All great cities have a historical square at their centre and Rio de Janeiro is no exception. The Praca 15 Novembro or simply Praca XV (pronounced Pra-chah Quin-Zeh) is one such square and sits a the very heart of Centro. Once you tire of the bronzed bodies of Ipanema or Copacabana get yourself on a bus and explore this area.
It has everything - historical palaces, harbour views, busy markets, baroque churches and the ebb and flow of carioca life which for me is it''s highlight. One morning isn''t enough to do Rio''s city centre justice - it requires at least two days exploration.
When you think of colonial Latin America you think of Peru or Mexico. In 2001 Brazil celebrated the 500th anniversary of it's discovery and Rio itself is at least 450 years old. The Portuguese brought with them a whiff of old europe with their palaces, forts and tiled houses. Not much remains now, Rio is a victim of short-sighted city planning when it expanded in the forties and fifties. Not much in this city is more then a hundred years old and I never seemed to stop being unimpressed by the concrete sixties and seventies architecture of Catete, Copabacana and Bortofago.
And in Centro this seems to be the same. History has been sacrificed on the altar of progress and huge skyscrapers line the Rio Branco, but if you know where to look there are some real gems - cobbled streets, dazzling cathedrals and colonial architecture.
No better is this shown then at Praca XV which is now back to it''s original size. My uncle was in Rio in the seventies and he remembers this huge square being bisected by a busy road. This road has now been moved underground and extra traffic is alieviated by a soaring overpass. The praca is once more a quiet place for the people of Rio.
To get there take a taxi from the Zona Sul for 25 reals or a bus from Copacabana or Ipanema for 1.50 reals. The buses stop at the western end of the huge concrete praca which is over 500ft wide. The eastern edge backs onto the harbour where ferries leave for Parqueta (a harbour island) and Niteroi (a mini-me Rio across the bay). The southen edge is dominated by the Paco Imperial - the old home of the Brazilian Emperor''s, the northern edge houses neo-classical buildings and the western disappears into the hurly-burly streets that is Rio on a week-day.
In fact Praca XV is central to carioca life and every rush hour millions disgorge from the ferries and hurry into their skyscrapers. My advice is to make the ferry terminal the first stop. Not only are their stunning views of Niteroi and Guanabara bay but also of Ilha Fiscal. This man-made island sticks out into the bay from a promontory and is lined with a jumble of colonial houses. There are also a number of fast-food places at the ferry building where you can watch the catarmarans come in and out.
But the main sight of Praca XV is the Paco Imperial - the oldest building in Rio. Built in 1783 it seems somewhat out of place underneath the concrete overpass. Based around a sun-drenched courtyard and made out of white stone with brown balconies the paco (palace) reeks of colonial Rio. It was here in 1808 that the portuguese emperor Dom Jao established his court after being kicked out of Europe by Napoleon. And more importantly it was where Princess Isabel announced the abolition of slavery in 1888 (Brazil was the last country to give up slavery).
In fact Praca XV has more then one link with slavery, the northern edge was where the slave market was held when the ships unloaded their cargo from Africa. But the palace (paco) is worth a look and provides shade during the hot afternoon. The interior has been converted into art galleries, a library, a theatre and a very pleasant restaurant. The ruins of previous palaces are on show in the galleries as are maps of colonial Rio, old ship''s instruments and ancient weapons such as blunderbusses and rapiers.
The old colonial maps would probably still recognise the area west of Praca XV. The Avenida Rua Primeiro cuts through the western edge and before this is a tourist market. Here you can buy Brazilian nick-nacks such as shawls, trinkets and plastic Christo Redentor's. But across the road the Rua San Jose is lovely. Left as it was in colonial times it is paved with enormous granite cobbles and housed a colourful flower market. If you want to feel unobtrusive in Rio then head to this area which is full of office-workers dashing around. In this part of town you instantly become invisible.
But to the east of the Praca XV is a beautiful church - the Igreja Antigua de Se. . Built in 1749 this church followed the European model of the baroque. Take a break from the hubbub outside and sit yourself on a pew, fan yourself with your map and gaze around. The nave is made out of brownwood and covered in decorations including balconies with hanging lamps. Waxworks of saints hang in alcoves depicting various stages of suffering and a huge organ dominates the nave. It is a very holy place and you may see old women kneeling in front of the altar in supplication. Beaches are all well and good, but you can''t beat a good bit of culture in the form of an ancient church. I loved it.
Outside in the sunshine the municipal police had cordoned off the rest of Rua Primeiro with tape and were shouting at a building with loudhailers. Police blocked my way and TV reporters babbled excitedly into microphones. When I got back to the hotel I saw on the TV news that a bank raid next to the church had taken hostages and the police were trying to get them to give up.
Welcome to Rio.....