Montevideo, Uruguay–Where the Tango Was Born
Let me begin by saying that I knew nothing about Uruguay when the Viking Star docked in Montevideo. Unfortunately, the port of Montevideo is perhaps the least attractive that I’ve ever seen. Off to one side of the dock was a graveyard of rusting decaying ships, many of them half submerged. The dock for the Viking Star was in the midst of an industrial zone, filled with container ships and other commercial vessels. The Montevideo port is the entry point for the neighboring landlocked country of Paraguay (another country of which I know very little). We still don’t know why our cruise is bypassing Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and other attractive Brazilian ports. It probably has something to do with covid. So we have no choice but to make the best of the cruise line’s decisions as to which ports we visit.
At every Viking port, several different excursions with local guides are offered. We didn’t want to visit another winery or cattle farm. So we chose a city tour which included a tango performance. Our local tour guide began by acknowledging that Uruguay is not a tourist “destination”. It doesn’t have landscapes to compete with its huge neighbor, Argentina. In fact, she said that the main reason tourists come to Uruguay is to use it as a transit point into Argentina. Argentina’s population numbers over forty-five million. Uruguay’s population is just over three million. It seems that throughout history, Uruguay has been competing in the shadow of its big brother, Argentina.
The Uruguayan capital of Montevideo has over a million inhabitants, almost a third of the country’s population. It is a clean city with over two hundred statues and sculptures. Many of the government buildings are “grand” in the European style. Also, the tower of the building in the photo below was South America’s tallest building for most of the twentieth century.
Our guide said that Uruguay’s beef industry has twelve million cattle. The flat landscape of grassy plains (pampas), result in Argentina and Uruguay’s claim to be the source of the world’s best beef. For many years, the use of antibiotics and growth hormones has been banned in Uruguay. This facilitates the exports of their prime beef to Europe and China, to which America’s beef is unacceptable due to the American overuse of antibiotics and hormone supplements. Uruguay produces quality wines (similar their neighbor) but of course in much smaller quantities. We tasted a delicious Uruguayan wine produced from the tennet grape, a variety which I had never heard of before. I was surprised to learn that Uruguay produces top quality olive oil (as reported by our guide who is also a gourmet chef). We bought a small bottle of Uruguayan olive oil for transport back to Reno. But we kept in mind the fact that we will be visiting Kalamata, Greece, following our cruise. Kalamata olive oil is promoted as the best in the world (according to the Greeks anyway).
There is also a competition between Argentina and Uruguay as to who can claim the origin of the tango, a musical form famous around the world. Our guide stated the history (which I verified on Wikipedia) that one of the earliest tango compositions, La Cumparsita (“The Little Parade”) was composed at a bar in Montevideo, which is now the location of the Tango Museum. (For Americans, the adaptation of La Cumparsita most familiar is its form being adapted to the familiar tango “Hernando’s Hideaway”.) Our guide explained that one should simply speak of “Tango,” not Argentine or Uruguayan tango. Tango was a music and dance form that arose in the night clubs of Montevideo and Buenos Aires, frequented by sailors of many nationalities who brought their varied folk music traditions together. The resulting amalgam is the tango. This local folk-music-dance form might have disappeared into obscurity, except for the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, whose use of tango rhythms and melodies in his classical compositions made the elements of tango music and dance famous around the world.
Our city tour concluded with a special tango performance by three excellent dancers in a famous century-old local club called Fun Fun. (This whimsical name is derived from the language habit of repeating words for emphasis, e.g. “si si,” “no no,” “fun fun.”) We were entertained while being served a special drink invented by the owner of Fun Fun. Uva is the Spanish word for grape. The special Fun Fun drink is named Uvita, “little grape”. The exact composition is a secret, but I suspect Uvita is red wine plus some added alcohol spirit (similar to Port wine and Sherry). In any case, we enjoyed it enough that we purchased a bottle of Uvita to enjoy in our stateroom during our upcoming nine sea days. (We also look forward to purchasing a bottle of Madeira when we visit the island for which this delicious spirit is named.)
Originally, our ship had been scheduled to visit a second Uruguayan port. But that port was dropped, and the ship stayed overnight in Montevideo. The tour director was proud to announce that on short notice, they had been able to arrange a tango performance that evening on the ship. We were surprised and pleased to find that the six evening performers included the three dancers we had just seen at Fun Fun. The light was too low and the movements too fast in both performances for my camera to capture many sharp photos. But below are some of the photos that show some of the more acrobatic moves. Suffice it to say, tango is my new favorite dance style. It is sensual, graceful, sophisticated, and simply beautiful. I also like the music. Perhaps I’ll be able to compose some new tango-inspired piece that encompasses the inspiration generated by these Uruguayan dancers.