We just couldn't see it. What had all the fuss been about? Was this really what we had been indoctrinated to glamorise as a city of legend, mystified as a hidden treasure far away in a forgotten corner of the New World? The promise of splendour seemed false and our naive twenty-year old minds could not understand what our Uruguayan friends back home had raved about for all these years.
At the height of the summer heat in January, everyone who could had fled the capital for the surrounding coastline and Montevideo was a dead and deserted city. Coming from the bustling and easy-to-embrace big brother Buenos Aires, this felt like a ghost town that was gasping for its last breath in the torturing, hot humidity. Still in the backwash of the economic crisis in 2002, I remember the inner city streets around the main artery Avenida 18 de Julio as exhausted and apathetic. The four of us, an adventure-craving and impatient quartet of innocent greenhorns, were wandering the sleepy streets of the Montevideo downtown in a somewhat frustrated mood. Where was the fun? Where was the latin vibrancy and exotic spontaneity?
In fact, Montevideo is not an easy city to fall in love with. I remember one friend who after a recommended visit, proclaimed it as "one of the most boring cities on earth". Now, I wouldn't write this piece unless I was of another opinion, but in someway I can relate to this experience. Montevideo is not there to welcome you with open arms as many other idyllic cities are keen to do. I can also imagine that for many, this is not a very beautiful city. Some would probably make remarks about the run-down and shabby streets that even during the daytime strikes you of a dark and solitary faith. The city network is also quite widespread and it is hard to get an idea about where to go. Mind-blowing attractions seems nowhere to be found and if so they are not of any majestic portions. Of course, you have the Ciudad Vieja on the eastern tip of the centre but even though this area is filled with crowd-pleasing colonial architecture, it is usually acknowledged as a place where fat cruise-ship tourists get off for an afternoon stroll just to get robbed by the neighbourhood's crack ghosts. It is not the most pleasant area for a cute night of holding hands and shovelling ice cream into each others faces.
But then there is the breakthrough. How you got to cherish those breakthroughs, no? After a couple of days of delusive doubt I finally found the key to the city's groove. This thrilling flirt was a chorizo on the street. Spontaneously wasted around lunch time, me and a friend stumbled upon an old man that was to set up his "parilla stand" right on a backstreet in Barrio Sur. It was to take half an hour to get those sausages between a bun so he brought us a litre of the coldest beer to kill the time. We just sat there and listened to the running fat as it was smacking against the hot charcoal. Soft breezes of wind made us forget about the killing temperature and the soft, slow tempo on the street put our drunken minds into serenity. When we got to put our teeth into that dog drowned in homemade chimichurri we surrendered to the simplicity of things. That was the awakening.
Unfortunately, we left the city the day after so the moment of romance hit a quick end. It wasn't until I got back to Montevideo five months later that I fell in love, like real love. I guess I owe it all to one man, the ever mysterious mind of Oliver Morales. Now I could say one or two things about this dear friend of mine but for today I will settle with one. He is a flag-waiver like no other. Half Uruguayan- half Swedish, he has lived much of his grown-up life in Uruguay and as far as he is concerned there is no colour that is sweeter than sky blue, no red meat that is better than the one from La Pampa and there is no question of where Carlos Gardel actually was born. Uruguay, Vamos arriba. For me, this patriotism became decisive in the way I would connect to this city and as I stayed at his bohemian roof top apartment for a couple of weeks, I had the pleasure of being brainwashed with the secret elements of the Montevideo soul. For that I will be forever grateful.
This was actually a quite strange time to cave in to this city. Not because those mild temperatures gets the worse of a Swede, but the Uruguayan winter had arrived and Montevideo had entered a new state of sleepy indifference. If the peak summer months had paralysed this city it was nothing against the collective annual trauma that this time of the year meant for these sun-worshipping people. For me, it was however a beautiful thing as it got me to lower my guard, allowing me to get absorbed in the everyday flow of the city. It was all in all a romantic memory. In a sort of Parisian autumn weather but put in a palm tree context, we were mostly occupied with heading down to the local gas guy to refill the tube we used to heat up our cold apartment with and some days we were just sitting on the roof, making a fire and listening to the monotonous traffic of Bulevar España while it passed us by down on the street. Other days we just roamed the city and hid out in dark, gloomy establishments where we sat for hours, just sipping the mandatory winter spirit grappamiel and maybe sharing a hot plate of guiso de lentejas.
That winter forced me into capitulation. I was now hooked. Everything about Montevideo, I now started to see in another light. The city's slow tempo didn't bother me anymore as I now regarded it as one of its greatest assets. Here was a roughly 1,5 million people capital city that behaved like it never had left the countryside. This was in many ways unique. Montevideo had decided that an "urban mellow mood" was to prefer before a hectic, elbowing and in many ways irrational idea of what a big city should be. Once getting sucked into this careless pace there seemed no reason to object. And why would you? One of the true upper hands about Montevideo is the dynamics between what could be regarded as metropolitan and provincial. The Montevideano is in many ways the city-dweller of streetsmart and cynical urbanity. It is also a prime example of a modern progressivity, something that the recent legalisations of gay marriage, abortion and cannabis testifies to. But where many other urbanites get lost in a nervous reflection of what they are not and then try to disguise themselves in the imitation of what's bigger and more on the map, in Montevideo they seem to shake off all that nonsense. Here reigns the menthality of the unflinching and simple Gaucho. Today converted with sneakers, a suit or a football jersey and surrounded by concretes, cars and city lights, this cowboy never stops gazing for the lonely horizon. No matter where the world turns, there is no reason to get too worked up. Another sip of mate will take care of that.
