Bangolo Restaurant looks out over the palms, the broad white sands and rolling surf of Barra Beach.
Bangolo sits at that end of Barra where new luxury hotels and opulent high-rise give way to smaller, older and shabbier buildings. On one side is the local square where the buses from Rio Centro pull in and out, where idle taxis wait, where, in the evening, bands of deadly earnest boys kick a football across a dusty pitch and dream of the Maracana, where, when night falls, shadowy girls sit on the roadside and hope for their time in the purple neon light of the Papillon Motel.
Bangolo is a neighbourhood restaurant, frequented by convivial regulars. Groups merge, blend and expand. The affable staff spend a great deal of their night extending the tables and chairs of Bangolo beyond its borders and into the gallery of graffitti masterpieces that cover the once-grand building next door. On certain nights a band, with the look and sound of 70s and 80s USA, plays old rock covers.
With the band, the convivial neighbours, the friendly staff and their furniture removals, the theatre on the street and the starlit sea, it’s easy to overlook the brilliant baked octopus and the simply sensational caipirinhas.
Since Segundo, the second and final night of the Special Samba Schools’ parade 40 judges have been locked in deliberation. Who will have the coveted first place? Who the second, third, fourth fifth and sixth? Who will drop down the hierarchical ladder and who will go up?
The judging criteria are rigourous. Each school is assessed on 10 aspects of their performance; the bateria, the samba enreda, the visual and acoustic harmony, the flow and spirit of the parade, the spontaneity, passion and vigour of the movement and dance, the development and overall impression of the theme, the visual impact, suitability, diversity and good taste of the floats, props and costumes, how well the vanguard group set the tone for the overall performance, the grace, agility and co-ordination of the flag-bearers. And finally time, as each school must complete their parade through the sambadrome in no less than 65 and in no more than 85 minutes.
Rio awaits the announcement with bated breath. And in homes all over the city, Carioca and tourists alike, make their own predictions.
Tonight, at Rio’s Sambadromo, it is Segundo, the second night of the big Carnaval parade where six of the twelve top Samba Schools battle it out for the highest place of all.
Seven years ago, I was there. The stark concrete stands of the Sambadromo were a rippling landscape of colour; yellow and red for Porta da Pedro, from Sao Gonzalo, across the Rio Niteroi Bridge, red and white, for Salguiero, from the famous Tijuca favela. Green and gold for Imperatriz, from Ramos, blue for Portela, pink and green for Manguera and gold, yellow and blue for Viradouro.
In Frisor stall 12, Fila row B of Setor 9, the Tourist Section, we ’re spitting distance from the avenue. We’re pampered and protected; snacks, drinks, Carnaval paraphernalia are ferried to our seats, security guards watch over us. We’re a foreign world apart. Tourists are precious to Carnaval and to Rio but they’re also fair game in a city where one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. So the wise traveler, at least at Carnaval, toes the tourist line.
Carnaval demands active participation from beginning to end, with hips, feet and voice fully engaged and all senses on high alert. So when Momo sambas down the avenue at 9 pm, the crowd rises like a wave beside him, cheering, clapping, whistling, waving and dancing. Fireworks explode over Avenida Presidente Vargas, the first strident line of Porto da Pedro’s samba enreda splits the air, the drums begin and everyone turns, craning over heads, cameras ready, hips swinging, feet shuffling, cheering, waiting for the first glimpse.
The Vanguard commission leads the parade. Here 12 to 15 dancers, in a highly choreographed and spectacular performance, introduce the school to the crowd. They are followed by the arbre alas, a float which carries the school’s emblem and symbols of the theme.
Each section of the parade is divided into wings, or ala, of 20 to 100 people, all in different costumes. The ala are the building blocks of the parade – legions of foot soldiers, all playing the different characters in this gigantic drama – local people who have won their costumes in dance contests and tourists, who have bought theirs, taking the shuffle of a lifetime down Sapucai under heavy head-dresses.
Between each wing up to 10 floats carry special guests and gorgeous samba dancers in fabulous costumes.
The flag bearers, the porta bandeira and mestre sala are the community’s little people, the humblest even of the most humble favela, known often only by their first names, they are King and Queen at Carnaval. Once, the mestre sala was armed with a knife to protect his lady from attack. Now he merely draws the crowd’s attention to her.
The passistas are a small wing of 15 to 20 of the finest samba dancers. Competition winners, they are a highly honoured star turn.
