Archives for category: Architecture

Building `gallery` shopping centres in the European style was championed in São Paulo from the early 1960s, during the initial `verticalisation` of the city, by Italian architect Ermanno Siffredi.  Others followed suit, and the character of these elegant buildings still holds sway in São Paulo Centro. São Paulo already had a considerable and elegant built heritage.


Foyer of the São Pãulo Teatro Municipal opera house. Ramos de Azevedo, 1911.

But the shopping gallery projects did not import materials and craftsmen and women wholesale from Europe, as did the Teatro (1903 – 1911) and the Gothic Revival Catedral da Sé (1913 – 1954). The galleries were not stone but ferro-concrete constructions, and some designs were the outcome of architectural competitions. With striking results.


Façade of Grandes Galerias, Avenida São João 439, São Paulo. Siffredi & Bardelli, 1962

Boldly modern in its sweep and style, the Shopping Center Grandes Galerias nonetheless combines curves and straight lines to good effect, just as the eclectic Art Nouveau Teatro does. The Grandes Galerias were designed by the Italian practice of Ermanno Siffredi and Maria Bardelli, business and personal partners. Since their qualifications were not recognised in Brazil, they were not always named as architects. Brazilian Alfredo Mathias also had a hand in the design – he went on to design the Portal residential complex in Morumbi.

Their effects are achieved with simple devices – linear placement of ordinary light fittings, pale curved facade floors which draw the eye away from the darker faceted standard plate glass windows, the safe yet open galleries which invite a casual shopper to linger on the railing and enjoy the view. And there are more visual delights inside.


A vantage point for vigilant security

The curves of the façade are carried through into the arcade walk in both horizontal and in ascending vertical planes. The wooden battens  – a favoured decorative element in Brazil – of the façade shop fronts wrap around the mezzanine, spacious despite the intrusive fire system piping.


Each floor has a distinct pattern for its tiled floor. The demands of commercial advertising may intrude – what IS that on the underside of the elevator ? – and the character of the design may or may not be strong enough to overcome them.


A visual Babel

The lifts are a case in point. The floor tiles, and the dark facings and stainless steel doors interpolated in the curve of wooden battens, are matched in colour, and contrasted in form. But the ceramic mural of shoppers and their consumer durables above is somewhat lost in the noise of the commercial environment. Let’s take a closer look.

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Fashionable furnishing at its height

Decorative ceramics, household furniture, light fittings and wall coverings are all advertised in a rather more subtle way than today’s retail items. Today the building is known as the Galeria do Rock, and sells skater fashions, T-shirts, tattoos and sports goods, and serves as a commercial music venue for tribute bands. Urban sub-cultures thrive here.


Sloping access to lower ground floor, original lettering

What we see here under the commercial noise and frankly, the startling poverty of São Paulo Centro today, is the elegance and the real optimism of an earlier age. Today Avenida São João is inhabited by the urban poor and small retailers.


The facade on Avenida São João from the inside looking out

Hard to believe that in 1978, Brazilian music star Caetano Veloso wrote a song to honour São Paulo – “Sampa” – which has the corner of Avenida São João and Ipiranga at its heart, where Bar Brahma was “a favorite of intellectuals, musicians & politicians in the ’50s & ’60s, with beer, snacks & music”, if Google Maps is to be believed.



Modernist composition, ground floor, looking up

Under the glitz and the grinding poverty, the architecture of the Shopping Center Grandes Galerias is a fading though glamorous echo of that time.


Stained glass panel for a ceiling light

You may have seen a number of my previous posts on Montevideo’s architecture – its old city centre

and its cemeteries

On Tuesday I visited an architectural salvage firm in the Aguada area of Montevideo  where the affecting sight of the city’s architectural heritage in pieces made clear how much of the old city is being torn down to make way for new apartments, but also that people value – and are prepared to pay for – preserving some small elements of that heritage.


Entrance on the busy Avenida General Flores

Even purely utilitarian pieces – cast iron pipe, security grilles, window frames, iron shutters – have something of the visual character of the old city about them.

Behind the miscellany at the front is a dark warehouse full of salvaged floorboards. As in other parts of the world, tradesmen here tell you that the old wood is of much better quality than new flooring – properly dried, free from knots, broad and thick – though it will cost more to lay than modern system-build wooden flooring which clicks together without nails or screws. Even this old, it looks, feels and smells like real wood.


Functional and decorative

But it’s the decorative items – breath-taking in their variety, profusion and grandeur – which drive the message home. This city was once much more prosperous, vying with European capitals for elegance, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, judging by the style of the ornament.


Turn-of-the century ironwork


One lighting bracket still sports its glassware


Railings for steps to grand front doors


Not one but two cast-iron fountains, in pieces

Fewer fragile items survive – stained glass, painted panels, ceramic tiles – but these too suggest wealth and elegance, less on show now in Uruguay, even in the playground of the rich which is Punta del Este.


Accomplished stained glass work


Job lots of the azulejos or blue and white tiles favoured in Latin America

When you ask, you are told that Latin America grew rich on feeding and clothing the combatants of the Second World War with beef and wool, and when it stopped, so did the riches.


Industrious putti in field and factory – painted plaster panels

But agricultural wealth continues to support the rich families of Latin America – what else intervened to stop the rise of prosperity? The echo of the time of the dictatorships is much fainter, but it can be chilling – the sight, for example, of one of the hated army trucks which brought soldiers onto the neighbourhood streets at night to arrest and take away suspected dissidents, elicits fear and loathing still. It is not only prosperity which needs salvaging. Talk in Europe and the US of impending civil war seems a little wild against that cultural backdrop.

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Exhausted by his labours

Motoring back from the Litoral Norte of the state of São Paulo is an entertaining and scenic drive from Ubatuba along a steep and winding road up the escarpment. It’s difficult to stop, but glimpses of the view down to the coast are especially striking early in the morning.

View of the bay of Ubatuba from the SP125

View of the bay of Ubatuba from the SP125

Be careful to keep your eyes on the road though – it’s so steep and winding that the narrow verges are littered with the hubcaps of cars that must turn in sharply. Driving towards Taubaté, you pass a turn-off for the historic town of São Luiz do Paraitinga. It’s set on a bend in the river for which it’s named.

from the Tupi parahytinga, clear water

from the Tupi parahytinga, clear water

Founded in the eighteenth century, São Luis is a pretty little Baroque town which quickly became one of the largest in Imperial Brazil. Its prosperity was built on farming coffee and wheat.

Facade of the recently restored Igreja São Luiz de Tolosa 

Facade of the recently restored Igreja São Luiz de Tolosa

The imposing façade of the main church evokes the town’s wealth and status, though its recent history reflects a more modest reality – destroyed by floods in 2010, the church was restored and rebuilt using government funds available to sites declared a part of Brazil’s patrimônio cultural nacional. These days, the local economy depends as much on tourism, especially during carnaval, as on agriculture.

Mannerist arcade

Mannerist arcade

During carnaval, the townpeople’s fondness for the music of marchinas, for larger-than-life puppets and for folk dancing comes to the fore. The São Luis celebrations are well-known in Brazil.

View from the nineteenth century ...

View from nineteenth century …

Perhaps less well-known is its religious life. São Luis is home to a congada and moçambique tradition, dance displays with an Afro-Brazilian syncretist religious background. It’s clear from a stroll around the historic centre during the Easter break that religion is a large part of life here. Church architecture is prominent.

 ... Gothic

… neo-Gothic Rosário 

Amid the colourful folkloric displays of painted houses …

 ... on the colourful Largo do Teatro

… on the Largo do Teatro

… and the street theatre of carnavaI – 


Celebrating the town’s theatrical traditions – puppets, music, marching, maypoles

– there’s a more serious note. Displayed in the windows of what I took to be three religious establishments – presumably working convents or monasteries, judging by their well-preserved state –

Ecclesiastical purple for Easter

Ecclesiastical blue and purple for the end of Lent on Easter Sunday

– there were blue and purple banners, some gold-fringed or with appliquéd crosses, to remind us both of the festive and of the solemn Christian religious aspects of Easter.

House of a religious order founded in Calabria

House of a religious order founded in Calabria

More usual on the altar in a church, in São Luis they were displayed even in the windows of modest private houses as well as in religious settings.

Blue burning bright in the sunlight

Burning blue in the sunlight – with Lenten purple at the windows

In São Luis, everyday life seems to become theatrically spectacular.

Parati is a historic town set on the edge of the Mata Atlantica, the Atlantic rain forest, on the coast of the state of Rio de Janeiro. First settled by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, it became the port for shipping gold and diamonds from the interior to Rio and on to Portugal. Miners, supplies and slaves travelled by mule train into the state of Minas Gerais (MG, `General Mines`) by the same route, the Caminho do Ouro, running along an indigenous path. Parati offered a break in the escarpment of the 1,500 kilometre Serra do Mar, and a natural harbour.

Gracious living in Parati

Gracious living in Parati

The town grew into a substantial settlement, with a good number of churches, and forts to protect it – the gold-laden ships were a target for pirates operating from the many nearby islands and beaches.

British and Portuguese cannon, Forte Defensor

British and Portuguese cannon, Forte Defensor Perpétuo

Parati’s economic fortunes have risen and fallen, its relative isolation preserving the Baroque architecture which underpins its revival as a tourist destination.

