It’s relatively short distance from Avenida Paolista down to Ibirapruera Park, but it’s a long journey, both in terms of the country it covers, and in terms of the land that lies at the end of it. Between the noisy, fast-paced, crowded, densely built-up avenue to the quiet green spaces of Ibirapruera lie the fenced wilds of Trianon Park, smart blocks of luxury hotels, mean streets lined with the cardboard shelters of the homeless, a perilous roundabout and a massive stone monument to the building of Brazil.
Ibirapuera Park is to Sao Paolo as Central Park is to New York – an escape to nature in the middle of the city. I visited it at dusk and its paths and tracks were still teeming with joggers, skaters and cyclists. Kids played on its vast lawns. Couples strolled by its lakes. Its car parks were still filled with tour buses and tourists’ cameras flashed desperately in the fading light.
Ibirapuera is one of many Brazilian parks and gardens designed by the prolific and multi-talented Ernesto Burle Marx, whose career as a sculptor, painter, designer and landscape architect spanned almost the entire 20th century. It is for his gardens, however, that he is best known. Featuring indigenous plants and trees, Burle Marx created landscapes that were truly Brazilian. He often collaborated with the patriarch of modern Brazilian architecture Oscar Niemeyer, creating a lush, green setting for his somewhat stark buildings, like the Museu Afro Brasil which sits against a tiny slice of rainforest in Ibirapruera Park.
MASP, or Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo, on Avenida Paolista, was one of the highlights of my visit to Sao Paolo. And the highlight of my visit to MASP was a small exhibition in the echoing subterranean gallery. It was showing a selection of works by Candido Portinari, one of Brazil’s most important painters and an influential figure in its neo-realist movement.
Most of the paintings were narratives of old bible stories – The Justice of Solomon, The trumpets of Jericho, Jeremiah’s Lament, Job and The Massacre of the Innocents – with universal themes of justice, triumph, suffering, despair, resignation and terror vivid in the lines of the figures and the faces. Other paintings showed Portinari’s own country, life and times. Profoundly moving, shocking even, nothing of the terrible existence of the refugees from the drought and famine in the North-East of Brazil in the 1930s was hidden in the paintings North Eastern Migrants, Dead Child and Burial in a Hammock.
The son of Italian immigrants, Portinari was born on December 29, 1903 and raised on a coffee plantation at Brodowski, near Sao Paolo. He studied at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro, where, in 1928, he won a gold medal and a scholarship to study in Paris.
Returning to Brazil in 1930, he set about producing the huge and wide-reaching body of work which can be seen in galleries, both in Brazil and around the world. Portinari’s murals range from the family chapel in his childhood home in Brodowski to his panels Guerra e Paz (War and Peace) in the United Nations building in New York. His paintings cover and enormous range of subjects; his childhood, labourers in the city and countrside, refugees from Brazil’s north-east, colonial history, portraits of family and leading Brazilians, book illustrations and decorations for tiles.
In 1947, Portinari stood as a senator for the Brazilian Communist party but fled to Uruguay during the persecution of Communists that followed shortly after. He returned to Brazil in 1951. After a decade of ill health he died of lead poisoning from his paints in 1961.
Portinari lived and worked in one of the most artistically fertile periods in Brazil’s history. His contemporaries included the architect Oscar Niemeyer, with whom he collaborated, as well as the great master of Brazilian gardens Burle Marx.
Sadly for us, Portinari’s family have forbidden the production of any of his works, so there are no prints of his paintings and no books about him.
Twenty three kilometres of the Castelo Branco Highway link peaceful, protected Alphaville to frantic, edgy downtown Sao Paolo. Avenida Paolista is the main drag and the hub of South American commerce. It’s a parade of 21st century global business towers interspersed with the occasional beautiful colonial relic.
Trianon Park, a legacy of old Sao Paolo, occupies a block roughly halfway down the Avenue. A small slice of the wild, it looks oddly out of place in this concrete jungle. Palms and plants of Triffidian size and appearance press against its wrought iron fences as if straining to escape and retake the city. Armed guards defend the park against invasion by the poor skinny, ragged homeless kids who run wild in Sao Paolo’s streets.
