We caught the early morning ferry across the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) from Buenos Aires to Uruguay. The ‘river’ is huge – the widest in the world at 220km – but there is some confusion over whether it is actually a river, an estuary or a sea. It looks and feels like a sea with tides and waves but it’s brown like a river and has both freshwater and saltwater. There are ‘beaches’ on its banks in both Argentina and Uruguay. The crossing is just an hour to Colonia del Sacramento, which is a place that sounds well worth exploring but with the summer holiday period looming and thousands of people in this region on the move, we added it to the ‘come back later’ list and took the three hour bus to the capital, Montevideo.
I’ve mentioned before how I think that where you stay in a new place has such a profound influence on the whole experience – the street, the neighbourhood, the architectural style, level of comfort, view from the window, closest shop and many other details. My perceptions of Montevideo are filtered through the peculiar lens of staying in the most extraordinary building. Booked the previous night through AirBnB we had no inkling that our apartment would be on the 7th floor of the iconic Palacio Salvo. Our eyes nearly popped out of our heads. Completed in 1928 in the non-style known as ‘eclecticism’ its a mashup of gothic, classic, neo-romantic, rococo, art deco and the generally strange. It’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful building.
On the inside, the Palacio Salvo is elegant, ornate, partially maintained, eerie, empty and more than a little bit creepy. We instinctively rush and hold our breath from the entry until we reach the relative safety of our reasonably comfortable flat. Picture crumbling hallways, metal grilles on doors, dim flickering lights, gothic unreliable lifts, empty marble staircases, occasional distant glimpses of scuttling people (described by JH as gangsters) and you’ll understand why we still haven’t tried to go to the top and visit the 29th floor. Apparently the building design is supposed to represent Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ with the freaky elevators taking you up from the Inferno, through Purgatorio, to Paradisio. I guess the seventh floor is in purgatory.
Facing the Palacio Salvo, exactly opposite on the Plaza Independencia, is this metal and glass high rise monstrosity – so ugly that it’s beautiful. It fascinates me. I walk around it repeatedly, examining it from different angles and searching for its soul.
Montevideo is hard to get a handle on, it’s so wonderfully strange. You can find a Burger King beside a crumbling ruin, next to Alcoholics Anonymous and a tango school, then a health food shop which is next to a statue of the pope. The city is only just over a million people but feels like a lot more. It’s chock full of gorgeous historic buildings, some are beautifully restored but many are neglected and covered in graffiti. There are a lot of homeless people on the streets, yet it’s also progressive, modern, historic and charming. Most of all it’s full of surprises, hints of an interesting past, strange art in unassuming places and hidden quirks that we’re yet to discover.
Jugadores de Truco by Hugo Nantes