If I ever move to Rio de Janeiro, I have found the almost-perfect place to live. I think a Portuguese colonial house on the promenade de Luis Alves would do me fine. Their rear gardens and windows look up to the jungles of the Sugarloaf and have views of the great Piton, in all its streaked-granite magnificence. And at the front, the shuttered windows and balconies have views of Bortofago Bay. What a view! Bobbing fishing boats, towering mountains, Centro's skyscrapers, golden beaches, and the Christo Redentor, perched with its arms outstretched, far, far away…
If you need a break from the beaches of the Zona Sul and fancy a nice, scenic walk away from the crowds, then come to Urca. Urca is a district that follows the contours of Bortofago Bay under the shadow of the Sugarloaf. Named after the construction company that built it, it is a wealthy district of very favoured cariocas who live in their own little world, cut off from the rest of Rio de Janeiro. The attraction is that it is very village-like, with very little crime. I felt very safe walking the promenade at Urca. It remains relaxed until well after sundown and allows you to get away from the tourist circus of Copacabana and see where the Cariocas live and what they do for relaxation.
To get there is a little tricky, because there are only two routes in; luckily, both are supplied with buses. Take any bus coming from Centro which stops at the Rio Sul Mall, after the Babilonia Tunnel. Get off there, walk through the mall, and leave by the rear exit. Rua Laura Miller leads from here to the cable-car station underneath the Sugarloaf. You know you are going the right way when you pass suco bars, apartment blocks, and dog-walking Cariocas. This emerges onto Avenida Pasteur, where you can turn right to the cable-car station or cross the road to the route into Urca.
Urca has the feel of an island in the middle of a city. This is reinforced by the fact that the first thing you come to is a wooden bridge over a rather shabby marina. There is a feeling about Urca that it has seen better days. The wide sweep of Bortofago Bay could be seen from here, as well as its white sand beach, the green-yellow parkland of Flamengo, and the skyscrapers of Centro.
A path, followed a balustrade promenade, winds its way along the contours of the bay. Twenty feet below the balustrade were a jumble of rocks, where fishermen stood patiently. The buildings lining the promenade were mainly Portuguese colonial (although I did spot a mock Tudor) and were painted pastel colours. The roofs were terracotta, their balconies contained black grills, and their gardens had palm trees. It could easily have been Lisbon or Oporto.
Vying for my attention were the inhabitants of Urca. I visited on a Saturday morning, and the promenade was very busy. There were numerous fishermen dotted along its length, as well as joggers and people walking dogs -- there was a real sense of community. The fishermen were jolted regularly out of their self-imposed torpors by old friends and joggers stopped to talk to neighbours.
There was a sense of people relaxing on their Saturday, and as I progressed around the bay, the vista from the promenade got better and better until I traversed a headland and found the Praia de Urca -- the neighbourhood beach. The first thing which struck me was the colour of the sand – snow-white. As white as the icing sugar colouring of Copacabana. Then the setting draws you in --a horseshoe-shaped bay with the grey streaked mountain of the Sugarloaf directly behind it. And because it is tucked away in this hidden bay, it is good for families, as the water is so calm. It was a pleasure just to stop and enjoy the scene for ten minutes.
Then, around another headland, the road takes you as far as you can go without trespassing on a military area. The jungles of the Sugarloaf come down right to the sea here, and serious fishing takes place with lots of father/son bonding. But it is also one of the best places to get a view of Guanabara Bay (see photo). You can even see the miniature version of Rio -- Niteroi (featured in my first journal), bluish in the haze.
The flying saucer shape of the modern art museum is visible from Urca on a clear day. And on the Rio side are Centro and Flamengo and that great bus/car racetrack of Avenida Beira Mar. But as ever, the mountainous backdrop was the most impressive. The rolling green monster truly stole the show -- a great crinkled ridge following the horizon with one upturned finger. High above was the lonely Christo Redentor.
Several vegetation-covered karsts could be seen looming out of the gloom in the Bortofago area. They looked like those strange rock outcroppings I'd seen in Phang Nga Bay in Thailand and were smack bang in the middle of the city.
I wondered if Cariocas ever got blasé about the view. There is no doubt that Rio is probably the most spectacularly set city in the world, and living here, would you not notice after a while? I found that hard to believe, and once again -- it happens every time I visit Rio -- I fantasised about living here. An impossibility? If not, then I'll take one of those colonial houses over there, please...