Two Rio Centro churches

Just as important a part of Brazil’s early history as the Portuguese Crown was the Catholic Church and houses of worship form much of the landscape of Rio de Janeiro’s historical centre. Many of them are clustered around the Praca XV Novembre and the Paco Imperial.

Igreja do Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Antigua Se
Igreja do Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Antigua Se

Diagonally opposite the Paco Imperial, on the corner of Rua 7 de Setembro and Rua Premeiro de Marco is the Igreja do Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Antigua Se, or Carmo Church. It was built in 1761 and the carved rococo interior was finished by master sculptor Inacio Ferreira Pinto

The history of Carmo church is as closely linked to Brazil’s as the Praca and the Paco. The ashes of Pedro Alvarez Cabral, who discovered the country, lie in the main crypt. The Portuguese Royal family worshipped here. Princess Isabella was married here and the ceremony of the anointing of the Emperors Pedro I and Pedro II took place here.. In its 250 year life, many Rio babies’ heads have been wet at the beautiful marble baptismal font, many young Carioca brides have walked down the aisle under the magnificent painted ceiling, to their groom, waiting at the silver ornamented altar.

Just off Rua Premeiro de Marco in Rua Ouvidor, is the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Lapa dos Mercadores. Built by the local congregation of street vendors, it is far more modest shrine than Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Antigua Se. Still, with its exquisite carved wooden ceilings and walls as well as its stunning sacristy skylight, it is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful churches in Rio. Although the church saw no great royal occasions, it was however, touched by an important piece of Brasilian history and still today bears the mark. During the Naval revolt of 1893, cannon fire toppled the marble statue of the Madonna from the bell tower. The Madonna survived and was restored to the tower and the cannonball now rests in the sacristy.

These are just two of Rio Centro’s many religious houses. There are many other churches, monasteries and convents, all with their own beauty and interest

Rio Centro

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.

Exhibition Hall at the Imperial Palace
Exhibition Hall at the Imperial Palace

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.

Copacabana Beach at Sunset
Copacabana Beach at Sunset

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.

Cristo Redentor

There are 19 days now until Carnaval  begins and I fill them in with a bit of sightseeing. I begin with Brazil’s most famous monument.

Cristo Redentor stands at the summit of Corcovado, the highest point of Rio’s jagged skyline, with his head against the sky, the lush green of the forest under his heel, the sprawling city soft and hazy at his feet and the Atlantic Ocean sweeping away into infinity beneath his outstretched arms.

Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor

He is Cristo Redentor, the largest art deco statue ever built, the picture postcard image of Rio, the symbol of Catholic Brazil and one of the seven man-made wonders of the world.

The Catholic Circle of Rio proposed the idea of a national monument, in the form of a statue of Christ in 1921. The first stone was laid in 1922 and in 1923, a national fundraising programme, Semana do Monumento, (Monument week) raised the $250,000 for construction. The statue was designed by Carlos Oswald. Its reinforced concrete core was constructed by engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and its soapstone outer layer was sculpted by the French sculptor Paul Landowski. When statue was inaugurated, on October 12, 1931 the Cardinal of Brazil, Cardinal Leme consecrated the Brazilian nation “to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, acknowledging him always as its Lord and King”.

Cristo stands 38 metres tall on its pedestal. Its arm span is 30 metres wide and it weighs 635 tonnes. On the statue’s 75th anniversary, the Archbishop of Rio consecrated the chapel of Nossa Senhora Aparecida (the patron Saint of Brazil) in the pedestal of the chapel. Baptisms and weddings are held here and many of the visitors to Cristo pause for a moment of prayer. Dress codes apply!

The trip up to Cristo on the Corcovado Railway from Cosme Velho, the old town, through the Tijuca forest is an experience in itself. Built in 1884, the train is vintage Rio and when it was electrified in 1901, became the first electric railway in Brazil. It rattles straight up the mountainside at an alarming angle. Looking forward, branches of Brazilian rosewood and cedars tumble towards you. Through the open windows of the train you can smell the cinnamon trees, see the butterflies and feel the soft, cool air of the forest. Looking back, if you can bear the vertiginous sensation, you can see the city fall away into a pattern of rooftops.

There are 220 steps from the train to the statue and it’s worth walking them rather than sailing straight up the escalator to the foot of the statue. The stairs give a different vista both of the city and of Cristo. There’s a sense of the pilgrimmage, with even relics (souvenir shop!) and sustenance (café!) Then the breathless, slightly light-headed state on arrival just adds to the moment.

