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On the road: Uruguay

A meander through Montevideo

It was early morning in Montevideo, the low-key capital of Uruguay.

I was staying in a pleasant hovel in the centre, near the old town, Ciudad Vieja and the roof terrace provided me with a bird’s-eye view of quaint 19th-century houses, occasionally interrupted by more modern buildings.

Joining me on the terrace was a kitten named Pesadilla (Nightmare), who climbed my skirt to my lap, where she began to purr noisily. At least someone thought I was a welcome addition to the city.

After my Nightmare encounter, I prepared to hit the streets. Montevideo is by far the largest city in Uruguay, home to over a third of the country’s population, but it still manages to retain something of a small-town feel.

It’s possible to explore the centre and old town on foot and that, in a nutshell, was my plan for the morning. Founded in the 1720s, Montevideo is comparatively young, by Latin American standards – its architecture comprises a somewhat random and haphazard assemblage of Spanish colonial, Art Deco, Italian, and French styles.

I headed up to 18 de Julio, the main avenue that runs through the city. This strand of laid-back activity is lined with shoe shops, bookshops, money makers, coffee makers, and pizza bakers.

The closer you get to the old town, the more interesting the sights. On 18 de Julio, you pass several picturesque squares, including Plaza de Cagancha and Plaza Fabini, followed by the biggest and best, Plaza de la Independencia.

Here, at the start of the old town proper, 18 de Julio turns into pedestrianised Calle Sarandí, a street with a different vibe altogether. If the former has all the bustle of day-to-day Montevideo business, the latter has something of a weekend buzz, any day of the week.

I soon found myself haggling the price of amethysts and textiles with vendors from across the continent as the impromptu street market continued all the way down to the port and Mercado del Puerto. Dating back to 1865, this market is home to some of the city’s best eating experiences and, at lunchtime, I found it heaving with patrons.

Most restaurants serve grilled meats – from steaks to sausages and lamb – that are neither kind to your waistline nor your wallet. But there’s one notable, and popular, exception: Empanadas Carolina.

The café serves the traditional, humble pasties with 20 different fillings. They are apparently worth the rugby scrum to get to the counter, but instead I chose a place with seats, meats and clericó, the local white wine and fruit juice tipple, leaving my Montevideo meanderings momentarily suspended for the pleasure of grazing. A morning that had started with Nightmare, had ended in a gourmet dream.

Footprint's Uruguay Focus Guide is available now, £7.99 (footprinttravelguides.com)