Rio’s Carnaval has begun

In Rio, Carnaval has begun. The Mayor has handed the keys of the city to Momo, and crowned him King of Carnaval.

Batteria of the Banda da Barra
Batteria of the Banda da Barra

According to local legend, this maestro in top hat and tails was the god of mockery in ancient Greece until he offended Zeus and was banished from Olympus. He was re-born in Rio, centuries later, as the god of Carnaval. Every year, before Ash Wednesday signaled the beginning of Lent, he unlocked the city and unleashed three days of revelry. He overturned order and threw out routine. He freed the slaves and called a halt to work. Everyone took to the streets for the Carnaval Parade; slaves dressed as royalty and the rich dressed as paupers, men dressed as women and women as men.  There were street dances. There were masquerade balls. It was Carne Vale or farewell to the flesh; a time to feast and enjoy because six weeks of abstinence lay ahead, a time to run free and make merry before another year shackled in drudgery.

Today, still, once Momo holds the keys, the serious work of Rio goes out the window. The festivities that have been gathering force for weeks erupt in a celebration that brings the whole city to a standstill. Everyone packs up to party. Although slavery and the Lenten fast are things of the past, the spirit of Carnaval remains the same – set yourself free, party and have fun because in a few short tomorrows the holidays are over, work resumes, school starts, the summer ends and the dreary routines of everyday life close in.

The traditions of Carnaval are much the same too – just bigger and bolder with all the scope and freedoms of the 21st century. There are hundreds of masquerade balls now. The Copacabana Palace Hotel’s Magic Ball, where the global glitterati turn out in luxurious masks and costumes, is the certainly the biggest. The Gay Costume Ball, where the exotic and outrageous make spectacular entrances, then dance the night away while the TVs of the world watch, is certainly the boldest. But there is just as much fun to be had at the Samba Schools’ Balls, with the drummers, the sambistas and the schools’ big stars,  in nightclubs under the arches of Lapa or at the street dance in Cinelandia, in Sambaland, the Carnaval village near Praca Onze. or at the simple neighbourhood bloco. This weekend every favela and suburb pulses to the beat of the samba.


The Bloco da Barra

As Rio counts down to Carnaval, the Blocos begin.

The bloco da Barra
The bloco da Barra, 2009

All over Rio the beach crowds are building.  Posto 9, the lifeguard’s tower that marks the Gay Kingdom of Ipanema, is lost in a forest of rainbow flags.  Even at our own quiet, Barra Beach, the tent cafes have mushroomed into a mall. Every morning trucks from distant favelas spill forth black and white Carnaval clones, gangs of kids with bleached hair and ebony skins. They run all day, around ever-increasing circles of umbrellas, ferrying caipirinha to colonies of bikinis and speedos. The beach becomes a bustling market place; bikini boutiques set up under makeshift pareu shelters, chair to chair salesmen pedal sunglasses, sunscreen, kites, colouring books. Samba bands thread their way through avenues of deck chairs. I make beach friends with my next towel neighbour, Camilla, just inches away.

But two sunny afternoons later, the distant sound of drums scatters the entire beach company. Camilla and I part in the melee. We never meet again, because like real beach friends we haven’t swapped numbers.

Up on the promenade, the Banda da Barra has begun . Like its 17th century Portuguese colonial ancestor the cordoe, the bloco is a street parade with music, costumes and wags tossing water about. There are at least 400 bloco in Rio. Many are huge, spectacular and famous. Their domains are the streets of Rio Centro and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

The Banda da Barra, however, is a modest, neighbourhood affair. A couple of trucks carry local dignitaries, singers and beauty queens. Families of cartoon characters and lads in drag, bikinis and speedos, pareus and towels, bare-chested, bare-footed boys, prams, wheelchairs, scooters and bikes, beach merchants, beer merchants with supermarket trolleys and can collectors all follow the bateria (band).  We fall in behind. The Preifetura (council) tanker sprays us with water as we shuffle along. The samba is infectious. First our feet are smitten. Our hips go next. Soon we’re possessed.

Blocos form within the Banda da Barra. (Banda, blocos, bonda they’re all the same thing – street festivals!) The Bloco da Bundao (Bloco of the bum) sets up headquarters in the kiosk just over the road. We samba nights away there to a band with an ever-changing line up of neighbourhood grandmas and grand-dads, mums and dads and kids, in the Bloco uniform, a red and yellow t shirt with a bunda logo.

