A September 2004 trip
to Salvador by actonsteve
Quote: The beating heart of African Brazil has to be Salvador de Bahia, a city bedecked in colonial churches, cobbled pracas, sapphire waters, and drum and percussion beats of Brazilian rythmn. This is a city to get into your blood and make you feel alive.
It fills every corner of the old city, and every stone of Salvador seems to echo with music. The cobbled Portuguese colonial streets of Pelhurinho seem to reberverate in this city of samba, candomble, and capoeira. Its exotic feel and heritage can been seen in the Afro-Brasileiro inhabitants who were descended from West African slaves. They give the city an unbelievable energy and vitality. There is a fire in the blood of Salvador de Bahia. This is a city which has not yet been tamed, and any polite tourist respectability is for show. Underneath, mysterious Afro-Brasileiro currents run - Salvador is a city which moves to a different beat to the rest of Brazil.
The city is also the genesis of the nation of Brazil. The Portuguese sailed into the Baiae do Todos os Santos in 1501, and the great fort at the Farol de Barra was built in 1524. That makes it older then some European cities. It was a major trading port for the slave trade out of West Africa and with the setting up of fazendas/plantations social divisions were set. It is this poverty, especially in the last century, kept it in a sort of "preserved in aspic" state. The colonial buildings and cobbled streets of its centre, Pelhurinho, are nothing less then stunning. They have been in decreptitude for a very long time and only in the nineties did gentrification take place - Pelurinho is now listed by UNESCO in its entirety.
But this is a city for the senses. A day exploring the streets of Salvador makes for many extraordinary memories its hard to say which is the best. The pastel colours of the 18th century buildings? The sound of bossa nova coming from the election cars? The torrent of rococco gold leaf in the myriad of churches? The cobbled plunge of the Largo de Pelhurinho as it dips down to Igreja NS dos Pretos? The incessant chatter of the Baianos? Kids diving off Porto do Barra pier? The hawkers following the tour crowds?
Salvador is considered exotic even by Brazilians. It's been called the most African city outside the "dark" continent. It's a fusion of African, Latin, and Portuguese cultures that is simply intoxicating. This may be the highlight of your trip to Brazil.
Everything, however, moves towards the colonial centre of Pelhurinho. This is the most impressive part of Salvador with restaurants, nightclubs, museums and some of the best colonial churches in South America. But this is divided in two -the Cidade Alta (high city) looks down from its rocky crag on the Cidade Baixa (lower city). The lower city consists of workaday Salvador with marina's, offices and the interesting Mercado Modelo. Both sets of Salvador are connected by the busy Lacerda Elevator which only costs a few reals and ladeiras which are winding twisting streets.
But your main method of transportation will be the taxis. I strongly suggest these if you are moving around at night and before I arrived I heard horror stories from travellers about taking these vehicles. Imagine my surprise when I encountered nothing but honest and friendly taxi drivers. In fact, they fell over themselves for me.
Hotel | "The Barra Turismo Hotel - a lucky find by accident"
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 21, 2005
The Barra Turismo Hotel
Ave Sete de Septembre, 3691
Restaurant | "Churrascaria Ancoradouro -Twilight dining in Barra"
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 21, 2005
Avenida Sete de Setembro, No. 11 - Orla
You are wandering along the promenade, minding your own business, when a football comes spinning its way to your direction.
Not just any football. I was passing a court where young men were playing the Brazilian national game, and the fencing was 30 feet high. A player had sent the ball soaring into the air and over the fence, with it landing at my feet. The players immediately shouted at me to throw it back so they could quickly continue with their game. I picked it up, willing to give it a try, but one player realised that the fence was too high for me to throw, belted out of the court and ran to me. Meantime, I was just a stupid foreigner who was holding up their game - so embarrassed, I threw it to him as he came out the court - he grinned a thank you, and I continued on my way.
This was on the approach to Ondina Beach. The beaches in Salvador stretch forever and the most populated are the ones closest to the centre - Barra, Ondina, and Pituba. It is possible to reach these by taking any bus or by simply walking east along the "Orla" from the Morro de Christo. After the country club the start of the big resort hotels occur - the Othon, the Meridian etc. After that it becomes more of a beach for the locals - the Baianos and holidaymakers sizzle together in this part of the beach.
