LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 55
Page. 88 - 95
By: Soldad Gil
Pictures: Gustavo Castaing
COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO
Colonia de Sacramento. Colonia, just across the river. The town of cobblestoned streets and yellow street lamps. With its Argentine residents who have succumbed to the charm of the Portuguese style houses to spend summer vacations and bank holidays there. Everything is so different on the other side of the river. Colonia offers a different perspective on things from the other side of the River Plate. Stress and skyscrapers on one side bicycles and motorbikes on the other. It starts to feel different the moment you disembark and find yourself only a short walk from your hotel. To think that Montevideo didn't even exist when
Colonia was the scene of a succession of battles and treaties between Spain and Portugal.
Today, in the meantime, there is talk of huge development projects, five star Miami-style hotels, a world record breaking bridge from Buenos Aires to Colonia, and a private country club on the Ferrando
beach, a favourite of the Argentines.
All the more reason that one should go now while the going's good, just in case. Stop postponing the trip to Colonia, with the excuse that it's so near that it can be left for another weekend. Those who don't do it now may lose out forever. On the other hand, those who
visit regularly, take pleasure from it even more. They enjoy every weekend, the hot beaches in the summer, the Plain tree leaves quivering in the breeze or crunching beneath your feet in autumn. The warm sun
in winter, and the sun setting over the river in spring.
The ideal way to do it is to take the 9'o clock ferry, which is not a great sacrifice and allows enough time to enjoy Colonia in one day. In less than an hour you are in another country, with a11 that this implies. Drivers who respect pedestrians and stop at the comers, no one is in a hurry. Only in a place like this would the idea have occurred to rent out golf carts to ride around the narrow streets of this historical town. It is half way between walking and driving a car, but at the same price as the latter. Therefore we only recommend it for those who don't like to walk. The museums, the lighthouse and the main square
require one to walk. Not only because they are all close to each other, but it is by far the best way to get a feel for the atmosphere of the stone walls, small door frames and worn down steps. To cross the drawbridge and imagine the noble reason for its construction, the
life of the lookout who spent his days, months and years quietly at his post as the tension began to grow on the River Plate.
Even if you are allergic to museums, at least visit the Portuguese Museum, or try to listen to what the cobblestones, ceramics, and stone slabs have to say about their past. The names of the streets and the
stone walls produce a nostalgic atmosphere that is not easy to ignore. Another more contemporary way of getting a feel for the town is to enter one of the handicraft shops such as "El Almacén" or "El Musguito", or to choose one of the works made by "Chape" in his ceramics atelier or one of the sweaters sold in the handicraft market.
The locals sitting on their doorstep, and the sailboats moored in the port, show that it is the people that make a place what it is. Some people feel that one day there is more than enough while others want Colonia for ever. The latter is the case with Cristina Sobrero of El Mesón de la Plaza, reputedly the best restaurant in Colonia, which has recently, expanded with the addition of the Parrilla del Mesón right next door.
Cristina and her husband bought a couple of small houses some time ago when the prices were still affordable, thinking that one day when the children grew up they would open a restaurant in their beloved Colonia. Little by little they bought, mainly at auctions, the objects that decorate the restaurant, until they finally opened their doors in 1996.
The original building where one of the best hotels, the Plaza Mayor, stands was completely derelict at the beginning of the 1990s. Beltrán, the manager, told us of the various uses given to this building through the years, ranging from a tenement house to a fire station.
This hotel, with its lovely courtyard, opened in 1991 and offers impeccable guestrooms and a dining room overlooking the river. From the beginning the hotel was known as "the one with the fountain". This famous fountain in the central courtyard is one of Chape's greatest works. It is not only the chosen spot for newlyweds, and for 15 year old debutantes to have their souvenir pictures taken, but is also where Marcello Mastroianni gave a press conference while filming the Argentine and Italian co-production "De eso no se habla". We stopped at the workshop where Ariel Chape, one of the most famous characters who was born and raised in Colonia, has a showroom where he displays his works. His typical blue and white ceramic works decorate not only the historical neighbourhood but also the shelves of many homes, mine included. The first time I visited Colonia, I brought back a coffee set made by him, and finally had the pleasure of meeting him during my last visit. Chape works with Pablo, his son (who has mastered the potter's art to perfection) and two more girls, Alicia and Alba, who help to paint the finished works. He showed us what he rightly calls "the kitchen", with ovens that can reach temperatures of up to 1040ºC!!! Fortunately, when we arrived, the ovens had recently been turned off and the heat was just bearable. The workshop is as understated as its owner, but it is enough to see his works to understand that what he does is carried out with noble artistry. Now every time I drink from my cups, I feel even more proud of my set...
Colonia also has foreign residents, other than Argentines and Brazilians, who do not really count as foreigners (among the latter Lilian, the owner of the inn Casa de Los Naranjos), such as Teo Athanasopoulos, as Greek as his name. Teo boasts of serving the best coffee in Colonia at El Avra, the only bar in all of Uruguay that serves Greek food.
Another restaurant worth mentioning is Eduardo Sacra's in the Beltrán Hotel. Eduardo, a local, is proud of running the restaurant in the oldest hotel in Colonia, inaugurated by "El Ruso" Beltrami in 1873. The glorious courtyard still maintains the original well, used to cool the bottles in the old days, and is the grapevine canopy, regularly pillaged by customers, who climb on their chairs to pick grapes for dessert. "They ask me for permission to pick the grapes despite everything on offer in the menu... but I don't I have the heart to say no!" We, on the other hand, gave them the opportunity to show off their cooking skills, and devoured their superb baked Alaska!
The following day we decided to explore beyond the city limits. There are things worth seeing in every direction. The Anchorena Park to the north-west, a residence donated by Aaron Anchorena as a weekend house for the Uruguayan President, and the charming villages of Conchillas and Carmelo further on. In the opposite direction are the Artilleros and Santa Ana beaches with their white sands and eucalyptus forests. Without mentioning the immediate surroundings, such as the Rambla beach, the bull-fighting arena, which was built by Nicolas Mihanovich at the beginning of the last century and is now almost ruins, and the lovely Ferrando beach.
One day is insufficient time to eat "pamplona" as the locals do in San Cono, taste the delicious meringue dessert at the Pulpería Los Faroles, relish fresh fish at the Yacht Club, the chicken casserole at Gibellini, the ice cream at Arco Iris, and to see the street tamps lit up at night. These are all good excuses, if you should ever need them, to stay on. And after all, it is only across the river.