Entrance to Casa Turquesa

Entrance to hotel Casa Turquesa

Baroque luxury raises an echo in Parati’s restaurants and antique shops, and modern luxury is also in evidence.

Restaurante Refugio

Restaurante Refugio

Its cobbled streets are hard going on foot, and motor vehicles are allowed only on Wednesdays, for deliveries. Horse-drawn carts carry supplies and tourists over the cobbles.

Cobbled streets at a leisurely pace

Cobbled streets, at a leisurely pace

You could be back in the eighteenth century, though many of the town houses are now shops, restaurants and business premises.

Working tourist town

Working tourist town

Like Ouro Preto, the much larger Baroque town at the other end of the Caminho do Ouro, Parati allows you to see domestic Baroque architecture in operation. White-washed walls are thick – some with sandstone mouldings – decorated with stucco and paint, roofs of clay pantiles, and wooden floors above the ground floor flagstones.

Baroque cooling

Baroque air conditioner

Only the churches are higher than two stories. Rooms are high-ceilinged, window-frames painted in powder blue or grey.

Tidal canal

Tidal canal

Parati is set just below sea level in a river delta, with breaks in the sea wall which allow high tides to flood some streets. Flooding was once the only form of sanitation, and given the horses, it’s still a good thing, though it doesn’t smell entirely clean.

Rio Perequê-Açu canalised

Rio Perequê-Açu canalised

The river to the north of the historic town centre provides a cool corridor against the January heat.

Capela de Santa Rita

Capela de Santa Rita, completed 1722

Parati is undergoing renovation – two of its four historic churches are closed, and the SESC cultural centre is being refurbished. The elaborate Santa Rita church was built for the Portuguese and for freed slaves.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito, 1725

The Rosário, built for the slave population, has a much simpler facade, and its corner mouldings are of painted stucco, not sandstone.

Capela de Nossa Senhora das Dores

Capela de Nossa Senhora das Dores, 1800

Nossa Senhora das Dores – Our Lady of Sorrows – is an elegant little building on the Rua Fresca sea front. It was used by society ladies, and renovated in 1900. Behind the church is a walled church yard. The church was closed when we were there, with no sign of when it opens.

Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora do Remédios

Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, completed 1873

Nossa Senhora dos Remédios is large and central, with a tree-lined square in front, and a campanile for its clock. It’s structurally simple, a series of lean-tos, and the interior is modest by Brazilian standards. 

Largest church in Parati

Largest church in Parati

Painted marble-effect mouldings and painted walls – which look like wallpaper – saints in glassed-in niches, and sober monochrome floor tiles all make for a subdued interior.

Painted chancel walls

Painted chancel walls

This looks a middle-class church, presumably built on the coffee trade which replaced the gold shipments.

St Michael, a Brazilian favourite

St Michael, a Brazilian favourite

Another active trade in Parati was the cachaça industry. A few small producers are still distilling this spirit from sugar cane – Parati was well-known for it. These days the best cachaça is said to come from the state of Minas Gerais, though it is still actively retailed to tourists in Parati. Proving the point, we found a large retailer whose display included a collection of old bottles from Parati …

Cachaça museum

Cachaça museum

… and a collection of miniatures – a smart way to sell to the souvenir market – which were overwhelmingly Mineiro.

Minas Gerias miniatures, with seductive labels

Minas Gerias miniatures, with seductive labels

Parati understandably promotes and preserves its former glory, but there’s a faint echo of other sentiments.

The land on which the historic centre is built was donated by a Senhora Maria Jácome de Melo on condition that a church dedicated to Nossa Senhora dos Remédios was built … and that the local indigenous Guaianá were unharmed.

Santa Rita is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young 19th-century bride found dead on her wedding morning. The groom reportedly went mad, having begged for the coffin to be opened. When years later the coffin was actually opened, the corpse was face down, a punishment meant to prevent the soul leaving the body through the mouth.

A smaller church in Parati, the Capela da Generosa, was funded by a local woman in memory of a Teodoro who is said to have drowned in the Rio Perequê-Açu while impiously fishing on Good Friday.

Looking towards Rua Fresca

Looking towards Rua Fresca

Standing on the Rua Fresca and recalling that it was the rich who enjoyed the sea breeze, that the streets were awash with sewage, that a slave who tried to escape could only could take the heavily-patrolled Caminho do Ouro through the rainforest or the sea road controlled by cannon and pirates, that the indigenous people were subject to the Europeans, that even Christian salvation was markedly stratfied, you sense a less pretty view of the Baroque town, driven by the greed for gold, by violence and military rule, by slavery and oppression.

It seems fitting that a vampire wedding – from the Twilight saga – can be filmed here. And this week in Parati, a shooting amid Carnaval celebrations …

Visiting the Baroque Brazilian city of Ouro Preto – built on the wealth of the gold found locally with iron oxide (‘black gold’ or ouro preto) – you may be directed to one of the museums, the 1784 Casa dos Contos. It’s a museum of coinage and the gold cycle, serving at various times as private residence and tax office, barracks and prison, Government mint and gold foundry, post office and savings bank, and town hall. The building has played a major role in the history of the city.

Substantial Baroque building - with Niemeyer's Grande Hotel behind

Substantial Baroque building – with Niemeyer’s Grande Hotel behind

Ouro Preto – first named Vila Rica or ‘rich village’ – was in its heyday at the end of the eighteenth century the largest city in Brazil, with 100,000 inhabitants. The Casa dos Contos is an imposing building, with some unusual features. The large set of chimneys visible at the rear was installed to drive the fires required for high-temperature gold smelting. Zoom in on the image and you see between the third and fourth windows from the left two large holes made in the wall for ventilation.

Wide enough for a dozen armed mounted men

Wide enough for a dozen armed mounted men

Security was of course tight. One reason for the gold to be smelted and exported under government control was to discourage theft, but it also meant that the Crown could claim its 20% before the smelted hallmarked bars were escorted under armed guard to the coast.

View from the balcony

View from the balcony

It’s an impressive building inside too – wide stone stairs with beautifully carved jacaranda balustrades, and large airy rooms on the first floor overlooking the street, complete with period furniture, decorated ceilings, and bookcases for the Museum archive.

Gracious living on the piano nobile

Gracious living on the piano nobile

But the most remarkable part of the Museum’s collection is in the cellar. The Casa is built, like other Ouro Preto baroque residences, to withstand sudden heavy rainfall on the cobbled hills. Massive freestone pillars support the level upper stories, and the cellar floor is finished likewise in hard local freestone, roughly set edgeways. It was hard going even with trainers on. It slopes away markedly towards the watercourse alongside.

Displayed in the niches of the freestone walls and between the pillars is a collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century household goods – kitchen implements, building tools, farm and workshop repair and maintenance contraptions. The collection was made by a local man who worked as a shoe repairer, developing over years his interest in Baroque daily life. Displayed casually among the household items are branding irons, manacles, wooden stocks, and a large evil-looking mantrap for runaway slaves. In the quietest, most effective way, these objects make clear how Brazil’s wealth was built on slavery, why in this cellar where they lived and worked in the kitchen they also washed their clothes in a crude stone-built laundry, why the ventilation holes in the first floor foundry are narrower than a man. And why a young Ouro Pretan on the street greets his fellow African Brazilian with the words “O, escravo!”

Back in Amsterdam in the New Year, after a long time away. It looks much more prosperous, and clean – few graffiti, little sign of poverty on the streets, buildings in good order, and many development projects have come to fruition. I’m slightly uncomfortable about how relentlessly middle-class the centre is – one of the traditional  strengths of the Dutch culture has been the narrow gap between rich and poor. I couldn’t tell, since I saw none but well-to-do folk. It wasn’t always so, both in the Centrum and elsewhere.

I was reminded of how visually acute Dutch culture is – window displays as works of art, well-cared-for architecture, active support for the old and the new in architecture and the arts – so I was prompted to take lots of pictures.

Much of the architectural heritage of Amsterdam’s Centrum dates from the period 1890 to 1910 or so. The Neo-Renaissance style is greatly in evidence, in reddish brick with limestone accent and ornament.

1889 Centraal Station

Whether you come in by car or by other means, you will probably pass through the Centraal Station, or at least the open space in front of it – it’s at the centre of the horse-shoe-shaped series of concentric canals which define the shape of the old city. The entrance to the Metro in the foreground is a more recent addition.

Beurs van Berlage

40-metre clock tower of the Beurs van Berlage 

The 1903 Amsterdam commodity exchange of architect Hendrik Berlage, down the Damrak from the 1889 station, shows the cleaner lines of Art Déco. These days it’s an arts and events venue.

As you move out of the centre through the Oud-Zuid residential district, Art Nouveau makes an elegant appearance.

Art Nouveau entrance Jan Luijkenstraay

Art Nouveau entrance Jan Luijkenstraat

At the end of the Damrak you come to de Dam, the open space in front of the town hall, and on the opposite side, in front of the Krasnapolsky Hotel, the 1956 Nationaal Monument to the casualties of the Second World War.

