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- “I don’t think I can ever do it, that whole pregnant-thing.”
- “Ohhww but you’ll be a great mum, I’m s…”
- “No, I meant not drinking wine for 9 months.”
Wine. That’s literally the only reason why my mother and I came all the way to Carmelo. After almost 2 full weeks of finishing at least 3 glasses of the Uruguayan Tannat every single night we had come to the well-informed and indisputable conclusion that it’s quite a drinkable cup. So why not make it a day activity?
So in the name of alcohol we got into a bus from Punta del Diablo to Montevideo, where after a little pit stop we continued our journey to Uruguay's south-west. Hobbling through empty captivating landscapes my mind drifted off in my own internal landscapes of thoughts… “Hobbies”, my brain pondered, “the whole word is quite awkward in itself don’t you think? Like something you could have been successful in if you would have had more talent, but disillusioned you settled with the amateur level instead.” My stomach always makes a downward somersault when I have to fill in the ‘hobby-field’ on online profiles. The first thing that always comes up in my mind is ‘traveling’, even though that dull hobby-label would seriously downgrade something that grew out to be my passion, job and life mission in one. So what then? Sports? Don’t fool yourself Steph, you know you only do that when you feel guilty about how much you’ve been eating (/drinking) lately. Writing? Maybe. Theatre, art, heavy metal? For sure, yes. But what accompanies all of that? Right, a good glass of wine. Or five. So is that my ‘hobby’, drinking wine? That doesn’t sound good. But when those guys in suits do it, it does somehow… maybe that’s how I should present it to the outside world, wine ‘tasting’. I’ll just leave the part out that tasting includes swallowing for me (starving kids in poor countries and stuff, or whatever argument legitimizes it) and that I really don’t care if I down a precious vintage or a $3-carton… I’m not the discriminating kind, halfway the bottle it all tastes the same anyway.
Before you think the local AA might be a better destination than Uruguays wine region (you already signed me up, didn’t you), let me tell you this: besides wine I don’t generally drink alcohol. I’m from the country of Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch and lived a pretty intense student-party-hardy-life for the duration of 5 years (uff my liver!), so you can imagine the peer pressure of consuming the cheapest alcoholic option (beer!), but that didn’t break me. Liqueurs? Not a fan either, as the nights I surrendered to those were definitely not my proudest (I recall waking up with a hammer under my pillow and a room full of stolen traffic signs once, and those photos my friends made of me wrapped in silver foil to prevent hypothermia after I ran straight into a pond in winter because I thought the moss was grass won’t ever leave the internet either)… but wine, wine is a friend. Wine is decent, wine is controllable, wine you drink for the TASTE. The devastating cruelty of wine hangovers make you want to avoid them whatever it costs anyway.
With that knowledge in mind we decided to ‘do’ only 1 bodega a day, keeping it classy. The first one being Cordano, also known as Almacén de la Capilla. The hotel where we stayed in tried to sell us a tour for $25 each, but I know myself better than that. I’m a negotiator. A good one too, as we ended up having a tasting 'n swallowing of 6 different wines and a grappa for the shocking price of zero dollars. I must warn you though, you will end up buying a bottle (might be plural) because what they serve here is in one word s-p-l-e-n-d-i-d. I hear my father’s voice echoing in my head, “like an angel pissing on your tongue”, which couldn’t be more applicable than now. The friendly owner, being a 5th generation descendant of the Italian Cordano family, took us by the hand to walk us through history and the unique mainly manual production process of their first and second class wines. Especially that knee-weakening cellar they got there made a long-lasting impression. I know I don’t even have a house, but can I have a wine cellar anyway? Happy to live in there instead. We strolled through the endless green vineyards, home of the dragonflies, where they even built a musing rustic cabaña. Imagine that! I remember seeing tourists snorting lines of cocaine off Pablo Escobar’s grave in Colombia, but I’ll gladly settle with the drinking-in-between-the-vineyards-experience in the lush heart of Uruguay instead.
If this didn’t convince you yet, let me tell you this: They’re family of Mujica, which I figured out when the owner pointed at the marihuana-leaf on my sunglasses (yeah… those were the cheapest ones I could find in Mexico) and mentioned it were his folks who legalized these pleasant herbs in the country. Wait, time-out, Mujica??? Yes, Uruguay’s former president and my all-time hero. Why? Well, because he gave 90% of his salary away to charity, helped legalize abortion, doesn’t let religion interfere with politics (he’s an atheist) and indeed legalized marihuana for starters. He declined to exchange his humble house for the extravagant presidential palace with its servants, and a ´87 Volkswagen Beetle remained his mode of transport. I’m almost tearing up imagining him living there with his 3-legged dog! The good man even got nominated for a Nobel Peace Price, how’s that for a world where capitalist pricks and freedom-erasing dictators run the governments?