Cidade do Samba

In September 2005, when Rio’s twelve Special Samba Schools moved into Cidade do Samba, the spectacular new complex of workshops down in the Gamboa dockland district, it was the realization of a long-held dream. It was also a further affirmation of the place of the Samba as the country’s national dance and of Carnaval as Rio’s premier event. It was one more step in Rio’s, if not Brazil’s, historical journey.

Cidade do Samba
Cidade do Samba

The Sambadromo, which opened in 1984, had given the Samba and Carnaval its own special stage. But for over half a century, the Samba Schools had dreamed of a dedicated site where they could put together the fantastical floats and costumes which embody the themes of their spectacular parades.

Until mid last century, a single float, decorated in a local yard, led each school’s parade. But as the floats multiplied in numbers and developed into complex stage sets, more space was needed. Makeshift community workshops were set up in barracoes or sheds. In time these too proved inadequate and inconvenient. A large central space was needed. In the 1970s the Mayor turned over the half-ruined Sao Cristovao Pavilion to the Samba Schools but fire broke out in the ramshackle building and in the 80s the workshops moved again, to the abandoned warehouses near the Docklands. They were closer to the Sambadrome, but as Carnaval grew into a giant extravaganza worthy of the new venue, the dockland workshops became more inadequate.

Finally, in 1999, the Mayor, Cesar Maia, agreed to build Cidade do Samba or Samba City, a complex of permanent Carnaval workshops on the disused rail yards near the docks in the Gamboa District. It was a significant site. Gamboa lies at the centre of the famed “cradle of Samba” between Santo Cristo and Saude, where in the 18th century, the slave markets flourished, where the first Sambas were danced to the beat of African drums, where they evolved and blossomed into the great Brazilian boogie of today and where some of Carnaval’s greatest stars and sambistas made their homes.

Work began on Cidade do Samba in August 2003. Designed by architects Joao Uchoa and Victor Vandelay, it is modeled on the old Gamboa warehouses which surround it. It is built around a central plaza and consists of 14 workshops providing all the technical and technological support needed to realize the Carnaval parade – 12 metre high ground floor float assembly areas, top floor costume, millinery and props workshops, sculpture and modeling studios, along with bathrooms, kitchens, canteens and offices.

Samba City’s 19000 square metre complex welcomes thousands of visitors each year. Not only can they tour the workshops and see the Carnaval floats and costumes in progress but they can also see snippets of parades past and future, in Samba City’s shows and exhibitions. There are Snack Bars and restrooms. Boutiques sell Carnaval paraphernalia and souvenirs.

True to the spirit which gave birth to the Samba Schools and which governs them still, a large section of Samba City houses a sports complex, with facilities for underprivileged communities.

Rio’s Sambadromo

The Sambadromo, Carnaval, 2009
The Sambadromo, Carnaval, 2009

The Sambadromo, the home of Carnaval, is a one-off among world stages, a uniquely Rio answer to a peculiarly Rio question – how to create a fitting venue to contain and channel the huge extravaganza, which, by the 1980s, had grown too unwieldy and unruly for the streets?

The final solution was sketched in 1984, by Oscar Niemeyer, the godfather of modern Brazilian architecture, on a paper napkin, in a bar. It was completed just 120 days later.

Named the Sambadromo for the Samba, the official dance of Carnaval, it is also located, fittingly, in the birthplace of the samba, in the heartland of the favelas, or shanty towns.

The architecture of the Sambadromo also gives a nod to the dance; two giant arches represent the g-string framed buttocks of the sambista, the gorgeous, dancing goddess of Carnaval. And thank goodness for this bold flourish. Otherwise the Sambadromo is a great, grey, terraced, concrete canyon wrapped around a 590 metre long, 13 metre wide procession route.

This is definitely a building that needs a crowd. Empty, it’s quite forbidding. Packed to capacity, with a 70, 000 strong crowd flying the colours of their Samba School, a procession of 3000 brilliantly costumed performers and the unforgettable sound of the batteria or the drums, it’s amazing!


The Maracana

They say that Brazil is governed by three great passions – religion, the beach and football ( in Portuguese, futebol). It stands to reason, then, that along with the statue of Cristo Redentor and Copacabana, Rio’s Marancana stadium is one Brazil’s most famous landmarks.

A fragment of the front of the Maracana
A fragment of the front of the Maracana

The Maracana was built to host the 1950 FIFA World Cup tournament. It was designed by local architects Miguel Feldman, Waldir Ramos, Raphael Galvão, Oscar Valdetaro, Orlando Azevedo, Antônio Dias Carneiro and Pedro Paulo Bernardes Bastos and the foundation stone was laid on August 2, 1948.

