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??