Monday, February 15, 2010

Co-lo-ni-a, Co-lo-ni-a, You border on the Rio de la Plata

I spent the weekend traveling to Colonia del Sacramento, generally just referred to as Colonia.  Colonia is the closest Uruguayan city to Buenos Aires, and is positioned right at the point where the Rio de la Plata starts to open into the ocean, so it was a desireable territory for much of its colonial history.  The Portuguese founded Colonia in 1680--the first European settlement in what is now Uruguay.  Due to its strategically advantageous location, Colonia spent the next 150 years as a colonial ping pong ball, changing sovereignty as follows: Portugal, Spain, Portugal, Spain, Portugal, Spain, Portugal, Spain, Liga Federal (a liberated region which would mostly eventually become Uruguay), Portugal, Brazil, and finally, in 1828, Uruguay.  As though this were insufficient evidence of its historical value, Colonia is also a UNESCO world heritage site.  So I was obviously excited to spend a day there and get a sense of the place.

Although a modern city has sprung up alongside the Barrio Antiguo (Old City), the original colonial pueblo maintains its historic charm.  Cobblestone streets wend their way around a series of low, old buildings, everything pulling you downhill towards the coastline.  The streetlamps are tinted with yellow glass, presumably intended to retain the feel of the oil lamps that used to light the passageways.  One thing that's sort of interesting about it is that you can tell whether a road was build by the Spanish or the Portuguese, depending on the layout of the cobblestone.  The Spanish cut stones into little cubes and rectangles that could easily fit together, making foot and carriage traffic a lot easier.  The Portuguese, it seems, just threw a bunch of rocks on the ground, maybe raked them a little, and said "Behold, a street!"  Seriously, the old Portuguese streets are comically haphazard in their construction, as you can see from some of the pictures.

These days, Colonia remains an object of much desire, except that it's sought by tourists instead of imperialists.  Seriously, the place was so packed to the gills with Argentines and Brazilians that prices at stores were listed in Argentine Pesos and Brazilian Reales before they were listed in Uruguayan Pesos.  When I tried to find a place to get some dinner on Saturday night, there were almost no tables available anywhere, because everyone had come into town for their Carnaval vacation--the weekend before Ash Wednesday is a four day weekend here, extending into Monday and Tuesday, although many people take the entire week off.  I did ultimately find a place to sit down and have some pasta* and a couple Pilsens before shuffling back to my quarters for the night.  Unfortunately, the table where I ate happened to be on the mosquito superhighway.  So, as I'm sitting in my room writing this, my legs are so thoroughly spotted with pepto-colored calamine lotion that they give me the appearance of a cow that almost certainly produces strawberry milk.

Colonia's history as a tourist mecca is almost as old as its history as an object of Iberian dispute.  In 1910, Argentine shipping magnate Nicolás Mihanovich set up a sort of Argentine equivalent of a Catskills retreat.  Real de San Carlos, in the northern part of Colonia, included a luxury hotel and casino, a horserace track, a bullfight ring, and a jai alai court.  As it turned out, though Mihanovich may have made the right gamble, he made it at precisely the wrong time, as bullfighting was banned by the Uruguayan government only two years later, and World War I left the entire operation bankrupt by 1917.  The Plaza de Toros still stands on the outskirts of town, an impressive piece of urban ruin, with its steel arches and girders visible through the crumbling brick.  The racetrack, as it happens, is still in use, although I did not make it there.  But, as anyone who watches Mad Men knows, jai alai remained "the next big thing" for at least another fifty years.

On the way to Colonia, our bus stopped briefly Nuevo Helvecia, known locally as Colonia Suiza ("Swiss Colony").  The name comes, as you might expect, from its origin as a Swiss colony in 1862.  For this reason, you get such comical street names as Calle Frau Vogel.  We did not see much of the town, but we did stop for about 20 minutes at the Granja Arenas collection museum, which includes the world's largest keyring collection, world's largest pencil collection, world's smallest pencil (which, not joking, I managed to miss), and some other world record that I didn't catch.  It was incredible, primarily because it's the sort of crap that you expect to see when you pull off at a highway rest stop in eastern Indiana.  It's really not what you think of when shuttling around such far-flung locales as the Región Rioplatense.  So, just as an anthropological experience, it was fascinating.  I will also add that, for a room with 13,600 keyrings, there were surprisingly few from professional sports teams.  I noticed, for example, that he did not have the Mets bottle-opener keyring I have in my room.  This strikes me as a good opportunity for expansion.  Similarly, he was lacking in keyrings associated with professional music acts, as I did not spot a single Meat Loaf key ring, like the one I used to have, but which I sadly lost to the ages.  On the plus side, they have a nice little gift shop, where they sell local cheeses and jams (Colonia Suiza is, not surprisingly, known for its cheeses).  I got a really nice block of a cheese that's somewhere between Swiss and Gouda, and some fig jam.  The gift shop also sells keyrings--presumably only duplicates of keyrings that already in the collection--so I picked up a Nacional keyring to keep my archaic Uruguayan keys on.

So, now I'm back in Montevideo, having enjoyed my trip and enjoying the fact that there seem to be fewer people here right now than there were in Colonia this weekend, even though this is a much bigger city.  But everyone has left for Carnaval, leaving the streets delightfully free for romping and roaming.  So I'm going to take my pink-tinted gams over to Punta Carretas, a lovely little neighborhood by the water, and eventually (probably closer to 9 or so), get myself some dinner.


*I've generally been of the opinion that eating Italian food as a tourist in any country other than Italy is cheating.  I'd thought it to be depriving oneself of a good local experience in favor of something both familiar and, generally, not as well-prepared.  I then realized that Uruguay has an extremely large Italian immigrant population--a lot of the same immigrants who fled Europe for the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries also had family who ended up here or in Argentina.  Once I embraced a willingness to try the pasta here, I discovered that it's actually incredible.  So I've now had pasta for three out of my last five meals.


Colonia de Sacramento

1 comment:

  1. I love it when you find decent Italian food in a place you least expect it. (Mostly because when you expect decent Italian, you don't find it.) BTW, I think I just watched a No Reservations episode that included Colonia Suiza. It was amusing.


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