Standing in Cristo’s mighty shadow, dazzled by the shaft of sunlight that falls across his shoulder, with the clouds turning above me, the treetops of Tijuca swaying at my shoulder, the shining white towers of Rio below and the infinite Atlantic surging beyond them, I’m lost for words. When I find them they’re words like grandeur, majesty and splendour.

Samba songs

In the last weeks of the countdown to Carnaval, there’s music everywhere. Bands invade the streets with old samba classics, songs that go back to the legendary Tia Ciata’s secret samba parties in little Africa 100 years ago, songs like Caninha’s Gripe Espanhola, (Spanish Flu) and songs like  Moreira da Silva’s E Batucada, which won the first official Carnaval music contest in 1933.

There is Samba music everywhere at Carnaval time
There is Samba music everywhere at Carnaval time

Every year since that first Carnaval, thousands of hopefuls have thrown their musical and lyrical genius at the feet of the Samba School committees. If their opus is picked up as a Samba Enreda, or theme song, for Carnaval, all of Rio will dance to its beat. If not, there’s next year.

We meet Junior, a veteran of five competitions. Until he finally nails it, he enjoys performing his samba for the big names of his school. He enjoys seeing his friends and family catch the tune and the words then struggle to shake them off.

Samba music is highly contagious. When the Samba Enredas hit the airwaves, our brains become racetracks where random lines do endless laps.

Rio’s Samba Schools

Born in the 1920s in the favelas or shantytowns, the Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro were not, as their names suggest, teaching institutions. The name came about because, in the early days, the sambistas (samba dancers) used to practise in the grounds of a Teachers College.   Right from the beginning, they have been essentially Carnaval parade teams. As they grew, strong, loyal communities developed around them and the Quattro or school’s headquarters became the heart of the favela.

The Carnaval Winners' Parade 2009
The Carnaval Winners’ Parade 2009

Because of the Samba Schools, Community spirit and pride blossomed. The samba was a part of that pride. Indeed it was part of the history of most favelas and part of the journey of most of their people. Their slave ancestors brought it from Africa in the 7th century and took it to the cane fields of North Western Brazil. Refugees from the depression in Bahia brought it back to Rio Centro in the late 1800s. They danced it in secret, at illegal Condomble religious ceremonies in the quarter that soon became “Little Africa” and is now “the cradle of samba”. In the 1900s their children and grandchildren gave it to Carnaval. Since then it has been the dance that has given Carnaval its rhythm and its life.

Now, Rio’s Samba Schools reach beyond the favelas. They are an essential part of its life and culture. Fundraising dances at the Quattro draw supporters from all over the city. The schools colours are worn with equal pride in chic suburbs and in shantytowns.

At present there are 70 Samba Schools. They compete in 6 leagues; On the first rung of the leagues ladder, is Group E and on the fifth is Group A, otherwise known as the Access Group. Lastly, at top, in League 6 are the Special Schools.

LIESA or the Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba Do Rio de Janeiro, formed and run by the Bicchiero or animal gambling barons, takes care of the top 2 leagues. The AESCRJ or Associao das Escolas de Samba do Cidade de Rio de Janeiro looks after the rest. It’s a long climb up through the leagues. Places are fiercely won and defended. Stories of bribery, corruption and stand-over tactics attend each rise and fall.

By mid January, the streets are coloured with Samba School t shirts. While the Access and the As to Es re-work hand-me-down costumes and recycled  floats in back-street sheds, the Special Schools add their final touches in the Cidade do Samba or the City of Samba. This state of the art complex of studios, workshops and showrooms opened in 2005 down near the docks in Gamboa on the site of the old slave markets, at the heart of the “cradle of Samba”. It’s an education and entertainment centre, a place where the Carnavalescos’ (Carnaval Directors) great visions are translated into incredible parades. Now the Special Samba Schools are masters of this universe and the samba is King.

The Cidade do samba is open to visitors, so I wander down to take a look. Perhaps it will help me to make an allegiance. Soon I’m wandering through a magical landscape of mythical creatures, towering floats topped with mountains and castles, confections of glitter and feathers and colours of every shade and nuance. By the time I leave, I’m a dedicated follower of Manguera, Rio’s most popular school, from the “cradle of Samba”, founded in 1928, colours pink and green, certain of its place in the Special Schools’ parade on one of Carnaval’s biggest nights, with the possibility even of a win and with great, eminently singable Samba Enreda, or official Carnaval samba song.


