Happy Birthday in Montevideo

Saturday 17 to Monday 19 February

The next morning we were picked up for the bus ride to Montevideo. The two and a half hour journey was through flat land mostly used for crops – potatoes, corn with a few animals.

It was my birthday – an insignificant one this year. I celebrated on the bus with a cup cake stolen from the breakfast buffet. We did treat ourselves to a very decent and very typical meat dinner in the evening at Le Berretin.

Our hotel was about 5 km out of town in an area called Punta Carreras. This was once the location of a prison, particularly for political prisoners. Our guide told us that in its last 12 years of operation to 1985, a hundred prisoners escaped. In fact the restaurant El Berretin had a large hole in its floor, now covered with glass, which was the end of an escape tunnel. 

Uruguay’s most famous hero is José Gervasio Artigas (1764-1850). Rather more of a guerrilla than a conventional soldier, he led the Gauchos (Patagonian horsemen) in their fight for independence. It’s a long story of promises and betrayals, however he was responsible for writing the constitution for the first democratic election held in the 1830s, although he was in exile in Paraguay.

He was 86 when he died in 1850, in Paraguay, and his remains were repatriated to Montevideo where a mausoleum has been built in his honour. 

The whole story of democracy is one that Uruguay is proud of. Voting is compulsory, with a small fine if you fail to vote. 

The armed forces are small. Entry is voluntary. Soldiers are at customs points and they are the first responders to natural disasters. Their other major role is in the United Nations peace keeping. 

Montevideo has some lovely buildings. I was particularly taken by the towers along Av. 18 de Julio with their pretty towers. 

In the middle and upper class suburbs of our tour, houses were semi detached or free standing with neat front gardens. 

On our last day we took a taxi to the Palacio Legislativo (Parliament House). This neo-classical, ornate marble styled building was opened in August 1925 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

From there we walked to the Mercado Agricola de Montevideo – rather more of a tourist destination rather than a working market, it is claimed to be the largest undercover in South America.

Although most of our sightseeing was on a Sunday, Montevideo certainly seemed a layback place. 

Perhaps that is because of the Yerbe Mate that is a popular and addictive drink. It is common to see people with a thermos flask under their arm and a drinking vessel in their hand. The drinking vessel is called a Mate in Spanish meaning infusion and the ‘e’ is pronounced. 

Yerbe means herb, so this is a herb infusion. A metal straw with a flattened end with holes that filter the herbs, is placed in the cup. 

I read that it is bitter and addictive. I also read that cannibas is legal in Uruguay, so I assume that some herbal mixes contain it. 

So our quick trip to Uruguay was highly successful – nothing like last minute changes to plans.