While living in Brazil, I spent several vacations in Argentina, and on every occasion I crossed the River Plate by boat from Buenos Aires to the beautiful town of Colonia del Sacramento in southwestern Uruguay.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, the settlement’s strategic location meant that it was much prized by the Spanish as well as the Portuguese and so it passed back and forth from crown to crown until finally in 1809 it was included as a permanent municipality within the newly independent Uruguay.
Its architecture is a mixture of Spanish colonial style and rural Portuguese streets which run down to the shore of the River Plate. The remnants of many buildings from the colonial era have survived, but what lends Colonia its particular mystique is the spiritual silence which dominates the historical quarter of the town. The town’s relative isolation and the lack of vehicles circulating in its narrow, cobblestoned streets set it apart from the bustle of modern life, and its proximity to the river means that it enjoys wonderfully fresh air all year round.
Trinities in Colonia del Sacramento
There are long straight streets lined on either side
with majestic lime trees. A raw soul-searching wind
blows up from the south across
the vast empty expanse of the River Plate. It rakes
an empty hand through the withered leaves piled
in the gutters. This is autumn. A single grey squirrel
scavenges for food across the lawns of the town square.
Centuries ago, these trees were planted and pruned
in an inspired act of faith. Three sturdy limbs emerge
from each trunk reaching heavenwards in supplication:
give us this day our daily bread. Some brittle rusty leaves
still cling to the branches; they shiver and scratch hopelessly
in the breeze. So much silence now. Soon the last leaves
will fall. These were the prayers of yesterday, of yesteryear.
So much silence now. The last leaves will soon fall.
No bird song will be heard. So much silence.
Still-life in Colonia del Sacramento
There is a stillness and a silence in these streets,
some of which are paved with wedge stones quarried
from the river shore, with a gully running down the middle
–in the Portuguese manner– to gutter away the excess rain.
Here and there separating one backyard from another,
a free-standing dry stone wall, the thin broad slabs
cut and laid so long ago by anonymous hands.
Lawns are trimmed to the point of manicure,
and vibrant clusters of white and lilac hydrangea
soak up the gentle afternoon sun. Under the sycamore
shade we sit and observe small pockets of time
ferried in by visitors who appear to survive on
their own oxygen. The Governor’s house near
the main square has been reduced to its foundations;
the once magnificent Convent of San Francisco
is in ruins; the Viceroy’s residence is just a roofless,
empty shell. Colonia, on the banks of the world’s
widest river, has become a monument to human
mortality, drawing no distinction between the beauty
of life and its own conserved and perpetuated death.