Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sunday Market

Each neighbourhood in Montevideo has one day of the week designated as market day. Plan on rising early when it comes, as vendors start setting up at dawn on a closed-off portion of the street, and the assembly of stalls and unloading of trucks is not a quiet process. Market day is loud, but the general racket is worthwhile if you're looking for good prices and a festive community atmosphere full of colour and action.   Pocitos' Sunday "feria" features fresh foods -  fruits, vegetables, cheese, fish, eggs and meat from local producers.
A special on merluza attracts customers to the fish stall

Catch of the day

Great selection of cheeses, pretzels, pickles and nuts


Free range eggs 

Garlic braids 

A Chinese couple is selling deep-fried dumplings

When she hears that we're from Canada, the dumpling lady is delighted. She has relatives living there.

Strawberries are the seasonal favourite, a real bargain at this price
Success in the kitchen begins with fresh ingredients, so we purchase enough produce for salads, side-dishes, main courses and desserts.  We're just about to head home with the grocery load when I spot a planter filled with parsley, thyme and rosemary, a narrow one that will just fit on my upstairs windowsill.  It's the urban substitute for my former backyard herb garden, a bit of green to nurture on a sunny rooftop and add to the soup now and then.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Behind the scenes

Teatro Solis
Foyer lined with Italian marble columns

Teatro Solis sits like a19th century grande dame in fancy dress, overseeing the corner of Buenos Aires and Bartolome Mitre streets.  She's a friend, a charming companion who played an influential role in the history of Montevideo and in our personal decision to move here. It was Solis who introduced us to the Montevideo Philharmonic, violinist Hilary Hahn, conductor Zubin Mehta, Brazilian composer Pixinguinha and the Chicago Symphony Youth Orchestra.  An evening spent with Solis has always been a rewarding experience filled with rich sound, dazzling colour, and the excitement of discovering a range of new artists and unique modes of expression.

We took the guided tour of Teatro Solis this week and got to know her better with a glimpse behind the scenes, an aerial view from the third balcony and a thorough account of the history beneath the building's impressive surface.

Teatro Solis was conceived in 1840 by a group of Montevideo shareholders who wished to build a fine opera house for the city, while incorporating adjacent commercial and residential spaces to generate revenue.  Their ambitious entrepreneurial project was constructed between 1842 and 1856 using the very best materials imported from Europe.  The grand opening of Teatro Solis took place on August 25, 1856 with a performance of the opera "Ernani" by Verdi.

Stage in the Sala Principal
Our tour guide Ignacio pointed out the original features of the building's interior that add Old World elegance to its fabric - the Empire style Baccarat crystal chandeliers assembled at the Osler factory in Birmingham England, the Carrara marble columns shipped from Italy, the gold leaf decoration of the upper foyer, and the ceiling painting in the main concert hall, bearing the names of 11 famous writers and composers.  These historic elements were preserved and restored while extensive renovation of the building's structure took place between 1998 and 2004.  The theatre's stage was improved to accommodate the needs of contemporary productions and the hall was upgraded to meet modern acoustic and safety standards.

The theatre has four balconies above the main floor, with a capacity of 1500 seats.  Today it is a government-owned facility operating with private and public funding.  Ticket prices are always reasonable, with the best concert seats offered for 100-160 U pesos ($5.00 - $8.00 U.S.).

Balcony seats

At the top of Teatro Solis' roof, there's a red lantern that dates from the mid-1800s, a time when the skyline of Montevideo was not populated with tall buildings.  On evenings when performances were held, the light was turned on to announce the fact to the citizens.  The tradition continues, and the sight of the illuminated red lantern still invokes the expectation of attending an outstanding, thrilling performance.  We've been visiting Teatro Solis regularly for the past two years and haven't been disappointed yet.  To launch your own virtual tour of Teatro Solis click here.

Champagne is served on the terrace of the theatre

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Day of the Dead - a photo essay

November 2nd is a national holiday in Uruguay, as the country celebrates "El Dia de los Difuntos."  It's not a morbid occasion at all, but a time of remembrance and togetherness as families visit the cemetery to tend the graves of their deceased relatives, reflect on their lives and pray for their souls.  We walked to the "Cementerio Central" and were pleasantly surprised by the orderly and well-maintained gardens that lie behind the high walls of the site, creating an oasis of quiet green space in the middle of a busy city.  In contrast to the rundown Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, Montevideo's central graveyard offers a peaceful sanctuary that is neither eerie nor depressing.

