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Two rows of aged stucco buildings now serve as art galleries and artisanal cheese stores. The ladies of the night held court on this street and the surrounding alleyways until a mere 40 years ago. Thus the historic buildings were saved from the demolition and modernization that has condemned many other would-be tourist magnets to the dustbins of history. Although the Portuguese chose the location as a strategic port from which to challenge the Spanish and then spent decades duking it out with their arch-enemy, Colonia is now synonymous with peace and quiet.
Tourists, for their part, seldom bother with cars here, preferring to rent glorified golf carts because a car would move them too far too fast. And this is not a place for moving quickly. Sure, in one day I could scale the tightly wound steps of the lighthouse for a panoramic view, cross over the reconstructed colonial drawbridge to roam along the old city walls, and squeeze in a picnic on the reedy beach.
But by staying the night, I could absorb some of the laid-back vibe before returning to the big city. The evening of my arrival, I decided to follow the ship lights glowing at the end of the pier and stroll along the wooden planks until I found myself amid dozens of sailors tethering their boats to their moorings by moonlight.
The next morning was a Sunday, and as I walked past the central church — destroyed and rebuilt in Spanish-Portuguese warring almost too many times to count — I heard a rich, boisterous singing. I tried to slip in unobtrusively at the back, but I arrived just as the priest gave his blessing to the parishioners, who all turned to each other to offer words of greeting and kisses on the cheek — mine included.
By staying for two evenings, I could weigh in on the impassioned local debate over the best spot for watching the spectacular sunsets. Many swear by the lighthouse for its degree vista, but it can close too near to sunset to allow time to savor the view. Maria, my guide, prefers to walk out on the pier in the old port, where you can linger alongside teenagers and old couples until well after the sun has crossed the horizon.