The School’s Carnaval Queen is chosen for her beauty, self-assurance , congeniality and of course, her samba skill. The Carnaval Princesses are the second and third place winners. Plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, theirs are the figures that launch a thousand flash-bulbs as they samba along Sapucai. Traditionally, they were the beautiful mulatta girls from the favelas, complete unknowns. Many of them still are.
The bahianas, a group of at least 80, represent the soul and the African roots of Carnaval. They are the whirling grandmothers in the traditional wide crinoline skirts of the north-western state of Bahia State, where they are the shamans, the high priestesses. They receive their costumes as a token of appreciation of their years of service to the school.
The little bahianas is the kids group.
The Raina da Bateria (Queen of the drummers) is the beautiful samba dancer who leads and motivates the drummers. Some are celebrities, others are nameless newcomers whose stars will surely rise once they shake their amazing “bum-bums” through the Sambadrome..
The bateria is a contingent of 250 to 350, drums whistles, rattles and shakers. They are the energy and life of the parade.
Behind them comes the sound truck carrying the male vocalist, usually a legend in his own favela.
The harmonia or stewards of the flow keep the parade moving in time and on time and countless “forca” push or pull floats.
The theme binds the whole gigantic spectacle together. It is stated re-stated and underscored in countless ingenious ways in floats, costumes, props and choreography. It links the vast cast of characters in this epic drama. It runs through the samba enreda. Themes range from deep and meaningful, to light and simple and from local to universal. Thankfully, each school’s theme is helpfully outlined in the Carnaval programme, because it is easily lost in the multitude of detail.
It was a long night. As Viradouro turned the last page on the story of Bahia, the sky was light. The peace heart which had shone all night on the hill above the green neon arches had faded into the forest.
Soon, the die will be cast, and Rio will be waiting with bated breath to hear the outcome of Carnaval 2015.
The high point of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, is the Special Schools’ parade which plays out this Sunday and Monday night at the Sambadromo.
Described by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro as the biggest folk festival on the planet and the most spectacular show on earth, the Special Schools’ parade is all of that and more. It is a celebration of the Brazilian people and their rich mix of cultures, of Catholic and Condomblé religious traditions, of characters from ancient civilizations and entities from the new world. It’s a stage where the stories of Brazil itself are told.
The size of this spectacle is staggering. Up to 5 thousand people take part in each Samba School’s procession. Of all ages, of all races and from every corner of their communities, they represent the huge melting pot that is Brazil. There are administrators, resplendent in the colours of their school. There are and teams of technicians in t-shirts. Countless “forca” push or pull floats carrying a huge cast of singers, dancers and acrobats. Conductors orchestrate the hundreds of different drums, whistles, shakers, rattles and shakers of the Batteria. “Directors” and “harmonia” keep the endless ranks of foot soldiers moving in time, on time and smoothly; loyal school members who have practised for months, the tourists, taking the shuffle of a lifetime through the sambadrome, the sambistas, the carnival goddesses, plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, the bahianas, the whirling grandmothers in their sweeping skirts, the kids contingent with their lightning feet and the flag bearers, picked from the neighbourhood’s ordinary youth and transformed, for this one night, into kings and queens.
Each school has a theme which ties the whole gigantic spectacle together. Themes are expressed through countless floats, each one a giant extravaganza with its own brilliant (and significant) show and up to 55 different groups of characters and creatures, all pertinent to the theme and all in dazzling costumes which in some way underscore it. The school’s samba enreda, or especially composed samba song, which accompanies the spectacle (and to which performers and audience alike dance and sing along) also re-states the theme. So does the choreography. Some themes are simple,others are deep and meaningful, others are local, others, again, are universal and some are simply ingenious.
The Carnaval competition is tough and every minute detail of the performance counts -. theme, floats, costumes, choreography, music, animation, spontaneity, crowd engagement and last but not least timing. Every school must complete the procession through the Sambadrome in no less than 65 and in no more than 80 minutes.
Carnival is not for the faint-hearted. Beginning at 9pm when the first fireworks light the sky and the first notes of the samba hit the air and ending at 6am when the last officials samba through the g-string framed buttock-shaped exit arches of the Sambadrome, it’s an all-nighter on full alert – with eyes, ears, voice, hips and feet engaged at all times.
