Brazil: Rio part 1: architecture and art

With hindsight, if we’d had the choice, I think I would have wanted to avoid being two of the 1,000,000 tourists descending on Brazil this month. However, it was unavoidable and we still came away feeling that Rio de Janeiro was one of the few places we’ve visited where we could live. It’s got beaches, forest, galleries, theatres, restaurants, music, good residential areas and an efficient transport network. Even in July – its coldest month – it feels like a warm summer’s day in England!

After four and a half months in Spanish-speaking countries, understanding enough to get by, it was challenging being submerged in Portuguese. If you know some Spanish and try to read Portuguese, some words do seem to retain similarities but the pronunciation is (to me) quite unfathomable so speaking and listening were basically impenetrable!

Thankfully, given our inability to communicate and the inflated hostel prices, this was the one place on the trip where we were able to stay with people we knew – my friend Jonathan I met while at university and his wife Becky. Their apartment is in the residential area of Tijuca which was a nice distance from the busier tourist areas and they were great hosts.

We spent five nights there which was long enough to sample some of Rio’s highlights but there was still more we didn’t have time for. Here’s what we got up to:

Friday 11th July

Our bleary morning eyes were greeted with a picture of domestic bliss: a breakfast table laid with coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, bananas, papaya, homemade seeded bread, cheese, ham and an array of condiments including (very excitingly) Marmite (for me), Waitrose peanut butter (for Dean) and Colman’s mustard! We ate our fill and, after consulting some of the Nunns’ many travel guides, set out on our day of wandering.

For 3 Reals (80p), the metro took us into the centre of town where we began by loosely following a Lonely Planet walking tour which pointed out some of the more interesting and historical buildings. The streets were bustling with people from all walks of life: discerning shoppers heavy-laden with bags; living statues costumed and face-painted; office workers on their lunch breaks; hawkers selling Rio souvenirs, snacks and World Cup memorabilia; football tourists filling a non-match day; and countless homeless people lying on benches, the pavement or in doorways, covered by their blankets and protecting their few possessions.

Our first major stop was the Santo Antônio Church, a golden baroque masterpiece, painstakingly restored. We’ve been in a lot of these colonial churches but something about this one made it stand out. Perhaps it was the accessibility, style and detail of the ornate paintings and carvings adorning every wall -close enough to touch – and from floor to ceiling. Perhaps it was the size of the place which somehow balanced intimacy with grandeur in its stillness. Probably a combination of the two.

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The next destination was a church too but one that couldn’t have been more different. Designed by Edgar Fonceca and built between 1964-79, the Metropolitan Cathedral can hold 20,000 people standing. From outside, it looks a bit of a monstrosity, albeit a geometrically pleasing monstrosity! But inside is truly remarkable with its four 64m stained glass windows soaring up to form a cross in the centre of the roof. I’m sure it divides opinion but we liked it.

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Next we took a tour around one of my favourite buildings of all those we saw: the eclectic Municipal Theatre, opened in 1909. First, a video showed us the dramatic restoration process and then we were walked through the impressive interior, a step back in time with a grand sweeping staircase, stained glass windows, mosaics, sculptures and paintings. It was very dark in most parts but hopefully the photos give you an idea of the place.

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More wandering brought us to the Cultural Centre which was hosting a Dalí exhibit with a queue far longer than we wanted to join. Instead we looked around a modern art collection including the likes of Picasso, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and Warhol.

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After this, we boarded an enormous passenger ferry which took us out into Guanabara bay and across to Niterói. Looking back gave us a view of the famous Sugarloaf mountain, the busy airport and some cranes on a boat.

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Once on the other side, we caught a bus a little way to the UFO-like Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1996. Our only goal was to view it from the outside which is fortunate as that’s all we had time for!

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Our return journey (bus, ferry, walk, metro, walk) took considerably longer than expected but eventually we made it home for a bite to eat before heading back out again. Along with some of Jonathan and Becky’s friends, we went to an area called Lapa to experience some of Rio’s nightlife. We took a walk around some of the back streets then strolled the incredibly busy main road, heaving with football fans and locals alike. Most bars, especially all those with live music, were either full or pricey to enter so we settled in a (still packed) cafe for the evening.

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Saturday 12th July

After a very lazy morning and a delicious pancake brunch, we headed out with Jonathan and Becky to an area full of rustic charm named Santa Teresa. Here are a few of my wandering snaps: the street with the award for the best World Cup decorations; flowers growing on electricity cables; a view towards a favela; and a graffiti artist’s cans left on a vertically movable platform.

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This walk brought us to the Lapa steps, a famous staircase between two sets of houses, covered in mosaic tiles by painter and resident Jorge Selarón from 1990 until his death in 2013. He considered the 125 steps as an ever-evolving project which he sold his paintings to fund; when he finished one section he would move to the next. You could spend hours examining all the weird and wonderful tiles from around the world that have been incorporated, providing you have the patience to cope with the throngs of tourists with the same idea! Locals hang out on the steps too, as well as street vendors and, whilst we were there, a busking band (featuring an awful saxophonist!).

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That evening we found a bar with the biggest collection of bottled beers I’ve ever seen on offer. Here we watched the Brazil-Holland football match. There wasn’t much in the way of atmosphere as the Brazilians appeared to be doing a good job of managing their expectations. At the end some even began ironically inflating orange balloons.

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Back home we enjoyed a delectable meal cooked mainly by Becky – chicken in a passion fruit sauce and roasted vegetables. Yum!

The second installment of our time in Rio will be with you very soon but I thought it’d be best to split it since there was 50% more writing than my usual maximum length! No doubt a trial for even the most committed readers among you! Until then…

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