Solo un Sol: Sunrise in Montevideo
Last night, the Sandman came to visit. He dusted the city with purple, and from our balcony to la plaza (public square), all looks soft and still. Haze shades the stucco building walls and sneaks in between the terra terracotta tiled roofs of the inland distract. From the highest point to the lowest, Montevideo sleeps under a layer of silence.
Above Rio de Plata rises a high forehead, a dark early-morning sky still sparsely hidden by bruising clouds lingering after a light night rain. But above the sliver of river, rosy-pink lips begin to show, to stretch and grow until the glow of dawn touches skyscraper peaks. Slowly the light rises, the sky turns from green to pale yellow to celeste, and in a burst of morning the sun’s strong red eye rises from the east.
Looking out and across from the eleventh floor, the city tells its own story.
On the peninsula sits La Ciudad Vieja (the old city), founded by Spaniards on January 17, 1724, with the help of Buenos Aires Governor Bruno Mauricio de Zabala as a war strategy to cut off Colonia, a port founded by Portuguese conquistadores slightly further downstream—a rivalry that would rage over the city from birth through its toddling years.
Mortise Church (now the Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral), built in 1790 and completed in 1804, watched in 1816 as the Portuguese captured and encased the city in a tall wall that would stand for the next 12 years. Before the independence-seeking Uruguayan people gained the city and tore down the wall in 1828, Portuguese architecture had sprouted among the original Spanish—including a spire on Mortise—so that the “old city” was left as a mesh of both styles. Finally, on July 18, 1830, England, Brazil, and Argentina signed a recognition of Oriental Republica de Uruguay, and the birth of the republic to the west of the “river of birds” was official.
At the peninsula base across from Mortise, Constitution Square commemorates the dates of foundation, leading into a street memorializing many later great Uruguayan artists, such as Torres Green, which leads into Independence Square, a former citadel at the end of the old city. Past this square is the rest of Montevideo, and the rest of history after independence.
From 1839 to 1951, the Uruguayan Civil War (La Guerra Grande) found a seat in the city. As seen on monuments and street names, dates of important battles are incorporated into daily routine. The war that found a seat here is carved into its chair; Avenida 8 de Octubre, where I am staying, is one of the main avenues and was named after the final battle of the war.
From 1870 to 1930, Uruguay flourished under a leather, beef, and sheep exporting business. Its financial district reflects the wealth of businessmen and the diversity of their European backgrounds. There are high peaks and lavish structures, and the streets walk straight to the water side where former summer homes (called Quinienta) remain—although in winter they are without the coats of rich fruit trees or the squabble of roaming chickens.
Tucked away on a side street, the Café Basilico—founded in 1877—was the site of debate and discussion between great authors and philosophers. The parliament building stands from 1925, made with 52 different marbles brought from all across Uruguay at a time when the country was referred to as the Switzerland of South America.
Ports and beaches alternate along the coast of Montevideo. From Puenta Ganado to Punta del Este is estuary (where the Atlantic meets the river). From one of the ports, the ferry ride to Buenos Aires is a three-hour trip. One popular beach called Positos, or “little holes,” was named after the wash women who would dig small holes to wash clothes on the shore.
The Montevideo people change their city at will, understanding that the city is their home and that it should evolve as they do. Mercado de Puerto, which for 60 years was a fruit and vegetable market, is now a line of shops and restaurants. The tale of Edificio Libertad (liberty building) is an example of the history built in the stones and corners of Montevideo. Constructed as a building of defense ministry during the rule of dictatorship from 1973 until 1985 (and certainly an entire story unto itself), Edificio Libertad housed the office of the president, Julio María Sanguinetti, after the dictatorship fell. In 2006, President Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas moved his office to Executive Tower, and turned Edificio Libertad into a hospital.
Following increasingly highlighted contours, the eye can trace the history of Uruguayan clashes, labors, and triumphs. Almost one-half of Uruguay’s population inhabits the city of Montevideo, and it has taken center stage for the nation’s strife and celebration. Its people live as part of the record of its history, continuing to carve into it the progress of their lives and the progress of their country.
And it is sunrise in Montevideo.