Colonia & Carmelo, Uruguay – April 2017

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Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

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For a tiny country in South America which many people in the Northern hemisphere have never even heard of (let alone added to their bucket list) Uruguay certainly was a big surprise!

Squeezed in between southern Brazil and northeastern Argentina it is an up-and-coming destination for beach vacations at Punta del Este on the South Atlantic Ocean and for a more cultural experience there is the thriving capital Montevideo on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. For the last 10 years it has ranked as having the highest quality of life of any city in South America which, considering the diminutive scale of the country, is pretty impressive.

Knowing that we would have had our fill of frenetic city life after 8 days in Buenos Aires (and that Geoff would have had a very busy working week in the office) I went out on a limb and booked a long weekend in Uruguay. We were to spend a night and half a day in the small town of Colonia del Sacramento and then move on to a boutique vineyard hotel in Carmelo for 2 nights.

Both are on the banks of the Rio de la Plata – generously translated as “the river of silver”. Even on a brilliantly sunny day, the mildly tidal waters (with the best will in the world) could never be described as anything but brown and muddy.

We arrived by the fast 1 hour ferry direct from Buenos Aires on the Buquebus just in time for dinner at the very pleasant Charco Bistro where we had reserved a table overlooking the river. The apparently normal tranquil waters of the river were churning like the Atlantic by the time we got to the restaurant. There was a howling gale creating waves which any self-respecting body boarder would have found irresistible and we were separated from our romantic view by a thick sheet of plastic screening through which we could see the tree in the garden almost bent double in the wind and the petals on the flowers being ripped from their stems and flung into the water. Everyone was wearing their thick winter coats over their posh outfits inside the screened off garden restaurant and the wind was whistling through a gap in the sheeting down by our legs. This was perfect for me as I am always 20 degrees hotter than everyone else but not so perfect for Geoff who visibly shivered and quivered throughout dinner and began to complain that he had lost all sensation in his legs. He’s such a drama queen 😉

As autumnal April is one of the loveliest months to visit Colonia I was mildly perturbed and rather hoped that I hadn’t made a catastrophic mistake with my choice of destinations. I make it a priority that everywhere we go is as near perfect as possible so that the worker-bee always has an utterly lovely vacation and is thereby distracted by wholly positive thoughts and a sense of (usually wine-induced) well-being when it comes to paying the bill at the end of it all 😉 As an aside I was already nervous that I might have made another grand erreur in my choice of vineyard destination. It wasn’t until after I had booked the hotel that I discovered that the famous wine of the region is “Tannat” – all but undrinkable to anyone who doesn’t like to be kicked in the teeth by wines high in tannins. Geoff hates bitter, astringent wine. Oops!

When I threw back the curtains of our room in the historic quarter at 7.30am the following morning the sun was shining 🙂  Geoff was heaved into the shower and kicked out onto the eerily silent streets of this popular historic town without even stopping for breakfast. Frankly, this was no loss for our waistlines. There comes a point (even for a connoisseur of all foods sugary) when yet another medialuna croissant dipped into dulce de leche (a thick caramel made from sweetened condensed milk) is just one medialuna too many for breakfast.

The upside of the early morning stroll was that the light was fantastic on the colorful, crumbling walls of the historic district and there wasn’t a single soul out on the streets – neither local nor tourist.

Thank goodness the wind had completely abated and the sun was now shining on the gleaming tranquil waters of the river. It was absolutely beautiful. Sustained by a half-decent coffee and a slice of orange cake (when I say there is almost nothing for breakfast which doesn’t involve cake in South America I am (almost) not joking 😉 ) we were ready for another tour around the town.

It is small, very quaint and very upmarket in the way historic districts always are which have become gentrified to attract the tourist dollar or peso. (No need to bother exchanging any currencies here – you can pay with almost anything you like!)

Cobblestone streets, elegant clothes shops, art and craft galleries with courtyard gardens, houses in beautiful pastel shades draped in pink bougainvillea and blue plumbago, quaint coffee shops, unbelievably pretentiously expensive tea shops with an array of calorific offerings, the decoratively crumbling Calle de los Suspiros, multitudinous cafes with attractively decorated gardens overlooking the river, Paseo San Gabriel – a waterfront walk, a small wharf with yachts and fishing boats, an old city gate (Portón de Campo), a freshly painted white lighthouse – and Geoff barely noticed any of it as he bounced about enthusiastically from one vintage car to the next! The streets are a veritable living vintage car museum – even I was enthused albeit only from an entirely artistic photographic perspective.

Before the tourists began arriving it was blissful despite the mosquitoes which must have risen early when they heard there was fresh new blood in town 😉 Even after the other visitors began emerging from their beds (and the first tour bus or two had arrived) it was still a relatively serene and peaceful place.

Unsurprisingly, given its wealth of wonderfully restored historic buildings “the barrio histórico” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its history is complicated. Since it was settled originally in 1680 by the Portuguese it passed backwards and forwards every few decades between the Spanish and the Portuguese until 1828 when Uruguay won independence from Brazil.

