Salvador – the beating heart of Brazil
The journey from beautiful Itacaré to Salvador worked well – despite the five hour bus ride, the ferry and the taxi, we travelled to Bahia’s capital Salvador without any major hassle.
We’d chosen to stay in the old quarter of Pelourinho, which proved to be a wise move. Salvador is large city with glinting shopping malls, wealthy high-rises, poor favelas and a population of around four million people. Travelling around this sprawling city is hard work. Our lodging was in an attic room with a tiny little roof terrace and views over the streets and church towers of Pelourinho.
Salvador. Brazil’s original capital under the Portuguese, the first slave port in the Americas with its historical centre, Pelourinho. Named after the pillory or whipping post where slaves were punished, the streets in the old quarter are alive with history. And, as the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture in Bahia music, art, religion and dance are everywhere.
As with other large cities in Brazil, alongside the joy and celebration of culture, there exists poverty and crime. The World Heritage streets of Pelourinho are guarded by armed police, tourist police and military police. Locals warned us not to walk down quiet streets, and conscious of our experience in Rio, we took their advice.
A huge part of Bahian life centres around religion, not only the colonial Catholicism brought by the Portuguese, but the beliefs and traditions that came with the huge numbers of African slaves. The medieval religious orders, Franciscans, Carmelites and Dominicans all built churches, monasteries and convents, but alongside these grew ‘brotherhoods’ organised around class and race as support organisations for this widely diverse society. There appears to be a church on every street.
Most of these grand colonial structures were built with slave labour and their baroque interiors are dripping with wealth and spectacle.
Portuguese Azulego tiles are everywhere, often glorifying the colonial conquest.
The Church of Sao Francisco is drenched with gold.
A slave Brotherhood built the aptly named Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men. They were banned from entering other Catholic churches (that they themselves had built) and could only work on this building in their ‘spare time’. It took around 100 years to complete.
The highlight of our stay in Pelourinho was a visit to see the Folklore Ballet of Bahia with its exhilarating dance and music bringing together the cultures of Africa, Europe and the Indigenous peoples. The displays of Capoeira were astonishing in their grace and athleticism, the music was intoxicating and the packed audience responded with a roar of approval at the end.
We left the beating heart of Brazil with fond memories and headed north to Recife and Olinda.
We loved our time in Olinda. It’s hilly cobbled streets have charm, and it has a common passion with Salvador – carnival. Although dwarfed by it’s neighbour Recife, artistic Olinda with its restaurants bars and music is a perfect place to explore both.
Our accommodation in Olinda was an excellent choice. Not only did we have a beautiful room in the heart of Olinda, but our hosts at Cama e Café Olinda were wonderfully kind and helpful – they are fluent in four European languages and provide the best breakfast we’ve had in Brazil.
There are some fantastic, often impromptu, music venues, with all sorts of bands practising for carnival. As the only European tourists around we felt welcome everywhere. These events usually spill on to the streets where beer vendors and foodstalls fuel the revellers. Any night of the week seems to be party night.
Olinda also lays claim to some rather beautiful colonial churches.
Carnival, and preparing for carnival is always on the agenda.
The giant carnival dolls had their origin in Olinda with the Man of Midnight in 1931. Kim Jong-un, Superman and ET are modern additions.
We headed in to Recife late one Sunday morning (a cheap cab ride is easiest). The roads around Marco Zero (the spot where the Portuguese first landed in 1537) are closed off on Sunday, foot-volley nets are strung up, market stalls and skateboarders appear, and carnival blocos gather on every street to practice their performances. It’s also the area for street art, galleries and museums, and for wandering around in the sunshine with everyone else.
Frevo music and dance emerged from Afro-Brazilian culture, which is particularly strong in this region due to the historic importance of sugar cane as a crop and the slavery that went with it. Religious and military music bands at the end of the nineteenth century gave Frevo its distinctive character with plenty of brass instruments, and Frevo dance came from the fights that ensued as these bands clashed on the narrow streets and battled for space.
At the front of each band marched capoeirstas and fights, usually involving knives ended up with many dead and wounded. When the police began arresting the capoeirstas they started carrying umbrellas instead of knives and disguising the capoeira movements as dance movements. The frevo dance was born.
From Recife we travelled north and west, heading towards the Amazon. Although we are now in the last month of our big adventure, there’s still plenty to see.