Next to me was a large Bahian family. Mum had brought the kids to the beach, as well as daughters and nieces. They sat down on towels while the kids ran riot, throwing sand at each other (and occasionally me!) and generally having a good time. There were two nut-brown boys, not more than six or seven, chasing each other up the beach. Their little sister/cousin, who was the same age, tried to join in for a while, but the game was too rough, and she gave up. The two devilish boys were covered from head to toe in the sand they had been throwing at each other - then their mother had suddenly had enough! Hoisting them under her arms, she dragged them kicking and screaming into the sea and laughed while washing them up and down with a bucket. The little girl followed, jumping up and down in pleasure at her little brothers getting their just desserts.
Until, of course a bucket of water came her way. She then ran shrieking up the beach - her beautiful curls now soaking wet.
The entire beach chuckled. I wonder why?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 21, 2005
Praia do Ondina - Bahian beachlife at its best
Pituba and Ondina beaches
Watching from the promenade balustrade was a small crowd. They were viewing a group of boys and girls on the beach, doing samba exercises before work. I began to watch, and they rotated in a ring, swivelling their hips to samba music and letting out whoops of delight. Olodrum drummers beat out a rhythm, and each person moved his or her body to the music. To me the scene epitomised Salvador - taking advantage of the beaches and living life to a musical rhythm.
Barra is the closest beach suburb in Salvador to the centre. It forms a right angle to the Baiae do Todos Santos, with the famous Farol de Barra (lighthouse) at the very apex of that angle. The beaches start about 500ft away to the north of the Farol at the Porto do Barra (where I stayed) and then turn to the east where they run forever along the coast of Brazil. Salvador is an extraordinary city, many of its residents are very poor, but everyone has time for the beach at the weekend. My recommendation to anyone coming to stay in Salvador is to stay in Barra. The advantage of the beach is obvious, but it is slightly more relaxed then the madness of Pelhurinho. Connections to the airport and bus station are close, and although noisy at night, there is a chance of sleep - something you don't get in the more budget options in Pelhurinho. As discussed before, the airport bus runs the entire length of the Orla Atlantica before heading to Pelhurino, making getting to and from the airport easy. But more importantly, ordinary buses ply this route, allowing you to sightsee in Pelhurinho during the morning and head back to Barra for a swim in the afternoon.
To get there, take a taxi from Pelhurinho (10 reals) or a bus. The bus, heading south, will pass the impressive Campo Grande. If you want a good example of the gentrification of Salvador de Bahia, then have a look at this massive square. I suspect it was a no-go area twenty years ago, but now it is rather classy. I walked through one day, feeling very safe and enjoying the hot sunshine. Care has been taken with it, with trimmed green lawns, Greek temples, gold statues, and gushing fountains.
But the southwestern exit is what you will be interested in, as it turns into Avenida Sete Semptembre. This is Salvador’s uber-rich street, with towering condos standing on cliffs overlooking the Baiae. If you are staying in the area, it is useful for its supermarkets and houses a number of English/Portuguese-language colleges. Then it dips severely downhill, almost to an excessive degree, before levelling out at the start of the Orla Atlantica and the start of the beaches. This area which contains a bus stop, open-air restaurants, and all the amenities of a small community is called Porto do Barra
Barra is primarily for Baianos. There are foreign tourists there, but essentially the beach is for those who live in Barra or nearby. Therefore it attracts many different characters. During the daytime, things are mostly good - the coco-verts sellers sell their ware for about 1 real, surfers clutch surfboards on their way to catch waves, and the whole promenade sounds with the noises of laughter and music.
This continues when the sun goes down (a classic Bahian attraction is watching sunset at the Farol), but I think Barra changes character at night. More desperate characters arrive, and as a tourist, it pays to exercise caution. The authorities in Salvador have noticed this and post armed police every 50 yards along the promenade to watch over visitors. It would be a shame to avoid Barra at night. The chatter of people along the seawall is very atmospheric, and one evening as I was enjoying a capirinha, two Bahian children started to do an impromptu capoeira dance in front of me. A word of caution about the street children in Barra: if they do bother you, then walk away quickly. It’s not their fault they live a desperate life, but perhaps avoidance is the best policy for a tourist.
