I arrived in Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay by ferry on a rainy Sunday morning. I’d had a very scanty night’s sleep – you could hardly call it a night, just a couple of fleeting hours following a tango show, dinner and drinks, some unsatisfying calls to banks (my cards had been stolen on the Friday evening ) and a hasty dawn packing up of my apartment. The former Portuguese colony is tiny, picture-postcard pretty and immediately lifted my tired spirits. There is a palm-draped square, evocative cobbled street and a collection of small but sweet museums. For some reason you also frequently come upon tropical flowers sprouting from classic cars and old-fashioned carts like colourful pink cress.
I felt under-dressed and scruffy compared with the immaculately turned-out day-tripping portenos, but I bought my museum pass, pulled on my waterproof and roamed around. Most of the museums are converted colonial homes (the Portuguese occupied the place in the early 18th century), faithfully preserved and proudly displaying a range of artefacts from crockery, silver and paintings to pinned butterflies and dinosaur bones. My favourite exhibits were the glyptodont (a sort of giant armadillo) in the Museo Municipal de Dr Bautista Rebuffo and the beautifully illustrated 16th century maps in the hushed downstairs rooms of the Museo del Periodo Historico Portugues (once a geographer …).
A dazzling white lighthouse broods alongside the old city walls, and I made the scramble to the top to stand alongisde the admirably solar-powered lamp to peer into the wind at the Rio de la Plata separating Colonia from Buenos Aires by 40 muddy brown kilometers. That evening I drank an overpriced sauvignon blanc in the delightful arty-photograph lined 1717 cafe bar, listening to jazz while the owners watched Frank Sinatra and Audrey Hepburn in ‘Face of an Angel’ with the sound turned off. He was unselfconsciously wearing a smart Panama hat and told me they had a huge collection of old films.
The next day I arrived in Montevideo on a wet bank holiday Monday. The city was not at its best and everything was closed. I scurried through the old town, where litter whirled in the wind-whipped rain and down-and-outs lurched and loitered in doorways, to the Mercado de la Puerte. I’d wanted to visit this place since I read about it in Colm Toibin’s The Story of the Night (a great read, meticulously written) and it didn’t disappoint. I perched on a bar stool opposite the grill at La Chacra del Puerta . There I happily whiled away most of the afternoon eating juicy swordfish and drinking the market speciality media y media (half ordinary white wine, half sparkling white wine, a light, slightly sweet fizz that seems very at home alongside the hot coals of the parilla) with the extremely entertaining John-Robert (from Austria but now living in Cordoba in Argentina and running his own software business) and Pascal who had flown in that morning from Switzerland. The stout Don Pascual commanded the grilling of huge chunks of meats and fish, while handsome young waiters in red T-shirts dispensed huge platters of food and refilled an endless stream of media y media glasses. The vaulted roof held captive the sizzling smells of grilling meat, the enchanting sound of popping corks and the rumbling of countless conversations, trapping the faintly medieval atmosphere in a smoky fuzz. Montevidean magic.