The street kids are never far away. They hold noisy and chaotic court, across the road from Trianon Park in the open space under the Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo.
Designed by Lina Bo Bardi, MASP, as it is familiarly known, is a Sao Paolo landmark and a star among modern Brazilian buildings. The concrete and glass cube, supported on massive red beams, dominates the mid-section of Avenida Paolista.
Founded in 1947 by “the King of Brazil” philanthropist and Media Magnate Assis Chateaubriand and Italian Professor and Art Critic Pietro Maria Bardi, the Museum houses the largest and most impressive collections of art in South America. It includes centuries of European Art along with African and Asian collections. There are also antiquities and decorative arts from around the world. The South American and Brazilian collections are highlights of MASP. All the Latin American greats are there, including personal favourites Torres Garcia and Diego Rivera, Di Cavalcanti and the poignant and beautiful Candido Portinari.
MASP is a non-profit making private institution and its entire collection is listed as Brazilian National Heritage.
As our plane approaches Sao Paolo, my face is pressed to the window. Dark, bush-covered mountains give way to smooth green farmland, then to scattered settlements with fine threads of road, then to a narrow ring of low-lying suburbs cut with streets and freeways. The high-rise begins abruptly and continues. On and on it goes, mile after mile, row upon row of mammoth high-rise buildings, colossal concrete slabs, lined up like tombstones in a giant graveyard. If there are streets, cars and people in the narrow crevasses between them, they are lost, fathoms deep, in shadow. I’m struggling to imagine life down there, in that vast, harsh, unrelenting, cement and steel landscape. I’m struggling to imagine how Sao Paolo works as a city.
According to many Paolistas, it doesn’t. Not really. It functions, rather, as series of “villages”, ranging from the chic suburbs of the fabulously rich at one end, to the favelas, or shanty towns of the poor at the other.
Although hemmed by high-rise and highways, Alphaville, where we stayed, is very much a village. At its heart is a core of narrow streets and pocket handkerchief piazzas. Tiny shops sell local crafts and clothing. Equally tiny restaurants and cafes serve international cuisine, but with a Brazilian twist and with a home-made look and flavour. The people of here are village people, watchful of strangers, but solicitous rather than suspicious. In the café where I stopped for a coffee, on my first day, the waitress brought me cake because it was “impossible to drink coffee without it”. Every day thereafter, she served my “usual”.
The “big stuff” is relegated to the fringes of Alphaville. There are malls like the pristine Flamingo Mall which has exquisite home wares and furniture shops, boutiques with Brazilian designer clothes and a dedicated Havaianas store with every conceivable expression of the famous “thong”, including soles painted with racing cars and tops decorated with diamantes. There is even a sprawling shopping centre, the glittering Tamboure, where the big Brazilian chains sit side by side with global giants like C & A and where the Carrefour “grande surface” supermarket is so vast that the staff glide around on roller skates
Also on the fringes, discreetly hidden among the apartments and office buildings are the clinics where the jaded of the wide world come for “rejuvenation” at a good Brazilian price. Many recuperate at the Radisson Hotel, sticking to their rooms and living on room service until they emerge radiant for the triumphant return home. Quiet, discreetly lit and staffed by kind, gentle and extremely caring people, the Radisson would be the perfect place to heal.
For me it was the perfect haven in this megalopolis, with its reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. The staff became my friends. My Portuguese was taken firmly in hand by the doorman. The front desk was always open for a chat. The concierge steered me away from the minefields of Sao Paulo and showed me its marvels.
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.
It sometimes happens in restaurants, that the choicest cuisine is completely undone by poor service, unpleasant surroundings, or a dull atmosphere. But sometimes too, the fare is completely outdone by exceptional service, fascinating surroundings or a fabulous atmosphere. And so it happened, at Rio’s Zozo, that the most succulent churrasco and the ultimate caipirinha were almost totally eclipsed by the service, the décor and the ambiance.
The front windows and veranda of Zozô look out across a busy square at Praia Vermelha into the majestic profile of Pao d’Acucar. On one side is the Naval Academy and on the other the cable car station. The restaurant’s back windows and roof stare straight into a massive rock of the same rounded shape, without foothold, as Uluru and of the same grainy, grey hue as Pao d’Acucar. From the floor a tree spreads giant limbs out and up, through the roof. It pushes against the rock and throws constantly shifting shadows on the floor.