In Rio, Carnaval has begun. The Mayor has handed the keys of the city to Momo, and crowned him King of Carnaval.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The people of Rio de Janeiro are sea creatures who head for the water whenever they have a spare moment. This probably explains why their beaches are ship shape and their city is not. On the weekend downtown Rio has the deserted, grubby look of a house whose occupants have said “To hell with housework, let’s go out and play!” Nevertheless, Centro is fascinating. There are many beautiful historical buildings, magnificent plazas with grand monuments and some quaint little streets.
Praca XV de Novembro is the seat of the old Portuguese Empire and is dotted with monuments and landmarks to its glory, like the Pyramid Fountain and the Statue of General Osario. It is also the site of the Paco Imperial or Imperial Palace.
Constructed in 1703 as a warehouse, the Imperial Palace was converted to accommodate the National Mint and then, in 1743, it was transformed into a residence for the Brazilian Governor.
When the Portuguese Royal family fled Europe it became the Royal Palace of King Joao and the surrounding land became the Largo do Paco.
A great deal of the history of Brazil was played out in this square. It was here that Princess Isabella signed the document which abolished slavery. It was the birthplace of the Brazilian Empire; independence from Portugal was declared here 1889 and the Emperors Pedro I and Pedro II were crowned here. Lastly, its present name commemorates the day that Brazil became a Republic.
Today the Imperial Palace is a Cultural Centre and the rambling halls and galleries now house exhibitions. The Imperial Palace also has a restaurant and a wonderful book/music store with a great little café tucked between the discs and the tomes.
The Praca XV de Novembro is at its best during work hours when there are crowds around to bring it to life. During the weekend, it is rather bleak, lonely and uncomfortable.
Rio de Janeiro is famous for its beaches. Most famous of all is Copacabana, star of a billion photos, setting for innumerable movie scenes, subject of countless songs and favourite haunt of tourists and Carioca (people of Rio) alike.
If the statue of Cristo Redentor represents Brazil’s conservative Catholic soul then Copacabana beach represents its totally unabashed body. Its wide golden sands are domain of the bronzed, the bold, the beautiful and the not quite so beautiful, in bikinis that are barely there.
The body beautiful, and even not so beautiful, is high maintenance and from dawn and dusk, thousands of Carioca jog, bike and skate along the pavements of Copacabana. Thousands of others tan, or belt volleyballs over nets on the sands. Some swim and surf the waves.
On the weekend Copacabana is a city of beach umbrellas and deck chairs. Business booms in tent cafes and chairside peddlars ply everything from ice-creams to colouring books. For millions, locals and tourists alike, the year begins and ends at Copacabana, with one of the world’s greatest New Year parties. Fabulous fireworks light the sky at midnight and big name bands play through the night. The beach police, in runners, shorts and caps, keep Copacabana safe at all times, doubly so at New Year.
But Copacabana is more than just the stretch of sand that runs from Posto Dois or Lifeguard Tower Two to Posts Seis. At either end of the beach are two historical forts. At the north end Fort Duque de Caxias, was built in 1779 by the Portuguese colonists. Fort Copacabana, at the south end, was built in 1914 and went down in Brazilian history in 1922 when 18 officers (Os 18 do Fort) mutinied. Today, a giant ferris wheel turns above the old fort building which houses an army museum and the Café do Fort, an institution among Rio Cafes.
The fort looks back across the beach to the promenade. Here is one of Copacabana’s most striking features and one that has come to symbolise the beach – the black and white mosaic pavements in the pattern of stylised waves.
At the north end of Copacabana’s promenade, a Feira Hippy, or hippy market, does a roaring trade in crafts, art, food and souvenirs, including pareos, printed with the famous Copacabana wave pattern. Apartment buildings, restaurants, clubs, bars and hotels line the promenade. Star among them is the stunning Copacobana Palace, an Art Deco icon built in 1923. Here Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their dancing debut in the film Flying Down to Rio. Today, the red carpet still rolls out for celebrities, royalty and the fabulously rich.
But while there is extreme wealth in Copacabana, there is also extreme poverty. While there are streets lined with opulent apartments and de luxe hotels like the Copacabana palace, there are also favelas or shanty towns like Morro dos Cabritos, Pavão-Pavãozinho, Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia Leme. High walls and heavy security defend the former from the latter. In this, Copacabana mirrors Rio and even Brazil.
The beach, however, is another country, open, boundless and free and Copacabana is just the beginning of miles of glorious coast and many more stunning beaches.