The first sandy beach you will find will be at Porto do Barra. Barra beaches have the prerequisite white sand but also as this is a promontory, they have plenty of surf and rockpools. Swimming is possible if done carefully (I did see a lad limp back after a swim in the sea) and due to the sun looks emerald green. The main attraction is the Farol de Barra but if you follow the right angle around you can reach the Morro de Christo. This is a large grasscovered mound that sticks out to sea. You need to hop over the wall and pass through a copse of palm trees and walk up the dusty track. At the top of the mound is a small white Chisto Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), just like the one overlooking Rio de Janeiro. From here, you get a superb view over the surf lashed beaches and the Praia de Farol, which is a gentler beach and where families head to on a Sunday.
But the attraction where all the tour buses pull up is the Farol de Barra. Of course, there are Baiana's selling corn-on-the-cob and other hawkers, but it is really a very impressive example of Brazils heritage. This is ground zero for Brazil - this is where their country started. The Portuguese didn't sail into Guanabara bay in Rio back in 1500 - oh, no - they sailed into the Baiae do Todos Santos. The lighthouse stands on the site of a colonial fort built in 1534 whose cannons were aimed at the bay and were primed to blast the Dutch, English, and Spanish competition. The fort/lighthouse itself has commanding views of the bay with stone octagonal walls soaring forty feet into the air each one topped by a turret. Before you enter the lighthouse, have a wander around its walled circumference at the wave-crashed inlets and the views up and down the bay.
To be frank, this is the best museum I saw in Salvador. It had been upgraded in 2000 and was complete with English translations was fully worth the 3 reals entrance. First was the history of Salvador and its inclusion on the trade routes from Africa and India. Next were 16th-century nautical maps of the area. I could even see how deep the water was in the bay from readings taken in 1558! Old maps picked out the sweeping beaches, the island of Itaparica and the rocky escarpment that Pelhurinho was built on. There were plenty of shipwrecks in these waters - models of galleons, ship lenses and figureheads dotted the museum. The massive courtyard had been turned into an open-air restaurant. I climbed up to the battlements and looked down on the restored cannons and lighthouse tower, and the view across the bay was amazing. I'd say the Farol de Barra was worth your time - a lot of thought and care had gone into it.
But the main attraction in Barra is the beaches. I got myself into a routine the eight nights I was there - sightseeing in Pelhurino in the morning, back about two for a sleep, change into swimming trunks, and run across the road to the Porto do Barra beach, followed by drinks with friends at ten o'clock at night. But the best bit was definitely the beach - running across the sand, diving straight in, total immersement in the green water. Lord, it was wonderful. I felt I could play in the water to my hearts content...
This is the life....
Often they are Afro-Brasileiro ladies of ample girth, wearing headscarves and dressed in billowing skirts. They are "local characters" for the tourists to have their photos taken with, and they represent the culture of the Brazilian northeast and its African heritage. They hang around Praca Muncipal, waiting to embrace tourists in a bear hug, sporting a wide grin and asking for ten reals for the privilege. But there was something faintly creepy about them, as Salvador is the centre for candomble, and often these women are priestesses in this strange and mysterious African religion.
The centre of Salvador, Pelhurinho, is rife with candomble and many other spectacles. It is the mainly 18th-century Portuguese colonial centre of Salvador. It stands on a rocky buff overlooking the Baiae dos Todos Santos and is divided into Cidade Alta (high city) and Cidade Baixa (low city). The two are connected by numerous ladeiras (winding streets), funiculars, and the Lacerda elevator. The area consists of five colonial squares connected to each other by numerous cobbled streets. Gentrification has taken place, and each building has been given a lick of pastel paint. But it is also a place to live and work - the place is thronged with people, hawkers bother you, old men peer from balconied windows, and the chatter of the Baianos goes on incessantly.