In front of the Nationaal Monument at de Dam

In front of the Nationaal Monument at de Dam

Twice restored since it was built, the monument’s sculpted elements are in travertine. The lions rampant on the Dutch coat of arms appear as a pair of lions flanking the central pillar, alert and roaring, tails lashing. Sculpted by John Rädecker,

and after his death by sons Han and Jan Willem, they make good use of the porous stone to suggest the manes and skins of their subjects. That this national monument, a combination of private and public initiative, commemorates the dead of the Second World War confirms how significant that history is for the country, just as much as the old joke with which the Dutch still tease the Germans: “When you go back home, will you send my bicycle back?”

"The Black Bookleaf"

“The Black Page”

The symbolism can be applied to today’s concerns. Here’s a neat inversion of its triumphalism, for an exhibition at the naval Scheepvaartmuseum marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.



The theatre on the Leideseplein is another famous Amsterdam landmark. Run by an independent foundation with a broad group of sponsors including the Amsterdam municipal council, the current Stadsschouwburg dates from 1894. Its Renaissance Revival facade presents a grandly ornamented spectacle to the Leideseplein. In previous generations, the lower foyer was reserved for gentlemen smokers, complete with numbered racks for unfinished cigars. Meanwhile the ladies would retire to the upstairs foyer and balcony, with a panoramic view of the plein below. And just as in the New World 

separate entrances to the different levels of the theatre were organised strictly by class, with the upper balcony for the cheapest (woooden) seats and their rowdy occupants. Queen Wilhelmina (“the world’s first female billionaire”, and, according to Winston Churchill, “the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London”) did away with the royal box-and-toilet.

Café and foyer of the Stadsschouwburg

Café and foyer of the Stadsschouwburg

Today the foyer hosts the Stanislavski restaurant, serving decent food and drink for theatre-goers and for the general public. There’s also a well-stocked bookshop. The theatre focuses on Dutch repertoire.

Holland Casino, with Christmas candles

Holland Casino, with Christmas candles

The Christmas lights were up in Amsterdam – inventive, not excessive. The windows of the Holland Casino were lit by candles. As in much of Europe, this state concession has the legal monopoly on gambling, with fourteen casinos. Profits go directly to the Dutch treasury.

Christmas lights on the PC Hooftstraat

Christmas lights on the PC Hooftstraat

In the PC Hooftstraat, where designer boutiques jostle for space with chic small hotels and book-lined residential front rooms – the Dutch don’t hide behind curtains – the Christmas lights were these rather grand and festive chandeliers.

The old and the new

The old and the new

Low-rise new buildings blend easily with more historic structures – nothing in het Centrum seems to be higher than five storeys. Everything is on a human scale, walkable, and pedestrianised without excluding cars, which mix easily with the famous bicycles and mopeds and the new rolling stock of the electric trams.

The American Hotel

The American Hotel

The American Hotel on the Leidseplein attracts a steady trade at all times of the day and week, and it is THE place to go for Sunday brunch. They serve a very decent coffee and excellent cake – try the apple tart, something of a Dutch speciality.

The American Caf

Looking back to the entrance of the American Café

Despite the name, the hotel’s exterior is not in as extreme a style as American Art Déco, more in the continental Jugendstil, but the interior is more exuberant, with Nouveau and Déco in an exhilarating mix.

Art Nouveau figures over what is now a dance floor

Art Nouveau figures over what is now a dance floor

The stained glass has a more Art Déco style

The stained glass over the bar has a more Art Déco style

A working building, but the original features - like lighting- stand out

A working building with original features – lighting, brickwork, furniture

The red light district or Rosse Buurt (‘pink neighbourhood’) is as popular and probably more famous an Amsterdam attraction than the American Hotel. Walking through it at three in the morning, you would suffer nothing worse than being solicited, and it’s more tightly controlled now.

Only in one or two side streets do you now see the famous mostly-naked ladies in display windows, all the more startling for being unexpected. They work for themselves, paying the landlord for space like any other retail business in the surrounding streets. The women are protected by legislation and organise themselves into trade bodies. There’s even a museum which explains the details of their working lives. Tourist buses make it a regular part of their itinerary.

Like the rest of het Centrum, it’s cleaner, more genteel than before and, my impression was, occupying a smaller area. Maybe it’s reduced as higher property prices make sale a more attractive option than trade.

The famous Amsterdam coffee shops were also less in evidence. Marijuana and hashish are still on sale, but strictly for personal use, and not being smoked on the street – you can smell more ganja on the streets of Sao Paulo than here.

Shop window in the Rosse Buurt

Shop window in the Rosse Buurt

Some windows included signs expressly forbidding photography, while at others, the door was opened to invite you in as you walk by, even in the January chill. Related businesses in the surrounding streets also used their display space to advantage.

A different kind of shop window on the Jodenbreestraat

A different kind of shop window on the Jodenbreestraat … 

There’s a different kind of shop around the corner on the main street. A branch of a Los Angeles charity, this vintage clothes shop has a unique additional service. It´s telling that it’s in Amsterdam, both an indication of the problems of permissiveness and an admirable response.

Further along the Zeedijk in the Rosse Buurt, there’s a discreet little bar and restaurant run in tandem with a circus. The Casablanca Variété has bar and dining space, an upstairs theatre seating 30 and a downstairs meeting room.

 ... and another kind of display

… and another kind of display again

Next door is a live music venue, Casablanca Muziek, which also welcomes karaoke singers. The eye-catching front window displays the costume of a famous Dutch clown, with text alongside – speaking in the persona of the costume – explaining its history. “When we began working with Circus Boltini in the Netherlands, even Princess Beatrix and Claus came to see me, with little Willem Alexander. Whatever happened to him?”

Instructional text with a moral is a characteristically Dutch phenomenon. The carved gable stone from the orphanage on the site of today’s Amsterdam Museum, with entrances in the Kalverstraat and in the Sint Luciënsteeg, has a piece of text in neat rhyming couplets about its erstwhile inhabitants, something like:

“There will always be more of us, and more costs to bear.

Don’t go without helping, or the change you can spare.”

Carved gable stone from the orphanage on the site of today's Amsterdam Museum

At Sint Luciënsteeg 27 the work of Joost Janszoon

The Dutch like a museum. The building which houses the Amsterdam Museum was built in the seventeenth century, serving as the Amsterdam Orphanage for the next 400 years. The collection includes a permanent exhibition on Amsterdam’s history, a reconstruction of the orphanage, and a programme of exhibitions based on works on loan – currently the portrait of his wife Saskia by Rembrandt – and on ground-breaking research into art history – from March 15th, the work of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470 – 1533), the earliest named Amsterdam artist.

Modern Delft blue ceramic by Maxim Velčovský

Modern Delft blue ceramic by Maxim Velčovský

The Dutch continue to appreciate both old and new. The origin of Delft blue pottery was the drive to copy Chinese porcelain when supply dried up after 1620. Though they did not manage to recreate porcelain, the use of white tin glazes and cobalt decoration to give the characteristic colours became widespread. This modern ceramic on a hotel counter neatly integrates the Delft tradition with Soviet-era public statuary, with a nod in the direction of the modern mania for tattooing.

Footbridge to NEMO science museum

Footbridge to the NEMO science museum

Public building continues to be commissioned on a large scale. The recently-reopened Stedelijk Museum has a large and sometime controversial modern extension which nevertheless works very well. The Rijksmuseum has also been extensively refurbished.

The NEMO Science Museum sits alongside the Centraal Station, low in the water like an exotic ship, with a footbridge echoing naval architecture. It makes good use of its surroundings, and perhaps also refers to …

The engine of prosperity

The engine of prosperity

… the eighteenth century ship anchored alongside the  Scheepvaartmuseum or naval museum close by. Here’s how the wealth of the Golden Age was generated and brought in, using a revolutionary design for a buis or tube, a merchant ship with substantial capacity and demanding fewer men to crew it. The Dutch gift for design has deep roots. It comes to the fore in the newly refurbished city from which those ships set sail.

A winter Christmas

A winter Christmas

The Christmas lights snake along the bare branches of winter trees. Street decorations – chandeliers, leaping angels, candles, foliage – are traditional and generally monochrome. The restrained yet striking style of today’s city Centrum might have appealed to the man whose actions started it all, Willem de Zwijger (William the Silent), the ancestor of today’s King Willem Alexander.

At Schiphol Airport, a busy, clean and efficient facility, there’s an outpost of the Rijksmuseum with some good oil paintings on show, if you need to while away an hour before your flight. This portrait of him in sober dress by Dirck Barendz and his circle captures a sceptical wisdom missing from better-known portraits.

The Germanic nobleman who started it all

The Germanic nobleman who started it all

Leading figure in the Dutch Revolt against Habsburg Spain which began the Eighty Years’ War, the story of his ‘Silent’ epithet suggests both restraint and passionate feeling. Raised a Lutheran and educated as a Roman Catholic, his resolve to oppose Philip II of Spain’s policies began in June 1559.

William and the Duke of Alva had been sent to France as hostages to secure fulfillment of a treaty following the Hispano-French war. During a hunting trip to the Bois de Vincennes with Henry II of France, William and Alva openly discussed a secret understanding between King Philip and King Henry aimed at exterminating Protestants in both France and the Netherlands. William kept silent at that time, but decided that he would not allow the slaughter of so many innocent subjects. The Dutch national anthem still swears loyalty to him today. It seems apt in a country still fiercely determined to be fair.

In England for the festive season. Travelled across two counties today, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, to steady rain. Rivers, brooks and streams almost bursting their banks, plenty of standing water on the roads and in the fields. Most people are inside out of the rain – only a few solitary dog-walkers, and an intrepid group of hikers, to be seen.

