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Published: February 1st 2010
View of modern Sao Luis from the old town
São Luís is the capital of the state of Maranhão.
Although the city is considered one of the best examples of Portuguese architecture, it was founded by the French who arrived there from Saint-Malo and Cancale in 1612 under the leadership of Daniel de La Touche, lord of La Ravardiére.
They built a fort on the island of Upaon-Açu and gave it the name of Saint-Louis. This was not appreciated by the Portuguese who, thee years later, sent Jerônimo de Albuquerque who took control of the fort. I could add, for those who want to know more, that the city came under Dutch rule from 1641 to 1644 when the city was finally settled under Portuguese rule.
My apologies for this extensive course of history, but I find it fascinating to see how the European powers at the time managed to fight each other so far away from their own borders.
The economy was based, with the help of slavery, on the production and exports of sugar, cocoa and tobacco. Later on, cotton became an important factor.
With the end of slavery in 1888 the city went into decline.
Today it has about one million inhabitants. The rio Anil separates
View of modern São Luís from Ship
the new modern city from the 'centro historico' which has been declared a world heritage site by Unesco in 1977.
The Portuguese colonial houses, beautifully decorated with azulejos have been restored and the historical center has an undeniable charm.
We did a short visit to the new city, a modern city with the inevitable skyscrapers and situated on the sea shore. Nothing special there, so let's focus on the historic center.
The most imposing building is the Palácio dos Leões. Built in 1766 on the site of the original French fort it serves today as the palace for the governor of the state of Maranhão. The building and its 'salons' can be visited, but no pictures can be taken. Superb furniture, original paintings, baccarat crystal and 'porcelain de Sèvres' are the main features.
The palace faces the sea on one side and a very peaceful square with other nice buildings on the other side. One of the buildings serves as 'palace' for the mayor of São Luís.
One of the main streets is the Rua da Estrela where at night the terraces of the restaurants are full with tourists which gives it a special vacation feeling. The 'polícia
turistica' is there to reassure everybody. Drug addicts and other beggars are around, but are never too insistent as they know the police is not far. Although this aspect is not that pleasant, we never felt insecure in the center.
Maranhão is culturally very rich and has many festivals and celebrations. One of them is the Festa do Divino which is remarkably explained in the Centro de Cultura Polpular. During the visit we saw many of the costumes and artifacts and were explained that this religious festival lasts for several days, takes place in May in neighbouring Alcântara. Food is served for all who show up and local worthies or notables are under pressure each year to volunteer its financing.
Another very famous festival is the Bumba-Meu-Boi which tells with dances and parades the story of the live, death and resurrection of an ox. This festival takes place at the end of June and is very popular in North and North-East Brazil. The Casa do Maranhão is a museum where all this is explained.
The museo de Artes Visuais is located in an old building, covered with azulejos. We found this museum very interesting as the building
itself was a superb example of colonial Portuguese architecture and the eclectic items on display were instructive.
Alcantara lies on the other side the bay of São Marcos, it takes about one hour boat trip to get there. Created in 1648, it was an important agricultural and commercial centre.
It is in decline since the XIX century. It looks like a Portuguese village of which half are ruins.
The city is peaceful and gets a certain charm from its cobblestone streets, its tiled houses and ruins. Visiting this city is a must for whoever comes to São Luís. On the boat bringing us there we faced a tough sea but were entertained by a local group of youth who kept singing during most of the journey. A papier-mâché bull escaped from a bumba-meu-Boi festival was part of the party.
After a few days in São Luis we were ready for the last step in our northern visit: the “Parque Nacional de Lençoís Maranhenses'.
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