|The Imperial Palace, former homes of viceroys, kings and, |
when the country was a monarchy, the Emperors of Brazil
Ask most people what images they have of Brazil, and the four S's are conjured up: sex, sand, sun and soccer. While there's little doubt that the long Brazilian coastline is among the most beautiful ones in the world, that Brazilians have elevated the Beautiful Game into an art form and that the obsession with physical beauty is translated into perfect bodies galore (arrived at through nature or science) which in turn mean a constant incentive to engage in Brazilians' favorite other sport, I would claim that there is a fifth S which is often overlooked, even by Brazilians: hiStory. That is a shame because throughout the five centuries since Brazil was conquered and settled by the Portuguese, they have dotted the continent-sized landscape of the country with beautiful palaces, squares and churches which remain well-preserved to the day, thanks to Brazil never having had big wars fought on its territory nor particularly destructive natural disasters.
Since most visitors to Brazil are likely to enter through Rio de Janeiro, the country's gateway, let's start here, as I did in January 2003 leaving behind me a snowed over Paris. (It was a historic date since Lula was being inaugurated as the first Brazilian president to hail from the country's majority poor people) Most visitors tend to congregate on the southern city beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema not realizing that just a 20-minute drive north, downtown Rio is packed with vestiges of its ancient past as colonial, imperial, royal and independent capital.
|The Candelaria church stands its ground |
amidst Downtown Rio's highrise buildings
|Glorious church in Gloria|
|The Lapa Arches and Viaduct on top of which|
runs the Santa Teresa tram known as the "bondinho"
Another great landmark is the Arcos da Lapa or Lapa Viaduct which gives the delightfully shabby neighborhood of Lapa its distinctive air. Weekend nights are traffic free and the bohemian atmosphere of the area where students, artists, working class and posh Cariocas mix freely, is quite a heady mix, with or without the help of a caipirinha and to the accompaniment of frantic samba rhythms.
I could spend acres of prose on the Marvelous City as Rio is known to the native Cariocas, so I'll stop here and move 200 miles southwest, towards the stateline with São Paulo. Here lies a jewel of a place: Paraty. Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to the American continents, said, when he spotted this shoreline of jutted peninsulas and secluded beaches, "If there were paradise on earth, it wouldn't be far from here." And that is no hyperbole. Until recently the only way to get to Paraty was by boat; the scenic road winds along emerald-green mountains and takes about four hours between Rio and Paraty where I arrived in the last days of 2008 in less than glorious shape, bending over and relieving myself of my breakfast from where I had absorbed it: I had forgotten to take my motion-sickness pill. That was the only bad memory I have of the place. The pousada where I stayed was well located: a few minutes walk from both the old town across a narrow river, the Perequê-Açu, and a dazzling beach with pristine water. The views from my room on the bay and the town were breathtaking: few things beat sipping a caipirinha (the local cachaça or sugarcane liquor from which the drink is made is quite famous and I must say rightly so.) Its geographical seclusion meant that Paraty remains to this day both a great colonial relic and beach paradise, still safe from the horrendous hordes of mass tourism. But for how long? I'm pretty sure that in my lifetime Paraty will go the way of Dubrovnik, Prague and many other Disneyfied places. The town's irregular cobblestone streets are known as pés-de-moleque (street urchin's feet) and are often washed clean by rains or high tides, giving the city a tropical Venetian look. You can tell tourists from locals easily: the former tend to watch their feet as they negotiate the irregularly-shaped stones to avoid any mishap, whereas the natives just walk indifferently and never miss one. "How do you manage it," I asked them?
And they explained that you shouldn't step on the stones, but rather slide on them until your heel gets a firm grasp of the interstice between two stones. Then you shift to the other foot and repeat the same exercize. It takes a little while to get the hang of it, but after that you can just go about your business, enjoying the beauty of the place without ever risking to stumble.
|Town view from the Perpetual Defensor Fort rebuilt in 1822, the year Brazil became independent|
Let's now cross this gigantic country and hop 1,400 miles north towards the equator, towards Recife and Olinda which I visited over Christmas 2007. Recife, a friend recently told me, has the largest colonial area of all Brazilian cities. It may be so but the day I spent there what I found overwhelming was the poverty and filth of this industrial city so by the mid afternoon I hailed a taxi and got back to Olinda, the sister city a few miles away.
|Recife looms in the horizon from Olinda|
The town's historic center sits on a hill overlooking the Atlantic and Recife.The twisting streets of colorful old houses and a plethora of scenic churches in various degrees of repair and decay make this well-preserved town a charming place to visit.
|NS do Carmo church built in the late 1500's but rebuilt, like most other buildings, after the Dutch burnt the town down in 1631|
|The Blue House, just down the street from the pousada where I stayed|
|Ceiling from St. Francis Convent in Olinda|
|Salvador's Pelourinho district|
In terms of sheer density of beautiful colonial towns, nothing beats the state of Minas Gerais in the Brazilian hinterland which I visited earlier this year. Scattered across the state, colloquially known as Minas (and from which hails Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's soon-to-be first female president ) are exquisite towns of wich the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Ouro Preto. The City of Black Gold reached its heyday in the mid-18th century with a population of 100,000 people (New York then only had 50,000) before the gold boom petered out. The town, a UNESCO mankind heritage landmark, was the state capital until the end of the 19th century and still regains symbolically that status once a year when the state government moves there for a day. Being downgraded was a blessing in disguise as it helped the town preserve its colonial splendor.
|NS do Carmo church on top of the hill,and to the left the Grand Hotel, the only 20th century building in Ouro Preto, by Brazil's most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer who at age 102 is still working|
Ouro Preto is cut by deep ravines and divided into several hills upon which narrow, crooked streets have been built. The gradient on some of these streets is so vertiginous that one can almost speak of vertical streets. Almost every hill is topped by a church such as the NS do Carmo across from which I stayed in a pousada occupying an old home. Since not all slopes of a hill have been built up, this with the surrounding mountain lend a unique and soothing bucolic atmosphere to the town. You feel, you are, in the countryside, as well as in a town with all urban amenities.
|Church of NS das Mercês seen from my room at the Pousada Chico Rei|
|A close up of NS das Mercês|
The Church of St. Francis of Assis is considered as one of the most important pieces of Brazilian colonial art, the work of prodigy artist Aleijandinho who carved the soapstone medallion to the cannon waterspouts and the military two-cross bar on the façade.
|Fountain on the way to Santa Ifigênia Church. The long, vertiginously high way I should add|
|One the 12 items that make up Brazil's best known work of art. When he worked on them, Aleijandinho was old, sick and crippled. Fingerless, he had his tools strapped to his hands|
|Church of NS do Carmo designed in 1732 by Aleijandinho (Brazilians seem to be lacking in creativity when it comes to church naming)|
|Baroque St Francis of Assisi, south of the canal. Aleijandinho did the sculpture of the Virgin above the door.|
|Typical Aleijadinho cherub with |
chubby cheeksand wavy hair
|A Beetle passes St Francis|
Despite the less-than-discreet presence of sundry antique stores and whimsical boutiques, the town retains a powerful allure.
|St. Antony's Church named after the town's patron saint. The frontispiece is by (who else?) |
Aleijandinho. The church has an stunning all-gold interior
(The blogger has a second home in Rio de Janeiro where he spends part of the year. All the pictures were taken by him. When the blogger is not in residence, his penthouse can be rented. Check out the Airbnb listing, also available on TripAdvisor/Flipkey and Homeaway. You can also rent it straight from the blogger)