It is also one of the strongest cultural centres in South America. Tourists from all over the world come to view the baroque churches, colonial pracas, and exotic African heritage. This wasn't always the way. Until the early nineties, Pelhurinho had sunk into crippling poverty. I suspect Salvador has always had its share of hardship, but the old centre of the city was prey to crime and drug problems. The cities government turned this around with massive investment and the tourists keep on coming. Money has been spent on Pelhurinho and extra policing, and the rewards are amazing. The tourist dollar and the wildness of Bahia clash in Pelhurinho. Each tourist is watched over like a rare endangered animal but at night-time an older wilder Salvador appears. There is no doubt that this city, on the surface, is just as wild and gritty as Rio, but at the same time there is a will to do something about it. Tourists are well-looked-after in Salvador, and most come away stunned by the cultural riches the city has to offer.
Some tourists elect to stay in Pelhurinho. There are a wide range of hostels, hotels and pousadas dotting the streets often at bargain prices but Pelhurinho can be very noisy at night. I elected to stay in the beach suburb of Barra and take the bus in each day. The 101 bus can be caught all along the seafront at Barra and then climbs the hills, past Campo Grande, to deposit you just behind the Praca Municipal. The buses come in two types - the busy city buses cost only 1.50 reals, while the sleek A/C upholstered executivo cost 4 reals. You can follow the crowds to the Praca Municipal, and it might be an idea to orient yourself here, as this is the equivalent of the city centre. The white rococo Palacio de Rio Branco dominates the praca's western side, but it is the northern side that attracts you. It stands hundreds of feet over Baiae dos Todos Santos, and you can stand at the balustrade and view the myriad islands across the blue water. It also is the main high city embarkation point for the Lacerda elevator whose morning commuters pour out and are swallowed by the city. I wouldn't advise taking the winding lanes down from the high city. No one walks that way and you could be targeted for robbery.
Head east from here, and you are at the administrative heart of Bahia - the Praca de Se. The southern side is lined with 18th-century Portuguese colonial buildings. Each one is painted a pastel pink, yellow, or blue, and each one houses an e@cafe, music shop, or restaurant. Music plays a big part of the culture of Pelhurinho, and as you wander along, the notes of Jao Gilberto and his bossa nova are strong, as well as reggae and tropicalismo. Modern fountains dot the praca, and this is where the Baiana women hang out with arms outstretched to bring you into their ample embrace and charge you for the privilege.
The southeast corner of the praca is the entrance to Terreiro de Jesus, and once you turn the corner, you encounter one of those views of Salvador. The ones that make you go, "wow!" Here is an authentic Portuguese square smack in the middle of Salvador, and it is a stunner. In the centre is a green garden with palms and a baroque fountain. On the eastern side were 18th century municipal buildings and the western edge were pastel coloured gems converted into tourist options. The southern and northern sides of the praca, however, have a cathedral each. It was like stepping back into a different age. But where you get tourists you get hawkers and the ones in Terreiro de Jesus were some of the most persistent I have ever encountered. They mostly target the tour groups and luckily left this swarthy sunburnt "gringa" alone. One thing I noticed was that the hawkers in Pelhurinho were legally there. Many wore official 'prefeitura' identity badges saying they were licensed to bother tourists with sunglasses and postcards.
But the big attraction on the praca for me was the Candomble Museum. Entrance costs 5 reals and it is really one room broken down into many exhibits. Almost as soon as Brazil was discovered did they start importing slaves from Africa. The Portuguese already had colonies in Angola and the Bight of Benin and crossed the Atlantic to unload their cargo in the Baiae dos Todos Santos. The religion of Brazil was, of course, Roman Catholicism, and no others were tolerated, so the old African superstitions went underground. The Candomble gods were given Catholic names and identities to avoid detection. The saints are called Orixas, and god is called Olurum. He is, of course, too busy to attend earthly matters, so his Orixas do the work for him...
The museum showed evidence of this creepy religion that is still practised today. Costumes and pictures of candombleceremonies adorn the walls. There were some interesting sepia photos of 19th-century candomble goddesses. Most looked like your grandmother, but occasionally you could detect arrogance and sparks of power behind the eyes. The ceremonies still go on. My travel agency did tourist excursions to real-life candomble ceremonies up in the hills around Salvador. The ceremonies are laid on for the tourists and are priced at about 100 reals. After many hours chanting, an old woman goes into a trance and claims to be possessed. Her Orixas ask her all kinds of questions and she can supposedly predict the future..
