Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world - equivalent to an incredible 35 United Kingdoms - and, after my extended stay in São Paulo, I have only four weeks to see what I can of it. Opting for quality rather than quantity, my plan is to devote three of those weeks discovering Brazil's northeast reagion, the Nordeste,
before spending my final week or so in Brazil in and around its most famous city - Rio de Janeiro.
I say goodbye to a distinctly dreary São Paulo - I wake up on the morning of my flight to the sound of thunder and torrential rain. Rain I can deal with, but the combination of thunder/lightning and flying is not one I particularly look forward to. Take-off from São Paulo's city-centre Congonhas airport is, predictably, very bumpy indeed. My destination, after a quick change of plane in Salvador - a place definitely on my list - is the coastal city of Recife, capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco - well, at least that's where the airport is. Recife "enjoys", if one can use that word, a reputation as one of Brazil's most dangerous, crime-ridden cities. The murder rate in
Pernambuco is among the highest anywhere in the country. Given this fact, and that Brazilian cities in general don't come across as havens of well-ordered urban bliss at the best of times, it goes without saying that I'm not flying to Recife to see Recife. Indeed, a couple of kilometres north of the city is the smaller town of Olinda, Pernambuco's former capital. While modern Olinda is a busy, workaday city of nearly 400,000 inhabitants, it also boasts an old town which is, according to many, unrivalled in beauty anywhere in Brazil, and perhaps beyond.
Tumbling down a steep coastal hill, the colonial heart of Old Olinda is, without a doubt, one of the colonial jewels of South America. A maze of cobblestoned streets and lazy, leafy plazas lined with beautiful and kaleidoscopically-painted old buildings, Olinda is no museum - while tourism, mainly from inside Brazil, is big business here, the old town is also an incredibly vibrant place with a heavy sprinkling of musicians and artists, whose workshops can be found all over the place. Olinda is dominated by a generous serving of beautiful colonial churches and monasteries, whose blindingly white walls and terracotta-tiled roofs contrast beautifully with
the aquamarine waters of the Atlantic, which provide a permanent and stunning backdrop to the towns architectural marvels.
Olinda's past is a turbulent one. Founded in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese (a popular legend suggests the town's name comes from an exclamation by its founder - "Ó! Linda situação para se construir uma vila!" -
"What a beautiful place to build a town!"), the town and area around it, rich in sugarcane plantations, was taken - and the town ransacked - by the Dutch, with whom the Portuguese had less than cordial relations in those days. It was at about the same time that the Dutch snatched another colony out of the hands of the Portuguese: the archipelago of the Banda Islands in the East Indies, which I have previously written about on this blog here
. Unlike in the Spice Islands, where the Dutch remained in control, the Portuguese got their hands back on Olinda in the mid seventeenth century. Today, Olinda's historic heart contains elements of both Dutch and Portuguese architecture, although its baroque, highly ornate churches and monasteries are definitely the latter.
Although I'm here at completely the wrong time to enjoy
it, Olinda is famous throughout Brazil for its pre-Lent Carnaval
, a riotous celebration to rival even Rio and Salvador, during which parades of huge papier-maché figures and musical performances fill the steep, winding streets for days on end. Even outside that time - which sees visitors in their millions pour into the relatively compact colonial centre, and accommodation prices shoot through the roof - there is a lot of colour and music in Olinda. Drenched in colour, with an infectiously lazy pace of life, it could not be more different from São Paulo. As all Brazilians know, there is not one Brazil but many of them, and my first glimpse of the famous Nordeste
shows this to be absolutely true. Indeed, I'm some 2,500 kilometres away from São Paulo and only eight degrees south of the Equator - I may as well be in a different country! Pernambuco cuisine, too, is a world apart - an abundance of seafood combined with unexpected ingredients like coconut milk lend it a distinctly exotic, African-influenced flavour. That, together with tropical delights such as fresh água de coco
(coconut water - a gift from Heaven on hot Nordeste
days) and Brazil's legendary fruit juices
(a whole new range of never-before-heard-of fruits, even after Colombia, awaits me here), make Olinda a treat for the palate as well as the eyes. Not to forget the ears: evening sees Olinda's relaxed residents congregate in the town's balmy streets, sitting outside a hole-in-the-wall bar with a bottle of cerveja estupidamente gelada
(literally, "stupidly cold beer", one of Brazil's number one delights) as local bands play in the small hours.
Olinda is definitely the kind of place you could find yourself stuck for weeks, if not months. Tempting as that prospect is, Brazil's huge Nordeste
has a lot more tricks for me up its sleeve...
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