Tango, Tanning, Tea & Tannat – A Day in Montevideo
By Remy Scalza

Mention tango, steaks and red wine and one South American city generally pops to mind: Buenos Aires. But nearby another city can lay claim to many of the the same charms, minus the crowds.

Located just a three-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo offers a laid back and decidedly untouristy day trip alternative for travellers. Uruguay is among the safest and most developed countries in South America, and Montevideo – with its rambling seaside boardwalk, compact downtown and tree-lined avenues – is very traveler-friendly. Lots of uruguayos speak English as well as their native Spanish and no visas are required for North American travellers.

After an easy morning ferry ride from Buenos Aires, I start my day down by the port in Montevideo’s gracefully mouldering, Havana-esque Old City. More than 150 years ago, these cobblestone streets – teeming with a South American melting pot of European immigrants and freed salves – gave rise to a sensuous new style of dance that mixed African rhythms with Italian light opera and Cuban habanera: the tango. (North Americans take note: Tango – much like futbol – is fiercely disputed in this part of the world, and Buenos Aires makes an equally strong claim to being its birthplace.)

Today, the Old City remains at the heart of Montevideo’s tango scene. Climbing the narrow, hilly streets, I pass by a half-dozen milongas – informal dance halls, many tucked away on the second floor of regal old Art Deco buildings. Later tonight, and into the wee hours of the morning, this is where true tango afficionados will be strutting their stuff.

To dare show my face inside, I must first get my dance steps up to speed. On a tip, I head to the Old City’s grand opera house, the Teatro Solis. Dating from 1856, the neoclassical beauty regularly hosts ballets and classical performances. But, in a luxuriously appointed ballroom off the main hall, you can also take walk-in tango classes for around $6 an hour.

With the sun filtering through the windows and a half-ton crystal chandelier overhead, the instructor puts the class through the paces. I’m not exactly light on my feet. But by the end of the session I’ve gotten a taste for a few tango essentials: the tight embrace, the slow shuffle across the dance floor and, last but not least, the  “tango face,” that signature facial expression stuck halfway between agony and ecstasy.

While the afternoon is still young, I decide to walk down to the rambla, the waterfront boardwalk that runs the entire length of the city. A long stroll along the Rio de la Plata leads me from the Old City to Pocitos, a district full of gleaming apartment towers and trendy beachside restaurants.

It’s the waning days of the South American summer, but Playa de Pocitos – the city’s most popular beach – is still packed with young couples and families working on tans and playing in the calm estuary waters. Despite the heat, nearly everyone is sipping mate, a tea made from a local herb. I watch as locals walk by with thermoses of hot water under their arms, then pause to pour it into tiny gourds and take sips from silver straws.

When the sun sinks down into the estuary, I make my way back to the Old City for a classic Uruguayan meal. Montevideo’s cuisine is simple but fresh and flavourful.

Reflecting the Italian and Spanish heritage of city dwellers, meals are centered around homemade pastas, pizzas and fire-grilled fish and meats. I duck into Café Bacacay, a refurbished bistro that once attracted its share of bohemian tango types as a turn-of-the-century bar. These days, Bacacay offers generous cuts of Uruguay’s free-range beef roasted on its indoor parrilla, a type of barbecue heated with firewood, common throughout Uruguay and Argentina. I pair an entrecote – a tender
steak served with chimichurri sauce – with a glass of local Tannat, full-bodied red wine
from Uruguay’s signature grape.

I’d like to sip and savor longer but tango awaits. Eager to put my newfound skills to the test, I head walk to nearby Baar Fun-Fun, a dive of sorts that’s been hosting live tango music acts for almost a century, including a 1933 visit from Carlos Gardel, the genre’s Sinatra. Inside, the greying house band is busy belting out classics and the room is packed with couples dancing cheek to cheek.

I step nervously to the edge of the dance floor. The music ends and dancers separate, shuffling around in search of new partners for the next song. It’s now or never. “Quiere bailar?” I ask an older woman wearing five-inch-high leopard-print heels. She takes pity on me and, for one song at least, I’m doing the tango in the very city where – quite possibly – it all began.