Welcome to the UK, Birmingham International Airport

Welcome to the UK, Birmingham International Airport

The UK is not an effusive culture, but it prides itself on being fair.

Wudu: washing, to prepare for formal Islamic prayers

Wudu: washing, to prepare for formal Islamic prayers

Especially at Christmas and Easter, you may hear the ringing of changes on a peal of church bells.

Bell tower St Mathias Malvern Link

Bell tower St Mathias Malvern Link

A kingdom of two countries, a principality and a province, the United Kingdom has long known how to create consensus.

England from the Welsh borders

England from the Welsh borders

Gentleman farmer in Landrover Tdi 90

Gentleman farmer in Landrover Tdi 90

The country landscape is dominated by rivers, setting the course of rail and road, the character of counties, and marking the landscape as heavily as do Roman roads and military camps. (Castrum, camp (Latin); on the sites of the many towns with ‘cester’ or ‘chester’ in their names.)

At Shrewsbury, two views of the River Severn ...

At Shrewsbury, two views of the River Severn …

... revered as the goddess Sabrina by the Romans

… revered as the goddess Sabrina by the Romans

Paddington Station, London ...

Paddington Station, London …

... a Victorian cathedral of the railway

… a Victorian cathedral of the railway

Enamel sign for newsagent WHSmith

Enamel sign for newsagent WHSmith

Although not as numerous as they were, some towns still host a garrison.

Copthorne Barracks, Shrewsbury, 1878

1878 Copthorne Barracks, Shrewsbury

Just as important in creating the national character is the material culture – a pint of bitter ale in a country pub (“public house”), or at this time of year, a slice of rich dark fragrant Christmas cake, with a mantle of almond marzipan and lemon and sugar icing.

1900 Hop Market, former hotel and bank, Worcester

1900 Hop Market, ex-hotel and -bank, Worcester, where hops are still grown for beer

Lift, 1931 ex-Tetley brewery offices Leeds, now an art gallery

Lift, 1931 ex-Tetley brewery offices, now an art gallery, Leeds

Snug in the Nag's Head Malvern Link

Snug by the fire in the Nag’s Head public house, Malvern Link

Holly and pine cones symbolise new and eternal life

Holly and pine cones symbolise new and eternal life

Its history is ever present, but England wears it lightly now.

Morris Minor, predecessor of the British Mini

Morris Minor, predecessor of the British Mini

Worcester Guild Hall, with rare public statue of Queen Anne, top

1721 Worcester Guild Hall, with statues of Charles I and II and of Queen Anne, top

Semper Fidelis, the Worcester city motto, recalls the English Cvil War

The FIDELIS in the Worcester city motto recalls the English Civil War

Avenida Paulista is the main thoroughfare in the older business district of Sao Paulo, in the city’s Centro. These days, the offices throng Avenida Faria Lima and the wealthy live in quiet low-rise suburbs like the Jardims, but once the mansions of the coffee barons lined Paulista in impressive displays of wealth. A few relics remain from its time as a grand address.

Catedral Nossa Senhora do Paraíso

Catedral Nossa Senhora do Paraíso

But being Brazil, nothing is quite as it seems. This cathedral building dates from 1952, and is the seat of the largest community of Melkite Greek Roman Catholic Christians in the world. They trace their ancestry to Antioch at the time of the apostles, following the Byzantine rite, in full communion with Rome. Services are conducted in Arabic …

Turn-of-the-century relict

Turn-of-the-century relict

This quiet beauty remains stubbornly anonymous. Government building?

Corner site - listed building?

Corner site – listed building?

Brazil has a system for listing buildings of historical and architectural interest – a listing is somewhat ominously called a tombamento – and the fate of such buildings seems to be government ownership or as in the case of the site above, business premises for consultancies and similar. Since 1991 there have been tax concessions for (regulated) conservation and restoration work on listed buildings, indeed the law applies to all kinds of material cultural heritage.

That may be seen as very little and very late in the case of Avenida Paulista, when you look back to how it was.

Avenida Paulista 1902

Avenida Paulista 1902


And down near Avenida Faria Lima, where the public infrastructure – Metro station and now roadworks and bus station – is gradually catching up with rapid commercial development, a quick solution is still popular. It’s November, shopping starts now; which colours shall we use for our redecoration? The strong Brazilian visual sense is in rude health.

Avenida Teodoro Sampaio

Reindeer on Avenida Teodoro Sampaio

The Teatro Colón is a landmark for tourists in Buenos Aires, if only to take the guided tour. This is a sumptuous building, recently restored, and with an active cultural programme, so taking the tour is a pleasure. Mainly an auditorium for opera and ballet, theatre performances are the rare exception. To see a performance there, visitors can try a Monday night booking, when prices are discounted.

Teatro Colón

Teatro Colón – zoom in to see bas-reliefs and busts by Argentine Italian Luigi Trinchero

Its scale is striking – the building’s setting, overlooking the wide thoroughfare of Avenida 9 de Julio to the east, the plazas separating it from the courts or Tribunales to the west, and with a reasonably spacious pedestrian plaza to the north, allows you to see it well. This building is large, seating just under 2,500, with standing room for 1,000 more, and boasting a stage area of some 400 square metres.

Where carriages draw up

Where carriages draw up

The principal entrance on the western Tribunales side on Calle Libertad has an ornate cast iron and glass canopy, to enable patrons to make a sheltered entrance from their carriages, as they were doing at its opening in 1908. The very elevated were able to take their carriages right inside the building, and enter the ornate foyer via a flight of carpeted steps.

Entrance for the better seats

Entrance for the better seats

The foyer is as heavily ornamented as the rest of the building, perhaps more so. It becomes clear that then as now, the social dimension of going to the opera loomed large in the public’s mind. An elaborate system of entrances and foyers kept the social classes apart, however united they were in their love of opera.

Grand foyer

Grand foyer

Though the (very knowledgeable, English-speaking) tour guide made much of the fact that two principal architects had worked on the building, in contrasting French and Italian styles, the building is in truth a great success in its styling, united in colouring and theme, and actually pleasantly varied in style.

Decorative fittings, imported materials - the steps are Carrara marble

Decorative fittings, also by Trinchero, imported materials – the steps are Carrara marble

The modern additions – coffee shop and restaurant, ticket sales, bookshop – are tastefully integrated into this Belle Epoque confection. But tasteful doesn’t begin to describe the impact of the ornamentation of the upper foyers.

Even the fire hoses are decorative

Even the fire hoses are decorative

The ornament is floor-to-ceiling, the colour scheme varied and harmonious, the art work largely gracious and in keeping with the building’s purpose – to impress, and to enable social transactions.

Beautiful stuccoed ceiling

Beautiful stuccoed ceiling

A palace – yes, to the Muses, but a palace – in which to feel at home. The gods and heroes of this pantheon are musicians, their busts presiding over the mortals below.

Every aspect richly decorated, harmonious

Every aspect richly, harmoiously decorated

The domesticated gods of a previous culture are pressed into service here. It was said that if you wanted someone to fall in love with you …

Cupid and Venus

Cupid and Venus

… you whispered the name of your intended in Cupid’s ear, and he directed his mother’s arrows to the heart of the beloved.

The upper level

The upper level

This in a setting which might already make you light-headed. And if your friends were to overhear the name, and assist the arrow in its flight, then so much the better.

Not a love seat

Not a love seat – the stained glass praises domestic fidelity in the person of Penelope

The serious side of the transaction was reserved for your elders. You were in due course made to sit on the two outer seats of this sofa de salon while the patriarchs compared notes and bank balances. Only if the outcome was judged satisfactory would the match be made. And woe betide you if a male member of your family made a faux pas, sitting down on one of the other sofas – these were strictly reserved for the ladies. Sitting betrayed the fact that you were a stranger to this echelon.

One of the world's best auditorium acoustics

One of the world’s best acoustics

Oh, and the music? Beyond the foyers is one of the best acoustics in the world (Marshall Long, Acoustics Today April 2009), recognised as such by performers like Pavarotti. The theatre’s “acoustics (have) the greatest defect: its acoustics are perfect! Imagine what this signifies for the singer: if one sings something bad, one notices immediately.” We were lucky enough to hear an orchestral rehearsal on our tour – the acoustics are indeed crystal clear.

And what of the ordinary public? The standing room at Teatro Colón was known as the ‘hen house’, filled with ordinary Italian opera lovers, who made their feelings clear, booing, catcalling, and throwing food at the stage if the music was not to their liking. Despite the social hierarchy, this voice from ‘the gods’ was also well-known.

The Torre Pedroso de Moraes and the Torre Faria Lima in the business district along the Avenida Faria Lima in Sao Paulo are a pair of landmarks. Developed for Brazilian company Aché Pharma, Faria Lima stand head and shoulders above the surrounding mixed-use buildings, while Pedroso de Moraes provides a tongue-in-cheek foil. The high tower is iconic near and far.

Street-level view

Street-level view with theatre entrance below

Pedroso de Moraes was built first, and is known locally as the ‘Palácio da Carambola’ for its star-fruit-shaped supports.

Pure geometry

Pure geometry

The inverted ziggurat of Pedroso de Moraes is a kind of anti-tower, its sharp edges and broad-shouldered shape a riposte to the sleek areodynamics above.

