From Jobim's "Quiet nights and quiet stars", Astaire's "Rio by the sea-o", and Sinatra, whose heart was entertained in June - the soundtrack to Brazil is as infectious as its people, its beaches, and to be fair, its mosquitoes. Egged on by 100s of movies and musical tributes, Brazil conjures up a mixed bag of stereotypes and expectations: beautiful people who love to party, endless sunshine, football, and yes, crime.
I've just had five days in Rio, "the marvelous city", to see for myself if the melodies ring true, or whether there's a sting in the tail.
Since I knew I wouldn’t be on the beach everyday, I chose a lovely small hotel in the old art district of Santa Teresa: Castelinho 38 (see note). At the turn of the century this is where the money was, but as fashions changed the wealthy abandoned their mansions and in came the artists and bohemians. After years of decline Santa Teresa began re-established itself as a place worth visiting. It’s charming, arty, and peaceful with some good restaurants. The guidebooks warn about high crime rates in the area, so I took all the usual precautions and never had any problems; in fact the people couldn’t have been more friendly. One day, as usual, I got a bit lost, in what’s supposed to be a bad area. A bunch of school kids not only gave me directions, but went out of their way to take me where I wanted to go. If that had happened on some dodgy estate in England I’d probably be typing this from a hospital bed.
It’s hard to generlise about a country as vast as Brazil. With almost 200 millions citizens, each of the twenty-six states has its own identity and personality. São Paulo, the country's power house, has a reputation for business and commercial drive; the southern states are sometimes thought of as being a little cold to outsiders; and the people of Rio (known as Cariocas) are known for spending a little too much time enjoying themselves on the beaches.
Day 1: Christ The Redeemer, Copacabana, Cooking Class and Traditional Music.
Getting around Rio is easy. Taxis are cheap and reliable, the subway and buses are easy to use and (in the daytime) as safe as anywhere. They also have clusters of Motor Taxis dotted around, which are motorbikes with riders who zip you wherever you want to go for as little as 70p. They are fast, but with no helmet, and in shorts and flip-flops, you might want to check your medical insurance first.
My first day began with a trip to Brazil’s iconic statue on Corcovado mountain: Cristo Redentor, Christ The Redeemer. From Corcovado station a funicular (complete with samba band) takes you up to the statue. Most people like to visit late afternoon to enjoy the sunset over the bay, but morning is best if you want to see the statue with the sun on its face. Whatever time you choose, the clouds will dictate how good the view is. As long as the weather's on your side, it’s a must see.
After cocktails in the Copacabana Palace hotel I had an hour on the famous beach to watch the world go by. I’ve written before about the reputation Brazilians have for good looks. While it’s true many of them are beautiful, it certainly isn’t the norm. What they do have are big beaches and lots of sun, so people tend to wear fewer clothes than in Grimsby. Like in Miami or Sydney, wherever people wear fewer clothes, they tend to be more body conscious. So it’s true: almost everyone in Rio is tanned, goes to the gym and carries a loyalty card for their favourite plastic surgeon (after 10 visits you get a free face peel). The real beauty of the Brazilians though, is their warmth and charm. Close family units still form the backbone of society and despite (or maybe precisely because of) a relatively low standard of living, they are the most open, friendly, kind, genuine people I have met. Anywhere. Buenos Aires, for example, is cleaner, safer and more tourist friendly, but because of the Brazilian people, I still prefer Rio, despite its raffish edge.
“Cook In Rio” runs a class every day, introducing 100s of tourists to Brazil’s most popular dishes and cocktails. It’s a really terrific way for anyone to get acquainted with the local culture and was my second stop of the day. Simone, our teacher and head chef, is great fun, always ready to help with anything you want to know about the city (she helped us with pre-carnival events and even recommended a dentist), and of course the food is wonderful. We made Bahian moqueca (fish casserole), Aipim frito (like fried potato chips), batida de coco (a coconut cocktail), and the national drink: caipirinha.
After downing all that I headed back to Santa Teresa to soak up the sounds in a local restaurant “Sobrenatural”. I am so in love with Brazilian music and sitting in a bar full of locals, sipping a caipirinha, listening a six old-timers playing incredible melodies and rhythms is as good as it gets for me.
Day 2: Favela Tour, Shopping in Saara, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Helicopter Ride, Black Ball carnival.
Anyone who’s seen the movie Cidade de Deus (named after one of Rio’s shanty towns: “City of God”) or the more recent Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) will have a good idea of the notoriety of Rio’s slums, known as favelas. It’s estimated around 20% of the population of Rio live in one of almost 1000 favelas. Controlled by drug money they have a reputation as violent, no-go areas for tourists and most locals, including the police. Marcelo Armstrong has been running special tours in the favelas since 1987. With the full co-operation of the locals, his tours are a great opportunity to see the other side of Rio and to be reminded that most people, regardless of their circumstances, are peaceful, friendly and welcoming to visitors.