And quite ironically, it is this hillbilly backwardness that actually makes this city so relevant. Whether it is intentionally or not, Montevideo expresses a liberating "fuck you" towards the urban hysteria of the modern world. It does so to such a great extent that it can be seen as a Mecca of normcore where trends are almost non-existent in how people dress, drink, eat and behave. Like a thin line between a forced isolation and an urban confidence, Montevideo rises to a city that doesn't feel the need of keeping an eye of the clock. Time does neither dictate or interest this city as it doesn't seem to know how to even respond to all that. It is how we most romantically speak of something as timeless, a place of no beginning and of no end. What Montevideo is and in the future will be, it has also always been before. The streets, the people and the bars that lay scattered all over the city's notorious esquinas, are constant reminders of this nature and as you embrace it you sense its beauty.
At my last visit to Montevideo, I did not only sense this beauty at a bar I visited. It was more than that. At Café y Bar Rey, I almost fell into something that I would describe as an "enthusiast's chock", an overexcited state of mind caused by the unearthly grandeur of the object in question. In my world this was it, one of those rare and true moments that makes this everlasting search for the real thing worthwhile. Just like the city where it was born into, this bar was of another time, of another world and of another pace. It was almost as if it did not exist and that it was something that I had created in my wildest dreams.
When I travel around the world to find what I define as the best bar experiences, I often have to make a lot of compromises. In the global information society of today there is almost never a gem to be discovered that hasn't been treated by someone else, especially if it is an object of high quality when it comes to aesthetics, product or history. For the adventurous ego this is a bitter truth to deal with but nevertheless something that needs to be accepted. With this being said, it is the greatest reward to face a place like Cafe y Bar Rey. Like a dusty, treasure chest of gold it was just lying there on one of the corners of Plaza Liber Seregni, an empty and forgotten square in northwestern Cordón. Directly as I entered the doors I realised that I had walked into Eldorado as it just screamed to me about its adventurous nature. This was so far away from the world of Tripadvisor, guidebooks and Instagram-likes that I almost felt ashamed of what I already were planning for; to write about this diamond in the rough.
Café y Bar Rey is the total experience. The cold but suiting Art Deco is blooming in here. A long beautiful counter in Carrara marble is dressed with black streaks of steal running down to the floor. Inside the bar lies the contrast in the warm ebony wood that surrounds the always reliable fridges. They don't make them like that anymore. As well with the Dayton scale where millimetres of ham have been sliced since the thirties. On the top shelves, old bottles of grappa never meant to be savoured, just there as reminders of the years that's gone in the dust. All these are details of perfection but still nothing in comparison to the real star; the floor. These original Shelley Border floor tiles gives as much of the futuristic Metropolis (1927) of Fritz Lang as it resembles the cold, fascist world portrayed in Bernardo Bertolucci's Il Conformista (1970). Marks of time to say the least, but also a spectacular and delicate distraction crawling beneath your feet.
When encountering Café y Bar Rey today, it is maybe hard to imagine the life this bar has lived. Once upon a time this was a place of commerce and everybody wanted to stay close the "King". What today is a recreational neighbourhood square was back in the old times the central hub for Montevideo's tram system. This, together with the three big textile factories in the neighbourhood, promised the owners a never ending flow of customers that used this bar for a big variety of purposes. Maybe was it the city commuter stopping by for a quick coffee or maybe was it the neighbourhood workers who sat here every night playing cards, sharing news or simply just regarded this area as an extension of their own home. No matter the reason, this was the go to place in this part of town. When the tram system was tragically shut down, so did this area transform. Gone is today the vibrant scene of communication and transport and the newly renovated plaza reminds us more of a desolate suburb than the central city position it actually holds. These changes has affected the King as well and it is hard not to think of this bar as a sort of retired senior gasping for breath in an always changing world. Like and old sleepy elephant he persists to stay on the same place, maybe out of stubbornness, maybe out of fatigue. Much like the jungle where he sits. The Elephant King and Montevideo is in many ways the same breed in this matter. Above time, aside logic and below surface. All in one.
Drinks? In the last article about Bar Nuevo Polvorin, I discussed the Uruguayan affection for whiskey. That culture is most definitely seen here as well. The whiskey is flowing all over this city. But please take note of the beautiful praxis of Uruguayan whiskey pouring. There is always a measure involved showing the customer that the right amount is being served but after that there is always a bit of free pouring straight in the glass. This is obviously an act of gentlemen, demonstrating either the generosity of the one pouring it or the acknowledgement of the one who will drink it. This will of course vary from time to time but when these two factors coincide, you will most surely look at a glass that is more half-full than half-empty. Literary speaking of course.
Munch? This is a fiambreria, which means it is a place that specialise in cold cuts of meat. At the picture you see some Uruguayan longaniza, a very long, cured and dried pork sausage that gets its particular flavour from ground anise seeds. It is pretty much the perfect bite with a whiskey.
Where? Café y Bar Rey, Dr. Joaquín Requena 1704, 11200 Montevideo, Departamento de Montevideo, Uruguay.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!