A Colonial Gem

by Tim Dawe

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I’m on the rápido, a catamaran ferry skimming across the mighty mouth of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate). My destination, 60km straight across from Buenos Aires, is Uruguay’s historic town, Colonia del Sacramento.

Friends tell me it’s their top holiday destination. But what they don’t tell me, and my guidebook does, is that thousands of porteños (Buenos Aires’ residents) make this crossing each summer fleeing Buenos Aires’ humidity and baking apartments – fortunately not his early spring morning.

At the snack bar I meet Yanina, a tango teacher from Buenos Aires going on to Montevideo by bus, and ask her about Colonia. In English as rápido as the ferry she says, “Avoid the town and walk along the bay to Plaza de Toro Real de San Carlos.” It’s advice I later ignore as the weather worsens. It’s bleak; overcast and drizzly but on board, it means a mere trickle of porteños.

After an hour…another country. There’s no fanfare: a small harbour, a solitary migration desk, a jetty to a nondescript beach and beyond, a 1950s-style seaside holiday village. A deserted riverside street leads to La Colonia Portuguesa, the town’s historic neighbourhood and my first port of call. Oddly, every parked car on this street is about sixty years old – apparently in working order.

At the street’s end a wind-bleached wooden house, its front door wide open, has a faded sign: “café”. This is a long way from security conscious Buenos Aires. Dieter, who seeks a quieter life than in Berlin, serves a coffee in his leafy courtyard. Over my cup I glimpse a small wooden drawbridge over a once-upon-a-time moat. It’s Portón de Campo, the old (1745) former entrance gate to my destination. Ten steps beyond, past an old ship’s cannon is a small, grassed square: Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo. It’s ringed with shady sycamores outside 18th century stone mansions. I’m alone. Looking at this tranquil scene it’s hard to imagine this as the outpost of desperados at a time when popes could divide the globe with a line on a map, sanctioning the spoils of South America between Spain and Portugal.

Manoel Lobo founded Colônia do Sacramento for Portugal in 1680 as a strategic site opposite the Spanish enclave of Buenos Aires. But it was always going to be contested; so contested that from its founding, Colonia alternated between Portugal and Spain 10 times until the creation of Uruguay in 1828 – even changing three times in its first two years.

The colonial powers fought over the lucrative trade of precious metals, gems and cattle hides coming down the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers. And they were helped or hindered in these royal battles by Dutch, English and French pirates, sometimes known as patriotic privateers. Colonia del Sacramento survived. There’s wealth in its houses and romance in its history. Today, historic La Colonia Portuguesa is a UNESCO World Heritage site, listed in 1995 – and at 15ha, surely one of its smallest.

Portuguese Colonia is a jumble of terrain-fitting streets designed to fend off strong river winds. Most connect to the river, now chopped muddy brown after its early morning silvery sheen. Calle de los Suspiros, or street of sighs, with its pastel-coloured houses of stucco and tile, now a space for artists and galleries, is highly photogenic and a reminder this place is a living museum.

The ruin of the once imposing 17th century Convento de San Francisco sits forlornly next to the 19th century El Faro (light house) now providing panoramic views. Nearby the small fortification, Bastión de San Pedro, is patched with a variety of stones and bricks. It also shows how exposed these early settlers were to attack from men and nature.

Iglesia Matriz (1695-99) is the oldest church in Uruguay. It’s framed at the end of a weed-strewn street; tall whiteness glowing against the black sky. Five Japanese tourists emerge reminding me how few people I have seen this morning. And there are times, they say, you can’t move here for tourists and touts.

Before stepping into the church’s modest interior, I spy more 1940s vehicles – one with flowers sprouting through its roof. This is a vehicle in a different sort of service. On closer inspection it’s an Elliot Ness-type car with seats and side cut out exposing a table for two. It’s restaurant El Drugstore’s novel, alfresco backseat dining!

Museum Colonia boasts seven ticketed museums in former mansions. I visit four for 45 pesos (two dollars). Casa Nacarello on the river end of Plaza Mayor is a wealthy Portuguese gentleman’s house (1750) displaying the furniture and fittings of the time. It conjures up what life was like then…for some. Next door is the Municipal Museum, a two-storey, eclectic museum where one can dwell a little longer. Of architectural interest, one floor is Portuguese and the other is Spanish, neatly capturing Colonia’s history.

However my favourite spot just a few steps across the square is the Museo Portugués. It is a fine example of a Portuguese colonial house dating from 1720. The former house of the Rios family is itself a cut-away exhibit showing its 90cm outer walls and its inner walls constructed of wooden shapes filled with stones and mud. It displays period armour and fine furniture made from jacaranda.

It may be grey and damp today but I can see the promise of summer flowers and trees in bloom, colourful tents, jugglers, stall sellers and shysters, transforming this plaza into a full-blown riotous carnival. Colonia del Sacramento is a gem; a compact treasure trove for the history buff and a lovely laid-back discovery for visitors to South America. As I roar back across the silvery-dusk river towards the multi-storeyed twinkling lights of Buenos Aires, I’m pleased I had Colonia all to myself.

But I never did find out about those cars.

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