Published: August 7th 2007July 16th 2007
When I was young, I had an article about an English convict, torn from a newspaper, pinned to a corkboard in my room. All I knew was this man had taken part in something called the Great Train Robbery, escaped from jail, and was now living happily in Rio de Janeiro. Something about this seemingly insouciant rogue appealed to my preteen self. I decided I would one day go to Rio and visit this Ronnie Biggs character.
The article grew yellow, and in the meantime I slowly added to my 'Rio - To Do' list: See massive statue of Christ atop mountain; Purchase self fruit headdress à la
Carmen Miranda. In 2001 a 71-year old Ronnie Biggs, apparently unable to meet medical costs following a stroke, left Brazil and returned to Britain voluntarily. He was re-imprisoned and is currently serving the remaining 28 years of a sentence originally imposed in 1964. Aside from the pity evoked by the image of an ailing pensioner being carted off to jail, I couldn't help but selfishly feel the pang of missed opportunity, as one of my tween fantasies was obliterated.
And then one day I found myself with a plane ticket to
Rio, and memories of that dog-eared article. I had read there was an entry for Biggs in the Rio phone book in the days when he lived there, so I googled it. And there it was. My three travelling companions were somewhat bemused by my little pilgrimage ('bemused' is probably the politest way of putting it, since the expedition involved climbing some rather steep, cobbled hills in the Santa Teresa district, based solely on a childhood whim and a possibly inaccurate Internet search result). But they humoured me. And so we came across an elegant building, high up in a sunny, peaceful neighbourhood, with a SKY satellite dish projecting from one wall. I like to think we found the right spot.
A more usual place of pilgrimage is the Cristo Redentor
(or Christ the Redeemer) statue, recently in the running to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. In an effort to place this mountaintop monolith in the Top Seven, Cariocas
(as Rio's inhabitants are known) were urged by text message to "Press 4916 and vote for Christ". It worked.
From this vantage point, another one of the city's landmarks is visible. The Pão de Açúcar
, or Sugarloaf Mountain, is home to a cable car, which carries visitors between two peaks and provides panoramic views of Rio. The Cariocas
claim that God made the world in six days, and on the seventh he came up with their Cidade Maravilhosa
or Marvellous City. He certainly crammed a lot in amongst the numerous peaks that rise from the sea: beaches, jumbled favelas
(Brazilian shanty towns), one of the largest football stadia in the world, and a rainforest. Always one for a dramatic location, James Bond ascends the Sugarloaf in the film 'Moonraker', fighting the villain Jaws on top of the cable car. Whether that other British rapscallion ever visited this tourist attraction during his years in Rio I don't know. Should I ever meet Mr. Biggs I'll ask him.
There are more photos below