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ON THE EDGE OF EMPIRE

On a quiet, balmy evening, I am out for an evening stroll through this small, ancient town before selecting a restaurant for dinner. The cobblestone streets of Colonia, as it is most often called, are deserted except for a few cats, also in search of their evening meals.

It is difficult to believe that this lovely town beside the Rio de la Plata was once of immense importance to two European nations: Portugal and Spain were carving up the New World, adding pieces to their colonial empires during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1678, Dom Pedro of Portugal directed Manoel Lobo to found a new colony, to be named Nova Colonia, on the north bank of the Rio de la Plata. It was not an accident that this colony was almost directly opposite the Spanish settlement on the other side of the river.

Colonia was Portugal's in-your-face challenge to Spain's domination of the Rio de la Plata. The name of the Spanish city: Buenos Aires.

The settlement of Colonia _ part fortress, part port, part trading post _ seesawed between the two Hispanic superpowers for a century. Finally, in 1777, it was handed over for the last time, to the Spanish.

But by then, attacks by the Spanish had chased off many of the Portuguese inhabitants. However, many of the structures built by the Portuguese or the Spanish during the 100 years of seesawing ownership were left intact.

Many of these buildings still line the streets and squares of the Bario Historico, the Historic Quarter. They have changed so little in more than two centuries that Colonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site _ Uruguay's only such site _ in 1995.

About 300 years before then, say a generation after its founding, life in Colonia centered on two squares, now named the Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo and the Plaza de Armas.

The Plaza Mayor was the city's main square at first. Many of the colony's important buildings stood shoulder-to-shoulder around that plaza; most remain and have been turned into museums.

At one end of the plaza stood the Puerta de Campo, a monumental stone gateway entered be way of a drawbridge over a deep ditch. Originally this was the colony's only entrance. Thick, cannon-studded sections of stone wall stand beside that entrance now, extending down to the Rio de la Plata. Walk through this gateway and you are in a square defined mainly by simple one-story buildings, with a few two-story ones.

On this square now is the Museo Portuguese, a large house that once belonged to the Rios family and now displays Portuguese artifacts from the colony's earliest days. Here, too, is the Casa Nacarello, named after one of its owners. To walk inside is to step back into the year 1750; the building still has several small rooms, including a wonderful kitchen.

At one corner of the square are the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco, where Franciscan friars once lived while preaching to the native population. Incongruously, but very picturesquely, a mid 19th century lighthouse now rises from the ruins.

Two grander buildings stand beside the Casa Nacarello on that side of the square. Their owners were obviously wealthier than their neighbors. One building, now the Museo Municipal, which houses a little bit of everything from maps to butterflies, was probably built between 1700 and 1750. Its next-door neighbor, now the Archivo Regional, which houses replica furniture, dates from about 1750.

A five-minute stroll away is the Plaza de Armas, a shady and more intimate square than the Plaza Mayor.

In the Plaza de Armas, four of Colonia's best restaurants stand next to each other like comrades-in-arms. Here, too, is the Iglesia Matriz, a church founded in 1678 _ the year Manoel Lobo founded the colony. This is Uruguay's oldest church and has a baptismal font dating from 1700. A cemetery once surrounded the church but now lies beneath the cobblestones of the square.

Across this plaza are the extensive ruins of the Governor's House, which now form a small park with a boardwalk across it so visitors can walk over the foundations of what were once the living quarters.

Also in the town but not in either of the squares are a few places that should not be missed.

There's the Museo del Azulejo, where a lovely collection of old painted tiles (azulejo, in Portuguese) is housed in a 17th century building. Not far away is the Museo Indigena, the labor of love of Roberto Banchero, who collected artifacts from the indigenous Indians, the Churras.

The Museo Espanol, an aristocratic Spanish house of the early 18th century with wrought-iron balconies, has attractive displays of colonial-era pottery and costumes from different parts of Spain.

Finally, there's the Puerto Viejo beside the Bastion del Carmen, part of the ancient fortifications of the town. This was once the bustling harbor for the colony during the 17th and 18th centuries. Pleasure boats and yachts have replaced the transport ships.

It was at this spot that I ended my evening paseo through Colonia and its past, and addressed the matter of deciding where to have dinner.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Colonia del Sacramento is in the southwestern corner of Uruguay, about a two-hour drive from the capital of Montevideo. There is connecting air service from Tampa, through Miami, to Montevideo.

Strolling through Colonia's Barrio Historico and visiting most of its buildings takes just a few hours. But to savor this lovely place, try to spend a night or two. In the late afternoon and early evening, the day-trippers from Montevideo and Buenos Aires leave, so those spending the night here can have the old town to themselves.

STAYING THERE: I spent two nights at the Posada Plaza Mayor, on Calle Comercio, just off Plaza Mayor. It's a 15-room atmospheric inn built around a shady courtyard with a fountain. Avoid the rooms at the front facing the street if you want to get to sleep before 2 a.m. A room here will cost $75. Go to www.hotelplazamayor.com.uy /Ingles/Lugar.htm and click on English; e-mail to hmayoradinet.com.uy.

EATING THERE: My husband and I tried each of the four restaurants on the Plaza de Armas. We had a reasonably priced lunch ($12 for two) at VB, and we sat outside under the trees. Cappuccinos at brightly painted El Drugstore ($6 for two) were expensive, but it was pleasant sitting outside just opposite the Iglesia Matriz.

Pizzas were large, tasty and just $3 for two of us, at La Veleta, where a jazz combo entertained during lunch. Our favorite was the Meson de la Plaza: lots of atmosphere and good food ($22 for two, including wine).

If you decide to make Colonia a day trip from Montevideo (or if you're visiting Montevideo), I recommend staying at the Radisson Plaza Victoria on Plaza Independencia, which is well-located for sites in that city and has a dramatic lobby-sitting area and a lively casino. It's in the old downtown area of the city within a few minutes' walk of the Plaza Constitucion, which has a flea and antiques market on Saturdays; tango dancers exhibit their skills when the spirit moves them.

Room rates at the Radisson start at about $100 (our two-room suite cost $112), and the excellent Arcadia Restaurant on the top floor overlooks the downtown and the harbor.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The national government's tourism Web site is at www.turismo.gub.uy/conozca /ingles/index.htm. It has some information on Colonia under the index heading "Historic."

The most recent information on Colonia from Frommer's guidebooks is at www.frommers.com/destinations /montevideo/2316010011.html.

The Canadian Embassy in Montevideo has a few pages of helpful advice for visitors, at www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/uruguay /about-en.asp. The U.S. Embassy also has information on the country but it is not written as if aimed at tourists; this site is http://montevideo.usembassy.gov/. The U.S. Embassy's site also refers viewers to the Lonely Planet guidebook's pages, at www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations /southamerica/uruguay/.

Freelance writer Julie Skurdenis lives in Bronxville, N.Y.

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