Although the stadium was still unfinished, on June 16, 1950, the inaugural match took place. The historic first ball was placed in the Maracana’s goal by Didi and the Rio de Janeiro All-Stars defeated São Paulo All-Stars 3 to 1. Eight days later, on June 24, 81,000 spectators crowded into the still unfinished stadium to witness its first World Cup match. Brazil beat Mexico 4 to 0 and Ademir scored the stadium’s first FIFA goal. On July 16, 1950, an estimated 210, 000 people turned out at the still uncompleted stadium to witness Brazil’s shock loss to Uruguay in the final round disaster which has gone down in football history as the “Maracanazo”.

Although the stadium was not finally completed until 1965, it continued, throughout the fifteen years following the World Cup, to draw enormous crowds to Rio club games and to Brazilian football cup finals.

In 1966, the Maracana was officially re-named Estadio Jornalista Mário Filho, after the Brazilian journalist who had been a tireless campaigner for the construction of the stadium. However, the old name Maracana refuses to die and it is still the one best known to soccer fans the world over.

The Maracana has seen great Brazilian football moments. In 1969, Pele scored the 1,000th goal of his career there, against Vasco, in front of 125,000 spectators. In 1989, Zico scored his final goal for Flamengo at the Maracanã, taking his goal tally at the stadium to 333.

It has also seen tragic times. On July 19, 1992, an upper stand in the stadium collapsed.  Three spectators were killed and 50 more were seriously injured. After this incident, the Maracana became an “all-seater stadium” with a greatly reduced capacity. It was closed for renovations in 2006 and re-opened in January 2007 with an all-seated capacity of 88,992.

Since the 1980s the Maracana has played host to numerous non-football events. Pope John Paul II has said mass here. On January 26, 1981, Frank Sinatra sang to crowd of 150,000 here. 180,000 people gathered to hear Tina Turner, in 1988 and again to hear Paul McCartney in April 1990. Sting, Madonna and the Rolling Stones have all played twice at the Maracana. Great music festivals, like Rock in Rio, have taken place here. On July 13, 2007, the stadium hosted the opening ceremonies of the XV Pan American games. Then, of course there were the FIFA World Cup games of 2014.

In 1998, the Maracana was classified as “real estate”. In Brazilian terms this means that it is a heritage site and is there to stay, which is a wonderful thing for the millions of football fans who consider it sacred soil.



Just over the hill from Copacabana at Ipanema the broad golden sands, the rolling waves, the beach volleyball nets, the black and white wave patterned pavements, the kiosks on the promenade, the lifeguard stations, the tent cafes, the deckchairs, the sun umbrellas, the lines of apartment buildings overlooking the road and the avenue of palm trees, continue. So does the society of sunseekers, surfers, joggers, volleyballers, buyers and sellers. It’s the same coastline and the same beach culture.

Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro
Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

But for all that, Ipanema is quite a different place. It was a chic, rather exclusive and relatively quiet beachside suburb until Vinicius Morais wrote his legendary song, The Girl from Ipanema, and brought it to the attention of the world.

The café where he watched the girl on her walk to the sea and penned the song is now something of a shrine. Its original name has long been forgotten. Today, it’s La Garota do Ipanema. The lyrics and music are inscribed on the wall. Nearby is a framed newspaper article showing the once “young and lovely” garota, now, as a middle-aged aspirant for the local council. The café teems with tourists. But it’s still clearly a neighbourhood haunt where locals meet or wander casually through, sometimes in bikinis and speedos, on their walk to the sea.

Although Vinicius’ girl from Ipanema has grown old, her tall and tanned “grand-daughters” now stroll down the streets of Ipanema to the sea. So do their beautiful brothers.

Over the years Posto 9 or Lifeguard Station 9 has become the meeting place for Rio’s gay community. A rainbow flag flies nearby and at holiday and festival times, like Carnaval, spot on the sands of Ipanema becomes a gay (in both senses of the word) international village.

Pao D’Acucar, Rio’s Sugar Loaf

In a landscape studded with steep spectacular peaks, Pao d’Acucar, or Sugar Loaf, at the entrance to Rio de Janeiro’s Guanbara Bay, is one of the most imposing.

Pao D'Acucar, the Sugar Loaf
Pao D’Acucar, the Sugar Loaf

Although it was discovered and named by the Portuguese in 1500, it was not conquered until 1917, when a fearless English woman scaled the sheer granite face and planted the Union Jack on the summit.