Intersecting volumes

Intersecting volumes

Yet they interact harmoniously, the high-gloss finish serving to unite as well as to reflect.

Glossy surfaces

Reflective surfaces

A familiar sight when glimpsed in traffic, Faria Lima surprises with its scale in close-up.

Lilliputian street furniture

It dwarfs the street furniture

The distinctive entrance to the tower’s gallery and theatre is playful compared with its business-like access on Pedroso de Moraes.

Offices of Demarest & Almeida Avogados

Offices of Demarest & Almeida Avogados

The  Instituto Cultural Tomie Ohtake entrance gives the colours of its tower a playful shake, as if it were a handful of bunting ribbons. (Tomie Ohtake is a Brazilian abstract painter and the mother of the architect, Ruy Ohtake.)

Signature entrance

Signature entrance

The interior foyers are a series of long low spaces built with more of the raw concrete and white steel bracing used for the exterior. Exhibition spaces are the familiar white cuboids, pleasantly high-ceilinged.

Spacious interior view

Spacious interior …

... with comfortable café

… with comfortable café

There were photographic exhibitions on when I visited, both international and Brazilian, including photographs of Brazilian architecture, a fitting subject for such a well-known edifice.

Iconic building

Iconic building …

... with local adventures ...

… with local adventures …

... in architecture to match

… in architecture to match

One suspects that when Aché Pharma, recently the subject of bid speculation, becomes as obscure a name as Pedroso de Moraes – a Brazilian pioneer bandeirante known as “Terror dos Indios” – the tower for which they funded the development will still be known by the name of its architect.

Reflected cloudscape

Reflected cloudscape

Banded colour

Banded colour …

... carried through into interior

… carried through into interior

Carambola support

Carambola support

Even more dramatic at night

Even more dramatic at night


In 1554 a group of  Portuguese Jesuit missionaries established a school and settlement in the unexplored interior of Brazil, on a plateau which sits high above the place where the rivers Tamanduateí and Anhangabaú meet. Known as São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga, it was a mixed settlement of Jesuits, Portuguese colonisers and indigenous Caingangue people.

The first Colégio building was a simple wattle-and-daub hut, or in the words of José de Anchieta, one of the founding priests, “um paupérrima e estreitíssima casinha“, a very basic and narrow little house. By 1556 a school and church had been built using rammed earth.

The names for the rivers, and the fact that they shared the settlement, suggest that the indigenous people had good relations with the colonisers. The site for the mission chapel was originally the house of one of the indigenous chiefs.

Rebuilt 1653 and 1953

Rear wall overlooking the steep drop to the Anhangabaú

Not all the settlers had good relations with the indigenous people. In 1560 the Governor General of Brazil, Mem de Sá, ordered the inhabitants of the nearby village of Santo André da Borda do Campo to move to the Colégio, to protect themselves from indigenous attacks behind its walls. In 1562 the Colégio was itself besieged, and although it survived, attacks were to continue intermittently for the next 30 years. But the settlement grew, and in 1585 the Colégio was expanded.

Looking out over the inner courtyard

Inner courtyard

In their mission to convert and educate the indigenous peoples, the Society of Jesus also came into conflict with the colonisers, who wanted the indigenous as slaves and  labourers on their plantations, not as literate Christians. When disputes arose with the labourers who lived in Jesuit communities, the colonisers found they were dealing with the Jesuits, rather than with the labourers. In 1640, the Jesuits were expelled from the settlement they had founded. By 1653 Fernão Dias Paes Leme, one of the colonisers who had supported their expulsion, had brokered their return. The Colégio underwent major repairs.

Daughter of the cacique (indigenous leader) Tibiriçá with José de Anchieta

Bartira, daughter of the cacique (leader) Tibiriçá, with José de Anchieta

The colonisers mounted expeditions to the interior, setting out from São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga to capture runaway slaves, to enslave more of the indigenous population – cheaper than buying African slaves – and to search for gold and precious stones. These expeditions followed a flag, a bandeira, the explorers being known as bandeirantes. It’s a history of which the city remains very aware.

Bandeirante pioneer Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva, Parque Trianon, Sao Paulo

Bandeirante pioneer Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva, Parque Trianon, Sao Paulo

Gold was discovered in the interior in the 1690s. The Jesuits meanwhile continued to convert the indigenous to Christianity, to educate them, and to learn their languages. They were active throughout the colony.

Jesuit Museum at Embu, Sao Paulo state

Jesuit Museum at Embu, São Paulo state

In 1759 the Jesuits were expelled once again, not just from São Paulo, but from Brazil and from Portugal by the powerful Prime Minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who was later made the Marquess of Pombal by a grateful Joseph I of Portugal. The Jesuit church in São Paulo was used by the Portuguese Crown and later the state, becoming known as the Palácio dos Governadores, and the Pátio do Colégio as the Largo do Palácio. The church was demolished in 1896.

Tribunal de Justiça do estado de São Paulo

From the practice of Severo Ramos de Azevedo & Villares

Surrounded by more exuberant Paulistano architecture – the former Primeiro Tribunal de Alçada Civil  is an extraordinary 1930s confection – the Colégio which sits neatly on its hilltop today is a reconstruction, rebuilt between 1953 when the site was returned to the Society and 1979 when the Museu Anchieta was opened.

Pátio do Colégio

Pátio do Colégio, rebuilt 1653 and 1953

This quiet seventeenth-century Mannerist building hides its extraordinary history behind a modest whitewashed facade. When the museum’s re-design is implemented, let’s hope they make more use of its dramatic story.

‘Recoleta’ is an up-market district of Buenos Aires, a famous cemetery, and a mendicant order of friars and nuns. The austere Augustinian Order of Recollects, founded in Spain in the sixteenth century, established a convent and church on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the eighteenth century. The church is still there, well-kept and worth a visit.

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Less than a hundred years after the church was opened, the order was disbanded in Argentina, and the vegetable garden of the convent became the first pubic cemetery, the Cementerio del Norte.

Interior of the church

Interior of the church

The layout was designed by French engineer Próspero Catelin, said to have had the Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery in mind. The dead were not buried but held in mausoleums above ground. As yellow fever broke out in the poorly drained areas of downtown Buenos Aires, especially from 1852 and culminating in the epidemic of 1871, wealthier citizens moved north to safer ground, and the status of the district rose.

Still a working cemetery today

Still a working cemetery today – “May they rest in peace”

The cemetery was remodelled in 1880, from when the grand neo-classical entrance dates. Much of the material used in constructing the elaborate mausoleums between 1880 and 1930 is said to have come from Paris and Milan. When you catch sight of the statuary inside these gates, the effect is astonishing in its exuberance and richness.

Built for his son by the founder of newspaper  La Prensa José Camilo Paz

For his son by founder of paper La Prensa José Camilo Paz – sculptor Jules Felix Coutan

Recoleta is in fact quite small – some six and a half thousand plots compared for example with the 53,000 of London’s Highgate Cemetery – and the city crowds in to the northwest and southwest. As in the city, the Recoleta streets are shadowed and windy, with some sunny corners.

City of the living beyond the walls

City of the living just beyond the walls

And as in Buenos Aires, there are marvels of urban architecture to intrigue the eye. Just a touch more exotic.

Byzantine-style dome

Byzantine-style dome

Neo-classical dome

Neo-classical dome

Elaborate Art Nouveau tomb

Elaborate Art Nouveau tomb

One sees quite a few tombs which are barely Christian in style.

Early 20th century 'Middle Eastern', Argentinian naval family

Early 20th century ‘Middle Eastern’, Argentinian naval family

The detailed guide book (the website  is sadly not maintained) confirms that “in 1863 the bishop of Buenos Aires retired its blessed [consecrated] condition after President Mitre – also buried here – ordered the burial of a well known Mason, blessing that has not and will not be recovered.” In fact, leading politicians – Sarmiento, Yrigoyen – buried at Recoleta in Masonic vaults were members of the Obediencia a la Ley N° 13 lodge.

Family of Italian origin, developers of BsAs wholesale food market

Family of Italian origin, developers of BsAs wholesale food market

Active from 1859, the lodge has its own vault in Recoleta.

Family tomb of de Alzaga and de Yturriaca

Family tomb of de Alzaga and de Yturriaca

The stories behind the monuments are perhaps more dramatic than the memorials. Martín de Álzaga – his family tomb, above, is shared with the de Yturriaca family – was a poor Basque immigrant whose wealth grew from trade in slaves, fabrics and weapons. He participated in the resistance to the 1806 British invasion of Buenos Aires, and its defence in 1807, but fell foul of the new government and was publicly shot in 1812, his body left hanging for three days. The Recoleta tomb is dated 1866 – the guide book says that his wife and daughter confined themselves to their home until their deaths and burials in the same mausoleum.

The impressive tomb of General Julio Argentino Roca stands out on its corner site for its elaborate sculpture and metalwork. Bronze victor’s wreaths adorn the side of the structure, and the angel atop the pediment holds two more – Roca was twice President of Argentina. Known as  el Zorro – the Fox – he devised and led the 1878-1879 Conquista del Desierto, which pushed back the indigenous tribes – dominated by the Mapuche people – who attacked Argentinian settlements in Patagonia, killing about 1,000, capturing 15,000 more, and pre-empting Chilean-Mapuche domination of the area. With the help of the Remington rifle, he laid claim to huge tracts of land, which were awarded to his backers. The settlement of Patagonia by Welsh immigrants dates from this time.