All very creepy if you ask me - it's scary enough walking about Barra at night... I think I'll pass...
You know azulejos, those beautiful ceramic tiles they have in Portugal. They are generally white and blue, and each piece completes a part of a wall-covered scene of everyday life. In Salvador they are a work of art imported from Lisbon and cover the courtyards and churches of the city. I stood in one courtyard, and all four sides were covered in azulejos, which told allegorical stories as they wound their way around the cloisters. Salvador de Bahia has the ambience of old Europe. It just takes a second in the mind's eye to imagine 18th-century Portuguese jesuits gliding around the cloisters and the sound of Mass coming in from the chapel.
Without doubt, one of the greatest attractions of Salvador de Bahia are the baroque churches. Tourists come to see the religious treasures of over 500 years, for this was first stop for the Catholic missionaries who came from Europe. From here, they headed into the interior to convert the indigenous population, and as the colony grew, the landowners and wealthy denizens built churches to rival those built in the baroque age over the sea. Their wealth was so enormous that they covered ther churches in a river of gold plate, making it one of the best places in South America to see such religious treasures.
Pelhurinho has the biggest concentration of churches clustered around the Terreiro de Jesus. At the southern part of the Terreiro is the Largo de Cruzeiro de San Francisco, which is a cobbled pedestrian space overlooked by one of the most famous churches. Its sides are swarming with gentrified buildings painted red, blue, and yellow house restaurants, souvenir shops, and e@cafes. Offical hawkers wander the streets, and the tourist police look on from their base on the eastern side.
But the reason everyone heads here is the Igreja de Sao Francisco church (see photo). The outside facade is very impressive, and entry only costs 3 reals. But the big surprise here was when I wandered through the cloisters and found myself in an extraordinary courtyard. Dotted with columns and stone flagstones, it was the walls which were impressive - covered floor to ceiling in colourful azulejos. There are very few places in Portugal and Spain where tiles from this period stand. But tucked away in a South American church were some of the most impressive in the world. The pictures told little allegorical stories - ie "Death is a great leveller", with images of both monarch and peasant succumbing to mortality.The pictures showed scenes of what life was like in old Portugal. Many people think that the portraits are Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake, and if so, then it is the only portrait we have of the city in those times.
Literally next door is the Igreja do Ordem do Sao Francisco - its sister church. Here, the church facade is even better - it was hidden for hundreds of years under mortar until workmen disturbed it in 1935. Inside was a training college for Jesuit priests and one of the best chapels in Salvador. I got an inkling of its impact as two nuns entered ahead of me, and I heard their gasps of incredulity. And the reason? Gold! It covered everywhere - every column, every pillar, and every side chapel and spread across the altar and ceiling. The only thing not covered in gold was the Virgin Mary. The feeling of the wealth coming out of Brazil in those early Portuguese years was overpowering.
Not far from here, just down Rua Gregorio Matteus, is the massive Largo de Pelhurinho - Salvador's most photographed open space. The walk to here takes you through some of the side streets of Pelhurinho. They are exquisite as the buildings have been cleaned up and are painted bright colours. The cobbled streets lead up and down and most buildings are converted into T-shirt shops or art galleries. But a lot are still lived in, and the inhabitants can be seen looking down from their balconies. This is where Bahian kids trot off to school and people shout to each other across the street. There is a sense of real life that goes on here, including some very poor people - but now they make their living out of tourism instead of other means. However, at night, it is probably better to keep in the tourist police-watched part of Pelhurinho, as further out, they are not so friendly.
The Largo de Pelhurinho comes as quite a surprise. It drops away at a 45-degree angle and opens up to a panorama of the terracotta rooftops of Salvador. In the near distance is Noss Sonora Preto church, with its sky blue exterior and baroque bulbous towers (see photo). At the top of the square are two balconied buildings; the one with red paint is Museum of Salvador (not worth a look), and the other one is Casa Jorge Amado, where the famous writer lived. The hotels and shops that line either side blast with reggae and samba at high volume. There is no doubt that the musical heritage of Salvador is extraordinary. The singers Maria Githania and Gal Costa were Biananos, as was Gilberto Gil and Jao Gilberto, the original proponent of bossa nova. During the famous Tuesday night all-night parties, people come here to listen to the free music events. Salvador does indeed move to a different rhythm.