Today, a cable car swings tourists by the tens of thousands up to the top of Pao d’Acucar. If not, I would most certainly not have enjoyed its unforgettable walks and views.

It’s a thrilling, but not too terrifying, two-stage trip up in the state of the art Swiss-made bubbles which give panoramic vistas from top, bottom and all sides, of treetops, sky, city and sea. The first stop is at 734 feet high Morro D’Urca, or Urca Hill, which stands just in front of Sugar Loaf. Here, we strolled along paths lined with native bush, enjoyed the views from a number of lookout platforms, sat in the amphitheatre, and had a coffee in the café while bracing ourselves for the next stage – the assault on Sugar Loaf.

The cable car hurtled across a divide of dense treetops, towards the vertical rock mountainside. Up close, it is pitted, grainy and sunlight glitters on its surface like a sprinkling of sugar. I could see then, that it was texture as much as shape that inspired the first Portuguese to name it Pao d’Acucar.

The view from the top of this rock 1,320 foot rock is certainly sensational. The whole of Rio fans out on one side. On another, the Atlantic Ocean sweeps away from miles of golden beaches and melts into the horizon. Guanabara Bay lies below, as still as a pond. On the neighbouring peak, Cristo Redentor stands with his arms outstretched against the sky.


Santa Teresa

High on the hills overlooking downtown Rio sits Santa Teresa, one of Rio’s oldest, prettiest and most fascinating neighbourhoods. It takes its name from the Convent established here by Portuguese nuns in the 18th century. In the 19th century influential colonials settled in Santa Teresa and built the grand mansions and the turreted castle which give the area its distinctive architectural character. In the 20th century, when the wealthy abandoned the hills for chic new beachside suburbs, it became “the Montmartre of Rio” an enclave for artists, patrons of the arts and the Bohemian set.

One of Santa Teresa's beautiful old houses
One of Santa Teresa’s beautiful old houses

Santa Teresa is still “the Montmartre of Rio”, home to a thriving artists’ colony. One of the city’s big cultural events is Arte de Portas Aberdas (Art with open doors) festival in July, when the artists of Santa Teresa open their doors to the public. However, on weekends throughout the year, many studios and workshops welcome visitors and art works are on display on the sidewalks and in garages. One of Rio’s most interesting art museums, the Museu Chacara do Ceu is located in Santa Teresa. Set in a beautiful garden created by the great Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx, it houses the Raymundo Castro Maya collection which includes works by native sons like the brilliant Candido Portinari. The Parque das Ruinas, erstwhile home of Laurinda Santos Lobo, an early patron of Brazilian arts, is Santa Teresa hallowed soil. Little of the house remains but regular concerts and art exhibitions are held in the grounds which have sensational views of the city.

As one would expect from an area so steeped in creativity, Santa Teresa has a wealth of unusual shops crammed with quaint and irresistible treasures. Colorful, exotic and enticing, they beckon from every curve of the cobblestone streets; places like Atelie Ze Andrade which sells exquisite china dolls (some in the image of celebrities!) or La Vereda which sells amazing furniture, light fittings and ornaments.

Naturally bars and cafes abound in the Montmartre of Rio. The best, from a tourist point of view, have their own particular twist but offer a singularly Brazilian experience, like Bar do Mineiro which lays claim to some of the city’s best caipirinhas and Simplesmente which hosts evening samba jam sessions from Monday to Saturday. The same goes for restaurants and Espirito Santa serves up some of Rio’s best traditional Brazilian cuisine all in its own divine way.

Quaint and old world lends itself to B and Bs, Backpackers and boutique hotels and behind the facades of many of Santa Teresa’s lovely old homes are bunkrooms, communal kitchens, tarted-up guest rooms and tiny ensuite bathrooms. But contemporary, luxury hostelry, too, is represented on the hill and the Hotel Santa Teresa, Rio 80 and Relais Solar are some of Rio’s latest and finest.


