sense, but here it goes: "Monte" means hill, not mountain; "vi", in Roman numerals, stands for six; "d" stands for the word "from"; "e" stands for the Spanish word for east, "este"; and "o" stands for the Spanish word for west, "oeste." So all together it means "Six hills from east to west." The hill on which the citadel rests is supposed to be the sixth hill. Frankly, we couldn't identify any other hills in the area, so even this revised version doesn't seem to hold much water.

Third, the tour led us to the Mercado del Porto, or the Port Market, which itself boasts a curious history. The building - perhaps as large as a football field and made from wrought iron and glass - was apparently constructed in Liverpool, England in the late 1850s and then shipped across the Atlantic. Its destination was to be Santiago, Chile, and its purpose was to be a train station. But fate intervened, and the station was delivered to Montevideo, instead. Puzzled by this arrival but already possessing a train station, the city fathers converted the building into a large open air type market housing a few leather goods kiosks and several dozen parrillas, or meat houses. We were so surprised to find the place (Frommers, naturally, didn't mention it), and we smelled so much like grilled meat when we left with the tour group (it is addictive, the smell), that we resolved to return the next day, at which point we gorged on fillet, pork chops, and medio y medio, a Port Market specialty consisting of half a glass of champagne and half a glass of white wine. Very refreshing.
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