An observance that is part Roman Catholic ritual, part African and part Aztec, the "Day of the Dead" is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia as well as Uruguay. In other parts of Latin America, the day is marked with picnics in the cemetery, and the Hallowe'en tradition of going door-to-door asking for treats.   In Montevideo, bouquets of flowers are placed on the graves and families gather at home to enjoy a meal in honour of the deceased.

The central tree-lined path leads to a sepulchre
Marble pieta inside the sepulchre, framed by ornate stained-glass windows
Family members bring flowers for the gravesite

A feline resident 
The high walls surrounding the cemetery contain niches for funerary urns
A ladder is provided for cleaning and decorating niches 
A yellow bird perches on a statue
A moment of quiet reflection
Birds of Paradise adorn a family tomb
The south gate of the cemetery provides a vista of Rio de la Plata

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Tale of two Prisons

Montevideo is a city full of old architectural stock, ranging from fine, stylish examples that have been beautifully restored to decrepit uninhabited wrecks that have sadly deteriorated beyond repair.  There is a municipal Heritage Committee in place which works to preserve the best of Montevideo's historic buildings and oversees the restoration process as they are adapted for contemporary use.  Two penal institutions in Montevideo have been recycled to serve new audiences and facilitate different functions.
Punta Carretas, a former prison transformed into an upscale shopping mall
Carcel Miguelete, now Espacio de Arte Contemporaneo
Visting these former prisons in their current roles as commercial space (Punta Carretas) and public art gallery (Miguelete) raises questions about how much of a building's history can or should be eliminated in a rehabilitation program.  Does history deserve a memorial as the passage of time and changing community needs alter both the physical edifice and its function?

Punta Carretas Shopping is all glitz, chrome mirrors and natural light, a mall that's designed with shops on four levels of inviting vertical space.  There are high-end merchants here, offering diamond tennis bracelets, the latest Reezig running shoes, European cosmetics, Egyptian cotton sheets and deluxe stereo systems.  Once inside the former prison walls, the desire to buy is almost irresistible; it's the consumer who is held captive by slick merchandising, quota payment plans, seductive displays, contests and credit card discounts.  No visible chains, other than the chain stores that inhabit malls everywhere.  There are some guards, but they're friendly ones who will gladly direct you to the movie theatre, supermarket, food court or anywhere else you might want to go.

What is missing in this luxury shopping complex is the story of the place itself.  This is the site where Uruguay's notorious left-wing urban guerrillas, the Tupamaros made a daring escape in 1971 by digging a tunnel to freedom.  Many of those former inmates are still alive, most notably the current President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica.  Shouldn't their story which includes political protests, bank robberies, hostage taking, and murder be remembered as part of the city's history?  The average visitor, gliding up the escalator in the refurbished palace of consumerism, would not have a clue about what took place in Punta Carretas a mere 40 years ago.

The other ex-prison, Miguelete, has been converted into a public art gallery with much less intervention in terms of the layout and construction. The pentagon-shaped building is surrounded by an imposing seven metre high institutional wall.  Inside, the cells now serving as gallery spaces are essentially intact, complete with original doors, barred windows, security pass-throughs and heavy-duty locks.  There is a catwalk connecting both sides of the second storey, and the exercise yard is still dominated by guards' look-out towers.  Despite the modern facade and new interior lighting, this art gallery suffers from a heavy, constrictive atmosphere lingering from the building's past.  Though adequate for video installations in  small dark rooms, the facility lacks the wide open spaces required for display of large-scale works.   The repetitive rows of cell/galleries with only one entrance severely constrain the pattern of exhibit design.  The layout never allows a flow of visitors through the building, and the viewing experience is interrupted by the back and forth movement to and from a central hallway.   The exhibition I saw (Post-it City) read like a series of separate, disjointed words, rather than one coherent statement.  I came away with the uncomfortable feeling that the artworks themselves were incarcerated.

Somewhere between the surgical removal of history in a building and the strict preservation of it, there is the right balance that allows for a brand new contemporary use, while retaining respect for the past.