Old World Uruguay. Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja.

Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja

The principal city of Uruguay, Montevideo lies on the Río de la Plata estuary, almost directly opposite Buenos Aires. Founded in 1724 by a Spanish soldier Bruno Mauricio de Zabala as a strategic stronghold in the midst of the Spanish-Portuguese struggle for the region, it is a port city with tree-covered avenues, quiet neighbourhoods and several parks perfect for delaying in.

At Montevideo’s epicentre is its enchanting Old City or Ciudad Vieja, where past and the present collide. Set against an eclectic mix of colonial, Baroque and Latino architecture, the area has witnessed the birth of Uruguay. Historical buildings, museums, bookstores and all the charms of an old port, you need to walk this barrio to do it justice. Peatonal Sarandi, the pedestrian thoroughfare, leads you past art galleries, shops and street kiosks.

Until 1829 Ciudad Vieja was surrounded by a wall that protected it from possible invasions. The wall was torn down with only its gateway remaining as an emblem of the town. Among the beautiful buildings from the first decades of independence, the Cabildo, Solís Theatre, Metropolitan Cathedral and several museums, like the Museo Torres García are among the most impressive.

Mercado del Puerto, a traditional market hosts an Uruguayan feast for the senses with grilled delicacies served to the tune of guitars, bandoneons and candombe drums. Independence Square, at the beginning of Avenida 18 de Julio is good for a photo op, while uniformed guards at Montevideo’s Legislative Palace keep watch over a glass case containing Uruguay’s Declaration of Independence and First Constitution signed July 18, 1830.

Espacio de Arte Contemporaneo, the contemporary art museum housed in what was the city’s 19th-century prison, is worth a visit. Not far from the square is Teatro Solis at the corner of Reconquista and Bartolemeo Mitre, which opened in 1856 and has gone on to become South America’s most revered theatres.

Another rejuvenated and thoughtfully renovated classic is the former Hotel Carrasco, the beachfront luxury hotel opened in 1921 and hosted Albert Einstein in its early years, and the Rolling Stones more recently. With its renowned architecture, well-kept old quarters and booming cultural scene, Montevideo is emerging as one of the continent’s coolest capitals.

Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja draws visitors for its history and cultural museums and grand, centuries-old landmarks. These include the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, which overlooks quaint Plaza Matriz, and Solis Theatre with its diverse performing arts program. Lively steakhouses fill up quickly at the Mercado del Puerto indoor market. The area is also a nightlife hub, offering a mix of hip cocktail bars and old-school cafes.

Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento is found across the Río de La Plata from Buenos Aires. Known for its cobblestoned Barrio Histórico. Originally founded by the Portuguese in the 1600s, the city passed between Portuguese and Spanish rule for decades, and the influence of that melting pot is apparent in the resulting colonial architecture and vibrant streetscapes. Today, under UNESCO protection, it retains its old-world charm.

Getting lost in its historical streets, going up the lighthouse staircase, visiting its churches, various museums and ancient houses are some activities that charm tourists from all over the world. The gateway to the historic quarter is a drawbridge called Puerta de la Ciudadela, leading into what used to be a fortress.

One needs only a couple of hours to navigate all of Colonia’s wedge stone walkways, which wind past treasured spots like the enchanting Calle de los Suspiros or the Street of Sighs. A place of magic, history, mystery and legends. A narrow pedestrian way, it features steps here and there, no sidewalks and is paved with wedge stones. Hundreds of years ago, sailors would walk down this street after landing in the area after a long voyage.

Long hours at sea and a huge river should be changed for entertainment on solid ground, something always be found by the Portuguese and the Spaniards in Colonia. Several legends have been woven around its name. One suggests that those who were condemned to death were led along the street of sighs to be drowned when the tide rose.

Another that this street used to lodge countless brothels, the shelter of tired sailors eager for a reprieve, and that the soldiers who walked along it would pay compliments to the prostitutes and sigh for them once and again. The last story, and possibly most romantic of them all is that one moonlit night, a young maiden was waiting for her lover. Suddenly, a masked man stabbed her with a dagger in her chest. A sad farewell sigh was all that was heard.

Another important landmark in Colonia is the Convent of San Francisco, which was reduced to ruins during a fire in the 1700s. Despite rubble being all that remains, visitors are welcome to wander through the pathways and old stone walls which lead to a new addition: the Colonia del Sacramento Lighthouse. After paying a nominal admission fee, climb the 111 steps up a winding, narrow staircase for impressive city views.

The Basilica of the Holy Sacrament is one of the oldest churches in all of Uruguay and just a short walk away from the lighthouse. Impressive too is the street leading up to it: Calle de Portugal, where foliage and flowers spill out of antique cars parked along the cobbled street.

I took a local bus from Colonia to see an abandoned bull ring, Plaza De Toros, which I’d heard about. It was opened to great fanfare in 1910 but hosted only eight fights before the Uruguay government closed it after banning bull-fighting in 1912. Rather run down, it was worth the visit to get a further look at the area.

After that, I settled into a quaint restaurant where I was warmly welcomed and served an ice-cold beer and local dish. There, tucked away from the incredible heat under the hanging vines I sat people watching, soaking up the atmosphere and thinking of the city’s days gone by.

In Latin America, Uruguay stands out as an egalitarian society and almost complete absence of extreme poverty. In relative terms, its middle class is the largest in America and represents more than 60% of its population.

Other countries have their history. Uruguay has its football ― Ondino Viera, Soccer Player

On my visit, I was staying in Buenos Aires for a while and made the day to trip by ferry across Rio de La Plata, an easy to do wonderful experience.

Located 177 kilometres from Montevideo, Colonia is bordered by the Department of San José on the East and by the Department of Soriano on the North. It features a long littoral over the Río de la Plata on the South and a stretch over the Uruguay River on the Northwest.

** This post forms part of my 100x Magical Places series which offers an introduction to my favourite destinations.

** Pics sourced on Pixabay and Pexels

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Dawn Bradnick Jorgensen
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