Torn between the amazing setting and the stunning view, it’s difficult to give due attention to the impeccable dishes of churrasco that appear on the table and to the team of Latin Lotharios in suits who deliver them. But it’s worth wresting the eyes away from the cinema outside the front window, the waiters, the tree and the overhanging rock to browse at the buffet which offers everything from sushi to acai na tigela. It’s worthwhile, too taking a stroll past the great tree to see the row of recessed “altars” with their statues of the Holy Family and the saints all dressed in luxurious cloth and surrounded by candles and votive offerings.
While feijoada is Brazil’s national dish, the caipirinha is its national drink. The two make great companions. The cold, tart, light cocktail is a fabulous foil to the rich, hot, salty feijoada. However the caipirinha also goes brilliantly with churrasco, with the little crisp fried fish served in the beachside kiosks or with the simple spiced nuts peddled by the kids from the favelas. As a stand alone it’s sensational. At home, in the restaurant, in the bar or on the beach, it never fails to “create a sensual and relaxed atmosphere” according to Ernesto Britto of Clube da Caipirinha.
The name caipirinha comes from “caipira” which means, in English “hillbilly”. It is difficult to reconcile the notion of the rough bumpkin with the classy cocktail which is prepared with minute attention to detail and served with such dash and panache in bars all over Brazil. But, like the hooch and moonshine of the USA, the cachaca (fermented and distilled sugar cane juice) which forms the alcoholic base of a caipirinha, has its roots in hillbilly country.
As well as cachaca, the caipirinha includes limes, cane sugar and ice. Each drink is individually and painstakingly prepared with a special instrument called a muddler. It’s a long wait for a round, but it’s definitely worth it. Sipped through a straw, it’s a long-lasting drink, with a long-lasting effect too!
Although Brazilians have been quaffing caipirinha for centuries, until quite recently it was almost unknown elsewhere. Now it is one of the world’s most popular cocktails and has been designated as one of the official cocktails of the International Bartenders’ Association.
Where cachaca is unobtainable, enterprising bartenders have come up with some passable variations, like the Caipivodka and the Caipiroska made form vodka, the Caipirissma, made from rum and the Caipirao made from Portuguese licor beirao.
Local Brazilain variations, known as batida, exist too, like the Caipifruta. Still with its cachaca base, the Caipifruta adds condensed milk and crushed fruits like tangerine, lime kiwi fruit, passion fruit, pineapple, lemon, grapes, caja and caju.
Nothing, however, compares to the classic lime, sugar, cachaca and ice Caipirinha!
For more about Caipirinha and to order a Caipirinha T-shirt, apron or glass printed with the classic, authentic Caipirinha recipe plus a free Caipirinha “muddler” visit www.caipirinha.com.br
Last night, in the Parade of Champions, 2015’s top Special Samba Schools strutted their stuff in triumph at Rio’s iconic Sambadromo. The Champions parade is a celebration. The competition is over and everyone, teams, spectators and officials, is in party mode.
On that Saturday night in 2009, I was there, in frisor 12 of setor 9, the tourist section of the Sambadromo, where just five days before I had been for Segundo, the second night of the Special Samba Schools parade.
Seats are cheaper at the Champions’ Parade and the crowd is different. These are the faithful, the die-hard devotees celebrating their school’s victory or their secure place among the top 12 in next year’s competition. Everybody knows the samba enreda by now. Everybody, even the tourists, can samba in some fashion or another.
With the competition over, the parade is different too. The harmonia still have to keep everyone moving on time but they’re doing it with humour. The baianas are whirling but in more cavalier circles. The forca still have to push the floats but they laugh and joke as they do. The foot soldiers in the ala have broken their lines. They toss their heavy costumes into the crowd as they go. A head-dress lands nearby and a crowd of Japanese ladies fights for it, like a bride’s bouquet. The victor poses in it, her shoulders slumped beneath its weight. The others queue for their turn.
