Monday, August 17, 2009

Vacations in Brazil pt. 6

AOG, Praia do Forte

After we left the Baianas, we were led uphill through some of the oldest streets in Bahia. To the right we soon came upon the old Faculty of Medicine, in all its XIX century Neo Classical splendour. And the color! Peach! You gotta love that.

At present it is undergoing a massive facelift sponsored by, as the sign on the door informed us, Spain’s Foreign Cooperation Agency. It turns out that Spain is a big investor in Brazil too (aside from the rest of South America).

Our guide quickly led us past a local arts school and a crafts center to take us into a regular and boring commercial shop filled with non-descript t-shirts and high-end tourist articles. As soon as we could we left that place and walked back towards the local crafts center. It was great!

I wish we had gone there instead, though I’m sure the reasons for the visit to the other place are obvious. Commission by its owners. I don’t think that is the right way to promote the local culture.

The craft center was in fact three rooms. One, the main room which faced the street, was large and displayed all the crafts made there. Dolls, porcelain, even a sofa and armchair made out of recycled coca cola bottles.

The larger room, where we were not allowed in, was were the local residents made their wares. It was a feature of the place that no men were present in the creative area. Macho culture all the way, of course. Women and children were discussing different aspects of design, color, shapes, etc.

The smaller room, up a few steps, held some looms and the fabric produced there.

It all faced a school where uniformed teens waved at us and, mostly, went about the business of being a teenager in a hot country.

We went back to the shop after taking a few pictures and seeing a local man being taken away by an armed policeman.

No handcuffs, he just walked behind him and occasionally took him by the collar. Not aggressive or forceful, but very much in command.

When we got back to the classy store, the salesgirls were dancing for us visitors. They looked happy enough, but I didn’t like that. It was too colonial for me.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be for you to go into a store in New York’s 5th Avenue, or Soho, and for the salesgirls to suddenly break into dance when a group of tourists arrived. Odd feeling.

Saint Francis Church

We left the shop and went up a street towards the famous church and convent of St Francis. It is one of Brazil’s most important colonial Baroque churches.

The most important characteristic of the church is its exuberant inner decoration, mostly executed in the first half of the XVIII century.

All surfaces inside - walls, pillars, vaults and ceilings - are covered by golden sculptured gilt woodwork and paintings. It is a gold leaf paradise.

The altarpieces display the typical Solomonic columns and concentric arches decorated with golden foliage, angels and birds, while the vaults of the aisles are covered by wooden panels with paintings.

Classical Portuguese blue-white tile (azulejo) panels, by Bartolomeu Antunes de Jesus and imported from Lisbon, cover the lower parts of the walls of the main chapel and transept and depict scenes of the life of St Francis of Assisi.

The decoration of the church is considered one of the most complete and imposing in Portuguese-Brazilian Baroque gilt woodwork art, being a perfect example of the "golden church" (igreja dourada).

The guide told us that they used about 18 tons of gold to decorate it, and that it was mostly the Portuguese Royal family and Aristocracy who paid for it.

Jesus loves you...unless you are a slave...

Of course, as we all know, all sorts of people go to church. Even slaves. So a small area to the right of the main entrance was reserved for them.

No pews, no space, and no gold. The walls were white washed and that’s it. They didn’t even get to see the altar, only the side chapels in their gilded glory.

It was also mentioned that most of the cherubs in the church came replete with gonads and that some of them had been altered throughout their lifetime. Nothing like good old fashion censorship and prudery to destroy art.

When we left the church, our vendors were waiting for us. We walked a couple of streets before being led into a local jewellers.

They offered us cold water, which most of us had, then we split. We had about 25 minutes to kill before getting back on the tour. We were then on the Terreiro de Jesus Square.

We were then on the Terreiro de Jesus Square. A small boy came over to us, I’m not sure why. We asked why he wasn’t in school and got a strange small boy reply. Something about his father. I think he wanted money, or candy, or some sort of treat as young children often do.

The square itself is flanked by the School of Medicine, and two more churches including Bahia´s Cathedral, the Catedral Basilica.

This 17th century Basilica dominates the Terreiro de Jesus square at the west end and after a thorough restoration in 1996, it now looks as good as it did when it was first erected by the Jesuits in 1672. On its steps we saw a slice of Brazilian life.

Black Baiana women in costume, beggars, children, men with nothing to do scratching their butts. We even saw some wheeling and dealing here and there. In short, although a colonial center, it is very much a lived in area.

I read somewhere that Bahia has about 365 churches, one for each day of the year.

We took photographs of a local delivery man, a shoe shine, the odd policeman, and walked unto the adjacent square.

There we saw men who had waist-high carts which eschewed music and refreshments in the shape of trains or buses.

Many sleeping dogs; beggars sleeping on doorways; small groups of policemen and women; street vendors; people in suits to-ing and fro-ing; children; laybouts; old men sitting and talking; younger men sitting and plotting.

A few shops lined this new square which was dominated on one side by an old, ancient, Art Deco cinema, and a 7 or 8 story high, glass skyscraper from the 1960s which had definitely seen better days. All styles mix effortlessly.

There even was a small crafts market where nobody bothered to look. So many wares on display and such little interest.

I saw on one side a couple of, yes, you guessed it, music shops. How can one go to Bahia and not take an interest in its music?

We were told time and again how it was the music capital of Brazil. One of them even had, on display and for sale, old records! The kind of music heard about 20 years ago.

I was surprised to see this outside a DJ shop in London or New York. But no, here in Brazil, all eras, ages and technologies co-exist.

At some point we decided to get back and, after walking past the Ibiza Hotel, located on a side street, we almost took a wrong turn into a different World. Suddenly, all the colonial glamour of the area dissipated as we peered, right around the corner, into what I can only describe as an urban slum.

There were a couple of men who looked very jittery when they saw us. Suddenly, there was a different feeling in the air. Here was poverty, and crime, and struggle, and God knows what else.

It was amazing that this underworld lived but one block away from a square so grand, so beau monde and picturesque. But it did and we almost came face to face with it, Canon cameras in hand.

We decided to quickly make our way up the street and rejoin our group. I wanted to take a picture of this demi monde as a memento, but a very self-important hippie kept getting in the picture and hiding his face which made me think he actually wanted to be in the picture.

I did notice he was gesturing at some men about our presence and the cameras. I honestly did not like witnessing that. I could have done without it.

Once back, we all walked towards the La Cerda elevator , located on the Tomé de Souza square, which joins the upper and lower city in all its Art Deco glory.

From the view point we could see down on the lower city and harbor. I have to say that although the view was great, the condition of many buildings was not.

The ones right on the hill were mostly derelict; their roofs caved-in, and the walls bare and falling apart. Greenery everywhere stood as a testament to the life force of the country.

The La Cerda elevator, with its 4 cabins, is the tallest in the world at 72 meters, separating the Tomé de Souza Square from the Praça Cayru in the lower city.

It carries about 28,000 passangers everyday, and was inaugurated in 1873.

On the square you can also see the Rio Branco palace. It was built in 1569 by Brazilian colonial general governor Tomé de Souza, and it was the first house of Brazilian government.

However the building there today is not the original one, since it has undergone various reincarnations throughout its history.

From there we all took a 10 minute walk back towards the bus and off we went to eat.

Finally! We were all starving.

The street vendors who had followed us relentlessly throughout the day slowly began to fade away, only to be replaced by newer, less "official" vendors. Also, a bit more agressive.

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