Family tomb watched over by its patriarch

Family tomb watched over by its patriarch

Though crosses top the railing and an obscured Christian cross decorates the pediment, the doused crossed torches on the frieze are Masonic. An apt contrast, in the light of the debate between revisionists and apologists for the Conquista

Tombs of national heroes like Roca are well kept, so what are we to make of the dilapidated tomb of the Sáenz Valiente family? The mouldings and ironwork barely keep the patched brickwork standing, and the stucco is long gone.

Tomb of Casto Sáenz Valiente

Tomb of Casto Sáenz Valiente

Anselmo Sáenz Valiente, a successful Spanish grocery merchant, was a hero of the British Invasion of Buenos Aires, joining forces with Martín de Álzaga to resist and repel the invaders, but avoiding political entanglement with him, despite being affected by anti-Spanish measures after moves towards independence began in 1810. His son Casto, the third-born of 14 children, was close to Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was to become virtual dictator of the newly independent Argentina. Perhaps he did not have his father’s instinct for political survival – the guide book says he fled to Uruguay, where Rosas laid siege to Montevideo for ten years. Does the state of his tomb reflect his continued political exile?

A cemetery of mausoleums naturally has architectural interest, but there is a wealth of decorative detail to enthrall the eye too. The non-Christian trend is also in evidence here.

'Egyptian' memorial, mourner wearing a Fascist helmet?

‘Egyptian’ memorial, mourner wearing a Fascist helmet?

The Biblical tradition is of course strongly represented. In a section of Recoleta set aside by de Rosas for prominent citizens, the Panteon Ciudadanos Meritorios, there’s a charming bas-relief in marble illustrating the New Testament verse on children. Its low-key simplicity is restful to the eye.

In memory of Peña, an educator

Sculpted by Italian Livi in memory of Peña, an educator

Sometimes a simple trick of the light is enough.

Shadow of a statue

Shadow of a statue

A small detail can be hugely significant. A simple family tomb …

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Top right is a plaque bearing a well-known name.

Memorial to little Eva (Evita) Peron, nee Duarte

Memorial to little Eva (Evita) Perón nee Duarte

Roughly translated, it says that whoever follows the same path as Eva Perón, in imitation of Christ, is also one of his disciples. The guide book tells us that there are always flowers on this memorial, and it relates more of Eva Duarte de Perón’s history, dramatic even after her death.

When Juan Perón was exiled from Argentina, Eva’s embalmed body was guarded by her sympathisers in secret, but flowers always appeared at her door; one of the guards shot his own wife by accident while guarding the body. The military government of the day quietly sent the body to a cemetery in Milan, where it stayed for 20 years. A new military government sent the body to Peron in Spain. When he returned to Argentina in 1973, the coffin was once more taken and recovered. Her sisters finally interred the body safely under the concrete of the Duarte family vault.

One begins to understand how strong the symbolism of earthly remains is in Argentina. In 1987, Juan Perón’s hands were removed from his body and an US$8M ransom demanded. It was not paid, no one was ever charged, and the hands have not re-appeared. It’s been interpreted variously as an attempt to promote Argentinian democracy, to destroy the cult of Perónism – which remains a significant political force in Argentina – or a Masonic ritual to deny Perón’s body rest.

The most haunting story though is associated with a memorial striking for its beauty.

Memorial to Rufina Cambaceres

Memorial to Rufina Cambaceres sculpted by Richard Aigner

Eugenio Cambaceres was a wealthy man, a controversial politician and novelist, who died in 1888 of tuberculosis when his daughter Rufina was only four. Her uncle was also a well-known politician. Her mother Luisa Bacichi was a dancer from Trieste, who despite not being accepted by local society later took up in with founder of the Radical party and President of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen, who had many informal relationships with women. An unconventional family.

Rufina was found dead on the evening of her 19th birthday. Despite being examined by three physicians, no cause of death could be established. She was interred, but some day later cemetery attendants noticed that the coffin had been moved. When they opened it, Rufina’s face was said to be scratched and injured, presumably in an attempt to escape or at least to be heard. She had been interred alive, while suffering from catalepsy. Her family commissioned the tomb you see, with the freestanding young lady in white at its door.

Taking a little sun

Taking a little sun

There are those who say they see a young lady in white wandering near the cemetery at night. Certainly the way death is treated quite casually here – all the dead above ground, ornate coffins on display behind glass and wrought iron – lends itself to such stories. Even if the sombre reminder as you exit frames mortality firmly in a Christian context.

"We expect the Lord"

“We expect the Lord”

Buenos Aires is known as the Paris of Latin America, and at its best, it is indeed a spacious, beautiful, prosperous and cultured city. One of the factors which makes it cosmopolitan is the number of  cafés or bares – there is one almost literally on every corner in the microcentro. The city conducts its life in them, at every level.

Bar of the Plaza Hotel, Florida San Martin, near the river port to Colonia

Bar of the Plaza Hotel, Florida San Martin, near the river crossing to Colonia

The Plaza Hotel has been an upmarket destination for more than a century. Overlooking the Plaza San Martin in Retiro, it was opened in 1909 and hosts the wealthy and the well-known to this day. Its bar is a destination in its own right. The wood-panelled decor, buttoned leather and subdued lighting make for a relaxed ambience, and its high tea – cakes, sandwiches and a decent pot of tea – is a welcome treat. The skill with which the barman mixes drinks for his regulars suggests that he can provide a treat too, should you be in the mood. On Wednesday evenings they have live jazz music.

London livery company dinner 1925 - note guests of honour

London livery company dinner at the Plaza, 1946 – note guests of honour

At the everyday level, cafés abound. The Florida Garden opened in 1962, a meeting point for the avant-garde of the day. During the week it is more a businessman’s venue, with a pleasant mezzanine floor offering an elevated view of the daily bustle. The double counter is workplace and service facility, and the copper accents extend from the coffee machine over the decorated walls and up the stairs. They serve a decent coffee and the usual medialuna (croissant) with ham and melted cheese. It also sells coffee beans loose. The constant stream of customers confirms that it is still serving them what they need.

The counter at Florida Garden, corner of Florida and Paraguay

The counter at Florida Garden, corner of Florida and Paraguay

Out in the quieter suburb of Recoleta, overlooking the plaza in front of the renowned Cementerio de la Recoleta, is the equally famous Café La Biela. Opened in 1850 when the area was still farmland, and the vegetable garden of the local monastery only recently converted into the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, it was a small pavement café on the site of a general store. As the city grew and as the well-off moved further north to escape the yellow fever breaking out in the lower land by the river, the café grew and changed, hosting the members of the Civil Pilots Association, and in its second century, racing car drivers and enthusiasts from Fangio and Jackie Stewart to Emerson Fittipaldi.

La Biela at Recoleta

La Biela at Recoleta

It takes as its symbol the connecting rod or ‘conrod’ from a car engine, known in Spanish as la biela. Sipping coffee, we saw customers reading the newspaper, having a meeting while the car waited outside with driver, having their shoes shined at table, taking the afternoon sun on the terrace, or planning their visit to the Cementerio.

Petit Colon on Plaza Lavalle

El Petit Colon on Plaza Lavalle

Buenos Aires takes its café culture very seriously, and prefers it traditional. El Petit Colón has the look – traditional ceiling mouldings, wooden furniture and bar, patterned wallpaper, brass fittings, black and white photographs, and spectacular light fittings. It’s popular with the lawyers who work around the nearby Palacio de Tribunales and with business people, as well as with the theatre-going public at the Teatro Colón from which it takes its name. Fast attentive service, good bar food and the usual excellent coffee complete the package. Difficult to tell that it opened as recently as 1970.

Cafe Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo

Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo

And so to that venerable Buenos Aires institution, Café Tortoni. Whether you ask where the best café is, or the best tango show, you get the same answer: Tortoni. Founded in 1858, and a feature of city life for generations, this café is such a landmark that if you look like tourists, and a little lost, as we clearly did, the locals give you directions to it unasked.

The bar at Cafe Tortoni

The bar at Café Tortoni

Here too the decor is in brown, beige, off-white and gold, with stained glass, brass light fittings, black and white photographs, wood and leather chairs, and the usual food and coffee. It’s the original style to which El Petit Colon pays homage. The costumed waiters play their parts well – we saw one grip a bottle of agua in the crook of his knee to open it with his free hand – and towards the back the cultural life of the café is celebrated with photographs, bronze busts and a souvenir shop. On the left hand side at the back is a separate room for the tango performances, seating 50 or so at tables, with a stage at the far end for musicians, singers and dancers (though not all at the same time).

Cafe Concert

Café Concert

The show we saw featured a pianist at the baby grand, a stony-faced bandoneon player centre stage and an electric bass to the right, with just enough room in front for the singer or for a pair of tango dancers. The performers walked in through the audience, and the dancers changed behind the curtain. A technician at the back ran sound and lights for an appreciative audience of visitors.

