One morning I found Margaret Thatcher''s face staring back at me from a market stall.
It was at the bookmarket on Largo di Carioca and was a biography under the title "great leaders" (stop laughing at the back...) and was amassed with hundreds of portuguese language paperbacks. Perhaps it was put there to annoy visiting Argentineans. I wouldn''t put anything past the cariocas.
But the bookmarket on Largo di Carioca is one of the hidden gems of Centro Rio. The city centre/downtown of the ''Cuidade Marvelosa'' is a really buzzing place and worth an afternoons excursion. Crowds of peope rush around it''s narrow cobbled streets and the architecture is a real mix of the old and the new. Towering skyscrapers on the Rio Branca contrast with baroque churches, portuguese colonial buildings share the same block with office''s and shopping malls in a sort of Brazilian Manhattan. But this IS Rio. A part of the working day-to-day Rio that visitors rarely see unless they make the effort to haul themselves off Copacabana beach. One must-see draw is the colonial Candalaria church which could fit in very nicely with the great baroque cathedrals of Europe.
It''s also the oldest part of this city and dates from 1527. The original Portuguese colony started in Urca in the shadow of the Sugarloaf, but was moved to the higher ground where it is today. Centro is caught between the port (which is still in use) and the mountains. To the north are some of the worst favela''s in Rio, to the west is the bohemian area of Santa Teresa, to the east Guanabara bay and to the south is the beginning of the beaches. In fact the nearest beach is Flamengo about twenty minutes walk from the centre. If you take a bus from Copacabana or Ipanema you will whoosh past this beach which is often far less crowded then it''s more famous sisters.
There are plenty of ways to get there. From Copacabana/Ipanema the best way is the bus. Buses arrive every two minutes at the bus stops along Avenida NS Copacabana and Rua Visconde Piraji and have the decal ''CENTRO'' above their windscreens. The ''Aterro'' versions are non-stop. Pay your money and sit back as it will rocket to Centro usually depositing you at Praca 15 Novembro (which is covered in another journal). To catch a bus back to the Zona Sul the best place is Avenida Vargas just behind the Candalaria church, buses run as far as the Barra di Tijuca from here. But the best way to get to Centro is via the high-tech subway.Urganiania, Cinelandia and Carioca are the three subway stations in the centre and Arcoverde is the nearest subway station to the Zona Sul.
The Largo di Carioca (Carioca Square) is a good place to start and as you emerge from the subway the bookmarket is worth a ponder. There are over twenty stalls (see below photo) with a thousand paperbacks. Sandwich boardmen on stilts stride by, the crowds bustle and office workers escape it all by dipping into Carlos Menado for twenty minutes. East of here is the Rua Assembleia which takes you to the mighty Rio Branco but it is worth stepping west for a few minutes. Along Rua Chile is a giant wigwam made of glass - this is the modernist Nova Cathedral. It looks like nothing more then a giant Mayan pyramid made of shards of glass. This immense structure reaches into the air and has a base of 100ft in circumference. This is Rio''s hat-tip to the modern architecture of Oscar Niemeyer so evident in Sao Paulo and Brasilia.
Even more entertaining is the ''bondinho'' (tram-car). The terminus is on the vast concrete Praca Floriano and these battered tramcars climb Rio''s hills fifty times a day. They cost 0.50 reals to clank up to Santa Teresa and I was entertained by the boys hanging off the side. There were more people hanging off the tramcar then in the car itself. The guidebooks urge you to use caution when using the ''bondinho'' but I noticed a policeman riding with the tram and on croded days it may be advisable to sit near him. This is a Rio experience I will save when I come back to the city. Rio Branco disects Praca Floriano and heads north, this massive avenida is the equivalent of Oxford Steet or Fifth Avenue and is always bursting with people who won''t pay any attention to tourists as they rush about their business. There are plenty of vendors along Branco selling grilled meats and prawns, flowers and beachwear.
At the end of Rio Branco is a truly magnificent boulevard - the Avenida Vargas. It was named after the Brazilian dictator of the eighties but at the eastern end marooned amongst all the swirling traffic is the Igreja de Nossa Candalaria (Candalaria church). This church is an expression of baroque and one of the few remains of that age left in Rio. Open each day it is worth a wander and stepping into the nave gives that sense of awe great cathedrals have. In fact the nave was colossal and reminded me of a miniature St Peters or St Pauls complete with frescoed dome and marble column''s. Wooden pews faced a silver altar carved with marble angels. Statues adorn the side-chapels and the echo as I moved around this deserted church became obtrusive in such a cavenous space. This truly is an exceptional church and provided me with my fix of old-worlde culture in Brazil.
But there is a darker side to the church. I found out when I got home that around the back of the church was where they used to shoot street-children in the eighties. A policy formatted after complaints from tourists. We sometimes have alot to answer for.