While I was pondering this, the two nuns I had seen earlier emerged from a side street. They must be the most conspicuous tourists in Salvador. Mind you, who would be so wicked as to mug a nun??
On the strike of the clock at 11am, Bahian youths dressed only in white trousers climb onto a podium in the restaurant area of the Mercado Modelo and start to dance/fight.
Percussion instruments create a ryhthm for their leaping and kicking. This "semi-balletic" art form is an expression of Bahian culture. Two sinewy black lads spin and whirl around each other in "mock combat" (see photo). People gather to watch a dance created in years gone by for people to settle their differences without resorting to violence. It's very popular. I've seen teenagers on the promenade at Barra mimic capoeira. A form expression for the poor in some ways it exemplifies this city - energetic, macho, violent, and very exotic.
Capoeira is found each day at the Victorian market (Mercado Modelo) situated in the Cidade Baixa (lower city). This is the section of the town which lies below the great towering granite buff of Pelhurinho and contains the market, marina, and ferries to the outlying islands. It is workaday Salvador, containing office blocks and bus routes, but I found it more relaxing than the hawker-infested upper city. It looks fairy neglected, and most 18th-century buildings have not been given the lick of pastel paint that their countenances on the bluff above have had. It's also hotter, and Pelhurinho benefits from breezes not caught by the lower city and the docks.
To get there, head for Praca Municipal in Pelhurinho. The whole of the northern side of the Praca is a balustrade viewpoint looking out to sea. From here, you can see the bright blue of the Baiae do Todos os Santos, and directly below is the marina, modern art statue, and the Mercado Modelo. Perched on the edge of the Cidade Alta is the Lacerda elevator - the best way down to the Cidade Baixa (low city). The elevator (see photo) is a strange contraption. A marble tunnel leans out over the edge, and at the end is the elevator which travels up and down an enormous leg. It costs five centavos, and you have to queue to use the three lifts. I thought it would be a barn-like structure that packed in many people. Instead I got an office-type lift that only took about fifteen at a time. It was perfectly safe, as a female attendant was in there all day. And I must tell you - hang on to your stomach. The elevator plummets like a stone!
It opens opposite the marina and the mercado. This is workaday Salvador, with buses disgorging passengers and people scurrying off to the scruffy office blocks that dot the lower city. Across the road is the market but better still is the marina, where jagandasfishing boats tie up and the water here is bright sapphire. Beyond this, across a busy road, is the Touristicus Terminus. It is here where boats and ferries to the islands in the Baiae dos Todos os Santos leave. The most popular of these is the boat to the Morro do Sao Paolo, a tropical paradise not yet discovered by the crowds. Trips of the bay can be arranged here and cost about 50 reals for an entire day.
But the big draw of the lower city is the Mercado Modelo. The old Victorian half-dome market is very popular with tourists. The big minus is the number of hawkers you have to endure to reach the market. The stalls are quite good - selling corn-on-the-cob, moqueta stew, teak souvenirs, T-shirts, and towels. But the worst are the irritating grabbing women trying to sell you beads as you enter - they will literally try to grab your arm. A firm "nao!" doesn't always deter them, and you may find yourself shrugging them off. Inside is like a South American Aladdin's cave - there are goods and provisions from everywhere. On show were laquerware, jewellry, paintings, fridge magnets, clothing, stuffed piranhas - all designed for the tourist. The upper level has just as many stalls and a couple of restaurants with balconies overlooking the Cidade Baixa.
But the main draw for me was the capoeira. To me, the spirit of Salvador occurs in this dance/fight ritual, and I wanted to get it on film. However, the market had a charge-for-photos policy. I was determined to get around this, so I lurked near the entrance. When the capoeira started, I clicked off a few shots. Of course, I was spotted, and the Brazilian equivalent of "Oi you!" was thrown at me.
But I had my running shoes on and was speeding away before then...
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