You really don’t need more than a day and a night there to enjoy most of its bijou delights although it is a very popular romantic weekend destination for the well-heeled from Buenos Aires. I suspect they must be finding other diversions to fill their time to manage a whole 48 hour weekend in the town without going stir crazy.

We pottered about for 5 or 6 hours photographing its every delightful angle in ever changing light conditions. We sampled the Uruguayan coffee at Ganache – an eclectically decorated street cafe. We savored a surprisingly delicious lunch at Churana watching the sun glistening on the silvery waters of the river (it’s true – given the right company, a glass of vino and some great food even the muddy waters begin to acquire an attractive metallic sheen 😉 ! ). We pottered some more… took some more photos and then finished up at Queriendote tea shop lured by the cuteness of the garden and its similarly silvery view; we were wowed by its berry cheesecake and oriental citrus tea served in mismatched china and then ultimately astounded by the size of its bill 😉

Colonia is pretty pricey for food. However, the restaurants and cafes are serving some of the best quality food we have had in South America and there is always a price to pay when you demand good food with a view… even in a teeny weeny country which most people couldn’t place on a map 😉

Time to continue on to pastures new. We packed up the rental car and drove off cross-country heading north west towards Carmelo.

It only takes an hour or so to get there from Colonia. There is barely any traffic and the countryside is pristinely free of trash which is quite a novelty! Agriculture is big business in this part of the country. There are small holdings with happy cows in fields and rolling hills with crops of corn as far as the eye can see. There are weeping willow trees dipping their fronds in streams and ponds, fields of pumpkins, cypress trees dotting the horizon, avenues of eucalyptus trees, oak trees, the occasional palm tree and tall cream pampas grasses growing wild in the scrubland.

In 60 minutes we felt like we’d driven through a potted Europe: undulating hills reminiscent of southern Spain or Tuscany, the gently rolling terrain of northern France and the plains of Portugal. On the left was Italy and on the right a bucolic scene from England.

Charmed as we were by the scenery en route, we had to drive onwards, however.

Destination – Posada Campotinto – a boutique vineyard hotel in the Campiña San Roque area of Carmelo.

Purpose – to chill out for a couple of nights amongst the vineyards breathing in considerably fresher air than that which we had been inhaling in BA and to watch the sun set sitting by the pool sipping the wines of Campotinto Bodega.

I had barely managed to unpack the toothbrushes when there was a knock on the door. Geoff had wandered off alone and unsupervised to the bar. He tells me had ordered a glass of the vineyard Chardonnay in his very best Spanish. Whilst his linguistic skills are improving they clearly still need some work as the bar staff delivered a bottle of the vineyard Champagne instead. Not wanting to cause embarrassment (so he tells me) he politely accepted it. He tottered off to the poolside clutching his champers and fell asleep watching the sun set over the vineyards.

Mission – accomplished!

As we were still forced to endure more medialunas with dulce de leche and homemade jam for breakfast we felt obliged to walk off some of the calories and headed out to wander the vineyards with the hotel’s dog which Geoff had acquired as his new friend at dinner the night before. It was rather like stepping back in time, peaceful dusty roads which you could walk for miles without seeing a single car, wild flowers growing in fallow fields, small holdings with gardens overflowing with various exotic flora and fauna, bodegas dotting the landscape (such as the famous Almacen de la Capilla) and, obviously, vineyards!

The Uruguayan countryside must be an ornithologist’s dream. The skies were positively alive with Southern Lapwings, Peregrine Falcons, White-fronted Woodpeckers, Limpkins wading in marshy ponds, roosts of Southern Crested Caracara gathering on trees stripped bare of bark, Monk Parakeets whose screech could split eardrums, Brown-and-Yellow Marshbirds and so on. I don’t know much about bird spotting – that’s more Geoff’s province – but I was absolutely enthralled by the 3 beautiful short-eared owls lined up in a neat row on the grass in a field at the front of a vineyard. They spotted us and observed us cautiously through the blades of grass in that way only owls can do – wide-eyed and bobbing their heads from side to side until they suddenly decided they didn’t like the cut of our jib and took flight together. Absolutely priceless!

The mosquitoes in the countryside were a little challenging but the need to expend some energy and explore the locality on foot won out so we spent our couple of hours wandering the vineyards flitting away the swarms of voracious pests and slapping at our arms and legs. It would have been nice if the birdlife had been a bit more voracious and polished off the mosquitoes instead but, as it was, we were lunch and not the mosquitoes 😉

It wasn’t quite the relaxing stroll in the campiña that I had hoped for, albeit scenic. Luckily the mosquitoes didn’t follow us back to the hotel pool but remained hovering in the fields looking for alternative tasty victims stupid enough to be out for a vineyard wander.

Finally we sat down, bug free, replete with lunch, a final bottle of champers uncorked beside us and did absolutely nothing for the rest of the trip but scratch at our bug bites waiting for the restaurant to open for dinner 😉  🙂

 

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