Café Tortoni is one of more that 70 cafés and bares declared Bares Notables by the city. Although supported by the city’s programmes, the status of such establishments does not prevent them from closing. They find ways of promoting themselves – tango shows, websites, supporters clubs – which raise their profile. Some recent establishments are experimenting with a more modern style – the Grand Cafe in Plaza San Martin is said to deploy a New York style – and such adaptation is needed for café life to survive. Clearly they are no longer the home from home of working men as seen in the early photographs, but as long as they provide what the Porteño – the citizen of Buenos Aires – needs, they will thrive. It seems that Buenos Aires needs a sense of history with its coffee, its medialuna and its WiFi.

In 1933 the Mercado Central opened in the centre of Sao Paulo, establishing a covered venue for what had been a collection of street markets for all kinds of food. Harking back to the dominance of agriculture during the café com leite era ended by the Revolution of 1930, the agricultural products of Sao Paulo state were to be sold in what was a grand and decorative yet also a functional building.

Entrance to Mercado Central with coat of arms of city of Sao Paulo over

The cornucopias supporting the Sao Paulo crest are echoed in the fruit-filled urns surmounting the keystone caryatids – could this be the origin of Carmen Miranda’s famous millinery?

Cast iron ribbed roofing with Corinthian capitals

Cast iron ribbed roofing with acanthus leaf capitals

The Mercado’s architect was Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (1851-1928), who ran one of the most prestigious practices of the time. He was the architect of what is now the Pinacoteca Sao Paulo gallery

a building which began life as a vocational school for the applied arts. The Mercado has also undergone changes of use – renamed the Mercado Municipal, and from 1969 transformed into a retail- and leisure-oriented space, while the sale of wholesale agricultural produce has moved to the larger, out-of-town-centre CEAGESP site at Vila Leopoldina. Like the Mercado, this site is also open almost every day.

The Mercado Municipal is a retail space where every conceivable kind of foodstuff is sold

You can't make a silk purse ...

Sold by Porco Feliz, without irony

including that essential for the feijoada pork and bean stew, pigs’ ears.

The food enthusiast can spend a happy hour or two shopping for the wares of vintners and butchers, fruiterers and fish-mongers (including piranha), sellers of herbs and spices, cheese-mongers, every kind of coster-monger … the variety of food is astonishing.

A mezzanine floor has been created inside the ample proportions of the market building. It has a good collection of restaurants of varied types, with a large common seating area crammed with chairs and tables, and a range of counters preparing the food bought to you by busy waiters. Going to the market is a family day out. In summer, the tables are cooled by large fans which spray misted water over the diners.

Themed stained glass

Paradise gardens

A striking feature is the series of stained glass windows on agricultural themes on the opposite side, above the food stalls.

stained glass

It’s a bird’s life

Imported from Germany, they depict the raising of the produce on offer below. Idealised even for 1930, there is little sign of the agribusiness engine of the Brazilian economy of today. Nonetheless, they are charming. They’re difficult to appreciate at a distance – click on them to see them across your screen. More on the Mercado’s history at

What’s missing from this picture? We couldn’t smell any freshly baked bread, though there are some few stalls which sell bread, and some of the older stalls serving food downstairs are famous for their bologna (mortadella) filled bread rolls. Perhaps food hygiene prohibits baking anywhere except in the padaria. What was stranger for Brazil was not being able to smell freshly roasted coffee – we didn’t spot a single stall.

They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil ... ?

They’ve Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil … ?

But you can visit any of six Nespresso shops in Sao Paulo, and more elsewhere in the country, where coffee is not so much a commodity as a high-margin luxury item, supporting the sale of expensive coffee-making machines which – truthfully – are nothing like as successful as the old Gaggia machine in any corner bar of Italian extraction. The staff are dressed in muted browns, the shop fittings are carefully co-ordinated, and you can serve yourself with capsule coffee. But that glorious smell is not in evidence there either. Strange country, Brazil.

On the coast fifty miles east of Sao Paulo is the port of Santos, the largest in Latin America. When Paulistanos say they are going ‘to the beach’ for the weekend, they are heading east, though many go to the more chic beach resorts further up the coast. Stuggling through the traffic on Friday and Sunday nights is part of the routine. But if you can go earlier or later than the crowd, it’s an easy trip by Metro and bus.

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Bus station Jabaquara

Taking the Blue Line or Linha Azul to its end at Jabaquara, and a Cometa bus to Santos Ponto da Praia had me on the beach in less than two hours. The descent to sea level through the rain-forest or Mata Atlântica which spreads over the hills is exciting and scenic.

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On the descent into Santos

Santos and surrounds are home to a mere 1.5 million people, much smaller than the Sao Paulo area’s 27 million. The modesty of its dimensions is part of its appeal after the Paulistano urban sprawl.

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Bust of the Duque de Caxias, modest compared with his 12-storey monument in Sao Paulo

Built on the coffee trade, Santos is a sprawling expanse of shipping containers and port service businesses. It remembers earlier trades too.

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O Pescador, Ricardo Cipicchia, 1941, near the Aquário Municipal

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1908 Sailors’ School – Escola de Aprendizes-Marinheiros – now Museu de Pesca

Fishing is still part of the scene, though not as economically important as it once was. While the Chinese container ships plough through the water to trade Brazilian goods with the world, visitors and locals throng the beaches, jog or ride bicycles along the seafront, and sit eating, drinking and talking in the restaurants.

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At the harbour’s mouth …

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… the view north

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Looking south from Ponto da Praia

With some judicious ordering you can have fish and chips for lunch.

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Restaurante Aquario’s Chopp

Santos has the usual apartment blocks overlooking – some might say spoiling – the sea view, and a long landscaped walk beside the water.

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Beach palms

The occasional villa survives, usually as a commercial property.

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Fin-de-siècle town house

The early apartment blocks are not entirely utilitarian – balustraded balconies and ocean-going Deco glamour make an appearance.

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A sea front corner block …

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… seems to invite a landmark response

Some later buildings make effective use of colour and ornament too.

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The ramp doesn’t obscure the exuberant detail of the entrance

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And around the corner …

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… the Santos answer to the Sao Paulo Copan Building

The more recent blocks look positively dull by comparison; even the newer landmark buildings seem to be trying a bit too hard.

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Clube de Regatas Saldanha da Gama

It’s a pleasant discovery to encounter the Chorinho no Aquario, a local music series now in its fifth year, setting up on the Praça Vereador Luiz La Scalla. It features well-known Santos and Sao Paulo singer Nadja Soares with a band of locals and guests, singing jazz and choro standards in a free-wheeling style.

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Nadja Soares sings choro, MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) and jazz standards

Later in the evening she appears at the Casa Verde Bistro – more living room than restaurant – in the Encruzilhada neighbourhood in Santos.

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Corner of R. Monsenhor Paulo Rodrigues and R. Júlio Conceição, Encruzilhada …

2013-03-30 22.51.35 Stitch

… with the Green House upstairs

Local regulars drift in and greet each other warmly. And when the singing begins, it feels even more like a party in someone’s living room.

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More than hearts and flowers behind the green door

The repertoire of artists such as Milton Nascimento from the time of the dictatorship in Brazil is sung with real fervour, and by the whole room. This music stirs strong memories.

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They can sing for hours behind the green door

Brazil has the capacity to surprise at the most unexpected moments. In a genteel upstairs room in a quiet part of Santos, I hear an echo of a more turbulent time, when songs and guitars were pitted against torture and dictatorship. I go home thoughtful, reminded once more of how central music is to the life of Brazil.

Sao Paulo is quiet this weekend. There are blocos out dancing in the streets – I can hear them coming up from Vila Madalena, as can the barking dogs, followed it seems inexorably by emergency sirens – but many folk have gone elsewhere to sample the delights of carnaval, while the city known in Brazil for hard work (and some say for not knowing how to play) pauses to draw breath. It rained heavily today, as it can in January and February. That dampens carnaval spirits. This year’s accessory is the clear plastic disposal anorak.

Today I strolled down Rua Augusta to the corner of Rua Oscar Friere. It’s an interesting mix – Oscar Freire is all designer boutiques and high-end restaurants, though the locals say that trade is a little precarious. Augusta on the other hand is known for drag queens and prostitutes. In previous generations it was known for chic coffee bars and the fashionable youth style of la dolce vita.

Center Oscar Freire Augusta

Center Oscar Freire Augusta

The building on the corner is an elegant example of Brutalism, the raw concrete cast in flat facades pierced by rounded windows. The concrete of the balconies is harder to keep clean, and the inhabitants have domesticated them with paint, but the faintly nautical effect can be glimpsed behind the abundant plant life and inserted air conditioners.

A graphic sign used to grace the shopfront on Oscar Freire, showing a man drawn in black and white dancing with a coloured umbrella. (Google Earth is keen on copyright.) Lanchonete (pronounced lanchonetchi) Frevo has been here since 1956.

Entrance to Rua Oscar Freire 579

Entrance to Rua Oscar Freire 603

On Sunday afternoon it’s quiet, though it does a brisk trade during the week. The diner is famous for beiruites – a cross between a hamburger and a steak sandwich, it’s a slice of beef with sliced tomato, melted cheese and oregano, in toasted pita bread. A small one is a decent snack. A chope of draught beer makes a refreshing accompaniment. Service is copious, fast and friendly.

The business is built on this simple fare. The decor, unchanged since it opened, has moved from being out of fashion to being a design classic, by virtue of standing still. Even the appliances – scales, beer pump, air conditioning – are vintage. They don’t make ’em like that any more.