The Sahara Market (locally known as “Saara”) in Rio’s central district sells rows and rows of just about anything you could imagine. Well, anything that's bright orange or yellow and les than £10. It’s mostly tat, but there's a nice atmosphere and it a fun way to spend a few hours.
From there I got the bus to Urca for another famous landmark: Sugarloaf Moutain (Pão de Açúcar). A two-stage cable car takes you to the top of the second peak and the views are great. From the first peak I took a helicopter ride around the nearby Christ Statue. At £60 it’s relatively cheap and though only a few minutes long, seeing the 40 metre statue at eye level is something I will never forget.
Though I was in Rio a few weeks before Carnival officially started, there were plenty of pre-carnival events to help get everyone warmed up. So as the sun set I headed back downtown to see the “Cordão da Bola Preta”, a long running black and white parade. Within two hours the wide-open boulevard of Rio Branco was packed with around 300,000 twenty-somethings dancing, drinking and singing their way down to the famous arches of Lapa. I was there, (though for most of it I was wishing I was at home with a nice cup of tea), and I can tell you that it’s true – Brazilians do love to party. Many of these pre-carnival events sprang up spontaneously and over the years have become huge events. You’d struggle to give tickets away for a ballet, but try stopping them dancing to a samba band on the back of a truck.
Day 3: Carnival in Santa Teresa, Hand Gliding, Botanical Gardens and Ipanema.
A local friend excitedly told me that the morning after Cordão da Bola Preta I could join another carnival in Santa Teresa, and then go straight to an even bigger one in Ipanema that afternoon. And all this is before carnival season officially starts! Twenty years ago, three back-to-back carnivals might have appealed, but these days I'd rather jump off a cliff.
São Conrado is one the world’s premier hand gliding spots. The views are stunning and good winds usually mean a flight time of about seven minutes down to the beautiful beach below. It’s a tandem flight, so with an experienced pilot alongside there is little that can go wrong. The only thing you simply must do is keep running off the ramp for take-off. A last minute hesitation could produce… well, undesirable results. With a gusty wind it’s actually quite an intense experience, and though the views are amazing, you do have to question the sense of running off a cliff strapped to a stranger and a piece of tarpaulin.
From São Conrado it’s a short ride to the Botanical Gardens, Jardim Botânico. With an entrance fee of about £2 it has to be the best value for money in Rio, and it’s the perfect way to pay to pass a few hours, away from the carnival crowds.
A short cab ride took me down to Ipanema. I dodged the street party, and enjoyed a quiet moment on the beach, sipping a caipirinha, imagining Tom Jobim and Vincius de Moraes in 1962, sitting somewhere nearby watching fifteen year old Heloísa Pinheiro, “The Girl from Ipanema” pass by and inspire their now timeless song.
Day 4: Soccer Game.
I hate football. I was never any good at it and was always the last to be picked. My dad told me he knew I was gay after seeing me try to kick a ball. I’ve never seen a football match and never particularly fancied it, but figured a game in Rio with 47,000 locals would be fun. It was.
The famous Marcana stadium was being refurbished for the World Cup, so the big local league final, featuring the beloved star Rolandinho, was being held at the Estádio Olímpico2. The atmosphere was fabulous and when the football got boring the crowds and samba bands kept me well entertained. The local team, Flamengo, won so (almost) everyone went home happy.
It was time for me to go home too, and for now, say goodbye to the rhythms, tastes and excitement of this magical place. As Frank sang, “There’s something I’ve been thinking of… return, I will, to old Brazil”. It's just a matter of when.
Footnote Rio’s loves its reputation for voluptuous, sexy women so much, even the announcements in its international airport sound like a recordeding of “J’taime”. I managed to record a few seconds on my laptop while waiting to board my flight. The quality's ropey, and I'm still not sure if she's having an organism or a heart-attack.Breathless airport announcer
My hotel, Castelinho 38 was a brilliant find. A charming hotel in a converted mansion house. Super friendly and helpful English speaking staff who couldn’t have done more for their guests. The room was a good size, comfortable, with a private bathroom. No air-conditioning, but with the fan it was never too hot. The roads in and out are gated and it was dead quiet at night, so easy to leave the windows open. Fast free WIFI, large breakfast, and just 2 minutes down the square where you’ll find restaurants, bars, a charming little cinema and bus stop. You can also catch the famous “Bonge” tram here that’s been taking everyone up and down the hill since it opened in 1877. As an alternative to the smaller, overpriced hotels by the beaches, I can’t recommend Castelinho 38 enough.
The football match was an organized tour. For about £30 they’ll collect you escort you to the stadium and drop you back at your hotel. I did notice the actual ticket price was only £5, so I’d probably do it independently next time.