Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, welcomes its guests with a big smile right where a river meets the ocean. This smile heralds candombe tunes, a sparkling sun, and bookstores that mesmerize avid readers.
I look at the photograph of author Eduardo Galeano hanging on the wall of Café Braseliro and think, “I’m late. I’ve been too late in visiting Montevideo! It should have come years ago before Galeano passed away!” We should have sat across one another in this café, which was his favorite, to talk about the legends of Latin America, mate tea, and José Artigas, the national hero of Uruguay. Because Galeano was a “beggar for good soccer,” he would tell me about how he thought Nasazzi, the legendary captain of Uruguay national football team, resembled a windmill. Then, we would talk about my country, about the trip he and his wife Helena took to Troy in Turkey in tempestuous weather. I would surprise him by saying, “That tango ‘La Cumparsita’ composed by architecture student Matos Rodríguez in your hometown Montevideo is played for the first dance of couples at Turkish weddings!” Lost in these dreams, I am brought back to this world when the waiter brings the menu. I cannot help but utter a line by poet Mario Benedetti, who once lived in Montevideo. “It’s all of a sudden that one forgets about the memories of a loved one.” I leave my dream of talking to Galeano and order myself a cup of coffee. Once it is finished, I return to reality and to the streets of Montevideo.
I am on a pleasant stroll toward the port in this safe city. The sun never leaves my side. The port is vibrant with ferry passengers bound for Buenos Aires and tourists descending from cruise ships. The stores are filled with authentic objects and the restaurants with customers. Painters are bargaining with potential buyers to sell their paintings just outside the restaurants. Mercado del Puerto, a gastronomy center, is bursting at the seams as this is the place-to-be for meat lovers. The most delicious meat in Uruguay is barbecued over a wood, usually pine, fire. This cooking technique called asado is also a socialization tradition for the locals in Montevideo as for families, relatives, and friends these grilling parties mean getting together.
Situated where River Plate meets the Atlantic Ocean, Montevideo is the city of friendly people. They’re masters at finding an excuse to start a conversation. You never see them without a smile. It is this positive energy that instills your spirit with joie de vivre. I take my share of this happiness and mingle with the group of people tapping out the rhythm of candombe tunes played by a band of youth for pocket money. An extension of the Afro-Uruguayan culture, this music is also performed at the annual Llamadas Parade and the famous Montevideo Carnival.
After the port, I head for the square with the Metropolitan Cathedral. Also known as Matriz Square, the area is centered around a flowing fountain surrounded by groups of tourists. The guide tells them about the alchemy symbols and emblems laden with secrets on the square. I can hear the green parrots in the trees. The Metropolitan Cathedral bears great significance for the lives of locals in Montevideo as this is the place they gather when they are mourning or grateful. Stalls are lined up one after the other on Sarandí Street and vendors are selling accessories, wooden statuettes, leatherwear, and handmade objects. After buying souvenirs for a few friends, I try to decide where to eat lunch: at Restoran 1972 or Jacinto? I keep the former for dinner and choose the latter. Inspired by Italian and Spanish cuisines, this restaurant serves delicious meat and fish dishes in addition to sensational breads. For dessert, I recommend dulce de leche and affogato jacinto with ice cream.
Upon leaving the restaurant, I reciprocate the smiles of people on the street, convinced that happiness is in the genes of the locals here. I arrive at Independence Square (Plaza Independencia), the starting point of July 18 Avenue (Avenida 18 de Julio). The Artigas Mausoleum, around which more than 100,000 people gathered during its opening in 1923, is very close to Solís Theater, which is an artistic monument. Opened in 1856, with a rising sun as its symbol, the theater was restored in 2008, having welcomed many stars on its stage from Vivien Leigh to Andres Segovia, Isadora Duncan to Enrico Caruso. In addition to hosting theater plays, the structure also stages opera and ballet performances and is the home of the Montevideo Philharmonic Orchestra. How lucky are the people who get to sit in one of the loggias at Solís Theater, one of the most important art centers in Latin America, and listen to the tunes that fill the hall! Another equally famous building is Salvo Palace. Designed as a hotel and opened in 1928, the structure is impossible to miss with its eccentric architecture and height. I take in the view so that I will never forget it. Then, I continue my exploration around the city, whistling “La Cumparsita,” which was first performed before an audience at Café la Giralda, located in the same place as Salvo Palace a century ago.
The city is home to many interesting museums. The Carnival Museum, the Tango Museum, the José Gurvich Museum, the Football Museum, the Torres-García Museum, and the Gaucho and Currency Museum are only some of them. Juan Manuel Blanes Fine Arts Museum is a must-visit landmark for painting enthusiasts. Tempting even with its name, the Romantic Museum mesmerizes with its delicate décor. Home to a number of precious museum-houses, the National History Museum will teach you about the history of the country from the pre-Columbian era to the mid-20th century. By the way, I also recommend that everyone -even those not so interested in literature- visit the bookstores in Montevideo such as Puro Verso with more than 50,000 books, Librería Anticuaria El Galeón, El Sagitaria Libros, and Papacito. But make sure to see Librería Linardi y Risso. Why? To see how much a bookseller can love books! Because Galeano was a frequent visitor here! And to read the guest book signed by five giant authors -Neruda, Borges, Cortázar, Coetzee, and Llosa, three of them being the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature- after delving into dreams among books!
Time to leave the sea of literature and to visit the banks of the River Plate. Rambla is a promenade where thousands of people meet the waters along its 20-kilometer-long beach, scattered with cyclists and runners. I rent a parasol from a man at Pcitos Beach, and he says, “People used to come here to do laundry. They would dig small pits in the sand, wait for the waves to fill them with water, and would wash their clothes in them.” I cannot help but smile in this country of people whose hearts are as unstained as their clothes! I suddenly realize a giant Uruguay flag waving above my head with the yellow of a bright sun, the blue of the sky, and the whiteness of seagulls. I remember a short story by Galeano, in which Helena cannot help but look at the sea. Then, she puts small wheels on the sea and carries it with her. As I run towards the waves, I think, “If I were to put small wheels on Montevideo, which I’ve come to love so dearly, would I be able to take it with me to Turkey?” As if mocking me for this impossible thought, the waves come laughing towards me!