Published: June 6th 2011May 23rd 2011
Our next destination from Joao Passoa was Olinda, a colonial city two hours away. We got let off the bus in Abreu e Lima, not really knowing how to get to Olinda, but some helpful man showed us where to get the next bus from and from there it was about 45 minutes.
As soon as we got off the bus in Olinda's main square a tourist guide sprang at us, offering pousadas and a tour of the city. We declined his offers, but after a while of looking around for budget accommdation and not being successful we let another tour guide take us to a cheaper place. Unwittingly we somehow arranged a city tour with him even though we didn't really want to take one; explaining to him that we were just going to look around the city ourselves was pretty difficult, and when he finally understood he seemed quite annoyed. One hour in Olinda and we had already made one enemy!
We then took a tourist train around the city for an hour, just to get an idea of the best places to visit. Once it had finished we walked along much the same route the train
had taken, though we took time to stop and look at the buildings and take some photos.
Olinda is a World Heritage site and National Monument, and it doesn't take much wandering to understand why. Historic, colourful houses line the cobbled streets, and along the Bispo Coutinho road you get a great view of the colonial centre, with the modern Recife looming 7km south along the seafront.
The numerous churches are good examples of Brazilian religious architecture, the finest of which we saw on the first day was the Basilica Sao Bento. We couldn't go inside, but the facade was stunning. Olinda has some fine handicraft markets, the Mercado Ribeira being particularly good as the art work was very impressive. We met a friendly artist who asked us about our time in Brazil (thankfully he spoke slowly!) and showed us his work; we couldn't resist buying some!
Whilst we were at the market a friendly man who spoke some Spanish gave us some information about the city and it's carnival, which we found quite interesting. He followed us as we left, offering more information as we were walking. We climbed the hill to the Misericordia church with
him in tow, until it dawned on us that he would at some point demand money. We thanked him for walking us up the hill and said we'd like to explore the rest of the city alone. At this point he demanded money and became a bit aggressive, but we said no and told him we never asked for a tour. He then stormed off back down the hill. Two enemies! We had been told earlier only to give money and take tours with licenced tour guides with badges; seeing as this guy didn't have one we were right to ignore his demand for cash.
With the light fading we headed back to our pousada, stopping briefly at an internet cafe while the guy from earlier loitered outside. Fortunately he had gone by the time we left so we made it back to the pousada safely. What a bizarre day it had been!
The following day we continued to explore Olinda on foot, the highlight being the Sao Francisco convent. A sign inside stated it was on the top 100 list of world's most endangered buildings, unsurprising as the outside in particular looked weary. It was fascinating though,
and very beautiful inside. We walked up the hill to the Cathedral Alto de Se, which again provided great views over the city. However, it was a very grey day, and later when we were browsing some handicraft shops the clouds turned to heavy rain.
We had to get to Recife by 7pm to catch a bus to Salvador, and had planned to go straight from Olinda to the bus station. The continuous downpour made staying in Olinda seem a bit pointless - we had explored most of the historical centre and seen almost everything on our tourist map, so we decided to leave Olinda early and see a bit of Recife before catching our bus.
We had had a mixed experience of Olinda: no question that it is a beautiful city, rich in history, glorious buildings and hidden gems. The churches are beautiful (if a bit run-down) and it is a nice place to walk around and admire. It's not the most relaxing of places though, as we found we were hassled by lots of people offering help and information, seemingly without agenda, only then to demand money. This was out of touch with our experience of
Brazil thus far, and it tarnished our visit a bit. Even when we said we didn't understand them (which we often didn't as most spoke only Portuguese) they would keep talking at us, so the only thing we could do was walk away. The reality is that Olinda is a poor town, with tourism the only real industry, so many of the guys are only trying to fight their poverty.
As the rain continued to hammer down we took a short bus ride in to Recife and then a train out to the main bus station so we could leave our heavy backpacks at left luggage. We hopped back on the train for the half hour ride back in to town, where we spent a few hours walking around the centre. Similarly to Olinda it has many fine building (though not quite so much colour!), though many have not aged well at all, left to rot as modern complexes have sprung up around them. A prime example of this is the house of the oldest newspaper in Brazil, the lilac Diario de Pernambuco. A striking presence right in the centre of the city, but wearing a tired and uncared
The Sao Francisco convent (another one!) and the Capela Dourada - hidden side by side behind some trees on a main road - were atmospheric and stunning, decorated in Portuguese tile and gold. We walked up to see the Governor's Palace and the Teatro de Santa Isabel before heading to our favourite place: the Casa de Cultura. A former prison turned handicraft and shopping mall, it was wonderfully dark and moody; the shops were all tucked inside the former cells. We spent a while browsing while women confused us with magic boxes that we couldn't work out how to open!
After this it was time to catch our bus, which involved getting the train back to the bus station. This gave us an opportunity to experience Brazilian rail travel etiquette at rush hour - and we thought the Victoria line was bad! They all stand exactly where the doors are going to open, and when the train arrives...chaos! They literally fight and rush to get seats. At first we thought it was quite aggressive, but once we had stepped calmly on to the train we realized everyone was laughing (except a kid who had gotten hit
in the head) - it was just a big game! Very bizarre.
We made it to the bus station just in time and caught our bus to Salvador, looking forward to seeing its famous music scene...
There are more photos below