62 Bar
Courtesy 62
The hotel’s greatest asset is its location, just across the Rambla from the riverfront. In my travel experience, no city except perhaps Chicago has created a more expansive and accessible waterfront than Montevideo. Part of its democratic and egalitarian political tradition — notwithstanding a grim period of military rule in the 1970s and early ’80s — was a commitment to keep all the attractive and valuable land along the Río de la Plata as a public resource. As a result, a pedestrian promenade runs more than 10 miles from Montevideo’s harbor to the outlying neighborhood of Carrasco. The promenade connects beaches, parks, marinas and public monuments dedicated to such international heroes of peace as Gandhi and Kahlil Gibran.

Punta Ballena
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images
Bars and restaurants, more casual than formal, fleck the route. I especially enjoyed El Viejo y El Mar — named in honor of Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea — for its local fish, and the Rumi Resto Pub for grilled meats. (Rumi also has live music on weekends.) With its famous cattle ranches and gauchos, Uruguay is well known for its beef, so much so that a national joke says that you buy a parrilla (a grill) first and then build a house to go with it. The barbecue is best accompanied by Uruguay’s hearty homegrown red wine, tannat.

Meanwhile, though, a young generation of chefs has been broadening the local palate. The 62 Bar, located about two blocks from the Rambla and named for a trolley-bus line, has the tile floor, marble bar and brass rail of something out of New Orleans. Its menu includes a wide range of sushi and meal-size salads, ideal for a late lunch. For our final dinner in Montevideo, we chose Francis, by consensus one of the top restaurants in the city. Inconspicuously situated in a residential neighborhood, Francis flourishes its Mediterranean influences in its artisanal paellas, pastas and fish dishes. (Rest assured, there is plenty of red meat on the menu as well.)

In terms of cultural attractions, truth be told, Montevideans often go by ferry or puddle-jumping plane to Buenos Aires for opera and theater. But galleries are springing up in Ciudad Vieja (the old city) along the pedestrian mall on Sarandí that runs from the shopping district surrounding Constitution Plaza downtown toward the waterfront. A few blocks north of Sarandí, the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) is a bustling array of restaurants and craft shops.

The most stirring — and quintessentially Uruguayan — art is to be found about 70 miles east of Montevideo on a cape called Punta Ballena. There, the painter and sculptor Carlos Páez Vilaró built an extraordinary museum-­workshop-hotel called Casapueblo. With its white, peaked domes rising from a steep hillside, Casapueblo brings to mind Antoni Gaudí’s architecture. The Spanish influence is not accidental; as a young artist, Vilaró knew and was affected by Picasso and Dalí. As Vilaró’s vibrant colors and bold designs attest, he also spent many years in Africa, as well as among the African-descended Uruguayans who still practice the candomblé religious rituals. He is such a cherished figure in Uruguay that when the most popular mineral-­water brand wanted to mark its 120th anniversary, it decorated the commemorative bottles with Vilaró’s paintings.

On that particular night atop the Cala di Volpe, the city lights eventually began to flicker off and the time for sleep arrived. What has remained vivid, though, even all these months later, is the sensation of a city coming into its own. 

SAMUELl G. FREEDMAN, who last wrote for American Way about Rome in the Dec. 15, 2012, issue, is the author of the forthcoming book Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.