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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Colonial towns: Brazil's hidden gems

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
The Renaissance-cum-Baroque Candelaria church is a splendid example of colonial Brazil, and one of its most opulent churches. It was initially built by a sea captain to express his gratitude for having survived a shipwreck, which explains the large panels above the nave. Nearby is the Paço Imperial or Imperial Palace with a long and distinguished history. Originally the residence of the Portuguese governor of Brazil (when Rio became capital of the colony in the mid 18th-century) it became in 1808 a royal residence when the Portuguese court, fleeing from Napoleon's invading armies, was transferred to Rio lock, stock and barrel (meaning King, Government and bureaucracy.) For the first time in history, a colonial city became the capital of the empire it belonged to. It's as if at the height of the British Empire, Queen Victoria had decided to move her court and the British Government to Toronto, Cape Town, Cairo or Hong Kong. This was the first and only time that a European monarch ruled from the Americas as well as from a colony. And when Brazil became independent in 1822 under the only local monarchy ever to exist in post-Columbian Americas,  Rio remained the capital city of the newly independent country which, unlike the nearby Spanish possessions which splintered off into separate states, remained a unified country under Dom Pedro I who ruled from this Paço Imperial. It was from the Palace's steps that Dom Pedro I's granddaughter, Princess Isabel, proclaimed the Freedom from Slavery Act in 1888. That enlightened gesture didn't bring her family good luck as the next year saw the monarchy abolished and the establishment of a (undemocratic) republic. The palace is now a museum/exhibition center, bookshop and café. Landmarks from royal rule in Brazil  abound in the area, incongruously mixed with modern skyscrapers in a  typically Brazilian disregard for architectural harmony. Particularly charming is the cobblestone street known as Travessa do Comércio lined by beautiful two-story colonial townhouses and which is accessed from the Palace through an arch known as Arco de Teles. For those fond of literature, many of the books written by Machado do Assis, Brazil's greatest writer, are set here as is, more recently, Era no tempo do rei, by Ruy Castro, a contemporary Carioca writer/commentator/journalist.  Between Old Rio in the Downtown area and the southern beaches (known to locals as Zona Sul), remnants of colonial life can be found. One of my favorites is the exquisite church NS da Gloria  (Our Lady of Glory) which commands lovely views over the sea-reclaimed Flamengo park.

Glorious church in Gloria

The Lapa Arches and Viaduct on top of which
runs the Santa Teresa tram known as the "bondinho"
The hilltop church, one of the finest examples of religious colonial architecture in Brazil, dates from the early 18th century and was the favorite of the Royal Family upon their arrival in 1808.  Seeing it suddenly emerge as you drive by, or magically lit at night, is quite eery.

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
What makes Paraty so beautiful is not so much the architecture itself which, attractive as it is, isn't dazzling, but the homogeneous nature of it, the building's earthly colors and texture that magnify the natural beauty around it.

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 

With New Year's Even upon us with a group of tourists I met we complied with the Brazilian tradition of seeing the New Year clad in white, as you can see in the picture where Dominique (a French teacher) and I are sipping from a coco gelado. Reveillon is a much tamer affair in Olinda than in Rio whose New Year's Eve bacchanals are as famous. (Olinda's Carnival, though, is considered as the second best in Brazil after Rio's.) By 2 am the streets were largely empty, which suited me fine as I was flying out the next day and needed some rest.

The Blue House, just down the street from the pousada where I stayed
Ceiling from St. Francis Convent in Olinda
Salvador's Pelourinho district
Of all Brazil's major cities, Salvador is the one with the largest and best preserved colonial neighborhoods (São Paulo, established almost at the same time time as Rio, has quite a few vestiges of its past in its old town dwarfed by the sheer size of South America's largest city.) Salvador's Pelourinho, with its African heritage, beautifully preserved houses, upper and lower towns was  immortalized in Jorge Amado's book, Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands which saucily and vividly captured the sights, sounds, smells and sensuality (another four  S's!) of Brazil's first capital city like nobody else - and it was adapted in a great movie made in 1976 with Sonia Braga. (I still cannot believe that he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, when so many obscure and mediocre writers have.)

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
Traveling through the colonial towns of Minas Gerais is no easy task if you're a solo traveler relying on public transportation. Inter-town bus lines are few and fewer between with a resolute attempt not to coordinate their schedules: thus to visit a nearby town may mean waking up at 6:00 am and not being back before 9:00 pm. So I rented a car service, at the expected extortionate rate, to take me on a rainy morning from Ouro Preto to   Congonhas, further south. Congonhas is a small industrial town which has been saved from complete obscurity by the extraordinary collection of lifesized statues of the Old Testament Prophets outside the local church. They are considered as Aleijandinho's masterpiece and to be able to walk around them and see them perform their miraculous ballet is worth the trip to the town.

Aleijandinho's Prophets in Congonhas reminded me of the outdoors  statues in Florence. And like Michaelangelo's David, they will soon be transferred under the roof of a nearby museum. I was lucky to be one of the last to see the originals where they stood for over two centuries. just as I was lucky to see the Lions of the Sacred Way in the Greek island of Delos before they were removed to an indoors location  

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  
Late morning saw me resisting my driver's entreaties to drive me to Sao João del Rei (at another outrageous rate) and asking him to drop me at the local bus station where I knew there should be a bus within an hour for my last destination, which I reached a little around two pm, heading straight for the Ponte Real, the town's only 4-star hotel. Of all the colonial towns of Minas, SJDR is the only one that has managed to grow a modern city that sits next to the old one in a complete symbiotic relationship. (It is also the home of the powerful Neves political dynasty)

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. 
St. Francis is a gem. The church's oval shape, which can be seen both from outside and inside, is stunning, as well as well as the polychromated wood sculptures. I visited it one afternoon under a scorching sun. 

Typical Aleijadinho cherub with
chubby cheeksand wavy hair

A Beetle passes St Francis
Ten miles down the valley from SJDR lies one of the prettiest towns I have ever seen. Smaller than Ouro Preto, its quaint colonial houses stand against a dramatic background of Serra de São José mountains and, when lucky as I was, stunningly blue sky. They sure don't make pretty towns like Tiradentes anymore. And to reach it is on a  par with its quaintness and charm. You board a rickety, smoke-billowing 19th-century train which chugs its way along a beautiful bucolic scenery.

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
At the end of what was by all accounts a lovely day marred by only a mediocre lunch, I took the chugging train back to SJDR and the next day I was back in Rio, closing the loop on what had been the most comprehensive and satisfying of all my "colonial" trips. Visit Brazil and miss these urban and historical gems at your own loss. (Another loop was also closed as Lula, after an amazing 8 years in powers in which the country surged to big-power status, economic prosperity, lesser income inequality making him the most popular elected leader in the world with an astounding 80% approval rating, was about to stand down)

(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)


  1. Nice post, Ahmed. I am heading to Rio and would love to check out some of these places - do you happen to know if this information is still up to date?

  2. Hi Carl: Since these landmarks have been around for a couple of centuries, I am pretty confident that by the time you get to Rio they'll still be there. If you have some specific queries in mind, you can email me at: contact@AhmedLimam.com. Enjoy the Marvelous City!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I was raised in Brazil, and worked there for 4 years after I graduated from college in the USA. Am heading back there for the first time since I left in 1975. This has helped me plan my trip. Ouro Preto sem falta.