Countdown to Carnaval

Figuring that landing in Rio for the Carnaval season was a once in a lifetime chance, we embraced the whole giant extravaganza.  Not that there’s really any way of avoiding it, apart from leaving town. Go about your business and it stalks you in the streets. Bury yourself at the beach and it shadows you across the sand.

Counting down to Carnaval
Counting down to Carnaval

Not long after New Year our apartment lobby and the local shop fronts disappeared behind Carnaval masks and costumes. Carnaval commentaries took over TV. Carnaval Queens beamed from the covers of magazines; inside lay page after page of their profiles and beauty regimes. Newspapers bulged with Carnaval supplements. Carnaval speculation dominated dinner table talk – the Samba Schools’ form, their preparations and rehearsals. Carnaval predictions sneaked into casual conversation – the Samba Schools’ performance and rankings, their promotions and relegations, the champion!

Half way through January we understood; Carnaval is to Rio as the AFL Grand Final is to Melbourne. Samba Schools are to Rio as footy teams are to Melbourne. “What’s your school?” is to Carioca (the people of Rio) as “Who do you barrack for?’ is to Melbournians.


There’s no better place to wind up a tour of Canberra than Questacon.

Questacon's Awesome earth gallery - the place to learn about earthquakes, tsunamis and bushfires
Questacon’s Awesome earth gallery – the place to learn about earthquakes, tsunamis and bushfires

Questacon, Canberra’s Science discovery centre, gives a whole new meaning to hands on. It  opens an entirely new window on Science.

What better way to learn about momentum than to drop from a great height on giant slide? What better place to experience centrifugal force than strapped into a big swing? What better place to come to grips with shifting tectonic plates than in an earthquake simulator?

Questacon brings Science to life.  But the best thing about it, is the team of interesting, helpful people on hand to explain and operate all this great stuff and to encourage the fearful as well as restrain the foolhardy.

The National Gallery of Australia

Massive, plain and as impenetrable as a fortress, the National Gallery is absolutely perfect for its purpose as a storehouse for some of the nation’s most prized and priceless art.

The National Gallery of Australia, Travelstripe
The National Gallery of Australia, Travelstripe

Within the National Gallery’s solid white walls are the expected national treasures, like the breathtaking aboriginal installation just inside the entrance and the legendary Sydney Nolan Ned Kelly series. There are also some unexpected international treasures, like Monet’s Les Nympheas, Matisse’s Jazz, Leger’s Les Trapezistes, Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Tins and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

Surrounding the National Gallery is a magnificent Sculpture Garden. There’s a silver ball and a cluster pears on the front lawn. A huge wire apple hangs suspended from a wall. Around the back, on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin, great chunks of metal and wood are strewn almost carelessly, across clearings and among the trees. In a secluded corner lines of sculptured heads float on the surface of a pond.

Hours, days, perhaps weeks, maybe months and even years might easily be lost here.

The Australian Electoral Commission

The Australian Electoral Commission is the place where the process that puts Australian Politicians in their places in Parliament is organised. You wouldn’t visit it for the fine architecture, or for a tour of its labyrinth of offices or for a chat with its large force of functionaries. You probably couldn’t! Most of it has a locked down, closed off, “secret electioneers business” air about it.

At the Australian Electoral Commission's Education Centre
At the Australian Electoral Commission’s Education Centre

However, if you’re a twelve-year-old future voter, a visit to the Australian Electoral Commission’s Education Centre is well worthwhile.

A tour begins in the theatrette, with a DVD on the history of elections in Australia, from the time when only landowners could vote, until the referendum in 1967 which, officially and nationally, extended the vote to all aboriginals and effected universal suffrage.

Then it’s off to the next room to learn all about the Who? Why? How?, Where? and When of the electoral process, at a series of brightly colour-coded activity stations.

The culmination of the programme is a mock election with all the paraphernalia – polling booth ballot box, ballot paper and tally board. The candidates are four students (dubbed apples, pears, peaches and bananas) and the guards, scrutineers, vote-counters and voters are the remaining twenty-six. After much juggling of the fruits, much recounting and redistributing of votes, we all get the principles of preferences and absolute majority – I think!