Rio de Janeiro Stories and Tips

Centro Rio - Praca Floriano and the Cathedral Metropolitana.

one ugly building Photo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"Brazil is a country of the future...unfortunately, the future has arrived.."- Nino Rocha Santos Jnr, 2002

Brazil has a passion for modern architecture. During the fifties and sixties, it built its own space-age capital in the hinterland of its vast interior. It drew on famous architects like Oskar Niemeyer to create buildings that were purely Brazilian and did not hearken back to Big Brother back in Europe. And so was created one of the most striking cathedrals I have ever seen -- the Cathedral Metropolitana.

This is one of the attractions of Centro Rio. The business district, whose skyscrapers can be seen from any vantage point in the city, is best seen in the week. Then you get the hurly burly of Rio life -- the people dashing around, the street sellers, the rushing traffic.

At the weekend, it is more harmonious and is worth coming in for the Saturday market in Praca IVX.. This flea market stretches for hundreds and hundreds of metres. It starts under the fly-over on Praca IVX, and its tendrils wriggle into the streets of Centro. This is not like European markets with awnings, market inspectors, and a degree of control -- this is a "free-for-all". Anything goes. Laid out on sheets and battered trestle tables are anything you can conceive. Hundreds of people search through furniture, kitchen implements, and secondhand records. It is also a little shady; I suspect not all of the vendors are operating completely within the law, which adds a factor of danger to the proceedings. This is another side of Rio that the tourists don't see.

From there, it is a short walk to the Cathedral Metropolitana. Any bus with "Centro" above its windscreen from the Zona Sul stops at Praca IVX. Or you can take the swift, spacious METRO to Carioca or Cinelandia. Cinelandia is impressive, especially where it opens up into Praca Floriano. This is one of the grand, open spaces of Rio, almost as good as anything in Portugal or Spain. The northern and southern sides are lined with good, solid Victorian municipal buildings.

The eastern side is a flurry of excess, with the Teatro Municipal dominating. This is based on the Opera Garnier in Paris (one of my favourite buildings in the world) and is a florid building that looks out of place in South America. It has an extravagant, colonnaded façade, topped by statues and cupolas. It looks across to the centre of the Praca square and smack in the middle is an obelisk/monument surrounded by eagles. But best of all was the western side. There was no need for impressive buildings here, as there was a clear view across the parkland towards the Sugarloaf. The great granite mound dominated the horizon, and from the Praca, you could see clear out to sea..

To reach the Cathedral Metropolitana, head north to Largo Carioca (see other journal). Around here is Rio at its busiest. Suited Cariocas dash down from the skyscrapers to grab a bit of lunch in the small bars that dot the area. The usual hawkers and magazine sellers dot the streets, and you can buy sunglasses, corn on the cob, and flowers as you pass along the street.

The cathedral is cut off from central Rio by a huge concrete motorway and takes a little bit of care to reach. First of all, orient yourself by finding the Petrobasbuilding. Another Brazilian high-tech modernist building, this looks like a giant rubix cube soaring over Rio. On its eastern side is Avenida Chile -- follow this north, and you will hit the motorway. Once you have crossed the motorway via its little pedestrian islands, you will find yourself in the sun-blasted car park of the Cathedral.

The Cathedral itself inspires interesting reactions. It resembles a 100-foot Mayan pyramid or concrete teepee. A small mountain was levelled in the sixties for it to be built, and it dominates everything around it. It can be seen from the Santa Theresa tram and even from the viewing platform of the Christo Redentor. This Ferro-concrete conical mountain is unique, being brushed over with indentations which look like honeycomb. It reminded me of the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters. There are three entrances, each facing a different point of the compass. I climbed the steps, and I could already hear Gregorian chanting coming from inside.

Inside it resembles a rocket silo -- a huge, conical ceiling soared above me, showing a Greek cross made out of clear glass. Most impressive were the stained-glass windows that reached 50 feet in the air (see photo). The altar was a central platform surrounded by art-deco statuaries. It was time to find a place to sit and relax to take it all in.

A real Mass was going on at the back, and I could hear the sounds of devotion. I did get a feeling of spiritual awe. Despite, or maybe because of its unprepossessing exterior, this was a church with a strong soul. And for that alone, it got my respect.

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