But the stand out among all of Santa Teresa’s attractions is the journey up there on the rattling open sided bondinho or little tram. The queues at the station down in Rua Lelio Gama, just off the Praca Carioca are long but it’s worth the wait. The bondinho trundles off past cone-shaped ultra-modern Saint Sebastian Cathedral and rattles across the magnificent old stone arches which span the district of Lapa, one of Rio’s liveliest nightspots. The arches were built originally in 1732 as the Carioca Aqueduct which carried water from the Carioca River to the city. The bondinho groans up an almost perpendicular hillside, through a cutting and into Santa Teresa’s main street. Here, the tourists begin drop off and local lads latch on, clinging to the window ledges with barely a toe-hold on the steps, along just for the thrill of the ride. Nobody seems to mind. The little tram winds along, through the village and around the hills. More people peel off and others attach themselves to the sides. The tramline ends outside a church in a small piazza, on a hillside on the far edge of Santa Teresa, looking down on the city. The bondinho rests for five minutes. The few remaining tourists mill about while the locals stride off down the narrow lanes. Then the bondinho sounds a tinny bell, the tourists take their seats, the lads take the steps, more passengers stroll up and the journey back begins.

A seat on the bondinho costs about 50 cent, one way. Standing on the steps is free. The experience is priceless.


As the name suggests, Cinelandia was once the domain of movie dreams.

Rio Branco, Cinelandias
Rio Branco, Cinelandia

It was built on the vision of Mayor Pereira Passos at the beginning of the 20th century.  Laying waste old, narrow streets and run-down buildings, broad, new, Parisian-style Avenida Rio Branco forged a path from the inner city to the sea. Monuments to the nation’s grandeur, like the art nouveau Biblioteca Nacional and the neo-classical Museu de Belas Artes stood side by side with glamorous cafés terrasses. The centerpiece of the Avenida Rio Branco was the magnificent Teatro Municipal, designed by the Mayor’s son, Francisco Oliveira Passos and modeled on the Paris Opera. A romantic sculpture in the Piazza told the story of a young country nurtured by the church and sheltered by the state.

When it was finished this wonderful new area became the domain of Rio’s smart set – there to see and be seen.

In the 1930s Avenida Rio Branco lit up with neon and the city’s first cinemas opened their doors on silver screen dreams for a new smart set.  Pereira  Passos’ great domain became Cinelandia.

All this is still there, down in Cinelandia but its grandeur has faded. The mosaic pavements are dotted with broken tiles. The Teatro Municipal is shrouded in scaffolding while the Biblioteca Nacional and the Museu de Belas Artes are jaded. Most of the cinemas are now evangelical Christian churches, opening their doors on a new vision.

Rio’s dispossessed and homeless wait at the bus stops, but not for buses. Skinny kids play near the statue under the indifferent gaze of the stone padre. Still, Cinelandia is a “must see” in Rio, a special glimpse of what it once was, what it has become and what it could be.

French Rio Centro

Although the Portuguese Royal family had fled Europe ahead of Napoleon’s army, their respect for French culture was as strong as their fear of French military might. In establishing Rio de Janeiro as the centre of the new Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve turned to France for inspiration. All over old Rio Centro there are lovely little pockets of la belle France.

Rua Ouvidor, Rio Centro
Rua Ouvidor, Rio Centro

The first regent, Dom JoaoVI, drew heavily on the expertise of the French Mission which arrived in Rio in 1816. The Mission brought many artists, including Jean Baptiste Debret and Nicolas Taunay, who were instrumental in the development of a national art. It also brought a number of paintings which were to form the basis of a national collection.  Most importantly, the Mission brought architects like Grandjean de Montigny, who shaped much of the cityscape of old Rio, including the beautiful neo-classical building in Avenida Branco, which is now the Museu de Belas Artes. De Montigny’s greatest triumph, however, was the Casa Franca-Brasil on Rua Visconde de Itaborai. This magnificent neo-classical building has twenty four Doric columns, made of wood, but painted in a trompe l’oeil marble effect, supporting a huge dome with a central skylight. It first opened in 1820 as the city stock exchange. After stints as a customs house and a bank archive, the Casa Fraca-Brasil is now a cultural centre.

Over the next century the people of Rio continued to look to France. The Belle Epoque took its own special form in Rio Centro. Narrow, quaint Rua Ouvidor is lined with cafes, bars and tiny shops with an air of old Paris. The Confiteria Manon and even more so, the Confiteiria Colombo, in Rua Concalvas Dias, have all the style of Parisen Salons de Thé. The faded grandeur of Amarello, on Cinelandia’s Avenida Rio Branco, smacks of the brasseries of Paris. Nearby, the Teatro Municipal, designed by Francisco Oliveira Passos and opened in 1909, is modeled on the Paris Opera.

Rio’s architectural and cultural debt to France was brilliantly acknowledged in 2009’s  Carnaval. Samba school Grande Rio chose France in Rio as its theme and not only rebuilt old “French” Rio, but also brought to life the “style de vie” of those times. The coup de grace was that the French Government funded the venture!