Wire figure 1956

Wire and wood figure 1956

Primrose yellow tiling, fixed red bar stools, and wooden decoration of the supporting beams, window sills, hanging lamps and the front of the kitchen – styled as a beach hut, complete with plastic palm trees – anchor it firmly in the 1950s. The same colour scheme of grey, red and primrose yellow is used in its upmarket sister site.

Frevo Shopping Iguatemi

Frevo Shopping Iguatemi

The square tables start to fill up, some pushed together for groups of family and friends. I order dessert, discovering that they do not serve coffee, so I order another chope.

He dances over the beer pump

He dances over the beer pump

The bevelled mirrors bolted to the walls, even the taste of the dessert – strawberry ice-cream with tinned fruit salad – is 1950s. Frevo is an institution, one of those places which has been around long enough to boast about it, with black and white photographs, with regular and one might say ancient customers, and a venerable patron.

Dancing couple, cool breeze

Dancing couple, cool breeze

And the name? Frevo is the music and dance of carnaval from Recife in the north-east of Brazil, the umbrellas integrated into an acrobatic dance routine. Perfect for a rainy Sao Paulo carnaval afternoon.

Sao Paulo is under constant development and refurbishment. As in many large cities, the sounds of building work are a near-constant accompaniment to daily life – power tools, delivery trucks, steel and concrete fabrication, the shouts and whistles, and the hand-tools, of workmen (haven’t seen a woman builder yet) are woven into the soundtrack. In Sao Paulo, ‘verticalisation’ is the main activity.


Make a space and fill it in

The older buildings are gradually demolished to make way for towers of apartments, with perhaps a commercial element included. This process is not always straightforward – the redevelopment of Avenida Faria Lima in the 1960s, for example, met with some resistance. See .


Corner of Rua Artur d’Azevedo and Rua Fradique Coutinho

On the corner of Azevedo and Fradique, one block of buildings has been gradually shut down for demolition and re-development. A series of graffiti-style posters has appeared, drawing attention to the site.

The female figure was the first to appear, on the traffic control unit, much as they have done in nearby streets, at first painted onto the unit direct.

Corner of Rua Joaquim Antunes and Avenida Rebouças

Corner of Rua Joaquim Antunes and Alameda Gabriel

Eventually all four sides of the Azevedo and Fradique unit were covered, security banding adding a randomly appropriate element to the image.


Mixed media – paint, newsprint, traffic unit. Her eyes have been opened

Images on paper had begun to appear elsewhere in the neighbourhood.


Rua Teodoro Sampaio


As the humans leave, they emerge

As buildings fell vacant, the images spread, much as their real-life subject might do as they are disturbed by demolition. The instinctive revulsion most people feel towards cockroaches was deployed very effectively in this piece of guerrilla art.


The bar on the corner is now closed

Zezé of the gymnastics academy had been above the shopfront on Azevedo – latterly an automotive workshop – for 35 years, and bid her students and neighbours a sad farewell.


Rubble on the academy stairs and the blinds awry – only the façade is still standing

This development is symptomatic of a deep-seated issue in Brazil – the ownership of property. Business owners often do not own their premises. The goodwill they build up over years can be destroyed with little notice to make way for a more profitable development.

A year ago the artist put the finishing touches to the mural on the local pool hall, also established about 30 years ago (the leaping / floating man against a blue background an homage to French surrealist Yves Klein – see  ). Whatever benefit the new building delivers, I doubt it will be as characterful as this establishment. Are the graffiti artists the only ones to mourn its passing?


Mural art with cockroaches

UPDATE Demolition is well under way. A hole in the fabric of the city, soon to be filled by another vertical. For a moment, the unadorned sides of cast concrete buildings are exposed.

Standing on the corner

View on the corner


Here’s the hole in the ground from which the new tower will be built.

Corner of Azevedo and , October 2014

Corner of Azevedo and Fradique, October 2014


During February, I took a break in Uruguay, to see their famed carnaval and to sample the pleasures of coast and countryside. Nothing had prepared me for the delights of the old town centre in the capital Montevideo though. To say I could have been in Paris or Brussels, or perhaps in Palma, is not intended as a back-handed compliment – Uruguayans themselves are proud of the more European style of their culture compared with other parts of South America. The elegance of Montevideo architecture astonished me.


Ex-headquarters of Uruguayan Navy, now ferry terminal, Puerto de Montevideo

The centre of Montevideo is small enough to explore on foot. A busy and prosperous port – ferry terminal, cargo operations, one of the few railway lines – it handles a constant stream of visitors from Buenos Aires, a few hours across the Rio de la Plata by ferry, and tourists from neighbouring Brazil. They stroll past as you sit on the terrace of your favoured restaurant with a glass of medio y medio, an easy-drinking mix of espumante and dry white wine.


British cast-iron water spout …

In the usual way, the central wholesale food market has been transformed into a popular retail emporium. The Uruguayan version has a surprising number of barbecues or parrilladas – I stopped counting after 20 – offering every kind of meat cooked to order. During the working week at lunch time, they are extremely busy, serving between a dozen and 40 or 50 customers at a time, at counters and tables. Not a country for convinced vegetarians, Uruguay.


… and British market hall, Mercado del Puerto

A pleasant surprise awaits you a block or two away, up the hill from the quayside. The historic core of the centre is crammed with turn-of-the-century town houses, street after street of them.


Gracious stucco and cast iron ornament …


… from Belle Epoque to Art Deco


Some are inhabited and in good order


Others await investment


Beautiful moulding, though balustrade needs attention

Art Nouveau gem

Art Nouveau gem …

 ... and occasionally, more utilitarian Art Deco

… and occasional, more utilitarian, Art Deco

Entrance to a naval officers' club

Entrance to a naval officers’ club …

 ... beautifully tiled

… beautifully tiled

Majolica colours

Majolica colours, naval motifs

Some frontages need rescue

Some frontages need rescue

Some demand more drastic measures

Others demand more drastic measures

Heritage renovation

Heritage renovation

Further up the slope of Montevideo Hill, the Plaza Zabala has some of the grandest buildings, around an equestrian monument to the city’s founder, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. Formerly residential, these palatial buildings are now commercial or cultural.

Casa Matriz, now Discount Bank

La Casa Matriz, now Discount Bank

Palacio Taranco, now Museo de Artes Decorativas

Palacio Taranco, now Museo de Artes Decorativas

The museum’s director told us proudly that the 1910 building’s design was completely French – the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is also the work of its architects Girault and Léon.

Palacio Taranco interior

Palacio Taranco interior

Other, less grand buildings have been re-purposed too. Away from the centre, a prison has become an art gallery, with temporary and permanent exhibitions – a cool Donald Judd caught my eye.

With paint and ironwork, prison becomes gallery

Predio Carcelario de Miguelete, now Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo

Predio Carcelario de Miguelete, now Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo

Prison cells from 1889 exhibiting artworks now

And in a more comfortable part of town, a prison administration block (see below the clock) has become a shopping centre.

Administracion building welcomes shoppers

Administracion welcomes shoppers

The country’s institutions  – parliament and central bank – still occupy imposing buildings in the centre. Guardians of Uruguay’s political and economic health, both are regarded with fierce loyalty by their citizens.

Asamblea General in wedding-cake style, complete with carriage drive

Asamblea General in wedding-cake style, complete with carriage drive

 Banco Central de la República Oriental del Uruguay

Banco Central de la República Oriental del Uruguay

That other great institution, the Roman Catholic church, is also in evidence, both in Montevideo and in the country.

Montevideo church

Montevideo church

San Carlos church

San Carlos church

A nation’s history can be read from its gravestones. At San Carlos, there was the pauper’s grave of a slave of a military officer, and of one who had fought in the ‘war with the English’ (1806-1807? 1845-1849?).

Pauper graves of Maria, "morena esclava del Colonel Leonardo Olivera", and to a commander in the war "contra los Ingleses."

Graves of Maria, “morena esclava del Colonel Leonardo Olivera”, and of a commander in the war “contra los Ingleses”

Indeed, driving through the countryside brought to mind British landscapes, complete with flocks of sheep and dry-stone walling.

Could this be Wales?

Could this be Wales?

Grand monuments may honour Uruguayan politicians, but it was refreshing to see the role of ordinary farmers and drovers being acknowledged too.

Supporting the monument to Zabala

Supporting the Zabala monument

Wool and beef are still major exports

Wool and beef are still major exports

The gap between rich and poor is less marked than elsewhere, and the physical evidence of prosperity is clear. It seems that a prosperous life has been and is still possible for the vast majority of Uruguayans – it’s known as the Switzerland of South America.

Entrance to a countryside villa, now museum

Entrance to a country villa, now museum

And prosperity is not confined to the capital in this agricultural economy.

San Carlos town house

San Carlos town house

Cast iron door grille

Cast iron door grille

The Uruguayan way of life appeals. Which is why I’m going again. Stay tuned to see more of this … and a happy and prosperous 2013 to all!

Town house courtyard with working well, yerba maté kit in foreground

Town house courtyard with working well, and yerba maté kit in foreground

Aeropuerto Internacional de Carrasco, airside - architect  Uruguayan-born Rafael Viñoly

Aeropuerto Internacional de Carrasco, airside – architect Uruguayan-born Rafael Viñoly

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