While my mother returned to our interim home, I went to the supermarket to stock up on the necessary ingredients for our dinner. The little saving stamps I earned with my purchases I gave to an old lady in the other line… and just like that a valuable meeting was initiated. While strolling out the store the woman hurried behind me, convinced I was an Argentinean actress she saw on TV yesterday. Even though I couldn’t live up to that expectation, I ended up talking for almost an hour on that street corner with this fiery lady who turned out to be Carmelo’s local poet. Country borders, climate change, metric rhymes, waterfalls, accents, church bells and childhoods, the topics you entrust to a stranger who’s suddenly not a stranger anymore. Suddenly her eyes lit up and she grabbed me by the arm… I should stay with her! She lived in a very simple house, but filled with hospitality. This would have made a better story for sure, but I remembered how my mother had just paid ahead for our expensive inn. I should have gone anyway, but instead I exchanged names and phone number with this woman coming from a generation that thinks Facebook has something to do with bus lines… and just like that a 29- and 76-year old started something called a friendship. Maria…
The next day, when my mom took her old-lady-nap, I started wandering the streets again… to get to know Carmelo, but kind of hoping to run into Maria again. I didn’t, but the beauty of this peaceful little town made up for that. As Museo lo de José Castro was closed, I started walking to some kind of natural spot kilometers outside of town I read about, Canteros del Cerro. On my flipflops and during the hottest peak of the day I jaunted until where asphalt stopped, little kids ran around on the streets in their underwear and poor horses carried the loads of their masters. Something told me that I had reached the pure core of Uruguay. After about a small hour I coincidentally passed bodega Irurtia... it would be an insult to Carmelo if I wouldn’t visit of course, nature can wait. I strolled around, ignored by the hard-working men slaving away in the lashing sun, but there were no tastings going on. Makes sense at 11AM. So I continued my hike, helped out by a kind lady spontaneously offering me a ride on the back of her motorbike. The dust and drought had turned my skin into leather and made me wish I had brought more water to lessen my searing thirst and moisten my head… the bigger my surprise when suddenly a lush blossoming oasis came into sight. I watched a man swimming laps and promptly jumped in with all my clothes on. What a bonus!
While the sun dried me in 4 minutes I continued to Parque de Esculturas, which was closed even though the sign stated otherwise. I figured if the friendly people are even giving me rides here without me asking, it must be even easier to catch one with my thumbs up. I was right, the first sweet jelly-belly girl roaring through the fields on her scooter immediately stopped and tilted her head backwards as an open invite. Little did she realize she instantly made my day worthwhile with this wild-ride through the vineyards… clinging on to a local, my hair slapping backwards brushed by the refreshing wind. These little things give my life flavor.
From where she dropped me off I fiercely battled the 33 degrees with a concluding stroll to Monumento al Voluntario, some kind of sun clock on the same square, Teatro Uama and Museo del Carmen… which was closed due to its weekly AA-meeting that’s scheduled here. I guess Carmelo is not the best place for an alcoholic indeed.
Which reminded me: I should be drinking right now! So my mum and I swiftly moved on to the next bodega, Trip Advisor’s favorite El Legado. This small boutique winery produces Tannat, Syrah and a god-sent blend from both. Again I had the pleasure to meet the warm-hearted family running this relatively new bodega, eager to show every visitor the process from grape to glass in splendid detail. Especially for the conoisseurs this is definitely a must-visit on Uruguays wine trail, the recommendable ‘Ruta de Vino’. The friendly owner not only gave us a generous discount, he also offered to give us a ride back to town… because that’s Uruguay, the country where people genuinely want to help others, not blinded by greed but their eyes opened by the attraction of life.
I didn’t want to leave. This feel-good-country definitely got me. Travel schemes only interrupt impulses so I never have one, but unfortunately my parent had. So we watched the sun set from Playa Seré while I swam in the Rio de la Plata, the same river that would bring us back to Tigre where a plane was awaiting my mother. A boat trip that is, it has to be said, way more scenic than the popular ferry-line from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, which I already took 3 times by now… Just like Carmelo, which has so much more to offer than the pretty, but rather boring, Colonia as well.
Just stop following the crowds and you might end up in an unexpected place as satisfying and refreshing as Carmelo one day. If you’re really lucky.
An English dubbed version can be found here. I know it’s a long speech, but believe me when I say it’s worth it... "Found your lives on values like love, friendship, solidarity and adventure instead of being dominated by money and economic markets", this man has something to say.