Killer sparrows

All names have been changed to protected the innocent.

Visa runs don’t form part of my vocabulary, but it was certainly a tempting offer to cross the Plate and go on holiday for 12 hours with Silver Pear to Colonia del Sacramento.

Taking the Mar Gato (come on, it should be called that) early Friday morning, we took so long getting off the boat that immigration wrongly tried to send us back on board. “No, no,” we assured them. “We just got here.”

Attempting to hire a car, a golf cart, a scooter and (probably) a bike without any kind of driver’s licence proved impossible (why, oh why do we both have them lurking around the UK? Completely useless.), so Colonia fast turned into a walking tour, verging on groundhog. It also meant we wouldn’t have time to visit one of the wineries such as Bernardi to try out some local Tannat.

I don’t think I’ve crossed the river for almost a decade, and certainly the last time I did was at the start of the December 2001 economic crisis when Argentina’s cash machines refused to spit out money (there wasn’t any money to spit) and banks wouldn’t change up any foreign currencies. Visiting Mar de Plata that Christmas, I’d had to travel to Colonia in order to get change my travellers’ cheques. What a fricking palaver.

The Uruguayan air had a different aroma. Whenever I fly into Ezeiza I always deeply inhale Eau d’Argentine – a potent almond perfume fused with barbecue smoke that cements a homecoming for me. Eau d’Uruguay was fresher, cleaner, less toxic.

Traipsing the main drag, we sat down for a pre-chivito warm-up also known as breakfast and were force-fed a glass of (cheap) Champagne at Casa Grande. (I’m not happy with this turn of phrase, force feed, because we were given liquids, not solids… I was, however, happy with the overall situation.) Ordering a ham-and-cheese sandwich to share – no, really, what are the chances? Of eating an HnC combo, not me sharing – the trouble started after the first bite.

A team, in fact, let’s call it a highly organised gang, of mixed-gender sparrows decided to launch an open and candid attack on us and our humble sandwich. Feisty, fiery, unflappable, no amount of waving could get rid of this 20-strong posse whizzing past ears and heads in a bid to confuse the unsuspecting tourists into giving up their sarnies.

Surrounded by this motley crew, Silver Pear swallowed hers in one while my sandwich and I took refuge under my jacket. Their leader, a sparrow that looked like Hitler, beadily observed everything. Seriously, these guys had it in for us big time and if they’d had a slightly larger wing span, I might have squealed a lot louder. I once had an incident with a bolshy Cornish seagull who stole the fish from my chips. I’m not about to mess with beaks, claws and flapping wings, even if they are sparrow size.

As Silver Pear Tweeted (and really, what are the chance of THAT?): “If I never see another sparrow again, it will be too soon.”

Pushed over the edge of traumatised, and definitely peckish (ba-ba-boom), it was time for a chivito lunch and a bottle of wine – and not a moment too soon.

Santa Rita opposite the yacht club offered a scenic river view and its outdoor tables filled up quickly despite the chilly day. In town for 12 hours only, our only possible gastro option was the chivito and so we shared number one. Very thinly sliced steak was dwarfed by a fried egg, lettuce, tomato and chips, so number two was conjured up in a jiffy.

Of course, when in Rome, do what the Uruguayans do. Famed for an even-more-out-of-control addiction to mate than the Argentines, I do, of course, mean having a go on the country’s red varietal, Tannat.

Quizzing the waiter over the menu’s offerings, he calmly explained that of the three Don Pascuals Tannats available, that the most expensive one was the best, “because that’s how it is.” I went for common or garden on the basis it was already $U330 – code for Uruguayan pesos – which seemed an outrageous price. It actually meant AR$80, and for that I’d be requiring quality.

Translucent with little body, the first mouthful was a raspberry explosion which failed to maintain its juicy, fruitiness. By the end of the first glass, I wished I was at the end of the bottle, and not so I could start on another.

Three hours later and lunch was finally over. It could only mean was time for a Ventus Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend from Argentine winery Del Fin Del Mundo at Lentas Maravillas which comes complete with a river view and a wonky bookcase stocking material in English. Cosy next to a log fire, and with a Kitler to play with, Ventus was memorable only for its wind-swept tree logo.

More chivitos were calling. Recommended Mercosur, we first tried to get in to La Bodeguita for one final meaty fling, where I had a ruck with one of the waterfront eaterie’s employees who told me to go back from where I came from if I didn’t like earning AR$ (I took offence although I can’t even remember how that conversation started), then to the splendidly named El Drugstore with its paella dishes chalking up the menu of the day, which had shut at 5.30pm. Fail.

Mercosur it was. I’ve never consumed such a cheesy-tasting pint of lager. And I’ve never consumed such a cheesy-tasting pint of lager and liked it. Chivitos number three and four under our loosened belts, it was time to sprint back to the Mar Gato. Uruguay was so damned expensive I was buggered if I was forking out to share a single bed with Silver Pear just because I was too tipsy to run.

In the first-class lounge, the day ended as it had begun: with a glass of (cheap) Champagne. And it was definitely the river that was swaying – not me. Mission: Visa Run accomplished.

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