Friday, 14 February 2014

Days 325 to 328: Montevideo

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, was named in the early 1980s, during the VHS-Betamax war, which older readers will be aware of. I don't think I've got younger readers, but just in case - think Blu Ray vs the other fancy DVD, except older and with lots of tape. During this early era of home recording, Uruguay hedged its bets on Betamax and intended to boost its flagging economy by having its capital city manufacturing billions of the tape and its system, for home use but primarily export around the world. And it did so. A colossal amount of Betamax was created. Older readers will know, of course, that Betamax lost the war to VHS and vanished from the world's living rooms (despite arguably being the superior system). Thus Uruguay and its capital were left with a vast amount of useless tapes. Hence the name: Montevideo, literally "a mountain of videos".

None of that, naturally, is true; if you want the real meaning of Montevideo's name, I'm sure Wikipedia has it. Likewise, all the history and stuff is there too. I'll garnish you with these tantalising titbits: it's a city of a bit over a million people, and it's... alright.

Just alright. I think we came to Montevideo at the wrong time in our travels. It's really pleasant, really pretty (albeit in a very patchy way), but just not at all compelling. For me, it's a bit like the average of everywhere we've been so far. If we'd started here, I think we'd have loved it. But after Buenos Aires and the bargain prices of Argentina, Montevideo just seems a little bit "mini" and more than a little expensive.

It made its best impression on Day 1. Our charming hotel - Hotel Palacio - had a delightful old-fashioned wrought-iron lift and our top floor room had a great balcony overlooking the city.

Splendid. We took a walk around the old city - Ciudad Viejo - with colonial architecture, a bustling pedestrianised street, and lots of other quiet little streets. Superb. Then we wandered into the grand Plaza Independencia, with a truly weird mixture of buildings around it. Umm... nice? The city planners of Montevideo must have gone through some funny spasms over the decades, because its showpiece square is a wonderfully addled effort of construction. Right in the middle is a man on a horse, the Uruguayan national hero Jose Artigas and his body is kept in a chamber underneath. Ok, I get that, and although the rest of the square is mostly concrete, with a strong nod towards the Communist manner of city squares, it's a nice space to be in. But it's the surrounding buildings that baffle me. Really, what the hell, I mean what the hell, was the thinking behind building this monstrous dystopian vision right behind the horse-dude?

Breathtaking ugly, and my mind is boggled - yes, you hear me, boggled - as to the series of meetings and agreements that led to this being rubber-stamped. It's so preposterously ugly that I began to grow quite fond of it over the days, as though a huge disaster-faced mongrel had accidentally wandered into the "Best In Show" award in Crufts dog show. What sealed the deal is that, to some misguided degree, it was trying. All around the square - and the styles and qualities vary hugely - there was a rough theme of columns and pillars. If in doubt, add some columns for instant class.

And though our mongrel will never win an award for beauty, the architect(s) behind it, at some stage in the drawing process, evidently said "Oh, some columns will be nice. Make it fit right in." I think there's something quite poignant about this.

Far better was the building across the square from our dog. Straight out of Gotham City was this preposterous, grand delight, the Palacio Salvo.

Day 1 also saw a long but enjoyable walk along the coastline that Montevideo inhabits.

Our other days there were spent doing, well, not very much. It turns out that we saw most of Montevideo on the first day. We spent most of our second day trying to walk to the bus station. An incredible and sudden storm interrupted this journey, battering us into submission with massive slabs of horizontal rain. We took shelter in a rundown cafe, which poured Danielle a terrifically massive glass of wine - to the brim! And we found a Korean restaurant in the evening, which was delicious, if somewhat lonely - we were the only customers. On the third day we took the bus tour of the city, which was mildly diverting, although the English commentary was seemingly done by robots. I'm not kidding here, I think both the male and female commentary may actually have been computer-generated voices - flat, automatic, interminably dull to listen to. Coupled with the frequent music breaks, I soon gave up on the headphones and just looked at the traffic surrounding us. And our final day I don't think we did anything of note at all, except leave on the overnight bus. And that was Montevideo.

If we'd planned things better, we'd have split up our time with somewhere else in Uruguay. The country may be small, especially compared to the neighbouring giants of Argentina and Brazil, but we've heard a lot of good things about it. By only seeing the capital, we do it a disservice. Montevideo may not have tickled our fancies but it was very pleasant. It's the old story of time... just not enough of it. Brazil awaits.

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