Uruguay Part 1 – Colonia & Fray Bentos

Tuesday, 24 October 2023

That high speed Buquebus ferry sailed me across the River Plate from Buenos Aires to Colonia, a delightful place with a strong Spanish colonial flavor and lots of restaurants and cafes – and museums – to attract day-tripping Argentinians.

◄ City Gate, Porton de Campo – the old city gate is the only opening along the remaining stretch of city wall,

▲ Calle de los Suspiros (the Street of Sighs) – near the city walls the wavy-cobblestoned Street of Sighs is lined with tile-and-stucco colonial-era houses. The town has a collection of eight historical museums and a single entry ticket gets you in to all of them … or at least all which are currently open.

◄ Faro (lighthouse) – I joined the queue to climb up to the top of the lighthouse, the faro. They only allow eight people in at a time and you get five minutes at the top, although you felt like you could be blown away. Terrific views across the old town.

▲ Colourful cafe, Plaza de Armas – cafes and restaurants are dotted around the town. I lunched at La Bodeguita with its signature little square pizzas on a wooden platter and views out across the river. At dinner time I retreated to Viejo Barrio, also on the Plaza de Armas, presided over by its eccentrically dressed waiter-owner. Pre-dinner I had a very pleasant glass of the local local Tannant red in the Vinoteca de la Colonia wine bar.

Next stop was Fray Bentos, north of Colonia and looking across the Uruguay River to Argentina. Now in England Fray Bentos is a familiar name, from tinned Fray Bentos steak & kidney pies (and other ingredients), from much the same playbook as spam or Oxo cubes. Very few Brits, however, would realise that very British foodstuff takes its name from a Uruguayan town where the Anglo factory slaughtered huge numbers of cattle and stuffed them in to tin cans a century ago.

▲ So before I depart for South America I go to a local supermarket and sure enough, Fray Bentos still features on the shelves. Tinned steak & kidney pie doesn’t really feature on my regular cuisine ideas, but I make a note to try something sometime soon. These days the UK versions come from Scotland, not Uruguay, but Professor Google tells me they’re also made in Australia. I will find out. Meanwhile the Wikipedia entry notes ‘According to the Financial Times, Fray Bentos products ‘may engender sneers’ but they also have a ‘cult following’ in the UK.

▲ Fray Bentos is not exactly an exciting town, despite its pleasant riverside situation, but just outside the town the Fray Bentos Memorial marks the entrance to the Anglo factory town. It’s still got a factory town feel to it although the plant closed down in 1979.

▲ The Fray Bentos Memorial at the entrance to the Anglo site illustrates the Liebig factory

▲ Today it’s the Museum of the Industrial Revolution with a room full of ancient equipment. I found it very hard to work out which days of the week the site was open and when I got there discovered it was closed. No problem, a young woman at the entrance gate opened things up for me, let me wander around the museum and in the machine rooms even turned on the sound track so that I got the background noise of Victorian equipment steaming, grinding and clanking.

▲As well as the factory room and museum there’s also the very Victorian-era office for the Anglo factory. The desk where the company accountant sat for over 40 years is pointed out, with deep depressions worn away under the desk where he scuffed his feet back and forth, laboring to make the numbers add up.

◄ Phone controls on the office manager’s desk – the phone controls let him choose between local phone calls, ‘long distance’ or to simply summon the ‘office boy.’