It’s still raining when we arrive in Salvador, Brazil’s former capital, site of the first landing in 1501 by Amerigo Vespucci and centre of the slave trade. It is the most African part of Brazil with 80% of people having African heritage and where traditional African religions survive today with the numerous Candomblé cults. There is even a choir that sings in Yoruba.
The first city was built on two levels both of which survive. The Upper City is now a UNESCO world heritage site with its pastel-coloured 17th and 18th century houses, impressive Churches, monasteries and museums. It is Brazil’s second most popular tourist destination after Rio and incredibly busy. Interestingly most tourists are internal: like China, Brazil is so huge that its citizens like to see it.
Our wonderful hotel the Villa Bahia is situated bang next door to the extraordinary convent of St Francisco (above), the largest Baroque cathedral in South America with its opulent carved interior lovingly embellished with 800kgs of gold.
In many ways this edifice embodies the slave history of Brazil. The large round main entrance was for Portuguese only, while the two square entrances were for male and female slaves respectively. Yet the Franciscan monks took care to allow the slaves to carve their own niches with their own patron saint of Saint Benedict on the male side and a corresponding Black female saint on the other. Our guide said you could tell this is so as the angels have negroid features unlike those of the ones nearer the altar. Slaves began to get their freedom in 1820, when sugar beet production in Europe caused a recession in Brazil, but freedom was not formally granted until 1888, very late.
But echoing the great snobbery of those times, access was also restricted: the lower middle classes were prevented from seeing the priest by a screen and a slope, while the very richest benefactors (one assumes) had boxes and had unlimited access to God.
There is also a magnificent cloister of blue Portuguese titles,which took 40-50 years to build, based on Horace epigrams, on the inevitability of death.
There is even a huge church built by the slaves which took over 100 years to complete as it had to be done in their ‘free’ time and with no rich donors! The day we visit there is a political meeting – quilombolas – in flow on the age-old subject of the inequalities between black and white. It is here that there is a shrine to a female slave heroine who campaigned to stop the practice of tongues being cut out so slaves could not repeat gossip heard in their master’s home.
Everywhere one is surrounded by this complex symbiotic history. Bands tour the streets with their frenzied drumming, dudes casually perform capoeira, peddlers try to sell their wares with good humour, youths daub white paint on visitors in African designs. But there are barefoot beggars and drugged-up shoeless boys roaming the streets, reminders that this is a desparately poor country. We see how the other half live one night when we visit Amado, Salvador’s finest restaurant, and full of rich Brazilians. Expensive wine flows freely.
Despite the exhiberant atmosphere everyone is trying to make a buck . Deviate from the main streets and you are soon in dangerous dark alleys where everything you have heard about Brazil might just come true. But you will also see some amazing street art.
After a day and half dodging showers we have circumnavigated the Pelourinho and the various churches and museums (we enjoy the Afro-Brazilian museum in particular, to commemorate the cultural heritage of Bahia and it’s fine exhibition of Carybé wooden panels carved in homage to Yoruba deities), eaten in the overpriced cafes and restaurants and it is time to move on.
And it’s still raining when we arrive at Praia do Forte for our three nights on the beach. Our hotel the Porto da Lua is rather nice, small, friendly and full of Brazilian familes having fun.
When it stops raining we walk for miles on the beach, sop caipirinhas and avoid the town which we now learn is the Disneyland of Brazil, condo central. Streets of up-market ships and restaurants which are sadly empty at night as the local holidaymakers eat at home. I guess it is low season and we should have expected no less. Nevertheless it’s nice to rise at 6, go to bed at 9/10 and re-energise for the weeks ahead.
Brazil has been a fabulous adventure for us. Quite out of our familiar territory but we have loved it.
Things I have learned
- Brazilians are lovely friendly people
- if you are careful it is possible to escape being robbed!
- The food is not that exciting apart from the Bahian fish stew, moqueca, which has several variations (see below); so much meat!
- hotpants/skimpy shorts preferably ripped denim are the height of fashion no matter how large you are (and there are a lot of large lasses in Brazil!)
- breast enhancements are popular esp on the beach!
- G strings ditto. Mostly the answer to ‘does my bum look big in this’ is YES
- Azul is a fantastic airline. All planes on time and lots of leg room
- hardly anyone speaks English
- Brazil has great street art