From Montevideo Uruguay, we made our way by a comfortable 3 hours bus trip to Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO site. This is the oldest city in the country, and was founded by the Portuguese in 1680, conquered by the Spanish and returned to Portugal a couple of times before being seized by Brazil, and eventually ceded to Uruguay as it gained its independence in 1809. Our visit was generally confined to the Portuguese-developed Old Town, with its narrow, tree-lined, cobblestone streets and its mix of 17th– and 18th-century Portuguese and Spanish architecture.
We began with a one-hour guided tour provided by the Tourist Office where we learned about the 1680 founding of the city as a Portuguese fort, the eight conquests and reconquests by these two Latin American colonial powers, and another two short-term conquests and occupations by England (who allied with Portugal against long-time enemy Spain). The guide used the large number of surviving Portuguese and Spanish roads and buildings to explain the differences between the way each approached urban design and buildings. For example:
- Portuguese roads are concave, with water draining down the center of the streets, while Spanish roads are convex, with drainage on either side;
- Portuguese walls, especially among older buildings, are generally stone, while Spanish walls are more likely to be adobe-coated brick; and
- Portuguese roofs are hipped or gabled, with wood lathes topped by single-, double- or triple- layers of rounded tiles (with more affluent families using more layers to keep buildings coolers in summers and warmer in winters), whereas Spanish buildings tend to use flat roofs with flat, slate-like tiles atop wooden beams.
We saw and learned the history of some of the most notable of the historic structures including;
- The City Gate (dating from 1745), with its wooden drawbridge, and a portion of the reconstructed walls that used to surround the city;
- Plaza Mayor, the largest of Old Town’s open spaces, which was used as a parade ground;
- Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs) a Portuguese cobbled street (with drainage down the center, lined with stone homes from the first Colonial period;
- The lighthouse (1845) surrounded by the ruins of a 17th-century (1694) convent;
- The basic, unadorned 1808 Basilica, built atop the runs of the oldest church in the country (1731) which is used almost as much to house concerts and art exhibits (including an exhibit of abstract ceramic birds when we visited) as it is church services; and
- The reconstructed Portuguese Viceroy’s house.
We also learned of and later visited four of the city’s museums that, among them, demonstrate the architecture and period-furnished rooms of an early Portuguese colonial building; the cultural history of the area (from prehistoric times through the 19th-century) and an archive that contains historic documents (this room was closed when we visited) and archeological remnants.
Our guide was almost as anxious to discuss the current living conditions of his home city as he was its history. He explained that the small city receives more than 2 million visitors per year (primarily cross-river, day-trippers from Buenos Aires) who account for 75 percent of the local economy. (Most of the remainder is attributable to agriculture and especially beef and leather production, with cattle outnumbering the country’s human population by four-to-one.)
He took obvious pride in explaining how this translated into a low unemployment rate (two percent), a relatively high standard of living and how this, combined with the pretty, tranquil, tree-lined streets provided a wonderful quality of life.
El Porton. We had time for lunch in the city before we caught the ferry to Buenos Aires. Our guide strongly suggested what else: beef. We ate at one of his favorite steak restaurants where Tom had a tenderloin steak with mashed potatoes and Joyce had grilled chicken with mushroom cream sauce and fries. Both were very good (at least after Tom returned his medium-well-done steak for the rare streak he had ordered). And of course we had a bottle of wine: 2012 Cuna de Piedra Merlot Reserva.