The night is long but it passes quickly. It’s Sunday morning, just after five. The final dazzling float has just passed, trailing a triumphant posse of officials. Behind them come the orange-clad cleaners of the Prefeitura or City Council, with their bins and brooms. Still the sound of five hundred drums shakes the stands and strains of the last samba song echo up and down the avenue. Around us the stalls are emptying fast and only true stoics dance on. That feathered headdress now lies trampled among the litter of discarded programmes, cans and plastic cups.
My hips are jelly and my feet lumps of smouldering sponge. I’ve lost my voice. My eyes are smarting, my ears are ringing and my brain is a race track where lines of random samba songs do endless laps. Carnaval is over.
When the Special Schools’ Samba Schools’ Competition is over and the winner is announced, Rio goes back to business and waits for the great celebration when the six top teams parade at the Sambadrome on Saturday night. 2015’s winner by the way was Beija Flor, with Brazil’s African heritage as its theme.
While Travelstripe waits for Saturday, let’s take a look at something that is dear to everyone’s heart – food.
One of the great delights of Brazil is its food. With its roots in Portugal and Africa as well as its own native soil, Brazilian cuisine is diverse, different and decidedly delicious.
The Portuguese brought stews, empadas and the famous baccalau, or codfish dishes to their colony, along with desserts like doce de leite (caramel) and ovos queimados, (burnt eggs) a concoction of egg yolks, sugar, cloves and cinnamon. The indigenous Indians contributed fish, corn, beans and cassava dishes. But the most significant influence on the Brazilian table came from the African slaves, probably because they had control of most colonial kitchens. To Portuguese and indigenous fare, they added their own unique twist, spicing it with peppers and ginger and blending it with palm oil and coconut milk.
Feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, was born in the slave kitchens and is served traditionally on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This rich, spicy stew of black beans (feijao) and pork includes, according the locals, “every part of the pig except its squeak”. The Feijoada banquet or Feijoada Completa, offered at many Rio Hotels for Saturday lunch is a gastronomic experience not to be missed. The feijoada is the star among smoking cauldrons of Portuguese sausage, beef jerky, smoked tongue, pork chops, pork tenderloin and bacon. It is accompanied by couve (collard greens or kale) ground cassava, rice, sliced oranges, Milanese bananas and sauces of searing malagueta pepper or of slightly milder marinated onions with peppers.
Just as popular as the feijoada and just as typically Brazilian is churrasco, the grilled or barbequed meat pioneered by the gauchos, or cowboys of the south of the country. Often it is simply salted, but often it is marinated in garlic, onion and olive oil before being grilled on a long skewer over a charcoal fire. The cooked meat is dipped in cassava or manioc meal. The Churrascaria at Barra Beach delivers your choice of meat, with your own personal brazier to your table. You then cook it to your own standard of perfection. The food is sensational, not just the meat, but the myriad of delicious accompaniments. The experience is fun, even if it does leave you smelling like a walking barbeque. Barra da Tijuca Brasa on Avenue Ayrton Senna offers a different approach to churrasco, the rodizio. Here an endless parade of meats are brought to your table on a skewer and sliced onto your plate. They include sausage, beef, chicken, lamb and chicken hearts. A giant buffet groans under every imaginable kind of entrée, accompaniment and dessert. The risk of eating to the point of pain is high here!
The queen of the Brazilian dessert buffet is the exquisite and extremely healthy acai. Made from the fruit of the indigenous acai palm from the southern Amazon, it is most commonly served as a thick sweet jelly topped with grains. Mashed and frozen in a bowl, it is known as acai na tigela or acai in a bowl. The best acai in Rio, according to the locals, is found in the kiosks which line the beaches from Copacabana to Barra. In southern Brazil acai is served like a smoothie in a bowl or glass and is topped or mixed with tapioca or granola and fruits. Considered one of nature’s most complete foods, the acai berry is packed with anti-oxidants, anthocyanins, amino acids, omega fats, protein and fibre. The health benefits of acai have been known to Brazilians since the beginning of time and in recent years the name has appeared in bottles and packets on the shelves of health food stores across the globe. In 2005 three Brazilians from Rio founded Acai Roots in San Diego, selling all things acai, with the slogan “Not just a berry, a lifestyle!”
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.