By Mara Papatheodorou, your Tastes & Traditions Expert
What makes Uruguay unique? Although one of the smallest countries in South America, it is also considered the most European, thanks to the vast number of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian descendants who settled here in the early eighteenth century. The capital is Montevideo an important port also known for its gentle rolling hills and farmland. Cattle are abundant so meat is king and the role of the herding Gaucho (cowboy) and rodeo star play a vital role in the colorful culture.
These traditions are well highlighted at the impressive Museo del Gaucho y la Moneda.
Stroll Las Ramblas on the waterfront and head to the eastern side of the city where the Old and the New Worlds conjoin. Find your way to Plaza Independencia where a statue of General Gervasio Artigas, the father of Uruguay, stands as well as the Palacio Salvo, Montevideo’s tallest building of 26 stories. Just off the Plaza is Teatro Solis, the city’s impressive theatre. And a bit beyond is the ornamental gated archway of Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) with its narrow streets and colonial architecture. Sarandi, a pedestrian walkway leads to Plaza Martiz (also called Plaza Constitution) the heart of the area where cafes, shops, the renovated neo-classical Cathedral and El Cabildo Museum (the old City Hall) all stand. The homes of two of Uruguay’s most noted Generals are Casa de Rivera the former resident of the country’s first president and Casa de Lavalleja, the one time home of this hero from Uruguay’s 1825 War of independence.
A visit to Montevideo’s renowned Mercardo del Puerto is a must. Built in 1868, this Victorian designed cast-iron structure houses numerous shops, bars and restaurants. Enjoy a Clerico cocktail or glass of medio y medio (see below) and a casual lunch at a small parillas (steakhouses) famous for grilled beef and Chivito sandwiches (see below) accompanied by a bottle of Malbec or Merlot from Uruguay’s fine Tannat grape. Afterwards, visit the various vendors for unique trinkets and mementos. Have fun!
SAIL: Uruguay, South America. Before sailing away, bring Uruguay’s flavors and flair home. Take home bottles of Tannat red wines, jars of divine dulce de leche (sweet caramel-like candied milk sauce) or packets of yerba mate tea. Wool items and leather goods with their “Manos del Uruguay” tags showing they are handmade are great keepsakes too.
SIP: Medio y Medio. Natives have been sipping this local sparkling wine since the late 1800’s. Its golden honey color and taste results from the delectable blend of local moscato and pinot blanc grapes. Another favorite is Clerico, a fruit filled version of light Sangria made with white wine or medio y medio for that extra burst of bubbles. Salud!
SAVOR: Chivito. This is Uruguayans version of a subway sandwich! Hearty and filling on a bun spread with garlic and mayonnaise, it is piled high with grilled thinly sliced steak, mixed vegetables, cheese, olives, onions, lettuce and tomato. Bacon, mushrooms and ham can also be included in the mix. Save room for postre (dessert), indulge in Chaja a creamy syrupy sponge cake topped with whipped cream and crushed meringue.